Book Review and Author Visit: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Spencer and I had the opportunity to listen to and meet Newbery Award-winning author, Kwame Alexander at Upper Arlington Public Library tonight. We had a wonderful time: Alexander is engaging, interesting and entertaining and, as you’ve probably heard, his work is amazing! if the name is familiar but you can’t place the books he’s written…think of any YA book about sports or music, written in prose, that you’ve heard about in the past 5 years! The Crossover, Booked, Solo, etc…that’s Kwame Alexander!

About 200 people (kids, parents, educators and librarians) gathered at the library this evening to interact with Alexander and hear him read from some of his most popular books. He was joined in front of the audience by musician, poet and former teacher, Randy Preston who accompanied him on the electric guitar. Alexander told stories about his childhood, his family and his writing career and engaged the audience in participatory readings from a number of his works. He was incredibly funny and humble and the audience really responded to both him and Preston. We got to hear about everything from his idols (Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni) to what he eats in his tour bus (cookies and gluten free Godiva cheesecake!)

Alexander shared parts of about 8 of his latest books with the audience tonight but referred to The Undefeated, his latest picture book (released April 2) that honors the triumphs and struggles of Black Americans, as his favorite. He read it to us, start to finish and accompanied by Preston and a slideshow of the illustrations. The content was incredibly powerful and the illustrations breathtaking! I dare you to move past the word ‘unspeakable’ without gasping! The cover is beautiful but the way that Alexander and Nelson have woven together words and illustrations inside the book is not to be missed. I could imagine framing many of the pages of this book for a child’s room!

Asked about diversity in his writing during the Q and A tonight, Alexander seemed less focused on making a point about writing diverse characters and more focused on writing his experience. His goal, it seems, is to give access to different people’s stories to as many different kinds of readers as possible. He asserted that the more we know about each other, the harder it is to harm one another and said, ‘Can you imagine a white cop who read Jacqueline Woodson when he was 4? That would be a totally different story!’

Alexander also indicated during his talk this evening that he has another book due out later this year. It’s called How To Read a Book and it releases on June 18th. His audience this evening knew most of his books by heart and there’s no doubt in my mind that they (and Spencer and I) will be queued up to purchase anything else Alexander chooses to write! We hear there’s even a TV pilot of The Crossover in the works!

To get your copy of Alexander’s latest book, The Undefeated, follow this link: https://amzn.to/2UIQWEe

Children’s Book Review: Tomorrow Most Likely by Dave Eggers. Illustrated by Lane Smith

I’m very excited to have the opportunity to review a children’s book for you. This one, by Dave Eggers (you may know him as the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and illustrated by Lane Smith (Stinky Cheese Man anyone?) is a beautiful bedtime story about the things that might happen tomorrow.

The illustrations are gorgeous, colorful and whimsical…I could have looked at them all day and I can only imagine how fascinating they would be for little imaginations.

I also enjoyed most of the text…I found it hopeful and fun! ‘You might ride a whale. You might eat a cloud. You might write a song and sing it too loud.’ I did find myself a little creeped out by a couple of lines…’Tomorrow most likely, there will be a sky’ and ‘Tomorrow most likely there will be a meal.’ I really wouldn’t want my little one thinking about the potential that there might NOT be those two things tomorrow. Admittedly though, my adult mind was probably thinking into it a bit too much! The target audience for the book (ages 3-5) is probably not comprised of kiddos as neurotic as mine was! <sigh>

All in all, I think this book would make a great baby gift or read-aloud for your little one. It would inspire lots of conversation about what tomorrow might bring and (given the 3-5 set’s propensity to love repetition) you just might find something new to discuss in the illustrations with every read!

Do you know this man?

No? Well you should! I’ll give you a few hints:

1) He’s the author of my son’s absolute favorite YA book series.

2) His last book in that trilogy will be released April 16th.

3) He has another book coming out late this year and one early next.

4) He is generous and kind and let me fangirl all over him yesterday with interview questions!

What does that mean to you? It means I’ll be featuring my interview with him and the release of his new book in the next 10 days! Stay tuned…you don’t want to miss this guy or his books!

(Answer: It’s Scott Reintgen…the author of the Nyxia series!)

What’s Up Next? Once a Liar by A.F. Brady

I’ve been cruising through some books lately and I’m totally in my happy place! I thought I’d give you a sneak peak at what I’m going to read next: it’s the April Books for Coffee Book Drop from Bethany Beach Books! This one’s a thriller…quite a departure from the historical and middle grade fiction I’ve been reading lately! It just might be time for a little action.

I can’t wait to dive into this exploration of what happens to a ruthless defense attorney when crime hits a little too close to home. And, of course, I can’t wait to tell YOU all about it!

If you’d like your own book surprise to look forward to every month and thrillers are up your alley, then check out the Books for Coffee subscription at The Book Drop. Don’t forget to use my code ,MAMAPANDA, for 10% off! http://www.thebookdrop.com

Book Review: Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

‘Be kind always…for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about!’

– Ian Maclaren

That quote came to mind more than once while I was reading Just Like Jackie. It’s the story of an 11 year old girl named Robinson (after Jackie Robinson) who lives alone with her grandfather and struggles to stay out of trouble in school. Her grandfather is black and she is mixed-race and knows nothing about her parents or any other members of her family.

As we get to know Robbie, we can see that she’s angry…and she has plenty to be angry about. She’s made fun of at school…for her name, for her being different than her grandfather,etc. She doesn’t have the sense of belonging that comes from knowing your roots and so she struggles to see herself belonging anywhere. She tussles with an entitled boy at school and ‘pops off’ at her teachers. She defends the underdogs in her class and finds injustice everywhere! It breaks her heart to disappoint her grandfather but she just can’t find a way to deal with her feelings!

Robbie is only truly comfortable working on cars at her grandfather’s shop, tapping trees for maple syrup and playing baseball. Her grandfather is her home base but has begun to exhibit memory lapses and strange behavior that leaves Robbie worried that she might be taken from him. It’s all a lot for a little girl to have to handle. She struggles to keep her emotions from bubbling over at school and is ultimately forced to join a small group of students who meet with guidance counselor regularly. Unfortunately, her nemesis, Alex, is also part of that group. Luckily, the guidance counselor, Ms Gloria, is just the kind of adult who knows how to help.

As Robbie struggles to make progress, her 5th grade class begins to work on a family tree project which leaves Robbie feeling exposed because she doesn’t know anyone to put on her tree. Developments in the classroom, in her small group and with her grandfather bring things to a head in the best and worst possible ways. Ultimately, Robbie learns that we are ‘all fighting our own battles’ and that we ‘make our own family’ (another favorite saying of mine!)

Robbie is well-drawn and lovable in a truly imperfect way. She’s not girly without being a stereotype of a tomboy. Stoddard peppers the book with broken souls that you just can’t help but love…and I loved them all! I found myself rooting for the underdogs, just like Robbie does, throughout the book and cheering as they found peace in one another!

This book was the Middle Grade Book Drop box from Bethany Beach Books selection for March. I love getting a surprise MG book every month and, for $11.99 (including shipping), you just can’t beat it! Check out the boxes at http://www.thebookdrop.com and use my code MAMAPANDA for 10% off your subscription!

Book Review: A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck

Are you ready to have your heart broken and then slowly put back together piece by piece? That’s what Jared Reck does in A Short History of the Girl Next Door and I loved it!

The book unfolded in three distinct parts for me:

Part 1: Protagonist Matt Wainwright details his life growing up with Tabby, the girl next door, and how he came to fall in love with her. This part of the book is filled with glimpses into the male psyche and what it’s like to fall in love as a 15 year old boy. As the mother/stepmother of boys, I found it fascinating and (I imagine) very true to life. I loved witnessing Matt’s neuroses as he grows both physically and emotionally with Tabby. Trigger alert: this part of the book is particularly sweary. I had no problem with it as I needed it to be true to the make adolescent mind and I strongly suspect that F-bombs abound there but, if swear words are problematic for you or you don’t want your tweens/teens reading them, this book is a hard pass for you!

Part 2: I struggled with this third of the book. It seemed to revolve into a lot of dithering and whining for Matt and frankly, I almost gave up on him. Reck may have dragged the internal dialogue on a little too long for me but I stuck with it and was rewarded: the climax of the book happens 3/4 of the way in. No spoilers but Matt’s life is changed dramatically and we the incredible internal struggle he faces in dealing with that turn of events. All in all, this 1/3 of the book was (minus the piece of action) entirely too internal for me. I’m truly glad I stuck with it though because…

Part 3: We get to see Matt come to terms with his ‘new normal.’ Matt’s adjustment in this portion of the book is well-written and heartwarming but not the highlight. Reck creates characters that are so well-defined and important to Matt that I was truly invested in them. Watching the ways that they cane together to impact Matt’s healing was one of the best part’s if the book. Scenes with Grandpa Wainwright, Murray and Mr. Ellis left me checking my mascara and I love a book that can wring me out emotionally.

Bonus points: Reck makes several references to one of my favorite YA books of all time…The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Really, if you haven’t read it…read Matt’s story and then go buy it immediately!

Overall, I loved this book and am very happy that I invested my tune to read it. It’s filled with laughs, tears, relationships and sports. It’s YA (and you know I love me some YA) but doesn’t condescend to the reader or devolve into ‘meet cute.’ I would recommend A Short History of the Girl Next Door to anyone who needs to feel all the feels!

This book was the March YA pick for the Bethany Beach Books Book Drop! I can’t say enough about their service and encourage you to look into a subscription of your own at http://www.thebookdrop.com. Use my code MAMAPANDA for 10% off!

Book Review: Learning to See by Elise Hooper

I’m so excited to finally have an opportunity review Learning to See by Elise Hooper for you! I finished it last night and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

While I have not yet had a chance to read The Other Alcott (Hooper’s first novel,) I’ve been told that it’s an amazing study of a woman overlooked by history. I expected no less from Learning to See and I was not disappointed.

Learning to See is the fictionalized account of the life of Dorothea Lange, a famous documentary photographer from during the Great Depression. Going into the book, I knew nothing of Lange and wasn’t sure I was going to be excited about what promised to be an inspiring story set during a pretty dismal time period. Fortunately for me, I was pretty blown away by what I encountered.

Lange, as portrayed by Hooper, is a tough, determined, young woman who appears on the 1920’s photography scene. She comes to California from New Jersey to escape her disappointing childhood and establishes herself quickly among great artists who were familiar to me, though I had never heard of Lange herself. Lange’s story is peppered with references to the likes of Ansel Adams and Frida Kahlo and those characterizations helped greatly in setting the scene for Lange and helping to set her style and focus apart from others of her time.

Hooper’s depictions of San Franciso prior to, during and after The Great Depression are breathtaking…you can feel yourself caught up in the heyday that comprises the California that Lange enters and the encroaching dread as the country begins to slide into one of the most depressing and heartbreaking periods we have ever known.

I was most amazed by Hooper’s characterization of Lange as feminist. Our ideas about feminism today seem philosophical to me…being a feminist is about holding a certain set of beliefs. Lange, on the other hand, may have had no idea what it meant to believe in feminism but simply embodied it in pursuit of family, independence, love, career and influence. Parts of Lange’s story are absolutely painful to read as the reality of her time and place in history are so well wrought by Hooper.

There was a great deal I didn’t know The Depression…Hooper does an amazing job of describing the state of our country through Lange’s interviews and photographs and drawing a picture that is as breathtaking as it haunting. Hooper depicts Lange’s choices throughout her life…those that are both admirable and questionable…and leaves you both aghast and angry at the obstacles she faced and hopeful for a world with women like her in it.

If you like sharply drawn characters and a strong sense of place and time…and don’t mind making the trek up and down the emotional scale with your protagonist, Hooper’s Learning to See is a great choice for a 384 page adventure!

I received Hooper’s Learning to See as part of my March Book Drop from Bethany Beach Books. This book was part of the Tea Collection, a $16.99 per month box that provides a monthly surprise book selection (sometimes signed by the author) for those who love historical, contemporary, or literary fiction. I wait expectantly every month for my Book Drop…get yours by using my code MAMAPANDA for 10% off at http://www.thebookdrop.com!

The ups and downs of modeling

As many of you know, I’ve was super excited to be hired as a First Fit model for Gwynnie Bee beginning in January. As a FF model, I go ‘on set’ on Fridays and have my picture taken by a professional photographer in 15-20 outfits that will be made available on the GB website for rental. After the photo is shot, I write a short review of the piece to indicate how it fit on me and whether or not I would recommend it. It’s been a blast! What more could I ask for? Writing and clothes? Yes, please!

I’ve had a ball! 90% of the pieces I’m asked to try on are gorgeous and I love wearing them. The staff and photographers at Gwynnie Bee are super supportive and helpful and the camaraderie between models is one of the highlights. I’ve loved seeing my pictures come out 3x per week and have yet to be more than a tiny bit embarrassed by how I look in any of the shots! The feedback I’ve gotten has been terrific: I hear from people all the time who truly appreciate me putting myself out there so that they can see how the clothes really fit! And, it’s super exciting when a picture of me that I’m really proud of gets posted! (See photo above.)

Of course, there is a little bit of pressure involved in the gig. I worry that I’ll look awkward in the photos or that people will judge my appearance or published measurements. We each come to the shoot ‘hair and makeup’ ready so that our pictures reflect our daily look…not some rendition of us concocted by professionals! So, it’s ‘on me’ to make sure I’m having a good hair day and my blemishes are well-concealed!

And then, of course, there are THOSE pieces of clothing. Sometimes it’s just a style (boho!) that I wouldn’t normally wear IRL but that’s no big deal. Occasionally however, there’s a piece that I just don’t know what to do with! It’s not attractive to me or the fit is all wrong…the colors make me look horrible or my lumps and bumps show. Sometimes, a single dress will get passed to 3-4 models before we find someone who can actually pull it off. Amongst the models on set, we giggle and make fun of whoever has to wear that piece but I take the responsibility very seriously! Some designer has created this dress and, trust me…I’ve seen it in my jewelry business, there’s a buyer for everything! So I don the offending piece, giggle along with the other models and do my very best to rock it! Some of what I consider my ‘biggest wins’ are pictures of ‘difficult’ garments that turn out well! (See pic below)

There’s a lot to learn for a fit model, too. Most of us are not trained models and ideas about what poses look good don’t always come naturally. Luckily, our photographer has been an incredible teacher. He coaxes, praises and instructs to get the very best of each of us! I bet you’ve never even considered how hard it is to make it look like you are walking normally when given 5 feet in which to do it!

I get excited every time I get an email from Gwynnie Bee scheduling me for the next shoot. I take it as a sign that I am doing a good job and meeting their needs. Moreover though, I take it as another opportunity to thoroughly enjoy myself and ‘rock’ some amazing clothes so Gwynnie Bee customers like me can pick the most flattering pieces for them!

Jed and the Junkyard War

Couldn’t wait to share with you what came in my Middle Grade Book Drop box this month! Spencer and I are so excited to read this one: the cover art reminds us of The Fog Diver which has been one of our absolute favorite middle grade reads of all time! We positioned it in the windowsill with two of our other favorites and added an extra picture to show you the adorable little bookmark that came with it!

Don’t forget, you can always use my code (MAMAPANDA) to get 10% off of a Book Drop of your own!

We’ll keep you posted as we read…I’ll post a review here soon!