Sunday, December 20, 2015

Favorite Books of 2015

I have way too many favorites this year!!!!

Here are my top picks so far, but the list is not comprehensive in any way—I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to this past year—I never do! 

Picture books
HOME, by Carson Ellis
POOL, by JiHyeon Lee
LENNY AND LUCY, written by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin Stead
WOLFIE THE BUNNY, written by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora
LOOK! by Jeff Mack
THE NIGHT WORLD, by Mordecai Gerstein
BOATS FOR PAPA, by Jessixa Bagley
TWO MICE, by Sergio Ruzzier

MG Novels
ECHO, by Pam Munoz Ryan
GOODBYE STRANGER, by Rebecca Stead

YA novels
THE HIRED GIRL, by Laura Amy Schlitz (publisher calls it YA, though I think it’s really for 10 to 14 age range—older MG)
THE ACCIDENT SEASON, by Moira Fowly-Doyle
LAIR OF DREAMS (sequel to DIVINERS), by Libba Bray

And I’m not finished with it yet, but MANNERS AND MUTINY, the fourth and final book in the Finishing School series, by Gail Carriger, is looking to be a strong favorite--and a very fun read, too!

So many books, so little time!!!


Friday, December 11, 2015

When Mischief Came to Town--Shelf Awareness Pro

I had a new book review in Shelf Awareness Pro!

Children's Review: When Mischief Came to Town

When Mischief Came to Town by Katrina Nannestad (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 hardcover, 208p., ages 9-12, 9780544534322, January 5, 2016)

When Mischief Came to Town, originally published in author Katrina Nannestad's home country of Australia, is a funny, warmhearted story about the search for family and the power of belonging.

From the moment 10-year-old Inge Maria Jensen steps off a boat and onto the Baltic Sea island of Bornholm in 1911, life in the quiet Danish town of Svaneke is forever changed. With her lopsided, spiky tufts of hair (one of her long blonde plaits was chewed off by a goat on the boat while she was asleep), Inge Maria presents quite a contrast to the somber, black-clad grandmother who waits for her at the harbor. Inge Maria wonders if her unsmiling grandmother might even be wearing black bloomers, because "[g]loomy underwear would be enough to wipe the joy from anyone's face." As Grandmother rolls her eyes and drags her granddaughter home by the arm, Inge Maria vows to be brave and "make Mama proud of me."

Fortunately, Grandmother's house on the farm is comfortingly pretty, and it has a roof made of straw thatching. Inge is heartened: "This cheers me up a little. At least she doesn't live in a cave, or a hole in a tree. It happens, you know. I've read about it in fairy tales." Winning Grandmother's heart is hard going at first, especially when Inge Maria's kicking contest with the donkey results in a dozen broken eggs and a concussed turkey named Henry. Nor does it help when "a blast of squashed-giggle air shoots out her nose," sullying Grandmother’s freshly laundered bloomers, which, astonishingly, have "white lace on the edges and a giant pink rose embroidered on each side." Still, it doesn't take long before Grandmother, more softhearted than she looks, is shaking with laughter at Inge Maria's mishaps and goodhearted mischief.

Of course, there is also the rest of the town to win over, including the judgmental Angelina Nordstrup with her "piercing stare," the mostly silent Pedersen twins, and Her Nielsen, the tall, serious teacher who joylessly runs the Svaneke Folk School, with art lessons where all drawings look the same, music lessons with no dancing, and even a "No Girls Allowed" area of the playground, because girls must sit quietly while the boys play. Spirited Inge Maria can't help but challenge the system.

Inge Maria adores the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, and they figure prominently in the story as both a relic from her previous, happy life in Copenhagen with her late mother, and as the inspiration for much of her inventive storytelling and fanciful behavior. In the end, Andersen's fairy tales become a bridge between Inge Maria and her jelly-soft Grandmother, as cozy bedtimes spent reading together allow the girl to feel safe and loved again. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. Printed 12/1/15.

Shelf Talker: Fans of Pippi Longstocking will devour this hilarious debut novel, featuring an energetic 10-year-old who invigorates an isolated Danish town.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

December Recommendations


GEORGE describes the efforts of one transgender kid, born George, who wants everyone to know her for the girl she really is. When George’s fourth grade class begins practicing for the play version of Charlotte’s web, more than anything George wants to perform the part of Charlotte. That’s a pretty huge leap for a kid in grade school. George is an earnest, appealing character, and even though her journey may seem a tad easy, author Alex Gino does a great job of bringing readers along George’s path towards being recognized as Melissa. (MG)

THE ACCIDENT SEASON, by Moira Fowley-Doyle, is a beautifully written, atmospheric novel revolving around the annual titular phenomenon that afflicts Cara and her family. Every October, they are all bruised and battered despite the elaborate precautions they take, like wearing thick layers of clothing, ridding the kitchen of knives, and padding over sharp corners in the house. This season will be a bad one, Cara’s friend Bea predicts, and indeed many things come to a head, including love, death, and deeply hidden family secrets. This is an unexpected favorite of the year for me. (YA)

THE HOLLOW BOY is the third LOCKWOOD & CO. installment, by Bartimaeus books author Jonathan Stroud. I love this series—it’s pure, self-indulgent escapist reading of the supernatural kind. Narrator Lucy Carlyle is definitely not happy about perfect, perky Holly Munroe joining the agency, but a massive outbreak of supernatural activity is wreaking havoc in London and all agents, including the talking skull in the ghost-jar, must work together to figure out the mystery. (MG)

Picture Books:

POOL, by JiHyeon Lee, may be wordless but there’s plenty of story in this underwater tale of friendship, imagination and adventure, beautifully yet playfully rendered in colored pencils and oil pastels.

THE NIGHT WORLD, by Caldecott Medalist Mordecai Gerstein, depicts the wonders of one boy's backyard in the darkness before the approaching dawn. Acrylics, pen and ink, and colored pencil bring the mysteries to life.

And LOOK! by Jeff Mack shows the lengths one gorilla must go through to get a boy's attention. Using only two words, “look” and “out,” this smartly designed book uses mixed media, including pencil, watercolor, collage, and digital manipulations. What’s it going to take for the boy to finally leave the TV and engage with the gorilla??


Sunday, December 6, 2015

December's Book of the Month--Dory Fantasmagory

December’s Book of the Month is the fabulous DORY FANTASMAGORY, by Abby Hanlon. This chapter book is heavily illustrated by the author. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, with a six-year-old protagonist and illustrations filling every spread and nearly every page, in many ways DORY can be viewed as a 153-page picture book!

The irrepressible Dory, tellingly nicknamed Rascal by her family, has an older brother and sister who won't play with her. Luckily, Dory's friend Mary (who is invisible to everyone but Dory) always wants to play, thinks Dory is the greatest, and even sleeps under her bed. Despite the constant chatter (to Mary, of course), the temper tantrums, and the weird quirks (like wanting to wear her flannel nightgown day and night all summer—except for the time she wears her cow costume, of course), Dory is an incredibly endearing and imaginative character. Her story is completely perfect for the age and format, and this is a stellar example of fine literature for young people.

Abby Hanlon did her own illustrations, seamlessly weaving them into her text, but writers who do not illustrate should feel confident that they, too, can tackle this genre. And illustrated books are highly desirable right now, repeatedly asked for by editors and agents.

Have you read DORY FANTASMAGORY? Well, if not, have at it and enjoy!!!


Monday, November 30, 2015

Interview with author Julie Dillemuth--plus a giveaway!

For my first ever interview, I get to talk with Julie Dillemuth, author of LUCY IN THE CITY, a beautiful new book from Magination Press. Welcome, Julie!  

Where did you get the idea for Lucy in the City?

    For a long time, I wanted to write a story about a raccoon who got lost. It’s fascinating to think about nocturnal animals coming out to ‘start their day’ when people are tucked into bed, sound asleep and completely oblivious. Especially for kids, who have to go to bed earlier than they want to. It’s fun to read about something that you normally don’t get to experience, like running around the deserted streets of a city in the middle of the night.
    In Spring of 2012 I took a UCLA Extension writing course on easy readers, with Terry Pierce, and the story of Lucy in the City just popped into my head. But I realized that the illustrations, with the owl’s bird’s-eye view, were really important, and the big, sweeping spreads don’t mesh with an Easy Reader trim size. So I decided it just really wanted to be a picture book, and went with that. 

Your subtitle is "A Story About Developing Spatial Thinking Skills." What does that mean?

    Spatial thinking is how we understand and think about concepts of space and the world around us, and how we use these concepts for problem solving. So everything you do in your daily life that involves space or location—remembering where your car keys are, loading the dishwasher, getting all the containers to fit in your kids’ lunchbox, etc.,—these all require spatial thinking. A lot of it we don’t really think about, but for more challenging things like assembling furniture, or finding your way with a map, some people have better skills than others.
    We know from research that if kids have good spatial skills, it helps them learn math and science in school, not to mention everyday problem solving, playing sports, etc. The problem is, we don’t formally or systematically teach kids these skills. My area of expertise is spatial thinking, especially for navigation and wayfinding, and I wanted to write a fun, engaging story that would encourage spatial thinking in kids and their parents or teachers.

What was the publishing process like?

    Working with the editors at Magination Press was really wonderful. I got to give input at every stage of the process — reviewing the editor’s notes for the illustrator, giving feedback on character sketches and the storyboard, as well as on the final art. I think at many publishing houses the author doesn’t get to stay in the loop as much, so I really appreciated it. It felt amazing to see my story coming to life, step by step. And it was pretty quick; I was offered the contract in late November of 2013, the book was printed in January or February 2015, and came out in August. So, just under 2 years.

Is there anything in particular you want people to know about your book?

    Yes! The Activity Pages that appear at the end of the book can be downloaded and printed from the publisher’s website, and my own website, We didn’t do a good job of making that clear in the book, so I’m trying to spread the word on that so people don’t have to mark up their books. Also, there is a free Teacher’s Guide, written by Marcie Colleen, that aligns with Common Core for English language arts, math, science, and social studies. It’s also on my website.
    Another thing I’d like other writers, ‘pre-published’ writers, as we say, to know is that it took a lot of rejections to get here. By the time I got this first picture book contract, I’d racked up 81 rejections for various manuscripts. For this story, I had sent it to 8 other editors, and 7 agents. There’s a lot of rejection in writing for kids, and you have to try not to take it personally but keep plugging away, keep making your writing better, and have faith that you will get there if you set your mind to it. The best way to head-off rejection blues is to start writing a new story as soon as you send something off for submission. That way, by the time the rejection comes back you are excited about the new project and you don't feel like all your hopes are resting on that one freshly-rejected manuscript.

Your book is an introduction to mapping concepts —do you ever get lost?

    Oh, heck yes, all the time. I have a terrible sense of direction! It used to be that I would go the opposite direction from where I thought I should go, and then that would be correct. I’ve gotten a lot better, though, at using maps, and just being aware that I’m prone to getting lost has helped me really work hard to figure out where I’m going ahead of time.

Julie Dillemuth is a children's author and spatial cognition geographer. She earned her PhD in Geography and Cognitive Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her stories have appeared in Highlights for Children and Odyssey magazines, and she won the 2012 Highlights Fiction Contest. Lucy in the City is her first picture book.

Julie will be giving away a signed copy of Lucy in the City! Leave a comment by Monday, December 7, and one lucky winner will be randomly chosen to receive this beautiful book!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

November Recommendations


In I CRAWL THROUGH IT, by A. S. King, Stanzi won't take off her lab coat and dissects frogs with a clinical passion. She's in love with Gustav, who builds a helicopter that is not technically invisible, but Stanzi can only see it on Tuesdays. China, Stanzi's best friend, repeatedly turns herself inside out due to a nasty encounter with a weatherman—on any given day, she might be an esophagus or a stomach as she walks down the street. Everyone is aware of this. The dangerous bush man sells letters for a kiss. The brilliance of this novel is that everything makes sense! (YA)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin, has a classic mid-grade feel to it. Seventh grader Suzy Swanson hasn’t spoken since she learned of the death of her former best friend, Franny Jackson. Suzy is convinced that Franny died from a poisonous jellyfish sting and not from drowning, like everyone else thinks. Suzy uses her love of science to help work through her grief and to understand her complicated relationship with Franny. This debut novel explores the power of friendship, jellyfish, and the importance of moving on. (MG)

ZEROES, by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti, is the first in a promising new series about a small group of teens who have strange “superpowers”—Ethan has the Voice, which speaks for him whenever he is in a jam (which sometimes makes things WAY worse), Kelsie, can control a crowd’s emotions (until she is carried away by them herself), Blind Flicker can see through everyone else’s eyes, Chizara can control technology, Anonymous is extremely hard to keep track of, and finally there is Nate/Glorious Leader, who melds them into a group.  Together, they are drawn into a mission to save Ethan, while evading murderous drug dealers and Ethan’s DA mom. This is great action enhanced by awesome-yet-marginal superhero-ness, and harkens back to Westerfelds early work on his Midnighters series.  (YA)

Picture Books (coincidentally, all by author/illustrators this time) :

In WE FORGOT BROCK, by Carter Goodrich, Phillip and his best friend Brock (who Phillip's parents insist is invisible) spend all their time together goofing around together. When Phillip falls asleep at the Big Fair, Brock slips off to ride the Brain Shaker and gets left behind! The art is pitch-perfect, with Brock and Princess Sparkle Dust rendered in a flat, crayony style, while the rest of the world uses more nuanced watercolor paintings.

GET OUT OF MY BATH, by Britta Teckentrup, joins a small but growing sub-genre of interactive picture books, along the lines of Herve Tullet’s Press Here. A narrator invites readers to help elephant Ellie make some waves by shaking the book from side to side, as well as to shake out the other animals who have found there way into the now-crowded tub. Hooray! we are told. This is fun! And it is. The illustrations are bold and bright, the text large and engaging.

WAITING, by Kevin Henkes, is a lovely, quiet (yes, quiet!) picture book full of the wonder of the world, and of the secret life of toys. Spare text, beautiful design, and mostly minimal illustrations bring great heft to this understated picture book. It's a great choice for readers who want to slow down, cuddle up, and enjoy.


Friday, November 6, 2015

November's Book of the Month--Evil Librarian

November’s Book of the Month (still in the spirit of Halloween and Day of the Dead) is EVIL LIBRARIAN, by Michelle Knudson.

This SCBWI Sid Fleishman Humor Award winner is all about the demons—or maybe it’s about the cute love interest—or maybe the plays the thing:

Before the new handsome but creepy librarian showed up, all Cynthia Rothschild had to worry about was getting super-crush Ryan Halsey to notice her, and coming up with the perfect prop chair for her school's production of Sweeney Todd. But when Mr. Creepy ensnares Cyn's best friend in a weird and disturbing relationship, she begins to suspect he may not be human. And when teachers and students behave like zombies, and begin to disappear, Cyn knows she has to act to save Annie, her entire school, and this year’s awesome production of Sweeney Todd.

Knudson perfectly captures the voice of sassy, smart Cyn, while weaving together enough supporting characters, and plot strands, to keep this humorous story --about demons taking up residence in high school --humming along.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

2015 NY Times Best Illustrated Children's Books!!

These are all gorgeous:

The Tiger Who Would Be King, by James Thurber, illustrated by JooHee Yoon (Enchanted Lion).
Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, written and illustrated by Greg Pizzoli (Viking).
The Skunk, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Patrick McDonnell (Roaring Brook).
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Groundwood).
Leo: A Ghost Story, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Chronicle).
The Only Child, written and illustrated by Guojing (Random House/Schwartz & Wade).
Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams).
Big Bear Little Chair, written and illustrated by Lizi Boyd (Chronicle).
Madame Eiffel: The Love Story of the Eiffel Tower, by Alice Briere-Haquet, illustrated by Csil (Little Gestalten).
A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Random House/Schwartz & Wade).


Newt's Emerald--Shelf Awareness

New review in Shelf Awareness!

YA Review: Newt's Emerald

Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, $18.99 hardcover, 304p., ages 13-up, 9780062360045)

Esteemed Australian fantasy writer Garth Nix (Sabriel and the rest of the Old Kingdom series; A Confusion of Princes) infuses a witty, engaging 19th-century Regency romance with the right touch of magic to shake up that tried and true genre.

At the 18th birthday celebration of Lady Truthful, nicknamed Newt, her father, Admiral the Viscount Newington, wishes to show off the huge, heart-shaped and magical Newington Emerald. Unfortunately, the Admiral, a weather-wizard, inadvertently conjures up a gale, and in the ensuing chaos, the priceless stone is stolen right off the dinner table. Eager to recover the heirloom, Truthful heads to London, where she thinks the thief will go to sell it, and takes up residence at the fashionable Grosvenor Square home of her great-aunt Ermintrude. A proper lady can't exactly wander about London talking to pawnbrokers, so Ermintrude casts a glamour spell to disguise Truthful as a man, specifically her French cousin Chevalier de Vienne. With her charmed mustache in place and some sorcerous powers of her own, Truthful obtains the help of the surly but handsome Major Charles Harnett, and they set out to locate the lost emerald. They soon discover that the jewel theft may have involved a malignant sorceress and several murders! The pair encounters ruffians, turncoats and spies in their dangerous pursuit. By the end, many secrets--and secret identities--are revealed, and romance is in the air.

Newt's Emerald has all the societal trappings, banter and misconceptions necessary for a satisfying period piece, and the addition of magic--along with an appealing cast of characters--makes for a truly enjoyable, action-packed romp. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. 

Discover: Garth Nix mixes sorcery with a Regency romance, as Lady Truthful disguises herself as a man to track down a magical heirloom stolen from her family.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Beast of Cretacea--Shelf Awareness

New review in Shelf Awareness!

YA Review: The Beast of Cretacea

The Beast of Cretacea by Todd Strasser (Candlewick, $18.99 hardcover, 432p., ages 12-up, 9780763669010, October 23, 2015)

With The Beast of Cretacea, Todd Strasser (The Wave; Give a Boy a Gun; Fallout) crafts a thrilling interplanetary adventure based on Herman Melville's classic story of revenge and madness, Moby Dick. Gone are descriptive passages about whale species and shades of white. Instead, Strasser focuses on the action. Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck and Ahab are still on the ship, but their quarry, the great white whale, has been replaced by the Great Terrafin.

When 17-year-old Ishmael wakes up aboard the Pequod, he is amazed by Cretacea, the clean, beautiful planet on which he finds himself. He hopes to earn enough money to save his foster parents, before the foul air and lack of water back on the coal-burning, oxygen-depleted Earth kill them. Now, miraculously, he is floating on "a vast, glittering blue-green sea." As Ishmael trains for his new job--catching ocean-dwelling creatures to ship back to the dying Earth--he quickly proves himself a courageous leader among the motley crew of men and women. But when the Great Terrafin is spotted, Captain Ahab ignores the "catchable beasts," as well as the safety of ship and crew, to chase down his nemesis.

Ishmael grapples with fierce pirates, isolated island dwellers and various sea beasts, all the while worrying about his foster parents and his much-loved, disabled foster brother, whom readers learn about in flashbacks. High-tech gadgets, from drones to virtual reality goggles, add a modern twist to this apocalyptic adaptation, part political satire, part environmental cautionary tale. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. 

Discover: Ishmael risks his life to save his family in Todd Strasser's maritime swashbuckler and environmental cautionary tale, based on Moby Dick.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

SCBWI CenCal Writer's Day

This past weekend, I went to SCBWI CenCal Writer's Day in Simi Valley, California. The speakers were all pretty amazing.

Celia Lee, of Scholastic, talked about the importance of making book maps and dummies to help plan out our stories, as well as to help us judge the pacing of our work, and to look for any plot holes.

John Cusick, of Folio Literary Management, stressed the importance of staying sane while writing, including carving out a dedicated space to work in, and giving ourselves plenty of time to be creative.

Kelly Delaney, of Alfred A. Knopf, described the many different kinds of villains we write about, and the need to keep them three dimensional--not just use them as a plot device, but to help readers understand the source of their badness!

Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy, of Blue Slip Media, shared their thoughts about marketing. They suggested that marketing does not take place only before a book is sold, or after, but at all stages, including building your social media presence and getting your promotional materials in place. They gave useful feedback on website pages, and stressed the need for clean, professional, easily-read and -navigated sites.

And our Spotlight Speakers, local authors who have recently had books come out, provided a ton of encouragement. It was incredibly inspiring to hear about their journeys, and some of the wisdom they gathered along the way!

Here are the Spotlight Speakers and their books:


Robin Yardi, THEY JUST KNOW, Arbordale Press



Monday, October 19, 2015

The Rest of Us Just Live Here--Shelf Awareness

New review in Shelf Awareness!

YA Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (Harper Teen, $17.99 hardcover, 336p., ages 14-up, 9780062403162, October 16, 2015)

In British novelist Patrick Ness's The Rest of Us Just Live Here, 17-year-old Mikey Mitchell and friends want only to navigate their final days in high school before their school gets blown to bits, yet again, by unknown invaders.

No one talks much about the small Pacific Northwest town's various explosions, vampire infestations and soul-eating ghost episodes, or why the ultra-cool indie kids, "with unusual names and capital-D Destinies," keep dying. In fact, the parallel story of an Immortal Empress who wants to take over the world serves as a mere backdrop to the story's "real" action, narrated in Mikey's thoroughly engaging voice. Mikey is a worrier whose compulsive loops of hand washing and counting worsen as his troubles multiply: his sister may be starving herself again; his dysfunctional parents are almost entirely absent; he's desperately in love with his good friend, Henna, who has a crush on someone else; and his best friend, Jared, who is one-quarter cat god, is keeping secrets. Complementing the angst is plenty of creepy collateral damage from the current interspecies war, such as zombie deer--and police officers--with glowing blue eyes.

This clever sendup of traditional fantasy fare doesn't have nearly the body count as Ness's award-winning Chaos Walking trilogy, but it does have all of the heart, and then some. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators.

Discover: In Patrick Ness's funny quasi-fantasy, graduating seniors are more concerned about relationships than the dangerous Immortals threatening their town.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

October Recommendations

It seems like there are so many great kids books coming out lately! Recently I have read and loved these:


THE NEST, by Kenneth Oppel, with moody, atmospheric illustrations by Jon Klassen, is a wonderfully creepy changeling story. Steve's parents are worn out from caring for their new baby, who is sick with a mysterious set of problems. Steve, a big-time worrier, is just supposed to get a grip and not add to the family’s troubles. But once Steve is stung by a wasp, he begins to have visitors in his dreams. At first he thinks they’re angels. But gradually Steve realizes that something bad is happening, and it involves both him and the new baby. Only read The Nest if you enjoy being creeped out—and I know I sure did when I was a kid! (MG)

Newbery medalist Laura Amy Schlitz (also Newbery Honor with Splendors and Glooms) has another winner in THE HIRED GIRL. Fourteen-year-old Joan is tired of cleaning the chicken house and scrubbing the privy, hauling ashes and sweeping muck out of her family's house day after day, and year after year. She yearns to be a writer, a lady who strives for "truth and refinement." But what chance does she have on her family’s small farm, with Ma dead and no one else to keep house for the men? Stubborn Joan will not be denied, however. When Pa burns her favorite books, Joan takes a secret stash of money left to her by Ma and runs off to seek her fortune in Baltimore. Schlitz packs this always engaging novel with plenty of interesting details from the early twentieth century setting, but they never overwhelm the story of how Joan’s fierce pursuit of her goals plays out. (Upper MG)

And, finally, we have the epic and epically fantastic LAIR OF DREAMS, by the awesome Libba Bray. This long-awaited sequel to The Diviners needs all of its 690 pages to work its magic. Told from the varying perspectives of an ensemble cast, readers learn of the malicious evil invading the dreams of sleepers in 1920s New York City. From America’s Sweetheart Seer Evie O’Neill, to piano player and fledgling composer Henry Dubois, to dream walker Ling Chan, to Memphis, Theta, and scam artist Sam, everyone has secrets and passions, and everyone dreams. But now those dreams are turning deadly. Lair of Dreams, like the aforementioned The Hired Girl, is awash in period details which bring the story alive without smothering it. A most excellent series. (YA)

Picture books:

LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG FAMILY, by Mike Curato, is a sequel to Curato’s very successful Little Elliot, Big City. This time, Little Elliot’s friend Mouse takes off for a family reunion, leaving the elephant all alone, and lonely. From endpaper to endpaper, the pencil and digitally colored illustrations are as beautiful as they were in the first book, and the story is even better. Here’s to more stories about Little Elliot!

LEO, A GHOST STORY, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Josephine) is a charming and beautiful ghost/friendship story. Leo the ghost leaves his home when the new family who moves in doesn’t appreciate him. When he meets Jane, she thinks he is an imaginary friend, but Leo manages to convince Jane that he’s real. After some adventures, they two enjoy mint tea and honey toast at midnight. The fabulous illustrations are done in acrylic and cutout construction paper.

Last but not least, we have TWO MICE, by Sergio Ruzzier, a sweet and successful hybrid picture book, counting book, and easy reader. Two mice have some pretty cute adventures, until they wind up back at home eating much-needed soup in their cozy kitchen. A small trim size and lovely watercolor and ink illustrations make this an attractive and versatile choice.


Monday, October 5, 2015

October's Book of the Month--The Night Gardener

October’s Book of the Month is the wonderfully creepy THE NIGHT GARDENER, by Jonathan Auxier.

Newly orphaned Molly and Kip desperately need food and a bed, and they are willing to work for it. After slogging through the ominous “sourwoods," they find themselves facing a remote house that looked "like something from a horrible fairy tale. It might as well have come with a drawbridge and boiling cauldron.” But worst of all was the tree, which was grown up and over the house, as if it were part of it. Molly and Kip stay on as servants, and slowly the secrets of the house are revealed: muddy footprints that appear in the night, a mysterious locked door, and the strange transformation of all who inhabit this cursed place. Molly, a budding storyteller, and Kip, transforming from a boy into an insightful young man, serve as strong, complex characters to see this tale through.

Reading The Night Gardener is a perfect way to set the mood for Halloween. I would give it to fans of Holly Black’s Doll Bones. The way both authors build creepiness and dread is wonderful, and just right for mid-grade readers looking for a scare. It's a good book to enjoy on a chilly October night, under the covers, with a flashlight.

Have you read THE NIGHT GARDENER? Were you spooked by it, even just a little??


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

September Recommendations

Here are some great books I have enjoyed recently—what are you reading now?


Brian Selznick’s new hybrid novel, THE MARVELS, is another jaw-dropingly beautiful, poignant story from the creator of Caldecott-winning, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Beginning on a ship in 1766 and following a theatrical dynasty through the years, this story begins with wordless illustrations, continues with text-only pages, and brings us back around to illustrations for the ending. The Marvels doesn’t feel like a repeat of what Selznick has done before. It’s lovely—don’t miss it! (MG)

GOODBYE STRANGER, by Rebecca Stead (Newbery winner for When You Reach Me), is so wonderful that I immediately reread it just as soon as I had finished it the first time. In fact, each of her books, including Liar & Spy, are so intricately plotted and satisfying, I have done this for all of them. Bridge, Tabitha, and Emily have been great friends for years but now, in seventh grade, so many things are changing. While Goodbye Stranger is an examination of the benefits and boundaries of friendship, there is also much more going on. Along with the narrative of the three friends, and also new-to-the-group Sherm Russo, there is a mysterious thread, told by an unnamed character who is experiencing something of a crisis. Stead is a master at pulling the strings of her plot together into a satisfying novel that feels a cut above the usual middle grade fare. (MG)

And I have just read the second and third books in THE MAGIC THIEF series, by Sarah Prineas. I have previously talked about Book One. Books Two and Three do not disappoint! The main character, Connwaer, reminds me very much of the narrator in The False Prince—he’s a charming guttersnipe recently elevated to a better state of affairs, he’s a bit of a scoundrel, and he’s thoroughly in control of his own destiny. Much fun, and I believe that the series extends even after the trilogy has been concluded—I intend to find out. (MG)

Picture Books:

IT’S ONLY STANLEY, by Jon Agee, is a perfectly-paced rhyming picture book by master-of-the-genre Jon Agee, who most recently gave us Little Santa (also not to be missed). In It’s Only Stanley, the dog is making lots of nighttime noise, but he’s also getting things done. After howling at the moon, Stanley proceeds to fix the oil tank, make catfish stew, fix the old TV, etc. The book culminates in a silly and surprising ending. It’s tons of fun! And if you want a lesson in how to use page turns effectively, study this one.

LENNY & LUCY, written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead, the folks who gave us Caldecott winner A Sick Day for Amos McGee, are back with another distinctive, graceful, and exceptional offering. When Peter and his dog Harold move to a new house, they find that it’s not nearly as nice as their old one. There are terrible things hiding in the trees, but thank goodness for Lenny and Lucy! Subtle and magical, this book is truly a gem.

And ONE WORD FROM SOPHIA, by Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail, is also magical in its own way. Sophia has One True Desire, which is to get a giraffe for her birthday, but she also has four problems standing in her way: her Mother, Father, Uncle Conrad, and her Grand-mama, who is very strict. After arguing her way through them all, Sophia discovers a simple solution. The ending is both unexpected and obvious.


Sunday, September 13, 2015


I'm just back from the Working Writer's Retreat, put on by the Los Angeles region of the SCBWI. Such an amazing time--terrific faculty, plenty of talk about craft, and even a karaoke party (luckily for everyone, I did not sing)!

Here's a photo with my esteemed group, the Bestsellers 2:

I hope we stay in touch.

I'll be revising and submitting my work in the coming months. This time, I'm even making a business plan!!


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

New Illustration

I recently finished a new painting for the back cover of my Little Owl dummy!

Friday, September 4, 2015

September's Book of the Month--The Right Word

September’s Book Pick is the gem of a picture book, THE RIGHT WORD: ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. The text of this nonfiction book is clear and concise. It’s packed with information, and will easily support multiple readings by kids of all ages. But, beyond a doubt, the text is helped immensely by the brilliant design and illustrations that make THE RIGHT WORD very special.

Sweet’s art is made from watercolor paintings, embellished and collaged into layers and layers on each page, with each element supporting and furthering the text. Sometimes the story is laid out as a list, sometimes a list will support the story. The use of color is brilliant:

  1. a brilliant student: bright, intelligent, clever, smart, astute, intellectual; gifted, talented, able, adept, skillful; elite, superior, first-class, first-rate, excellent; informal brainy. ANTONYMS  stupid.
  2. his brilliant career: superb, glorious, illustrious, impressive, remarkable, exceptional. ANTONYMS  unremarkable. 
  3. a shaft of brilliant light: bright, shining, blazing, dazzling, vivid, intense, gleaming, glaring, luminous, radiant; literary irradiant, coruscating. ANTONYMS  obscure, dark.
  4. brilliant green: vivid, intense, bright, bold, dazzling. ANTONYMS  dull, dark.
There is so much information packed into these 32 pages plus back matter, but not once does if feel heavy or didactic.
If you have not yet read THE RIGHT WORD: ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS, run—don’t walk—to your nearest library or bookstore and find yourself a copy!!


Saturday, August 15, 2015

August Recommendations

What great books have you read lately? Here are some of my recent favorites:


THE CROSSOVER, by Kwame Alexander, who many of us were lucky enough to hear give an extraordinary speech at the SCBWI Summer Conference, delivers his Newbery-winner about a basketball phenom in rap-tinged verse. The story is extremely readable—the verse makes it flow quickly, and for me as a writer I was able to think about structure, using each of his poems as building blocks. (YA)

THE IRON TRIAL, Book One in the MAGISTERIUM series, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, is strong, well-written mid-grade fantasy. I suppose my biggest issue with mid-grade is when the voice doesn’t sound authentic, and instead of getting swept away I can picture an adult trying to sound like a kid. This series (which includes the second installment, The Copper Gauntlet, due out in September) has a voice that sounds just right for the material. And it’s exciting material—Callum Hunt is a dorky misfit who tries to hide his magic, but the powers that be find out and send him to magician school, where he gets into all kinds of trouble. Really strong MG fantasy here!  (MG)

Okay, so I read two more books in the Bloody Jack series, VIVA JACQUELINA! and BOSTON JACKY, by L. A. MEYER. Just when I thought I had had enough, these two were like visiting a good old friend—not much felt surprising, but the usual twists and turns of the writing, and Jacky’s voice and over-the-top antics will always entertain. And the Boston Jacky one has a fabulous ending, setting us up for the series finale, which I need to get to—immediately! (YA)

 Picture Books:

In BOATS FOR PAPA, by Jessixa Bagley, Buckley crafts small boats out of driftwood, and uses them to send notes to his father, who is absent from the story. This pitch-perfect book is not preachy in any way. The delicate, expressive ink and watercolor paintings will pull young readers in, and the author/illustrator uses every opportunity, including the endpapers, to add depth. It’s a most impressive debut!

Another impressive picture book debut is HOME, by Carson Ellis. Lyrical text describing different kinds of homes becomes interactive as the artist addresses her audience. She even shares a view of her own home and asks kids to share theirs. The strong gouache and ink paintings with hand lettering are each gorgeous enough to frame and hang on a wall.

I YAM A DONKEY, story, pictures, and bad grammar by CeCe Bell, is kind of a “who’s on first” routine—yes, about bad grammar-- told entirely in dialog. China markers and acrylic on vellum serve the story well. It’s funny!


Friday, August 7, 2015

August's Book of the Month--All the Bright Places

For August, we’ll look at ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, by Jennifer Niven.

I found this wonderful story to be uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. What was most striking to me about it is the contrasting trajectories of the two main characters, Violet and Finch. They first meet upon the ledge of a bell tower, each of them contemplating a jump. Finch, as is clear pretty early on, is bipolar, and Violet is the survivor of a car accident that killed her older sister.

In one of his "awake" phases, Finch does his best to charm Violet (of course he has a crooked smile!) and he eventually succeeds. Through his attention and energy, he allows Violet to begin to live again--to break out of her self-imposed stasis and mourning and realize she will not be betraying the beloved sister who cannot grow with her. Finch, meanwhile, becomes more and more unpredictable as he senses himself moving towards a "sleep" period. He eventually takes to his closet to wait out this inevitable dark time, beyond the reach of anything Violet can do for him.

Above all, Niven's portrayal of mental illness rings true. Her high school setting and supporting characters worked for me, as well as the plot device of exploring the great state of Indiana for a social studies class.

I just read this week that this book will be made into a feature film.

Have you read ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, by Jennifer Niven?

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Conference Fun!

I just spent a long weekend at the SCBWI National Conference in Los Angeles. Wow. Jam-packed with inspirational keynote speeches, smaller breakout sessions, and great opportunities for feedback, I’m so glad I went. Now, some much-needed time to recover, and then back to work. Thanks, SCBWI!!!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I Crawl Through It -- Shelf Awareness Pro

I had a new book review in Shelf Awareness Pro today!

YA Review: I Crawl Through It

I Crawl Through It by A.S. King (Little, Brown , $18 hardcover, 336p., ages 15-up, 9780316334099, September 22, 2015)

Readers looking for a break from the ordinary will welcome A. S. King's (Glory O'Brien's History of the Future; Everybody Sees the Ants) newest novel. Deftly juggling a number of surrealistic elements, the author crafts a wholly original work of fiction that is as bizarre as it is satisfying.

Stanzi won't take off her lab coat and dissects frogs with a clinical passion. She's in love with Gustav, who is building a helicopter that's not technically invisible, but Stanzi can see it only on Tuesdays. China, Stanzi's best friend, repeatedly turns herself inside out due to a nasty encounter with a weatherman ("She just turns herself over and over, esophagus to rectum, like a human Lava Lamp"). Everyone is aware of this. The dangerous bush man sells letters for a kiss. And Lansdale Cruise "is like Pinocchio except her hair grows, not her nose." Add in daily bomb scares and the pervasive pressure of standardized testing at their high school and you have the basic tenets of I Crawl Through It.

The brilliance of this novel is how everything makes sense in King's carefully crafted plot. The story weaves together alternating points of view of characters who are all dealing with some kind of trauma, yet they are all looking for love and redemption. Stanzi's parents are mysteriously absent from her life, and the family has clearly survived some kind of violent encounter. Stanzi and Gustav intend to use his helicopter to escape a life of standardized tests, mediocrity and TV. Since the helicopter is invisible to Stanzi six days out of seven, she will "just have to trust." Meanwhile, after China was deeply hurt by her affair with the weatherman, she's trying hard to stay out of trouble. But she's still looking for love, so when she meets a boy on the Internet, she takes the bus to New York City to see him. Lansdale Cruise, whose father has worked his way through four wives, furiously looks for her own answers to love and perfect test scores. Even the mysterious man in the bush is looking for love.

Readers who follow the story threads will be rewarded in a big way, as these smart teens cope with stress, violence, turmoil and the dysfunctional adults in their lives by taking extraordinary measures. Ultimately, it is only when they are ready to face their demons head-on that true healing finally begins. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, the monthly online discussion of children's books for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators

Shelf Talker: Master of contemporary surrealistic fiction A.S. King offers a smart and wholly original new YA novel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

July Recommendations

GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA, by Rita Williams-Garcia, is the third installment of the trilogy which began with Newbery Honor book, One Crazy Summer. It features the irrepressible sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, now off to visit Big Mama in Alabama. A strong finish to the series. (MG)

IREMONGER BOOK ONE: HEAP HOUSE, by Edward Carey, is terrific and bizarre. It feels pretty Dickensian, but the magic of the Birth Objects takes it well into the realm of fantasy. Wholly original, and well and creepily told, I can't wait to read volume 2! (Upper MG/YA)

And at last--a new Penderwicks story!! THE PENDERWICKS IN SPRING, by Jeanne Birdsall, is another delightful romp with the Penderwick family, whose original book was a National Book Award winner. This time we are mostly following Batty, who is now in fifth grade. Rosalind is off in college, and Skye and Jane busy with high school friends, which leaves Ben (third grade) and new sister Lydia to help with the adventures of a new dog walking business and secret-keeping. Delightful stuff, as always. (MG)

SIDEWALK FLOWERS is a wordless story written by poet JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith. A young child, accompanying her distracted father around town, picks and distributes flowers, which helps to bring her world alive. The art uses comic book-style panels and full page spreads to tell this story, as well as the deliberate addition of color to show the effect that a little bit of care and attention can bring.

MAPLE is a debut, written and illustrated by Lori Nichols. It's the story of young Maple, so named after her parents plant a tree in her honor. The text is lovely, the illustrations are lovely, but what stood out to me is how the two entwine. This book is just the right amount of sweet.

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, by Linda Booth Sweeney, wonderfully illustrated by Jana Christy, is a lyrical journey thorough a windy afternoon. The rhyming verse seems effortlessly done. If you want to write in rhyme, give this one a look!