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For so long as I’ve been an avid reader (and I cannot remember a time when I was not), I’ve believed that there is something to be learned from most any read. There are truths about personal relationships that may give us insight into the motivations of those in our own lives, and there are new understandings of the world around us that may help us to make our own way through it. On occasion, when I read, I even glean interesting historical nuggets that I might put to later use. So it was with Grog Wars, by Anne Sweasy-Kulju.
In Grog Wars, readers follow Burke Kaufmann, a German Brew Master, forced into an arranged marriage to Lily (who, much to his surprise, he comes to love). But Burke’s father has more plans for him: a trip to the western United States at the height of the gold rush days. Burke sets off, meeting the colorful Aussie, Queensy Gray, along the way. When the two finally arrive in Oregon, Burke sends for Lily. Perhaps the most interesting historical details set out in this adventure, for me, came while following Lily on her travels to the New World by way of Panama. Thereafter, I enjoyed learning a bit about “shanghaiing” as that “art” was practiced in Portland, Oregon, known at the time as the “Shanghai capital.”
In a story I would classify as appropriate for the more mature YA (as well as “adult”) audience, Anne Sweazy-Kulju takes readers, in the Literary Classics award-winning Grog Wars , on an historical adventure. It is one sure to leave them with details of the art of brewing, around-the-world traveling in the mid-1800s, and the history of the "shanghai" practice--any of which could come in handy the next time a Trivia question on one of those subjects happens their way.
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Every now and again, we experience something that feels a bit akin to magic. Sometimes it is in our discovery of simple things around us. Other times, we may happen upon an unusual event--quite by accident. On occasion, those events change our lives. They give us a fresh look at the world at large, and of our place in it. It seems that just that happened one day when Steve Larkinson, camera in hand, came upon squabbling birds in a nest. He raced to capture the best shots and thereafter, presented his picture-story to Kate Larkinson. She, mesmerized, added to his shots, easy, melodic prose that may be enjoyed by both the young and the young-at-heart. Thus, the Literary Classics’ award-winning, Little Bird Lost, was born.
In a story that will show children the importance of family and of each member in one, Kate and Steve Larkinson take children on a real-life adventure in Little Bird Lost. In doing so, they share a little magic with anyone who happens along the way.
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I’ve yet to meet the child who doesn’t love to play “dress up.” Luckily, little ones get one special day a year in which to take that game to its ultimate—namely, Halloween. But the fun needn’t start and end on October 31st—not when Penelope Anne Cole has caught on to the spirit (no pun intended) of fun enjoyed on that holiday in Ten Little Tricksters. This creative story, offering a clever count-down from ten to one, may be used as a ready teaching aid for children at any time of year.
Ten Little Tricksters opens with ten little ghosts that “Scream! Scream! Scream!” and counts it way down through goblins, monsters, and other Halloween regulars, out to trick-or-treat. The illustrations, by Kevin Collier, bright and colorful, are engaging and age-appropriate for the intended audience.
Treat your little monsters to a copy of Penelope Anne Cole's Literary Classics award-winning Ten Little Tricksters--and the “sweetness” of the treat will be one that you, too, will enjoy!
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When it comes to sheer, unmitigated creativity, Steve LeBel ranks high! In his Universe Builders, LeBel tells the story of Bernie, a young god, whose job is to create new universes. Bernie has a high calling and a tough act to follow. You see, his father from whom he is estranged has won the Annual Universe Building contest—repeatedly. The pressure is on. But Bernie is sidetracked with friends, a crush on Suzie, a bully who is set out to destroy him, and unusual creatures that hang around in the nearby neighborhood forest.
The Universe Builders is classified as YA, but it is written such that middle-graders could read it and would surely enjoy it. The story is “clean,” and while the characters are not terribly deep, they are most certainly entertaining. But it is LeBel’s (apparently) bone-deep creativity that sets this work apart. With an unusual mixture of fantasy and what “feels like” science fiction, the universes in which Bernie and his young god friends live, and those they all contemplate building, are highly unusual. Consider, for example, warm-blooded trees, the ability to “blink” out a creation because it’s not working out so well (a thought the pacifist Bernie cannot abide), planets with portals linking them together for the ease of migration should the need arise in the future, or the idea of creating a new world in which the female of the life forms precedes the male form. (Shocking, I know. I understand that it caused quite a stir!)
I suspect that Bernie expresses something of an alter ego for LeBel. I base this on the story of Bernie’s educational pursuits. It seems that in his Creation Ethics 200 class, Bernie got a D+. Oh, he understood the material well enough—he just “refused to accept it.” So too, LeBel has refused to accept the possibility of creating a work like any that came before him. Thus, it is clear why he is a Literary Classics award-winning author.
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Have you ever considered all you experience when you listen to a symphony? Your senses are engaged: the sight of the furious violinists; the feel of the pounding percussion instruments under at your feet; the sound— Well, the sound moves you. It puts your emotions in play. One moment, you may hang, waiting, anticipating, perhaps even feeling melancholy as the French horns sound out, or you may experience a bit of pain when the violinists “cry.” The next moment, you may feel intense longing. In listening, you might experience mercy granted—or joy restored. If you heard the parts individually, you might wonder where each intended to go. But when you experience them merged, in accord, you experience the “whole.” For me, a good story provides a similar experience.
When I read a work classified as YA, I look for those things that for me, make the work “sing.” I want a story that is engaging and memorable. I want heroes who are unique people (after all, aren’t we all?), but who don’t think themselves so very “special” that they expect the world revolves around them. I want them, even in their limited age and experience, able to exercise good judgment and to make good decisions or, when they do not, capable of identifying where they went wrong so as to avoid the same traps in the future. I want some semblance of wisdom to shine through. (These are, after all, works intended for the young.) With all that said, I am delighted to add that, in The Clay Lion, Amalie Jahn hit every single note—with perfect pitch and with inimitable timing.
Brooke and her brother, Branson, share a sincere love and friendship. They spend time together willingly and enjoy one another’s company. So when Branson, who is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, dies shortly thereafter, Brooke is devastated. She investigates the potential causes of his illness and then, as one might expect in a day when time travel is available, decides to go back in time. Her goal: to stop the events that brought his illness about in the first place. But as Brooke soon discovers, playing with time and events can have some devastating consequences. Some things are just meant to be. Indeed, the pain we experience in life teaches us about far more than merely suffering. In Brooke’s case, it teaches her (as the author herself might say) to “live in the present.”
Parents: get a copy of The Clay Lion for your young ones. Teachers: get one for your classrooms. Let the youth in your life experience the fullness of the symphony that Amalie Jahn has created. You’ll soon see why Amalie Jahn earned a Gold Medal for The Clay Lion from Literary Classics!
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It is 1932, and the town of Coaldale is bleeding—residents, that is—many of whom are making their way to parts farther west to flee the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, in Shadow of the Hawk, by K. S. Jones. Notwithstanding the difficult economic times, however, the Williams family stays put. Their teenage daughter, Susanna, known to all as Sooze, finds her brother Henry a bit irksome at times (as he talks as though he knows something about everything), and her younger sister, Cora, something of a bother on occasion. Still, Sooze loves her family. Indeed, she loves them so much that she prepares to sacrifice her future happiness by marrying David Huckabee, a young man she does not love, but through whom she might make better, the lives of her family members.
Jones captured the spirit of the times through such thoughts as—from the just-turned 16-year old Sooze (of her father): “Mama said you could hear defeat in a man’s voice long before it settled in his brain, and I knew I hadn’t heard it yet.” Jones allows Sooze’s true spirit to come forth when she witnesses Benny Simmons, her brother’s friend, murder her Uncle Ray, then blame the incident on Henry. To add to the complexity of the tale, as Sooze struggles to find legal representation for her brother and to support her parents who suffer a grievous loss, David showers Sooze with little gifts. Still, he remains obstinately condescending toward her. For example, he tells her that she’s the only worthy one in her family and that that is why she “belongs” to him. (To which Sooze thinks in response, “Call me stubborn, but I didn’t like the thought of belonging to anyone.“) All the while, though Sooze sees through David, she struggles to find the power within herself to follow her heart—to make her own way. In this regard, it seems she is not unlike most teens of today.
The Shadow of the Hawk is a gritty tale of farm and small community life during the depression years of the 1930s. Sooze, the voice of the story, is authentic and consistent. She is a caring, competent young woman. (I especially enjoyed her willingness to give to others.) Jones most certainly earned her Literary Classics Gold Medal for Historic Fiction YA, with Shadow of the Hawk.
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“Horror” is not a genre that, as a rule, I turn to when I seek a good read to entertain me. Still, A. R. Meyering proved to me with Unreal City, why it is that horror tales engage readers as they do. Her writing has a lovely flow, her characters are full, and her imagination knows no bounds. I particularly applaud her for her fine use of less-than-common words (such as, by way of example, gelatinous, ambrosial, miasma, viscous, and opalescence). (It is nice to see younger readers offered a work with a rich vocabulary.)
In Unreal City, Sarah Wilkes suffers the grievous loss of her twin sister, Lea. Thereafter, a strange spirit stalks Sarah, leaving her unable to concentrate on her new college surroundings and events. Sarah must determine if Unreal City, the place to which the spirit takes her, is a dream or a nightmare. Without giving away any good parts, suffice it to say that Unreal City may, in fact, be a bit of both. Accordingly, Sarah is right to fear for Joy, her new friend, a young woman with a giving heart and sacrificial spirit.
Unreal City offers that creepy “hair-raising” feeling on your arms and that unexplainable curiosity that sets upon you when a shadow passes by slowly, unexpectedly. In this read that I would recommend for the mature YA audience, Meyering has personified longing, fear, and even a bit of regret. Along the way, she has articulated an important principle: that sometimes the greatest pain comes because we refuse to let go of that which hurts us the most. With Unreal City, Meyering clearly earned her Literary Classics’ Gold Medal for YA horror!
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Charly is the story of Charles Kimball Ryan, set in Boston, in the early 1900s. After Charly’s mother dies in a tragic fire, his father leaves behind with his eldest son, instructions for him to take his youngest three children to the New England Home for Little Wanderers, then heads west.
Charly is not keen on the home, particularly when his youngest sister, Minnie, is soon chosen by a well-to-do couple to live with them. But he makes the best of things. Fortunately, he has a gift: he can sing! Thus, he joins the children’s choir and becomes the group’s star soloist. Then one Sunday morning while the choir sings, Charly sets his eyes on a girl sitting in a pew who reminds him of his sister, Minnie. When the girl’s father approaches to inquire about the possibility of taking one of the children back home with his family, Charly hears words that are like music to his ears: “My wife wants the boy who can sing,” the simple farmer says. And so begins Charly’s new life, complete with an array of adventures on a farm in Maine.
For some reason, it seems difficult to find engaging, interesting books for middle-grade readers. Charly will help to fill that gap. With careful historical research, Donna Marie Seim offers a tale that is rich in detail, full of emotion, and ultimately, satisfying. Charly is the well-deserving 2015 winner of The Enchanted Quill Award from Literary Classics.
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A Story of Becoming, by Ayne Cates Sullivan, brilliantly illustrated by Belle Crow DuCray, is an inspirational journey that begins with a seed buried below the earth’s surface. As things warm, the seed bursts forth. It grows to discover beauty around it, experiences the desire to be like others, feels the need for continued sustenance, and thinks of ways it might be useful. The now small plant also suffers when deer choose her branches to chew, and when winter sets in. She wants to hide away, as do many of us when hardship visits, but she eventually finds the encouragement of other plants around her. With the return of spring, she experiences a new desire for living and a new purpose. Even then, difficulties come, this time leaving behind scars. But the plant, now a full-grown apple tree, finds her purpose, offering her gifts to others. In time, she comes to be known as the "miracle tree" for those who seek healing.
This inspirational journey mirrors life. Times of joy and times of pain often come back-to-back. Neither lasts forever, but both, remarkably, serve a purpose in one’s life journey. With A Story of Becoming, Ayne Cates Sullivan offers readers a realistic view of life’s ups and downs, always hinting at a hope for the future—a hope that is portrayed engagingly and lovingly in Belle Crow DuCray’s exquisite illustrations. A copy of the Literary Classics 2015 Gold Medal Winner for inspirational/picture books, A Story of Becoming, would be welcomed by anyone who seeks encouragement and searches for her purpose.
It is already April 2016! We Quills are welcoming it in with our comments on “Books We Love.”
So, I'll go ahead and get started, then share Robin Lythgoe's comments with you.
I’m going with an Indie read this time. Truth to tell, one must wade through some things to find gems, whether they are traditional- or Indie-published. But for those who enjoy fantasy for the young, I can recommend, A Hero’s Curse, by P. S. Broaddus.
What intrigued me when I read the blurb for A Hero’s Curse, was that the main protagonist is a young—blind—girl. Since so much of our world is what we see, and since in our writing, we authors must disclose that world to our readers, I was intrigued with the concept of using a blind heroine. P. S. Broaddus did not fail to deliver.
Essie, Broaddus’s heroine, may be blind, but she can still see. How can that be, you may ask? Well, Essie “sees” through her cat, Tig. Essie and Tig have an interesting relationship. Essie needs him, yet in some ways seems almost to resent him. For his part, Tig is short and sharp with her from time to time. Perhaps their relationship is best summed up in Essie’s comment to him: “Conceit is a weird disease—you have it, but it’s making me sick.”
If you’re looking for something different, for a heroine that does not fit the norm, take a gander at A Hero’s Curse. My full review is here.
A Hero’s Curse is available on Amazon here.
Find out more on Broaddus’s website here.
Next up is Robin Lythgoe, author of As the Crow Flies. So, what say you, Robin?
At the beginning of the year, I joined the Goodreads' Reading Challenge. I started out with a bang, burning through 14 books in a little over two months. Last month? Not so much, though I've started several. In order for my "read" to be counted for the challenge, I actually have to finish it, and there have been some books that I've set aside. (Gently, because I love my Kindle--Otherwise, Id have thrown them across the room in frustration.)
Much to my delight, I stumbled across Kate Danley's The Woodcutter. What a wonderful, unique twist on fairytales!
Read more here.