Monday, December 28, 2015

All the Bright Places

Volume Nine in the Books That Matter Series

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is powerful, moving, funny in spots, and heartbreaking in so many others. This story follows two high school seniors, Violet Markey and Theodore Finch. Violet is still grieving the loss of her older sister one year after the car accident that claimed her life. Theodore Finch has had a tough life with a family who barely acknowledges his existence and a father with violent mood swings. When Finch and Violet both meet atop of the school bell tower, rumors spread that Violet saves Finch from jumping. Used to being "the freak," Finch allows the rumors to spread and keeps Violet's secret. Then, a school assignment to explore their home state of Indiana pairs Violet and Finch together so they set off on a journey to discover all the bright places. This is the story of Violet and Finch -- one of grief, despair, mental illness, and how there can still be beauty in the world even after disaster. Reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye, this book is sure to withstand the test of time and become a modern classic.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Marvels

Volume Eight in the Books That Matter Series

Brian Selznick has done it again. I first heard of his new novel, The Marvels, when I had a chance to preview an advanced copy of it in May. However, I was only able to look at the opening pictures. Then, a few months later, I had the chance to hear Brian Selznick speak about his book. It was a wonderful experience. And I can say, the book, The Marvels, lives up to its name. From the gorgeous book design to the detailed pictures and the touching story that unfolds, The Marvels is certainly a book that matters.

The book opens with a series of pictures that start in 1766. When the text begins, it opens with Joseph who is looking for his uncle in 1990. The story offered mystery and intrigue as I tried to figure out how the pictures in the beginning of the book were going to connect to Joseph and his uncle. The connection far exceeded my expectations. And even though Joseph's story takes place twenty five years ago in a house that seems to live in the past, it still seems current and important for children to read today. Joseph's uncle is battling more than what meets the eye. And as the story often says: "You either see it or you don't."

Like its predecessors, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, The Marvels also shows the importance of family and home. It speaks to life and legacy and the impact people can have on another. It touches on the importance of stories and how they relate to truth.

So if you check out The Marvels, also be sure to read the afterword about the actual people and places that inspired the book.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib

Volume Seven in the Books That Matter Series

Up until now, I have focused on contemporary and realistic fiction as the focus for my Books That Matter Series. However, fantasy, mythology, and mystery can be just as powerful of a portal as novels set in a more realistic setting. This is the case for Adam Shaugnessy's THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB.

Upon reading the title, one might ask: "WHAT IS THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB?" It is the question printed on a card that eleven year old Prudence Potts has just received. On the reverse side is a message: "Be grave in your search and avoid having stones in your head." No one but Pru can see the card--except for a new boy, ABE, who moves into town after the cards arrive. As the story progresses, it soon becomes clear that in the small New England town of Middleton, nothing (and perhaps no one) is as it seems. There is a world of Norse mythology mingling with the town, a mystery is brewing, and it is up to Pru to plunge into an investigation.

But what really makes THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB part of my Books That Matters Series is the message behind it. Pru recently lost her father to a violent act. He was a detective and Pru is following in his footsteps by conducting investigations, including her latest Sasquatch debacle that landed her in detention with her least favorite teacher. Throughout the story, Pru must confront truths (and lies) she hasn't wanted to face. This story is just as much about grief and fear as it is about mysteries and Norse mythology. And yet, it remains playful, light, and humorous while also still addressing the seriousness of deeper issues. Often children's books turn dark and heavy to deal with such topics but Adam Shaughnessy shows readers, writers, and children that it does not have to be that way. He brings the topic to an appropriate level and deals with it in a way children would. Grief impacts children in a much different way than adults. THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB brings the topic to life with fantasy, mythology, and mystery--tapping into the wonderful imaginations that children so naturally have.

I met Adam seven years ago when we were both enrolled in the same picture book writing class. He hadn't written this novel yet but he was an educator who believed in bringing a world of play into classrooms and schools. Now, he has poured that belief into his book.  And to top it all off, Adam is a natural born storyteller who has a way with words. I highly recommend THE ENTIRELY TRUE STORY OF THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB to children, parents, educators, writers, and anyone who is looking for a good read.

Plus, it will answer the question that is now at the forefront of your mind: "WHAT IS THE UNBELIEVABLE FIB?"

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wonderstruck

Volume Six in the Books That Matter Series

For years, people have told me to read Wonderstruck. "If you read The Invention of Hugo Cabret--" which I have--"you'll love Wonderstruck," they said. So when I picked up the book this week, I had high expectations and it ended up exceeding them. I was used to Brian Selznik's set-up since I had also read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I wasn't prepared for how skillfully structured this book would be. Just like Hugo, the pencil drawings were beautiful and added so much to the story but Wonderstruck took it to a whole new level.

Wonderstruck is two stories in one. It opens in the 1970's with Ben, who has hearing in one ear -- his story is told in text. Then, it gives a glimpse into Rose's life from fifty years earlier. Rose is deaf -- her story is told in pictures. As the story progresses, readers learn how isolated Rose feels because she is deaf. I loved how the drawings started with a vast scene where Rose is pictured as a small entity among a much larger world and then the drawings that follow continue to zoom in to show just how alone and isolated she is, even among a bustling city of people. Ben, on the other hand, has hearing in one ear when the story opens. His journey in words balances well with the silence that comes across in Rose's pictures.

As readers learn the connection between Ben and Rose, despite the fifty year difference in their stories, the pictures start with a zoomed in scene of a connection and then each drawing moves out again to show the characters' places in the world. The contrast between the opening drawings and the ending drawings show just how much things have changed.

Wonderstruck left me in awe of the story arc that took place in the drawings. If I were just to read Ben's section, the story would make sense. If I were to follow just Rose's pictures, the story arc would still be clear to me. The two distinct but connected stories blended well and carried a beautiful message to readers. I urge you to check it out.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

See You At Harry's

Volume Five in the Books That Matter Series

Recently, I heard the author of this book, Jo Knowles, speak at an event. Her speech moved me to tears. I had read two of her books before: Jumping Off Swings and Pearl. But I was surprised to hear her work has been met with such harsh criticism. Because of her speech, I checked out one of her other books, See You At Harry's. Once again, Jo Knowles moved me to tears with her words. This book needs to be out there. It is so true to life. It should be available for a person who is dealing with grief, for someone who is gay and longs to see relatable characters in books, for people who need to know that love is not something that should be banned. This book impacted me greatly. See You At Harry's is a book that matters. And more importantly, Jo Knowles is a voice that matters.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Fish in a Tree

Volume Four in the Books That Matter Series


A wise person once said, "Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid." This message is at the heart of Lynda Mullaly Hunt's new book, Fish in A Tree.

Who doesn't remember sixth grade and all the trials and tribulations that came with it? For Ally Nickerson, sixth grade is intolerable because of her inability to read, but everything might change when Mr. Daniels becomes her new teacher.

Just like Ally, math was my strong area and I struggled with reading and spelling. I remember being in elementary school, sitting in a circle, where each student had to read one line in whatever story we were reading. I used to dread having to sit there, waiting for my turn. I would count the sentences to figure out which one I would be asked to read. I would practice it over and over in my head so I would be ready. I had no idea what the other students were reading to the class because I was focused on getting all the words right in my own sentence. And it would never fail, as the student next to me read the sentence I practiced, I would realize I counted wrong. My stomach would lurch and then it would be my turn and I would have to read in front of the class. And always, there was at least one challenging word in the new sentence, the one I hadn't practiced.

It didn't help that I was in the lowest reading group. They never told you that in school, but just as Jeff Kinney stated in a Diary of A Wimpy Kid, you could always figure it out based on the cover of your book. The title of my reading book was Bears. The other group had Balloons. Their cover showed hot air balloons floating high in the sky. I suppose you can guess what my cover had on it. Let's just say that bears hibernate in the winter. It didn't take a genius to figure out which group had the higher expectations and which one didn't.

Fortunately for me, however, my learning disability was caught in second grade by an observant teacher. Then in third grade, I had a teacher who saw past what I couldn't do and saw what I had the potential to achieve. She encouraged my love for writing. She was the first person to teach me about first drafts and not to worry about the spelling, which allowed me to use vocabulary that was much higher than my grade level because I didn't have to worry if the words were correct. She was the one who showed me how to make revisions to my story and correct the spelling at that point. She was also the one who promised to help me turn my work into a real book. Like Mr. Daniels (the new teacher who Ally encounters in Fish in A Tree), my teacher believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. And just like the scene in the book when Mr. Daniels is out of school one day, my teacher was out on the day I was supposed to read my story in front of the class for a critique. And after all these years, I could still relate to the way Ally felt that day when the substitute did things differently than the way Mr. Daniels would have done it.

My third grade teacher helped me discover that my writing could be more than just a hobby. I could turn my work into real books. With her help, the guidance of my other teachers who saw my potential along the way, and of course the support of my family, I decided to go into the field of education and inspire others the way my teachers did. I understood what it was like to struggle in school. I know what it is like to want to prove yourself, and not just to others. In fourth grade, a friend learned that I only had to complete half of the homework assignments. What she didn't know was that the shortened assignments would take me double or triple the time to complete. I remember how my friend questioned it and how it made me think twice about it as well. So I started completing the full assignments because I wanted to prove to myself (and no one else) that I could do everything everyone else could do.

I was surprised that after so many years that Fish in A Tree could take me back to my own struggles and triumphs from those early years of schooling. Ally Nickerson's character was accurate to my own feelings in school and Mr. Daniels was true to the teachers who inspired me.

Over the years, I struggled with questions about my own writing. I wondered if my stories were good enough, if I had something worth saying, if I was capable of even writing something people would want to read. I know these concerns are normal for writers but I also know these questions are something more for me. They come from that young student who used to practice sentences before having to read in front of the class. So when rejections come in, they hurt, as all rejections do, but they also take me back to the place that maybe I am just not good enough.

But as Lynda Mullaly Hunt says in her letter to readers, "Things will not always be easy; sometimes we do fail. But it isn't failing that makes you a failure. It 's staying down that does."

So with that in mind, I continue to write, revise, and submit. Because I am a writer, and just as my teacher said all those years ago, someday my stories will be turned into a real book.

If you know a student who is struggling in school, Fish in A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the book for them. It is not just for students either. Teachers and parents would benefit from reading this book as well. Thank you Lynda Mullaly Hunt for another moving book with a powerful message.