Giveaways, Interviews, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM Interview & Signed Hardcover Giveaway: EARTH TO DAD by Krista Van Dolzer

I’m thrilled to once again host my friend Krista Van Dolzer for her third middle grade book, EARTH TO DAD. With each book, she gives a glimpse into a new world, from the 1950s in THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING, to contemporary middle school in DON’T VOTE FOR ME, and now the future! Krista has graciously offered a signed hardcover to one lucky reader, and you definitely want to get in on this giveaway, but first, let me tell you about the book.

Earth to Dad by Krista Van DolzerThe distance between Earth and Mars is more than just physical.

No one knows that better than eleven-year-old Jameson O’Malley. When Dad left for Mars, Jameson thought technology would help shorten the millions of miles between them, but he’s starting to realize no transmission can replace his father.

When a new family moves onto Base Ripley, Jameson makes an unlikely friend in Astra Primm, who’s missing a parent of her own. But as their friendship grows stronger, Jameson starts seeing the flaws in his own family. Mom is growing distant, and something is wrong with Dad. He’s not sending transmissions as frequently, and when he does there are bags under his eyes.

Soon Jameson realizes there’s more to the story than he knows–and plenty people aren’t telling him. Determined to learn the truth, Jameson and Astra embark on a journey exploring life, loss, and friendship that will take them to the edge of their universe.

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

1. The premise of an asteroid sending Earth off-orbit so it’s steadily moving toward the sun is intriguing. How did you research the science of what that might be like?

Suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time clicking around NASA’s website (and quite a few other scientific organizations’ websites, too). 🙂 First, I looked for ways to put Earth’s future in jeopardy. Then, once I decided to give Earth a decaying orbit, I looked for ways to mess with the solar system’s equilibrium. As it turns out, Jupiter plays a pretty crucial role in holding the rocky planets in place, so if you mess with Jupiter, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll mess with Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, too.

2. I love the friendship angle of the story, how more than anything what Jameson longs for is a best friend. What made you decide to focus on that as the central relationship in the story?

I tend to write children’s books with lots of adult characters, so to balance out that imbalance, I hone in on the relationships between my child characters. It worked especially well in this case, since I wanted Jameson to learn how to live a richer, fuller life and that’s what his friendship with Astra is all about.

3. I love the variety of your stories, how you’ve written historical (THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING), contemporary (DON’T VOTE FOR ME), and now futuristic. How do you put yourself in the mindset of kids from each of these different time periods?

I certainly try to vary my characters’ vocabularies so they don’t sound anachronistic, but beyond that, I don’t really think about it overtly. Kids are kids are kids, whether they’re living in 1952 or 2047. Though the trappings of their lives might change, kids from every age and walk of life probably still worry about the same sorts of things: finding friends, dealing with parents, and figuring out where they belong.

4. Astra is such a fun character. Did you develop her independently of Jameson, or were you particularly thinking of her as a foil for Jameson?

I’m so glad you liked Astra! I must have a soft spot for spunky tween girls. 🙂 I definitely wanted her personality to contrast with Jameson’s, so in that way, yes, I did write her as a foil for Jameson. They have so many things in common, but they process those experiences in such different ways.

5. I love the feeling of MAYBE throughout the book. As an adult, there were several scenes I read thinking “there’s no way this will work, but maybe … ” What tips do you have on retaining that optimism that kids have as they’re reading while still keeping the plot believable?

One thing I always remember is that kids’ brains aren’t fully developed—I don’t think a person’s brain is considered to be fully developed until, like, age twenty-two—so something that might seem completely ludicrous to me might seem plausible to a twelve-year-old (or, you know, a twenty-one-year-old). I think that gives us writers a certain amount of leeway when it comes to plotting. 🙂 That said, we did end up cutting and/or tweaking several scenes just to boost their plausibility. Maybe if the book becomes a runaway best-seller, I’ll have to share the scene in which Jameson steals a spacesuit…

Oh, I’d like to read that scene!

And if you’d like a chance to read EARTH TO DAD, you can enter by commenting below. For extra entries, click on the Rafflecopter. North America only, please. Open until next Monday, Sept. 17.

Whether you win the giveaway or not, definitely add EARTH TO DAD to your TBR list!

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: THE TRAIN OF LOST THINGS by Ammi-Joan Paquette

Hello, MMGM friends! It’s been a bit since my last flurry of reviews and even longer since my last middle grade review, but I was in the revision cave and then at the Lake of the Ozarks enjoying time with my family. On the way back, I started THE TRAIN OF LOST THINGS by Ammi-Joan Paquette and ended up finishing it that evening. Despite the fact it deals with a sad topic, it was a quick and engaging read that I couldn’t put down. My ten-year-old son also read it a few days later and enjoyed it as well. But on to the description.

The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan PaquetteMarty has always loved to hear his father tell the story of the Train of Lost Things: a magical engine that flies (yes, flies!) all around the world, collecting children’s lost objects. Then one day, Marty loses his most precious possession–a jean jacket packed with memories–which was given to him by his dad, who’s now very sick. Marty is devastated. He thinks the Train of Lost Things is just a story–but what if it’s real? Marty embarks on a desperate adventure to find the train, which is now his only link to the irreplaceable jacket.

To Marty’s shock and delight, he learns that the train is real! But it’s also gone out of control. Instead of helping return the lost items, the train has become an ever-growing heap of toys, trinkets, and memories. Along with Dina and Star, two girls he meets aboard the train, Marty sets about to learn what’s going on and to help put it right. And hopefully find his jacket in the process.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The jacket – What a wonderful idea to create a jacket full of memories, every pin and patch a representation of an activity Marty and his father had done together. My heart dropped with Marty’s when the jacket went missing.

2. The magic – I love the concept of a place where all the lost treasures go. Who hasn’t lost something at some point, something you’ve never been able to find again, no matter where you looked? It’s nice to think it might be out there, waiting for you.

3. The descriptions – I’ve read several of Ammi-Joan Paquette’s books now, and I always love her descriptions. Here’s an example of Marty climbing up to the top of the train.

It was a weird feeling, hiking up a tiny curlicue staircase on a moving mystery train. The steps were so narrow that Marty almost had to take them sideways. The whole thing was a bit like watching–no, like being–a fizzy bubble zooming up the inside of a bottle. Like he said, weird. With an extra dose of super weird on the side. Especially because he got to the top faster than he expected, and before he knew it his head and shoulders had oozed right through the opening window hatch, and then he was half in and half out of the train, and for a second his eyes blurred over because it was literally the craziest thing he had ever experienced.

4. Marty’s journey – Marty was such an authentic character to me. I felt so deeply what he was going through with his dad as well as the distance he felt from his friends. I appreciated how his adventure on the train helped him.

5. The ending – I expected this story to be sad based on the premise, but I was very satisfied with the resolution of the story. Now, my son had one more thing he wanted to happen at the end, but overall he was good with it too.

Have you read THE TRAIN OF LOST THINGS? What did you think?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: STORY THIEVES: WORLDS APART by James Riley

Hello, MMGM! Long time no see. But my kids have been hounding me to read along with them more, so I expect I will be peeking back in more often.

Of course I can’t resist reviewing a James Riley book, and that is what would bring me back into the fold. I held off on reading the fourth book (PICK THE PLOT) in the STORY THIEVES series, mainly because I wasn’t super-excited about it being a choose-your-own adventure story. I don’t know why. I loved those books when I was a kid, and I know what a genius James Riley is at turning any preconceived ideas you may have on their head. And it was totally awesome, just like the rest of the series. But I’m still glad I waited until the paperback of PICK THE PLOT came out because it ended on a total cliffhanger, and then I didn’t have to wait to read the series finale, WORLDS APART. Side note: I was in the middle of another book when it arrived, and my ten-year-old beat me to it, so he kept telling me how awesome it was. Then, once I started reading, he needed constant updates about where I was in the story. I love how we can enjoy stories together!

Fair warning before you read this review, it includes SPOILERS for the earlier books. If you haven’t read them yet, you should stop before the description. Or just click over to my review for the original STORY THIEVES and start there.

Still reading? Okay then.

Worlds Apart by James RileyOwen and Bethany try to find their way back to each other after the fictional and nonfictional worlds are torn apart in this fifth and final book in the New York Times bestselling series, Story Thieves—which was called a “fast-paced, action-packed tale” by School Library Journal—from the author of the Half Upon a Time trilogy.

Bethany and Owen have failed. The villain they have come to know as Nobody has ripped asunder the fictional and nonfictional worlds, destroying their connection. Bethany has been split in two, with her fictional and nonfictional selves living in the separate realms.

But weirdly, no one seems to mind. Owen—and every other nonfictional person—have lost their imaginations, so they can’t picture their lives any differently. Then Owen gets trapped in a dark, dystopian reality five years in the future, where nothing is needed more desperately than the power to imagine.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The pacing – I read this book in two days. In fact, I was so into it, I stayed up really late to finish it, and then when I got ready to write this review, I was like, “Wait, did that really happen at the end?” Turns out I was so sleepy I missed a few things. But that just meant I got to read it again :). James Riley accomplished this fantastic pacing using the same technique he implemented in ONCE UPON THE END. For most of the book, Owen and Bethany were separated, and the chapters switched between their points of view, leaving the reader on a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. It made it very hard to stop reading.

2. All the characters – It was the perfect reunion of my favorite characters. Okay, there was one particular character I really would have loved to see again (mentioned in my STOLEN CHAPTERS review), but I can see how she wouldn’t fit here. I don’t want to give away who all does return, except that of course Kiel is included. I mean, he’s on the cover :).

3. The conflict – I can’t even explain exactly what Nobody has done if you haven’t read the book. They’re not trying to save THE world; they’re trying to save multiple worlds. It’s so meta James Riley pokes fun at it in the acknowledgements (one of the funniest parts of the books, actually).

4. Bethany’s character arc – Well, actually, I guess it’s two character arcs since there are two Bethanys? I sort of hated both Bethanys. My son and I had a rather heated discussion about this because he liked one of them. But I think the whole point of splitting Bethany was that she wasn’t meant to be two halves of herself, and I thought it was interesting that James Riley approached it with each half thinking they were better off alone (a plot point you discover in the first chapters).

5. The ending – Well, like I said, I had to read it twice to make sure it really happened the way I thought it did. This ending was completely crazy and yet satisfying. I’m still reeling a bit from one particular plot point that I can’t believe he left that way, but hey, it’s fiction.

Isn’t it?

If you really are just telling Owen and Bethany’s story, Mr. Riley, my son would love to go hang out with them sometime. I’ll keep their location secret :).

I can’t wait to see what James Riley writes next. We’re all fans in this house!

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: NIGHTFALL by Shannon Messenger

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review on the blog. My life has been a little consumed by Pitch Wars, and I now have my manuscript out in agents’ hands, awaiting their verdicts. But I did pre-order the Barnes & Noble special edition of Shannon Messenger’s NIGHTFALL, the latest installment in her Keeper of the Lost Cities series, so I thought that would be the perfect book to jump back in with a review.

If you haven’t read the first five books in this series, you should stop reading now! Even the description for this book includes spoilers for the previous books, as will my review.

Okay, if you’re still here, on to the description.

Nightfall by Shannon MessengerSophie Foster is struggling. Grieving. Scrambling. But she knows one thing: she will not be defeated.

The Neverseen have had their victories—but the battle is far from over. It’s time to change tactics. Make sacrifices. Reexamine everything. Maybe even time for Sophie to trust her enemies.

All paths lead to Nightfall—an ominous door to an even more ominous place—and Sophie and her friends strike a dangerous bargain to get there. But nothing can prepare them for what they discover. The problems they’re facing stretch deep into their history. And with time running out, and mistakes catching up with them, Sophie and her allies must join forces in ways they never have before.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The crushes – Okay, so I am way too involved in the love lives of these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. In fact, my nine-year-old and I got into an argument about which team we were on. (Yes, there are teams.) But that being said, I love how well Shannon Messenger portrays the confusing emotions Sophie feels toward the boys and how she sorts through them. It’s so authentic and how I remember feeling at that age. And if you’re wondering, yes, even though the characters have gotten older, the romance part still sits firmly in middle grade.

2. The twists – NIGHTFALL is the sixth book in this series and so you’d think Ms. Messenger wouldn’t be able to keep surprising readers, but she continues to come up with new twists in every installment. I was pleased with the new turns in this latest book, and I can’t wait to see what she does in book seven and (maybe?) eight.

3. The special bonus – I ordered the Barnes & Noble special edition in order to get the bonus section from Keefe’s point of view, and it was so worth it! Granted, Keefe is basically my favorite character aside from Sophie, but I loved how it showed a different side of him.

4. Amy – I loved that Sophie’s human sister was a part of this book and how Sophie’s relationship with her added another layer to her character. It was fun seeing the elvin world through her eyes.

5. Ro – The ogre princess is an awesome addition to the cast of characters. She’s hilarious and also brings a new dimension of understanding to a species the elves have only seen a certain way up to now. Love her!

Every year I’m dying for the next book, and then as soon as I finish it I wish I could somehow force myself to wait longer so I wouldn’t be anxious for the next one as soon as I finish. Because, of course, this book ended with another cliffhanger. Although it wasn’t as bad as the end of NEVERSEEN. I might never forgive Shannon Messenger for that one :). Okay, I do forgive her since she fixed it in LODESTAR, but still. I have a total love-hate relationship with cliffhangers.

What about you? Have you read NIGHTFALL yet? What did you think?

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: WILL IN SCARLET by Matthew Cody

Earlier this year our school librarian was thinning out the shelves to make room for new books, and I quickly scooped up a book by a familiar author. I’d read two books by Matthew Cody before–POWERLESS and THE DEAD GENTLEMAN–and I’d been meaning to read WILL IN SCARLET. I mean, who doesn’t love a Robin Hood story? Anyway, it completely lived up to my expectations, and I’ll be passing it along to my son, too. Here’s the cover and description.

Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

Will Scarlet is on the run.

Once the sheltered son of nobility, Will has become an exile. While his father, Lord Shackley, has been on the Crusades with King Richard, a treacherous plot to unseat Richard has swept across England, and Shackley House has fallen.

Will flees the only home he’s ever known into neighboring Sherwood Forest, where he joins the elusive gang of bandits known as the Merry Men. Among them are Gilbert, their cruel leader; a giant named John Little; a drunkard named Rob; and Much, an orphan girl disguised as a bandit boy.

This is the story of how a band of misfit outlaws become heroes of legend – thanks to one brave 13-year-old boy.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The history – I love how the setting comes to life in the story through both Will and Much’s points of view. The reader gets a clear sense of what it was like to live in the twelfth century, and I especially appreciated how Will goes from his privileged life of nobility to seeing the plight of the serfs and wanting to do something about it.

2. Will himself – I really enjoyed Will as a character. He felt very true to me as a thirteen-year-old trying to be a man–particularly in a time when you had to be a man much sooner–and yet still with so many of the sensibilities of a boy. I loved his sense of justice and how that played out in multiple plot lines.

3. Much – Much, the other POV character, was also fantastic. I mean, I’ve mentioned before that I love when girls disguise themselves as boys, right? But this story wasn’t a romance; it was Much finding a way to keep herself alive. I loved her spunk and her fierce determination to prove herself.

4. The action – This story is full of action–hunting wolves, sword fights, sneaking into castles–everything you’d expect from a tale involving Robin Hood. Only Will is the one initiating most of the action rather than the legend. The action isn’t without cost, but it’s exciting!

5. The pacing – As soon as I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. The pacing is fantastic, with Will and Much jumping from one adventure to another. A definite page-turner!

I highly recommend WILL IN SCARLET for anyone who loves a good adventure story. If you’ve read it, let’s discuss in the comments!

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: DEAR POPPY by Ronni Arno

With the NESCBWI Conference having happened over the weekend, it seems appropriate for me to review a book by an author I met at last year’s conference. No, I didn’t go again–it’s a bit of a trek for me–but I’m pleased to have found many authors last year whose books I will be picking up as they come out. Ronni Arno is one of those. I thoroughly enjoyed RUBY REINVENTED, and her second book, DEAR POPPY, is equally delightful.

Dear Poppy by Ronni ArnoWhen twelve-year-old Poppy moves to the country, she discovers a secret stash of letters that give her a unique connection to her late mother in this M!X novel about friendship, first crushes, and family drama.

City girl Poppy has always wanted a best friend, but never felt enough of a connection with anyone to gain BFF status. Even without a BFF, Poppy is horrified when her father decides to move her and her older brother out to the family farm. Away from her beloved city and away from memories of her late mom—a fresh start for everyone.

And after a weird first week at her new school, Poppy is convinced she is destined for a boring year—until she finds a stack of letters from 1985 hidden in the barn of the old farmhouse that they move into. Even better? Those letters are addressed to Poppy…from her mom. Poppy doesn’t know what supernatural event brought these letters to her, but she doesn’t care. All she knows is that she finally has the connection she yearns for. Plus, her mom seems to understand everything that Poppy is going through: not quite fitting in, the desire to put down roots, and the heartbreak of losing a loved one. Has Poppy discovered the friend—and acceptance—she’s always wanted?

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The opening – The contrast of the first two sentences immediately drew me in, so I’m going to share them here. I think they not only show you a lot about both Poppy and her brother, but they also demonstrate something about the nature of grief, which is a theme in the book.

My brother is smiling so hard I think his cheeks are pinned to his ears. This would be fine, of course, if we weren’t at my grandad’s funeral.

2. Poppy’s dad – I love how Poppy’s relationship with her dad changes throughout the book, as he transforms from Old Dad to New Dad (also love that she makes that distinction). It’s a tough lesson that sometimes parents take a long time to come out of their grief, but it’s a true one.

3. The letters – The letters from Poppy’s mom were so perfectly timed to what was happening in Poppy’s life and a perfect example of how middle school is the same whether it’s 1985 or 2016. (Wow, this sounds a lot like my last review for ONCE UPON A KISS, except swapping out high school for middle school.)

4. Britt and Brody – I love how there is so much depth to these two characters. You see the surface of the cute popular boy who doesn’t like confrontation and the rebel outcast who’s all about trouble, but when they’re at home the twins have a lot of the same interests–including Poppy and gardening.

5. The resolution – Poppy has a very clear idea of why she’s in the country and how everything should turn out. As a reader, I had a different idea of where the story was headed. I won’t tell you who was right, just that the ending was very satisfying :).

I will definitely be picking up Ronni Arno’s next book. Actually, the next one on her site is an anthology featuring another favorite author of mine, Jen Malone. Looking forward to BEST. NIGHT. EVER!

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review

MMGM: MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS by Lisa Schroeder

I love anything to do with Paris, so I was predestined to love this book. I even have a picture that looks very similar to this cover. Wow, I’m really young in this picture. It’s from 2007, before kids, although just barely as I realized I was pregnant while we were there. Anyway, one of the lovely side effects of reading MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS by Lisa Schroeder is that it led me to pull out my photo album and relive the trip with my six-year-old, who has now decided that she must go to Paris like the main character in the book. As much as I would love to take her, that’s a trip you should be a little older to appreciate. But I’m sure you’re ready to hear about the actual book, so here’s the cover and description.

My Secret Guide to Paris by Lisa SchroederNora loves everything about Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to chocolat chaud. Of course, she’s never actually been there — she’s only visited through her Grandma Sylvia’s stories. And just when they’ve finally planned a trip together, Grandma Sylvia is suddenly gone, taking Nora’s dreams with her.

Nora is crushed. She misses her grandmother terribly, but she still wants to see the city they both loved. So when Nora finds letters and a Paris treasure map among her Grandma Sylvia’s things, she dares to dream again…


She’s not sure what her grandma wants her to find, but Nora knows there are wonderful surprises waiting for her in Paris. And maybe, amongst the croissants and macarons, she’ll even find a way to heal her broken heart.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. Nora’s grief – I realize it’s odd to say Nora’s grief is something I loved about the story, but the reason I list it here is that I appreciated how well-drawn her grief was in the story. Grief is such a complicated emotion, and it hits everyone differently. You can be crying one minute and the next wanting to enjoy something you used to do with the person you lost. It’s handled well here.

2. The treasure map – I loved the places Nora’s Grandma Sylvia sent her around Paris, and when I do return someday, I’ll have to re-read this book so I can check out the ones I didn’t know about. It’s fun to see Nora experiencing Paris with her grandma even though she can’t be there with her.

3. Phoebe – Isn’t it great when two people meet and they just click? Even better when it’s a friendship. I loved how Phoebe encouraged Nora to be strong and carry through on what she already wanted to do. And I’m excited to see Phoebe has her own story :).

4. The mother-daughter bond – I really enjoyed watching how Nora’s relationship with her mother changed during the story, but also how her perception of her mother’s relationship with her grandmother changed. There was some growing up Nora had to do during the course of the story, but twelve’s old enough for that.

5. The buttons – I loved the jar of buttons Nora’s grandmother had given her. She carried one with her every day, and it always seemed to connect to something that happened. In the end, the buttons had a deeper meaning for Nora, but I won’t give that away.

Basically, I’m dying to return to Paris now, and I’m years away from it, but at least this book gave me a taste. I guess I’ll go read Phoebe’s story and relive the London portion of that same trip :).