Middle Grade Book Review: Jed and the Junkyard War by Steven Bohls – 2.5 stars

Well, I knew the day would come when I was disappointed by a book that I planned to review and wasn’t sure what to say. I have so much respect for authors and the hard work they do to create a piece of literature that it pains me to write a negative review. I considered just putting the book down when I was finished and not writing a review at all…but I feel like, as someone who puts her opinions out here on the blog regularly, there’s more integrity in telling the truth than in just avoiding it.

All of that to say, Jed and the Junkyard War was not for me. I had high hopes – it’s a middle grade post-apocalyptic story about a boy named Jed who wakes up one morning to missing parents and a series of odd clues for finding a grandfather he’s never known. He travels to a strange world filled with junk (we never do find out why that is!) and is immediately accosted by a strange cast of characters that make up the crew of an airship.

By introducing them to a series of objects from his regular life (such as a watch and a can opener) he wins the trust of the crew and gains their agreement to help him on his quest. Along the way, Jed and the crew are attacked by various lifeforms from the junk world and ultimately come face-to-face with Jed’s grandfather, who turns out to be someone other than who Jed expected. Some of Jed’s compatriots are sacrificed in the final battle while others survive…ultimately the author leaves the book on a cliffhanger, giving Jed more work to do to complete his quest, and allowing the reader to become aware that a sequel will ensue.

There are certainly things to recommend this book: Bohls’ world building is amazing! He describes the world that Jed discovers in great detail and populates it with inventive descriptions and intriguing characters. Additionally, Jed himself is an interesting character…he seems to have a sharp mind and a quick wit and, at the beginning of the book, it’s easy to root for him to conquer his quest and find his family!

Unfortunately, for me, confusion reigned in this book. The ‘rules’ of the junk world weren’t clear to me…why are there three different kinds of populations? Why do they live in particular areas? Why do they hate each other? Why is all of their food in cans? Where do all these cans come from? I wasn’t bought into the story enough to just forego all explanations and go along blindly into the world.

I also found the characters in the junk world confusing: Jed meets at least 4-5 characters on the airship but I struggled to differentiate them. Given nonsense names like Sprocket and Pobble, I found myself unable to remember who was who or understand the individual roles that specific characters were supposed to play in the story.

Finally, I found Bohls’ dialog unnecessarily annoying. Characters ask bizarre questions and give bizarre answers for little reason and with no explanation. The one female character that I could differentiate from the others seemed to communicate only in baby talk throughout the book. Many of the characters’ conversations read like ‘Who’s On First?’ routines.

I also have to mention two plot points that troubled me greatly: 1) Pobble is described as obese. That, in itself, is not a problem but the author spends a significant amount of page space just ridiculing and making fun of the character’s size. In a book for kids and in a world that already abounds in fat shaming activities, I really question Bohls’ need to create a character just to be the butt of fat jokes. 2) Shay, the babytalking character referenced above, is one of the only females in the story. Given the choice to create a babytalking character, must it be a girl? Given the choice to create only one prominent female character, must she only be able to whine petulantly? I struggle to understand whether or not any thought about the implications of that decision occurred at all.

All in all, while the junkyard world was vivid and colorful, the chaotic presentation of the story left me cold and confused. While some may make the case that middle grade fiction doesn’t require the kind of coherence and explanation that I hoped for…I maintain that even children expect more! Let’s give them books that are wildly inventive and innovative in their creation that can also provide a plot that holds together and characters that they can follow!

Don’t Forget! Mama Panda Bear Book Club will discuss The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict online on May 14th at 8pm EDT!

I hope you are enjoying reading the book! If you haven’t stated yet, there’s still plenty of time!

The Only Woman in the Room is a historical novel about Hedy Lamarr and her role in WWII in Austria. This is the story you’ve never heard about a woman of incredible talent, beauty and smarts!

Details about how to connect to the book club discussion will be posted next week! I can’t wait to meet you ‘in person!’

If you still need a copy of the book, grab it here:


The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel

Children’s Book Review: A Voice for the Spirit Bears by Carmen Oliver Illustrated by Katy Dockrill – 4 stars – Available May 7th!

Every now and then I’m asked to review a very simple children’s book that just hits all the right notes! I recently received an ARC of A Voice for the Spirit Bears and it definitely falls into that category.

Targeted to children ages 6 to 9 (though I can see how it would be enjoyable to a broader range: perhaps the 4 to 12 year old set?) the subtitle for this book is: How One Boy Inspired Millions to Save a Rare Animal. It’s the story of Simon Jackson, a boy most comfortable exploring the woods and observing wildlife. When Simon becomes a teenager, he discovers that spirit bears (a subspecies of black bear that has creamy white fur) are losing their habitat to deforestation and vows to protect them.

Simon initially launches a campaign to recruit his fellow students (and then ultimately people all over the world) to assist him in defending the spirit bears. Although he is often teased and ridiculed by other children, Simon continues his efforts to be a voice for the spirit bears. Ultimately he is rewarded for his tenacity: not only is he able to raise enough funds to have a tremendous impact on the plight of the spirit bears, he is introduced to famous environmentalists like Jane Goodall and invited on an expedition to the Great Bear Rainforest. As part of that trip, he actually sees a spirit bear for himself! Ultimately, Simon was named one of Time Magazine’s Sixty Heroes for the Planet.

I love the idea of this book for children: it plants the seed of activism in a way that is approachable and understandable for small children. Author Oliver also doesn’t pull any punches about how difficult it is to become an activist and to stand up for what you believe in. Simon is bullied for his passions but, by staying true to himself and not backing down from what he believes in, is able to make like-minded friends and ultimately become successful as the founder of multiple activism organizations.

It’s impossible to praise this book without mentioning the illustrations. Dockrill draws beautiful renderings of Simon, his escapades and the bears. The illustrations are whimsical and colorful but go a long way toward depicting Simon’s transformation from a boy who was intimidated by the opinions of others to a leader who was able to make a difference in the world. The inclusion of Dockrill’s illustrations make this book much more approachable for the younger end of the 4-12 year old age group which I think is important: it’s never too early to start planting the seed that one person can make a difference!

The end of this book is also very interesting. It transitions from an illustrated ‘story’ about a boy named Simon to a photo-journalistic telling of the life of ‘The Real Simon Jackson.’ This end matter in the book includes photographs of Simon and of the spirit bears. It also provides more details regarding Simon’s journey and the future of spirit bears in the wild. Finally, it closes with a call to action encouraging young people to find a cause a use their voices to change the world like Simon did. If the illustrations lend themselves to reading amongst the younger end of the book’s target audience, the end matter is what will make this book equally appealing to those beyond the 8 year old mark.

Working together, Oliver and Dockrill present an inspiring and educational story in a way that is accessible while remaining true to difficulty that exists in making change happen. Oliver tells the whole story…being brave and moving this effort forward was hard work for Simon. Although she clearly makes the point that Simon’s story illustrates that one person can make a difference, Oliver doesn’t sugar coat the story. Simon and the bears reaped rewards from his tremendous efforts but a great deal was required from Simon and from the worldwide community to make those rewards a reality.

A Voice for the Spirit Bears is available on May 7, 2019. To get your copy, click the link below:

A Voice for the Spirit Bears: How One Boy Inspired Millions to Save a Rare Animal (CitizenKid)

Book Review: Shouting at the Rain by Lynda Mullaly Hunt – 3.5 stars – Available May 7th!

Shouting at the Rain is the story of twelve-year-old Delsie who lives on Cape Cod with her grandmother. Her grandmother and grandfather are the only family that Delsie can remember and her grandmother refuses to talk about her mother at all. The absence of a mother and father is beginning to trouble Delsie as she gets older and lately, she’s become obsessed with the idea that she wishes she had a ‘normal’ family.

On this particular summer, Delsie has been eagerly awaiting the return of her lifelong best friend, Brandy, to the Cape. When Brandy arrives, however, nothing seems quite the same. Brandy is more interested in being a teenager than being Delsie’s friend and Delsie begins to fear that Brandy has outgrown her. What’s worse, Brandy makes a new friend, Tressa, who seems to relish mocking everyone, especially Delsie. Between the developing questions about her mother and the changing situation with her friend, Delsie is left feeling incredibly off balance in her day-to-day life.

Luckily, Delsie has a strong support system in her neighbors and family friends and meets a new friend, Ronan, who has moved to the Cape to live with his dad for the first time. Ronan is dealing with his own pain and uncertainty and he and Delsie strike up an unlikely friendship that helps both of them learn about themselves and heal.

Hunt (who probably know from Fish in a Tree) builds a compelling cast of characters that readers of Shouting will fall in love with: between feisty Delsie, her game show-loving, adoring Grammy and tough but sweet Ronan…there are plenty of personalities to root for in this book. Hunt’s portrayals of Brandy and ‘mean girl’ Tressa are also spot-on…anyone who has ever felt the pain of being excluded and humiliated as a teenager will recognize the pain that Delsie feels. Watching her learn to accept the circumstances of her friendship with Brandy and stand up for and value herself is definitely worth the price of admission to this story for kids and adults alike.

Delsie’s neighbors, Esme, Henry, Ruby and Olive, are also incredibly endearing. They are exactly the supporting characters you would wish to have in your own life…they love and protect Delsie in a way that even she doesn’t quite understand. Without question, Hunt has created a family for Delsie to fill the void she feels in her mother’s absence. With the addition of Ronan, who would be the quintessential troublemaker except for the depth of his feelings and his ability to articulate them, Delsie is surrounded by the kind of care that most of only receive from our families of origin. If Hunt’s message is meant to be that ‘families aren’t born, they are chosen,’ she does a fantastic job of making her point through these characters.

While I am definitely an adult who loves Middle Grade fiction, I struggled a bit with the fact that this particular story seemed to have been ‘dumbed down’ for its intended audience. Much of Delsie’s internal and spoken dialogue is spelled out in a way that will allow her feelings to make sense to tweens but doesn’t seem to represent the way a 12-year-old would really think. “And you can’t really see wind. You can only see how it moves everything around it. And anger is like that, too.’ This is either an extremely profound teenager or Hunt has a message to deliver and is using Delsie as to evangelize that message in a way that comes off as slightly unnatural.

I was also confused by the inclusion of some of the characters and their associated plot points. Aimee and Michael (Delsie’s friends who are in a local theatrical production of Annie – which is used to highlight that Delsie, like Annie, is an orphan) don’t seem to have any real role in the story except perhaps as foils to Brandy and Tressa as ‘bad friends.’ Saucepan Lynn (proprietor of the local diner) is similarly inserted into the action without any purpose that I could discern. There’s also a story arc about a kitten and the pseudo-redemption of Tressa thread that felt particularly forced to me.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the core Delsie story and the authentic (non-touristy) Cape Code backdrop that Hunt so beautifully portrays, I distinctly felt that Shouting at the Rain was written for the 8-12 year old crowd. As it is marketed as a Middle Grade book, perhaps that is appropriate. I’ve fallen in love with several Middle Grade titles that appeal across the ages, however, so perhaps I’m spoiled and hoped that Shouting would be a book that I could read both for my son and for myself. While that wasn’t necessarily the case, given the strong characters and age-appropriate plot, I’m content to give this book a strong recommendation for tweens for whom it was intended. I feel certain that they will love it!

To pre-order a copy of Shouting at the Rain for the younger reader in your life, click the link below:

Shouting at the Rain

Notre Dame Day is today!

Please help me support my alma mater by donating $10 to the ND club or organization of your choice! You can support anything from the Hesburgh Women of Impact Scholarship to the Glee Club with just $10! $10 also earns you 5 votes to distribute…you can give them all to the group you gave your $10 to or allot them to up to 5 different Notre Dame groups! The multipliers earned from the votes mean that your $10 gift is worth between $55-$75 to the receiving organization! These young people work hard to earn your donations and your votes on ND Day! Please consider using this link to make a small gift! http://www.bit.ly/2ge45w8

Event Review: Ohioana Book Festival – Main Columbus Metropolitan Public Library Campus – April 27, 2019

I had the privilege of being able to attend the Ohioana Book Festival today and wanted to share my experience! It’s an annual event celebrating Ohio authors and completely free of charge! I know that many of you who read my blog are book lovers like me and today’s book Festival was a book lover’s paradise! Last year was the first time I had heard of Ohioana and I had a conflict and couldn’t make it…after experiencing it this year, I definitely won’t let that happen again!

The festival started at 10:30 this morning and ran until 5 pm today. There were author panels every hour and a half or so…3 smaller conference rooms and 1 large auditorium hosted different groups of authors throughout the day. The panels suffered by theme…there were Middle Grade and YA panels, True Crime and Mystery, Debuts, Historical and many more!

The brochure for today’s event touted 100 authors but it definitely felt like more. Embarrassingly, I’d never actually been to the Main Columbus Metropolitan Library Campus. I tend to stay close to my home library (Worthington) most of the time, I guess. The library was set up beautifully for the event though…parking in the garage was a little dicey but once I found a spot, it was free and access to the library was easy.

The entire first floor of the library was filled with informational booths. Organizations of all sorts (from Cover to Cover Children’s Bookstore *love* to the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Dayton Chapter *wow*) were available to provide information on their services and give away book marks and other tchotchkes! I arrived after lunch and missed out on some of the better freebies but still got some great information about literary groups and services of all kinds. If you’ve never heard of Thurber House or don’t know what the Bluffton Literary Journal has to offer…make sure to explore the first floor when you go!

The first floor was also home to a host of activities for kids and teens. Ohio writers who focus on literature for young people presented in the Kids Room all day. Those presentations were separated into children’s and YA authors and were supplemented with activities from balloon twisting and a meet and greet with Clifford the Big Red Dog for younger ones to maker space challenges and hands-on poetry writing sessions for teens!

When I ventured up to the second floor, I found a goldmine! Every author who participates in Ohioana in any way has a table in the second floor with his or her books laid out. (That’s them behind me in the selfie above!) Whenever they aren’t speaking or participating in a panel, they are available at their table to meet visitors and sign books. The Book Loft of German Village (squee!) provides all the books and mans a checkout just beyond all the author tables. Theoretically, you could pick up a signed book from over 100 authors just by walking through the tables on the 2nd floor alone…you’d also theoretically go broke, however, so I recommend focusing on the titles and authors you love or really want to explore! I managed to hold myself to three titles: Fat Angie by E.E. Charlton Trujillo, Walking with Miss Millie by Tamara Bundy and Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang. I love a signed copy of a book and have been looking forward to meeting these three women and checking out their work for a long time!

The event was well attended today but not so crowded that I felt I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do. I waited a few minutes to speak to certain authors and spent about 10 minutes checking out with my books but all in all, it was a very well run and well staffed event!

A few tips: 1) Bring a bag! You’ll collect a lot of freebies from the various groups’ tables and will want to have something to carry it all in. You’ll get a bag when you buy books, of course, but will probably have collected a lot of goodies before you reach that point! 2) Food trucks! Both Tortilla and Schmidt’s were available outside the library for this event. Pace yourself…there’s a ton to see and do at Ohioana but nothing says rest break like a taco truck and a creek puff! 3) Keep yours eyes open a month or two before the festival next year. You’ll want all the deets about Ohioans, of course, but you’ll also want to be aware that many authors with new titles coming out plan events in Columbus in the week leading up to and the one following the festival!

Sadly, if you weren’t at Ohioans with me this year…you’ll have to wait until next year to check it out! But now that you know, you’ll have plenty of time to plan out your list of must-see Ohio authors and prepare to load up your TBR!

Book Review: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni – 5 stars!

When you are as obsessed with ‘all things books’ the way I am, it’s not very often that you read a book that you’ve never heard of and LOVE it! I read so many book recommendation lists, subscribe to so many book emails and services and listen to so many bookish podcasts that I often think I know about every book that has been published in the past year that is worth a damn! Boy…did the Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell prove me wrong!

I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley and, for whatever reason, it took me a long time to get around to reading it! I must have started it and gotten distracted at least 4 times in the first chapter alone! As soon on as I decided to listen to the audiobook, however, I was hooked! Read by the author, who does such an amazing job embodying the characters that I thought (at first) that it was a true story, Extraordinary Life is the life story of a boy born with red eyes (ocular albinism). (Yes! That’s a real thing!)

Dugoni tells the story of that boy, Sam Hill (Hell to his friends and his adversaries) almost as a series of vignettes but with a unifying thread that pulls the whole story together. We learn of Sam’s birth, his childhood in Catholic school, his relationship with his devout mother and the birth of his lifelong relationships with his two best friends. We also learn what it’s like to be a child who is so obviously different from others and how that plays out throughout Sam’s life. The examples that Dugoni provides of those who scorn Sam and those who embrace him are heartbreaking and heartwarming in turn. Watching Sam face the world with the help of those who adore him gives the book an incredibly hopeful feeling that points to the importance of resilience and the support of others.

Sam himself and the characters that surround him in this story are drawn amazingly realistically by Dugoni. They are imperfect and scarred in myriad different ways but so human and approachable that you can’t help but love them. The themes of discrimination, bullying, love and faith are strong throughout the narrative and it’s easy to become so engrossed in Sam’s life that you begin to feel as if he and his family friends exist in your world. Hearing Sam’s story in Dugoni’s voice only adds to the realism of the characters…it’s clear that the author knows and hears these characters in his mind. He does an incredible job making those voices available to the listener as the reader of his audiobook.

Dugoni spells out in the book’s acknowledgements that Sam Hill is a fictional character whom he imagined as a hybrid of his youngest brother Michael (who has Down’s Syndrome) and a child in a newspaper article he read about ocular albinism. There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that some of the situations we see Sam encounter must have really happened in the author’s life. His ability to paint a scene and the attendant feelings that go with it is incredibly impressive. What do they say? ‘I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats!’

As I read more about Dugoni and his other books (because, of course, when I love one book someone writes I want to read everything they write) I discovered that Sam Hell is outside of Dugoni’s typical wheelhouse. He has written a host of spy thrillers that get great reviews! Since that’s not a genre that I’m usually drawn to, it stands to reason that I wasn’t familiar with his name or his backlist! You can bet, however, that I’ll be looking for recommendations for which other book of his to read next…his talent and ability to make characters so real for me leaves me willing to follow him into whatever he’s written!

Maybe I was in the dark and everybody else was talking about Sam Hell in April 2018. If they weren’t, they certainly should have been. This book is the busy, messy, love-filled and ultimately delightful story of a man who embraces his life and his condition. I highly recommend you check it out for yourself. I’ll be over here missing my new friends!

To get your own copy of The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, click on the link below:

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell: A Novel

Book Review: Coloring Books and Journals from Cindy Elsharouni – 4 stars

Recently, I was contacted by Cindy Elsharouni who inquired as to whether or not I would be willing to review some coloring books and journals that she creates.  I was initially a little hesitant…sometimes unsolicited requests can put me in a situation where I have to tell the creator that I’m uncomfortable reviewing their work.  In this situation, however, I was needlessly worried!  Elsharouni sent me the four items pictured above (at my request) and they are absolutely lovely! 

The collection she sent to me includes 2 items for adults and 2 for children.  The first is a gorgeous coloring book:  The Animal Creations Coloring Book for Adults.  It has approximately 50 beautifully detailed coloring pages included.  All four of the books that Elsharouni provided to me for review have lovely, heavy weight covers that feel expensive and are of very nice quality.  The price for each book, however, is incredibly affordable!  (None were more than $7 at the time of this writing!) 

I’m a bit of a coloring book snob and the took the liberty of coloring a page just to test the quality of the paper and printing.  The book held up very well!  There was no bleed-through on to the next page which means the paper is a nice thickness and the pages are not printed back-to-back (a pet peeve of mine…why should I be limited to 1/2 of the pages in the book?)  The only constructive feedback I have about this wonderful coloring book is that the pages are not perforated so I can’t remove my colored pages without cutting them.  There is, however, plenty of margin so…if I chose to get out my scissors, I would be able to cut out the picture safely!

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The second adult title that Elsharouni provided for me is the One Minute a Day Gratitude journal.  It contains 40 weeks of spaces for daily gratitude entries with prompts.  It allows the writer to date the entries so you both 1) aren’t required to start in the middle of the book if you buy it in June and 2) could feasibly skip around to different prompts and not complete it ‘in order.’  The prompts are thoughtful (things like ‘Something that made me laugh…’ and ‘A significant person in my life…’) and there is sufficient room to record a thought or two.  Remember…this is a ‘one minute a day’ journal!  The book boasts the same heavy cover and nice cardstock that I referenced in the coloring book and is beautifully laid out and printed!

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Finally, Elsharouni provided me with two titles for kids!  The first, a ‘Gratitude Journal for Kids’ that features unicorn theming…contains daily prompts for 90 days worth of journaling combined with lovely illustrations and quotes that can be colored.  The second, a ‘Dinosaur Journal for Kids’ is filled with lined paper with a image or two of dinosaurs on each page that the child can color in! 

I love that both of these books combine illustrations to be colored with opportunities for writing…sometimes kids at the target age for these books are more interested in coloring than journaling but getting them into the book to think about writing can be key! 

I also love that neither book is marketed in a gender-specific way!  If my son wishes to journal in the unicorn journal…there’s nothing there that says ‘THIS JOURNAL IS FOR GIRLS’ as so many others do.  I also know a great number of girls who would be thrilled to have the dinosaur journal for their own!  I wish there were gratitude prompts in the dinosaur journal…but perhaps Elsharouni has a less ‘pink and purple’ children’s journal that does highlight gratitude!  (Or perhaps she’ll consider creating one?)

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The idea of gratitude journaling for kids also makes me super happy!  I think that teaching our children appreciation and gratitude greatly improves the quality of their lives and their outlook upon them.  I know that when I take the time to be grateful for what I have, I’m just happier overall!

The quality of the illustrations in all of the books is fantastic! The drawings are detailed and compelling while leaving room for artistic interpretation for whomever colors them in! I think any of these books (for adults or children) would make a wonderful gift…or a little treat for yourself at an incredibly reasonable price!

To get a copy of any of the books I reference above, please use the following links:

Animal Creations Coloring Book: Inspired By Nature

One Minute A Day Gratitude Journal

Gratitude Journal for Kids: Unicorn Themed 90 Days Daily Writing with Prompts, Questions and Quotes: Today I am grateful for… Children Happiness Notebook


Dinosaur Journal For Kids

Book Highlight and Author Visit: Greystone Secrets – The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Spencer and I visited Upper Arlington Public Library again last night for an author visit. Margaret Peterson Haddix was on hand to talk about her three most recent books: Children of Jubilee, Summer of Broken Things and Greystone Secrets: The Strangers.

Haddix talked about her writing history…she began as a newspaper journalist and has authored ~40 books over the past twenty years.  She also talked about where she gets the ideas for some of her books: one of her book ideas was developed when she found herself reading a book about genocide while at Disneyland!

Here’s synopsis of the three books that Haddix introduced to the audience:

Summer of Broken Things: Released in April 2018, two girls (Avery and Kayla) travel to Spain with Avery’s family and discover that their families have been keeping a secret from them.  Haddix devised the plot for this YA novel when her family traveled to Spain together (although she insists that no family secrets were divulged on that trip!)

Children of Jubilee (Children of Exile):  Jubilee is the final (3rd) book in the Children of Exile series.  It wraps up the story of Rosi, Edwi, Kiana and Cana that was explored in Children of Exile and Children of Refuge.  While Haddix is prolific in her writing and certainly known for her work in young people’s series writing, the second book of this particular series (Refuge) seems to have been the most popular so far.

The Strangers: Finally, Haddix spoke to the audience about her latest book.  Released less than a month ago (April 2, 2019) this story was spawned from a 1988 news report that Haddix read as part of her journalism research that described a mother of three who gave up driving when she learned of 3 children (same ages and names as her children) who were killed in a car accident.  Obviously a unique but horrifying premise, Haddix came back to that idea years later to build the story of Rochester (12), Emma (10) and Finn (8) who learn that 3 children with their same names and ages have been kidnapped.  She read to the audience from one of the chapters of the The Strangers and it was obvious that the audience was intrigued not only by the mystery in the story but by the different perspectives of each child that Haddix portrays.  She has completed the 1st and 2nd books in the series and is currently working on the 3rd.

Finally, Haddix spent about 20 minutes taking questions:  the audience was curious about everything from:

  1. what books have inspired her – Wrinkle in Time, for one
  2. what her writing process is – set daily productivity goals and attempt to stick to them when you have the plot ‘figured out,’ and
  3. what the name of the book was that she was reading about genocide at Disneyland!  (That was Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder)

Overall, the audience was delighted to meet Haddix and hear about her new works.  It was a diverse crowd – some who only new her latest works and some who had been Haddix fans for quite a long time.  Everyone walked away with a taste who Haddix is and what she hopes to bring to the table for young readers everywhere!  She’s in Columbus, Ohio through the weekend for the Ohioana Book Festival so, if you are in Central Ohio, you’ll still have a chance to see her this week. 

ohioana

Ohioana Book Festival

To order any of the books I’ve referenced above, please use the following links:

Children of Jubilee (Children of Exile)

Children of Exile

Children of Refuge (Children of Exile)

The Summer of Broken Things


Greystone Secrets 1: The Strangers

Strength in What Remains (Random House Reader’s Circle)

Book Review: Up For Air by Laurie Morrison – 3.5 stars – Available May 6th

Let me start off by saying that I’m pretty stingy with my stars. 3.5 stars should be considered an endorsement from me!

I really enjoyed Up For Air by Laurie Morrison and think it is the kind of book I wish I had found when I was an Upper Middle Grade-aged reader! While some of the ‘lessons’ of the book felt a little forced to me, I loved the honesty of the depiction of teenage girls and their myriad feelings. There is a lot of ‘girl power’ in this book but it doesn’t overlook the fact that girls who grow up to be strong women often do so through surviving a lot of pain!

Up for Air is the story of Annabelle, a 13 year old who is going into the 8th grade.  She’s a talented swimmer but faces a lot of challenges in the classroom.  Through her story, we learn a lot about what it feels like to struggle with learning…the hard work, frustration, embarrassment and shame that comes with doing everything you can to succeed and continuing to ‘fall short’ of your own expectations.  Annabelle is completely comfortable in the pool and wishes she could find that level of confidence elsewhere in her life.

Annabelle is also an ‘early bloomer.’  She’s developing into a woman before everyone’s eyes and beginning to draw a lot of attention from guys and girls alike.  We watch her deal with the experience of being placed in situations (like the high school swim team) where her body is ready but her emotional maturity may not be.  Connor is on the high school swim team and Annabelle is smitten…as we watch, she navigates her first crush and all of the baggage that comes with it.  The Annabelle-Connor story is prominent in the book and serves to make Up for Air more appropriate for the Upper Middle Grade reader rather than the 8-10 year old set.

Morrison does an amazing job of portraying what is feels like to be 13.  32 years later, I still recognized much of Annabelle’s joy, worry and humiliation.  Because of Morrison’s ‘spot on’ writing, I could again feel those feelings in my bones…I can only imagine that that experience would be incredibly reassuring to a current middle schooler.

Family drama also ensues in this book:  Annabelle’s parents are divorced and her dad is an alcoholic.  Annabelle is torn between the new blended family that she lives in and loves and a yearning for the father that she hasn’t seen in many years.  Watching that experience play out for Annabelle is also both uncomfortable and enlightening.

There’s a lot of insight into the middle/high school girl dynamic as well.  It was no surprise to me to learn, in the acknowledgements, that Morrison used to be a middle school teacher:  she absolutely nails the interactions between girls at that age.  This, however, is where the book also became difficult for me:  it felt like Morrison tried a bit too hard to infuse ‘lessons’ into the narrative.  As an example, one passage in particular (about Janine, Annabelle’s tutor and her experience as a person of color) felt like it was inserted into an otherwise innocuous experience between the two girls as a way to be ‘inclusive’ or teach a ‘lesson’ about discrimination.  I felt ‘preached to’ in a way that could have been avoided if the topic had been folded more naturally into the story.  I respect Morrison’s desire to use this platform to educate young readers but suspect that they will see through the ‘set up’ easily, which might lead that lesson to be less impactful.

Overall, I truly enjoyed Annabelle’s story.  Morrison’s characters are well-drawn, especially the young people.  There’s no doubt that she knows her stuff when it comes to the teenage psyche.  This book provides great insight for parents into what might be happening in their teenager’s mind and serves as a acknowledgement for young people that they are not alone in their experiences.  At 292 pages, it’s a quick read that is well worth the investment.

To pre-order your copy of Up for Air by Laurie Morrison, click the link below:

Up for Air