Thursday, April 21, 2016

Don't Touch

Volume Sixteen in the Books That Matter Series

Sixteen-year-old Caddie Finn is scared. She has just changed schools, having been accepted to an arts academy so she can study acting. She has been reunited with a former friend and her father has recently moved away. These might be some of her reasons for being worried but her true fear is that someone might touch her. Caddie fears that any skin contact might cause negative things to happen. Don't Touch explores the inner workings of a teenager dealing with OCD and anxiety.

Caddie is easy to relate to. Like all teenagers, she wants to find a place where she fits in, to have friends, and to be in love, but her fears are keeping her from all of these things. Author, Rachel M. Wilson, has created a believable character who readers will connect with. She uses Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, to parallel Caddie's own journey. As Caddie prepares to play Ophelia in the school play, she finds herself wondering what makes her similar and different from the character she is portraying. It also brings her closer to Peter, the guy she has a crush on, who is playing Hamlet. With her feelings intensifying for Peter but not wanting to be touched, Caddie finds it hard to keep control with her mantra, "Don't touch."


Ms. Wilson's author note at the end of the novel explains her own battle with OCD, answers questions readers may have, and offers important phone numbers and websites where people can go for help. Thank you, Rachel M. Wilson, for writing this novel and shining a spotlight on the struggles that come with OCD and anxiety. Don't Touch is a book that matters.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Leaving a Mark

Volume Fifteen in the Books That Matter Series

Just recently, I received the book, Leaving a Mark, by Nicole DeRosa Cannella and Dorian "D-Strong" Murray. For those of you who don't know, Dorian was eight years old, dreamed of becoming famous around the world, and had cancer. Dorian fought his battle for half his life, diagnosed at the age of four. Nicole DeRosa Cannella started writing this story after her sister was diagnosed with cancer but she teamed up with Dorian after she heard of him and his efforts to become famous. Sadly, Dorian passed away before Leaving a Mark was released but it certainly fits its title. It is a picture book that helps children who have cancer and their families, something Dorian did throughout his battle.

Tim Hodge captures the spirit, energy, and determination of young cancer patients in his vibrant illustrations. The story is age appropriate to even young children facing this fight. It covers the entire journey and shows the positives that may come out of it as well, like the friendships made along the way. Dorian's mom wrote the afterword and gives an important message to families facing this fight with their children. Dorian was only eight years old and he inspired so many with his courage, smile, and faith. Leaving a Mark continues his mission.

If you are looking for ways to help pediatric cancer patients and their families, this book lists several organizations where you can donate including: St. Jude Children's Hospital, Dana Farber Boston Children's Hospital (Jimmy Fund), and Hasbro Children's Hospital (The Tomorrow Fund).

Thank you Dorian, Nicole, and Tim for making this book to help others. And thank you to Dorian's family for sharing his story with the world. Leaving a Mark is a book that matters.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Always Remember

Volume Fourteen in the Books That Matter Series

Up until now, I have focused on middle grade and young adult novels for my books that matter series. Picture books, however, can be, and perhaps are, the most likely candidate for such an honor. If a picture book is good, it could shape a child's whole view on reading and help them become an adult who appreciates books. Picture books are simply books that matter. But the true treasure is to find a picture book that addresses a serious issue in an easy, light, and understandable way while still showing the depth and complexity of the issue. Always Remember by Cece Meng (illustrated by Jago) is just such a book.

Once again, this book found me at a time when I needed it. I didn't even know it was out there. I was browsing for some books and there it was: the only copy on the table. The illustration of the turtle on the front drew me in. I flipped to the book's description and didn't even finish reading it before I was at the register buying the book. The topic of this book was one that is hard for most people: grieving. When someone close passes away, it is a difficult thing to deal with. Everyone's grieving process is unique even if psychology tells us there is a pattern to it. And yet, worse than our own grief is how to explain loss to children. This book takes elegant ocean illustrations and simple, straight-forward, and beautiful words to tell the story of how the sea animals remember Old Turtle after his passing. It is a must have for parents, educators, writers, and illustrators. It masterfully shows children how to recall the times they have shared with someone while also showing them what kind of acts will be remembered.

At a time, when I needed it most, this book found me. Always Remember is a book that matters.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Maybe A Fox

Volume Thirteen in the Books That Matters Series

"What happens after you die?"
-Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee (authors of Maybe A Fox)

This is the question that sisters, Sylvie and Jules, ask themselves.

"Maybe you turn into wind.
Maybe you turn into stars.
Maybe you go to another world."
-Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee (authors of Maybe A Fox)

These are a few of the possible answers Sylvie and Jules come up with. And this is why Maybe A Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee is a book that matters.

With so many beliefs on what happens after someone dies, this middle grade book touches beautifully on where a spirit might go, especially if some unfinished business needs to be resolved before moving on.

Having faced some difficult losses, this is a book I needed to read. I have said it before but sometimes books have a way of finding a reader at exactly the appropriate time. While visiting a new local independent bookstore on Sunday afternoon, I found Maybe A Fox on the shelf. I had not heard anything about it (a strange occurrence for me). The cover drew me in with a beautiful image of a fox and subtle pictures in the words. I read the description and immediately decided to buy it. This book called to me, almost as if it knew I needed to find it. And I did need to find it.

Thank you, Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee, for writing this book and making it a book that matters.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Off the Page

Volume Twelve in the Books That Matter Series

"...she somehow is able to create a story that is exactly what the reader needs at the moment he or she is reading." -Oliver

Nothing sums up this book better than this bit of reflection from Oliver in Off the Page. Almost as if he is thinking about the two authors, Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer, and the way they mastered the art of speaking to a reader. It is for this reason that Off the Page is a book that matters.

Off the Page is the companion book to Between the Lines, the story of a teenage girl obsessed with a fairy tale only to realize the main character in the story is alive and wants out of his book. While Between the Lines deals with the predictability of being stuck in a story with a guaranteed happily ever after ending--even though it is not the one the main character wants, Off the Page deals with the realness of life and all the uncertainties that come with it.

I am a big fan of the television show, Once Upon A Time, so naturally I was drawn to Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer's book, Between the Lines--structured into three different sections that switched between the fairy tale story, Prince Oliver's story when the book was not being read from the point of view of the main character, and Delilah's story from the point of view of the reader in the outside world. I love the full page color illustrations that accompany each fairy tale section, reminding me of Henry's storybook in Once Upon A Time.

After reading Between the Lines, I moved to its companion book, Off the Page. I figured it would be hard to beat the first book but I was pleasantly surprised. The second book far exceeded my expectations. In an effort to not give too much away, Off the Page centers on what happens when life is not dictated by written words. There is so much freedom, so many choices, and so much to experience but as Oliver thinks: "There's a moment when you realize you have gotten everything you wish for. And right on its heels is the understanding that this means you have so much more to lose."

Just like in Once Upon A Time, and in so many fairy tales, there is a strong message of hope. With so much to lose, there has to be a reason to not stop in the face of fear. And of course, as one character reflects, that reason is: "hope." And yet, I think Oliver's reflection is so observant when he realizes: "...desperation and hope are twins, merely altered versions of each other."

In the real world, there is no guarantee for a happily ever after. Loss is at the heart of this story and it came to me at a time when I needed to read it. This story truly spoke to me, not the way in which Delilah experiences, but in the way Oliver reflects: "What one person takes away from a book might be different from what the next person takes away--almost as if the story is altered depending on who's reading, where, and when. Maybe all books are like that--a little different each time they are opened. The real question is who's doing the changing: the story, or the reader."

This book is not just for someone who likes fairy tales. It is for all authors, illustrators, and anyone who enjoys the creative process. As a writer, I often question my work. Is it good enough? Do I have something worth saying that is not already out there? And as I read Off the Page, I felt like the characters were speaking directly to me, answering these questions. People need books. And in the words of one character: "Everyone has a story." Thank you Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer, for writing this one. Off the Page is a book that matters.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sword and Verse

Volume Eleven in the Books That Matter Series

"This was all writing was, in the end: markings in the dust. It didn't do anything, couldn't change anything. They kept it a secret, made it seem powerful--and that had made me want it more. But it was nothing." -Raisa (from Sword and Verse by Kathy MacMillan)

Nothing could be further from the truth in Kathy MacMillan's Sword and Verse and that is why it is a book that matters. It took me a little while to get into it, but once I did, I couldn't believe the depths of which the author drew me into the story.

Raisa is an Arnath slave, turned Tutor, tasked with the job of one day teaching the future king's heir how to write. Unlike most slaves in Qilara, who are forbidden to learn how to read and write, Raisa is in an unique position. She is the child of the Learned Ones, a secret she must keep from everyone if she hopes to survive as a slave and Tutor.

In a time when so many Young Adult novels are about dystopian societies and revolutions, this book stands apart from the pack. It has the feeling of being set in ancient times, but there was also a strong sense of the Civil War era too. The aspects of the Resistance and the dystopian society make it current to what is already in the market but it also addresses the power of the written word and how taking that from people is a means of keeping them down. Because of this creative aspect, it spoke to me as a writer, an educator, and an avid reader. At times, I question if writing actually can make a difference, and then I look to my books that matter series, and I remind myself that it can and it does.

If you are looking for a good book that fits solidly in the Young Adult market while still being unique, then I highly recommend Sword and Verse by Kathy MacMillan. The power of words can make a difference. Not to mention, the ending is pure genius but you will have to read it to find out for yourself.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Year We Fell Apart

Volume Ten in the Books That Matter Series

"Tracing the infinity pendant on my necklace, I wonder where the invisible line is. The line that determines which parts of our past are still close enough to go back and fix, and which parts we have to live with forever."
- Harper Sloan (The Year We Fell Apart by Emily Martin)

Harper's summer has just begun and it is not looking any better than junior year. Rumors have been floating around about Harper and her indiscretions regarding "the pool incident" that happened in the spring. Her childhood best friend and ex-boyfriend, Declan, who she hasn't talked to since October, has just returned home from a year at boarding school, which he was sent to after his mother's death. And Harper's mom has just been diagnosed with cancer.

In The Year We Fell Apart, Harper has a lot to deal with. The death of Declan's mother was hard on her and now she is faced with her own mother's illness. In the beginning of the story, Harper reflects on the drunk driving accident that killed her best friend's mother by thinking: "But this is a world in which beautiful people die ugly deaths all the time." It is such a bleak thought but one that cannot be disputed because it does happen. Afraid to lose more people who are close to her, Harper copes by pushing people away and finding distractions to take her mind from the things that could hurt her most. Sadie, her supposed friend (and bad influence), gets Harper mixed into the party scene. Sadie is the type of person who, as she puts it, does not believe in giving "someone the power to break your heart" because "you won't see it happen when they do."  And Harper falls into that line of thinking as well. Between the booze and the guys, it is not helping Harper's reputation any. Because as Harper thinks: "We carry our past with us everywhere we go." And yet, it becomes clear to the reader early on that Harper feels like all of the rumors are well deserved, even if the reader cannot understand why at first.

Author, Emily Martin, does a superb job of getting the reader to believe all of the rumors, so much so, that even the reader might not believe Harper when she finally starts denying some things. Despite Harper's many flaws and her constant mistake of putting herself into bad situations, readers will root for her. She blames herself so much for everything that is going on that all she can do is hit the self-destruct button and fall into the trap of letting the rumors define who she is. The story is masterfully told and Emily Martin has some beautiful quotes that will stick with readers long after the book is closed.

Harper is a girl struggling to accept the things she cannot change while trying to decide if it is better to close herself off to those closest to her so she never has to feel the pain of loss again. She looks for distractions to keep her out of the house so she doesn't have to deal with her mother's illness, and the perfect image her parents are trying project. But the more she avoids her family and home, the more she is brought back into Declan's life, forcing her either to face the mistakes she has made with him or to run to Sadie for the distractions that caused them in the first place.

Having several friends and acquaintances who are battling cancer or coping with a family member who is going through the fight, I needed to read this book. With so many people going through this, it can feel like things are out of control for them, for their family, and for all those who care about them. But yet, they remain positive and continue to face each day with courage, hope, and strength. And Harper's thoughts stuck with me at one point when she is reflecting on her mother and thinks: "I mean, if she can manage to enjoy life despite having freaking cancer, then there's really no reason for me to wallow in my mistakes and let them dictate my whole future." After all, life is about the way you live, despite the obstacles you may face.