Among other things, I read and write reviews of children's books for the Children's Literature" database: childrenslit.com. While I'm getting my own books published, I need to know what is being published and by whom. Plus, I get to read all these books for free! What more could a girl ask for? I have been published in "Country Extra" magazine; "Taste of Home" cookbooks, several newspapers and, most recently, the Jan/Feb issue of "Fun For Kidz" magazine. So now I'm in the "Published Author" category of SCBWI.
I served as President of the Carteret Writers' Group from July 2012 to June 2014 . Hope you all find my blog interesting. Feel free to comment on my reviews.
And I'm pleased to announce the release of my first novel, Terror's Identity," on New Year's Eve, 2016.
It is available through WWW.B&N.com and HTTP://WWW.Amazon.com/books. You can pick up a copy at Next Chapter Book Store & Art on S. Front Street in New Bern, NC, Bank of the Arts in New Bern, NC, and Mermaids Purse in Surf City, NC.
If you wish to read reviews of my book, please go to WWW.goodreads.com/Terror's Identity; or https://www.amazon.com/Terrors-Identity-Sarah-Swan-ebook/dp/B01CMUWJ04/ref=sr_1_cc_2?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1466460046&sr=1-2-catcorr&keywords=Terror%27s+Identity#customerReviews
My second book, EMILY'S RIDE TO COURAGE, came out on January 1st, 2018 and is available from Amazon and Barnes & Nobles. Locally it is available from Next Chapter Books & Art in New Bern, The 4 Cs store in New Bern, NC.
EARTHQUAKES, my third novel, came out in January 2020. If you like Andrew Mayne, Laura Scott, Mandy Robothan, Jean Grainger, James Martin, or Susan Anne Mason's writing styles you'll most likely enjoy my books. The difference is that mine fall into the "Children's Books" categories.
A lot of you may not remember the fall of the Soviet Union. I expect that Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev is turning in his grave with what Vladimir Putin has done to his country. So much for freedom and openness. But before that, the Soviet Union was not a nice place to live and part of Germany was under the Soviet Union’s control. Talk about repression, they wrote the book on it. This first book addresses how desperate people were to leave for a more just world. The second is also talking about repression but in a more oblique way.
Beyond the Blue Border
Translated by Elizabeth Lauffer
A fascinating tale of two teens escaping East Germany during the waning days of the Soviet Union. But they don’t just escape by sneaking through a break in the wall that still exists between the two parts of Berlin. No, they decide to swim across part of the Baltic Sea. Even in late August the water temperature is very cold, especially the closer the swimmer gets to more northern countries such as Denmark. The story is told by Hanna Klein who is very athletic and has trained as a swimmer most of her young life. Her swimming partner, Andreas, is not trained but is driven to escape his dismal life with an abusive father and no career options than factory work. Part of the reason the two are fated to bad career choices is due to Hanna’s anti-Communism grandfather who posts a petition for people to sign protesting the East German communist leaders. He signs Hanna and Andreas’ names to the poster as the supposed authors. No more school for them, but Hanna is able to continue with her swimming coach though not on the elite swim team. Ulrich, the coach, figures out why the girl is practicing so much and helps her meet her goal. The story switches between the two main characters’ time in the sea and their time when they were in school and met a new student, Jens, who ends up getting out legitimately with his parents. The end of this book is a bit confusing, but the story is so compelling and horrifying the reader will want to finish and remember the book. There is much for teachers to use for classroom discussion in the book, but a larger map at the front would have helped immensely.
An intriguing fantasy story with lots of thinly veiled messages on religion and loyalty, this story could use a big edit to weed out all the extra verbiage. The book is just shy of five hundred pages long and has a group of main characters who are trying to free an abrasive god who wants to world to behave his way or die. He has been captured and imprisoned in the soul of Beru who fits a losing battle to contain him. Her sister is the “Pale Hand” and has the thankless job of murdering people who go against the leaders’ wishes. And then there’s the deposed prince who should be ordained king of one part of the world, plus a host of other main characters with varying roles to gain control of the world. The story is a good yarn and interesting with lots of philosophical issues to discuss with students. Just remember to allot a number of hours to the project. The fly sheets have a map of the characters world to some extent, but could have been a bit more detailed. This appears to be the final story of a series called the “Age of Darkness,” but also works well as a stand-alone novel.
BIBLIO: 2021, Henry Holt and Company/MacMillan Publishing Company, Ages 14+, $19.99.
Occasionally I review a book that deserves a special post to highlight its importance. In our country, everyone is supposed to have an equal opportunity to express opinions, but is that really the case? Has it always been the case? It certainly wasn’t originally the case. Only men with property were allowed to give voice to their opinions and help make this country what it could be.
Is it the case now that everyone has an equal voice? I don’t think so. If you happen to be Native American or African American or anything but White or if you’re female you don’t have equal sway. Since this is one of my Bully Pulpit issues, I’ll quit before I annoy or offend you with my opinions, but I do have them and will not be denied the right to express them.
Free Speech Handbook: A Practical Framework for Understanding our Free Speech Protections
Illustrated by Mike Cavallaro
This book is part of the World Citizen Comics series and explains various instances of how we’ve come by the present version of the United States of America’s First Amendment to the Constitution. This country was founded on the premise that the people, well at least some of the people, should be free and allowed to express their opinions without fear of being jailed or murdered for questioning the government’s rules and regulations. In principle the amendment is absolutely essential to a democracy, but how to enact it and to whom does it apply? Everybody or just a select few? The author discusses problems that have had to be decided by United States Supreme Court. But even those aren’t hard and fast decisions. The book is well worth libraries having and teachers can have a field day setting up student teams to debate the two sides of the various issues discussed in here. For instance, did/do formerly enslaved people or descendants of such people have the right to contest what they consider unfair treatment? Do people claiming the right to be speaking for God have the right to scream at a family simply burying a beloved child killed in defense of our country? Do women have the right to ask for equal rights to men? Do people have the right to protest any branch of the government or any position the government holds? These are just some of the issues discussed in the book. The downside to this book is that the author frequently shows his political bias in the cases he presents. Still, the teachers can use this problem for classroom debate and the students can see if they can do better when they’re the ones running the country. The illustrator could have worked a bit hard to make the historical figures look a bit more like them.
BIBLIO: First Second/Roaring Brook Press, Ages 14 +, $28.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Graphic/Comic Non-Fiction
And you are allowed to tell me your views even if you disagree with me. I promise I’ll read and think about what you write. Sarah
It seems to me that my last few posts have had a sour feel to them, so I’d thought I do a more upbeat, its own way, post this time. To that end, I have one YA Fantasy/Fairy Tale story, one early chapter book for children with dyslexia, and one middle-grade ghoul story.
I may be 81 years old, but I still believe in the possibility of werebeasts and fairy tales. And, of course, hopefulness that good will prevail in the end. So, enjoy the convoluted story in the first book. This author has a great imagination.
Into the Bloodred Woods
Keep in mind the various characters playing significant roles in this story, because there are a few. But if the reader likes fantasy with all trimmings, this is the story to read. Based on just about any fairy/folk tale you can think of, plus “were” creatures, evil kings, a child born of the woods, Hansel and Gretel-like children, magic, and much more. Most of them gather together to defeat the evil, insane, newly crowned king, who is jealous of his twin sister’s werebear abilities, not to mention her being the firstborn heir to the throne. The plot is convoluted but very engaging and the reader will have fun figuring out what fairy tales are invoked. There are also messages interwoven about learning tolerance of people who are different from the reader. The theme of each section of the story is introduced by a blind beggar with a mechanical monkey, which gives the reader as to what fairy tale is being invoked. The story is a convoluted, fun romp into the world of fantasy and fairytales. Teachers can use the book as a way into discussing folklore, among other things.
Good books for children with dyslexia, but just fun for any kid learning to read.
Meg and Greg The Bake Sale
Elspeth Rae and Rowena Rae
Illustrated by Elisa Gutierrez
This is book 3 of the series of phonic stories. The stories are intended to help children with dyslexia understand words that have a silent “e” at the end. For instance, the words “bake” and “sale” in the title have an “e” at the end which does not sound, but this makes the way the previous vowel sounds. The “a” would have the “short” sound of “ah” without the silent “e” at the end. Each story has a different vowel in the middle. The stories are simple, but engaging with a slightly complicated plot line to keep the child reading. The first story is about Meg and Greg baking “Red Velvet” cupcakes to sell and emphasizes the “a” as the first vowel. The second story uses the “i” “e” combination and is about taking a bike ride. The third story uses the “o” as the first vowel. And the last story features the “u”. Each story is followed by simple games to cement the concept into the child’s brain. Children will be eager to read these stories and will understand the concepts well.
BIBLIO: 2021, Orca Two Read/Orca Book Publishers, Ages 5 to 7, $14.95.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Early Chapter Book Phonics
The Ghoul Next Door
Cullen Bunn and Cat Farris
Illustrated by Cat Farris
Eleven-year-old Grey lives in a New England town that is legendary for its tales of being haunted. He finds out this is actually not a legend when he walks through the cemetery after dark and meets a ghoul named Lavinia. They become friends, and she makes sure Grey understands that Ghouls and Ghosts are not the same things. The story is full of wonderful plays on words that the title suggests and Lavinia helps Grey out with a school project. Written as a graphic novel and, though a fantasy, the story has a number of subtle morals brought out along the way. Teachers will even find topics to discuss such as believing in using one’s imagination and learning to keep an open mind when viewing the world, along with looking for the best in everybody. Also are lessons about having faith in oneself. It is best to believe in possibilities no matter whether about yourself or others.
BIBLIO: 2021, HarperAlley/HarperCollins Publishers, Ages 8 to 12, $21.99.
I’m not very good at posting reviews of the books I’ve read, but I’ve enjoyed this series. It’s imaginative and painlessly introduces English history to young, and not-so-young, readers. Plus, there is always a bit of a mystery involved and sibling rivalry. The secret lake is reached by going through a time tunnel that only reveals itself when the moles dance. In this book, the 1920s protagonists must reach the children from the 21 first century to find antibiotics to save a life. Plus, they must keep a friend and his dad from going on the Titanic traveling steerage. The author’s description of the clothes from the two eras and other changes to the culture also make the tale interesting. The children are believable and have the same kinds of problems that all people face. The author’s descriptive writing pulls the reader completely into the story. I’m looking forward to reading the 3rd book in the series due out in the near future. You won’t even need to go through the time tunnel to get it.
For Mother’s Day our daughter Michelle gave me three books she thought I might like. Oddly enough, I’d read the first one already for the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. It addresses the issue of bullying amongst children. My impression is that children, even those who are popular and successful, are plagued with self-doubt as much as the less popular children, so, some of them are bullies just to not be caught out as being less than they seem to be.
The second book is about an old woman talking about her experiences during WWII as she, her brother. and their mother escape the town of Dresden, Germany. In addition to their journey to safer territory, it also about their journey with an elephant their mother rescued from the Dresden Zoo. The bullies in this story are the Nazis who wrote the book on how to be evil.
The last book is an autobiography of the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of education for all people. Again, why do men seem to feel so threatened by females that anybody who isn’t male should be kept down. It isn’t just Muslims who make their women second class creatures. It wasn’t so very long ago that even females in the United States weren’t treated as equals.
But amongst all the cruelty we find hope, courage, and love. May it prevail
Holding Up the Universe
This is a well-written story of two damaged teenagers. Libby Strout ate so much after her mother died, she had to be lifted out of her house through the roof by a crane, which, of course, destroys the house. After several years of therapy and homeschooling, she tells her father she’s ready to go back to school at the start of her junior year. She girds herself for the torment she knows will come. Of course, the “in crowd” boys start a game of who can ride the fat girl longest with Libby and Iris Engelbrecht, a girl even fatter than Libby, as the targets. Iris ends up as the first target, but when she tells Libby what happened, Libby chases the culprit, who is only saved by a truck going by. Jack Masselin, the perpetrator’s friend watches the whole performance, cheering for the girls the whole time. Jack has a secret he doesn’t share with anyone. A glitch in his brain denies him the ability to recognize faces. He can’t even pick out his parents or siblings in a crowd or at home without recognizing one of their “tells.” At school, he plays it cool and waits for someone to come to him. Then he uses that person to let him know who others are. But after he and Libby get into a fight and have to serve detention together, their relationship changes. Jack learns that it’s what on inside of another person that really counts. Soon, they begin to see past their surfaces and become friends. Jack and Libby begin to hang out together, sharing secrets. After he tells her his secret about not recognizing anyone else, she encourages Jack to seek help. She even goes with him to give him moral support and he encourages her to take the test that will see if she carries her mother’s cancer gene. Because he hasn’t ever told anyone about his problem, his parents put him in embarrassing situations, like having to pick up his youngest brother from a birthday party. His brother doesn’t want to leave the party, so he doesn’t respond when Jack calls for him to leave. Jack pulls the wrong kid out of the party, which scares the boy, horrifies the birthday boy’s mother, and leaves Jack in a heap of trouble. You’ll end up rooting for both Jack and Libby, but wishing they would solve the problems whose answers are right in front of their noses. There’s a lot going on in this book that will engage the reader and teachers will have a field day orchestrating discussions around the issues.
BIBLIO: 2016, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Children’s Books/Penguin Random House, LLC, Ages 14 +, $17.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Adult
There have been a plethora of books about the horrors of WWII and especially the Nazi’s part in the conflict, but this one will definitely grab your heart and soul, especially if you are an animal lover.
An Elephant in the Garden
The book is based on a true story and is very compelling. It is told by the nurse who is taking care of an aged woman, Lizzie, in Canada, but it also told mostly in dialog by Lizzie about her journey from her home in the beautiful town of Dresden, Germany. For most of Hitler’s war Dresden remained unscathed and the German residents went about their lives. When the Allied forces were advancing on Germany, Dresden came under attack and was pretty much destroyed by bombs. The storyteller’s mother was a caregiver at the zoo and witnessed the birth of an elephant. Unfortunately, the elephant’s mother dies leaving her child to grieve. When it becomes apparent that Dresden is due to be destroyed by bombs, the storyteller’s mother get permission to save the young elephant by taking her away from the zoo and keeping her in the family’s garden, hence the title. When the bombing starts, the family is taking the elephant they’ve named Marlene after Marlene Dietrich for a walk in the neighboring park. Marlene panics when the bombs start to drop and runs away with Lizzie’s family hot in pursuit. They end up caught up in the massive exodus from the city and head toward Lizzie’s aunt’s farm. The rest of the story is about their journey to safety in Switzerland. Lizzie meets her future husband along the way who is Canadian. Again, although there is much hope in the story, it is set against the hideous cruelty and bigotry that was Hitler’s way of cowing his fellow Germans, though he was actually Austrian. This book will most decidedly keep you reading and even move you to tears in parts.
I have never understood why men are so frequently terrified of letting women have equal rights. I remember a very bright female high school classmate who wanted to go to college back in 1959, but her father refused because it would be a waste of money given that she would end up getting married and raising a family. The rest of us were appalled and I believe in the end her father relented. Whether or not she finished college or had a career I don’t know, but the same point was not made for the guys. I also had a friend who left school when she graduated from Junior High School so she could get married and have a family. I don’t know what happened to her either. She was very happy to leave school and become a housewife. But many of the Muslim men in our world are so frightened of their females’ potential they refuse to let them even learn to read and write. I remember trying to teach a Yemeni woman with five children how to speak and read English. Because she’d observed men in Yemen reading from right to left, she started out trying to read English that way. Her husband was encouraging for the most part but was adamantly against her going to a gym because she’d not be able to exercise in her full proper burqa. Why are men so frightened that all other men are out to rape their wives? Why do they feel it’s the women’s fault if these men can’t control their urges? It wasn’t that long ago that American women were the inciters when they’d got raped. The teller of this story made headlines with her bold advocacy for female rights not only in her native Pakistan but then all around the world. I’m not a big fan of non-fiction, but this book will keep your interest throughout.
Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick
This young woman, with the help of her father and the support of her country, is trying to change the world for females and, at her tender age, has already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. She has also been almost killed by Pakistani Taliban members because they think she’s defying Allah’s will by standing up for her right to an education. The book is told in her voice and because she is, indeed, the author is autobiographical. But since English is not her native language another person’s name appears alongside Ms. Yousafzai’s as the supporting author. The story is horrifying for what is happening around the world, particularly to Muslim females under Taliban or other Sharia religious groups who have found what they think is “God’s Rule.” But I guess no one has asked them why any god would make females capable of rational, intelligent thought and then declare they can’t use such abilities. Malala grew up in a small poor area of Pakistan where all children at least were allowed a primary school education, after which a lot of girls were married off at the tender age of eleven. Malala’s father runs a school where girls are encouraged to finish high school. That is until the Taliban take over. But even before then, girls are expected to wear figure-hiding clothing and cover their hair as is common in many Muslim countries. But even after the Taliban take over, Malala’s father keeps his girls’ school open though fewer older girls come anymore. And, at the age of 12 or 13, when Malala and her friends are riding home on the school bus, a Taliban fighter jumps on the back bumper and shoots Malala in the head, also wounding two other girls. Luck was with Malala on that day and she ends up being saved by doctors from Birmingham, England. Her recovery was paid for by the Pakistani government which didn’t support the Taliban’s efforts. Brave girl that she is, Malala still is fighting for females’ equal rights around the world and still going to school. And her mother is now learning English. May we all live by their bravery.
BIBLIO: 2014, Salazari Unlimited/Little, Brown and Company, Ages 12 +, $16.99.
Up until recently, I have always been proud of my country despite its flaws. And, in my heart of hearts, I am naïve enough to hope we can indeed live up to the hopes of our founders. The French part of my father’s side of the family, the Maurys and the La Fontaines, left southeastern France because they didn’t believe King Charles’ version of God. They were part of the Huguenot migration. They had their good points, though I must own up to their racist slave-owning past in Virginia. But my 5th-generation grandfather was the childhood teacher of Jefferson and Madison and one of my 5th-generation uncles was Mathew Fontaine Maury, otherwise known as the Pathfinder of the Seas. Some parts of the Bunker family, my mother’s paternal family, I believe left Germany because of religious persecution since they were followers of Martin Luther’s new church.
My point is though some of them were racist, they still did good things. Many generations later, both families tried to adhere to the ideals of being good people and believed in making a better life for us all. I grieve that my father and grandfather died in WWII to maintain and further a better, more equal life for all peoples; Black, White, Brown, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever. And who cares if a person loves and wants to make a life with someone of the same sex? What does it matter as long as those involved are caring individuals? But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe my father and grandfather died in vain?
It would be easy for me to climb up on my soapbox and rant and rave, but that’s not the point here. The point is for us all to be tolerant, me included.
Anyway the two books I’m reviewing here deal with these issues. Hope you find them interesting.
The first book deals with bullying and sexual discrimination, plus where schools do indeed mete out punishment fairly.
The (Un)popular Vote
Mark Adams didn’t start out life as a boy. Instead, he was born a girl and christened in the Catholic Church as Madison Teagan, daughter of Graham Teagan who is the U.S. Congressman from California’s second district. Dad shows his true colors when Mark reveals who he really is. The congressman insists that his daughter hide her new identity from the voting public. So Mark and his mother move to a different part of California, but she still appears at campaigning events or other political shows. Mark registers as Mark Adams, using his mother’s maiden name, and becomes friends with other superbright LBGTQ kids in school where he witnesses the bullying of a friend who asks for privacy about the incident. The friend is suspended for punching the star athlete who bullied him. Mark decides to take a stand and run for School President, which does not sit well with his father. As the story unfolds, Mark shows tremendous self-awareness growth and ends up coming out to the world, which, of course, tanks his dad’s chances of being the next governor of California. The book is well written and addresses many of the issues now plaguing modern-age children. All of the more important characters in the book show multiple sides to themselves, which is always a good thing. Teachers will find many areas in it as teaching points.
BIBLIO: 2021, Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins Publishers, Ages 12 to 18, $18.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Adult Fiction
The second book deals with racial/religious intolerance and secondarily with sexual preference and the tendency for schools to let athletes get away with more bad things.
Zara Hossain Is Here
Social and cultural equality have always been the myth of the United States of America, but have they ever really been the truth of this country? Zara Hossain has lived in Corpus Christi, Texas fourteen of her seventeen years. When she was three her parents left their Pakistani homeland to give their daughter what they thought would be a better life. Well, in part this is true, but all of them have felt the scorn of whiter skinned people. Zara is bright and a hard worker whose parents accept that she’s bisexual and that she tries to conform to the so-called American way. She does have friends in school who try to protect her, but they can’t always be there. One football star in particular seems out to get her and ends up causing her and her family to leave the country for good. There are so many compelling teaching points and discussion issues in this book, teachers could probably spend at least a month addressing them.
It occurred to me that I’d been discussing a lot of dark books lately so I’m trying to lighten the tone this week, though I didn’t quite succeed with the second one.
I have always had a great imagination, probably because my mother encouraged us all to imagine the fanciful. This first book is a picture book and is a great encourager of the use of imagination. I wanted to be all the various animals in this book.
I’m not Sydney
Illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay
Children’s imaginations should be encouraged to blossom and this book will help. Anybody who’s ever seen the 1947 version of “Miracle on 34th Street” will remember Santa Claus teaching the little girl to believe in pretending by making Natalie Woods’ character pretend to be a monkey. Imagination is an excellent way to stretch a person’s mind and thinking capabilities. This book does an outstanding job of showing that. The pictures are fun and the adventure Sydney goes on as he and his friends pretend to be different animals is inspiring. This is a good book to encourage children in the art of expanding their minds. Though hanging upside down in a tree or on a jungle gym can be scary for the parent to watch it is a good way to stretch both physical and mental muscles. Sydney pretends to be a sloth and then his friend pretends to be a spider monkey. The next child to join them pretends to be an elephant, and then an anteater friend joins to group. Next comes a bat who wants everyone else to be quiet because they’re interrupting her daytime sleep. Soon enough it’s time to turn back into their children’s selves, but boy have they had a good day. Teachers and caregivers should use this book regularly to encourage children to stretch their minds. The illustrations are enchanting, showing each child accurately portrayed in animal and human form.
BIBLIO: 2022, Groundwood Books, Ages 3 to 6, $19.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Picture Book
The second is quietly beautiful in discussing a very sad concept for anybody, but probably more so for a child.
Illustrated by Emilie Leduc
Death is always a hard issue to talk to children about and is probably worse if the dying person chooses to have an assisted suicide death, but this book will help make the passing at least gentler. Sad to say, the book may not be discussable in schools, but parents can use it as a teaching tool. But this story is so poignantly told, it would seem to be a hug for anybody reading it. The child’s age is not mentioned, but she does appear to be about 8 or so because she’s allowed to go snorkeling in her paternal grandmother’s wet suit. The girl and her father spend the last week of the grandmother’s life with her, greeting the friends who stop by to leave food and to say goodbye. The child is sad, but does seem to understand the situation and spends as much time as she can sitting with her grandmother. Not only can families discuss an impending death with this book, but also the issue of an assisted suicide death. The physical book, rather than the ARC sent to reviewers, will probably be in color, but somehow the illustrations presented in the ARC in gray and black tones add to the quietness and serenity of the story.
BIBLIO: 2022, Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, Ages 4 to 7, $14.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Picture Book
The third book is a self-published magical story about how to save the Polar Bears which are now in great peril of being wiped out by our warming climate. The author, Margaret Pollock, did her research about the bears and the Mohawk Indians who play a major role in the story. There is magic and compassion throughout.
Nikki Brant is at the annual Mohawk’s Strawberry festival in her town with her cousin and best friend, Charlie-Chum. Nikki is proud of her Mohawk heritage on her father’s side and loves seeing all the lovely and inspiring creative work on display. But this time she’s reluctantly pulled in by a possible witch who has a special wooden carving to give Nikki. The polar bear carving is indeed magical and comes to life when Nikki holds it. He tells her that his name is Followme, and that’s what she does. Together, along with Charlie-Chum she magically flies to the arctic with the bear and a Peregrine falcon she names Windy, who is good friends with the polar bears. There they convince the bears to move south to live amongst the brown bears. Turns out the two bears share a common ancestry. There is the usual mixture of tension and love along the way and they get to meet Mother Nature. It’s a good read and has a lot of useful information for teachers to use in discussions about the climate and the arctic and the Mohawk Indians.
BIBLIO: 2021, Margaret Pollock, Ages 8 to 12, $15.
When you were a child were you confident or did you struggle to think people would like you, especially the other children in your class? I was a mix, though I generally thought of myself as not being likable. Thinking back on it, people did like me and thought I was worth getting to know.
The children in these three books have different issues to contend with and so I thought it would be of interest to you for me to talk about them.
The first book is about a confident child dealing with a catastrophic loss in her life and how she copes with it.
Harvey and the Extraordinary
Illustrated by Anna Bron
Miriam MacNeil, who is called Mimi, just knows she’s extraordinary and that her equally extraordinary father is absent on her birthday because he is performing in a traveling circus. Of course, no one else believes that, but then no one else is as close them him as she is. She lives with her real-estate agent mom and Dominic, Mimi’s older brother. She doesn’t have any friends and, because of an incident at school, she is staying at home. She spends a good part of her day with her paternal grandmother who supervises her schooling. The story is told mostly by Mimi, well actually all of it is Mimi’s account, but part of the story is told as if her father is the main character. Mimi is given a hamster for her birthday and she names it Harvey, which is her father’s name. She has shunned her former best friend because the girl doesn’t believe what Mimi has told her. In the end, Mimi does have to face the reality that her father is not coming back ever. But by then she has learned to reconcile this with the story she’s made up. Teachers and caregivers, including parents and grandparents, will find this book very useful in helping children deal with painful truths. The story was originally a play.
BIBLIO: 2021, Annick Press, Ages 8 to 10, $9.95.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Young Middle- Grade
The second book is about a Chinese/Canadian girl who is caught between two cultures. She was born and is being raised in Canada, but her grandparents and other relatives still live in China. They constantly harangue her to make her parent proud by studying hard and being accepted into a medical doctor’s university or some other supposedly high-paying career. Olivia wants to be an artist.
Living with Viola
Illustrated by Rosena Fung
Growing up is hard enough for anybody, but add to the mix an evil naysayer living in your brain and you despair might. That’s what Olivia feels as she tries to meet what she thinks her family’s expectations are. Her imaginary demeaning twin, Viola, constantly harps and snarls that Olivia won’t ever have any friends. Eventually, she does find her worth, but partly because her parents understand that she needs professional help. This is such an important problem for children, but also for adults since we all feel inadequate at least part of the time. In addition to this, cultural differences are discussed throughout the book, since the main character is a first-generation Chinese/Canadian. Her relatives who still live in Hong Kong belabor their expectations that she be a dutiful daughter who should want to become a doctor or lawyer or some other high-paying career. Olivia wants to be an artist. Some readers might find the depiction of Viola to be distracting, especially at first, but the message is strong enough to push the reader to finish the book. And teachers can use the book to spark classroom discussions on showing tolerance to those who appear different. The descriptions of various Chinese dishes that Olivia’s family eats are mouthwatering and the short glossary of Chinese words for relatives and foods is helpful.
BIBLIO: 2021, Annick Press, Ltd., Ages 10 to 12, $17.95.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Middle-Grade Graphic/Comic Novel
The third book is about overcoming the school bully and discovering your own worth even if you are overweight, i.e. fat. It is important for children to understand that their physiques are not who they are. I did have a problem with this book not gently trying to show the boy how to make healthier eating choices.
The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid
Twelve-year-old Max Tercero’s first day at middle school isn’t any different than his last day at elementary school in that he’ll still being picked on by the school bullies. In particular, the eighth-grader super jock has targeted Max as his special bullying target for the year. Max is not just plump, he’s downright fat. Nobody should be targeted for bullying on any grounds, but overweight people do seem to get the brunt of bullying no matter what their ages. The new school has strict rules against bullying but Johnny Properzi seems to get by doing whatever he wants to whomever he wants. The whole school seems to be afraid of him. Max decides to fight back in the only way he knows how. He contacts Max Marconius, a.k.a. Master Plan, who is now in prison for life, but who also has done some good things in his life. He is the nemesis of the city’s superhero. Master Plan writes back to Max Tercero and helps him learn to feel better about himself and take charge of his life. Max does make friends in school and does learn to change the odds in his favor. He even gets Johnny suspended for bullying and learns that he is a worthwhile person even if he is fat. The only quibble that teachers can address is Max’s eating habits. He is depicted as having waffle sticks dripping in syrup for breakfast at school every day. Even if he is getting breakfast through the school program there surely is a healthier meal for him to have. Max is a good-hearted soul who shares his food with his friends who can’t afford to buy breakfast or lunch. There are a lot of good discussion points in the book.
Jo Anna Dressler Kloster has written a heart-wrenching and compelling middle-grade novel which addresses the ever-present angst and problems of being on the cusp of teendom, such as finding oneself feeling physically attracted to a close friend, or understanding the changes her former best friend is dealing with.
The main character, Lily Grabowski, who loves her English class and her extraordinary teacher, Ms. Stadler, is dreading discussing a story she wrote for a class assignment because it’s about her beloved German Shepard agility dog who died just after winning their last agility competition. She thinks it’s her fault the dog died. But she ends up finding a new dog that needs her love. Unfortunately, the dog is from a puppy mill and has severe emotional trauma issues. With the love and support Lily gives the dog she names Cagney both learn to grow stronger and more confident.
The book is well written and quite compelling, showing plenty of growth for all the characters in the story, both two and four-legged. Even the bit players in the story show compassion and emotional change, with much grace and charm. There are pithy study questions at the end of the book to help teachers further discuss the topics with their students.
The story takes place in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Ms. Kloster and her husband lived for many years. They now live in the much warmer climate of New Bern, NC, though they still root for the Green Packers football team.
BIBLIO: 2022, Empty Cages Press, Ages 8 to 12, $13.99.
REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan
FORMAT: Middle-Grade Fiction
What prompted you to incorporate a story about Puppy Mill dogs into your coming-of-age story? Answer:The story was always about dealing with the residual behaviors that my puppy mill survivor, Cagney, had. This story was completely inspired by Cagney. Over time his behaviors became more challenging including extreme separation anxiety and being very protective of me and of our property. I started writing about Cagney during Writer’s Workshop with my elementary-age students. In every writing class I had ever taken, I was always told to write about what I know. So that’s what I did. And the students had so many questions and concerns about Cagney and this thing called “puppy mills.” I decided a book needed to be written to help them understand why puppy mills exist (to feed the pet stores that sell puppies) and what we can do to help end this pipeline and cruel industry of factory-farming of dog. As far as the storyline goes, that was all made up. Yet, so much is based on my life and experiences. I needed to create a book, a vehicle, that would inspire young people to speak up for these voiceless dogs and victims of greed.
Tell us the process of writing this book. Answer:I don’t know if I had a process. I did extensive reading of middle-grade novels to find ones I loved and then I dissected them to see what the author did that drew me in and made me like the book. Some of my favorites are Kate DiCamillo and Barbara O Connor as well as Sheila Turnage. I love humor and animals, especially dogs, so I read lots of books about dogs. I also read lots of research about puppy mills and about how living in horrid conditions at the mills affects dogs emotionally. I also took lots of writing classes, found coaches online, as well as critique groups, to guide me and offer suggestions. My home library has a collection of books devoted to the writing process and how to create conflict and storylines that pull the reader in. I guess you could say I am self-taught and earned a seat-of-the-pants writing degree from the school of many mistakes.
3. How long did it take you to finally get it published? Answer: Ten years! I guess I’m a slow learner. Or a late-bloomer, just like Lily. But I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to writing. I worked 12-14 hour days as an elementary teacher who planned a lot of special projects that took lots of time. So, each summer I’d spend hours working on my manuscript. When it was all said and done, I had written six full revisions. According to Newberry Award-winning writer Sheila Turnage, that’s about right. So, I feel like I’m in good company. I actually enjoyed seeing the story evolve and finding ways to create greater challenges for my characters.
4. Did you have other writers look at it to tell you what was good about the book and what needed fixing? Answer: Absolutely! When I was living in Wisconsin, I belonged to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and had several critique sessions with editors and accomplished writers. And when I retired the state chapter of SCBWI for North Carolina directed me to a local critique group that had room. And my husband, Patrick, was my first and last editor. Poor guy was subjected to multiple revision readings of each chapter. He was there every step of the way.
5. Why did you decide to go the “Indie” route instead of the “Trade Publisher” route? Answer: I actually submitted the manuscript to quite a few trade publishers. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I needed control over this story. It has a purpose: to educate young readers about puppy mills and to inspire them to action. I wasn’t ready to release it to someone who would start changing it – to what they think it should be and possibly dilute the message or change the story. And also, to be gentle, it’s not one of the topics that seem to be “hot” in the market these days. This was my baby, I knew what it needed to do, so I became incorporated as Empty Cages Press LLC and published it myself. Now it’s all rolled into a campaign, Empty Cages Press, whose goal is to educate others “until every puppy mill is closed.”
6. Is your style of teaching similar to that of the main character, Lily’s favorite teacher, Ms. Stadler, who is very inspiring to anyone reading about her? Answer:Yes, Ms. Stadler and I would get along well. This is one area that is very close to home. I was a teacher for twenty-five years. And spent lots of time learning how to be a better teacher. So, yes, I had the chimes in my room. We did lots of group work. And I used lots of music and lots of humor that my students seemed to like. I was a marshmallow when it came to discipline just like Ms. Stadler. I get that from my mom.
7. What do/did you teach and are you still teaching here in New Bern? Answer: I started as a Special Education resource room teacher, then split my day as resource room teacher and Reading Recovery teacher after getting certified for that. This reading program is amazing and has nonreading first graders actually reading inside of twenty weeks with solid skills to last their lifetime. Then I moved into the classroom as a general education teacher moving among first to fifth grades. Finally, I ended my career as a teacher in the gifted and talented department working with grades K to 6th. Presently, I am an ESL tutor working at our local high school with students who are classified as refugees. It’s very rewarding.
8. Campaigning to get rid of Puppy Mills has become a passion of yours because of your dog Cagney. Answer: Tell us a bit about Cagney and how you came to get him. That’s an interesting story. Some close friends had recently acquired a dog from a mostly reputable breeder. It was a Maltese which we had never heard of. We fell in love with Bogey. And then this couple adopted a tiny seven-pound puppy-mill-rescue named Cooper. He had been used as a breeder male. He was quite timid and insecure – and didn’t take to new people. Well, the Smiths needed doggie sitters one weekend. We watched Bogey and Cooper and had a great time. In fact, Cooper really took a shine to Patrick. Well, when the Smiths saw how well Cooper did with us, they shared that good news with Mary Palmer, the president of the North Central Maltese Rescue that saved Cooper when she called to see how the little guy was doing. You know where this is going. So the next day, in our email inbox was a picture of the brightest shining face of a tiny Maltese named Cagney. And the rest is history, as they say.
9. Tell us what you did to socialize him and how successful were you. Answer: We tried doggie training classes at our local PetSmart. Cags was always the smallest dog there and usually the most timid. I also had people come to the door and play the game Lily plays with Cagney, the Go to your bed game when the doorbell would ring. It was somewhat successful at first. But you must be consistent which is not easy for me. And, of course, the biggest mistake I made was babying him….just like the way Lily refers to herself when she gives treats to Cagney after he barks at someone. I guess there are just some dogs that will always be hesitant with strangers or be protective when people come to their home. Cags was that way.
10. What can other people do to help get rid of Puppy Mills? Answer:STOP BUYING PUPPIES FROM PET STORES. That’s the first and foremost thing you can do. Dry up the demand. And tell others why they shouldn’t purchase puppies from pet stores. Also, people can write editorials to newspapers, and post this info on their social media. It’s the only way. And then our elected officials will hear this rumble and be more receptive to requests to ban the sale of puppies at pet stores.
Lily Unleashed is available at Next Chapter Books, 320 S. Front Street, New Bern, NC 28560, https://nextchapternc.com.
Amazon Books. I had a problem just adding the link to the page here, so just look it up at: https://amazonbooks.com
This book deserved to be mentioned all on its own because it’s so enchanting and important for people to read. Language lovers will enjoy it, as will people who like to know what other people look like and wish to do with their lives, no matter how much time they may have left to live.
How Old Am I? 1–100 Faces from Around the World
JR, Inside Out Project, with words by Julie Pugeat
Touted as the “first-ever” children’s visual reference book on age, this is a delightful book showing that, with all our supposed differences, we generally want the same things. The first image is of a one-year-old girl named Gwen who was born in the United Kingdom and can crawl fast, say a few words, and loves to have books read to her. Each year the photo is of a person from a different country which is pointed out on a world map and each person is a year older. At the top of the left-hand page, the person greets the reader in whatever is the greeting of the culture. Readers who like to explore different languages will soon pick out similar words, for instance, the way that Muslim countries generally say some form of salam meaning peace. For Spanish-speaking countries, the greeting will be some variation on Hola meaning “hello.” The photos were taken by photographers from around the world involved in a project started by French photographer, JR, to make mural-type art of peoples’ images for his “Inside Out Project.” The book has information at the back about how the reader can be involved in the project. Teachers will happily use the book to discuss what the students wish to be when they are on their own and where they want to live and how they can help make lives easier for people in poor countries.