Kid Review, Middle Grade Review

MMGM Sixth Grader Review: THE CHANGELINGS by Christina Soontornvat

Yes, you read that right–I have another review of a Christina Soontornvat book this week. I’m going to just turn this completely over to my sixth grader today instead of quoting his review, but first, I’ll explain that we met Christina last year at OMG BookFest, and he picked up a signed copy of THE CHANGELINGS. He always has a row of about 20 new books waiting to be read because books are all he asks for at Christmas and his birthday, but he loves to go back and re-read books. So even though he reads 4-5 books a week, probably 3-4 of those are re-reads. Anyway, after reading A WISH IN THE DARK, he pulled out THE CHANGELINGS, and here is his review. Everything below the line is from him 😀.


I loved The Changelings. The Changelings is my favorite book I’ve read this month. Here is the preview…

The Changelings by Christina SoontornvatAll Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when a mysterious song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest…where she vanishes. A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side, she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. She’s been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it’s up to Izzy to bring her home.

But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing-and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offer to help, but she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl who looks like a ghost, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it’s too late.

That sounds exciting… Doesn’t it? Well it gets better. I couldn’t put it down. Izzy as a character is amazing. She starts out wanting/needing adventure more than anything else. But when her sister goes missing, well, that quote on the cover just about sums it up: “Everything seemed boring…until now.” It causes her to realize how much she can do to help as she mysteriously goes down a hole. Kind of like Alice in Wonderland, right? She grows to realize who she really is.

Another thing that I like about this book is the other characters she meets along the way. She meets a band of rebels, named Lug, Dree, and Selden. They each bring to the story in their own unique way. Lug provides comic relief to the fullest with his ability to make others laugh. Dree gives the story a skeptic so everyone doesn’t go off the rails and ruin what they are doing. She also is a very good friend once Izzy has her trust. Selden is more gruff and mysterious. He keeps everyone from killing themselves. He begins to become more trusting and open. Selden has the best character development of all of them.

And a final thing that I like is the setting. Faerie is magical. It is covered in huge forests, rivers, mountains, and overly large boneyards. (That last part scares me, we aren’t told why it’s there!) But the people are magical too. It’s not that they have magic (though some of them do), but there is almost every fairy creature imaginable. You name it, it’s there.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Changelings. After reading The Changelings, try the next one, In a Dark Land.

See spoilers below:

 

 

YOU ACTUALLY THINK I WAS GOING TO GIVE YOU SPOILERS!?!? NO WAY!!!!

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Sixth Grader Review: A WISH IN THE DARK by Christina Soontornvat

I’m back with another MMGM review by my sixth grader this week. On March 24, we spent much of the day enjoying the digital launch events for Christina Soontornvat’s A WISH IN THE DARK. She had everything from a sketch-off with Max Brallier (LAST KIDS ON EARTH series) to weird stuff in her house with Stuart Gibbs (SPY SCHOOL and other series). If you’re interested, you can still find those on her YouTube page here. Authors are finding a lot of great ways to connect with readers while everyone’s stuck at home!

I’m actually halfway through the book and really enjoying it myself, but since my son already finished it and he’s the target audience, I’m going to let him do this week’s review again. But first, here’s the cover and description.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina SoontornvatAll light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.

So now I’ll turn it over to my sixth grader.

I really liked how A WISH IN THE DARK displayed a fun, magical-ish world that’s nothing like anything we have here. But it has real people with real desires and it feels true.

It has some very good character development. The main character, Pong, was born in a prison, and the main leader there believes “Trees drop their fruit straight down” so children have to stay in the prison until they’re 13. Pong knew that was unfair and started out always protesting, but he developed into a more mature character. He learns how to focus on fixing the things he can.

There’s also the other main character, Nok, who is from one of the rich families. Her dad is the warden of the prison that Pong is in. She doesn’t see the unfairness of the rules because her family is wealthy and the rules were made by those families. So before Pong fully develops into his character, he escapes, and Nok starts trying to track him down. She goes from being kind of inflexible with the rules to realizing some things aren’t fair and that some families can’t do anything else. She realizes she needs to fight back too.

I really liked the setting. It happens in this world full of different lights and canals. It’s definitely different from the cities we have, but there’s also other places that are peaceful villages and temples up in the mountain. It’s a good mix of fun and peaceful, and the description is very good.

From what I’ve read so far, I second all of his points. The description is fantastic, and I’m really enjoying the characters. So definitely check this book out!

Since my son averages four to five books every week and has extra time on his hands at the moment, I’ll probably have another one of these for you next week–unless my fourth grader decides she wants in on it 😉.

Kid Review, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Sixth Grader Review: MY LIFE AS A POTATO by Arianne Costner

Hi everyone! With my kids home from school, I’ve invited them to participate in reviews. First up is my sixth grader with a review of MY LIFE AS A POTATO by Arianne Costner. This book just came out last week, and as I’m sure you can imagine, debuting during quarantine is quite challenging. We are excited to help spread the word about this awesome book!

First of all, Arianne sent out some amazing pre-order gifts, and last I heard, she still had some extras available due to canceled events. You can see details on her Instagram here. But here’s a picture of my son with the book and swag, followed by a description of the book.

Ben Hardy believes he’s cursed by potatoes. And now he’s moved to Idaho, where the school’s mascot is Steve the Spud! Yeah, this cannot be good.

After accidentally causing the mascot to sprain an ankle, Ben is sentenced to Spud duty for the final basketball games of the year. But if the other kids know he’s the Spud, his plans for popularity are doomed. Ben doesn’t want to let the team down, so he goes to great lengths to keep it a secret. No one will know it’s him under the potato suit . . . right?

And now I’m going to hand this review over to my sixth grader. He’s going to switch up the format from my usual five things, so here we go…

All right. MY LIFE AS A POTATO was an amazing book. I couldn’t put it down, and I finished it in a day. Ben is a seventh grader that moves to the school in Idaho. He makes you feel what it is like to be a new kid in a new school where things are different, even if you’ve never been a new kid before. Ben gives the story the feeling that it actually is real and influences the story in so many ways.

It made me laugh when he dressed as Steve the Spud, fell down, and rolled into the cheerleader pyramid, and all the cheerleaders screamed as they fell on top of him. That’s just one example of the funny stuff that happened in the book.

It was an always-be-yourself moral, but it was more about having good friends by your side who won’t care what you’re doing. It’s important to be yourself and if your friends are good, they’ll support you no matter what. I really liked that moral.

Arianne Costner really helped the story come to life by using description that made you feel like you were in the story.

I can’t wait to read this book myself! I’ll be bringing you more sixth grader reviews–and maybe a fourth grader review or two–while we’re at home. Thanks for stopping by!

Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MG Review: WINTERBORNE HOME FOR VENGEANCE AND VALOR by Ally Carter

I can’t believe it’s already March and I haven’t posted a single review this year! But it has been a very busy year. If you saw my other post with the mention of my best friend, she has moved to a rehab hospital, and there are further updates on the GoFundMe page started by her parents. She still has a long road ahead but is improving!

I didn’t quite get this review together in time to submit it for MMGM, but I still wanted to post it today. It’s no secret I love Ally Carter’s books, so when I discovered she was writing a middle grade book, I was super excited my kids would finally be able to read one of them. I took my son, who just turned 12, to her signing here in St. Louis on March 1. It was the first tour stop for WINTERBORNE HOME FOR VENGEANCE AND VALOR. My son was totally in this picture, but he doesn’t like having his picture posted, so I cropped him out, and he was the one holding the book :). But on to the review!

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally CarterApril didn’t mean to start the fire. She wasn’t the one who broke the vase. April didn’t ask to go live in a big, creepy mansion with a bunch of orphans who just don’t understand that April isn’t like them. After all, April’s mother is coming back for her someday very soon.

All April has to do is find the clues her mother left inside the massive mansion. But Winterborne House is hiding more than one secret, so April and her friends are going to have to work together to unravel the riddle of a missing heir, a creepy legend, and a mysterious key before the only home they’ve ever known is lost to them forever.

And here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – This book is described as Annie meets Batman, and it’s an absolutely perfect description. I was hooked on that alone.

2. The pacing – Here’s how quick a read this book is: We bought it on March 1, and both my son and I have finished it already. When we met Ally, she particularly asked if I’d let her know how he liked it (guessing she doesn’t have a lot of 12-year-old boy readers), and he loved it. As soon as he was finished, he handed it to me and asked me to read so we could talk about it after. We’re both now anxious for the next one :).

3. Gabriel Winterborne – So, I haven’t been on Twitter a lot the last few months, but some of the other Ally Carter fans in the audience had, and I guess Ally had already prepped them with her love for Gabriel. Honestly, my son was a bit uncomfortable with that part of the book discussion ;). Basically, Gabriel has been presumed dead for 10 years and is hiding out for reasons you discover during the course of the story. He’s broody and tough but also cares a lot more than he wants the kids to know. I totally got his appeal :).

4. The kids – I loved this group of kids who became April’s family as she got to know them. From Sadie the inventor to Tim the protector and Colin the grifter, they were all great additions to the team and her family. Oh, and we can’t forget sweet Violet the artist.

5. The mystery – Quite a bit was wrapped up in this book, but there was a mystery from the very beginning that never was solved, and I loved how the very end of the book left more than one point open. I’m definitely ready to read more!

I love that Ally Carter has branched into middle grade. I’m sure this is going to be passed on to my daughter as well before long. Looking forward to the next one!

Reading

My Favorite Reads of 2019

My reading was back up this year. I finished 101 books, with a good mix of young adult, middle grade, and adult. I’ll include the breakdown at the bottom of the post. But on to the fun part–my ten favorite reads of 2019! They’re listed in alphabetical order by author.

In Some Other Life by Jessica BrodyIN SOME OTHER LIFE by Jessica Brody – This book is from a couple of years ago, but I just got to it in 2019. I love books that consider the question of what your life would be like if you’d made a different choice. This particular story follows Kennedy as she discovers what her life would have been like if she’d gone to a prestigious private school instead of staying at the public school. That decision has ramifications for many people in her life, and I loved seeing it play out.


Finale by Stephanie GarberFINALE by Stephanie Garber – The first book in this series, CARAVAL, was one of my favorite reads of 2017, and the finale (😉) makes it on the list for 2019. I was fortunate enough to meet Stephanie Garber when she came through town, and since I was the last person in the signing line, I started reading. The book kept me completely gripped and up late reading, not completely sure how it would all turn out. It’s the best kind of anticipation.


Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay KristoffILLUMINAE by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – I don’t know why I hadn’t read this book before. It’s one of those that I’d seen everyone talk about and I just hadn’t gotten to. Now that I have, I totally get why it’s so popular. I read this book in less than 24 hours. I loved the unique dossier format. I loved the characters. I loved how the stakes just kept getting higher and twisting in new directions. I haven’t had a chance to get to the other two books in the series yet due to general life craziness, but they are very high on my list for 2020!!


Midsummer's Mayhem by Rajani LaRoccaMIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM by Rajani LaRocca – 2019 has been an exciting year for my fellow 2017 PitchWars mentees. It’s been fun to watch books that were in the contest out in the world. With its premise of baking meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM was one of the PitchWars books I was most looking forward to, and Rajani totally delivered. I loved how well the plot of the Shakespeare play was incorporated into the modern world and seamlessly explained for a middle grade audience. And the baking throughout the story just made my mouth water. I can’t wait for Rajani’s next book!


Crown of Coral and Pearl by Mara RutherfordCROWN OF CORAL AND PEARL by Mara Rutherford – I’d been anxious to read this book since I first read the description. Nor and her identical twin sister, Zadie, live on the floating village of Varenia. Every generation, the most beautiful girl is chosen to go marry the crown prince of Ilara and move to land. Zadie is chosen, but when she’s injured, Nor goes in her place. I do love a good twin story! This book was completely engrossing from the first page, and the stakes kept changing and getting higher. I really loved how it was almost like two stories—the first half a story of sisters and the second full of intrigue on land with danger and romance. Nor is a strong female character I was rooting for throughout the story, and while the love story was great too, it didn’t take over from her main goal, which is protecting her home. I can’t wait to see what happens in the sequel!


Scars Like Wings by Erin StewartSCARS LIKE WINGS by Erin Stewart – So I’m that reader who will generally shy away from a book if I think it will make me cry, and I was afraid that would be the case with SCARS LIKE WINGS, but it surprised me in the best possible way. It’s about burn survivor Ava, who lost her parents and was severely burned in a house fire. Now she’s going back to school. The very first line set the tone for the book: “One year after the fire, my doctor removes my mask and tells me to get a life.” I could tell from that opening that there would be more than just sorrow in the story, and I’m so glad I read this book. It’s hard at times, but even so it’s one I’d read again.


Across a Broken Shore by Amy TruebloodACROSS A BROKEN SHORE by Amy Trueblood – With her second book, Amy once again delivers a well-researched historical novel with a strong young female character who stands up for herself believably within her time. The story follows Willa, whose family expects her to be a nun, but who feels called to a career in medicine. It’s set against the backdrop of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1936. I love how well Amy portrays Willa’s family and her struggle to meet family obligations while also staying true to herself. Amy is a wonderful friend to the writing community and to me personally. If you haven’t already read this book, add it for 2020!


The Multiplying Mysteries of Mount Ten by Krista Van DolzerTHE MULTIPLYING MYSTERIES OF MOUNT TEN by Krista Van Dolzer – I love how Krista captures the middle grade voice so well, and this book was extra-fun thanks to being set in the unique location of a math camp. I was privileged to read an early copy, and she let me work out the logic problem included ahead of time. Yes, I was a total math geek in school and you might have even found me on the math team in junior high :). But definitely check out this book. I mean, if nothing else, the cover should sell you on it.


Fame, Fate and the First Kiss by Kasie WestFAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS by Kasie West – Somehow I didn’t have a Kasie West book on my list of favorites last year after her being on my list for several years in a row, but this year she’s back on there with FAME, FATE, AND THE FIRST KISS. I loved that the frame of the book was the character making a campy zombie movie based on a book series. As usual, the dialogue and romance were top-notch, as well as the supporting cast of family and friends. I know I’m behind on one of Kasie West’s 2019 releases, so maybe that one will end up on my 2020 list.


White Rose by Kip WilsonWHITE ROSE by Kip Wilson – Kip is my longtime critique partner and I’ve already shouted about this book quite a bit this year, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it makes my list of favorite reads. From the moment Kip first told me about WHITE ROSE when we were sitting in a hotel room at NESCBWI in 2016, I was immediately gripped. The story of Sophie Scholl, a young German college student who challenged the Nazi regime during World War II as part of The White Rose, a non-violent resistance group, it’s compelling, heartbreaking, and moving. It’s beautifully told in verse, and as a result it ends up being a pretty quick read, yet you’ll want to go back and read it more slowly to absorb it all over again. Others evidently agree, as it’s been named a School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019.


So those are my ten favorite reads this year. Of the 101 books I read, here is the breakout:

Young adult: 63

Middle grade: 10

Adult: 25

Non-fiction: 3

The high number of adult books is due to me continuing to weed out books from my shelves. Found quite a few this year I won’t be keeping to make room for more YA :).

Do we have any of the same favorites this year? Let me know in the comments!

Instagram, Middle Grade Review, Reviews, Young Adult

THE GIRL WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE and A Few Other Books You Should Read

It’s time for another roundup of my Instagram mini-reviews! I have a feeling my reviews are going to be trending this way more over the next year and a half as I approach publication, but I will still do some full reviews as I have time. If you’d like to follow me on Instagram, you can find me at www.instagram.com/michelleimason. Here we go!

I picked up THE GIRL WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE by April Henry at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale in December and finally got to it last week (I am sooo behind on my TBR pile I may not go to the sale this year). This book was a super-quick read, and it kept me guessing throughout, which is the perfect sort of suspense. The premise is that a girl wakes up in a cabin to hear one man tell another to finish her off. She has no memory of how she got there or who she is. The journey to figure all of that out is full of twists and turns that had me finishing the book in a day.


I kept seeing people post about AURORA RISING by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, and while I’ve never read THE ILLUMINAE FILES (don’t worry, it’s on my TBR now), I was intrigued. I’m so glad I picked this book up! It reminded me of Star Wars (thus the costumes in the background), with its ragtag crew blasting through space. Basically, the night before he gets to choose his crew after graduation, star pupil Tyler goes out on his own and ends up rescuing Aurora, who’s been in a cryo chamber for 200 years. As a result, he ends up with the crew nobody wanted, and a crazy mission ensues involving Aurora and the mystery surrounding her.

I loved the adventure. I loved the romantic tension with multiple couples. I loved the snappy banter. I loved the unexpected twists. So, yes, I’ll be going back to read the other series by this author duo, and I can’t wait for the next book in this series.


Halfway through PIE IN THE SKY by Remy Lai I was ready to pull out my baking supplies and start mixing cakes. Specifically, I wanted to bake both the Nutella cream cake and triple cookie cake the brothers make in the book. Also, check out the amazing illustrations!

But another thing I love about this book is the discussion I had with my son after *he* finished it—because he totally ran off and read it before me. There are many great themes in PIE IN THE SKY. It’s about a family that immigrates to Australia, and the older brother, Jingwen, really struggles learning English. He compares his experience to living on Mars, and baking the cakes helps him cope, even though it requires lying to their mom, who has forbidden them to bake while home alone. My son and I discussed the brothers’ decision to keep the cake-baking from their mom, as well as how Jingwen classifies different types of lies in the book. It’s a poignant story about dealing with grief but also includes humor and well-developed family dynamics.


Why, you might wonder, have I placed the book ROMANOV by Nadine Brandes among a tower of Dr. Pepper cans? Because Dr. Pepper is my comfort drink, and the truth is, this book is amazing, but I needed some comfort while I was reading. I love Anastasia retellings, but this book is nothing like the cartoon or even the Broadway musical, where the execution of the Romanov family takes place in the past. The first half of the book is dedicated to Nastya and her family’s captivity, leading up to the execution, and it’s hard to read, especially because it’s not just a fantasy. While ROMANOV is a work of fiction, it’s based on history, and if you read the accounts of what happened to the Romanov family (as I did to prepare myself), it’s truly horrific. Thus the Dr. Pepper.

That being said, ROMANOV is beautifully written, and I loved how Nadine Brandes wove magic, faith, and forgiveness into the story. As with any time I read historical fiction, it made me examine a time in history more closely. It made me think and discuss and grieve. Definitely worth the read!


I’m always up for a great contemporary YA, and JUST FOR CLICKS by Kara McDowell lived up to my hopes for a quick, fun read with some unexpected twists thrown in. The premise is that twins Claire and Poppy are social media stars thanks to their mom’s viral blog. Now they have to decide whether they want to continue in the spotlight. Throw in a new guy who’s lived off the grid and doesn’t know about the blog, a manufactured relationship, hidden family secrets, and all sorts of hijinks ensue. Family drama plus an adorable romance made this a great read for me.


Have you read any of these? What else have you been reading lately that I should check out?

Interviews, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Interview & Giveaway: MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM by Rajani LaRocca

When I first read the description for Rajani LaRocca’s MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM during PitchWars in 2017, I was immediately intrigued–and so were an agent and editor. I mean, baking + Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; what’s not to love? The book released last month, and I picked it up right away, devouring it in a couple of days (yes, total food pun). Rajani graciously agreed to an interview here and has also offered up a copy of the book for one lucky winner (details at the bottom). But first, for those of you who haven’t heard about the book yet, here is the gorgeous cover and description.

Eleven-year-old Mimi dreams of winning a baking competition judged by her celebrity chef idol. But she loses her best helper when her food writer father returns from a business trip mysteriously unable to distinguish between delicious and disgusting. Mimi follows strangely familiar music into the woods behind her house, meets a golden-eyed boy, and bakes with him using exotic ingredients they find in the woods. Then everyone around her suddenly starts acting loopy.

Squabbling sisters, rhyming waitresses, and culinary saboteurs mix up a recipe for mayhem in this Indian-American mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking.

Here are Rajani’s answers to questions about the five things I loved most.

1. I love how you wove Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (my favorite of his plays!) into MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, particularly how Mimi’s older brother was starring in the play so that explaining it to the reader was so seamless. When you first conceived the idea of mixing Shakespeare and baking, was it clear to you that incorporating the play within the story was the way to go, or did you have to work to get to this solution?

I figured that most young readers (and many adult readers!) wouldn’t be familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so I knew I’d have to explain the story in order to set the stage properly, so to speak. When I first conceived of my book, I knew that Mimi’s older brother would acting be in a production of the play and that Mimi would learn about it through him. The challenge for me was to keep the references relatively short and interesting while still giving readers a taste of Shakespeare’s humor and beautiful language, and to allow Mimi to learn about the most important components of the play at different times. One of my favorite scenes in MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM involves two characters hurling Shakespearean insults at each other; it was so much fun to write!

2. I also love Mimi’s family and how you implemented the story lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the love lives of her siblings—although my favorite was probably Henry and how technology played a part in his, er, love story. Shakespeare would have loved it :). How did you go about modernizing Shakespeare for a middle grade audience?

One of the most appealing aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is how he captured universal emotions. The conflicts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—between friends (two of whom are as close as sisters), between parent and child, and between men and women—are echoed in MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, as is the idea of magic unintentionally gone awry. But my book, while it is inspired by Shakespeare’s play, isn’t a straight retelling. I envisioned MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM as more of what might happen after Shakespeare’s play was over. I wondered how the fairies would act now, and how they’d seem to a modern-day girl. That’s how I brought Shakespeare’s story into our world and made it relevant to kids today.

3. I’ve read a lot of books that include baking, but Mimi’s approach was  completely unique, with the use of herbs and spices you don’t usually think about for pastries. What was your inspiration for her creations?

I love using herbs and spices in cooking, and as I’ve become a more confident baker over the years, I’ve tried to introduce the same types of adventurous flavors into my baking, too. Like Mimi, my ultimate inspiration was to take other desserts, including some favorites from my own childhood, and turn them into baked treats.

4. I loved the two main friendship story lines–and I don’t want to spoil either of them–but it would be great if you could speak a little to how you approached writing realistic friendships for this age, when it’s often hard to find confidence in your friendships.

Middle grade readers are in that in between space where they are still really connected to their families, but they are also growing more independent and navigating friendships without the help of their parents. They are figuring out who they are and what they believe in and making their own decisions about right and wrong, but they are still at the mercy of the adults in their lives, and they often have no say in those adult decisions. In writing this story, I went back to how it felt as a kid to have a best friend, lose that friend, and go about the painful business of finding your way forward. There’s also a tension between being vulnerable to new friends and holding back out of fear of getting close to someone who might hurt you—and I also tried to portray that in MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM.

5. I loved the portrayal of Mimi’s family and how she felt a bit lost within their success and yet during the book she was finding her place with her siblings, and it was clear they loved her. What tips do you have on writing strong and nuanced family relationships?

I knew from the beginning that Mimi’s family was a happy family with a lot of love, so I started with that foundation. I also know that there is competition, misunderstanding, and strife in even the happiest relationships. I played that up as much as I could, with the parents and the older siblings being so preoccupied with their own pursuits that it was easy for Mimi to feel a bit forgotten, and to be the only one who notices that there is something really wrong with her dad.

Thank you so much, Rajani!

Definitely go pick this book up. Not only did I love the book, but my 11-year-old son read it within 24 hours, even choosing it over watching a movie. If that isn’t a glowing recommendation, I’m not sure what is :).

Rajani is also offering a copy of the book to one lucky winner. To enter, leave a comment below or click on the Rafflecopter for additional entries. The giveaway will close at 12 a.m. on Monday, July 15.

Note: This giveaway has ended.

Interviews, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Interview & Giveaway: THE MULTIPLYING MYSTERIES OF MOUNT TEN by Krista Van Dolzer

Hi, friends! I’m on a giveaway spree! In case you’re curious about which two books I gave away from my 7th blogiversary giveaway last week, I ended up choosing two books with a connection to me. The first was THE GREAT SHELBY HOLMES by Elizabeth Eulberg, who is published by Bloomsbury, my publisher! And the second was MASCOT by Antony John, a fellow St. Louis author. But let me tell you, it was very hard to choose, especially since so many people who entered the giveaway just said any author would be great :).

Now on to this week. I’m thrilled to once again welcome my friend and critique partner Krista Van Dolzer to the blog with her latest release, THE MULTIPLYING MYSTERIES OF MOUNT TEN. And hey, it’s also published by Bloomsbury :). Here’s the amazing cover–which Krista’s going to talk about in answer to one of my questions–and description.

The Multiplying Mysteries of Mount Ten by Krista Van DolzerTwelve-year-old painter Esther can’t wait to attend Camp Vermeer, the most prestigious art camp around. But when her stepdad accidentally drives up the wrong mountain, she lands at Camp Archimedes–a math camp!

Determined to prove herself to the other campers, she tackles a brain-teaser that’s supposed to be impossible–and solves it in a single day. But not everyone is happy about it…someone wants her out of camp at any cost, and starts leaving cryptic, threatening notes all over the camp’s grounds. Esther doesn’t know who to trust–will she solve this riddle before it’s too late?

Featuring tricky logic puzzles readers can solve along with the characters and starring a unique, smart, and crafty young heroine, this story has just the right mix of mystery, humor, and wit.

Here are Krista’s answers to five questions about the things I loved most.

1. Readers who pick up this book may not realize Esther was a character in one of your previous books, DON’T VOTE FOR ME. What made you decide she needed her own story?

Esther was one of my very favorite characters in DON’T VOTE FOR ME, so the thought of writing her a book was certainly appealing. I think what really sealed the deal was that I’d been trying to come up with a math mystery for a while, and when I realized I could do it as a (very) loose retelling of the biblical story of Esther (just as DON’T VOTE FOR ME is a (very) loose retelling of the biblical story of David and Goliath), I jumped in with both feet.

2. It’s evident within the book how much you love math—and how much disdain Esther initially has for the subject, despite her affinity for it. What was your inspiration for setting this story at a math camp?

Because I knew I wanted to write a fun math mystery, the math camp just made sense, but your question made me realize that some of Esther’s feelings are autobiographical. I was always good at math, but I didn’t really fall in love until I studied it in college. That might have been because, for the first time in my life, math wasn’t easy-peasy. It was challenging and stretching, and I actually had to apply myself. Doing something hard is great for your self-confidence.

3. The cover for this book is amazing! I love all of the detail, and I think it would be great if you could tell us a little about the significance of some of those details.

The cover is amazing. I absolutely love Danielle Ceccolini’s design, and Iacopo Bruno couldn’t have done a better job executing her vision. One of the first details I noticed was the sneaky yellow balls scattered around the illustration. In addition to the weight in the bottom right corner, the yellow balls make an appearance in the first puzzle in the book. I also love the tube of paint and the palette in the background that ties everything together, both of which, of course, are nods to Esther’s artistic side. And the ruler! And the compass! And the abacus in the title treatment! So many little details make my mathematical heart sing. 😊

4. The mystery in the story—interlocked with a logic puzzle—is super fun. What tips do you have for writing a mystery, particularly for a middle grade audience?

First tip: don’t write a mystery that involves a logic puzzle. 😊 Every time I fiddled with one clue, I had to fiddle with the others. Thank goodness for great copy editors who spotted so many mistakes!

Second tip: don’t be afraid to let your imagination loose. Adults dismiss so many clues to so many would-be mysteries because they don’t want to take the time to try to figure them out, but kids always take the time. They want to find something extraordinary hidden in the ordinary, so let’s give them just that!

5. I love the group of math nerds. How did you go about developing the personalities of the kids who would be at the camp? Did you create them to complement Esther or develop them independently of her?

Getting to know the math nerds was one of the best parts of writing this story. Angeline and Brooklyn distinguished themselves right off the bat, and Munch, Graham, and Marshane came along easily, too. I loved how self-assured Munch was from the very start, and the friendly rivalry that developed between Graham and Marshane inspired me to make their back stories overlap. So I would say I let their personalities take shape as the plot grew and evolved. By far, the trickiest part was making sure they were distinct (and in fact, we downplayed some roles so this most important group would have a better chance to shine).

Thank you, Krista!

I love this book so much I want to pass along a copy to one of you, and Krista has also offered a signed bookmark as well. To enter, comment below or click on the Rafflecopter link for additional entries.

Note: This giveaway has ended.

Blogging

Happy 7th Blogiversary to Me! With a mystery signed book giveaway!

Today marks the seventh anniversary of my blog. I’ve made a lot of changes to the blog in the past seven years, starting out with a focus on middle grade, finding my writing voice in young adult, querying for many, many years and sharing that process. I foresee this blog changing again as I approach the publication of my debut novel in winter 2021. I don’t know what that will look like; I’m still thinking through it all. But for today, I’m going to stick with my tradition of pulling statistics from the last year and sharing them here on the blog–mostly because I just enjoy analyzing the blog for myself. Hopefully some of you will find it interesting, too :). But definitely read through to the end, because I will have a celebratory giveaway as usual. It seems appropriate that it has a middle grade theme in keeping with the blog’s beginnings :).

Top 10 Posts/Pages in the Past Year

10. FINDING AUDREY and a Couple of Other YA Books You Should Read – This 2015 post was in my top ten last year as well. It includes mini-reviews of FINDING AUDREY by Sophie Kinsella, THE APOTHECARY by Maile Meloy, and THERE WILL BE LIES by Nick Lake.

9. Your Life Has Been Delayed (YA Time Travel) – Hey, thanks for reading about my book! It will be out in winter 2021, and I will be sharing all sorts of news as it’s available. That’s one thing I know for sure about where the blog is headed :).

8. Happy Sixth Blogiversary to Me! With a $25 Amazon Gift Card Giveaway for You … – Maybe you guys do like my statistics. Or an Amazon gift card? 🙂

7. YA Series Recommendation: The Selection by Kiera Cass – Great books!

6. Remembering a Friend Lost Too Soon: Ashley Gammon – Three years ago this past January, my friend and former colleague Ashley passed away unexpectedly. I wrote this post as my own tribute to her, and I am glad people continue to read about her here and honor her memory.

5. What I’ve Learned in Seven Years of Querying – Ah, my other annual post–which I will no longer be writing. However, if you are still querying, I encourage you to check out this series because querying can be a long journey, and this particular post is all about perseverance. In my case, I ended up signing with my agent a few months after the seven-year mark.

4. YA Review: NOT IF I SAVE YOU FIRST by Ally Carter + Bonus Writing Tips – I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ally Carter twice, and she’s just lovely. This book is a fantastic page-turner, so definitely check it out, but she also gives some great tips for writers as well.

3. Subjectivity and Why You Should Get Multiple Opinions – I wrote this post in 2013, and people keep coming back to it. It’s a good reminder for all of us. We don’t write in a vacuum. It’s important to get feedback from others on your manuscripts.

2. I Have An Agent! – Well, hey, I was hoping–and sort of figured–this post would be high on the list. I searched for an agent for seven years before connecting with Elizabeth Bewley at Sterling Lord Literistic, but it was so worth the wait. She’s so fantastic to work with and my debut book is now forthcoming from Bloomsbury in winter 2021. Go team!

1. MG/YA Agents & Their Books – Even though I’m no longer researching agents myself, I continue to maintain this list for those who are. I think it’s super helpful to know what sort of books agents represent to get a feel for their tastes.

Top 10 Posts/Pages of All Time

Interestingly, most of these are different this year. However, there are several MG books, which is a reflection of their longevity on my blog. When I first started out, I wrote an MG review every week.

10. Subjectivity and Why You Should Get Multiple Opinions – There’s the subjectivity post again!

9. MMGM: ONCE UPON THE END by James Riley – Only one of my favorite MG writers ever.

8. MMGM: THE UNWANTEDS: ISLAND OF SILENCE – The second book in a popular middle grade series.

7. Series Recommendation: DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth – A popular series. I’m still baffled by those movies 🙂.

6. About – Hey, thanks for reading about me :).

5. MMGM: SAMMY KEYES AND THE HOTEL THIEF – In previous years, this book has been in the top 10 for the year as well. It’s the first in an eighteen-book middle grade mystery series. I haven’t made it through all of them yet as I’ve been spreading them out, but they are fantastic!

4. Before the Draft: Outlining in Scrivener – This post is listed on a Scrivener site somewhere and so continues to receive many visits.

3. A Glimpse at My Agent Spreadsheet: Middle Grade Books I’ve Read – The post that started my page listing middle grade and young adult books agents represent.

2. MG/YA Agents & Their Books

1. Remembering a Friend Lost Too Soon: Ashley Gammon

Top 5 Searches of the Past Year

Unfortunately there are more than 235 search terms WordPress is unable to identify for me, but here are the top five searches WordPress can tell me.

5. Agents who represent middle grade/young adult books & Searches about me – I was quite surprised to find there were an equal number of searches for agents as me leading to my blog this year. I must be moving up :).

4. Random questions – My favorite was: “advantages of making your own money 8th grade.” I probably had some review about an MG book with an eighth grader making their own money that led them here. I hope they found an answer!

3. Searches about Ashley – As I stated above, I hope friends of Ashley continue to find comfort in my post about her.

2. Writing-related searches – Several visitors ended up at my blog due to some variation on the question, “Should I get multiple opinions?” This definitely explains the popularity of the subjectivity post. But there was also someone who stopped by questioning whether they should quit after querying for two years. I hope they left with the answer of “Don’t give up!” Because as I’ve already stated, I queried for seven years, and I now have an agent and a book deal.

1. Books I’ve reviewed – By far the most searches that led people to my blog were for books I’d reviewed. It’s quite interesting to see the questions people ask, often about particular plot points or simply for a review. Either way, I’m happy to be a resource.

So what am I giving away this year? Well, if you happen to follow me on Twitter as well, you may have noticed I’m excited about a particular event happening this Saturday, the Oh Middle Grade BookFest. I mean, how often do twenty-four middle grade authors come to town? Since I will be there, I’d love to pick up two signed books for one of you. The giveaway will be open for the next week, but if you comment by end of day Friday, May 3, you can give input on which two authors I should choose :). Sound fun? Here is the list of authors: https://omgbookfest.org/omg-missouri

Oh, and if you are here in St. Louis, come check out the event and bring any other middle grade readers you know along.

To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below or click on the Rafflecopter link for additional entries.

 

UPDATE on May 6: Below is a picture of all the books we had signed at OMG BookFest. Many of these belong to my kids, but two are for the lucky winner of this giveaway. Which two? You’ll find out if you win :).

Note: This giveaway has ended.

Interviews, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Interview & Giveaway: THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B. HAWKINS by Gail Shepherd

Last week I promised I would feature additional middle grade books by writer friends, and I’m so pleased to host Gail Shepherd here on my blog for MMGM. Gail and I met nine years ago through a critique partner match-up on a blog and swapped chapters on middle grade novels we were working on at the time. I can’t believe it was so long ago! As soon as I read THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B. HAWKINS, I reached out to Gail to ask her for an interview, and she graciously answered my questions and has also offered up a signed ARC and some swag for one lucky winner. Details are at the bottom.

The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail ShepherdLyndie B. Hawkins loves history, research, and getting to the truth no matter what. But when it comes to her family, her knowledge is full of holes. Like, what happened to her father in the Vietnam War? Where does he disappear to for days? And why exactly did they have to move in with her grandparents?

Determined to mold recalcitrant Lyndie into a nice Southern girl even if it kills her, Grandma Lady starts with lesson number one: Family=Loyalty=keeping quiet about family secrets. Especially when it comes to Lyndie’s daddy.

Then DB, a boy from the local juvenile detention center, comes to stay with Lyndie’s best friend, Dawn. He’s as friendly and open as a puppy. There to shape up his act, his optimism is infectious. But it goes against everything Grandma Lady insists upon.

And here are Gail’s answers to five questions about the book.

1. I loved how seamlessly you wove history into the story–through a school project, research about D.B., a visit to the history museum, etc. How did you decide which historical accounts to include and the best ways to do so?

There were two main thematic threads I wanted to tease out in Lyndie B’s story: The first was the idea of how countries and communities become divided by politics or ideology—I mean, obviously this is still a contemporary question. So there’s a natural fit with the Vietnam War and the American Civil War, where a country is at war with itself. And then the second thematic question was about how families get fractured, or heal themselves from fractures. So the research on D.B.’s family history fit well with that theme.

Those two themes intertwine and are related—in both the Vietnamese war and the American Civil War, particularly in Tennessee, families often split—some sided with the Confederacy and others with the Union. The idea of families split apart runs through the book, of course. D.B. was abandoned by his mom. He’s taken away from the foster family he loves. He’s lost touch with his uncle. And Lyndie’s family is coming apart at the seams in quite a different way—her father and mother are at odds, Lyndie is not getting along with her grandma. But also, other people in the community had fathers or brothers who were lost in the Vietnam War, like Lyndie’s nemesis, Pee Wee, and the homeless woman, Bernadette. Really, the entire community (a kind of family writ large) has been fractured by the war. So the research fell naturally along those thematic lines.

It’s a particularly interesting question to me, how we heal or bridge our differences in a family or community so that we can thrive.

2. The friendship storyline is so believable, particularly for Lyndie’s age, how she allows her grandmother’s attitude to influence her insecurities about her best friend. What made you decide to tap into that aspect of MG friendship?

Little kids bond without a lot of baggage. When you’re six or seven or eight, you just tend to like people unless they rub you the wrong way or they’re mean to you. But at eleven or twelve, like Lyndie, you’re just beginning to lose your innocence around friendship. You start to be influenced by social pressures. Lots of “best” friendships split up at this age (mine certainly did)—often because we’re aware of how others are seeing us.

Lyndie is coming of age, and part of her job in growing up is to figure out how much truth there is in what she’s being told—she’s struggling with it. She’s struggling with her own insecurities, too. She doesn’t see herself as a “good person” in the way her best friend Dawn is. She doesn’t always know what’s right. So she’s subject to a lot of self-doubt that can interfere with the purity of her friendships.

3. The family dynamics are also very believable and heart-wrenching, from private, organized Lady and gentle Grandpa to tormented Dad and broken-hearted Mom. How did you determine what characteristics to give each of these family members to make this family what it is?

Lyndie’s grandma, Lady, was always very real to me. She’s the one character who really didn’t change much in revision. Maybe because I come from a Southern family. Some of my relatives are very iron-willed, judgmental, upright, dignified, exacting, in this way, so she came to me naturally. As for Lady’s husband, Grandpa, I wanted him to be the one person that Lady could feel safe with, taken care of. He’s a hint that even Lady has vulnerabilities.

I made Lyndie’s father and mother political opposites (Daddy a war veteran with PTSD, Ma a former hippie peace protester) so we could see that it is possible to love across a political divide, even though it’s not always easy.

4. The story’s setting a decade after the Vietnam War brings to light the issues faced by soldiers who fought in the war and families who lost soldiers to the war—both immediately and due to trauma afterward. What made you decide to set a story at this time, and how did you research it?

I grew up with the Vietnam War in the background, running on the TV, in every newspaper. Families I knew had brothers and fathers going away. That war has shaped my world view in a very deep way. I became an adult in the 1980s, and my memory of the time is very sharp. So those two things together influenced the setting and time period. I did a ton of research—every book I could get my hands on—The Things They Carried, Dispatches, A Bright Shining Lie, and many others, plus books on PTSD and trauma—The Evil Hours was the one that really shook me. Not much of the research made its way directly into the book. But the background was necessary so I could understand Lyndie’s daddy.

5. I loved the feeling of hope at the end, for Lyndie’s family and friendships. What do you hope your readers leave the book feeling?

Oh, my. Well, that the truth is worth pursuing, even if it feels hard. I do entirely believe that. That families and friendships can be resilient, they can recover from great stresses. That our country and our communities, like the flag on the gate at Lyndie’s grandma’s house, are worth caring for, worth fighting for.

But there are lots of ways to care and lots of ways to fight—you don’t have to physically go to war, necessarily. History has taught us what a dead end that can be. Caring for your country can mean being honest about its history. Caring for your family can mean being honest with each other. I want readers to feel that we can get better. And that it’s worth trying.

Thank you so much, Gail!

As I mentioned, Gail has offered a signed ARC, plus swag (book plates, bookmarks, pins), for one lucky winner. To enter, leave a comment here or click on the Rafflecopter for extra entries.

Note: This giveaway has ended.