Monthly Archives: December 2009

Poetry Friday: Red Sings from Treetops

If I could, I would be a kids’ poetry teacher. Does such a job exist? I wish it did. I adore teaching poetry. I adore poetry books written for children. It would be dreamy to spend my days introducing young’uns to beautiful verses and talented poets. There’s been a bit of a shift away from teaching kids to read and write poetry, I think, with so much emphasis being placed on developing literacy skills that are “practical” in the world. In my experience, children enjoy reading and writing poetry. It would be a shame to sacrifice that experience in the name of teaching more “job related” text forms.  Reading and writing poetry teaches you to think, obvserve, pause and reflect. Pretty important skills for anyone in the “real world” I think.

I will now step down off my elf-sized soapbox to tell you a bit about a truly gorgeous poetry book for children, one that has been sitting on my desk for way too long, waiting to be reviewed here at Shelf Elf. Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, is a collection of poems inspired by the seasons. This book celebrates the natural world as it moves from season to season, focusing on the colours as they change from spring all the way through to winter. The colours are actually more like characters. They sing and hold hands and sip lemonade and keep secrets. Sidman’s verses are perfect, with rich and evocative language that bring the essence of each time of year vividly to your mind. Here’s a bit on Fall,

Fall smells
Purple:
old leaves, crushed berries,
squishy plums with worms in them.
Purple: the smell
of all things
mixed together.

But since it’s wintery now (finally a little snow in my neck of the woods), here is a snippet from the winter section:

And White?
White
whispers,
floats,
clumps,
traces its wet finger
on branches and stumps,
White dazzles day
and turns night
inside out.

A wrestle, a romp,
a feast:
Mmmmmm…
winter tastes White.

Pamela Zaragrenski’s mixed media illustrations offer so much to look at. They are whimsical – a whale floats in the fall night sky behind the moon, the little creatures wear tiny crowns in all of the pictures. The collage elements are detailed and surprising, and just flicking through the book from beginning to end moves you from the fresh blues and greens of springtime to the dull grey and brown and bright white of winter. (*Sigh*)

From an educator’s perspective, this is a book that is teeming with potential curriculum connections: Science, Art, Language, Media. It’s a rich text for teaching, without a doubt.

Note: this is the second collaboration between Sidman and Zagarenski. You must also buy and love This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, another book that makes me want to teach poetry and only poetry for ever and ever. I think these two ladies need to write more books. Give us more!

Other bloggers love this too (‘natch):

7 Imp
Wild Rose Reader
Laura Salas
A Patchwork of Books
Fuse #8

Red Sings from Treetops is published by Houghton Mifflin.

Interviewing Barrie Summy – Author of Mystery

I am delighted to be hosting the lovely and talented Barrie Summy for an interview today on the Shelf. Barrie is the author of two of my favourite tween mysteries: i so don’t do mysteries and i so don’t do spooky. She is plenty of fun and she’s here to give us the scoop of all things mysterious and writerly. Welcome Barrie!

If you had to sell i so don’t do spooky in a sentence, what would be your teaser?

I’m sorry to report that I am not very good at this! Below is my best shot.

Sherry’s baaack and detecting with her ghost mother: can they keep Sherry’s stepmother safe?

Now, Shelf Elf, if you allow me more than one sentence, here’s what I’d say:
Sherry’s baaack! Can Sherry and her ghost mother keep Sherry’s stepmother safe? There’s robotics, ghost hunting and some serious toilet papering. It’s scary. It’s spooky. It’s fun. Oooooo. (p.s. Of course, Josh is back too!)

One of the biggest compliments (of many) I can pay to your books is that they are just plain fun to read. They’re feel-good stories, exciting and funny and real all at once. If you had to name five books that you would call “just plain fun” to read, which titles would you choose?

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Laura Rennison; The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend; Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume; Schooled by Gordon Korman; One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

I have this idea that writing a mystery must be really, really hard, trying to work out the details of the plot, keep the suspense up, introduce enough characters to keep readers guessing, drop a few clues here and there, and create a satisfying and believable finish. Is it as hard as all this? What would be your essential tips for someone about to start writing her first mystery for tweens?

It is hard. For me, anyway. Sometimes writing a mystery feels like one big juggling act and one big puzzle, all mixed together.

Here are my tips:
1. Read a lot of mysteries. A lot. Until it feels like mysteries are flowing through your veins. Because, then, you’ll automatically know what works and what doesn’t work, what’s cheating and what’s playing fair with the reader.
2. Read a few books on writing mysteries. I particularly like How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey, Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (which is just a great book on writing, not on writing mysteries per se)
3. See below about the usefulness of a recipe box.

Will a poster board work to keep everything in order?

Yes. But not in my house. For i so don’t do mysteries, I divided a HUGE piece of poster board into perfect squares, used colored post-it notes for the scenes (different colors for different kinds of scenes (mystery, family, love life, etc.), and stuck it up on the office wall. It was organized. It was beautiful. It was a true piece of art.

Until Child #3 got it into his cute little curly, blond-haired head to play a joke on me. And rearrange ALL the post-it notes!

So, now I use a recipe box with colored note cards and dividers. And I do not leave it out in plain view!

Sherry is such a down-to-earth, roll-with-the-punches type of girl. She’s the sort of person I’d want on my team if I ever encountered anything remotely paranormal. What do you admire most about Sherry?

Her tenacity. It doesn’t all come easily to her. She has to work at it. There are times when she feels like throwing in the towel, but she refuses to give up. (well, for more than a few seconds, anyway!)

What’s it like spending time with a character over the course of a multi-book series? Has your understanding of Sherry changed much as you’ve written more about her? Does she continue to surprise you?

I love it!

Spending time with a character over the course of several books is like spending time with a good friend. If I have a tough day, I’ll write again in the evening when my house is calm and quiet, just so that I can hop into Sherry’s world and hand out with her for a while.

Sherry does still surprise me because she grows up a little each book. I get a kick out of the outlandish things she thinks and says. And I absolutely love how little character traits or incidents or friends pop up in one book and then again a couple of books later. For example, in i so don’t do mysteries, Sherry talks about how she and mother never missed watching the Academy Awards together. Well, in i so don’t do famous (the book I’m writing now), that little fact comes into play.

I can’t think of a single thing I don’t like about spending time with a character over several books!

What are your favourite mysteries:
a) written for tweens/teens

the Chloe and Levesque series by Norah McClintock
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
many Sammy Keyes mysteries, but especially Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy by Wendlin Van Draanen
Nancy Drew mysteries, especially The Hidden Staircase

b) written for adults
The Suspect by L.R. Wright
The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout
the Perry Mason series by Erle Stnley Gardner
the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell

In addition to her talent for all things spirit-related, Sherry loves fashion and being social and decorating her room just so. Besides writing mysteries, what else are you passionate about?

At the moment? Veiled chameleons! We have a male and a female. And NINETY THREE eggs in our incubators!

If you had to pick 4 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

My parents: They instituted this crazy meat-and-potatoes-dessert-book rule where I could only read a dessert book after reading at least one meat-and-potatoes book. It forced me to read books I would’ve ignored and turned me into a super eclectic reader.

My high school English teacher, Mr. Peter Magee: He somehow got me to see that I was creative and really could write.

Nancy Drew mysteries: This is the series that started me thinking, way back when, that I wanted to write.

A fellow student from the University of Toronto (whose name I have long forgotten): We had a long conversation about how the glass is always half full and how you should never ever give up on your dreams. This conversation has stayed with me for years!

So do you believe in ghosts?

My first inclination is to say no. But, I’ve been wrong about so many things in life that I think I should just leave this open.

Give us a hint, what’ll Sherry be getting up to next?

In i so don’t do makeup, (pub date is May 2010) Sherry cracks a case involving makeup sabotage at her local Phoenix mall.

In i so don’t do famous (pub date is May 2011), Sherry busts up a teen burglary ring in Hollywood.

It’s been a treat having you here today Barrie! Thanks so much for visiting and keep writing us Sherry stories!

Two free laughs (John Green + Freaky unicorns)

John Green on Twilight. It’s about time:

And, quite possibly the most genius YA marketing idea ever (by yours truly), inspired by Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant:

closer…

You only need to take one look into that sparkly pink creature’s giant eyes to see that it is a force for evil. Duh.

Obviously Diana Peterfreund is a writer who knows how to think outside the box (way, way outside the box). Don’t you think that is the perfect Christmas gift idea for a bookworm teen with an awesome sense of humour?

I think John Green needs to read Rampant. Now that we know his view on icy hot vampires, I wish to hear what he thinks about killer unicorns.

Let it Snow

Confession: I cannot wait to see what this review looks like with snowflakes falling all over it.

Snowflakes aside, John Green, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle’s collection of three interlinked stories, Let it Snow, needs no extra magic, no snazzy sparkly gimmick. This is the perfect book to read right now as the holidays speed ever closer and you might find yourself getting sucked into the spending frenzy and away from the true spirit of the season. Who isn’t up for a little holiday romance? And you’d have to be crazy to walk away from any book with those three authors listed all together on the cover. Let it Snow does not disappoint. It’s cheery, clever, just sweet enough and certainly good and snowy. This book is like a feel-good romantic comedy that is smart enough that it doesn’t make you feel guilty spending time on it. Not life-changing, but certainly plenty entertaining. Perfect for an afternoon of reading on the couch over your holiday.

The stories in the collection are loosely linked, and the sassy, funny tone runs through all three, tying them together in style and voice. The first (Johnson’s) is about a girl named Jubilee, who ends up stranded in a small town in the middle of nowhere after the train she was traveling on gets stuck in a snowstorm. She goes home with a fellow passenger, a charming stranger, and finds that this Christmas is full of unexpected twists. The second story (Green’s) zeros in on a trio of friends who try to make it through the same blizzard to their local Waffle House, drawn there by the promise of hash browns and cheerleaders (you have to read it to get it, but trust me, it’s funny). The last one (Myracle’s) follows a self-absorbed girl on a twisty road from heartbreak back to true love, with lots of Starbucks coffee and a teacup pig playing key roles in the drama.

This is light stuff, and as my friend at the bookstore said, “If you’re in the mood for a bunch of stories about hyper-clever teens falling in love with other hyper-clever teens then this is what you need.” The cleverness is almost too much in places (I mean, where were all those crazy smart and sarcastic teens when I was in high school?), but it makes for funny situations and engaging characters. It put me in the mood for waffles and a James Bond movie marathon and steamy mochas. And snow. Lots and lots of snow.

Other reviews:

Miss Erin

Abby the Librarian

Teenreads

Let it Snow is published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group.

I So Don’t Do Spooky

sodon'tdospookyI read lots of books that I love. These days, I don’t tend to waste my time with anything that doesn’t impress me or inspire me, or at the very least, entertain me. This said, not every book makes me happy. Barrie Summy’s books make me happy. Her Sherry Holmes Baldwin mysteries are feel-good stories. They’re clever and funny and utterly delightful (read my review of the first in the series, I So Don’t Do Mysteries here). This is why I am glad that Barrie is writing a whole bunch for us (right now, the third title, I So Don’t Do Makeup, is scheduled for release in May 2010). When I So Don’t Do Spooky showed up in my mailbox a few weeks back, I dropped all of the other books I had going (well, actually I just shoved them to the side for a while), and got straight into Sherry’s latest adventure.

Sherry’s first mystery experience was far from ordinary, because she solved the mystery with the help of her mom (who happens to be a ghost), and a wren (who happens to be her dead grandpa, in bird form). Good news for us that the kooky spirit of the first book is right back again in the second. Sherry’s mom is still enrolled in the Academy of Spirits (the main campus is located at a Dairy Queen in Phoenix), learning to watch out for and protect Sherry and the rest of the world. Sherry’s mom has also decided to enter the Annual Worldwide Academy Ghost Olympics, where she’ll compete against ghosts from academies all over the world, in the animal mind-control event. If her mom comes first in her division, she’ll win five minutes of “Real Time” – that’s five minutes of face-to-face time with anyone she chooses. Sherry is über-excited for her mom to win because there’s nothing she would love more than a few minutes to talk to her mother in person. But there is a lot of other stuff going on, which makes it hard for a girl to focus on one thing at a time. For example, Sherry’s stepmother Paula, aka “The Ruler,” is being stalked, and Sherry thinks it might be a student on a rival robotics team (since Paula is her school’s robotics coach). Then there’s Josh, her totally adorable boyfriend of two months, who just keeps getting cuter and cuter. In her second mystery, Sherry tries to juggle it all, even though she SO doesn’t do spooky.

Barrie Summy gets the voice pitch perfect once again, as Sherry is in so many ways a typical girl, with recognizable thoughts at the front of her mind such as, how to do better in school, how to make good choices when you’re keeping a few secrets, and how to look cute everyday. She’s sharp and relatable and once again, proves to be fast thinking and skilled in ghostly negotiations. The humour is just right and the pace never flags. It is a delicate thing to manage a plot that involves talking ghosts and animal spirits and still have it all come off as a narrative that readers will feel is rooted in a real girl’s life experiences, her ordinary and extraordinary struggles to make sense of everything that has been put on her plate. You’ll cheer for Sherry. You’ll laugh. You’ll appreciate the subtle poignancy Summy communicates in some of the scenes between Sherry and her mom, as they both wish things had turned out differently but know that they have to make the best of what they’ve got. Heartwarming, hilarious and quirky, this series is a sure pleaser for any mystery-loving tween.

I So Don’t Do Spooky is published by Delacorte Press.

Elf Envy: Random Roundup

I am happy because WordPress has brought back the gently falling snow to Shelf Elf, and it will be there until January 4th. Right now, outside my window it is raining and absolutely foul. Nothing even a tiny bit Christmas-y. Well… ha! I will make my own Christmas, right here on my blog, where it is snowing prettily.

Here are a few links to delightful things that they Elf likes around the kidlitosphere this week:

Check out Kate Messner’s piece in SLJ on using Twitter in the classroom. Now there’s a hip teacher.

Stacy at Welcome to My Tweendom loved Calamity Jack. I want it.

If you have a tween on your gift list, you must check out Sarah’s posts on Tween Book Buying Ideas for the Holidays over at The Reading Zone.

Mother Reader can help out with gift ideas too, with her personal Best of 2009 list.

Feeling desperate for some delish art? Then be sure to read 7 Imp’s post on Matthew Cordell, Steve Jenkins and Scott Magoon. Wowza! That’s a lot of talent.

Enjoy the snowflakes everyone.

(Photo from stock.xchng)

Raider’s Ransom

I’m not particularly partial to pirate tales, probably because there are so many pirate stories in children’s lit that I generally feel that it’s just been done, again and again. Funny, because as a child, I was absolutely head over heels for Arthur Ransom’s Swallows and Amazons series, all about trickery and adventure and sailing. That was probably my most-loved set of books when I was ten. I do like books with seaside settings, which made Emily Diamand’s Raider’s Ransom pique my interest straight away. When Scholastic sent me my review copy, I let out a little whoop of delight, because I remembered Fuse #8 mentioning it at her blog: “It’s funny, fun, and exciting. And there’s a smart cat. Gah! Read this!” If Betsy likes it, I’m in.

Diamand has created a futuristic 23rd century England, where as a result of global warming, most of the country is now underwater. It’s as if society has gone back in time, rather than ahead, breaking down into hostile factions, fighting to survive in a fragile and ever-changing environment. Technology has all but disappeared. Indeed, many blame the collapse and the flooding on their ancestors’ misuse of technologies. Lilly Melkun is a fisher, living in a coastal village, spending the days at sea with her trusty sea cat. One day while she’s out on the water, pirates raid her town and kidnap the Prime Minister’s daughter. Lilly decides to go after them to rescue the girl, and she brings a mysterious jewel-like device along with her, hoping to use it as ransom. She doesn’t know that she’s headed towards a war, and that she’ll meet a pirate boy named Zeph who could be friend or foe.

This one is a curl-up-and-sink-into-the-story type of book. In fact, it reminded me of some of my most beloved books read as a child, because as I was reading Raider’s Ransom, I had that feeling I knew so well as a kid, when I was swept up in the world of a story so completely that all thoughts and troubles of the real world disappeared. Diamond’s book is simply a great, absorbing yarn. She can write. It’s funny and creative and just descriptive enough to build places in your imagination, without slowing the action down for a moment. I wanted to see what would happen next, what treasures the writer had in store for me in the next chapter. Continue reading