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Book Review: “Between Shades of Gray,” by Ruta Sepetys

“Between Shades of Gray,” by Ruta Sepetys has absolutely NOTHING to do with the 50 Shades of Grey series. As a matter of fact, the book is being turned into a movie and they changed the name to “Ashes in the Snow,” so there's no confusion!

This riveting book tells the story of Lina, a 15 year old girl living in Lithuania during World War II. Her life is uneventful until there's a knock on the door and three Soviet officers (NKVD) storm into the apartment. We follow Lina and her family through their trek in Siberia, moving constantly on the whim of the Soviet officers from one camp to another.

Lina learns some powerful lessons all the while trying to stay sane and survive with her mother and brother. She uses her intellect on a number of occasions to help save her family.

Ruta Sepetys spoke at the recent SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. This story is one that Ms. Sepetys heard growing up as it happened to a family member. She does a masterful job writing emotions and turmoil in a story that's very close to her heart. I congratulate her in her efforts and on the movie deal. I'll be sure to see it in the theater!

 

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Book Review: “The Truth about Twinkie Pie,” by Kat Yeh

I saw “The Truth about Twinkie Pie” on the table in the bookstore at the SCBWI conference, but I wasn’t going to buy it. I read the back cover and it really didn’t “speak to me.” But, then I heard the author, Kat Yeh speak. The book was already sold out at the conference so I bought it on Amazon. And, boy I am so glad I did.

“The Truth about Twinkie Pie,” by Kat Yeh is a wonderfully written book about 2 sisters, Gigi and DiDi who try to make it on their own. Their mother died shortly after Gigi was born and they lived with a neighbor friend until they won a million dollars in a cooking contest Then they move to a new town where Didi becomes a hair stylist. She is 9 years older than Gigi and does everything she can to give her smart sister a good education.

Because Gigi was starting a new school, she figured she’d create her own “recipe for success” and the first thing she did was change her name. She also wanted to make friends (she didn’t have any in her old school) and she took some risks in order to do that. The story is told in 1st person from Gigi’s precocious perspective which makes the book all that more intimate. We know what Gigi is feeling and thinking in every step, which I loved.

I also loved Yeh’s recipe theme throughout the book. At the end of almost every chapter, she includs a recipe for the very thing that was described in that chapter. For example, chapter 2 describes Didi and Gigi making Twinkie Pie. The actual recipe for Twinkie Pie is at the end of that chapter. Some of the other recipes included in the book are “The Perfect Kiss,” “The Ol'Switcheroo,” and my favorite, “Recipe to lose 10 pounds.” I didn’t make any of the recipes, but they sure looked good.

Because Gigi is growing up without a mother, she questions who she is and fantasizes about finding her mother and what she would say to her if she did. She comes upon a mystery and starts uncovering the truth about herself.

This is a delightful middle grade novel and leaves you with a good feeling.

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Book Review: “Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio

"Wonder," by R.J. PalacioWOW! I absolutely love “Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio!! I read it in 3 days, thinking about the main character and wondering what will happen to him. R.J. Palacio (R.J.) writes beautifully and ties up everything in the end.

“Wonder” is about a 10 year old boy, August or Auggie who suffers from a genetic disorder that causes facial deformities. He's been homeschooled his entire life and his parents decide he needs to start school. He's afraid to start school, with new people who will stare at him. He only wants to be viewed as an “ordinary kid.”

R.J. writes the book in 1st person which gives the reader an intimate view of what Auggie is thinking and how he's feeling. I loved watching his personality develop, how he handles people's reactions to his face and growing as a person. The chapters are short and there are eight parts to the book, each part is written in the 1st person by another character. I loved how R.J. provides insight into the characters by structuring her book in this manner.

R.J. weaves a powerful story about courage, strength and kindness. She writes about one of Auggie's teacher's homework assignment, “precepts,” which are monthly quotes to live by. As homework, each student is expected to write what the month's precept means to them. This carries her theme beautifully and adds a lot depth into the story.

As a writer, I learned a lot from R.J. She had an idea for the story, did a lot of research into the abnormality and mutation, connected herself with various nonprofits and offers a solid lessons for all to live by.

I recommend this book to EVERYONE! I know most adults don't read middle grade novels, but this book is a MUST. Congrats to R.J. for setting the bar high for fellow writers.

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What I learned at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Annual Summer Conference

I'm a member of SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and they held their annual Summer conference at the beginning of July. I was ready to learn at SCBWI conference! Driving to downtown Los Angeles early Friday morning is definitely not an easy go, but it gave me time to think about my goals for the conference. At last year’s conference my goal was to meet as many people I could and learn about publishing and marketing a book. They didn't have many workshops on self publishing but it was still a fun experience and I met some nice people. I also bought some great kids books in their on-site bookstore, which I devoured.

This year, my goal was to hone my craft. I had 3 variations of my 2nd manuscript on my computer and was procrastinating. I felt like I needed a little help. One of the workshops I attended was called, “Meet your character: How motivation drives the story,” taught by Kendra Levin. Now, my main character is a dog named Dash, but this dog belonged to Queen Victoria. He didn't like it when Prince Albert came along.

I was stuck in my story so I leaned into my chair, closed my eyes and did the meditation exercise Kendra led us through. Imagine you're in an elevator. The door closes and the elevator starts going down. Down, down down. Finally the door opens and you see your character walking towards you. What does your character say? What does your character want? He comes across some obstacles, so how does he solve them? So I wrote down what I envisioned Dash saying to me and came up with my big idea!

After the elevator doors opened, Dash came running with a swish swish of his fur. He looked like a mop cleaning the floor. He greeted me with a sloppy lick on my face as I kneeled down and scooped him up.

“I want to be love,” he said.

“You are loved, very much,” I replied.

“But Victoria loves Albert now. How can she love me as well?”

“We are capable of loving more than one at the same time,” I said, ” Victoria can love you and Albert because her heart is big enough for both!”

“I don't know how that's possible,” he said, “But I can try to figure it out.”

It was time for me to go, so I put Dash down and waved goodbye. I saw him walk away, mopping the floor clean as he walked. He turned around.

“I love you too,” he cried, “I guess it is possible to love more than one because I have a big heart!”

Dash loves Victoria and feels threatened by Victoria’s love for Albert. but he doesn’t know that a heart is big enough to love more than one person/thing. So Dash is jealous but slowly starts to realize that not only can Victoria love both he and Albert, he can love both Victoria and Albert. Voila! Now I just need to write it!

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Monticello: the Home of Thomas Jefferson

IMG_2140My first book, “Buzzy and Thomas Move into the President’s House,” will come out in October on Amazon in ebook and printed form. This early chapter reader is about Buzzy, Thomas Jefferson’s dog, moving into the White House with newly elected President Jefferson. But Buzzy loves living at Monticello and doesn’t want to move. What will she do?

To continue my research on Thomas Jefferson, I took a trip to Monticello.

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Northeast Portico

My docent led tour started at the Northeast portico, which then and today serves as the front door. Directly above the door is the “Great Clock.” The clock has a dual face, one on the outside of the door and another on the inside of the door. It also tracks the days of the week and was wound every Sunday. Mr. Jefferson designed this clock to serve the residents of the house and the workers in the field.

IMG_2136Still standing under the portico, I looked above me and saw the “Compass Rose”, a compass connected to the weather vane on the roof. Mr. Jefferson and his family could determine the wind direction without stepping outside! This was altogether different because they didn’t have cell phones to tell them the weather!

 

Inside Monticello

We were not allowed to take photos inside the house but I’d like to tell you about a couple of things that stood out for me. In the dining room, Jefferson had installed a revolving serving door, which connected to the stairs leading to the kitchen. The servants could place plated dishes on the shelves and turn the door into the dining room where Jefferson or another servant could grab the plates to serve. When no servants were present inside the dining room, Jefferson had complete privacy when entertaining if needed.

Jefferson had designed his bed in the same manner as he noticed in France, when he was ambassador for 7 years. The bed was placed sideways in an alcove, which gave the room more space. It seems logical now, but in those days, no one was doing that except the French!

Jefferson wrote many letters and in 1804, acquired a device called a “Polygraph” that could duplicate his letters while he wrote them. Invented by John Isaac Hawkins, the polygraph used the principles of the pantograph, a draftsman's tool for reducing and enlarging drawings. The writer's hand moves one pen whose action is duplicated by the second one, producing a copy strikingly like the original. Because of this device, we have copies of over 11,000 letters that Jefferson wrote!

Outside Monticello

IMG_2151Jefferson was known for many things, but not many people know that he loved his vegetable garden. It still stands today, with many plants that grew when he was alive. In the Monticello Café, I ate sautéed kale, from kale grown in his garden. He grew many kinds of lettuce, peas, beans and strawberries. He also planted sesame seeds, which he used to make his own salad dressing!IMG_2155

We toured the kitchen, stables and wine storeroom as well. While in France, Jefferson collected many kitchen utensils, which he brought back with him to Monticello. In 1809 and kitchen remodel was completed which included a bake oven, fireplace and stew stove. Jefferson is described as America’s “first distinguished viticulturist.” He believed the United States could “make as great a variety of wines as are IMG_2147made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” His wine cellar was built directly beneath the dining room with bottle-sized dumbwaiters that rose into the cellar’s ceiling and into both sides of the mantelpiece in the dining room.

IMG_2158My visit to Monticello taught me a lot about our 3rd President and founding father. As I walked around the grass, flowers and gardens, I could envision my main character, Buzzy, running around, chasing a stick, lounging under a cherry tree and playing in the snow.

I hope you’ll love my new book and share it with friends and family. And if you’re ever near Richmond, Virginia, stop and visit Buzzy and Thomas’ home, Monticello.

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2016 Summer Reading Lists

2016 Kid's Summer Reading ListWelcome to summer! Now that school is out, summer is the perfect time for kids to read for fun! Personally, I'm reading, “The War that Saved my Life,” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It's a historical fiction novel about a 10 year old crippled girl during World War II whose “courage and compassion carry far more power than her disability.” You can buy it from Amazon by clicking the image.

I've searched the web and came up with some reading lists you can browse.

 

  1. SCBWI – the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 2016 Summer Reading List
  2. Goodreads – Summer Reading for Kids
  3. ALSC – Association for Library Service to Children's 2016 Summer Reading List
  4. Scholastic – Keep Kids Reading All Summer Long!
  5. Barnes and Noble- Enter your child in their Summer Reading Triathlon
  6. Reading Rockets- Summer Reading Guide 2016
  7. Education World – Summer Reading

Enjoy your summer! I can't wait to hear about your child's favorite books!

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Book Review: “Ben and Me,” by Robert Lawson

While doing research for possible historical fiction stories involving animals, I came across this great book, “Ben and Me,” written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. This 114 page chapter book was originally published in 1939. Robert Lawson was born in 1892 and was the recipient of both the prestigious Caldecott and Newberry awards. As well as writing and illustrating his own books, he also illustrated books for a number of different authors, including Richard and Florence Atwater, authors of “Mr. Popper's Penguins.”

“Ben and Me” is about Benjamin Franklin as told by his mouse, Amos. He starts the book explaining that Amos's manuscript came to him by an “architect friend.” The friend had been working on an old home in Philadelphia and discovered a tiny room “beneath a bedroom hearthstone.” The room contained “small articles of furniture, all of the Colonial Period,” and in the desk was a”manuscript book, the leaves of which, about the size of postage stamps, were covered with minute writing.” Such a cute idea for telling the story of a famous person through the eyes of an animal!

Lawson details the story of the mouse, Amos, his childhood, parents and many siblings and how Amos found his way to Benjamin Franklin's home. Of course the mouse could talk and would freely give Ben advice every day. Mr Franklin was very accomplished and Lawson describes these accomplishments in separate chapters. Amos claimed many of Ben's inventions as his own idea and made fun of the fact that Ben thought that he had discovered them!

Benjamin wouldn't travel without Amos, so he joined him in France. He hid in a special cozy “nest” in Ben's hat, making it very easy to whisper in his ear! Amos met a “royal” mouse who had been exiled from the castle. She implored him to help her return to her family and Amos couldn't resist. A revolution amongst the French mouse population was born!

This book is perfect for children aged 6-9 who can read by themselves or with help from an adult. To buy the book, click on the Amazon link.

I am giving away my hardback copy of the book. If you would like to be entered into the contest, please leave me a comment describing your favorite childhood book.

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