A Special Book for Us All

You Call This Democracy?

Elizabeth Rusch

The subtitle of this thought-provoking book is “How to Fix Our Government and Deliver Power to the People”. Whatever your political bent this book will make you think carefully about how our system of government works and whether things could or should be changed to make it better. For instance, should we continue to have an Electoral College decide who wins a presidential race? Or should we go with just the popular vote? Would that leave the smaller states without a vote. Hope about the way we hold primaries? Do the states that hold primaries later in the election cycle without a say? Should we lower the voting age to 16 or 17? The book is full of statistics and graphs and other visuals. The various gradations of grey on the maps will be, hopefully, better defined in the final copy of the book. It’s a bit hard to discern the various gradations of gray in this advance reading copy. Take your time reading this book and be prepared to research some of her statements.  It’s the kind of book that the reader will want to tell friends and others about. It’s especially important for young people and people applying for citizenship to read, but everyone else would benefit from reading it.

BIBLIO: March 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ages 10+, $9.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Non-Fiction

ISBN: 9780358387428

Did That Really Happen?

The new owners of Children’s Literature Database distribute books for review differently. The reviewer gets to pick the books. The old owners just randomly sent out the books. I enjoyed that because it was always a surprise. On the other hand, now that I can pick the books I want, I can make sure I get intriguing books—at least judging by the titles. The books below loosely fall into the Sci-Fi genre, or at least have some connection to other times in our human history and the stars. Well, not really, but you’ll see what I mean. At least I hope you will.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now here’s a concept for you. Dinosaurs alive during the American Civil War; who knew. An interesting twist to learning United States history don’t you think?

Dactyl-Hill Squad: Book Two Freedom Fire

Daniel Jos Older

Illustrated by Nilah Magruder

Dinosaurs are alive and well during the American Civil War and Magdalys Roca knows how to communicate with them through mental telepathy. The series is historical fantasy and points out the horrible disparities amongst the American population. White people rule the country. African and Native American populations pay the price. It was nice to see an author bringing in the horrible treatment of Native Americans, who still are mistreated more than any other population. The author’s ability to paint a word picture is masterful, but it’s quite possible that he should have researched the historical part of the story. Was General Grant part of the takeover of New Orleans? Was he ever in that part of the country during the war? And were any roads paved with cement? It would have been nice for readers who’ve not read the first book in the series to be able to comprehend how people sit on the backs of pterodactyls using flat-sided saddles and still be able to move forward and backward off the saddle without sliding off the creature. For those who’ve ridden horses, it’s hard to visualize this. Still, it was fun to have the creatures in the book, and will probably entice children not thrilled with reading about history. Teachers can use the information in the book to discuss all manner of things. It would be nice to have the maps on the end pages a bit more accurate.

BIBLIO: 2019, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Inc., Ages 10 to 14, $16.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Middle Reader

ISBN: 978-1-338-26884-3

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tarnished Are the Stars

Rosiee Thor

Anna lives with her grandfather in a part of the new planet world that is supposed to become the replacement for Earth. Earth is no longer habitable, but the replacement seems to have a fatal flaw. Something in the soil or the atmosphere causes babies to be born with bad hearts. Anna has a mechanical one which her grandfather implanted when she was very young. And when we meet her, she’s just encountered another teenager with the same type of heart. Anna was supposed to take over the surgeries, but after having irreparably injured a friend’s young child during surgery, she will no longer perform operations. She does, on the other hand, have quite the knack for building and repairing machines. The problem is the ruling class has outlawed anything mechanical because of the irrepable damage machines did to planet Earth. Of course, this class uses machines to make their lives better when it suits their purpose. The other issue in the story is the power struggle between Alternative Earth’s Commissioner and his mother who is Queen of Everything and the harshness the commissioner levies on his son. The story is complex and intriguing, with many comparisons to how we’ve treated Earth and each other. An interesting read that has many points of discussion to bring up with students.

BIBLO: 2019, Scholastic Press/Scholastic Inc., Ages 14+, $18.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Young Adult

ISBN: 978-1-338-31227-0

Although this book isn’t actually Sci-Fi or Fantasy, it does have a lot about the stars and the universe. And made the New York Times bestseller list,as well it should.

The Year We Fell from Space

Amy Sarig King

Nina Goffi: Interior Art Designer

Liberty Johansen loves looking at the stars and drawing new constellations, but that is before her father leaves and her parents file for divorce. Now, she can’t see new patterns in the stars, in fact she can’t see any patterns in the stars. She’s being bullied by a classmate who orders the entire sixth to shun Liberty and they do. One evening, while she’s up on a hill in the woods behind her house, meteorite falls out of the sky, landing a short distance away from her. Pre-divorce time, she would have called her dad out to look at it, but now she keeps it a secret. As the story progresses, Liberty gets into more trouble and edges toward depression. She has to deal with her father’s live-in girlfriend and the fact that he’d cheated on Liberty’s mother. The story is beautifully written and very compelling. Teachers will have a field day discussing the issues raised in the story, ranging from dealing with divorce and depression and bullies and inappropriate responses to distressing news. And then there’s talking about astronomy. There are excellent descriptions of how to read a night sky. This book is a winner.

BIBLIO: 2019, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Inc., Ages 8 to 12, $??.

FORMAT: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Middle-Reader

ISBN: 978-1-338-23636-1

And Boo to You too!

AND BOO TO YOU TOO!

Halloween is creeping up on us yet again. And you’re experiencing the changes Autumn brings to us. Cooler weather, greyer skies, and colorful leaves floating to the ground. Make a big pile of them and jump on in.

I love spooky stories, don’t you? Especially if I’m tucked under at comforter with a mug of something hot. The stories in this first review are just the right amount of scary and silly.

Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories

Max Brallier

Illustrated by Letizia Rubegni

Mister Shivers receives a box wrapped in brown paper and containing a tree branch, a doll’s eye, a piece of an old quilt, and a toy’s rusty head. Beside the box is a dead rat. The note that he finds in the box asks Mister Shivers to share the stories. Since he loves scary stories. Here’s what he wrote. In the first story, a boy is challenged to spend the night in the town’s haunted house. He finally convinces his sister to go with him. They search house and find nothing scary until they get to the attic bedroom. Underneath is something staring at them. Read to the story to find out what’s there. In the second story a girl ends up with a hair stuck in her throat all the way to her stomach. Since it doesn’t go away after several days her mom takes her to the doctor who pulls it out, only to discover that it’s not a hair. What is it? The third story tells of a boy who doesn’t heed a warning to leave on the ratty quilt wrapped around an ugly statue his mom bought. Guess what he does? In the third story, Oliver always forgets to bring his toys in from outside. One night during a fierce storm, the toys get even. The final story is about something scratching on a girl’s window. Her parents keep telling her to just go to sleep because it’s only a tree branch. Is it? Funny scary stories make this a good fit for a beginning reader who likes to be given the shivers. The illustrations are just right for the book. Teachers will have fun sharing these stories with their reading level 1 students.

BIBLIO: 2019, Acorn/Scholastic, Ages 5 to 7, $4.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Early Readers

ISBN: 978-1-338-31853-1

The next story is a bit more sophisticated, but still fits the bill of being scary and sweet.

Midnight Beauties

Megan Shepherd

Fantasy lovers won’t be able to put this book down. The sequel to Grim Lovelies is full of intrigue, danger, romance whether welcomed or not. The main character, Anouk, is a beastie, the lowest form of entity in this world. She can be switched from her owl form to that of a human. Other of her beastie friends are a mouse, a wolf, and a cuddly dog. Though beasties do seem to have specific special powers, Anouk is rare in that she possesses the ability to perform magic. Other creatures in this world are humans or pretties, goblins, and the “haute,” a.k.a. “shadow rulers” who control the others and possess magic. Then there are the “snow children,” who only appear when it snows. They also are magical, but it’s best not to kiss them. And let’s not forget the witches, because they’ve made a mess of things, which means that evil forces are taking over the world, killing everything they touch. Anouk sets off to save everybody by going through the trials it takes to become a witch, but before she goes, she turns down a prince who rules the world. He thinks that as a married couple they can save everybody, but Anouk doesn’t trust him. Lots of trials and tribulations later, our heroine and her stalwart friends contain the evil power, but not without much peril and damage. There are a number of parallels to the current state of our world to be inferred from this delightful book.

BIBLIO: 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, Ages 14 +, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Young Adult

ISBN: 978-1-328-81190-5

Yeah, yeah, I know I said these stories would all be scary, but I figured I’d scared you enough. So, we’re finishing with something sweet.

Poppleton

Cynthia Rylant

Illustrated by Mark Teague

Part of the Scholastic/Acorn series for early readers, the audience follows the plights of Poppleton, the pig. In the first story the reader learns ways to be a good neighbor, helpful, but not overbearing. Poppleton moves from the city to a less densely populated suburb. He meets his new neighbor, Cherry Sue, who brings him flowers as a welcome present. Then she invites him over for oatmeal and later for cheese toast and later still for spaghetti and sauce. This is very nice at first but even kindness can be overdone. Finally, Poppleton gets so tired of having the spend so much time with Cherry Sue, he squirts her with his hose. She’s horrified until Poppleton apologizes and explains he likes to be by himself every once in a while. Cherry Sue, it turns out, is delighted. She likes quiet time herself. Poppleton’s next adventure is at the town library, his favorite place to go on Mondays. Here he spends the day quietly reading a book. It might be an engrossing book. Or a sad book, for which he’s glad he brought tissues. Whatever he reads, he stays there all Monday and is happy as a hog in slop.

Poppleton’s last adventure for this book is about the pig helping his friend Filmore who’s sick in bed. The only way Filmore will take his pill is if it’s hidden in one of Cherry Sue’s delicious cakes. But Filmore can’t know what slice of cake the pill is in. His friend drive Poppleton to distraction until they’re both sick in bed. Guess how many cakes they go through until they feel better? Beginning readers will find these stories charming.

BIBLIO: 2019 (orig. 1997,) Scholastic, Ages 5 to 8, $4.99.

REVIEWER: Sarah Maury Swan

FORMAT: Early Reader

ISBN: 97813386566673

ISBN: 97813386566680

ISBN: 97813386566796

Outlining a New Story

To see if I could do it and have students feel they’ve learned something about writing their own stories, I’m leading a class at the Pamlico Community College in their “Cultural Enrichment Program.” At the first session, I asked my students to tell me what they wanted out of the class. Several of them wanted to learn how to structure a story.

So, even though I’m a “seat of the pants” style of writer, I set about doing an outline for them. Actually, I’ve done two different outlines. This is the second one. Please let me know what you think.

Plotting Structure outline:

First off you need to have at least have an idea in your head of what you’re writing about.  A memoir? A short story? A poem? History? A scientific treatise? A blog? A play?

The structure of your story is the same whether you’re writing a scene or a book. So, I’m using a scene as a more succinct example of making an outline.

  1. Purpose of the Scene: First scene should set up who the main character is and what’s happening.

A: Physical description:

  1. Age
  2. Sex
  3. Location (In the kitchen? In a car? In the woods? On a boat?)
  4. Is the person alone?

B: Action:

1.Waking up? (Why?)

2. Cooking? (What? And Why?)

3.Driving? (Where? And Why?)

4.Walking? (Where? And Why?)

  • Character’s thoughts. (Anxious? Calm? Frightened? Angry?)

C: Reason for the scene:

1.Going to work?

 2.Meeting someone for dinner?

 3.Grieving?

4.Getting married?

5. About to murder someone?

  1. Arc of scene: Every scene should have a beginning, middle and end.

A: Beginning:

1. Does the alarm go off?

a. Does this awaken the character?

b. Or was he already awake? (Why?)

2.What’s her reaction?

  1. Does she pop out of bed? (Why?)
  2. Does she groan? (Why?)

B: Middle:

1. Character takes a shower:

a.She shampoos her hair, but as she starts to rinse it, the water goes cold or quits running

  • How does she deal with this?
  • She’s finally out of her bathroom.

C:  End:

1.Dressed and fed, she leaves her abode

a.What’s she thinking about?

b. Does she stride out the door with bold, confident steps?

b. Does she pause and listen?

2. What happens when she heads toward where she’s going?

                      a.  Car won’t start?

b. Or the bus is late?

c. Or the heel breaks off her

                          shoe?

d. The bad guy shoots at her?

  b. (Here you leave your reader hanging and solve the    

                          problem in the next scene. Or keep building toward the story climax.)

If this is the end of your book, of course you do complete the scene. The main character rides off into the sunset on his favorite horse.

In the next scene, conclude the immediate problem—She jump-starts her car, calls a cab, etc.—then give your reader time to breathe and cogitate on what’s going, however make sure your scene ends on a compelling note, with a hook at the end.

What I Learned

The first thing I learned is the usefulness of going to conferences even if you think you know it all. Guess what? There’s always more to learn.

Besides, there’s no way I thought I knew it all before I went to this year’s SCBWI-Carolinas conference. (For those of you who don’t know what SCBWI stands for: Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators.)

I always go to the Friday morning Intensive where the speaker spends four hours delving into a subject. Vickie Selvaggio gave us an in depth look at books from the past and present that have been successful. Which reminded me to look to the future, but remember the past.

Highlights for me were visiting with long standing friends and meeting new people. It was sad to bid Teresa Fannin farewell as our stalwart leader, but she has trained a good replacement group of Donna Earnhardt (a.k.a. the Barefoot Contessa), Kelly? who hit the ground running and Elizabeth Rawls. Nary a hitch in the proceedings was noticed.

I attended a delightful presentation on what is one’s voice and how do we know when we’ve found it. Not to worry, it’s been there all along. Sadly, this turned out to be Robyn Campbell’s last speech on this earthly coil. She died on Sunday. But I’m quite sure she’s regaling the Heavenly Hosts with her humor and her unique voice.

Of course, the annual “First Pages” session was delightful and inspiring. I think it’s safe to say that the rhyming picture book about things would or would not eat was the hands down favorite. The final pairing of the part that Alan Gratz read was a rhyme of moon pie with cow pie.

And speaking of Alan, his closing keynote speech had everyone in stitches as he talked about who he is and was. Athletic prowess was not prominent in his list of attributes.

No matter what type of writing you do, be sure to go to at least one conference that covers the genre. If nothing else, you’ll come away with new friends and an energized look at what you want to write.

Writing Speeches

My thoughts on speech writing are that one should be concise, but informative. However, there’s no reason not to have a humorous tone even if the speech is of a serious nature. I’m not talking slapstick or nonsensical humor, but I’m of the opinion that your audience is going leave you, if not physically at least mentally, if you drone on.

For instance, a group of us are presenting a forum on our globally changing climate. We have, we hope, people coming who might not agree that our climate is changing or who believe God takes care of the climate. This, I think, makes gentle humor in my introductions even more appealing.

The first speaker’s talk is about how to deal with atmospheric changes, such as more ferocious hurricanes and more variances in rainfall amounts from year to year. For him, I’m going to say: You might say he’s seen the clouds from both sides now. (For you youngsters out there, that’s a reference to a folk/pop song written by Joni Mitchell, but made famous by Judy Collins.)

The second speaker is an expert on rivers and we have a delightful picture of him sitting in a row boat holding a container of greenish-brown river water. He’s grinning as if he’d just got a fish for dinner or pulled up Black Beard’s treasure. But his tag line on his emails is a quote from Mark Twain. For him I plan to say: So, what better job than surveying rivers and teaching other people about them. Plus, he quotes Mark Twain.

            The third speaker is a retired Marine colonel who is telling us about how the military has to deal with climate changes. For him I’m saying: How can you not like a guy whose nickname is Otter?

The final speaker is a wildlife specialist who is telling us about the changes in animals and their migratory patterns in eastern North Carolina. His introduction include my statement: He gets great joy from showing the people what lives around here.

I could have just recited their technical bios, but don’t you think people are going to be more receptive to what’s being said if they have more warm and fuzzy feelings about the speakers?

I’m writing this now after the fact, and am thrilled to say that the forum was an overwhelming success largely due to our four dynamite speakers, but also because of the way we set it up. And, she says with not a smidgen of humility, because I added humor into my introductions and because my co-leader started us off with a song.

Thanks for reading. Hope to hear from you. Next week I’ll get back fiction writing or reviews. Sarah

It’s a Dark and Stormy Night…

     Writing the perfect opening is hard work. I’m reading a spy novel at moment because that’s the only way to learn a genre. I’m not a big fan of the author’s style of writing, but this is not the first book I’ve read that uses this format.

     The book is Rules of Vengeance by Christopher Reich (2009, Doubleday/Random House, ISBN 978-0-385-52407-0) and is the second in a series about a doctor named Jonathon Ransom, who actually isn’t spy, but his wife is.     

     Anyway, the opening scene is a news announcement on Reuters news service of a car bomb explosion, then the action centers on Jonathon Ransom for a couple of pages.

     And then the reader goes to Chapter 1, which describes in great detail an exclusive apartment building in a ritzy part of London, where the reader follows the intrigue of an intruder into one of the apartments. The owner of the apartment is murdered by intruder and then the detective who investigates what is considered a routine suicide determines is actually a murder.

     Then we jump back to Jonathon and along the way get a detailed description of the workings of a ultra-secret spy organization in the U.S. In my view, there are a great many details that could have been left out, making this a much tighter and compelling read.

    But I’ll continue to read so that I can understand what sells in this genre and how not to fall victim to this style of writing.

    In the meantime, I have to figure out what’s going to work for my young adult spy/murder/romance historical fiction book set in 1942. At the moment, the title is EARTHQUAKES because it’s set in Los Angeles and my Jonathon has nightmares about the devastation an earthquake can cause. But also because of the metaphorical earthquakes Jonathon is experiencing in his young life.

     The family has just learned their maternal grandfather died on Corregidor, Philippines and their father is now missing. Both men are Marine Corps officers and Naval Academy graduates. There’s one earthquake.

    Earthquake number 2 is finding their next-door neighbor stabbed to death in his house. Plus, people keep breaking into Jonathon’s house to find some secret message.

    I’ve tried several openings, such as having Jonathon wake up one morning from yet another earthquake nightmare and have to rush to get ready for school. First, though, he’s feel pressure to calm down the daily fight between his older brother and their mother about why he should or should not quit college to enlist in the military to save America from the invaders.   

    My editor says that publishers reject stories that start with dreams or with the protagonist waking up.

    Also, I shouldn’t start with the first word being a sound. In this case “whump,” because his brother is pounding on the kitchen table below Jonathon’s bedroom.

     One of my critique group women wants me to have a real earthquake described in the first page or two, but that’s not what I want. I want to focus on the metaphorical aspect.

     At the moment I’m stuck, but I’ll keep mulling it over in my head and it will come to me. In the meantime, I’ll working on making the rest of the novel perfect. Or as close as possible.

     I think the first paragraphs in my other two novels are good and compelling set ups. Terror’s Identity starts out with:

                        At sixteen, guys are supposed to tough, right? But when Mom

pounds of the stairs to our bedrooms shouting, “Aidan! Maya! This is it! We’re leaving…now,” tough is not what I feel.

     My second novel, a middle-grade horse book, Emily’s Ride to Courage, starts out with:

                        Usually, the sweet scent of just-mowed grass and the

                        growl of a tractor cutting a hay field perks me right

                        up. Not this time. This time I only feel dread.

I hope those make you want to read further. Thanks for reading. And, as usual, I’d love to hear from you. Sarah