12/31/2009

Ten Things I Learned about Myself Through Blogging

What have you learned about yourself through blogging? I've learned a few things ...
I started on August 5, 2009, after returning from the Society of Childrens Book Writers National Convention in LA, when a window of time opened up for me. At work, the intensely busy Summer Reading was over. In my personal life, I'd finished driving to Seattle (600 miles round-trip) to attend Landmark Education courses.

In all, 18 trips in 2009. The courses, particularly the Self Expression and Leadership Course, which accounted for 15 of the trips, were time intensive but well worth it. Landmark Education has had a profound impact on my life, and I'd recommend it to anyone. If you want to know more about it, feel free to email me. But to get back to what I've learned ...

  1. Blogging has a long, steep learning curve. It's been challenging, frustrating, but beneath all, addictive. As of now, my plans are to stay on, see where my blog and and my blogging community and I will be in a couple of years.
  2. I can see my blog taking a winding road, rather than a straight path, into the future. I can see its raison d'etre slowly shifting, or I can see having more than one blog.
  3. Regarding reading and reviewing, it's been a struggle to read all the books I read over the past few months ... What is that telling me? That I'm not as much of a reader as I'd thought?
  4. It's been a struggle to write reviews, and I'm seldom happy with them. There's always five times more to say, but not five times more time to write the review. What's that saying? I've often wondered if the other book review bloggers loved writing/giving book reviews when they were in school. I was never crazy about it.
  5. I'm unwilling to read more than one full-length book each week. I love to jog, and to scrapbook. To ride bicycles and fly places with my husband. I love spending time with friends and family. And watch Dexter. And House. And Grey's Anatomy. What's that telling me? (Repeat of #3?) But I AM a reader. Before I worked full time, I often used to read a book a day.
  6. I'm not interested in being an Amazon affiliate. I was never in it to earn money per se. I was curious enough to try it, with the expectation that I'd eventually earn a mocha latte out of it. In the two weeks I was running hyperlinks, and after 51 clicks into Amazon, I "sold" precisely one book. Amazon's a great source for cover images, though. For that alone, it's worth taking the time to sign up as an affiliate.
  7. I'd set an impossible task for myself to try to review four books/week: a nonfiction book, a picture book, a MG novel, and a YA novel. It's a worthy goal, but it doesn't suit me. I'll read and review what I can, but I'm not going to burn myself out attempting it.
  8. I really enjoy posting pictures for wordless days. I think I might also enjoy weekly writing memes such as Mama's Losin' It. Or the One Minute Writer. I might also get into Teaser Tuesdays and Waiting on Wednesdays. I can see Nonfiction Mondays frequently, and Poetry Fridays, sometimes. Library Loot and In My Mailbox don't appeal to me. Sunday Salon could be interesting, but the secret is that I NEVER, EVER read on Sundays. It's the one day that my husband and I can play.
  9. I love playing with blog backgrounds. Here's a list of my favorite places to find them:

    Cutest Blog on the Block
    Hot Biggity Blog
    That Blog Place
    Simply Blog It Backgrounds
    My One Cute Blog
    Izzie Grace Blog Backgrounds
  10. I like reading other people's blogs and commenting on them, and getting comments on my own blog. Virtual friendships make blogging worthwhile. I often think about my blogging friends throughout the day. Really!



12/23/2009

Let it Snow: Three Holiday Romances: YA Book Review

Let it Snow
Maureen Johnson, John Green, Lauren Myracle
Speak
2008
Young Adult

Three hot YA authors each contributed a novella that connects with the others in this collection, making for a delightful reading experience. A whopper of a snowstorm on Christmas Eve causes all sorts of mayhem for the teens in each story.

In Maureen Johnson's story, Jubilee Express, the storm is severe enough to stop a train, resulting in Jubilee getting out and looking for shelter in a House of Pancakes, along with a squad of expectedly hyper cheerleaders. In an effort to get away from the cheerleaders, Jubilee gets rescued by a sweet boy and falls in love.

In John Green's story,  A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle, Tobin risks life and limb to get himself and his friends to the pancake house to meet the rambunctuous cheerleaders, but ends up falling in love with someone far closer to home.

In Lauren Myracle's story, Patron Saint of Pigs, Addie, who'd done her boyfriend wrong by cheating on him, proves she's not the heartless girl she's thought to be, effecting a reconcilation with her boyfriend.

These novellas are clever, funny, and tender. For full effect, read this one before the snow stops falling.

12/20/2009

Happy Holidays!

I want to wish you a most wonderful holiday season. Time permitting, I'll stop by your blogs to wish you all the best.

My own blog needs to take a holiday. There are just so many hours in the day, and things are already moving way too fast. No reading, no writing, no blogging for the next couple of weeks. I'll be back on January 1.

Love to you all!

12/16/2009

Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin: Book Review

Anything But Typical (Buy at Amazon)
Nora Raleigh Baskin
Simon & Schuster
Juvenile (grades 4-6)

Starred reviews: Booklist, Kirkus
Twelve-year-old Jason has Asperger’s Syndrome, which falls within the Autism spectrum, at the high end. Facile with words, he uses writing to come to terms with his disability.

I read this book with special interest, as one of my grandson’s was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s, and as I read it, I kept nodding my head. One mannerism after another was so like my grandson, who is sensitive to tactile sensations, and to noise. He finds even toilet flushing so loud that he has to cover his ears. Once when I was at Costco with his family, his dad was trying to cajole him to use the restroom before the long ride home, but he wouldn’t go in. I suspect he couldn’t bear the loudness of so many commercial-grade toilets flushing.

Like Jason, my grandson’s verbal intelligence is very high. It outdistances what is typical for his age by six years. Unlike Jason, who seldom talks, my grandson seldom stops talking. To anyone. Talking about fans and sprinklers and windmills and electricity. And yes, like Jason, he’s apt to avert his eyes when talking with you. He’s easily overwhelmed by groups of people, and when he’s overwhelmed, the hand-flapping shows up. He's also just the sweetest little boy, very loving and protective of his little sister.

It was interesting to get to know Jason from the inside, from his first-person narration, although because it was coming from within, the reader never knows more about a situation that Jason was able to surmise. Frequently, Jason didn’t have a clue about what he’d done to cause other people to be angry or shocked or disgusted with him.

At the heart of the story, Jason gets to attend a convention for participants in Storyboard, an online writing forum. A girl he’d considered to be his girlfriend because she emailed him, telling him she liked his stories, is also slated to attend, which causes Jason overwhelming anxiety.

Without spoiling the story, I will say only that Jason meets the girl.

In the end, through writing a story about self-acceptance, he learns to accept himself. Ms. Baskin also, kindly and wisely, points out that even the rest of us, the neurotypicals, have quirks that make us unlike other people. Jason’s brother couldn’t stand having food touching on his plate. His mother was inept in a variety of ways.

When my grandson is old enough to read Anything But Typical, I am interested in learning what he has to say about it.

I plan to read and review the following books, that also deal with Asperger’s:
The Life of Merilee Marvelous by Suzanne Carlisle Crowley
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (Cybils 2009 YA nominated)

12/11/2009

Starlight Sailor by James Mayhew: Poetry Friday








Starlight Sailor
by James Mayhew & Jackie Morris
Barefoot Books
Picture Book

This bedtime story takes off from the poem, "Star Light, Star Bright." A child sitting on his mother's lap imagines himself as an ancient mariner, where he sees fantastical images of princesses on unicorns, winged dragons, mermaids and sea serpents. All the while, the words undulate across the page like waves. The poetry itself is not exceptional, however because of its simple nature, young children will probably understand and enjoy it more than if it'd been written with bigger words and sophisticated allusions. They could, perhaps, read it themselves, with a little help from a grownup.

Now the children fall asleep.
The dragon curls up at their feet.
I climb aboard my boat once more,
And drift out slowly from the shore.

Starfish swimming in the sea,
Mermaids singing just for me,
I listen to their lullaby,
While flying fish dance in the sky.


In all, it's a lovely bedtime story. For more Poetry Friday, see Random Noodling.
Did you have a favorite bedtime story or poem?

12/10/2009

Interview with Monika Schroder, author of The Dog in the Wood


I am very pleased today to interview Monika Schroder, author of The Dog in the Wood.

Monika, you say the book is based on your father’s experiences as a boy. Did you have access to his diary or other writings? Oral history?
The story is based on my father’s childhood experiences in eastern Germany at the end of World War II. My father grew up on a farm north-east of Berlin and witnessed the arrival of the Russian army in his village at the end of April 1945. At the time he was only six years old but he remembers his grandfather’s frantic attempt to defend the village, how they rode together on a horse cart while the old man yelled at other farmers to help build trenches to slow down the Russians’ advance. My father also recalls that due to a shortage in caskets, his grandmother had to be buried in the wooden dowry chest that was kept in the attic – details I have used in the book. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 I went back to his village to interview several eye-witnesses. Some information from these oral history accounts are also in the book.
How factual is the book?
Like every work of historical fiction, the dates of key events have to be accurate. I read history books and village chronicles about the time but also studied several memoirs of people of my father’s generation published in Germany in the last ten years. The main events like the arrival of the Russians, the radio addresses Fritz listens to, the date of Hitler’s suicide, and the land reform the socialist government imposed in the fall of 1945 are all true historical events.

However, some historical realities had to be omitted in a book for children. The fact that Russian soldiers raped German women on their way toward Berlin leaving many women dead from either their own hand or as a result of the violence, could not be mentioned in a book for children. The scene that depicts a drunken soldier harassing the Fritz’s sister is only a mild insinuation of the sexual assaults German women and girls suffered during the advance of the Soviet army. Other parts I changed because reality was too harrowing. My father’s mother was taken at gunpoint while she and her children still lived on her in-laws’ farm in Schwartz. My father and his sister were left standing alone outside their house. Local communists then divided up the Schröder farm. For the book, I decided to let the land reform commission take the farm first and allow Fritz to get settled with Oma Clara before Mama and Lech were abducted. But just like the fictional Fritz, my six-year-old father had no way of finding out where his mother might have been taken.
How long did it take you to write the book?
I started to write the story in the summer of 2005 and the book was accepted by Front Street in June 2008.
Please tell us about the book’s path to publication—was it easy or difficult to find an agent? An editor?
While writing this book I learned that not everything that really happened makes good fiction. My first draft resembled a memoir more than a fictional account, and maybe because I always had my father in mind when envisioning the story, I hadn’t developed the main character. When I finally summoned the courage to submit the manuscript to Stephen Roxburgh at Front Street, he responded with what my husband called “the best possible rejection letter,” expressing interest in the story but pointing out that it was told from too great a distance and lacked the opportunity for the reader to identify with the main character. Over the course of many revisions, and with the help of author Carolyn Coman, the manuscript developed from a memoir into a story with a plot culminating in a cathartic moment that leaves the character changed at the end. Stephen Roxburgh, at the time still with Front Street, bought it in June 2008.
Please tell us a little about your next book …
My next book is called SARASWATI’S WAY and takes place in contemporary India. It will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in November 2010. The main character is a 12-year old boy, Akash, who lives in a remote village in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan. He has a gift for math and dreams of going to a better school where his interest in math can be nourished. In order to reach his goal he will have to score excellent results on the end-of-year math exam and to do so he needs a tutor. Akash carries a picture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, in his notebook, hoping that she and Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, will help him to reach his goal. But his first plan to make quick money fails. When the landowner demands his payment Akash’s grandmother sends the boy to work in the landowner’s stone quarry. Akash soon realizes that he will never earn enough money to pay back his family’s debt. To pursue his dream of going to a better school Akash runs away and jumps on the train to Delhi. He ends up in the New Delhi train station where he has to learn to survive as a street child, sleeping on the platform and eating what others have thrown away. Hoping to realize his goal sooner Akash joins a new friend’s risky endeavor and learns the hard way that the gods cannot be hurried.
What was the inspiration for it?
Street children are begging on almost every intersection in New Delhi. When I visited the New Delhi train station, where many children get stranded, I tried to imagine what it would be like for a child from rural India to arrive in the big city. I created a character with a very strong desire for something that would usually be out of his reach. I hope that readers in the US will relate to the impatient Akash and his attempt to hurry the gods along to help him reach his goal.
Please tell us a little about where you live and what you do for a living (besides writing books). What are your future plans?
I am the elementary school librarian at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India, where I select and recommend books for over 700 students from more than 50 different countries. I hope to continue working at my school for a while as I enjoy my job as librarian very much. What could be better than reading and talking to kids about books for a living! I also plan on writing more books. I have finished another historical fiction novel, set in Berlin 1918 at the end of the First World War, also an important transitional period in German history. Currently I am working on a contemporary fiction story set on the island in Northern Michigan where my husband and I spend part of our summers. After that I will probably return to historical fiction. I enjoy the research that precedes and accompanies writing historical fiction and I have an idea for a book set in 19th century Russia.
Thank you, Monika, for your interesting and informative answers.
Do you have any questions you'd like to ask Monika?
Don't be shy ...

Win a copy of The Dog in the Wood. Here's how.

12/09/2009

The Dog in the Wood by Monika Schroder: Book Review


The Dog in the Wood
Monika Schroder
Front Street
2009
Historical Fiction
Grades 5-8

Debut author Monika Schroder's book is based on her father’s experiences in Germany after the war. Tomorrow, I will be featuring an interview with Ms. Schroder, so stay tuned.

Summary: As World War II draws to an end, Russian soldiers occupy Schwarz, Germany, bringing both friendships and hardship to the family of ten-year-old Fritz, whose grandfather was a Nazi sympathizer, and after they are forced to leave their farm, Fritz's mother and hired hand are arrested, leaving Fritz to fend for himself. (Courtesy of BWI)

Ten-year-old Fritz’s grandfather is a wealthy farmer and head of the local Nazi party in (what was to become) East Germany. When Germany loses the war, the imminent Soviet invasion causes Fritz’s beloved grandparents to commit suicide. They believe the Soviets are evil and wrong in their views, and cannot imagine life under their control.

Fritz grieves over their loss, but not unduly. Sure, he wants all of the seemingly endless suffering to be over. He’s already lost his father to the war. But once the Soviets invade, there isn’t much time to grieve. The Soviets literally occupy the family home, where they set up a temporary camp and steal some of the family’s possessions and almost all of their food. They order the family to move at least 30 kilometers away, and so Fritz and his sister, his mother and their Polish hired hand, Lech, go to live with Fritz’s maternal grandmother.

Life isn’t much better there, and especially not when Fritz’s mother is falsely accused of a crime. Fritz watches helplessly as she and Lech are taken away at gunpoint by the Soviets. Now, Fritz can stand it no longer. If he’d been passive before (as you would expect of a ten-year-old), he isn’t anymore. As much as possible for a child his age, he works tirelessly to find his mother and effect her release.

Written in spare prose, there isn't an excess word in this fast-paced novel. The chapters are very short—2-3 pages, in most cases. Ms. Schroder cleanly cuts from scene to scene, opening each new one precisely where the plot action and emotional thread follows from the scene before.

Yet she was still able to paint a picture of some of the rhythms and rituals of farm life. In a tender moment between Fritz and Lech, who shows the boy how to carve animals out of a piece of wood—the reader is left with the comforting suggestion that Lech might later become his stepfather, and that life will someday return to a measure of normalcy.

In this exceptional book, Schroder does not side with either the Soviets or the Nazis, but shows that there are good and bad people on either side. From them, Fritz finds faith in the ultimate goodness of humankind, and the ensuing courage to survive.

For other contemporary children’s books that deal with World War II, consider the following:

Escape to West Berlin by Maurine F. Dahlberg
For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
A Pocket Full of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs
Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Toksvig

Have you read any WWII fiction that you'd like to add to the list?

12/08/2009

Best Santa Claus Picture Books for 2009: Picture Book Tuesday


Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays (Buy at Amazon)
by Elise Primavera
Paula Wiseman (Simon & Schuster)
Picture Book
Ages 4-8

In order to watch her niece, Sophie Kringle, dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the school play that is to be performed on Christmas eve, Auntie Claus, Santa's sister, decides to move the North Pole to New York. Complications arise.



The Night Before Christmas (Buy at Amazon)
Clement Moore
Illustrated by Rachel Isadora
Putnam
Picture Book
Ages 4-8

Of course, there are a gazillion editions of The Night Before Christmas, but what I found striking about this was its African setting, done by Rachel Isadora. She retains Moore's original poem, but replaces the usual Victorian decor with an African home, African clothing and African gifts. Even Santa looks different, clad in animal-print pants, and with brown skin and white dreadlocks. The stuffed animals he delivers include an elephant, zebra and giraffe. Beautiful!


Santa's Stowaway (Buy at Amazon)
by Brandon Dorman
Greenwillow
Picture Book
Ages 4-8

Being a stowaway on Santa's sleigh isn't exactly a new idea, but this book offers a slightly different twist, and kids are sure to enjoy it.



That's Good, That's Bad on Santa's Journey (Buy at Amazon)
by Margery Cuyler
Illustrated by Michael Garland
Henry Holt
Picture Book
Ages 4-8

Cuyler's series on That's Good! That's Bad! has always been great fun, and so giving Santa himself very good, and very bad, experiences seems a logical extension to the series. As always after each mishap or lucky break, the refrain of the title, or its reverse, helps readers see how positive-seeming events can go bad, and problems can often have unexpectedly good consequences. Expect lots of slapstick humor!

When my kids were growing up, we always read The Night Before Christmas some time during the holiday season, and left cookies and milk out for Santa on Christmas eve ... It wasn't terribly original, but it was fun for the kids. On Christmas morning, they always marveled about the presents Santa had left, but also that Santa had taken time to eat the cookies. It was almost as if they were a more solid proof that Santa had been there.

Do you have any family traditions regarding Santa, or reading books featuring Old Saint Nick?

12/07/2009

Contest, Review, and Interview: Monika Schroder and The Dog in the Wood

On Wednesday, I'll be running a review of debut author Monika Schroder's The Dog in the Wood. A historical novel set in Germany after World War II, The Dog in the Wood is based on the childhood experiences of Ms. Schroder's father. It was published in November, 2009, by Front Street. The major review publications have all given it wonderful reviews, including a well-deserved starred review from Kirkus.

On Thursday, I'll be running an interview with Monika, who is leading a richly interesting life. She talks some about her next book, due out in the fall of 2010, and set in India, where she is currently living. I LOVE books set in India, so I'm really excited about that one too.

Today, I'm offering up The Dog in the Wood as a giveaway. To win it, you must be a follower. (See the box to the left with all the pictures in it? Drop your picture in, leave a comment saying you've done so, and you're set.) If you're already a follower, super! Just drop in a comment. I'll pick the winner next Sunday evening (Dec 13) and announce the winner on Monday. You can drop comments into this post, or to my review, or to the interview post. I hope people will reward Monika with comments!

Good luck to all!

If you love historical fiction, you're sure to love this book. It's the only one I'm aware of that deals with this facet of WWII, that is the Soviet invasion of Germany after the war.

Do you like historical fiction? I like anything from around the French Revolution forward. What's your favorite time period?

12/06/2009

Winter in the Country



This is our house and the tiny person is our granddaughter. What's your weather like, so far this winter? 



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