Monthly Archives: August 2010

Plain Kate. Plain Fantastic.

The end of August has turned out to offer me my best reads of the summer. I’ve read three dynamite books in a row. Plain Kate, Erin Bow’s debut, is one of them. I sped through this gorgeous, captivating fantasy. It is the perfect summer-is-almost-gone-and-I-almost-have-to-go-back-to-work escape book. It’s always exciting to discover an author who is new to you, because you can look forward to reading many more stories in the future. I’m certainly up for whatever Bow produces next because Plain Kate is a beauty.

Kate, known to all as Plain Kate, has always had an astonishing talent for carving. Some whisper that it isn’t simply a gift, rather that it’s magic, and where she lives, to be called a witch is to risk persecution and even death. When her father dies, she becomes vulnerable to the townspeople’s suspicions. Then, as happens in all the best stories, a stranger comes to town. Linay is a witch, and he wants Kate’s shadow, promising her her heart’s wish in exchange. When things become too dangerous for her to remain at home, Kate agrees, and her choice to live shadowless leads her in search of a new place to belong, and though she doesn’t realize it, towards adventure and the darkest magic she could imagine.

I loved the creepiness of this tale. As you go, you’ll experience a growing sense of menace. Linay is a complex and at times, quite sympathetic baddie. Kate is gutsy. She reminded me of Lyra in Pullman’s books, and that can’t be a bad thing. Bow demonstrates real creativity in the premise, which always impresses me in fantasy, where you so often see the same ideas trotted out in story after story. It is very fine writing – crafted, but not overdone. It is very visual, but you won’t get bogged down in excessive description. Bow chooses where to focus carefully. You may cry. It’s awfully sad in places. Oh, and the cat. The cat. He is wonderful from whisker to tail tip. I think Meg Rosoff put it best in the blurb she wrote for the jacket. She writes that the book features “possibly the most delightful talking cat in children’s literature.” No joke. Taggle pretty much stole the show for me. He is a riot and a scamp and a love all at once.

Plain Kate is published by Scholastic, and it is not one you want to miss this fall. A standout. If I haven’t convinced you, you can listen to some more gushing at Scholastic’s Fall 2010 Librarian Preview Webcast.


The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June

Remember how I lurved Audrey Wait!? Needless to say I was pretty excited to pick up Robin Benway’s new novel, The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June. Would it be as funny? Would the characters be as real and memorable? Would I laugh out loud and want to shut myself away until every last page was read? I’d say, overall, yes, yes and yes. Benway is still right up there on my list of authors of feel-good, clever, funny YA books, with folks like Maureen Johnson, Ally Carter and E. Lockhart. You’ll want to read it, for sure.

April, May and June are sisters. They have just moved to a new town after their parents’ separation and they are about to begin a challenging year: new school, new friends, new lives. Oh, and the reappearance of special magic powers. That’s right. April can see the future. May can turn invisible. June reads minds. The girls are less than thrilled that their childhood powers have made a comeback, and they prove to wreak a little havoc with their relationships. It turns out, however, that their abilities will bring them together in ways they had never expected.

Benway’s smart humour is back in this book. While I didn’t laugh out loud as much as I did with her first book, there are great laughs to be had here. Each chapter is told in the voice of a different sister, and there were very few moments when I had to go back to the beginning of the chapter to double check who was narrating. Their voices are well-differentiated, and their personalities unique without seeming like Benway was trying too hard to make them come off as different. May stood out for me as the most memorable, sharp and hilarious of the girls. I would like a whole book just about May, please and thank you. Her chapters were my favourite. I didn’t feel that the climax was as dramatic as the build-up was suggesting it would be, but things still satisfied me in the end. It’s really all about sisterhood. And not in a sickening way, I promise. Fantastic cover too. I love the bold colours and the simple design. It works. For more on the cover, visit Melissa Walker’s blog for the cover story. Be sure to visit Benway’s daily music blog for all sorts of songs connected to April, May and June.

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June is published by Razorbill.

Happy-making stuff

This past week has had way too many chores in it. Chores + summer vacation = yuck. After seemingly endless sweaty hours spent cleaning cupboards and washing corners in my house that I have never washed and hope to not wash again for years (if possible), I found solace in computer-land.

Look at the happy-making treats I found:

1) Nifty overdue book calendar by auntjune:

2) Marshmallows with faces. (The world is wonderful, isn’t it?) By Color Me Katie.

3) A lovely and touching short film by Cecil Castellucci, for her new picture book, Grandma’s Gloves (illustrated by the uber-talented Julia Denos. Must get that book).

4) Peanut-Butter Chocolate Crispy Bars of Paradise (which I plan to make this weekend, even though Smitten Kitchen tells me not to).

5) Finally, the gratuitous adorable-beyond-all-reason dog video:

If you’re not feeling happier by now, I suggest a liquid remedy. That works too. (Perhaps this?)

Guest Post: Patricia Reilly Giff

It’s a treat to welcome Patricia Reilly Giff to Shelf Elf today, for a stop on her blog tour in celebration of her funny new series for early readers, Zigzag Kids. I asked Patricia about her inspiration and writing process for the books, and here’s what she had to say:

I follow my grandchildren around these days. Jim, the oldest, worked in an afternoon center; he garners funny stories for me. Twelve-year-old Patti is my consultant; she’s a cafeteria food maven and a what’s-new expert in the world of what goes on after school. And don’t forget days-away-from-six-year-old Jilli, who puts in her own two cents about kindergarten; she’s the model for Trevor and Clifton, who tag along at the Zigzag Afternoon Center. This is part of my research. But memory is another. Things haven’t changed that much since my school days, both as a young girl and a teacher. Even the cafeteria still has its own distinctive smell, even though cheese poppers have made a late appearance. And the memory of my teaching days is very clear. I worked with so many unhappy kids, that I’m conscious of them on every page I write. They’re grown now, those students of mine, but I suspect there are many kids of today who have lives like John who lived in a basement apartment with cement floors, who couldn’t bathe because the family clothes were kept in the tub, or Angelina whose mother was an alcoholic. Happiness was hard to come by, and reading was low on the priority scale. I want to entice all children to read—to laugh over my books, to be happy as they read about the antics of my characters. And maybe something else. Those characters usually have something going for them—Gina wants to be an opera singer, Sumiko would love to be an Olympic star, Mitchell wants to write a book. I want to tell readers that everyone has something…you just have to look for it.

Be sure to check out all of Patricia’s other visits throughout her blog tour, and take a look at this lovely new series perfect for new readers:

August 10th Cynsations
August 11th Random Acts of Reading
August 12th Where the Best Books Are!
August 14th Mundie Moms
August 15th The Children’s Book Review
August 16th Chicken Spaghetti
August 17th Patricia Reilly Giff
August 25th
September 7th

Number One Kid and Big Whopper are published by Wendy Lamb Books.

Guest Post: Alice Kuipers, author of The Worst Thing She Ever Did

It’s my pleasure to welcome Alice Kuipers, author of The Worst Thing She Ever Did and Life on the Refrigerator Door, to Shelf Elf today for a guest post. The Worst Thing She Ever Did is Alice’s second book, and it is getting wonderful reviews. Check out the one at Quill & Quire. It is a compelling and intense portrait of a girl struggling with the loss of her sister. It’s emotional and sad and in places, funny, and Alice absolutely nails the voice of her teen narrator.

I asked Alice to respond to a question. Here’s the question:

I recently read an interesting article from the LA Times, where author Janet Fitch shared her 10 rules for better writing. What do you think of her rules?

Here’s Alice:

“I clicked on the link with some trepidation. Sometimes I find rules for writing can make me feel less like writing, like I’m getting it all wrong. But Janet Fitch’s rules are great. I love how detailed they are and how much she focuses on technical issues. And best of all, they feel inspiring, making me want to get to work.

I have a website devoted to writing tips for emerging writers. One section has a list of ten quick tips for writers, but I’m going to write a new list for you now which has a bit more depth to it. Janet Fitch calls her list rules for writers but mine are simply tips. ‘Rules’ sounds too strict and rigid, and I’m not sure there are fixed rules for writers; it’s my only quibble with her otherwise excellent advice. So, here are my tips.

1- All good writing is rooted in good reading. Reading widely gives you an insight into how other writers have gone before you, showing you ways to shape sentences or paragraphs to suit the story you’re trying to tell. Make sure you push yourself to read everything, even stuff you don’t really like. Broadening the words you take in will broaden the words you put on the page.

2- Make notes about weather and place. Stand outside and write what you’re experiencing – don’t just write what you think you’re experiencing. When I was in a life drawing class, the art teacher suggested I was drawing what I thought I saw not what was really there. She was right and it’s something I keep in mind when I’m writing.

3- Think of the story you’re writing as a photograph and make sure you’re shooting from the right angle. Sometimes we miss the essential when we’re first getting the story on the page – I think of this as like taking a photograph of a group of people with the heads accidentally cut off. Reframing, finding the right angle, is key.

4- Read your work aloud. My agent told me this and it’s invaluable advice. When you vocalise your sentences they sound entirely different from when you hear them in your head. Hearing your story or poem can give you new insight into what you’re doing.

5- Don’t be afraid of your imagination. Freewriting or dashing down random thoughts can reveal stories you never knew you could tell.

6- Make sure your speech tagging and your punctuation is perfect. It only takes a little time to find out rules of punctuation – you can even look them up online. It’s your responsibilty as a writer, your job, even. It’ll make your work look more professional and it may help you get the words you want onto the page by giving you the tools you need to say exactly what you want.

7- Rejection, like punctuation, is part of the job. Take rejection in your stride. Learn from it. Move on.

8- Notice that you will have certain writerly tics that may not be enhancing your story (or get a friend with a good editorial eye to notice them for you). Perhaps you rely on adverbs or perhaps you repeat words rather than searching for new ones. When you know your weaknesses as a writer, you can watch out for them.

9- Think about who is experiencing your scene. Try and keep the perspective to one character to see if it improves the flow and rhythm of the section. Sometimes trying to see an event from too many points of view dilutes the experience for the reader.

10- Enjoy it. Even when it’s hard and not going your way, remember you’re making something from nothing. Magic.”

Aren’t Alice’s tips brilliant? Love the last one. So true. Creating something from nothing is an incredible, brave, mind-blowing process. Thanks for sharing your advice with us Alice.

Follow Alice on her blog tour all through August. Here’s the schedule.

The Worst Thing She Ever Did is published by Harper Trophy Canada. You can browse inside by clicking here.

Audrey Wait! (don’t wait like I did)

As I was setting up this post, I seriously considered creating a new category to tag my review of Robin Benway’s first book, Audrey, Wait! That new category might be: Practically Perfect in Every Way or Books So Good You Will Actually Hug Them or Stop Reading this Review and Read the Book Already. I’m still thinking it over. Audrey, Wait! is that good people. Many of you are already know this because I am way late in getting to Benway’s much celebrated novel. I’m just glad it didn’t fall off my radar because it is an absolute pleaser. Happy-making to the max.

I could go on and on about why this book succeeds, but I’ll stick to three things: pacing, relationships, and dialogue/humour. I don’t always go in for short chapters. They often leave me with a sensation of being ripped off, or manipulated. Just when you’re getting really invested, it’s over. In those situations, I wonder if the author is capable of writing a longer scene, where things simmer and build rather than simply tearing fast to the critical moment and then moving on to something new. Here, I enjoyed Benway’s quick chapters just as well as her longer ones. That is because she packs so much into even the shortest scene, creating tension and leaving readers with new insight into the characters in just a few pages. The relationships are so believable, particularly Audrey’s relationship with her best friend, the super-sassy Victoria, and Audrey’s relationship with her parents. It was refreshing to read a parent/child relationship in a YA novel that wasn’t either totally, melodramatically screwed up or else practically non-existent. I think that part of the reason why the relationships are so rich is the dialogue. It is, in a word, dazzling. You hear the characters. Each one sounds different. The conversations have a rhythm that is totally real, and the language is pitch perfect for teen characters. Writers out there, if you’re looking for a book that is a study in writing dialogue that differentiates characters and leaps off the page, Audrey, Wait! is what you need. Reading it is like a dialogue master class. You’ll laugh a lot too. I promise.

You can read more about the book at the website, where you’ll also be able to sneak a look at Benway’s second novel, The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June, which I’m reading now. I learned my lesson with Audrey, Wait! No more waiting when it comes to anything Robin Benway writes. Get to it.

Audrey, Wait! is published by Razor Bill

Making the Moose Out of Life

I am heading off today for a week’s worth of camping in Algonquin Park. Algonquin is about 3 hours north of Toronto, and it is one of the most beautiful outdoor places I’ve been. We try to get there every summer, for a little paddling, some s’more action, and star-gazing. So far, I haven’t seen a moose. This feels wrong. Every trip we’ve been on, we make sure to go out for many near-silent, misty canoe trips early in the morning and again around twilight, when it is said that moose are most likely to be chowing down on marsh grass. But no moose has been seen. Yet. Last time we saw a beaver. That was Canadian. But not as Canadian as it would be to see a moose. Maybe this year.

So far, I have had to be content with mere photos of moose. Or cartoons. Cartoons work. This leads me to Nicholas Oldland’s picture book, Making the Moose Out of Life. Before starting to write/illustrate books for kids, Oldland worked as the designer for his family’s clothing company, Hatley. I like the understated humour in the illustrations here, and the clean design helps to highlight what’s funny on every page. It’s not busy, and a little reminiscent of Scaredy Squirrel in theme and tone (though not as funny). The story is a bit message-y and direct for my taste (don’t just sit around – get out there and enjoy life! ), but I don’t think kids will object because Moose is rather endearing. And there is a tortoise named Tuesday. Automatic bonus points for excellent naming of tortoise! This is the sort of book that would work well as a gift for someone embarking on an adventure, a new job, or a big change of some sort. Oldland has also written Big Bear Hug, perfect for tree-huggers (and campers). I expect to see it at the outfitters when I go to pick up my canoe today.

Making the Moose Out of Life is published by Kids Can Press.

Tell Me a Secret Trailer Launch

Today is launch day for Holly Cupala’s Tell Me a Secret book trailer. Let’s get straight to it:


In true party style, there are prizes to be snagged! Such as…

Signed TMAS books!
TMAS t-shirts!

Fan-made bracelets by Hannah S!
Music that inspired the book!
Sneak Previews!
Bookmarks and Handmade Magnets!


A Tell Me a Secret handmade necklace made by Gypsy Wings! See:

HOW TO WIN? Share the Trailer Love!

  1. Click here to go to YouTube, then click the Share button to send to your Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, or blog! 5 pts each
  2. Click here to tell us where you posted and enter to win!

Happy trailer day Holly! Don’t forget you can chat with Holly all month long at readergirlz.

readergirlz August… HOLLY CUPALA!

It is all kinds of fabulous that this month, at readergirlz, our featured author is none other than readergirlz diva, Holly Cupala. Holly is not only a wonderful new YA talent, she is a lovely, funny, smart and sassy lady. It will be a treat to share secrets with her all month long at the blog, and to chat on Twitter on August 18th.

If you haven’t read Holly’s book yet, what are you waiting for? Tell Me a Secret is a compelling debut, with complex characters and rich themes. Read my review here. Holly stopped by Shelf Elf a while back as part of her Tell Me a Secret blog tour. She let us in on some secrets during her visit.

Speaking of secrets, on Friday, Holly posted another video at her blog in which some of her author pals shared a few of their secrets. Take a look:

Juicy stuff! 😉

Tomorrow there will be even more treats from Holly as she celebrates the launch of her book trailer. Happy August from readergirlz!