What To Read Next: Percy Jackson

If your patron base, ages 7-18, is anything like mine they are either on the giant reserve list for one of your library’s copies of The House of Hades or already dying to talk about every single detail with you.  If your patron base is like my patron base they are already fiend’ing for the next Rick Riordan book and their bleary-eyed parents are staring at you with wild-eyed desperation, asking, “Please.  Please something … anything … else.” (and this is a feeling I totally understand because, oh my, how I absolutely adore these amazing books.  Rick Riordan, thank you for making me feel 12 again and thank you for the wonder.)

And so, for every parent and librarian who has been asked that very thing, I bring you my What To Read Next guide for Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series.

This list is divided into a few categories for ease.  By and large, these recommendations are focused on Percy fans ages 8-15.  If you have older teens who love Percy there are even more read-alikes and, hey, maybe I’ll make an epic post of those too!  Meanwhile, some of these books may be a good fit, but I’ve matched my recommendations with the bulk of my Percy readers.  These are the titles I most frequently recommend and have the most success with.

Please feel free to share this list widely!  You can make displays, make brochures, and encourage all the “what next” fans in your life to give these books a shot. Let’s start with my favorites!

My Top Three Percy Jackson Read-Alikes

These are really great read-alikes that are also truly well-crafted, interesting, and engaging books that can gateway readers into whole new directions.  I’d love these four even *without* Percy and I bet most of your readers will too.

Savage Fortress

The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

Excuse me but did you say there is a slightly nerdy English-Indian boy who loves video games who turns out to be chosen to save the world from the rise of the Ravana, the demon king from Hindu mythology? YOU DID? And the HINDU GODDESS KALI IS ALSO THERE AND A BAD-ASS?  Really?  And there’s a sequel OUT TODAY that’s blurbed by Rick Riordan?! Can this be real life??!!  Love this series, love Ash, love the action, love the use of Indian mythology, love everything about this – a superb Percy read-alike featuring a POC lead.  Oh wow, true love.

shadow

The Cronus Chronicles: The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu

First in the The Cronus Chronicles this is the story of two cousins who save the world from a deranged demigod and discover that Greek gods are real.  There are adventures in the Underworld, angry Greek gods, and Prometheus too.  One thing great about this series is that the Olympians aren’t so kindly inclined to humankind – which changes the whole feel and pacing and gives our heroes new stakes and challenges. And, also, it’s written by the incomparable Anne Ursu so the prose and craft is beyond compare.

city fire

 City of Fire by Laurence Yep

FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND RIGHT – BUY THIS SERIES! This series is criminally under-rated and it deserves a huge audience. First in the City Trilogy this is the book that proves if you’re as talented as Laurence Yep there is literally nothing you can’t do.  THIS is the book that shows the lie of “well, you can’t mix genres or mythologies and you probably shouldn’t write about other cultures if you’re not a member of that culture and god make sure it’s not historical, kids hate that and, and, and…” because this series does all that and it does it well and it’s wonderful and engaging and exciting and original and OMG IS PELE IN THIS?  AND THE SILK ROAD?  AND POLAR BEARS?  AND MAGICAL ARTIFACTS? AND A DRAGON IN DISGUISE WHO IS A PINKERTON AGENT?! (hyperventilates).  It’s an alternate-historical fantasy with magic and myths colliding and combining in all kinds of exciting and interesting ways.  There’s a ragtag crew who come together to discover their strengths and save the world.  These books are not just unbelievably well-crafted and radically creative but also reader-pleasing-whizz-bang page turners.  On so many levels, they are a perfect fit for your Percy fans and a great gateway for them to all kinds of other titles. Get these books for your library!  You’ll love them and, more importantly, your readers will love them!

OLDIES BUT GOODIES

The Chronicles of Pridyan and The Arkadians by Lloyd Alexander

There is no writer who means more to me than Lloyd Alexander.  Many of his books are Percy read-alikes but surely the best fits are The Arkandians, his frothy Greek adventure involving the Oracle of Delphi and The Chronicles of Pyridan, which offer readers a glimpse at Welsh mythology.

The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer

I know,  you don’t want to think of this as an “oldie” but it came out seven years ago.  Set in 793 and using real historical events (Viking raids on Britain) these feature Jack, an 11 year old boy who discovers all the myths he’s grown up hearing are all true in this awesome trilogy featuring trolls, mermaids, elves, hobgoblins, dragons, and Norse gods and goddesses.

The Akhenaten Adventure by P.B. Kerr

A seven book series began in 2004, this  is about two twins who discover they’re actually descended from a long line of djinns with magical powers.  Throughout the series they learn about their powers and the responsibilities and tasks of djinns throughout history.  Their adventures take them through history and myth and everywhere from ancient Egypt to Bablyon.  This one is still popular at my library and Percy fans like the magical powers, the wacky adult mentors, and, of course, the myth and legend elements.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers

With their connection to Egypt and Ancient Egyptian mythology, the Theodosia series (four books) now has extra appeal for Riordan fans.  The first title was published five years ago (before author LaFevers broke into the YA world with the epic His Fair Assassin series) and this is a fun series set in 1906 and featuring Theodosia Throckmorton – who has a dry sense of humor to match Percy’s and his same sense of daring bravery.  There’s Egyptian curses and artifacts, dark magic and spells, and plenty of secret societies and big  battles between good and evil.

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff

For older, more sophisticated readers – Sutcliff is a treasure.  Of her many books, this is a standout.  It’s a evocative, powerful retelling of The Odyssey, perfect for readers who want a realistic look at Ancient Greece.  And baby, if you can get a reader hooked on Rosemary Sutcliff – they’re set!

SOURCE MATERIAL

Riordan’s next series will be a retelling of the Greek myths and that’s sure to be a hit but in the meantime, I’ve had plenty of kids ask me for the “real” myths and the “true” stories.  This is definitely a subject they don’t mind digging into it.  (Riordan’s incorporation of even obscure myths/mythological figures encourages this, really)  So, it’s always good to have some of these on hand, especially when they have cool new covers.

The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by Padraic Colum

One of the very first Newbery Honor books, this one focuses mainly on Jason and the Argonauts and dovetails perfectly with Percy’s adventures. The prose is a little GRAND but it was originally written for children, so it’s not as dense and obscure as other mythology titles.  It uses Jason as a frame story for lots of action and stories, which helps.

Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green

Green is one of the first scholars to retell these myths in accessible ways.  Here’s what you really need to know about this: buy the 2009 Puffin Classics edition of this.  It has an intro from Rick Riordan.  Tell the kids that these are some stories Rick Riordan loved/read when HE was a kid.  This book will circ.

The Goddess GirlsHeroes in Training by Joan Holub & Suzanne Williams

The gods/goddesses/characters from myth all attend middle school together.  Yes, really.   The Goddess Girls has 11 titles so far – with a super special – and more forthcoming.  Heroes in Training is four with more forthcoming. Both series are rarely, if ever, on our shelves.  I know, this might make the purists among you clutch your pearls, but kids love them. And the simpler text and glossy covers make these perfect for younger readers of the Percy series.

Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Christina Balit

A real treat for your visual learners, this lushly illustrated, oversized volume is another good intro to even the details of Greek myth. There’s a commitment to artistic style here that’s really engaging and an awesome connection to astronomy as well.  It’s simply gorgeous and perfect for Percy fans to sink right into and pour over and over and over and …

The Olympians by George O’Connor

I honestly don’t know if this graphic novel series is EVER on my shelves. There are five volumes so far (Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon with Aphrodite coming in December) and each one traces the exploits of the titular God.  The illustrations are top-notch, the stories are tightly paced but still full of detail.  This is a surefire hit for your graphic novel fans and even older readers will be pulled in by O’Connor’s design.

The Mighty 12: Superheroes of Greek Myth by Charles R. Smith, illustrated by P. Craig Russell

Perfect for even the youngest fans, this book features energetic poems about 12 Greek god, each accompanied by exciting, full color illustrations.  A quick read, of course, but an interesting way to approach it and good for kids looking for more visual engagement.

ANCIENT ADVENTURES & RETOLD TALES

These are stories that have elements of the Percy Jackson canon – either retold Greek legends or stories with similar action, adventure, and mood set in ancient times.  Retold tales are, of course, a staple of YA and Greek myth is no exception – so a lot of these stories might skew a little older, but that’s not all bad.  I’ve avoided many of the more romance-y/contemporary ones in favor of titles that might have a little more direct appeal to Percy fans.  You can match some of these with older readers – maybe even some that are looking for a gateway into YA.

King of Ithaka by Tracy Barnett

One of my favorite retellings, period.  This is the story of what it would be like to grow up as Odysseus’s son.  The outsider POV really lets you into the story of The Odyssey while also giving you a chance to see it in a totally new way.  Odysseus’s son, Telemachos, is a great character who is figuring out who HE is while living with the burden of myth and prophecy – just like Percy.

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline Cooney

A teen girl comes along for the ride when Helen runs off with Paris in this book that looks at the Trojan War and, of course, contains elements of The Iliad.  Again, I liked it because of the POV: the outsider/teen POV really works in making the story accessible.

The Stickman Odyssey by Christopher Ford

There are two volumes in this graphic novel series so far and I’ve already had to repurchase the first one because it was worn out from repeated use.  This is, as you might guess, a reinvented/retelling of The Odysessy using stickman figures.  Yes, it’s as silly as you imagine.  Yes, it doesn’t quite hew exactly to the original Homer.  But, boy, it is a hoot.  This one is sure to provoke giggles.

Snakehead by Ann Halam

A rip-roaring retelling of the myth of Perseus, Percy’s name sake and fellow demi-god, who is charged with cutting off Medusa’s head.  (and, as Riordan cleverly lets readers know, he’s the only hero to have a happy ending). Snakehead is quite good and I think it deserves a much a wider audience.  Perseus really develops/learns here as a character in the way he does in myth.  Andromeda is also a fully-realized character here, another big bonus.

Gods and Warriors by Michelle Paver

First in a new series from the super talented Paver, this book is set during the Bronze Age and has lots of Percy hallmarks like magical animals, sea adventures, powerful magical artifacts, and a boy and girl duo who bicker/banter and find a way to work together.  Love this one and can’t wait to see where this series goes.

Quicksilver and Quiver by Stephanie Spinner

I am guessing there are only two of these because they didn’t sell, which is a shame because they’re both great. Quicksilver is about Hermes and Quiver is about Atalanta. What I like about these is that they aren’t just retellings – they’re also explorations of the myths/Gods in specific situations and from their own perspectives.

MYTHICAL ACTION IN THE HERE & NOW

And now the books with perhaps the most in common with the Percy series: mythical adventures from all kinds of cultures that crash into the life and destiny of contemporary kids.   This genre is certainly where we’ve seen the most expansion in publishing and they are often the easiest sells to your kids looking for read-alikes.

Loki’s Wolves by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr

From YA writers Kelly Armstrong and Melissa Marr, this is the first in a series about a group of kids wh0 all know they are descended from Norse gods (Norse mythology is where it’s at!) but are surprised to discover Ragnarok is coming and they’ve been chosen to stop it, this is a really great Percy read-alike for the group dynamics, the wisecracking, and the end-of-the-world action intensity.

The Secret of the the Sirens by Julia Golding

First in The Companions Quartet, this volume follows Connie as she discovers that not only do mythical creatures exist but that there’s a secret society dedicated to bonding with them and protecting them: Society for the Protection of Mythical Creatures.  Better still, Connie is the only universal companion and she has a great destiny.  This is a well-loved series at my library and I too LOVE it: true middle grade, wonderful, subtle messaging about the importance of protecting and enjoying the natural world around us, and tons of cool mythical creatures and adventures. YES.

The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

A group of teens must save the world and their own lives by tracking down mystical artifacts contained in the seven wonders of the Ancient world.  This is not only from an already popular writer of The 39 Clues series but blurbed by Riordan, which makes it fly off my shelves with very little booktalking.  These circulate quite well at my library.

The Flame of Olympus by Kate O’Hearn

First in a trilogy, this British import is about a girl who discovers a Pegasus on the roof of her building and gets involved in the quest to return him to Olympus and save the the Gods. It’s blurbed by Rick Riordan, a surefire hit.

Middleworld by J&P Voelkel

In an adventure trilogy using Mayan and Central American myth and legend as the set-up, a teen boy must brave the Mayan world of the dead to save his parents and stop the Lords of the Dead from taking over our world.  This one has been popular with my Percy fans who want lots of action.

Now’s your turn! What Percy Jackson and Rick Riordan read-alikes have I missed?  What are some titles you recommend to your Percy fans?  What other types of titles in this (sub)genre would you like to see published?  How have you successfully interacted and booktalked with your Percy fans?

And if you liked this post/found it useful: what kind of read-alike or genre guides would you like to read next?

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MINECRAFT IRL @ Your Library!

Why did I decide to host this event?   Oh, if you work in a library and with children and teens you know why.  You know that, for them, Minecraft rules their imaginations.  At my library, the kids will play Minecraft for hours at a time.  They play it together, they watch each other play it, and they watch YouTube videos of other people playing it.  This summer we have had kids in the library who play it for literally hours on end, taking breaks only when they are kicked off the computer because someone else has reserved it … most likely to play Minecraft.  Then they sign up and wait their turn to do it again. And I’m guessing if your library has public Internet access, well, you have kids who do the same thing.

If you feel as clueless as I did (and still usually do) about Minecraft I suggest you start with the Minecraft Wiki.  Minecraft is a building game and, as one of my patron’s dads told me, “It has kid’s favorite two things – building stuff and breaking stuff.” It encourages creative play and creative thinking.  While the game is highly customizable  it also has a great shared universe that includes detailed terminology that weaves its fictional world together.  It’s the kind of game you can easily lose yourself in for hours.

For all these reasons, I knew that meant it was time for my library to host a Minecraft program! But I didn’t just want to have a program where the kids got together and played Minecraft.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but they were already doing that in the library every day on their own.  Why would I need to “host” that any more than I already was?

So, the goal of this program was to really expand the Minecraft community at our library outside the computer consoles. We wanted to avoid any gameplay.  Again, not because there’s anything wrong with gameplay but because that wasn’t the program we were creating.  Really, the goal was the same as for the other single day events: to make fans feel welcome in the library, to let them know this was a place that spoke their language and welcomed their enthusiasm.  It just so happened that these were fans of a computer game and not a book.  We’re still ready to be welcoming!

With that in mind, Melissa and I spent as much time as we could both trying to decipher the mysteries that are Minecraft and talking to all the kids and teens we knew who gamed it so we could create this event. (more about that shortly)

Here’s how Minecraft IRL happened.

15 minutes intro

Yes, we usually start our programs with a story and I’d loved to have done that here  … but there are no Minecraft books.  (PUBLISHERS MAKE SOME MONEY ALREADY!) so we decided the way to kick this program off was with some Minecraft videos.  This is actually a big part of the fandom – watching and creating videos about specific gameplay or pop culture parodies.  So this felt like a good entry point and a good way to get everyone thinking and coming together as a group (which is an important element of events like these!)

We projected them onto our big screen and everyone sat around and watched.  Melissa and I chose the videos after consulting with our student workers, talking to several 8-10 year olds, and YouTube searching for big hits.  Our biggest problem here was finding videos that had a wide appeal AND were appropriate for all ages as we knew the age range for this program would be all over the map.

Melissa ran this part of it and selected most of the videos, so here is her verdicts on what the kids thought:

  • Revenge– More kids had NOT see this one than had. They enjoyed it and laughed quite a bit.
  • Flying Machine Contest– most hadn’t seen this one. It was a good choice because it was music only and the kids could explain what was going on and talk about what they thought might be built next.
  • Don’t Mine at Night– they all knew this one and could sing along. But it was fun to see it as a group and on a big screen.
We could have added one or two more videos, especially a few more construction style, both for timing and because they were into this!  They enjoyed this and were properly engaged and enthralled – there was room for singing along and commentary about the construction.

30 minutes craft and activity

Since Minecraft is an 8-bit based that makes it, visually, PERFECT for papercrafting.  So, we went on the hunt for the right patterns.  This was, again, harder than it seemed.  (again, I guess no one wants to license things that could MAKE THEM MORE MONEY).  So Melissa and I searched site after site and changed up keywords and decided on certain characters we were committed to actually creating.  That part really helped – we needed narrow definitions.  We ended up with three characters so there would be some choice but we realistically knew they’d probably only get through one (if that).

Melissa is my craft expert, particularly when it comes to papercrafting, so I let her make the final decisions on which patterns would actually work.  Here’s the links to the three projects we chose with her notes on how she found them:

  • Steve – I enlarged it to 2 pages to make the cutting and folding easier.
  • Creeper
  • Ghast (I found these two  by doing Google image searches by character name and the word folding).
(We sent them off to our printing department and they came back printed on light cardstock which was really helpful.)
Yes, we were initially nervous that they wouldn’t be interested in the “crafty” part … but once they saw what the finished products looked like – like actual Minecraft characters they could hold in their hands IN REAL LIFE – they jumped right on it. We had made enough that the kids could take home one of each but we told them to concentrate on only one.  To keep them all together, we made use of the leftover file folders from the Ninjago program and they each got one of those for a take-home with their patterns and pieces. They went right to work cutting and were not at all intimidated by the scale of it all.  THEY WANTED THOSE CHARACTERS.
at work
Assembling (note gluestick) on her take home folder
all the pieces
(handful of all the pieces for the creeper)
table
(yes, of course that kid is wearing a WESLEY CRUSHERS t-shirt.  Naturally.)
more assemble

(they liked working together, even for an “independent” craft)

assembled creeper(an assembled creeper enjoying snacks)

But we didn’t let them linger on the paper-folding, though I think they would have been happy to.  No, we had to move them along to the other activity … the element hunt.

In Minecraft, you need elements to make the world happen.  Gathering and combining them  in the right recipes (which is called “crafting” in the game) is a huge part of gameplay and how you build your world.

After browsing complicated Pinterest parties about Minecraft, I decided  was going to simplify that and the other part of our event would be IRL crafting.  I decided on our elements, all elements needed in the game: gold, coal, cobblestone, diamonds, wood, and brick.  One of the activities kids love the best is the look and find scavenger hunt through out the library. This, I decided, was the perfect combination.  So we cut several hundred small squares of colored paper and hid them all through the library.  Kids were then tasked with collecting three of them to craft a real-life recipe for a real-life prize.  (a mini-candy bar in this case).

Using one of our tables, I created an actual crafting box.  It was as simple as using masking tape on a table.  They didn’t care, they got excited from the second they saw this, instantly recognizing it.

board(here’s an example of  some of the elements on the board.)

We also created a recipe board.  They not only had to collect three specific elements they had to combine them as they were shown on the recipe board.   In other words: even if they found three cobblestones it wouldn’t be enough to “make” a candy bar.  Again, this fits with actual gameplay in the game – you really do need the right amount of elements and you really must arrange them in the right order.  Here’s our recipe board.  I used images from the game of the elements – another thing they just went wild for.

recipe board(note the examples of Steve and the Creeper attached to the board.  They LOVED them and this was just the kind of “this is how it will look if you take the time to do it!” example)

dillon board(student worker Dillon with the board: note that Dillon has deliberately dressed like Steve.  Because those are the kind of student workers I have been lucky enough to hire, you see.)

And no, there was no real order to it – I just randomly combined them in ways I thought looked cool.  I did have to reuse some of the elements but that wasn’t a problem.

Naturally, they loved this.  They loved gathering the elements through the scavenger hunt part, they loved crafting the recipes as show on the board, and they loved getting the candy bars!

We had some extra time after the hunt (more about that in the lessons learned!) so we let them go back to working on their papercrafts, which they were happy to do. We rolled out the snacks at our usual time.

15 minutes of snack and wrap-up

This is an event we did themed snacks for. Again thanks to the skills and attention to detail of “people who have more time and money than any library ever will but who do have good ideas I can modify” on Pinterest, I came up with easy snacks.  They WERE a little more expensive, but it was worth it.

All of the food, of course, represented items in Minecraft.  There were pretzel rods as sticks, carrots, and two pieces of Hershey’s chocolate, wrapped in gold and silver, representing iron ingots and gold ingots. The kids squealed and called out in recognition as I showed them each food.  This food cost around $15.

They loved the themed snacks and they loved talking about the whole day and using all their arcane Minecraft slang on each other in a fever pitch of excitement about how they were all going to game together.  They all seemed intersted in another session and gave us suggestions for more videos to screen.   Many of them chose to stay after the hour was over so they could finish working on some of their papercraft or keep hunting for elements.

Mistakes Made & Lessons Learned

  • I was soooo totally off with the numbers on scavenger hunt.  My main mistake was not consulting a mathematician, man. (Especially since, you know, one of my best friends has a master’s degree in math and my boyfriend minored in it at MIT.) We hid HUNDREDS of squares (as I said) which I thought planned through for each kid to craft one candy … but I definitely lost the thread, so we didn’t have quite enough for them to play for two pieces of candy (this is tied to the no registration pros/cons I mentioned previous) but it also meant there were SO many squares (because I thought we’d need that many) that they were easy to find rather quickly and the kids didn’t care what they made, really, they just wanted to make something. So they whipped through this much more quickly than I’d planned and then I couldn’t really let them do it again, even though they loved it and definitely wanted to.
  • All the cutting and pasting was a little messy, so we were left with picking up lots of little bits of paper.  In an optimal world, I would have been able to have them all do it over tables/in a room I could sweep up in.  But space is what space is.  Still, something worth noting if you’re planning to do the papercrafting.
  • We should have put a more specific age limit on it.  It wasn’t a HUGE problem, but the younger kids (we had 6 & 7 year olds) needed a little more attention and help.  We should have listed something more specific about parents staying or about “must be ____ years old.” It might also have been good to have some SLIGHTLY simpler crafts so they could have some instant gratification.  But even the younger kids were happy to focus on making the characters because they were pretty darn cool.
  • Talking to kids about it was a requirement.  It not only helped us learn the terminology but it gave ides about certain things about the game they were really into.   This was another event that we couldn’t go into with no preparation – letting the kids get hands on in what we were going to watch was the best move we made, it saved us a lot of time.  It also let them know we actually want to know what THEY wanted to do and weren’t just going to have some “Anyway …. Minecraft?” event.
  • Making sure that we billed this as Minecraft IN REAL LIFE was really important because it gave us some clear parameters of what this event was going to be.  We didn’t feel the pressure of “but when are we going to play it!  Why don’t you have a server!  I want to play!”  and if we got push back about that, well, we pointed to the name: IN REAL LIFE, after all.  (again: not that there’s anything wrong with having a gameplay program and not that I wouldn’t LOVE to set up a library server, which I am interested in, but this just wasn’t that program.   Having THIS program allowed us to meet different goals and was helpful for building enthusiasm and goodwill while tapping into the trend without needing to have the dedicated tech resources to host a gameplay event.)

That’s how Minecraft IRL happened.  We had a great turn-out: 30 kids and 5 grown-ups in attendance.  We had a huge age range and the genders were pretty well-mixed, though boys did SLIGHTLY dominate.  We also got  HUGE program attendance from the 9-12 cohort, a group we were really trying to connect with.  It was a bigger hit than I ever anticipated – not only did the program actually come together but it made sense with the actual game, something Melissa and I both worried about since we’re not exactly Minecraft Experts.  Total staff needed for this one was a little lighter, with Melissa and I taking the adult staff roles while Jared and Dillon directed everyone and walked them through crafts.

Are the kids at your library obsessed with Minecraft?  How are you programming for it?  Do you think your patrons who love Minecraft, or any other computer game really, would be interested in a “real life” version of it?   Are there any questions or details about Minecraft IRL I didn’t answer or that you want more info about? Let’s talk about it all! (Comment here or talk with me on Twitter)

I was happy to see that one of our biggest daily Minecraft players, a kid who spends hours and hours playing, actually stopped playing Minecraft and, instead, participated in the event and had an amazing time.  Before he left, I saw him over by the crafting table I’d made.  I walked over to see what he was doing and found that he’d laid out parts of his snack on the board.  He was chuckling to himself.  “Look,” he told me, grinning.  “I made a gold shovel.”

gold shovel(note the Hershey’s gold ingot and the pretzel rod sticks)

And so he had. Everything that happened in that moment was just too perfect: the way he connected the two worlds and how he was actually trying to play the game in real life  to the way he was just plain enjoying the program and the fun we had been trying to create. Now that – that is a programming moment I’ll cherish long after this trend has passed.

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Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann: a review and a GIVEAWAY!

Quick: how many books have you read where the main character has autism or autism spectrum disorder?

Now: how many of those books were written by an author who openly speaks about their own autism spectrum disorder?

For me, I realized that while I could come up with a few titles answering the former question, I couldn’t think of one answering the latter.  Then I was lucky enough to read the essay Lyn Miller-Lachmann wrote for Young Adult Review Network (YARN) talking about the origins of her book Rogue and her own experiences having Asperger’s Syndrome.  This is an amazing piece that helps really personalize what it feels like to have Asperger’s and looks at Miller-Lachmann’s decision to write a book featuring a character that also has this disorder.

rogueThat character is the unforgettable Kiara Thorton-Delgado, an eighth grader with Asperger’s who yearns for people to understand her and genuinely tries to connect with them. Rogue opens with Kiara determined that her new next door neighbor Chad, unlike all the other new kids who quickly reject her, will become and remain her friend.  But Chad is from a seriously troubled home, so her focus on becoming part of his world leads to more complicated situations that she originally bet on.  But Kiara is convinced this is her chance to have a friend and to belong.  Now, however, she’ll have to figure out what “being a friend” actually means and if she really is prepared for it.

This sounds like a trite premise, I know, but Miller-Lachmann takes the story to a thousand interesting and new places because of her deep understanding of Kiara.  Here’s the thing: I have just described to you a universal premise, a familiar story.  But when the character in this familiar story has Asperger’s, suddenly we are hearing a voice we have never heard before and seeing things we have not seen before.  It does not make this story less universal; instead, it turns Kiara’s struggles, complete with her Asperger’s, into something universal.  There’s something both epic and accessible about this, something that can’t be discounted.  This is why good writing about disability matters, this is why diversity in our characters counts – when the writing is as good as Miller-Lachmann’s is here it reminds us (and helps younger readers see) that characters with disability are part of universal stories too.

Kiara’s universal story is the heart and soul of Rogue.  Rogue wasn’t just a book I genuinely loved and enthusiastically recommend for advanced middle grade readers it was also a book I felt like (and this part is really important to me) I’d never read before.  It felt new, fresh, and challenging.

I adore the way Kiara learns to shine using her own set of strengths and abilities.  Kiara is often toting around a camera and filming things: she uses this as a way to cope with her Asperger’s but also discovers it can be a way to share her vision with people.  Rogue is the story of how Kiara tries to fit in and, more than that, it’s the story of how she figures out what “fitting in” really means and is really worth.  I love this.  I love that this is a story about finding “your people” by finding yourself and I love that this is also a story about accepting that “fitting in” might not be possible for everyone, not just because of disability, but because of their own personalities and beliefs.  This is BIG THOUGHT stuff for middle grade, which as most of you know, is the exact thing I think middle grade should be tackling.

Now for a bit about the title: Rogue, of course, has multiple meanings.  One of the main ones, however, is Kiara’s love for the superhero Rogue, a member of the X-Men.  Rogue, of course, is the mutant who cannot touch people because she saps their powers with contact.  Kiara finds real resonance in Rogue’s literal inability to connect and another thing I love about this book is that Miller-Lachmann takes this seriously.  I LOVE books that treat fandom as an important and maybe even life-saving element of people’s existence.  Yes – that’s what it can be like.  Not nerds, not haha how socially inept, but the joy of finding connection and recognition in a fictional world … Miller-Lachmann completely nails how that’s special, how that can mean so much.  Kiara knows it, knows the way she feels about Rogue, knows what it means to see herself in her.

Though Kiara is an eighth grader, Rogue is definitely on the higher end of middle-grade and actually acts as a good bridge read to young adult fiction.  I highly recommend it for grades 6-9  and particularly for readers who are drawn to stories of outsiders.  There are some really intense topics covered in the book (Kiara’s fractured family and, especially, Chad’s familial situation) and Miller-Lachmann is honest and frank about Kiara’s anger and her struggles, complete with setbacks and outbursts.  Kiara isn’t always the most likable character and yet you, as a reader, are still drawn to her.  You want to know more about her story and, well, you’re rooting for her.  You feel the universality in Kiara’s story and yet you know her personally.  That’s what makes her story fly and that’s what makes her story stick.

Thanks to Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s awesome kindness, you have a chance to win an autographed copy of Rogue! All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by Tuesday, July 2 and I’ll choose a random winner.  If you don’t win, Rogue is on sale now. If you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they add it to their collection.

(NOTE: I reviewed this title from an ARC Lyn sent me and I volunteered to host this giveaway on my site because I loved it so much.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Lyn at ALA at a super-cool YALSA event for small publishers.  She was there promoting her amazing book Gringolandia, which is STILL on my Best Books for High School Readers list.  Talk about an original, daring, and insightful young adult titles – Gringolandia is all that and more. If you haven’t read it, go get it right now!)

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The Center of Everything by Linda Urban Tween Tuesday

center of everything“The hole is what lets it change.”

What a moment it is – the moment of recognition, the moment when you feel like someone has seen you.  For me, this moment of connection sends an almost physical jolt through me.  One of the things I loved the most about Linda Urban’s artfully crafted, painfully beautiful book The Center of Everything is how accurately it captures that moment of recognition and belonging. There is a moment when our main character, the unforgettable Ruby Pepperdine, is surrounded on both sides both physically and mentally by the love and support of two friends and you, as the reader, feel as embraced as Ruby.  You are able to stop and listen even as you are reading.  I felt that jolt of recognition in this text in this wonderful moment and, maybe even better, I felt a jolt of pleasure too.

Why I Love This Book

Craft.  Craft.  Craft.  Craft.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most well-crafted children’s novels I’ve ever read.  Yes, but what does that mean?  For me, that means that everything in The Center of Everything is deliberate; that great thought and careful work has gone into weaving the story together so that it forms a unified, powerful  narrative, a story where all the threads come together in a way that is subtle and moving on several levels at once.  Craft, to me, means that this is a story that moves you without pushing you.  Craft is the way this story uses circles, math, and physics as a narrative device about learning and healing and the way the story simultaneously uses the simple, physical shape of a doughnut – the shape of, you guessed it, a circle – to represent connection and unity.  Craft is the way none of this SHOUTS at the reader, the way, instead, it just all fits together, works together, and makes each other element richer and more resonant.  Craft is the structure of sentences, the use of point of view, both of which are stylistically advanced.  And craft is the very artful way Urban chooses to make the chapters short and move the action in them between the present and recent past, thus making the reader feel the sting of pain and the breathless yet hopeful confusion that Ruby herself feels.   This is a well-crafted story and it shows on every page.  Young readers might not pick up on every one of these subtleties but that’s part of the  beauty of this craft – young readers don’t have to analyze it, they’ll just enjoy it and be completely enchanted by it.

The Center of Everything is very much Ruby Pepperdine’s story: the story of how she is dealing with grief in the wake of her grandmother’s death, the story of how she is navigating new and old friendships, and the story of how she’s trying to figure out what she believes in and why.  BUT The Center of Everything is *also* the story of a place, a very specific place, a small-town in New Hampshire called Bunning.  Bunning is a place where everyone knows your name, where there are acapella groups, amateur stargazing groups, and yearly essay contests about the town’s founder for schoolchildren.  Bunning is the type of town where you can have friends for your whole life and things like parades are whole-town-wide shebangs. Because of all this, Bunning is as much as character in this story as Ruby and the lessons she learns about loving and understanding your place are essential to her healing AND her sense of identity.  I live in a place like Bunning, so this was ESPECIALLY special to me (“That’s my town,” I wanted to shout over and over,) but I think you could live anywhere and still connect to Bunning and recognize it as as a fundamental element of this story’s success.

The Center of Everything is on sale now.  If you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they buy a copy.  I think The Center of Everything skews a little bit younger than some middle-grade books (Ruby has just turned 12) but I think it still has lots of appeal to more sophisticated readers because it is so well-written.  It reminded me of Gary Schmidt’s work: thoughtful and really emotionally moving.  I highly recommend this for readers aged 9-12 and, particularly, the readers you have (oh, you know the ones) who hunger for books that are more – the readers who want books that will jolt them with moments of recognition.

The Center of Everything made me cry.  It also made my heart flutter with happiness as I saw all the pieces of it come together with such deliberate plotting and, yes, such love.  The Center of Everything is a lovely piece of art for many reasons but perhaps most of all because it’s a book about how the hole, the thing you think is missing, can be the thing that not just turns your life inside out but also shows you everything strong, good, and kind in your world.

And in you.

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Tween Tuesday: Doll Bones by Holly Black

dollbonesWhat’s the scariest thing you can think of?  A thing that is almost universally feared?  Spiders?  Clowns?  Public speaking?  What about … creepy dolls?  You know the kind, the kind that have heads that seem to sit uncomfortably on their cloth shoulders, the ones with porcelain arms and legs that bend in unnatural ways, the ones with too big smiles for their soft fabric faces, the ones with shiny eyes that blink slowly closed when you lay them down yet somehow still seem to be watching you?  Oooh, did you feel that little shudder?

Yup, that’s scary.  You know what’s scarier though?  What’s the scariest thing I can think of?  Middle school.

Many years ago during a high school assignment, my English class was given a piece of paper and told to draw pictures about our impressions of our life through four stages: before entering school, during elementary school, during middle school, and during high school.  We worked in solitude and then compared pictures.  Everyone had different drawings for before school and elementary school, though most of the “before school” pictures were just colors or flowers and hearts.  Our high school sections, naturally, had the most detail and even writing but they were all different too.  Only one thing was the same: our middle school sections.  Independently the whole class, from the most popular kids to the most nerdy, had colored their middle school section with black marks, scribbles, red Xs, scrawls and jumbles of the angriest, darkest, ugliest colors.  We laughed about it at the time but I never forgot that – for all of us middle school was a jumble of darkness, a scrawl of deep unhappiness.  All these years later this is still so revealing to me.

Is there a worse horror than middle school?  In Doll Bones, one of the most resonant and truly creepy middle grade novels I’ve ever read, Holly Black expertly uses the conventions of ghost stories and horror stories to argue that no, no there’s really nothing scarier than middle school.  Not even the ghost of a girl trapped in the body of a very, very creepy doll. But don’t get me wrong – that’s pretty scary too.  And thus so is Doll Bones, an ingenious and heartbreaking middle grade book about the powers of story and the pressures of growing up.

Doll Bones is the story of three friends, Zach, Alice, and Poppy.  They’ve grown up together playing “the game” – an elaborate make-believe game that uses their dolls and action figures to tell an extensive adventure story.  But now they’re in middle school, about to be teenagers, and Zach calls off the game.  It feels over … until Poppy tells Zach that the eerie, bone-china doll who ruled over the game as the Great Queen is really possessed by the ghost of a dead girl and the Poppy, Zach, and Alice must bring the game to an end with one last adventure: burying the Great Queen.   The three of them set off on a quest and an adventure that will change everything.

So, I think what you’ll hear about Doll Bones in reviews is that it’s scary and atmospheric.  That’s absolutely true, it’s creepy in the best way, the kind  you can’t shake, the kind that crawls up your skin and gives you gooseflesh.  I think you’ll also hear a lot about how Doll Bones is about the power of storytelling.  This is also absolutely true, it’s a narrative that, in the best ways, tells readers that imagination and play are important, can change your life, and have real value.

But what *I* want to tell you about Doll Bones isn’t just all that – it’s that this is a story about the rigid boxes of gender expectations our society tries to force us into and how the scariest part of adolescence can be trying to break out of those boxes.

You see, Zach doesn’t just call off the game – he calls of the game because his father throws away Zach’s players in the game.  His … well, his dolls.  Even though Zach is a popular basketball star, his father thinks he’s too old to be playing with dolls.  12 year old boys, after all, well they shouldn’t.  Without the dolls, the action figures, Zach can’t play.  And here’s a really nice touch: Zach is too ashamed to even admit this to his friends.  He’s been twice-shamed – for playing the game and caring deeply about it and for having to admit that his father thinks doing this makes him less.  And it’s more than just the dolls – it’s clear that what Zach’s father is also really talking about it PLAY.  The clear implication is that Zach, that boys, shouldn’t be playing make-believe and telling stories, which is exactly the kind of play and pastime encouraged by dolls and action figures.   That’s feminine which makes it weak and thus bad.  It’s these gender binaries and their associated societal punishments that will really grind your bones to dust and give you nightmares.  They are the scariest things of all.

I know!  This is some transgressive, brave, and quite frankly brilliant storytelling and plotting.

Doll Bones is an incredibly rich novel because of this and it’s also a lifeline to all the middle-schoolers, boys and girls, who are struggling with trying to fit into the boxes society creates for us about “girls do this” and “boys don’t this” and “this is the right way to talk to boys” and “this is the right way to be friends with girls.” Without ever being didactic and sentimental about it, Doll Bones says “It doesn’t have to be just one way.  It can be any way you want – it can be any story you want to tell.”

Doll Bones is out today!  You can purchase it from your favorite local indie bookseller or check out a copy from your library.  If your library doesn’t own a copy, suggest they purchase one.  Of course, it is highly recommended as first purchase for middle school and public libraries and is the perfect book to booktalk to 6-8 grades in the lead-up to summer reading!   Also, I hope this is going to be in serious Newbery discussions this year.  It’s so finely crafted it really deserves to be.

Doll Bones isn’t just one of my favorite novels of 2013 – it’s one of my favorite middle-grade novels ever.  It makes the most of the potential of this genre; the way middle grade should use this confusing and overwhelming time of life to tell a story that young readers who connect with will keep with them always.   Doll Bones is that kind of adventure and that kind of story.

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Middle Grade Fiction – my plots and schemes

Welcome to anyone reading this who attended the New Mexico Library Association’s pre-conference on middle grade literature and library services this past Wednesday as presented by me and Ellie Simons!  I hope you enjoyed yourself and learned at least a few new things to try in your library. Let me apologize for the technical difficulties during my presentation.  Thanks for sticking it out with me through that bump!

If you’re looking for the entire Powerpoint presentation I did (I had to skip a few slides!) You can find it on my Programs/Presentation page or use this direct link.  Ellie will be uploading her presentation to Slideshare when she returns to work on Monday and I’ll add it to the  entry on the Programs/Presentation page, so please check back.  Or, of course, you can email either of us to have us send you something directly!

I realize the technical glitches might have hindered note-taking, boo, so if you have any immediate questions about any titles I talked about (i.e. you remember the description but didn’t get to write the title/author down) please leave a comment on this post or send me and email and I’ll give you the title/author you had in mind.

Now here’s the exciting update for those of you that DIDN’T make it to the pre-conference but just happen to be reading my blog!

In my time preparing for this pre-conference (I did the literature review) I read or reviewed close to 100 middle grade titles.  Most importantly, at least to me, I categorized them as well.  From “Scary Stuff” to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid Readalikes” to “Magic Realism” (and many others!) I worked hard to make these reader’s advisory lists sorted by genre and theme because, in my experience, that’s the most reliable and common kind of reader’s advisory. (do you have funny books…do you have mysteries…do you have sad books?)

And I loved sharing this work with the pre-conference attendees!  But I want to do MORE with it.  So …

Starting this Monday (4/22) I am going to turn these reader’s advisory lists into entries on my blog as part of my Middle Grade Mondays.

I know there’s already an awesome round-up called Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays and I definitely plan to link up with them most times, but this is also just something I want to do for my own sake. Every Monday (well, OK, I’m going to shoot for every Monday!) I’ll post a new themed list of middle grade titles.  There won’t be full reviews of every book, but I’ll post a blurb and short review of every one, including a note about why I’ve made it part of  this particular list.  And, like I did at the pre-conference, I’ll also occasionally include some reflections about trends and themes in middle grade as a whole.  Now, the lists won’t be every single thing I presented at the pre-conference – there might be more and there might be a few less – but I want to use that work as a launching point for this project.

I fell in love with middle grade over the course of researching this pre-conference – I think it has amazing diversity, a wide breath of genre and talent, and so many new and exciting voices.  I want to celebrate, promote, and share that here.  I’m excited to get the fun started.  I hope you’ll read along, make suggestions and share your own middle grade favorites, and maybe even start posting on your blogs about middle grade!

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Kevin Emerson’s THE FELLOWSHIP FOR ALIEN DETECTION: a review, an author interview, and a GIVEAWAY!

fellowshipI love middle grade!  Boy, do I love middle grade!  This is one of the reasons I am so crazy about Walden Pond Press – they are an amazing middle grade imprint full of all sorts of interesting stuff written for the 8-14 year old range.  I was super-excited for the chance to work with Walden Pond on the blog tour for their new title The Fellowship for Alien Detection by Kevin Emerson.  (I’ll tell you all about why shortly…)

Fellowship for Alien Detection is the story of Haley and Dodger – two middle schoolers from different parts of the country who basically have nothing in common.  Well, there’s one thing – they’re both developing some very interesting theories about extraterrestrial life and how it all relates to the mysterious happenings in a small town in Arizona.  What Haley and Dodger are about to discover will change their lives and even, you guessed it, the fate of the world.

This is a truly delightful book and I am so excited to be the very first stop on the blog  tour. The tour is going to be full of bonus content, give-aways, and Q&A with Kevin Emerson, so you’ll want to follow it along every stop for the next twelve days.  If you click on the handy banner below you’ll be taken to Walden Pond’s blog tour site for the complete listing.

As part of the tour not only am I posting a short review BUT Kevin Emerson answered a few questions for me and I get to share them with you (and, y’all, these are some great answers.  Gave me a lot more insight into the book.  I LOVE when an author does that) AND Walden Pond is generously providing a copy for one lucky person!   Hooray!

Aliens!

4 Reasons I Love The Fellowship for Alien Detection SO HARD

1. SCIENCE FICTION!  We’ve had a real demand for this at my library, both with the teen crowd and the middle grade audience.  I think MG needs to catch up.  Overall, I think one of the things middle grade needs more of is genre fiction and this is a stand-out example.  It’s classic sci-fic (Aliens!  Science!  Other worlds! Awesome freaking spaceships!!) and classic middle grade: the discovery and sense of wonder about the wide world?  Those go together hand in hand, don’t you think?  Emerson knows they do and this book sure shows it.

2. Setting, setting, setting! I really think one of the things kids like the most about Rick Riordan’s work is the way the action takes place all over the country (and the world).  It doesn’t feel urban, it doesn’t feel rural – it feels like the world.  Fellowship has that too – there’s believable small towns and fancy suburbs, out West and back East.  Emerson is really good at establishing place and how it can shape who you are.  And you know what that means?  It means when the super-cool aliens and spaceships show up?  That feels like a totally believable setting too.

3. Action! Yup, this book is, as they say, “action-packed”.  But what I really enjoyed was that the action never felt forced.  I love that the word “detection” is part of the title because besides this being a very cool science-fiction story with aliens and spaceships and all it is ALSO a story with a lot of detection and solving going on thanks to our intrepid protagonists and that, naturally and in the best of ways, leads to some really clever, well-plotted, and whiz-bang action sequences that makes this book just fly.

4. Our amazing protagonists!  I have truly saved the best for last.  What REALLY makes Fellowship for Alien Detection great is the protagonists, Haley and Dodger.  They do not fall in love, they do not flirt with each other.  They push and pull at each other and become friends and learn from each other.  It’s AWESOME.  They make each other stronger and more interesting and, each in their own right, they are complicated characters who want things and learn things and mess up and even change.  Haley and Dodger are smart and independent and yet still obviously middle-schoolers.   You root for them and you empathize with them (I recognized a lot of myself in Haley, which made more sense when I read Kevin Emerson’s answers about characterization, but I really felt for Dodger).  They are characters I loved spending time with and I know middle-grade readers are going to as well.

I know, now you’re dying to read it.  As you should be.  BUT WAIT!  Here comes the most exciting part of the blog: Kevin Emerson’s interview, which involves awesome answers and a reference to Duane Barry.  Hang on!

Kevin Emerson Interview

I’m always interested in what draws writers to specific genres.  What’s the appeal of science-fiction for you as a writer and/or you as a reader?

 This is my first attempt at writing sci-fi but the genre was probably my first love as a reader. I love both the speculative nature of it, thinking about the possibilities of space travel and far off worlds, of time travel, and I also love the way that it allows you to pose big questions about the human condition, to wonder where we really fit in and what really matters. I like the serious versions, like Ender’s Game, but I also love the more absurdist visions, like Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut. With FELLOWSHIP, I tried to do a little of both. That’s actually one of my favorite things about writing middle grade: it’s a great age to pair funny and serious, big questions and small, like, ‘what is the point of life?’ with, ‘how am I going to NOT kill my brother right now?’

This book is also seriously influenced by 100 hours of X-Files episodes (There were more episodes than that, but we don’t talk about those). Haley is somewhat my Scully, and Dodger is somewhat my Mulder. Actually, Dodger is more my Duane Barry. And The Alto is Alex Krycek. Only like 5 people are going to get those references.  (I GOT THEM!  DUANE BERRY, OMG!)

Related, I love knowing how authors found themselves writing middle-grade fiction!  Did you know this was a genre?  How did you decide this was a middle-grade story you wanted to tell?

I learned about middle grade fiction as an elementary school teacher. My favorite students were fifth graders, and I fell in love with books for that age. Sharon Creech really made me want to write middle grade. Philip Pullman, too.

There were two original inspirations for this book. One was a cross-country road trip I took when moving from Boston to Seattle (via Graceland, Texas and Roswell). The second was a certain kind of student that I’ve run into a few times: the anxious, over-stressed, over-scheduled kid who seems too grown-up, too serious, and too exhausted for her age (sometimes they were boys, but more often girls). The kind of kid who was already thinking about the college applications and resumes even in middle school. Some of them had really motivated parents, but others had parents who would just shrug and say, “We tell her to chill, but she doesn’t.” I always worried about those students as much as I admired them, and that’s where Haley came from.

I knew it was a middle grade story from the start because I felt that a story about trying to find something alien and other-worldly was also a story about trying to get away from what was completely familiar and every day, like our families. From the first draft, I knew that the essential conflict of this story was that pull between being your own adventurer, and being a member of a family’s adventure (which usually seems much more boring). It something I always pushed and pulled against as a teen.

I actually had an editor who wanted to buy this story a few years ago, except he wanted me to take out the parents and age up the kids. I had to say no. Haley and Dodger on the road with their parents was the book. That, to me, is one of the essential middle grade conflicts. Also, I wanted to write a fun version of alien business that wasn’t too dark, and certainly didn’t have any steamy romance. (ick!)

One thing I loved about the book was that you included strong, interesting male and female leads.  Can you talk a little about the process and decision regarding that?

Haley and Dodger were born from different types of students that I have run into over the years. Haley, as described previously, and Dodger as the inward boy who feels all wrong in his body, in his life, but can’t find the key to balance. As a teacher, I always enjoy students like Haley, because they’re so smart and game. You can discuss really sophisticated topics and they’re so into it. And I always empathize with the boys like Dodger because I felt that way, at that age, (though I was a bit more outwardly successful than he is).

The thing you always want to tell the Haleys is, keep burning that fire and going for it, but also, relax. It’s a long journey. There’s plenty of time. But of course you sound like an old sod if you actually say that. And to the Dodgers, you just want to (gently) shake them and be like, man, just be you, on the outside, like you are on the inside. Be a quirky, interesting, messy painting in progress. It’s okay if it’s abstract art. Let the world know that you don’t know where you fit, and see what happens then. You might be surprised.

Both characters were really obvious to me from the get-go, though it did take me many drafts to really zero in on their journeys. Same for their families. Haley’s is supportive and moderately laid back, trying to meet their daughter halfway. Dodger’s is caring too, except they don’t know how to show it. I started the early drafts of this manuscript before I had kids of my own, but now that I have two (daughter, 7, and son, 2), I feel like the two dads in the book, Allan and Harry, each have pieces of me in them (Allan got the good parts, Harry less so).

I revised the plot logistics of this book so many times, but Haley, Dodger and their families, and Suza, have been the same kids all along.

This book has some really great location pieces!  How do you work to create believable settings – even if they involve aliens and spaceships? 

Most of the key sets in this book are real places I’ve been, or are closely based on real places. Even the caverns are heavily influenced by Carlsbad Caverns (which used to have its own scene in an early draft). I take a lot of pictures when I’m places, and I keep a journal, or at least notes on my phone about the important signs, smells, stuff like that. I love travel; it’s when my senses are at their peak. Part of what was really fun about this book was adding the weird and extra-terrestrial to these concrete places, taking that sense of possibility and making it come alive.

One of my favorite books in the world is a road atlas. I love to sit in the passenger seat and just study it. And those strange places you find, when you’re a week from home and just driving, disconnected from your inbox, places like Roswell or a forest road somewhere in Arizona, those are the places where life feels big and full of possibility, the places you remember years later even if the only thing you did there was eat at a Denny’s, or snap a photo of a series of rock spires while munching on a trail mix bar. So, the great fun of writing this book was to take a trip like that, and to find the big answers to the questions that new map always poses.

Thanks for letting me go on and on!

Kevin Emerson - Author Photo - Resized

 Kevin Emerson has never been abducted by aliens, at least not that he remembers. He has been to Roswell, but all he found there was a cool key chain. Kevin is the author of a number of books for young readers, including the Oliver Nocturne series, Carlos Is Gonna Get It, and The Lost Code, the first book in the Atlanteans series. Kevin is also a musician. His current project is the brainiac kids’ pop band the Board of Education. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children. You can visit him online at www.kevinemerson.net or tweet with him at @kcemerson.

 

Such big thanks to Kevin for the interview and everyone at Walden Pond for the opportunity to be part of this!  Don’t forget to stop by Walden Pond’s blog to get the full tour info. (So many chances to win!  so much more to find out about Fellowship!)  And if you want a chance to win Fellowship for Alien Detection from me?  All you have to do is be a US resident and leave a comment on this post by March 11. I’ll chose one winner at random.  And even if you don’t win, you should still read Fellowship for Alien Detection, – it’s an amazing middle grade title.  If you can’t rush out and buy your own copy, go check it out from your library and, if they don’t have a copy, request they purchase one.  Highly recommended all round!

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See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles

What, exactly, is the ever-elusive “middle-grade” novel?

Oh sure, that seems like an easy question, doesn’t it?  It’s a novel written for middle-school audiences.  But middle-school isn’t even the same everywhere.  In my community, middle-school is seventh and eighth grade only.  This is a great example of the larger question: where does “middle grade” fiction begin anyhow?  Where’s the bright-line?

Is it a book where the main characters are 12?  If they’re 13 is it automatically a young adult book?  Is it a book where the main characters are in middle school?  If they are still in fifth grade is automatically children’s fiction?

This, of course, ends us back up at the most basic question, the one that’s really at the heart of it all.  Why are we using “middle grade” anyhow?  Isn’t it basically either a young adult novel or children’s fiction?

Yes, these are the questions we librarians and teachers struggle with all the time, as we attempt to hold on to our readers crossing out of children’s fiction but not quite ready for the young adult world.

“We have something for you,” we want to shout to them as they drift away, “don’t go!   We have a whole genre of books not quite this one thing and not quite the other but they’re exactly perfect for you – just for you!”

To me, that’s what middle-grade should be, what middle-grade can be.  Middle-grade, the best middle-grade, should be a story that takes just the right parts of children’s fiction and young adult fiction and creates from them something that spans that gap – that reaches out to hungry readers looking for a story that is about the complications and challenges of their life as it changes.

To me, that’s why we keep promoting middle-grade, why we keep talking about it, why we keep asking for more and more of it.  Because when we find the right one, when we find a truly special one, that’s what it does.

See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles is that unicorn, that rarest of creatures: truly great middle-grade fiction.

What I Love About This Book 

See You At Harry’s is one of my favorite books of 2012.  It’s well-written, tightly constructed, and doesn’t waste a single word.  It sneaks up on you and hits you with an emotional wallop that you won’t soon forget.  It’s enormously moving without being maudlin and it’s deep while also still being accessible.  I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see this book come up in Newbery discussion, in fact, it will be a shame if it doesn’t.

Knowles’s command of craft is superb: she mixes the mundane and profound with grace and clarity.  This is a book where the way you feel about going to your first middle school dance and dealing with the embarrasment of your parents is treated with the same gravity and insight as the biggest tragedies and losses life can throw at you.  There’s something brave about that and, moreover, there’s something honest about it too.  That’s what life is actually like when you’re in middle school, when you’re figuring out the middle ground of who you were as a kid and who you are going to be as an adolescent and, even farther than that, who you’re going to be as an actual grown-up and how both those experiences (childhood, adolesence) shaped you.

 See You At Harry’s is a book unafraid to throw big concepts and big thoughts at middle-grade readers. If there is one thing I know about that elusive middle-grade novel it is THAT’S the most important element of all: middle-grade, maybe even more than young adult fiction, should contain the challenge, and the promise, of more.  It’s THE time, after all, for these readers to start wrestling with those concepts and for fiction to start tackling it in an honest way.  See You At Harry’s not only does that, it does that with an amazing amount of heart.  This is a book you feel in the deepest and truest sense: it’s a book that wrings out the reader’s own sorrows and losses while also reminding the reader of the deepest and truest loves in their lives.

See You At Harry’s is a story about Fern.  It’s a story about her family and her family’s business.  It’s a story about how embarrassing her father can be, how awkward it can be to be the daughter of someone who owns a well-known business in a smaller town.  It’s a story about Fran starting middle school, sorting out her new feelings for her close friend Ran and what that will mean for all her friendships.  It’s a story about all the aches and pains of being 12 and everything that goes along with that.

But, most of all, I think See You At Harry’s is a story about siblings.  It’s the story of how Fern aches along with her older brother Holden, who is bullied at school and trying to figure out his own changing life.  It’s the story of how Fern resents and is puzzled by how her older sister Sarah seems to be drifting away from the family as she gets older.  And it’s the story of Charlie, the youngest sibling, the surprise, a two year old who sticks his fingers up his nose, clings, whines, pesters, and is frequently dirty and sticky in that way only two year olds can be.  Charlie is a realistic child, a realistic toddler, in the way that so rarely exists in fiction written for older readers: he’s that  little kid readers will recognize as their younger sibling, cousin, neighbor, the toddler that 9-12 year old readers find themselves wanting to shout at as patience wears thin.  Knowles’ perfectly captures that believable frustration: the way Charlie wears Fern down simply by being Charlie, by being her younger brother who loves her so.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot because one of the pleasures of See You At Harry’s   is Knowles’ pacing.  Just like in real life things happen in See You At Harry’s that you can’t be prepared for.  I won’t ruin those surprises, because part of Knowles’ real gift in this work is the plotting.  It’s hard to stop reading See You At Harry’s because it feels to readers like real life, immediate and unpredictable.

See You At Harry’s is a work of astonishing grace, a heartbreaker and tear-jerker that’s also full of hope.  It’s a story about the resilience of love and the gifts of family and memory.  This book is highly recommended as a first purchase for public and school libraries.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

This is a perfect middle grade novel, a novel that bridges that gap, reminds us as librarians why fiction for this age group exists and what it can do better than any other.  Thoughtful readers, middle grade readers, will be immediately drawn to the realism, the emotional wallop, and the strong writing in See You At Harry’s.  It’s a story that will stay with you a long, long time.  And you’ll be grateful for the visit.

(reviewed from an ARC generously provided by the publisher.)
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“Movies really can make it better.” Dani Noir by Nova Ren Suma

Welcome to 2012!!  The blog lives!  Sorry for the absence – I just went through one of those periods when I couldn’t quite get a blog to come out the way I wanted.  I was still reading and tweeting away, but blog just wasn’t happening.  One of the things I love the most about my site is that I never feel pressure to write anything but what I want when I want.  If it’s not right, it’s not right.  I hope there’s still a few people around and reading though!  🙂  I do hope all of you will bear with me through these periods.  And you can follow me on twitter: @misskubelik, where you can always finding me throwing out opinions and reviews.  Anyhow, I’m back and ready to rock 2012 with lots of blogs I’ve had in mind:  reviews of all sorts of stuff I’ve loved, some programming info, basically just things to get me motivated and writing again.

I also have a few announcements!  I want to start by thanking everyone for entering my last two contests and let you know who the randomly selected winners were.  Jasmine, who blogs at A Room With Books, won the copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone generously provided by Little, Brown.  (have you read Daughter of Smoke and Bone yet??  What are you waiting on?!) and Jennifer won a copy of Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist.  YAY…and thanks to all for commenting and entering.  I like spreading the word about awesome books with people.  Share the good news forward, peeps!

Aaaand … I won something too!  I am super-excited to share that I won the Diversity in YA reading/blogging challenge.  Whooo!  The Diversity in YA challenge was a true challenge for me.  I learned a lot from having the chance to really reflect on what books can do and why they matter.  I was happy just to participate and grateful to Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo for hosting the challenge and consistently promoting Diversity in YA.  WINNING the challenge was even more amazing and exciting.  Thanks to all the publishers and authors for donating their books – the ones that my library doesn’t already own will go right on our shelves and the ones we have will find good homes, either with other librarians or my teen patrons.

Now onto the actual blog being alive part!

Movies can do that: make people forget everything that’s bad about their lives, and bad about the world, even make them ignore the fact that they’ve already run out of popcorn. All that matters is what’s on-screen, that world in black-and-white or bright color, the story that’s got its hold on you.  Movies really can make it better.

I read Nova Ren Suma’s middle grade masterpiece Dani Noir a few months ago, but only recently has the true resonance and loveliness of it hit me.  Dani Noir is lots of things.  It’s a story about a teenager dealing with pain and repercussions stemming from the messy breakup of her parents’ marriage.  It’s a story about that awkward summer when a friend has moved away, everything is changing, and you’re not quite sure what your life is going to be like.  It’s a story about a girl growing up and making mistakes and learning that you can survive your own mistakes, even when they are thoughtless and hurtful.  It’s all that.  And all that is lovely and smart and sharp and well-written.  But Dani Noir is something else too.

Dani Noir is a book about how loving art can not just enrich your life but make it easier too.  More than that though: Dani Noir is a book about being a fan, a book about how being a fan can be an important, productive identity in your life.

Now how cool is that?

Dani is a cinephile.  In fact, this is central to the plot of the novel and her character.  Dani loves film, particularly old films, particularly films starring Rita Hayworth, and particularly the genre of film noir.  (see title.)  During her confusing, lonely summer Dani will find comfort and solace in film.  She will see her story in film, though not always in the most positive way, and she will try to use film to make sense of her life.  This is what we cinephiles do, you see, this is what we look to the big screen for.  In this summer of growth and pain, Dani will come to understand that film, that art, can be a tether to what’s good in life and a way to find like-minded friends and conspirators, people who speak your language and want in on the conversation.

I can’t remember the last time I read a YA/MG novel that was so sharply accurate about the power of that connection.  Maybe, frankly, never.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: for an overwrought scene where someone shouts at Dani that “LIFE ISN’T LIKE THE MOVIES, WAKE UP ALREADY!” In this scene, the character would completely misunderstand what it means to take refuge in art, what it means to let movies take you into another world.  Dani would eventually come to see how wrong she was about everything, how real life is so much more satisfying than anything you could ever see on some old screen!  And yet that scene never came.  No, not at all.

In fact, the opposite happened.  Dani came to understand that her mistakes, her thoughtlessness and single-minded fixations, were her own.   Dani learned that life was not a film noir movie that she could act as director of regardless of anyone else’s feelings.  And yet she retained her love for film, her ability to see her life in it, her true kinship and connection with the medium. And that’s part of what makes Suma’s characterization of Dani so rich and true: here is a character who changes and grows, makes mistakes and pushes people away, yet retains her passions and interests, is the same character we met at the beginning but a more realized, more mature character at the end.

Even if I didn’t already love everything else about Dani Noir, from the unflinchingly honest way it looks at the emotional impact of divorce and remarriage to the feather-light but still consequential mystery at the core of Dani’s puzzle-solving, I would love this book for one simple reason.  Dani doesn’t have to “give up” film, because film is part of who Dani is.  In fact, Dani gets to share film with the people her world has now expanded to include.  She gets to try new films, new actresses, maybe even new genres.  This love opens her life up, helps her share her fandom and start conversations.  That is what it means to be a fan, the very best, most true parts of it.  Dani Noir and Nova Ren Suma get that and that makes this book truly unique and truly special.

Dani Noir is highly recommended for all middle-grade audiences, it’s particularly suited for middle grade readers who are looking for something truly different and worth their time. The novel takes place over the summer before Dani’s eighth grade year, but there’s definitely lots of early teen appeal here – ages 11-15 are the sweet spot for this book, especially if you know any curious, bright, passionate kids who are fans and fans-in-the-making.  You should buy a copy or go check it out from your local library today.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they add it.

Dani is so right: in those moments when you feel alone, on those days when you just need to escape, movies really can make it better.  And so can books as good as Dani Noir.

(Dani Noir will be re-released as Fade Out in June, 2012.  Personally, I’m not exactly crazy about the new title or cover but if it gets more people reading the book – hooray!)

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Diversify Your Reading challenge/Middle Grade Roundup

First things first! The Las Conchas fire is 50% contained and the evacuation has been lifted, meaning I’m back at home and the library is back to business as usual.   They lifted the evacuation two Saturdays ago and we re-opened with normal hours and programs on Tuesday the 5th.  It was a truly crazy and lovely time seeing patrons again and doing programs and even catching up on paperwork.  There are still spot-fires in the mountains so we have a good bit of smoke still, which sucks in the early morning.  But overall it’s so good to be back I barely notice!  Last week at our baby dance program I did Laurie Berkner’s Airplane Song which ends with “come sit down in your own hometown” and you know, I got a little choked up as I sang it to this group of 55 toddlers.   It felt profound.

So, I want to THANK ALL OF YOU SO MUCH – all of you who sent messages, who tweeted me, who let me know you were thinking of me, who read my blog about the situation – words cannot do justice to what it meant to me, how great it was to know there was a whole net of people out there concerned about what was happening here.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Now onto the fun stuff!

I’m super excited to be participating in the Summer 2011 Diversify Your Reading Challenge.  This challenge is part of the amazing Diversity in YA, a movement created by the awesome YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon to help encourage diversity (of all kinds!) in fiction for YA and children.

The challenge is easy.  YOU (yes, you) should be participating.   You don’t even need to be a blogger, the challenge is open to librarians who create displays highlighting diversity in their collections.   You could win an amazing collection of FIFTY THREE BOOKS!! Want to participate?  It’s super easy.  If you’re participating as a librarian, you just need to incorporate diversity into your summer reading program.  It can be through a booklist, a display, an event, anything highlighting for your patrons the awesome diversity of your collection.  If you’re a blogger, you just have to read diverse titles throughout the summer and then write a blog of at least 500 words about your experience.  The challenge is open through September 1, so start reading and creating today!  You can read more about it, including more details and suggestions for diverse titles, on the Diversity in YA blog (one of my favorite blogs!)  I’m so excited to be doing this challenge, I’ve already started my reading!  I love stretching and finding new titles and, even more,  I love encouraging more diversity in YA publishing with challenges like this.  The more people using these titles and talking about them and sharing them with patrons and highlighting them in their library the more evidence for publishers that diverse titles can be meaningful AND they can sell!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!  You can earn a chance to win FABULOUS PRIZES (eight ARCs!!!) just for blogging about this challenge and spreading the word.  All you have to do to enter is blog about the challenge and link back to the challenge page by July 31.

C’mon, it’s going to be great!  Who else is going to participate with me??

I was excited when I found out Malinda and Cindy had organized a summer diversity challenge (y’all are the best!)  but I was EVEN MORE EXCITED when I realized every single title in my middle grade round-up featured diverse characters!  It was simply meant to be.    So, with that in mind – here are three recent middle grade titles I read and truly loved.  All of these titles, different as they are from each other, are unique, powerful, well-written, hard-to-put down, and destined for success with your middle grade readers.

Where to even begin with The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang?!  This might be the perfect middle grade novel: it has a sharp, clear, original voice, the quintessential middle grade struggle to figure out who you are going to be as an adolescent, and the school and family situations that define a middle grade novel.  Let me particularly stress the family part.  Yes, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a “typical” middle grade novel about a girl who has problems with a mean popular girl at school, crushes on a boy she’s not sure likes her back, and worries about coming across as too nerdy.  But it’s so much more than that – because it’s also very much the story of Lucy accepting and embracing her cultural heritage as a Chinese-American girl.

Lucy thinks she has the perfect 6th grade year all planned out…until she realizes she has to share her room with Yi Po, her great aunt from China and she has to attend Chinese school on Saturdays.  Lucy, of course, resists, because she’s American, darn-it, and all that Chinese stuff isn’t for her.

There’s something genuinely moving about Lucy’s path to figuring out that being American doesn’t mean she can’t also speak Chinese and love Chinese noodles or that being good at basketball doesn’t mean she’s not Chinese.  Shang gets these messages across without being didactic (the worst!) but through a gradual and natural progression of events and realizations on Lucy’s part.  There are very few books that show multiculturalism as naturally as this one does and I think the key to success here is that this is a story of one girl realizing that “multiculturalism” isn’t some monolith or useless buzzword but is, instead, a way to fully express and describe everything that makes her strong and special and, well, great.

The book is full of likable characters, chief among them Yi Po, who is fierce and wise and there for Lucy in a way that changes everything for her.  I also loved Talent Chang, the good girl from Chinese school Lucy doesn’t want to be friends with.  The book has lots of Chinese phrases and words throughout the text, but Lucy is struggling with the language herself, so it’s not overwhelming.  This is a really great book, funny and well-paced, and full of things middle grade readers are looking for.  I serve a huge Asian population, so this book is a book I’ve long dreamed of, but even if you don’t, you should have The Great Wall of Lucy Wu on your library shelves because it’s a genuinely fantastic middle grade novel.  (my only complaint is I’d love to see an actual Asian face on the cover.  Maybe for the paperback??)

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney takes place in 1937, when America was in the middle of the depression and in love with a boxer by the name of Joe Louis.  Louis, the first African-American heavyweight champion, was an American sensation of the era. Bird in a Box is the story of three children, Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, who have one thing in common: they love Joe Louis.  By following his fights, the three become allies and eventually best friends as they learn to deal with the significant challenges in their respective lives.

What makes Bird in a Box work is how little I knew about boxing.  How’s that?  Bird in a Box works because I know very little about boxing but, like Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, I was hanging on every move and every word of the fight scenes.  Pinkney, using actual radio commentary from Louis’s fights, does a fantastic job showing just how much Louis and his fights meant to not just America, not just the African-American community, but to these three characters in particular.  As you read Bird in a Box, you’re not JUST cheering for Joe Louis or holding your breath wondering what the next punch is going to bring, you’re caring and investing that much in Otis, Willie, and Hibernia too.

This is top-notch historical fiction which uses the details of daily life in that era to really create a believable setting.  The way Pinkney uses the radio broadcast of Louis’s fights, even the way she establishes the radio as an essential part of daily life in the 1930s,  not only shows you what it means to the characters, but helps you feel what it must have been like to hear the world coming through your radio speakers.

This book skews to a little younger middle grade audience, but I think it’s going to be a huge hit with your fans of historical fiction or sports stories – Joe Louis and his dazzling fights are an essential part of the story.  Pinkney never makes the metaphor of “being knocked around by life” overly explicit, but it’s woven, skillfully into the story.  Otis, Willie, and Hibernia have had some hard knocks but they keep going – there’s something that’s inherently appealing about that in books for the middle grade audience and readers, I think, are going to be drawn to that.

Where to even begin with Karen Schwabach?!  The Storm Before Atlanta is her third historical fiction title and it, like the other two A Pickpocket’s Tale and The Hope Chest, is just simply marvelous.  There’s no other word to describe how skillfully, how richly, Schwabach crafts each novel.  The Hope Chest, which is the story of an eleven year old who joins her older sister on the frontline of the suffragette movement is, hands-down, one of my favorite historical novels of all time.  The Storm Before Atlanta doesn’t disappoint.

It tells the brutal, realistic, unblinking truth about war – as learned by 10 year old Jeremy, who runs away to die on the Union field of glory.  Of course, on his way to what he assumes will be his glorious demise, Jeremy not only has time to see what war is really like he also makes two friends: Dulcie, a runaway slave and Charlie, a Confederate soldier who doesn’t seem so darn hostile or out for blood.

Of course, you will have guessed that dying on a field of glory isn’t all that Jeremy thinks it might be, that war is hell, etc. etc.  What makes The Storm Before Atlanta so special is that Schwabach knows that even the youngest readers can grasp these obvious truths – she’s more interested in the truths behind those.   War is hell but so is slavery, the experiences of Dulcie make that perfectly clear.  What are wars fought about?  Is there such a thing as a worthy cause?  If there is, doesn’t that mean one side has to be only right and one side has to be only wrong?  If Confederates are the “bad guys” then can a Confederate solider still be a good person?  Now THOSE are  BIG questions, questions about who you are and what you believe  – they’re exactly the kind of questions that middle grade fiction should be asking.

The Storm Before Atlanta not only poses those questions to readers but does it in an exciting, well-crafted, vivid style.  As our characters approach Atlanta, there is plenty of action, bloodshed, and and adventure to go along with all the deep thoughts.  (this book does have intense and accurate descriptions of warfare and wartime medicine of the era, just so you’re prepared.)  This is a rich, rewarding, and totally absorbing read.  It’s highly recommend for all middle grade collections and is sure to be popular with readers who like action, historical fiction, and, yes, even for fans of war stories – because they’ll come away asking hard questions.

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