Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Review - As fast As Words Could Fly

As Fast as Words Could FlyAs Fast as Words Could Fly by Pamela M. Tuck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somebody’s got to make a change.

This is the theme brought to life in As Fast As Words Could Fly, a MG picture book about fourteen-year-old Mason Steele, his family, the American Civil Rights movement, and a typewriter. The art beautiful, realistic, the perfect complement to the simple, heartfelt story. The story begins by showing a handsome, well-groomed, baseball and football loving young man bent over his studies. I wanted him for my son. Seriously. On every page we see Mason's world, loving parents, anxiety, and the power of change.

Mason helps his father’s civil rights group. His skill with pencil and paper helps him create business letters used to advance the cause. The group gives him a manual typewriter (the pictures really help since too few people today even remember those things, much less have seen one). He teaches himself to type over the summer and his words and abilities expand.

Life changes when school resumes. Mason's efforts have helped the civil rights group desegregate the local school. Instead of the daily thirteen mile trip to the black school, Mason and his brothers begin the even harder journey to the formerly all-white school. At first the bus driver refuses to stop to pick them up. When they get to school, they are met at the door by officials who do not want them to enter. White students, even the few who had been friendly before, now shun the black boys. But Mason excels in typing class, earning a job with the school librarian (does anyone remember actual card catalogues) and the right to represent his school at a typing tournament where he wins because he remembers where he came from. The pictures show the stunned surprise on the faces of the other competitors. No one cheers for Mason. But his words speak for him, "loud and clear."

In the end we feel hopeful for Mason and for his family's future. And we know that future will involve writing. The book includes an author's note about her father and his own life during this time period, her inspiration for the book.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review - Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your AssYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The only thing wrong with this books was the cover - I would have loved to see Piddy Sanchez there, not an anonymous locker. I am not Latina, but this book took me back to high school, and all the reasons my brain wanted to forget that ordeal. It's more than a book about bullying, it's about believing in yourself, and finding courage, and even, in the case of Yaqui, about having nothing and wanting to tear down those who do, even if there is really no good reason.

Many people are thrilled about stories that feature strong female characters. But we don't always begin life strong, we become strong. And along the way, we often get knocked down, hard. Then we are faced with the hard choices. I like stories that explain how girls gain strength. This is one of them.   Many girls will read this and identify with Piddy's plight. I hope they will also find courage from her.

This story is hard, and tough, and Piddy has to learn some deep lessons about herself and her mother (and father) I cried when she was knocked down by life, worried when she contemplated giving up, and then found myself cheering. I wish every victim could find a source of strength. Maybe what I liked most about the book is that the author did not work a miracle and reform Yaqui to make her see the error of her ways.

This is not a story about a bully. It is about a victim making decisions on how to live her life in an undamaged fashion. Doing the old-fashioned "shake hands and become friends" thing would have trivialized, if not ruined, this story, and left too many young readers saying - adults really do not understand our existence. In real life, the Yaqui's of the world do not experience a revelation. The rest of us have to change and learn how to live with them always around us. Piddy changes, but so do other key players, and maybe that adds the biggest hopeful note to the story.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book Review - War Brothers

War Brothers: The Graphic NovelWar Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon E. McKay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

War Brothers is the kind of graphic novel that makes me want to go out and grab the original. I need to know if that book rips at the emotions the way this one did. The book takes us into history and politics and everyday life in Uganda, Africa. In so doing, it shows that life, and human nature, are the same all around the world. Especially the bonds of friendship.

Jacob just wants to be a kid. He excels in mathematics (he and his friends can do calculations in his head that I have trouble with on a calculator). He has a scholarship to attend a special school, one designed to train future leaders. He and his friend Tony arrive filled with hopes for the future. But the local warlord needs recruits, and kids make good cannon fodder. Not even the special guards hired by the parents stop The LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) soldiers from raiding the school and abducting students. From then on, Jacob’s main job becomes survival as he waits for his father to rescue him. Meanwhile, the soldiers begin the process of turning the boys into killers.

The book pulls few punches. Readers’ hearts pound as a frightened boy is told to choose between short-sleeves or long: being amputated at the wrist, or above the elbow. We watch female captives, one maimed for trying to escape, others forced to be the “wives” of soldiers and bear babies while they themselves are still children. The boys are told that if they even speak to one of the girls they will be beaten…and the girl will be killed. The graphics are excellent and enhance the story. We see and feel the shock and fear, the grief as friends die or agree to become killers in exchange for food and shelter. We feel the fatigue and the jungle heat. Watch as adults turn children into brutes.
“The commanders can tell which boys can be broken like glass. Shattered glass cannot be put back together. When the good boys become LRA they become especially mean, especially dangerous.”
Jacob witnesses atrocities committed in the name of God; watches his friend Tony, the boy who once wanted to become a priest, become a gun-toting convert after being forced to kill another child. He believes his father will rescue him, rejects the religious zeal of his captors and does everything he can to keep a frail boy alive during weeks spent trekking through the African jungle. Jacob’s hopes sink when he learns the government refuses to make a deal to get the schoolboys back. If he is going to survive, he has to make that happen, even if it means agreeing to join the soldiers on a raid. The rules are simple: only those who fight and kill get food. Jacob is handed a panga (machete) and told to kill the enemy. An enemy who turns out to be a mother struggling to protect her screaming child.

Five boys, including Jacob and Tony, and one girl manage to escape. When they return from the jungle they are looked on with fear. Some parents refuse to take their children back.
“People watched us. They thought we were killers with a thirst to kill again.”
When a boy who has been handed a weapon and taught to take life turns around and saves a life, does he earn absolution? Can he be trusted or forgiven? Even by himself? The book asks the questions. It does not hand out easy answers.

This book is justifiably labeled 9th grade and up. The brutality begins on the opening panels. We see children armed with guns and machetes attacking a mother trying to defend her own child. It makes an effective hook, I had to keep reading when I turned a page and the book went into the past, to scenes of tranquility in Uganda before the boys became pawns in a war. This makes an ideal “gateway book” for High School youth who might be considered reluctant readers. By that I mean the book has a sound hook for older high school students. I admit to reading frantically to see what would happen next. I visualize many reluctant readers doing the same.

War Brothers does a good job of depicting the universality of family life, friendship, the dreams of the young, and how those dreams can be ripped apart by the irrationality of war. Teachers, parents and librarians can use this story to evoke discussions of combat situations in the present and the past, street wars, and other areas relevant to young readers’ lives and futures.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Interview with 2013 RWA Golden heart finalist - Sonali Dev

I feel lucky and honored to be a member of the Chicago North RWA chapter. Doubly lucky because Sonali Dev is also a member. She is one of the 2013 Golden Heart ® finalists with her  Contemporary Single Title Romance – The Bollywood Bad Boy.  Sonali agreed to visit my blog and discuss the manuscript and the path taking her toward the Golden Heart.

First, huge congrats on being a Golden Heart finalist. I was a finalist in 2010 and remember it was the most amazing high (and a drug free one too)

Sonali, how did it feel when you heard the news? Where were you when you got the call?

Yes, I'm totally on a high right now! Believe it or not I was picking up puppy poop from the backyard when the phone rang. We have a new puppy and I've been going at the toilet training the way I do everything else, with a plan and focus and schedules and dreams (none of it's working of course). But this was probably the first time we had backyard droppings, so I let the phone ring. Plus I didn't recognize the number and I thought, well, the puppy pooping in the yard is too momentous to be ruined by a telemarketer. When I came in my husband handed me the phone and asked, "Who's RWA Nationals?" and suddenly the poop wasn't that momentous any more.

What was your reaction to the news?

I basically started screaming and then didn't stop screaming until Claudia Dane hung up the phone, a little deafer than when she'd dialed my number no doubt. And then for the rest of the day I burst into arbitrary screams and hopping dances and flew at the puppy and at anyone else I could get my hands on. It was the craziest feeling. See, I recently sold my books, so this was my last chance to final in the Golden Hearts. Don't know why it was so important but I really truly wanted to know that my completely off-the-bat book could do this.

Tell us about that “completely off-the-bat book.”

My manuscript, The Bollywood Bad Boy is the story of a child bride from a tiny village in India who grows up and finds she's married to the wrong man. Unfortunately the right man is even more wrong--he's her husband's brother and he's only charming the pants off her to help his brother get rid of her.

Just the idea that the story of a child bride from a village in India and a Bollywood playboy was embraced by the judges, who in all probability have no frame of reference for either one of those worlds, completely blows me away. So much for everything we hear about readers needing to relate to our characters' worlds, right? 

Is this your first time entering the Golden Heart contest?

I entered the first book in the series, The Bollywood bride, last year. And I entered both The Bollywood Bride and The Bollywood Bad Boy this year. Only one finalled.:)

Tell us about your next steps - and I know you have big ones

As I said earlier, The Bollywood Bad Boy has already sold to Kensington and it will come out sometime in 2015 after my debut novel, The Bollywood Bride which comes out in November 2014. So right now I'm in the revisions cave and I mean buried up to my chin in it.

As soon as these edits go to my agent I start writing the third one in the series. I already have an  outline, and this third one will actually be the first time I'll write a book with a fairly detailed outline. I have a few more ideas for a few more books in this series which I'm refusing to go near right now so I can keep the focus where it's needed. Then there's all the promo to think about and the blogging and the social media. Just keeping up with the 2013 Golden Heart finalists email loop has the potential to become a full time job right now. And then there's the puppy toilet training (which is still a huge hit and miss).

Oh and I'm a big believer in celebrating and soaking it all up, so there's been much popping of the bubbly and a hunt for the perfect writerly drink (the vodka's a given but other ingredients are being carefully considered through stringent taste tests).

Do you plan to attend RWA Nationals?
Of course I'm going to the ceremony. For one it's The Golden Hearts for heaven’s sake!! Then there's the fact that my dear friend India Powers has also finalled! Plus I actually know-know a RITA finalist! And to think all the writers I've been hero worshiping for years and years might actually be sitting somewhere close by. I mean this is huge fangirl manna from heaven.

Any idea what you will wear?
And of course I know what I'm going to wear. I always wear a sari to the Awards ceremony. I actually bought a sari from my favorite Indian designer, Ritu Kumar, on my last trip to India with the crazy, entirely unfounded notion that I would wear it to the Awards ceremony if I made it to the finals. And viola! there you have the power of dreaming! There's the little issue of my super tiny blouse that exposes quite an expanse of waist and back and the fact that celebrations involving chocolate and vodka expand said expanses of waists and backs with astounding speed. Ah well, it's a good thing the final judges take a few months to judge those entries. If I can final in the Golden Heart and sell my books, surely I can lose a few pounds. Right? (Yikes, don't answer that).

What will you say when you win? (Because I am an eternal optimist)

And no I have no idea what I will say. But with the number of people who've helped me on this journey, the one thing I know for sure is that there won't be enough time to say my thank yous.
I think it’s all about readers relating to our character’s feelings. And I bet you’ve put a ton of emotion in your manuscript.  I know I can’t wait to read your heroine’s story.
Congratulations Sonali.  Thank you for visiting. Now get to work on that acceptance speech!

Find out more about Sonali's future books here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bolingbrook Author Fair – April 13, 2013

This was my second year of participation at the fair, held at the Fountaindale library in Bolingbrook, Il.  Many patrons were not aware of the fair until they heard library staff on the microphones telling them to come over and to meet and greet local authors.  The library handed out small autograph books for patrons to use to get author names. Ten autographs earned a prize. That tactic had people stopping by author tables all day.
The authors were arranged in groups – Children’s books, Young Adult (yeah me!!), Adult Fiction and Non-fiction. Some authors brought large displays for their areas. One even brought a video to play to highlight their exercise books. There were two other SCBWI author members exhibiting at the fair as well.
I was visited by more tweens than teens, by several grade school teachers, and a member of SCBWI. (A woman who gave up a long drive to a meeting in Des Plaines for the short drive to the library just to see me. I drove past Des Plaines for the long drive down to Bolingbrook.) She was thrilled to purchase a copy of one of my books. Another copy went to a woman who was having a birthday. She also had a picture taken with me – I felt famous!
I had signed on to give patrons a presentation on attracting teen readers. The fair was experimenting with supplying programming for the first time. There were two tracks, one children’s stories, the other programming for adults and teens. I was in that second track.  Because the decision to offer programming came only a few weeks before the fair, there was little publicity, but I went out and gathered kids and adults. My presentation began at 2:30, my audience (thanks to generous bribes of candy) included four tweens (I think two were a brother and sister), a teacher and parent. I gave them a booktalk and recommended some books that are “different” for readers who want something more than just the same old thing. Information about the books from the booktalk can be found at

I have done teen presentations before. This group showed me again that many younger readers still like holding physical books in their hands. They also value recommendations, more than they do Amazon reviews or blogs or the electronic “if you liked book A you will like book B.” They want real people with real recommendations. In the end, not only did they fight for copies of Die Trying and Other Stories, they also took out two books I recommended. Acceleration, by Graham MacNamee, a fast paced suspense story involving a teen boy trying to stop a serial killer (the reader told me she really liked mysteries). And Pinned by Sharon Flake, the story of an African American teen girl wrestler (the only female wrestler on her high school team) and a wheelchair-bound boy.  The racial difference did not bother this reader who had walked in holding a copy of Hunger Games. She bypassed other distopians and went for Pinned because she liked wrestling and found the idea of a girl wrestler and a wheelchair hero interesting. 

I also gave a copy of Die Trying to the teacher who attended the talk. She teaches fifth graders, and was interested in the short stories and for books for boys.

I continue hoping to inspire young readers. You can find out more about me and my books at .

Friday, April 12, 2013

Positive Impact - Students Making a Difference

I spent this morning doing contest judging and school visiting of a different kind.

I judging the Positive Impact contest at Wheeling High School. Winners won't be announced until this evening, and I hope one of the projects I judged will be up there. I can't say who, but I thought that student did an awesome job on a project that could have a major benefit to people.

And that was what this program is all about. In addition to the regular science fair judging, they were asked to discuss how their project could have a positive impact to others, and that is a major aspect in their rating, what is the impact and how acheivable that could be. The goal is to get students ready for a lifetime of looking at their world and seeing areas that could be changed for the better, to have a positive impact on their lives and the lives of others.

Debra Goldfarb, from Intel
Lazaro Lopez, Principal

Spokespeople from the school and industry sponsors addressed the judges and students, stressing the importance of people being willing and able to look around them and see areas where even small changes could be improve life.
Take over the gym!!

 It was a busy day, involving an "occupy Wheeling High School theater, faculty lounge, gym and library" movement. I met new people, went back to my biochemistry roots, and enjoyed good eats. I'm only sorry I couldn't stay for everything. (We retired people have obligations on our time, while people sent by their companies get to call it a day)


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Contest Judging

I have seen a lot of discussion lately about contest judging. There is a big blame-it-on-the judge outbreak for making snarky comments or having a God complex and not liking the manuscript.  Maybe it's because I just finished donating my time to judge two contests, I'm in the middle of a third, and coordinating a fourth (and they wonder why I have no free time, but at least I don't have to judge the one I am coordinating), but I feel I have to say something on the issue, both as a judge, and as someone who enters contests.

Most people who agree to judge contest have anything but a God-complex. They give up their time and expertise to read manuscripts with absolutely no compensation. They do it to give back to the writing community that nurtures them, not to hurt an anonymous contestant.

Maybe we don't always know how to say things in ways that are guaranteed to hurt no one's feelings. (Yeah, I know we are writers, so words should be our profession, but come on, did you ever put anything down and expect everyone in the world would get exactly what you were trying to say? Really?)  I have received a few painful remarks in my contest days, and remind myself that that comes from a judge's limited time and experience, and the difficulty in seeing how your words will be perceived. Besides, one I heard from a few editors and reviewers, I learned real pain. My only compensation was they actually cared enough to give more than a form rejection or to refuse to do a review at all.

My own writing improved when I learned to stop caring about the exact words used, and to take them as guidelines. Each judge's comment became  a pointer to  an area I needed to look at more closely.  If readers had a problem with a particular chapter, character, or phrase, it behooved me to not stop blaming them and search for ways to resolve the problem.  And in the end, that is what the judges are, enlightened, knowledgeable, readers.

Again, not every reader will get my stories. So I don't make changes to meet every comment. I can't, sometimes they are contradictory, like the time one reader told me my heroine was too smart to make such foolish decisions, and the other told me she was obviously too foolish to pretend to be so smart.  Go figure. I decided to change nothing about Yolanda Dare, heroine of my award-winning debut novel, Pull.

In the end, it is not the judges, or the reviewers. It's not what they say or how they say it. Maybe there is a God complex, maybe there isn't. But in the end, I get to use my skills, to listen to my instincts, and determine what should be on my pages. The judges comments are simply tools for my toolbox, not whips to beat my ego.