Slam! by Adam Stower Book Review

Slam! A Tale of Consequences by Adam Stower
Publisher: Owlkids books
Release Date: March 18, 2014

Through a series of butterfly effect events, crazy things begin to happen around one boy and his dog as they walk through the town. Wearing headphones and completely unaware of the calamity ensuing around him, they walk together as the town descends into chaos all because he slammed a door.

This is one very busy book. There is a lot to see on each page, which definitely makes this more of a one on one book rather than something that can be used at storytime. There isn't too much of a storyline beyond the one mentioned above. Beyond sounds there are barely any words, which made for a rather dull story despite some gripping illustrations. Like the Weasels book, this is one of those books for kids who just love sitting for long periods of time looking through pictures and finding every detail they can.

This Girl is Different by J.J. Johnson Book Review

This Girl is Different by J.J. Johnson
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Release Date: April 1, 2011

Having been raised by her counter-culture hippy mother, Evie decides to trade in her comfortable homeschooling life for a senior year in a local public school. It's kind of a social experiment, to see if she can enact change, however Evie isn't exactly a social change pro and she soon learns that sometimes social justice isn't as easy as just pointing out perceived wrongs.

This is one of those reviews that I had to sit on for a couple days, because I had a rather strong negative reaction to this story and it took me a bit to sort out why I took such umbridge with it. I have come up with three things.

1. Homeschooling As a former homeschooler, I am immediately on guard when homeschool characters are introduced into a story. Although it was refreshing to see a character who wasn't homeschooled for religious reasons, there was still the usual trope of a person who doesn't have any friends and no one knows them. Evie has lived in their house for nearly two years, yet no kid in their small town has ever seen her and until now, Evie has never shown the least bit of interest in developing interpersonal relationships with her peers. Evie believes that if public school doesn't work out, she can just go back to homeschooling, no harm no foul. The principle informs her that her record at public school will follow her. Not true. She doesn't have to mention on her college application that she ever went to a public school, especially if she only attended for a few weeks or months. What is the college going to do? Send queries to every public and private school in every city she has ever lived in order to make sure that she never went to school? I can tell you, getting into college after being homeschooled wasn't exactly a walk in the park. (my school was a little less accepting of homeschoolers), however they never, not once asked if I ever spent time at a public high school.

2. Self Righteous Attitude Evie is a know it all. She is well-educated and has been raised to believe that her thoughts, feelings, and opinions are always right. Her mother encourages her to create social change at her new school, but like most teenagers, Evie doesn't know how to wield this so-called power. Evie argues with her teachers, which was sometimes awesome and sometimes downright rude. Her propensity toward social anarachy never took into consideration that she, Evie, could possibly be wrong. I was happy to see that Evie's attempts at social change come back to bite her in the butt, but I never felt like she learned her lesson. In the end she apologizes and thanks to more of her wonderful ideas, manages to fix things.

Perhaps I am old, but the truly wise character in this whole mess was the principal. This poor man has to deal with this idiot of a girl who thinks that in a few short months or a year she will completely change the public education system and the best way to do that is to teach disrespect, disorder, and anonymous backstabbing. He has the patience of a saint, but I would have expelled her. She caused massive disruption at the school. Although some things should have been brought to light, she did it in a way that was both chaotic and even cruel. Her need for social justice was greater than her friendships or their feelings. Was Evie humbled by any of this? No. There were no truly long-term consequences. She quickly forgives her friends who were viciously terrible to her (ie not good friends), her college placement is fine, and her desire for social justice no matter what is just as strong.

Disclaimer: I am not against social justice and bringing important issues to light. I am against people who do not think about the logical ramifications to the things they do and how it will affect others. Evie does these things out of selfishness and a need to create change, but she does not consider the people she affects with her actions.

3. First Names and Parents How many people do you know who call their parents by their first names? I know one. In my entire thirty-two years of being alive, I am familiar with one family (a cousin) who called their parents by their first names. Yet, in teen fiction this is becoming a regular occurance. I am assuming that the logic behind this is that the parents and/or teen is just so cool that they call their parents by their first name as an outward sign of their awesomeness. Subconsciously I think it is an adult author's way of giving parents more of a personality beyond mom and dad. After all, they have names too, right? Yeah, except that for a kid, mom and dad (or some variation thereof) is their name. Evie called her mother Martha, and for reasons that make no sense, rarely clarifies that Matha=mother to the new people in her life. The only time I find the first-name thing acceptable is when dealing with step-parents and adoption/foster care or when it is important to the story like in Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. I know this seems petty, but it drove me nuts throughout the entire book.

The book is not badly written in the slightest. The pacing is fine, but I had issues with the main character and her attitude. I understand the desire to sometimes tell off a teacher, to call out those who are doing something wrong, and to want better food in the cafeteria. The truth is though that sometimes you just have to go to the principle and tell them what is going on in an open and honest way that is both constructive and respectful. And if you hate the cafeteria food, pack your own lunch.

The Very Fairy Princess Graduation Girl! by Julie Andrews & Emma Walton Hamilton Book Review & Book Giveaway

The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl! by Julie Andrews & Emma Walton Hamilton
Illustration by Christine Davenier
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 8, 2014

From Publisher: While her friends and family may not believe in fairies, Geraldine knows, deep down, that she is a VERY fairy princess.

This is the sixth adventure in the adorable, sparkly, sweet Very Fairy Princess series from celebrated children’s book author Julie Andrews (best known for The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and The Princess Diaries) and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton. 

In this new tale, the end of the school year is here, and Very Fairy Princess Gerry is getting ready to graduate! She always loves a celebration, but can't help but feel a little sad as she empties her cubby, takes down her art projects, and says goodbye to her class pet, Houdini the hamster. She's also a little nervous about leaving Miss Pym... what if her new teacher doesn't let Gerry wear her wings and crown? Change can be hard, even for a fairy princess! Thankfully, she realizes that new things can bring their own sparkle.  

I am not much of the fairy princess type, however I must admit that I sent my niece a beautiful set of fairy wings for her birthday this year, because everyone wants to sparkle sometimes. This is a cute "issue" book, perfect for preschoolers and Kindergartners who are moving on to a new grade or classroom. Or for the fairy princess in your life.


Two (2) winners will each receive a copy of The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl!

Prizing & samples  courtesy of Little, Brown
Giveaway open to US addresses only


·         Visit The Very Fairy Princess website
·         Visit the authors’ sites: Julie Andrews & Emma Walton Hamilton
·         Follow Little, Brown Kids on Twitter and Facebook

How to Cheer Up Dad by Fred Koehler Book Review

How to Cheer Up Dad by Fred Koehler
Publisher: Dial
Release Date: March 20, 2014

Little Jumbo simply can't understand why his dad is having such a bad day. It can't be the raisins he spit out at the ceiling, or the bath he refused to take, but Little Jumbo has a plan to cheer his dad up.

A cute book that kids and parents will both relate to, How to Cheer Up Dad left me both smiling and wanting a little bit more. There is a wonderful mischievousness to Little Jumbo, yet there was never any understanding on his part, never any accountability that it was his actions that were upsetting his dad. There is of course, a Where the Wild Things Are ending with an of-course-I-love-you theme, but it was missing some of that magic. I did like that it was just a dad and child, which would make it perfect for Father's Day and single dads.

A Trip Into Space by Lori Haskins Houran Book Review

A Trip Into Space: An Adventure to the International Space Station by Lori Haskins Houran
Illustrations by Francisca Marquez
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release Date: March 1, 2014

The title says it all. A non-fiction picture book about space for young children. A perfect introduction to space, there are some fabulous concepts that roll along rhythmically. It is perfect for reading aloud and includes some of the latest NASA verified information about the International Space Station. There is even a character who looks a lot like Chris Hadfield, an astronaut who has been really kid friendly and may be recognizable to aspiring rocketeers. With a nice glossary in the back of the book, this really is a fantastic entry into astronomy and astronautics. 

Because I mentioned Chris Hadfield:

Jacob's New Dress Sarah & Ian Hoffman Book Review

Jacob's New Dress by Sarah Hoffman & Ian Hoffman
Illustrated by Chris Case
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release Date: March 1, 2014

Like any kid, Jacob loves to play dress up, being anything he wants to be. However, the kids at school have told him he can only wear "girl" clothes. Jacob loves dresses though and works hard to convince his parents to let him wear a new dress to school, one that is purple and awesome, but may bring with it more trouble than Jacob understands.

This is a tough and extremely intriguing subject for a picture book. Like other picture books that focus on "issues" and are meant to cater to a very specialized need, this book has its place, although I imagine there are a lot of people who would disagree with that opinion. I learned a new phrase with this book: "pink" boy, which basically is the male equivalent of a tomboy. Although I don't know if the term is accurate as I reject the idea that any color inherently belong to a particular gender, the concept makes sense. There are girls who are tomboyish and enjoy doing things that are traditionally enjoyed by boys, so there must be boys who enjoy things that are traditionally enjoyed by girls.

This story does not go into the morality of the issue. It is about Jacob and wanting to wear a dress and his family as they struggle with allowing him to or not. This is a huge decision as to not let him would wound him deeply yet to allow it would open up a whole host of issues, the most immediate being bullying.

I did think the story itself was a little glossy. The teachers, school, and other children's parents are relatively accepting about the issue. I know there are many communities and schools out there that simply would not allow it. Period. Have you seen the news lately about kids being sent home for their hairstyles and clothing choices? There are other kids out there like Jacob and this book is just the right fit for families dealing with this issue.

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? by Rita Gray Book Review

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? by Rita Gray
Illustrations by Kenard Pak
Publishers: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 18, 2014

Woodpecker calls from a tree, "cuk-cuk-cuk." Starling sings, "whistle-ee-wee." But have you heard the nesting bird?

Writing out bird sounds is hard. I mean, a Crow is easy, but a Starling? I'm afraid this story really didn't work for me though. Although this could be a nice introduction to bird songs, I just couldn't "hear" them. Then, there would be these rhyming stanzas about the robin, which always felt out of place and awkward when spoken aloud. The illustrations were beautiful, but muted. Although I loved the color palate, at time the images felt a bit stiff, lacking the feeling of movement, which I think is important for a book about birds. The story itself was cute, but not very engaging.

The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer Book Review

The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer
Publisher: Philomel
Release Date: April 22, 2014

The American Revolutionary War was a failure. British justice was swift and merciless. Sixteen-year-old Charlotte is the daughter of resistance fighters, hiding out with other children in a network of caves, safe until they are old enough to join the fight. When a new exile with no memory escapes from the floating city of New York, he brings with him a lot of questions and plenty of danger.

This alternative history steampunk novel had some really great world building. Boston is a penal colony where the infamous hanging tree is welcomed in the end. New York is a series of floating platforms. The British made pacts with Spain and France and the colonies were split up and the writers of the Declaration of Independence were hung as traitors. There are the obligatory steampunk mechanoids and flying ships. Cremer did try to blend the Greek gods into the story, which was largely unsuccessful until magic was introduced and then it was just completely illogical. I get that steampunk is a form of fantasy, but the magic bit just felt completely out of sync with this mechanical world she created.

There were some good characters, from the overly cautious Ash, to the secretive Jack, to green-haired Pip. Charlotte herself was a strong heroine who speaks her mind, knows how to handle a gun, and often sticks her nose places where it doesn't belong. Which is why it was so sad that such a great character in such a great setting was completely wasted on an illogical romance with a plot that couldn't decide which bunny trail to follow. Charlotte spends a good deal of the book mooning after two boys. Although she has proved herself in battle, she is never let in on any secrets, rarely knows what is going on, and spends most of her time in New York complaining about the role she has to play and judging every single person that she meets. While her brother and his allies are off at secret meetings, Charlotte sits in her newest silk gown trying to sort out her feelings between Jack and Coe. In truth, both her suitors were completely bad matches for her. Not only were there far too many secrets kept from her, but both acted childish and irresponsible. God, I loathe love triangles. The worst character by far though was her brother Ash, whose need to protect his sister actually creates more danger for her and allows others to easily manipulate her. He leaves her out of the loop so much that they are all lucky  Charlotte manages to survive to the end.

There was so much promise to this stories' premise, but with a meandering plot and a main protagonist who never knows what is going on, it just turned into another trope love triangle romance book in a semi-interesting setting.

The Advance Reader Copy for this book was provided to me by Penguin Young Readers Group and NetGalley.

Road Rash by Mark Huntley Parsons Book Review

Road Rash by Mark Huntley Parsons 
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 11, 2014

Zach is a talented drummer playing for a local band until he wasn't. Kicked out for reasons that he doesn't know, he resigns himself to a summer working a menial job at a fast food joint or the local plant nursery. Then he gets the gig of a lifetime, touring with Bad Habit, a legendary band who gets paid and everything. However, drums are a lot easier to understand than people and Zach soon learns that the jealousies and rivalries in his new group are always throwing off his rhythm.

This is the second "drummer" book that I have read in as many weeks and I absolutely love both of them, even though they are completely different stories. I have played violin since I was eight and even though I wasn't in a band at any point, I understand the love of music and need to express oneself through that medium of art. I have also witnessed through my brother, the pain and heartbreak that a person experiences when they have been kicked out of a band for no good reason. I don't think one has to be a musician or band member to relate to this book though.

Zach is a great character in that he is a nice guy. He tries, even when he is angry, to be polite, kind, persuasive, honest, and diplomatic. There is quite a lot of evidence that Zach has a very promising future in the music industry. However, being a nice guy doesn't always mean that you make the best decisions, like telling a white lie to the girl you like which comes back to haunt you. At one point Zach decides to create a demo of a song written by another band mate and then enter it into a contest, not for fame or fortune, but that doesn't matter--he used someone else's song. Interspersed throughout the story are drummer jokes, a budding romance via email, and a contest win that turns out to not be so awesome.

The pacing was a little slow at times. Zach wanders throughout the various towns they are touring and although I understand this was world building, sometimes it felt like a little too much meandering. Also, sometimes there would be jumps in time without warning and it wouldn't be until a few paragraphs in that I would realize that we were now a few hours ahead.

On the whole though this was a great book that I think guys, drummers, and your band aficionados are really going to get.

Going Places by Peter H. Reynolds Book Review

Going Places by Peter H. Reynolds
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 18, 2014

It is once again time for the annual Going Places contest. The contest in which all the kids build a go-cart using identical go-cart kits. However, Maya's go-cart doesn't look the same as everyone else's. Realizing that there may be more than one way to build a go-cart Rafael and Maya team up to make a go-cart that is a little outside the box.

I think it is extremely important to teach young people that there is not always one way of doing things. Sure, there are rules, but even then there is room to think outside the box. Take the guy who was on Jeopardy recently. People were upset with him for not following the standard pattern that has been a trademark of the show for how long. Yet, the rules didn't say he couldn't do it his way either and his way helped him win, which is the actual point of the game. This is, of course, something that schools teach children as well with their bubble tests and insistence on there being only one way to solve a problem. Enough of that soapbox though.

Going Places is another delightful book by Reynolds with bold colored illustrations that practically move across the page. It is written simply and would appeal to any kid over the age of three.

Sparky by Jenny Offill Book Review

Sparky by Jenny Offill
Illustrations by Chris Appelhans
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: March 11, 2014

A young girl wants a pet, but her mother has declared that, “You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” This is difficult, but our heroine is able to find one pet who meets her mother's requirements--a sloth. She names him Sparky. The problem with having a pet sloth though is that it doesn't really do much or anything. 

Confession: I think sloths are adorable, especially the baby ones. There is something completely endearing about these slow mammals and I could not blame anyone for wanting one. I love the whimsy of a story where a child can get a mail order sloth. (real children may be upset to learn this is not a thing. I checked) The story is cute and simple, with a pet that is both adorable and frustratingly boring. I think there are parents out there who can also relate to the fact that their children are begging for a pet and the parent simply does not want to deal with a needy animal. The illustrations were cute as well, adding the right tone and white space to the story. This isn't a light and fluffy animal book, but it was this aspect that made it different from a lot of other "child wants a pet" books. Besides, what was the last book you read that featured a sloth?

Just in case that you aren't convinced that sloths are cute:

Big Rig by Jamie Swenson Book Review

Big Rig by Jamie Swenson
Illustrations by Ned Young
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Release Date: February 4, 2014

Join Frankie the Big Rig truck as he takes us on a journey through the world of trucks. Full of truck driving lingo and colorful illustrations, Big Rig introduces young readers to the words and sounds of the road.

Through the clever use of onomatopoeia (“URRRRNNNT-URRRRNNT!” goes Frankie’s horn), Swenson creates a fun adventure that will grab the attention of any young reader and although it "teaches" it never feels didactic. Although all picture books are meant to be read aloud, this one lends itself perfectly to storytime with its jazzy feel and fun sounds. There is even a "Truck-tionary" at the end with big rig vocabulary terms that are used throughout the book. Ned Young's illustrations are vibrant, reminding me of the movie Cars with its anthropomorphism. A great book for those kids who just can't get enough of trucks.

Interview with Big Rig's Jamie Swenson

At what point did you realize that writing was a viable career option?
This is a really hard question to answer - because - a viable career means something different to each person. For me, with two published and one soon-to-be-released picture books, I have yet to realize the monetary level that my 'other career' provides. I know very few writers who are independently wealthy or earn enough simply by writing to support themselves. Most have part-time/full-time jobs, or have a partner who earns the majority of the income. The writers who are supporting themselves are doing a lot of traveling either to conferences or school visits, which is of course a wonderful thing - but also exhausting! For me, writing is my passion -- but I support that passion by working as an early literacy storyteller/children's associate at my local public library. In my mind, this is the best of both worlds - to be surrounded by children's books at 'work' and to 'work' as a writer. I feel blessed in this regard! I also have a very supportive husband who helps makes my writing time possible. Without these two outside sources of income, I'm not sure being a picture book writer would be a viable career for me.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?
My typical writing day starts as soon as I wake up. Getting into the frame of mind is really important, so I do the 'office work' first for about an hour. This includes catching up on any important emails, updating social media as needed, or reviewing notes from my editor/agent about the current project. Once I have put out any fires, I feel free to write for a few hours. On a good day, I'll write for about three hours before taking a break. My best break is walking my dogs. During my walk, I am revising the morning's work in my head (sometimes by talking aloud - which I think worries those who pass me!). I also use my walk to brainstorm new story ideas. It's amazing how much I get done AWAY from my computer! After my walk - I once again check email/social media etc... and then if I'm actively working on a project, I try to write for another hour. If not, I might spend the afternoon critiquing work for other writers. I am normally done for the day by 3:30 p.m. when my kids get home from school. If I'm very inspired about the current project -- I may work on and off in the late afternoon/evening -- but that's rare. My typical week consists of two full writing days, and three days spent working as an early literacy storyteller at my local library. Many of my ideas hit my while I'm at work - either observing storytime, or interacting with the kids at the library. I'm not sure writers ever really get to leave the writing work behind! I have no idea how to 'turn it off' when I'm not actively at my desk.

How did you celebrate when your first book was accepted by a publisher?
I guess the funniest part of that first contract came when I announced it to my family. I sold my first book in December 2010; the book was originally due to come out in Dec. 2012. When I announced the date, my then middle school aged daughter got a pained look on her face and said, "Oh great. That's when the world is supposed to end!" Mayan predictions aside, I don't think I'll ever forget that! I had waited a long time to get 'the call' - and so it made perfect sense that when it finally came it was the end of life as we knew it! All joking aside, I used a bit of the advance to take my family on vacation -- the rest went toward bills. It was an incredible moment in my writing life -- a validation of sorts for all the work, rejection, patience, and time spent at my computer.

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
I think the pace of the industry still surprises me, despite the knowledge that I had coming into the mix. I'd heard stories from published friends about the long wait for the finished product. I knew about waiting. My first manuscript sold after about seven years of near misses. That alone would have probably killed most folks, or sent them running off to self-publish. But I could never walk away. I felt like I was so close for so many years. Years. Thinking back, I have no idea why I kept trying. I just did. And then, one day, *HOORAY!* I sold a book! And it would be out in TWO YEARS! Everyone outside the industry was shocked that my picture book would take TWO YEARS, but I was well-aware of how long it took for a picture book to come out ... what I wasn't expecting was to have an illustrator like Chris Raschka take on the manuscript. When my editor told me he loved it and wanted to work on it - but couldn't start until 2012, I was in shock. Amazingly GOOD shock. My editor actually asked if I would be okay with this ... um... YES! But, when I told my friends and family that the book wouldn't be out until 2014 (at the earliest) they were in disbelief. How on God's Green Earth could a picture book take so many years? I really don't know. They just do. And believe me, when I saw the art for the book and held the advance copy in my hand - all the years (previous to selling the book and the waiting for the book once I signed off on the text) disappeared. So, I guess I'm surprised to tell you, "Yes. The slow pace of the industry is fine with me." If you're out there writing a picture book, know that once you sell it, you might have a bit of a wait before you get to share the finished product with your mom. (Novels don't take such a long time ... and not EVERY publisher takes two years or more for a book ... but, know that it's a possibility).

What role did you play in the illustration process of Big Rig? How has your experience with your previous and upcoming books compared?
My editor for BIG RIG kept me involved with the illustration process of the book, sharing Ned Young's early sketches and asking for my thoughts/opinions. Many of my suggestions were incorporated into the art -- but there were still plenty of fun surprises for me when I saw the final art (for instance - I had NO IDEA there would be dinosaurs in this book - cars/trucks AND dinosaurs? I was thrilled). The process for my Macmillan books was slightly different - I never saw rough sketches and had only minimal input on end pages and cover. So, those books were a complete surprise for me -- which was really fun too!

What made you interested in writing about trucks? Have you done any book events where Big Rigs were involved?
As a children's librarian/storyteller -- I am always using great transportation books, from the classic Crews books to new releases. I love how the kids respond to anything with wheels - boys and girls. One day, while observing a storytime, I heard a little boy yell out, "I am a big rig!" It made me laugh, but the sentence stuck with me. All weekend that voice popped around in my head, but started to change into a very BIG voice with an even bigger attitude. "Howdy, name's Stella. Proud to meet you, I'm a big rig." What? The voice stopped me. I started playing with it and started researching all things truck related. I was so taken with the voice and with all the fantastic truck-related words I discovered that I had no choice but to write the book. If you had asked me the day before I'd heard that little boy yell out if I had any intention of writing about semi trucks - I would have said no. I've learned to be open to any topic and to come at it in a way that makes me smile. BIG RIG, and the truck who is now named Frankie, makes me smile.

I have always found it very difficult to write picture books because I can’t write anything that short. What is the hardest thing for you when you work on picture books?
Writing 'short' is a challenge - and it's one I adore. My first draft of a book might be 700 words. My next challenge is to cut the ms. down to the bare essentials - to recognize where I've stomped on the illustrators toes by providing too much stage direction/detail -- and where I've fallen in love with my own sentences and given too much narrative ... and looking at the white space - is it balanced? So much of what I write is hidden in the white space -- you have to use your imagination when you look at my manuscript. My books are intended to be illustrated, and I respect the ability of the illustrator to take the words and ideas I've created and flesh out our story and add to it. I really do think of writing picture books as a puzzle ... how can I give the reader a full, rich experience in as few words as humanly possible? Do not waste even one word. Do not be frivolous. Make it count. If you're only using 430 words - each word MUST have a reason and must pull the story along. It's become such a part of me that I'm not certain I could write LONG! grin.

Can you share a little bit about your newest project with us?
My next book, IF YOU WERE A DOG, will come out in Sept. 2014. It's actually the first book that I sold to Macmillan back in 2010. I am in love with how the book turned out. It was illustrated by Caldecott Medalist, Chris Raschka, and was well-worth the four year wait, at least in my opinion. Chris' watercolors seem to match the joy I was feeling when I wrote that text, which is playful and rhythmic and full of what is now my 'trademark' onomatopoeia (I love using sound words in my books, so much fun to read aloud with kids). My current W-I-Ps are a bit zanier than my other books. I'm playing with voice and perspective and language. I'm having fun and I'm playing, which is what I do best.

When you were eight-years-old, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
When I was eight, I was thinking about being a famous actor/singer/television news reporter. While I didn't actually become a famous actor/singer, I do still use those skills almost daily - whether I'm sharing books, songs, and action rhymes in storytime, or writing my next book. Picture books are like mini dramas - they're intended to be read aloud with feeling. When you read them, you use some acting skills -- and when you write them -- you imagine and use a ton of acting skills (at least I do) . I find myself reading aloud, imagining the reaction each word might get from the kids -- and freaking out my dogs in the process.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Or Tweet me @JamieASwenson

Peggy by Anna Walker Book Review

Peggy by Anna Walker
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: March 5, 2014

Peggy lives in a small house in a quiet street. Then, on a blustery day Peggy finds herself scooped up by the wind and blown into the city. Things are marvelous and strange, but all Peggy wants to do is find her way home.

Children are really going to love this jaunty adventure featuring a very brave chicken and some beautiful illustrations. Peggy notices things that children would notice, bringing the perspective down to their level in a way that is never condescending. There is the never ending crush of the city with it's endless umbrellas and people, but Peggy weathers it all and eventually finds that although she does want to return home, sometimes a visit into the city every now and then isn't such a bad thing. With sparse text and engaging art, this would be a great read for a storytime or for those kids who love a quiet adventure.

Dream Dog by Lou Berger Book Review

Dream Dog by Lou Berger
Illustrations by David Catrow
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: February 25, 2014

Harry has always wanted a dog. His parents, who aren't as on board about getting a canine, get Harry a lizard instead. This forces Harry to take matters into his own hands and with the use of the X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet, he creates his own dog—Waffle. Things are great for Harry & Waffle until a real dog comes into his life. Is there room for two dogs, even if one is invisible?

I have to admit, I picked up this book purely for David Catrow's illustrations. I absolutely love his use of color and whimsy that he distills into all his illustrations. The story itself if the perfect mix of imagination and coming of age story. After all, how do children let go of their imaginary friends? I imagine for every child this is different, but it is something young readers will be able to relate to.

Now Playing by Ron Koertge Book Review

Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz II by Ron Koertge
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: August 9, 2011

Ben Bancroft is still riding high after successfully completing a documentary for a film festival. His girlfriend Colleen is just high. Struggling with his feelings about Colleen and looking to the future, Ben begins to wonder what other people really see when they look at him. Do they see the withered arm and loping gait from cerebral palsy or do they see something else, something better?

As you can tell, I am catching up on some of my older reading. The first book, Stoner & Spaz was a book that I used as a positive example of disabilities in middle grade and young adult book, which was the focus of my Master's critical thesis. One of the most important elements I found to a create a good story with disabilities was that the story couldn't be about just the disability. Should you remove the disability from the story, there should still be some sort of plot. Despite his cerebral palsy and the fact that he thinks about it often, the real plot has nothing to do with Ben's disability. Instead this story is really about his relationship with Colleen.

Colleen's story takes center stage this time. Raised in a life full of neglect, abuse, and sexual predators, Colleen struggles for normality, often resorting to drugs to dull her reality. Ben doesn't always know how to deal with her and does question whether he should even be dating her. However, Colleen is also ballsy and when Ben goes to find his mother who abandoned him, it is Colleen who helps put everyone at ease.

My only complaint is that the plot was a bit meandering. Without a focus like the documentary film festival, the plot sped up and slowed down at a pace that was as wonkey as Ben's gait. Ben's mother was so strange and detached that I never really understood what was going on with her. How does someone that slow and out of it hold down a job and get an apartment? Although I was glad to see another book about Ben I still worry about him. Colleen, despite her wanton ways, really is a walking disaster and Ben can't fix her. Will he stay with her once he graduates and goes on to college? I just don't see that happening, no matter how much effort he puts into their relationship.

As promised and for the sake of posterity, Ron Koertge was one of the faculty advisers at Hamline University where I got my MFA.

A Catfish Tale by Whitney Stewart Book Review

A Catfish Tale by Whitney Stewart
Illustrations by Gerald Guerlais
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release Date: January 1, 2014

Jack lives deep in the bayou along with his beautiful wife. When Jack catches a magic fish that offers to grant a wish in exchange for being set free, Jack can't think of a single thing he wants--but his wife can. She wishes for a mansion with a balcony to sing one, a paddleboat, fame, money. The fish never seems to be troubled by the wishes, but perhaps things have gone a bit too far.

Jack has a really terrible wife. She is not content with her life with Jack. Instead she wants, no demands, fame and fortune from the catfish. A Catfish Tale does read like an old Louisiana fairy tale, but there was a lack of resolution in the end. Did the catfish take it all back or did Jack's wife simply learn her lesson. Jack was willing to do anything for his wife because he loved her, but it wasn't until things got out of control that she even considered going back to her "old" life. I am not entirely sure that she actually learned her lesson although lucky for her Jack loves her just as much in the end as he did in the beginning. The illustrations were vibrant and colorful. I absolutely loved the catfish.

Tramp by Bill Kennedy Book Review

Tramp: A T.K. & Associates Detective Story by Bill Kennedy
Publisher: North Star Press of St. Cloud
Release Date: March 1, 2014

Tramp may seem like a regular dog, but he is anything but ordinary. When Tramp is taken from his home and sent to a neighborhood pet store, all he cares about is finding a family. Little does he know that those friends from the pet shop will become part of his work as a detective. Smart, quick, and able to understand humans, Tramp sets about to solve a mystery with the help of the animals and humans that he has come to know and love throughout his neighborhood.

I readily admit I have never been a dog lover. I know I know, this is sacrilegious to those who are, but I just can't help it. Lucky for me there are some wonderful cats in this story too. Tramp is a very extraordinary dog besides. Able to understand humans and make himself understood, Tramp is sure to catch the interest of its intended audience. At first I was a little unsure as to why the author decided to start the story at the pet shop as it didn't seem to have any relation to the overall plot which I originally thought was just about a dog finding a family. However, as promised, the story is a thrilling mystery in which the beginning is cleverly tied into the plot in a way that felt organic and yet a bit magical.

There isn't magic in this book per se, and yet the anthropomorphic nature of the animals did have that sense of fantasy that every child (and some adults) wish their pets had. We wish that the understood us. In a way they do. Reminiscent of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Poppy & Rye, Tramp is a fun adventure story with a slightly dark twist that really shows what it means to be a friend and part of a family.

The advance reader copy of this book was provided to me by North Star Press of St. Cloud and Bill Kennedy for review purposes.

An Interview with Tramp's Bill Kennedy

 Before we get started talking about your writing, Bill, I would like to tell our audience a little about the author. Tell us about yourself, where you’re from, what you do for a living—if you’re not a full time writer, what hobbies you have. That sort of thing.

Born: Peoria, Illinois
Lives: Jamestown, ND
Job: Development Director, James River Valley Library
Hobbies: Reading, Walking

What does a typical writing day look for you
I write in the evenings and on weekends. I write long hand using a fast pencil and pad of paper. Revisions are done on a Dell Laptop with Windows 8. 

What is the most challenging part of writing for you?
Sitting down and starting. 

In your book there are a lot of really great animal characters. Are any of them fashioned after animals you own or have owned in the past?
Tramp is inspired by a real dog. We loved him and he loved us. He controlled his own destiny and sometimes ours. Buster is inspired by a real parakeet who lived a few blocks away. Calico, Pauly and Suzette are blends of other neighborhood pets. The Angel-Mouse Chorus? no idea where they came from. 

What drove you to write this story?
I wanted to pay tribute to Tramp and our neighborhood. It was a magical place to raise a family with open doors, and backyards full of kids and animals. Close enough to downtown to take the bus to work in downtown Minneapolis and two blocks from a beautiful lake. The humans are based on our family and our neighbors who are as real as Tramp. 

You are planning on writing more books about Tramp. How do you go about planning a series? Do you have a story arc planned or is it more episodic in nature? Tramp gave us more than enough adventures to keep T.K. & Associates busy. Future books will stay in the Twin Cities and introduce new animals and humans.
Can you share a little bit about your newest project with us?
Tramp’s next caper is in the same Minneapolis setting where his skills as a detective are developed with the help of old and new characters, both animal and human. Perhaps a stranger that walks by Tramps house every day talking out loud to no one in particular as the result of, well we will see.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?

Adult Novel
Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird , Harper Lee
Atticus cares deeply about his children, Scout and Jem, and his deceased wife. He never lets the kids lose sight of her importance to the family. As a lawyer in a small southern town, he shows courage, respect and love to all To Kill A Mockingbird’s characters.

Children’s Picture Book
Bonaparte, Bonaparte, Marsha Wilson Chall
Bonaparte, a dog, loves his boy, Jean Claude, and will not allow him to be taken away to La School d’Excellence without his company. “NO DOGS ALLOWED” does not stop him. He outwits the boarding school administrators by saving their reputation and opening the school to all dogs. 

Weasels by Elys Dolan Book Review

Weasels by Elys Dolan 
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: February 25, 2014

Weasels. What do they do all day? Well, little did you know but they are plotting world domination. This adventure story is full of mischief, failed attempts, and coffee as the weasels work toward the ultimate plan to take over the world.

A busy book with a lot to look at one each page, giving personalities to the various weasels using speech bubbles. All I have to say, don't give a weasel access to coffee. They have a habit of spilling it a lot, which may be why the world domination machine is broken. Who knows? This is a bit long for the younger readers if you read all the speech bubbles and there are definitely some asides that only an adult reader is really going to understand, but it is cute and nicely illustrated so I think the 5-8 year-olds will enjoy it greatly.

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington Book Review

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 20, 2013

There are a lot of trouble words in Sarah Nelson's life. Like love, mom, and crazy. When Sarah was two-years-old her mother tried to drown her and her twin brother. Her brother died. Now Sarah worries about whether or not she will become crazy one day. After all, she talks to a plant, keeps two diaries, likes to stand on a stump in the middle of her yard, and her mother is definitely nuts. As Sarah begins to grow up, experiencing her first real crush, she finds an inner strength and the answer to questions she has been desperately searching for.

Despite an interesting premise, this is one of those "quiet" books. Completely character driven, there is only a meandering plot with a lot of introspection, which was in keeping with the character but also felt like a running monologue sometimes. Sarah's feelings, her concern about growing up to be crazy like her mom is very understandable and I thought it was a real shame that with all the psychologists she saw, not one told her that crazy isn't catching. Not once is postpartum depression mentioned.

What I did love was that this felt like a glimpse into the life of someone who has been through something traumatic like this. Sarah's father was also put on trial (even though he was not there at the time), but was acquitted. Years later the news story continues to come up though and anytime a woman kills her children, this tiny family has to re-live these terrible events. They move over and over again whenever word gets out that they are in town, because there are people who still believe her father played some part in it and got away with murder. The press badger them whenever they try to visit the grave of her twin brother. These elements made the story so sad and painted such a vivid portrait of grieving families who are never really allowed to move past there trauma. It also made the book solidly a young adult book. Although the language and age of the character read like an intermediate level book, I wouldn't give this to any kid in elementary school unless I knew they were dealing with some of these exact same issues. I mean, Sarah is not only into boys but she has a complete crush on a nineteen-year-old. Also noteworthy, Sarah refers to "To Kill a Mockingbird" often and I think young readers would be much better served if they already had a working knowledge of either the book or movie or both.

On the downside, there is a lot going on in this book. If the crazy storyline wasn't enough, then there is the crush, and her babysitter's bad boyfriend, their next door neighbor, her obsession with words, her dad's alcoholism, Sarah becoming a woman, her letters for school, and the constant word definitions that have almost become trope in middle grade books. Sarah is such a lonely and sad child and I was left with the feeling that despite finding a bit of her voice, this isn't going to change. There is still so much healing needed for this family and they are going to both need some serious counseling. Without it, I can see Sarah running off with some older guy at sixteen, still writing in her journals and despite saying she wouldn't, discovering the same drink her father did.

29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket Book Review

29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket
Publisher: McSweeney's McMullens
Release Date: February 11, 2014

There are many myths surrounding the Swinster Pharmacy. 29 are listed in this book. Who is the owner? Is it really closed on the weekends? Why are there three Styrofoam heads in the window? There are many theories, but none will ever hope to shed a light on the mystery that surrounds this little pharmacy.

I have enjoyed many of Lemony Snicket's books over the years, but this one is a terrible bore that was both meandering and pointless. Believe me, I understand the point of it. Children trying to debunk myths surrounding a place with little hope of a resolution. Therein lies the problem though. There is simply no resolution and no point, which made the reading of it feel entirely pointless.

If this book has an audience it lies with adults who will appreciate the strange way the book is crafted as well as the dark tone of the book. I am not saying that children won't understand the book, simply that adults will find it more interesting. Honestly, I feel like I am missing something here and I am not entirely sure what.