Monday, September 24, 2018

Book of the Week: ZORA AND ME: THE CURSED GROUND by T. R. Simon

First Paragraph(s): There are two kinds of memory. One is the ordinary kind, rooted in things that happened, people you knew, and places you went. I remember my father this way: laughing, picking me up, singing lullabies in his gentle bass. I see him swinging my mother in a half circle, the hem of her blue skirt flying up to show the rough white thread she used for mending, like a bed of stars along a ridge.
The second kind of memory is rooted in the things you live with, the land you live on, the history of where you belong. You tend not to notice it, much less think about it, but it seeps into you, grows its long roots down into the richest soil of your living mind. Because most of us pay this second kind of memory no mind, the people who do talk about it seem to us superstitious or even crazy. But they aren't. The power of that memory is equal to any of the memories we make ourselves, because it represents our collective being, the soul of a place.
After losing my father, after nursing myself to sleep nights on end with glimpses of the past with him, I was well enough acquainted with the first kind of memory. But by twelve I was still too young to pay much mind to the memories held by the town we lived in, by Eatonville itself. 
That all changed the night we found Mr. Polk, his blood soaking into the earth. When I look back on that time I wonder how it had never occurred to me that Eatonville, America's first incorporated colored town, might have a history that stretched back beyond its name and my twelve years. How could I have thought our town began with Teddy, Zora, and me, that it had just opened into the infinite present of our young lives? Turned out we were living out Eatonville's history as blindly as pawns in a century-old chess game. We were no more new or free than the land itself, but like all young people, we confused our youth with beginning and our experience with knowledge. It wasn't until that night--when we heard the town mute speak to the town conjure woman--that Zora and I began to forge a real connection with the land, a connection that let us know ourselves through a past we hadn't lived but was inside us all the same.'

Take note of the length of the passage above, Esteemed Reader. I had to retype the whole thing (so any copy-editing errors in the passages are mine). You better believe I'm not working my fingers that hard without a reason. I believe that opening as presented is a thesis, or at least a preliminary argument for the book to follow. More on that in a moment.

I've been ninja-ing for a while, and if this is your first visit to the blog, where've you been? I've been here this whole time waiting for you. Sorry, Esteemed Reader, I lost my train of thought because some of you ticked me off by not reading my other reviews, but what I meant to say was  I've read a lot of middle grade books over the years, and I don't think I've read anything quite like this week's book before.

However this book should be classified, I like it. A lot. And you will too. If you don't want to be spoiled going in, put this review aside and go buy your copy. If you're not yet convinced, continue reading.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is not quite a young adult novel, but it's definitely upper-age middle grade. Alas, there just isn't a kid-friendly way to discuss slavery without pretending slavery was something less horrible than what it was (don't do this, even if you're writing a text book in a church in Texas). 

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is not quite a historical accounting, even though it's drawn from historical events and features a fictionalized version of a Zora Neale Hurston. It's more of a story than an essay, but the book definitely has a formal message. It's a sequel, but I don't think you need to have read the first book to enjoy this one.

T. R. Simon catches up quickly:

I was staying with Zora's family for the week while my mama tended her employer's sick baby over in Lake Maitland. After Daddy died, there was just me and Mama. I was an only child. Alone with Mama I might have felt lonely in the world, but I had Zora, my best friend, my secret keeper, and my talisman against sorrow. From the time I was old enough to have a conversation, Mama always liked to tell how my three-year-old self toddled over to Zora, who was squirming and fussing one pew away from us in her father's church, grabbed her hand, and didn't let go for the next hour. Zora took a long look at me, tried once to shake me loose, then settled right down to the idea of us being joined. Zora's mother liked to say that after I took a hold of Zora, Sunday morning service once again became a place of worship and peace for her. I don't remember that at all. In fact, my own first memory of Zora has the roles reversed: instead of me grabbing her, she's grabbing me and pulling me with her as she scrambles after a lizard that turns out to be a baby diamondback rattler. My screams brought our parents running, and Zora was praised for saving me. Only, I knew there would have been no need to save me if she hadn't taken hold of me in the first place. But I never held the scrapes against Zora. She made life in a town no bigger than a teacup feel like it held the whole world. 

Our narrator is Carrie Brown, who is a sort of Watson to young Zora's Sherlock Holmes, or, if you prefer (and I do), her Ellicott Skullworth to Zora's Banneker Bones. Incidentally, I wondered about the aptness of comparing these two young black girls to two older white men (Watson and Sherlock, not Ellicott and Banneker), but after I wrote this, I watched the video below in which the author makes the same comparison, so we're good:). 

Zora and Carrie are on a new case, and it's a fun one (from a mystery writer's perspective). Someone has stabbed the local mute man who can't say what happened. The middle grade mystery doesn't open with a body, but there'll be bodies before it's done. Further intriguing, the mute man is able to whisper something to the town conjure woman.

Note how Simon is able to tell us so much about Carrie and Zora's relationship and their motivations in this simple exchange:

The secret Mr. Polk shared with Old Lady Bronson didn't excite me; it frightened me. "Honestly, Zora, maybe it ain't for us to know. Maybe there's some secrets folks just ought to keep."
She looked at me incredulously. "Carrie Brown, you can't be serious. How on earth are we gonna suck the marrow out of life if we just sit by and let questions stroll down our street without inviting them in for a glass of lemonade? Mama always says, 'Ain't no one ever got dumber trying to answer a question.' And I intend to answer all life's questions.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground starts out rather tame-ish in 1903 in the town of Eatonville where all the inhabitants are black and doing as well as can be expected in America in 1903. But of course, white folks are at the edge of town conspiring to mess it all up because of course they are. And this is a book that gives us a very specific, and, sigh, accurate view of many white folks at the time (#notallgreatgrandmas):

There's nothing white folks won't do when colored folks have something they want.

No matter how clear our town borders seemed to me, they could be disregarded at any moment by white men who sought to hurt us.

Uneasy whites always bring black death.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground  isn't going to be a favorite read of our Trump-supporting relatives, but they're not really readers anyway. This is a book for reasonable, thinking folks who can appreciate facts for what they are and an honest discussion of them. If that's not you, go ahead and watch your Fox News.

White people reading this book will be made uncomfortable, even the ones who listen to NPR and voted for Obama twice:) Good. This is uncomfortable stuff and should not be read easily. 

If you're a teacher considering not reading this book to your class because some of your students are a different race than you and you don't want things to get awkward, quit being a coward. Read this book aloud. Now. Don't wait until February--this is American history all year round. Awkward discussions need to be had, so fight through it.

Getting back to the book, you'll remember this town has a conjure woman. This is one of my most favorite character introductions of ever:

A shadow fell across the doorway. We looked up to see Old Lady Bronson. She was wrapped in a dark-gray shawl, her giant black cowhide bag hung against her right hip. With soldier boots that stopped below her knees and the still-dissipating smoke rising around her, the town conjure  woman looked every bit the part of a witch. The steel-gray hair I'd only ever seen her wear in a in a single tight braid down her back blew wild behind her, gleaming with droplets of rain. Her freckled skin glowed in the lamplight. Silhouetted against the lightning-filled sky, Old Lady Bronson looked electrified.

There's a lot more to Old Lady Bronson than first meets the eye, but I can't tell you much without spoiling. She's an extremely interesting character and I'd like to read a book that was just about her without any children detectives, but that wouldn't be very middle grade:) She's wisely employed here as someone who may or may not have the ability to curse things, which might come up in a book subtitled "The Cursed Ground."

And she's extremely useful as a plot device, again in ways I shouldn't reveal. But authors, take note at the way T.R. Simon deploys Old Lady Bronson to provide necessary exposition rather than flat out telling us how old these girls are:

I always tell folks that twelve is a changeling year, and it looks like you starting to have some sense with your twelve years.

Carrie has developed feelings for Teddy, a friend of her and Zora's, and there's some other drama in the present tense of the story, but we're not going to bother with that. Because just when the reader is settling in for a familiar middle grade read about our young detectives solving a mystery, Simon pulls the rug out from beneath them by flashing back to 1855 to discuss the adventure of two other girls, Lucia and Prisca.

They might almost be Carrie and Zora in another life, save for one crucial difference. Though the girls start as equal, when they move to America, the darker-skinned Lucia is designated a slave and worked to the bone, while Prisca remains free. And the telling of their story is brutal and unflinching:

I was terrified of what Prisca's tears could bring.
And so I shushed her, apologizing gently until her tears slowed.
In that moment I learned to be a slave even with Prisca. To bottle up my feelings and my fears so that she did not unleash the force of her own power, a power she herself barely understood. The power to be a whole person, her whole self, while I was now forced to exist as a fraction of a human being, a slave with no rights to my own self. What Prisca did not understand, but that I now did, was that the past meant nothing.
She answered me in a ferocious whisper. "Out there you're a slave, but in here we are as we always have been. In here, nothing has changed!"
The first year Prisca often pulled me into her bed during the night and wept onto my shoulder. I did not weep with her. I lay still, the flesh and blood doll she turned to when her loneliness became too hard to bear.

Prisca was defending me--not because I was a person and should not be sold, but because I was her property and could not be taken from her.

There are worse passages to follow, but I won't share them all. Lucia is whipped and beaten and subjugated and endures all manner of things that are unpleasant, but which children growing up in Trump country need to be made aware actually happened.

 Know, children, just what sort of awfulness that man intends when he says he wants to "make America great again." Know the history his "fine people" marching in Charlottesville would have us repeat.

There is violence in this novel, but it's mostly the emotional kind. And even though there's at least one death that's a bit more graphic than what I'm accustomed to in middle grade fiction, Simon is mindful to explain these complex adult subjects in a manner that's easier to digest for younger readers, without altering the truth of what she's discussing:

Zora's brow creased. "What a horrible choice: freedom for yourself or slavery with the folks you love."
Teddy shook his head and said, "Seems like no matter what you chose, running or staying, you must have had a broken heard your whole life."

As I said, that opening passage at the top of this review reads like the thesis of an academic argument as much as the opening of a middle grade novel, and I dig that so hard. Crank up your Bob Dylan, fellow English majors, and let's discuss the meaning of "The Cursed Ground." Oh, sure, there's a conjure woman, but the curse of this particular patch of American soil has far less to do with magic than the action of our ancestors. 

Much of the tension of this story comes from learning how the story of 1855 connects to the story of 1903, which of course it does, brilliantly. Without spoiling, one character late in the novel tells us, "Slavery is over, but tonight you saw how it still haunts us."

Once the reader understands that this book is as much an essay as it is a story, they can fully appreciate the closing arguments:

Zora was right: history wasn't just something you read in a book. It was everything your life stood on. We who thought we were free from the past were still living it out.

Mr. Ambrose rubbed his forehead. "Because slavery isn't far enough in our past yet," he answered. "What we're facing now is the unfinished business of slavery."
"When will it be finished?" Zora demanded.
"That's what I want to know," I added.
"I don't know, girls. White folks have a disease A disease that started with slavery. We taught ourselves to see colored folks as inferior so we could enslave them. And now we have a need to keep seeing them as inferior. White folks have become dependent on feeling superior to the colored race; no matter how low we fall, we can tell ourselves that the colored man is always lower."
"Do you think that, too?" Zora asked.
Mr. Ambrose took a full minute to respond. "It would be a lie to say I didn't. Every white man I know has the seed of race hate planted and rooted in him by the time he's reached his fifth year. This country is founded on it, and not even a civil war could uproot it. The only way to fight that hate is to consciously decide every day to choose against the hate we've been taught."

Thankfully, in 2008, Barrack Obama was elected president and racism was over forever in the United States and white police never again shot an unarmed black man and evil white people never repeatedly flashed white power hand symbols behind a would-be rapist supreme court nominee put forward by the most evil political party our nation has ever seen.

The past is still very much with us, Esteemed Reader, as we are all living on cursed ground. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is an important book that should be made available in every classroom across this country as a primer for American children to learn about this political mess they're inheriting. Don't miss this extraordinary novel.

And don't miss author T.R. Simon's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Zora and Me:The Cursed Ground:

A last flicker of lightning lit up his face, making invisible all the wrinkles of age for a fraction of a second and revealing the face of a troubled boy.

"You know how my mind works--once a question starts a fire inside me, I have to answer it, no matter how bad I get burned. There ain't no pain more painful than the pleasure I get from the light of truth."

For the first two weeks, when the two of us were alone, I allowed myself the fantasy that things between us were as they had been, that we still could enjoy each other's company in a time and place without slavery. It was a useless fantasy and a dangerous one. The present was a hell with no escape, and the past could change nothing about that.

Across his shoulder was slung the rifle he always carried, pressed tight against his lean frame like a second spine. 

House wasn't quite the right word. It was more like a shipwreck in the shape of a house.

The gun made the house feel like a cage set with a trap.

I burned with fear, sorrow, humiliation, and helplessness. And not one of Prisca's tears could extinguish that fire.

Zora elbowed me. She loved the way folks whose speech was plain as gray wool in normal times liked to trot out their biggest words on special occasions, as if they had been saving them up and didn't want to waste them on everyday things. We agreed that her father was king of the fifty-cent words, but there were a lot of dukes and earls and counts in the kingdom of Eatonville, too!

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

GUEST POST: "Mac's Sports Report" by Kyle Jackson

The first thing you need to know about Jolly Fish Press’new middle grade series, Mac’s Sports Report,is that it’s all about sports. The four books are loaded with action-packed athletic drama. Concussion Comeback is a football book. Sideline Pressure is a basketball story. Racket Rumors takes place on the tennis court. Back on Track takes place—you guessed it—on the track.

The second thing you need to know about Mac’s Sports Report is that it’s not just for people who play sports. It’s for people who like to watch and read and talk about them.

The hero of the stories is Stuart “Mac” McKenzie, who is both a great athlete and an excellent middle school sports reporter. Each book has Mac following—and writing about—different athletes at his school. These athletes deal with conflict on and off the court. If you’ve ever wanted to work for ESPN, these books are for you.

There are many other things worth knowing about Mac. He’s a brother, a son, a friend, and a teammate. He’s brave and smart and competitive. Did I mention he’s a great athlete? Probably, but it’s worth repeating. Mac can flat-out ball. He’s the best shooter on his basketball team and probably in the whole league.

One other thing worth knowing about Mac is that he uses a wheelchair. This detail is not treated in the books as a big deal because, well, why would it be? It doesn’t prevent Mac from being a good brother, or reporter, or—honestly, I can’t say this enough—a jock. (Mac’s the Steph Curry of his basketball team.)

But then again, it was important that his chair isn’t treated as an afterthought. After all, it affects Mac’s life more than the color of his eyes or hair. To ignore the wheelchair completely would be to ignore Mac’s lived reality. It would be to render Mac’s life in some ways invisible. Yes, he’s the best basketball player in the school. But that doesn’t mean he plays on the school team. He plays on a district team with other middle schoolers who use wheelchairs. His games are as jam-packed with fast breaks, deep three-pointers,epic comebacks, and buzzer beaters as the games he covers as a reporter.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mac’s Sports Report isn’t about Mac’s wheelchair. But it is about Mac, an intrepid kid who doesn’t let anything—threatening parents, angry coaches, mysterious players, or his wheelchair—get in the way of a good story.

All four books in the Mac’s Sports Report series released September 1 with Jolly Fish Press, and are available in paperback and library bound hardcover, and as Ebooks.

Kyle Jackson loves to watch, play, and report on sports, just like Mac.

North Star Editions:
Purchasing information:


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Meg Medina

Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction.

Her most recent young adult novel, Burn Baby Burn, has earned numerous distinctions including being long listed for the 2016 National Book Award and shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize. She is the 2016 recipient of the Pura Belpré honor medal for her picture book, Mango, Abuela and Me, and the 2014 Pura Belpré Award winner for her young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your As*, which was also the winner of the 2013 CYBILS Fiction award and the International Latino Book Award. Meg also earned the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal for her picture book Tía Isa Wants a Car.

Meg’s other books are The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind , a 2012 Bank Street Best Book and CBI Recommended Read in the UK; and Milagros: Girl from Away. Her newest middle grade novel is Merci Suárez Changes Gears (Candlewick Press, 2018).

Meg’s work examines how cultures intersect, as seen through the eyes of young people. She brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls.

In March 2014, she was recognized as one of the CNN 10 Visionary Women in America. In November 2014, she was named one of Latino Stories Top Ten Latino Authors to Watch.  In 2017, she was named, along with Gigi Amateau, to the Southerners of the Year list by Southern Living Magazine.

When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

Meg discusses all her books on National Public Radio. Click here for Meg on NPR’s Virginia Currents.

Click here to read my review of Merci Suárez Changes Gears.

And now Meg Medina faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Oh boy, this changes all the time as I read new books by exciting new authors.

For craft:  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

For voice: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia

For all around impact on me as a person:  Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and The House of Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

It fluctuates, of course, but words are at the center of how I move through the world pretty much all day long. I read the paper and have coffee every morning in my quiet kitchen for about 30 minutes, and I end the day by reading in bed every night for about an hour – unless the book is fabulous and then I read until I physically can’t do it anymore.

In my daytime hours I am writing, writing, writing.  Sometimes it’s up to four hours of composing a new work or editing it. Sometimes it’s writing answers to Q and A requests or writing a blog post for my own site or someone else’s. At times, I’m reviewing work for different publications. It’s all about words and books, though.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

The short answer is yearning and a sudden, reckless decision. It took me a long time to decide to take the risk and try to write a novel. I lacked the courage to try my hand at a career that felt so difficult to break into.  I’d been a teacher, and later, a freelance journalist where I wrote for magazines and   newspapers. The last job I had was writing press releases and printed materials for a school that served kids with learning disabilities.All were terrific jobs, but none of that felt exactly right.

So, on my 40th birthday, I stood up and quit my job at that school, deciding that my career in writing was now or never. Luckily it worked out for me. I wrote the novel for about a year, and then searched for an agent with my copy of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Chidlren’s Literary Markets, a process that took about six months. After that, I began publishing books pretty regularly.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I think it depends what you mean by writers.  I think we can absolutely teach people to be competent writers who can get their thoughts on a page in a way that’s engaging and memorable. But writing with a capital W, the writing of books that become part of the children’s canon and that move readers for generations….that I think does take a special kind of person who comes with certain gifts or leanings.  It’s someone with not only the eye for detail and the ability to turn phrases, but also a person who has the heart for understanding people at their best and worst.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is when the characters that have been living inside of me start to feel real not just for me, but for readers. The feeling of connection is so powerful.

My least favorite thing is all the self-doubt that happens as you’re drafting, all those days when you’re sure you can’t do it, when you’re positive that you’re a hack, that this will be your worst book ever.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Great writing has swing; it’s intuitive and springs from your emotional truths more than from your technical skills. So, yes, spend as much time as you can reading the very best books and studying them to improve your craft. But don’t forget to invest just as much time going inside your own memories and mining your own experiences to rediscover who you were as a kid and what that kid from long ago has to say about growing up now. Say things the way you truly feel them.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I’d want to have lunch with Sandra Cisneros.  So many of us Latinx writers are, in fact, standing on her shoulders. She named us in her writing. She drew our families as we were in our beauty and despair. She pointed the way on how to make our bicultural lives visible in books and in doing so opened the door for so many of us who followed. And for that gift I am forever grateful to her.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Book of the Week: MERCI SUÁREZ CHANGES GEARS by Meg Medina

First Paragraph(s): To think, only yesterday I was in chancletas, sipping lemonade and watching my twin cousins run through the sprinkler in the yard. Now, I'm here in Mr. Patchett's class, sweating in my polyester school blazer and waiting for this torture to be over.
We're only halfway through Health and PE when he adjusts his tight collar and says, "Time to go."
I stand up and push in my chair, like we're always supposed to, grateful that picture day means that class ends early. At least we won't have to start reading the first chapter in the textbook: "I'm OK, You're OK: On Differences as We Develop."
"Coming, Miss Suárez?" he asks me as he flips off the lights. That's when I realize I'm the only one still waiting for him to tell us to line up. Everyone else has already headed out the door.
This is sixth grade, so there won't be one of the PTA moms walking us down to the photographer. Last year, our escort pumped us up by gushing the whole way about how handsome and beautiful we all looked on the first day of school, which was a stretch since a few of us had mouthfuls of braces or big gaps between our front teeth. But that's over now. Here at Seaward Pines Academy, sixth-graders don't have the same teacher all day, like Miss Miller in the fifth grade. Now we have homerooms and lockers. We switch classes. We can finally try out for sports teams.

Do you love a great coming-of-age tale featuring a memorable character who's all too easy to relate to, Esteemed Reader? If so, Merci Suárez Changes Gears will truly change the gears of your heart. Did that metaphor work? No? Forget it, let's keep going.

Make sure you find your way back here on Wednesday as we'll have the great fortune to be joined by author Meg Medina who will be the next distinguished author to face the 7 Questions, and she will change the gears of your writer's mind. So don't miss it:)

Merci Suárez Changes Gears will make you laugh and cry in nearly equal amounts. It's a charming story that's about a lot of things, as is life, but mostly it's about an adolescent girl going through the agony of puberty in a way that made me cringe recalling my own experiences as well as watching my siblings go through that terrible trial of life. 

Recently, Little Ninja and I kept a caterpillar in a jelly jar long enough to watch it cocoon for a few days before we released a beautiful butterfly. It was majestic. The transition of a human from a child to a teenager is considerably less so:

"You're not supposed to smell good when you're playing outside," I grumbled, but Tia Inez wouldn't listen. She dumped the whole basket of powders, razors, and deodorants at the cashier's counter just the same.
"Merci, a young lady takes care of herself," she said, hand over her two-for-one coupons. "Like it or not, it's time."
Time for what, exactly? I wanted to know, but I didn't dare ask.

Esteemed Reader, my sixth and seventh grade years were the worst years of my life (and hopefully will always remain so, their ranking unchallenged). A big part of what made them so miserable is that my grandmother's health declined severely and then she died. Typing that sentence just now tore a leak in a carefully preserved packet of sorrow I usually avoid opening and am now quickly resealing because I have things to get done today.

One reason we read stories is to drain the build-up of emotion that accumulates over the average human life. Having a cry at a book or a movie or the new Spider-man video game (so awesome, and so sad) keeps those emotional packets drained to a maintainable level so we're not overwhelmed and can go about living our life without openly weeping at the tragedy of humanity's mortality.

Here's my point made better in the text:

Children don't need to hear life's ugliness. There's plenty of time for that. I've heard Abuela say that before. She hates when books and movies that Roli and I watch are sad or bloody. But that's so dumb. Plenty of sad things happen to kids all the time. Your dog dies. Your parents split up. Your best friend dumps you for someone better. Someone sends you a mean snap message.

Let us ***giggles obnoxiously*** change gears, and get back to the book. Without spoiling,  Merci Suárez Changes Gears will provide the reader a few opportunities to drain the build up in their emotional packets (starting to sound like I should see a doctor). Merci's grandfather, Lolo, is in declining health, and that's putting new pressures on Merci's entire family. Chiefly, it's forcing Merci to grow up faster than she'd like and to think of the world in a new way that's significantly less fun, but more nuanced than a child's perspective.

Also, we're going to talk a little about money and social class in a moment, because 1. I love talking about those things, and 2. It's a huge part of this story. But first, let us appreciate Merci's unique family situation. I'd argue that what Merci lacks in material wealth, she makes up for some with the wealth of family (not that you can buy a new bike with that):

Mami only marked the cheapo basic package, and I happen to know (because it said so in gigantic font on the letter we got at home this summer) that picture day at Seaward is one of our biggest school fundraisers. You're supposed to buy a lot, like for your family in Ohio that barely knows you and whatnot. But my family mostly lives on the same block, one house next to the other. We see one another every single day.

How we live confuses some people, so Mami starts her usual explanation. Our three flat-top houses are exact pink triplets, and they sit side by side here on Sixth Street. The one on the left, with the Sol Painting van parked out front, is ours. The one in the middle, with the flower beds, is where Abuela and Lolo live. The one on the right with the explosion of toys in the dirt, belongs to Tia Inez and the twins. Roli calls it the Suárez Compound, but Mami hates that name. She says it sounds like we're the kind of people who collect canned food and wait for the end of the world any minute. She's named it Las Casitas instead. The little houses. I just call it home.

Merci is going through lots of changes and she attends a schmancy private school full of kids with money who are also going through changes, because adolescents in puberty are so terrible, no one wants to be around them but other adolescents (and frequently not even them), so we as a society have determined to keep them centrally located where they can just go be miserable together and leave the rest of us alone:)

Merci and her brother attend Seaward on a scholarship, so that in addition to the usual feeling of no one understanding that accompanies puberty, she's stuck in a place where most of her richer classmates really don't understand. They can try out for the soccer team because their parents can afford the cost of playing accompanied with the loss of a built in babysitter. But Merci has to watch her younger cousins and help out with her father's painting business, which totally sucks and isn't fair at all.

A lesser author might invent a way for Merci to suddenly become rich (like, say, meeting their really rich cousin, Banneker Bones for the first time). Meg Medina is more responsible than that. Without giving the whole thing away, Merci's journey is to grow up and appreciate the good things she has without focusing on what she lacks. She also learns the importance of putting the needs of her family above her own needs, which is a lesson too many adults still haven't learned. 

There's a literal plot element of Merci saving to buy a new bike, but the gears she's changing are the metaphorical ones in her mind. What Meg Medina does most successfully in this novel, aside from ripping out her reader's heart, is to put us in the mindset of Merci, who's beginning to notice darker things about the world around her for this first time:

I creep closer to the cruiser as Mami talks, being careful not to make any sudden moves the whole way. Cops are community helpers and all that, but a billy club and gun don't ever look very friendly.

Although it's not the main thrust of the novel, a lot of what Merci is noticing as she mentally changes gears is how fundamentally unfair life in America is. For example, she's invited to a party and told it's a big deal because the host's dad owns a yacht dealership, so she should be thrilled. And there are plenty of other harsh realities for Merci to notice along the way:

Seaward's gym is ginormous, so it took us three whole days to paint it. Plus, our school colors are fire-engine red and gray. You know what happens when you stare at bright red too long? You start to see green balls in front of our eyes every time you look away. Hmpf. Try doing detail work in that blinded condition. For all that, the school should give me and my brother, Roli, a whole library, not just a few measly textbooks. Papi had other ideas, of course. "Do a good job in here," he insisted, "so they know we're serious people." I hate when he says that. Do people think we're clowns? It's like we've always got to prove something.

"Canned? Is this all you have?" Tia asks.
Abuela gives her a withering look. "¡Por Dios! Yes, it's all I have, and there's nothing wrong with it. You were raised on leche evaporada!"
"But the twins only drink fresh milk. You know they're picky about food."
"The twins aren't on social security, Inez."

(in regard to a hospital - MGN) But Abuela's on a roll, and her voice is getting louder. "And why doesn't anybody make house calls anymore? How are two ancianos supposed to get all these appointments? Those silly shuttles that never come on time? And I don't even want to start to tell you about the cost. They charge you the eye on your face, and then they use it to pay for their fancy lobbies with the waterfalls and fish tanks."

And that's where we'll leave it, Esteemed Reader. Merci Suárez Changes Gears is an entertaining and moving novel that's perfect for kids in adolescence and anyone who remembers having gone through the same thing. 

Don't miss Meg Medina's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Merci Suárez Changes Gears:

I ignore them as best I can and take my turn.
I sit on the stool exactly the way the photographer says: Ankles crossed. Torso swiveled to the left and leaning forward. Hands in lap. Head tilted like a confused puppy. Who sits like this, ever? I look like a victim of taxidermy.

If you want to know all the ways you can be tragically hurt in everyday life, just talk to Abuela. She keeps a long listand she doesn't mind sharing details.
"Get back from the canal," she yells whenever one of us kids wanders too close to the fence behind our house. "An alligator will close its jaws on you and drag you to the bottom!"
"Put shoes on!" she'll say whenever I'm barefoot. "You'll get worms in your belly the size of spaghetti."

"No offense, Merci, but you're a wreck."
I squeeze my eyes shut, trying not to let my eye stray. It's only Edna being Edna. I should be used to it by now. No offense, Merci, but you're singing off-key. No offense, Merci, but I want to study my spelling words with somebody else. It took me a while to figure Edna out last year, but I finally got wise. No offense is what Edna says right before she takes a hatchet to your feelings.

The patio already looks like a toy chest detonated.

I look at my pen pal assignment: Lena, who sits in the front row and cracks her knuckles. I don't really know her because this is our only class together. Plus, at lunch, she usually reads by herself outside. She got a spiky haircut over the weekend, though, with the ends dyed blue. She looks a little like a hedgehog.

"Things happen over time, Merci," Mami finally says. "We grow up and older. We need to respect how things change and adjust."
Her words jumble out of her mouth and make me angry. "What are you talking about?" I say, cutting her off. "It's all blah, blah, blah. Nobody will tell me what's really wrong!"

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

GUEST POST: "Middle Grade Fiction Opened Another Way to Connect With My Kids" by Emilio Iasiello

I have been engaged in the craft of creative writing since I was in grade school, writing a weekly series for the mimeographed school “paper.”  The stories were adventure-based with over-the-top characters engaged in action-packed heroics as they fought the bad guys and suffered knocks along the way.

I knew I was on to something when every Friday when the paper came parents picking up their kids would approach me and ask me to give them a sneak-peak into that week’s serial.  Apparently, they were reading the stories as much as the students were.  I learned my first lesson when it came to fiction – interesting creative writing could capture audiences of any age regardless of the age of the author.

Fast forward to today.  When asked by people what I do for a living, I tell them my full-time (cyber security) job pays me more than my other full-time job (writing).  This is my way of telling them, even though I earn a living as a cyber security expert, my passion lies in writing.  Hopefully, one day, the latter will supersede the former.

As a writer, I’ve had some moderate success in various writing disciplines – poetry, short fiction, screenplays, stage plays, and novels.  I’ve been fortunate enough to get work published and produced, and while they may not have garnered national attention, it has satiated the creative writing wolf that always looms large in writers’ doorways.  I consider myself an adaptable writer that likes to pursue the mediums that best suit the stories I want to tell.

Recently, I have been fortunate enough to have my middle grade fiction book, The Web Paige Chronicles published by Tell-Tale Publishing.  As a father, I have always wanted to write a book for my children, but never knew how to do it or what subject to highlight.  Most of my writing has been adult-focused, complete with the language and situations in which adults often find themselves.  But now I wanted something my children could read. They'll have to wait a few more years before they read their father’s more provocative works.

But what to write?

Focusing on kid literature was something new for me, and despite all the books I read to my children before bedtime, I drew a blank when I tried to focus on a topic.  Watching the news helped connect the dots for me.  As any parent can attest, one thing has become clear: as the Internet becomes more socialized in all aspects of our lives, in some cases children are becoming more adept than their parents at using the technology.

What’s more, as any Internet user, children are exposed to threats that lurk in the murkiness of cyberspace.  And that was the genesis of The Web Paige Chronicles – to write a story that follows a 12-year-old girl’s mission to help her friends and family navigate safely on the Internet. If children were smart enough to use computers and the Internet, then they were certainly smart enough to learn how to use them in a responsible manner.

And with this in mind, The Web Paige Chronicles represents the confluence of my two passions – cyber security and creative writing.  The challenge was to develop a character – in this case, Wilhelmina Evangeline Beatriz Paige, or “Web” to her friends – that was “real” to my target demographic.  The character had to exhibit all the attributes of children at this age – funny, quirky, inquisitive, intelligent – and then put her in situations that were immediately recognizable to readers.

The news (both traditional media as well as its online counterpart) is rife with true incidents involving children and a variety of hostile Internet presences, so it is easy to see the reality of the types of threats these kids face on a daily basis.  As such, when writing about them, it was important for me to present these situations as they are and to not sugar-coat them for sensitivity's sake.

Children are intuitive and smart and would know the real “truth” from a softened version of it.  That’s why some of the subjects addressed – cyber bullying, online predators, sexting – had to be approached in an honest, truthful way.  Equally important was how to address each of these issues and provide both the characters, as well as the readers, relevant information and resources to aid them when they find themselves in these scenarios.  Web Paige was a perfect conduit to convey to a younger audience what could normally be perceived as “dry” information.

I’m very pleased with the results of writing (and rewriting, and rewriting) the book, because as any writer can attest, following the characters on their journey is half the fun.  Invariably, both writer and the characters they write learn from each other.  But as a parent, more importantly I now have another way to engage my children in talking about the Internet, the advantages and disadvantages of being online, and why it is so important to learn how to act in a safe manner.  Hopefully, The Web Paige Chronicles can serve other parents in the same manner, enabling an open discourse on topics that impact their children.

Someone recently asked me if there is going to be a follow-up book.  I hadn’t considered it before, but what started as a one-off book has gotten me thinking that this character Web is not done with her journey.  And as a writer and reader of stories, I’m immediately drawn to characters that take me places I’ve never been as much as places I know well.  And along the way I learn something about myself.  I look forward to following Web on future journeys, because she has more stories to tell.

And I for one am listening.

Emilio Iasiello is the author of the short story collection Why People Do What They Do, and a nonfiction book, Chasing the Green. He has published poetry in several university and literary journals and written the screenplays for several independent feature films and short films and has had stage plays produced in the United States and United Kingdom. A cyber security expert, Emilio has more than 15 years' experience in cyber threat intelligence leading teams in the public and private sectors. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals and cyber security blogs. He lives in Virginia with his wife and two amazing children.

Wilhelmina Evangeline Beatriz Paige is better known as "Web" to her friends because of her seemingly endless knowledge of computers. Always eager to lend a hand, she takes pride in helping the "technically-challenged" in her neighborhood as part of her "pay-it-forward" philosophy. But when her closest friends become the targets of cyber bullying and online predators, Web realizes that safely navigating the Internet is more than just using strong passwords and antivirus protection. By helping those who can't help themselves, Web embarks on a journey through which she learns things from not only her friends, but also strangers, adults, and most importantly, herself.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

GUEST POST: "Writing Tricky Topics for the Middle Grade Reader" by Martii Maclean

As young readers, we’ve all read stories that showed us glimpses of the injustice or frightening realisations about our world. We traveled with the book’s character and experienced what it was like to face a bully or be frightened by a stranger, or to struggle with secrets, doubts, disfigurement, seeing a cruelty or injustice, and characters who want to fix things but don’t know how.

By watching the characters in those books struggle against challenges and discover frightening things about their life or world, we watched these things unfold at the safe distance the book offered. And when we’d reached our limit for the day, we could slap that book shut and walk away.

I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time and feeling Meg’s fear and sadness about her father, and her frustration at being different and not fitting in. While I read that book, I had the opportunity to learn from Meg as she fought her fears, found her confidence and learned what special things she had to offer. Sometimes I closed the book, but mostly I just couldn’t stop reading.

The other thing I realised later, was that, as that young reader, I wanted more of these kinds of thought-filled, unexpected stories in the world and that influenced me to write and set a bench-mark for the types of stories I strive to create.

Books that explore tough or tricky topics allow the middle grade reader to examine issues in their world and start forming opinions and debating on things that they are likely to face when they become independent young people. Being able to do this through the character’s eyes and senses allows the young reader to explore darker, more challenging themes with the safety of distance that comes from travelling along with the book’s character.

Young readers deserve engaging, thought-filled and thought provoking stories. I am committed to writing books for young people that don’t talk down or dumb down content and issues, but the stories still need to be, first and foremost, surprising, exciting, and maybe hilarious. It is equally important to me that the story be crafted with the nature of the young reader in front of mind.

When I know I’m writing a story that will deal with a ‘tricky’ topic, I am very mindful about how I deliver my message, — i.e. I don’t. As an author, I make a promise on the covers of my books and on my website that I write fantastical tales. It would be very sad to break that promise and offer stories that are ‘preachy’ or instructive. That’s just telling. If I work to craft a good story and I let the character show the way they work through and respond to any issue in the story, then that character will be able to offer insight to the young reader, not me.

Stories are a place where young people can examine touchy, tough and tricky topics, but we need to keep the middle grade audience in mind when we’re writing.

Short stories can be great places to tackle tricky issues. I published ‘Weird Weirder Weirdest’ last year. It is the first anthology in a series of short story collections for middle grade readers. There are two volumes in development now, which will be out in 2019 and 2020. I’ve been a teacher and teacher librarian for … a long time, and many of the ideas for the weird stories came from conversations with student and observations about what’s important to them and the types of challenges they face.

Each short story has accompanying teacher notes. I planned this ahead of time and intentionally planted seeds for thought and discussion in the tales. All young people have an inborn ability to create stories, so my teaching notes encourage students to think like writers.

I worked to ensure that I didn’t lose sight of my original promise to write fantastical tales, so each of the seven short stories in this volume are WEIRD and some of them have tricky issues threaded into the weirdness.

The first tale, ‘Having Writ Moves On’, is about Dylan, who wins a magical pen that writes whatever it wants and gets him into lots of trouble. The issue of words (and images) having consequences is huge in today’s social media world, so I let the story show the young reader the trouble words might cause in a fun way, then offer options for group discussion about social media as part of the teaching guide.

Another story, ‘Just Desserts’, is a sweet twist on the issue of bullying. Where our victim, Jackie, is resilient and tries to make friends by baking treats to give to the not-so-friendly ‘bully-girls’ at her new school. When this fails, a magical baker-woman helps Jackie give the bullies their just desserts. Bullying can be a huge deal in the middle grades and beyond. I think it is vital that young people learn the self-talk and wise mind thinking that will allow them to develop resilience in tough situations. Not all of us have a witchy-baker to help out, but the humour of this story can and does open a comfortable discussion about bullying issues and strategies.

With my first volume, Weird Weirder Weirdest,now out in the middle grade reader-verse, I have kept my promise to write a collection of fantastical tales. The young reader gets a glimpse at the unreal and very weird characters and travels along with them as they face their challenges. If they happen to discover, or learn a little something to help them deal with the trickiness they face in the lives then that is a delightful bonus. Yay!

Martii Macleanlives in a tin shack by the sea, catching sea-gulls which she uses to make delicious pies, and writing weird stories. She likes going for long bicycle rides with her cat, who always wears aviator goggles to stop her whiskers blowing up into her eyes as they speed down to the beach to search for mermaid eggs.Or how about this…

Martii Maclean writes fantastical, adventurous tales for children and teens and sometimes adults. She was born in Sydney, Australia and now lives in Brisbanewith her husband Trevor and her cat Minerva. Her work as an educator and librarian, allows her to share her love of stories and of story-telling with many young people. This inspires Martii to create thought-filled stories that explore the wonderful world of ‘what if’.Find out more about Martii and her stories at

‘Weird Weirder Weirdest’ - a collection of quirky tales (2017),was the first of a fun middle grade short story series, with two more volumes bubbling away that will be out next year. Free teaching guide and colouring sheets to accompany the book available at author website.

‘The Adventures of Isabelle Necessary’ (out any day now), is the newest book for middle grade readers. It’s all about a gutsy girl, a cool beach town, awesome friends and oodles of adventures.  To get at notification when it’s released, join Martii’s list at

Martii has written three sci-fi/fantasy novels for young adult readers:

Not all tales have the ever-after you might expect. Vreni is sleeping-beauty’s granddaughter and the sleeping curse has controlled every female in the family for centuries.

When Trin sees blue people rise from the ocean she is destined to be drawn into the Between.
‘Un-Real Time’ (late- 2018)
Deon thinks his new school is tough, but time travel is even tougher … and awesome.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

GUEST POST: "How to Write Middle Grade Cringe Humor" by Dan Richards

To be honest, I discovered that middle grade students LOVE cringe humor by accident. A fourth-grade teacher introduced me to the term after reading my novel, Stu Truly, to his class. He explained that his students loved the story because Stu, the main character, kept getting into socially awkward, embarrassing situations.

For some reason, kids, and adults, love watching someone else squirm. I know I do. Which is why Stu ends up in so many cringe-worthy situations in my story.

Since the novel’s publication, I’ve been getting asked by kids, teachers, authors, and other handsome folk, how do you write a scene using cringe humor? Good question. That got me to thinking what are the building blocks of cringe humor and how can authors use them to ramp up the laughs in their own stories?Here goes:

#1 What secret is your character afraid of having exposed? Are they scared of spiders? Prone to crying during sad movies? Have a secret crush on a classmate? Embarrassed of their parents’ odd behaviors? It doesn’t have to be something huge (sometimes little secrets are the ones we find most embarrassing) but it does need to either reveal character or advance the overall plot.

#2 Where’s the worst place the secret could be revealed? During a school dance? In the cafeteria? At a sleepover? The more public the better, but keep it within the settings and context of your story.

#3 Now for the tricky part. What is the mechanism that publicly reveals their secret fear? As an example, in my story Stu lies to Becca, the girl he has a crush on, that he is a vegetarian when in fact his father owns a butcher shop and he hates vegetables. His secret gets revealed at the town’s Spring festival parade. How? Stu is forced to wear a rack of ribs costume for a float advertising his father’s butcher shop. Unfortunately, Becca sees him flexing his meaty muscles in front of the whole town. Yikes.

#4 Don’t let the character off easy. Cringe humor is all about watching the character squirm in a relatable way. Stu wearing a meat costume is kinda funny, but the real humor is in him being seen by the girl who thinks he’s a vegetarian. The moment goes from sort of embarrassing (what middle school kid wants to wear a meat costume in public?) to completion humiliation when she shows up at the wrong moment and learns the truth in an undeniable way.

#5 Have your character gain something from the experience. The best cringe humor relays an underlying message to the reader. Stu learned the importance of being himself and telling the truth rather than lying to impress. Perhaps your character learns to laugh at their own mistakes. Or not to take them self so seriously. Or find they have the inner strength to withstand an embarrassing moment. Cringe humor and self-discovery go hand in hand.

At the end of the day, does cringe humor really matter? YES!! Cringe humor is a great way to face our own fears by watching others navigate embarrassing situations. We learn that if they can survive an embarrassing moment, so can we. And when our turn comes, the best way to face a cringe-worthy experience is with a keen sense of humor! Or selective memory loss. Or better yet, both.

Dan has been writing since he was old enough to hold a pencil.

 He is a graduate of the University of Washington Writing For Children Program where he wrote his debut picture book The Problem With NOT Being Scared Of Monsters.

Dan loves telling stories and talking about the craft of writing. School visits make him happy.

He lives with his wife, two kids, and two silly pups in Bothell, WA. 

"Let me start by saying I believe in telling the truth. It’s  just that sometimes the truth is complicated."

Sixth Grade is hard enough, but when Stu Truly lies to impress his new crush, he finds that keeping up with the charade is a lot harder than he thought. 

Stu Truly is a moving and laugh-out-loud story about being yourself by Dan Richards, a talented author making his middle grade debut.
"A charming tale of angst and self-discovery."
    - Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants Series
"Richards’ first novel utterly charmingly and convincingly depicts a boy’s first crush on a female peer."
    - Kirkus Reviews, 2018

Stu Truly by Dan Richards is available now. The follow up, Stu Truly’s First Kiss, will be available spring 2019.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Reiko Davis

Before joining DeFiore in early 2016, Reiko Davis was an associate agent at Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency for four years. She grew up in Kansas City, received her BA in Comparative Literature and Art History from Brown University, and is a graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course.

Reiko’s interests are varied, but she is particularly drawn to adult literary and upmarket fiction, narrative nonfiction, and young adult and middle grade fiction. Above all, she wants to discover books that surprise and move her with their irresistible characters and language.

She loves a strong narrative voice; smart, funny heroines; narrowly located settings (especially towns in the South and Midwest); family sagas; darkly suspenseful novels; and stories of remarkable friendships or that explore the often perilous terrain of human relationships. For children’s books, she is actively looking for young adult and middle grade fiction—whether it be contemporary, historical, light fantasy, or simply a story with a timeless quality and vibrant characters. She would love to see more #OwnVoices manuscripts from writers of color. For nonfiction, she is most interested in cultural, social, and literary history; fascinating tours through niche subjects; narrative science; psychology; guides on creativity; and memoir.

And now Reiko Davis faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Wow, this is always a tough question. Since I’m being interviewed for a middle-grade blog, I’ll focus on my favorite books while I was growing up:

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (the entire series)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

Cool Hand Luke
Bend It Like Beckham
Good Will Hunting

Television Shows:
The Handmaid’s Tale
Gilmore Girls
Pride and Prejudice (the BBC mini-series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle)

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

I like to think that all of my clients are ideal clients! In my experience, clients who are communicative about how I can best support them, open to editorial direction, fiercely committed to their art and to establishing strong connections with their audience and the literary community at large, goes a long way.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

Innovative, gripping adult literary fiction and memoir, heart-driven middle grade fiction, and compulsively readable YA fiction. I love working on projects that give me a fresh perspective on the world, a culture, or a timely issue. Books by underrepresented voices, including writers of color, immigrants, women, and the LGBT community. Books that aren't afraid to tackle big questions or important emotional truths, and do so through remarkable storytelling. In these difficult times, I want to discover books with a heart that foster empathy and connection above all else. And, at the risk of sounding like a language snob, the quality of writing at the line level is essential for me.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

I love that there are many different roles I get to step into as an agent. I’m never bored. I’m an editor, a strategist, a cheerleader, a confidant, a mediator, a spin doctor. I get to work on both the creative and business sides. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than discovering an incredibly talented writer and then guiding him or her through the publishing process, until one day I’m on the subway and spot someone reading that writer’s book, or I’m in my local bookstore and see the book perched on a shelf, waiting for the next person to fall in love with it for the first time like I did. It feels like magic, even though I’ve had the privilege of overseeing its development each step of the way.

My least favorite thing is thing is the hurry-up-and-wait part of my job. It requires a lot of patience.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Read so many books. Study the writers you admire who came before you. Support and learn from the writers you admire who are in the trenches alongside you. Build connections with your book-loving community. Participate in conferences and workshops if you’re able and truly enjoy those things. Choose an agent who shares a vision with you and will help you thrive creatively. Read more. Understand that rejection and being told no is just an inherent part of the publishing business and that shouldn’t deter you.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Virginia Woolf. It would be beyond cool to get a more intimate glimpse of her brilliant, slightly terrifying mind.