LOST IN THE SUN for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

The story line for this new book by Lisa Graff reminded me of Mile Lupica’s, THE ONLY GAME. In both books we discover early on that a horrific and unfortunate event has altered the life of our young boy narrator. Each story explores how they come to grips with their lives and a girl that becomes their best friend. Sports is also a backdrop.51kbqCJBhoL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

LOST IN THE SUN is set in a small town during the early months of Trent’s sixth grade year. The accident that haunts him occurred the previous winter. Yes it was Trent who took the unfortunate hockey shot that killed another boy. Now he must deal with a town that supposedly despises him. He is also increasingly at odds with his divorced dad who lives not far away in a new marriage.

Trent is on his way to becoming the most obnoxious 12-year-old ever. His less than charming personality pushes the limits as he tests teachers and other adults. He’s also not afraid to physically fight with other kids. The scattering of inappropriate language nudges the YA mindset, but never quite jumps to that side. Still though I’d leave this one for upper MG readers.

The story will touch you deeply and for me it showed the need for counselors and therapists in the schools. So sad they are often the first ones given the ax in budget crunches.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon):  Everyone says that middle school is awful, but Trent knows nothing could be worse than the year he had in fifth grade, when a freak accident on Cedar Lake left one kid dead, and Trent with a brain full of terrible thoughts he can’t get rid of. Trent’s pretty positive the entire disaster was his fault, so for him middle school feels like a fresh start, a chance to prove to everyone that he’s not the horrible screw-up they seem to think he is.
If only Trent could make that fresh start happen.
It isn’t until Trent gets caught up in the whirlwind that is Fallon Little—the girl with the mysterious scar across her face—that things begin to change. Because fresh starts aren’t always easy. Even in baseball, when a fly ball gets lost in the sun, you have to remember to shift your position to find it.


  1. Trent is someone you’ll hate for the way he treats others but love how he reaches out and tries to understand both himself and the people in his life.
  2. Fallon, his unlikely friend, is a girl with a past she wears on her face. She’s a welcome breath of air in contrast to Trent’s confused state. We come to find out they’re both scarred, though in different ways. Such a great pairing with these two characters.
  3. A divorced family with Trent and his two brothers splitting time between two homes, is expertly told. Many kids from divorced homes will be nodding their heads at the similarities depicted here.
  4. Trent’s older and younger brothers are perhaps the most stable part of his life. It’s typical brotherly shenanigans and misunderstandings that come to have more meaning for each character. The parents of these boys could learn a few things about parenting by dropping in on their conversations.
  5. I gravitate toward outliers like Trent. Sometimes all they need is a listener.  For Trent, that listener is a teacher he despises. Wonderful thread with this sub plot.

FAVORITE LINES: I’m sorry. That’s what I wanted to say. But I wasn’t, not really. Not for what everyone wanted me to be sorry for. I was sorry Mom had to drive all the way out to get me because my dad was such a jerk that I couldn’t be in the same house as him for two full days. But I wasn’t sorry about the shouting, or the milk. I didn’t think I was the one who should be sorry about that..

“What am I going to do with you?” Mom said to me as we drove.

I didn’t answer. I didn’t have the slightest idea.

AUTHOR QUOTE: “One day when I was eight years old, I was whining to my mother that I was bored and she told me to “go write a story or something.” An hour later I produced a five-page picture book entitled The Strangest Flower, chock-full of spelling mistakes and truly terrible crayon drawings of flowers floating in midair. I still have it.” (Lisa Graff’s website)


Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


Co-Starring your Secondary Characters

The stories I write always have a strong protagonist with an obvious arc of change for the character.

It’s the second tier characters I often forget, but they also deserve growth. I’ve been using a technique to recheck how they come in and out of the story that has provided excellent results:

The current story I’m checking is 42,000 words. If credits were rolling then it might look something like this:








The co-stars are often difficult to keep track of, as they are not in every scene. I used to read the entire story trying to keep track of each character’s action and dialog. This way though is quicker:

I position the cursor at the beginning of the story and do a search for one of the names. I then copy that scene and continue on through the story until all the scenes with that character are in separate file. It’s like a mini-story with the co-star as the main focus. By isolating on one character, I’m able to make sure the character’s growth makes sense and that they don’t repeat themselves. It takes me about 45 minutes for each character, but in the end I’m able to make each of them stronger and in turn do the same for my story.


I’ll leave you with this MG Feel Good Video of the Week…

A HANDFUL OF STARS for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

By the looks of the cover you’d expect this to be a story about a dog. 51KyLXczCqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_That’s only partially true as it’s just as much about friendship, blueberries (that’s what you can see on Lucky’s nose), and understanding. I gravitated toward this new novel by Cynthia Lord based on loving one of her previous books, RULES.

Narrated by Lily, it’s a honest view of life in a town dependent on the migrant workers who arrive each year to pick blueberries. She’s caught in the middle between an old and new friend, how to raise money for an operation to bring back her aging dog’s sight, and never knowing her mother who died when she was a toddler. Lily’s voice rings strong on every page.

Girls especially will adore this… boys, probably not as much. Once they discover what lies ahead on the pages, they’ll be back to fantasy, sports, and laugh out loud books. I though was enriched by this quiet story. The themes covered make for a special ride.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon):  When Lily’s blind dog, Lucky, slips his collar and runs away across the wide-open blueberry barrens of eastern Maine, it’s Salma Santiago who manages to catch him. Salma, the daughter of migrant workers, is in the small town with her family for the blueberry-picking season.

After their initial chance meeting, Salma and Lily bond over painting bee boxes for Lily’s grandfather, and Salma’s friendship transforms Lily’s summer. But when Salma decides to run in the upcoming Blueberry Queen pageant, they’ll have to face some tough truths about friendship and belonging. Should an outsider like Salma really participate in the pageant-and possibly win?


  1. Blueberries are one of my favorite foods. I never really knew how they are harvested and brought to our table. I’m an expert now. I also couldn’t believe what I had missed all these years and had to immediately open a blueberry clamshell from the fridge. Yes, they each are capped with a star!
  2. Every plot point was given full consideration and a proper closing. It’s often not what the reader expects, but certainly makes sense for this story.
  3. Cultural biases are explored and in a way that makes us understand. Lily has much growth as she witnesses the various attitudes of people in her town.
  4. Oh my gosh, that cover just grabs me. Bravo to the genius at Scholastic who came up with that idea.
  5. The power and meaning of friendship has rarely been given such a thoughtful presentation.

FAVORITE LINES: “Stars are one of my favorite things. I love how when you look up at night, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Florida or Maine or Michigan or anywhere, it’s the same stars. So when I miss someone, I look at the stars and imagine that person seeing the same ones as me. No matter where I go, I can think of them and they can think of me. They’re my star friends.”

AUTHOR QUOTE: “I write my books at least eight times before they are published.” (Cynthia Lord’s website)

And if you have time, here are snippets of Cynthia Lord’s A HANDFUL OF STARS kick-off celebration at an elementary school (11 minutes):


Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday EXTRA

Time to sneak in another midweek review. This one is the third in a series about three Brooklyn sisters, age 12, 10, and 8 set in 1969. Their father and stepmother send them to visit relatives in Alabama. It may be just my recent reading choices this year, but it seems to be a lot of MG books set in the South. Maybe it’s because of the wide variety of interesting characters found in those states.

I was first introduced to this family five years ago in the memorable ONE CRAZY SUMMER. I missed the next offering in the triad with P.S. BE WceGgDUNlCA8RPHOz66AbHHs4RI12Vqg+OoBRGBrKx2plCphEkAr3aizNSRpuGHkIoDZcS4gLRs3LNNbucM2tzHjr1b6gOv!JK2gG4iMspVQ5iDKyCBWtzAWMsmQ+7PKELEVEN, and went right to this supposedly final story. If you have no prior history with the series and want to jump into GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA, it stands on its own with enough back story thrown in to bring you up to date.

To me this third book is one that teachers, librarians, and parents would adore. Ten and eleven year olds? Probably not as much. Most of this story centers around the differences between two great grandparents who are also sisters. It’s ripe with family problems best appreciated by those of us with a few miles under our belts. I’d recommend younger readers begin with the first book and if hooked then continue with the other two.

1969 was a curious year in our history, and its all brought forth through the eyes of Delphine, the oldest of the girls. It’s funny, sad, and revealing how friendships and family ties often never stay that way. You’ll be enriched by the beautifully written story, especially if you spot similarities to one or two of your own family members.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon):

Newbery Honor winner and New York Times bestselling author Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of the Gaither sisters, who are about to learn what it’s like to be fish out of water as they travel from the streets of Brooklyn to the rural South for the summer of a lifetime.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are off to Alabama to visit their grandmother, Big Ma, and her mother, Ma Charles. Across the way lives Ma Charles’s half sister, Miss Trotter. The two half sisters haven’t spoken in years. As Delphine hears about her family history, she uncovers the surprising truth that’s been keeping the sisters apart. But when tragedy strikes, Delphine discovers that the bonds of family run deeper than she ever knew possible.

  1. The historical references are engaging to read. From the Black Panthers movement to the Klan; From Ted Kennedy’s problems to the first man on the moon. All are like a movie running in the background of the story.
  2. Sibling squabbles from the adults and the three children are portrayed with humor and sadness. Anyone who has grown up in a large family will understand.
  3. Not one perfect character. They each have their faults that are gloriously woven into the story.
  4. Our racial history is powerfully portrayed here. More than once I found myself shifting uncomfortably with the true words coming off the pages.
  5. I only glanced at the family tree at the back of the book before beginning to read. After finishing the 289 pages, I went back to that tree and retraced the memory of learning about this family. A very handy addition.

A SCENE THAT STAYED WITH ME: To Vonetta, he said, “Don’t go grinning at every white kid trying to make friends. Stick to your own and you won’t have any problems. If they call you a name, keep your mouth shut and walk away.”

QUOTE FROM AUTHOR: “I was born in Queens, N.Y, on April 13, 1957. My mother, Miss Essie, named me ‘NoMo’ immediately after my birth. Although I was her last child, I took my time making my appearance. I like to believe I was dreaming up a good story and wouldn’t budge until I was finished. Even now, my daughters call me ‘Pokey Mom’, because I slow poke around when they want to go-go-go.” Rita’s Web Site


Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.


THE PAPER COWBOY for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

This novel has been on my pile of books to read for a long time. It got there like many often do with recommendations from other MMGM regulars. I added THE PAPER COWBOY to my list after seeing Rosi’s shout out on THE WRITE STUFF.

Set in the early 1950’s, 12-year-old Tommy narrates the story about life in a small Illinois town with three sisters and two parents. He’s a 20821303unlikeable protagonist right from the start. Tommy’s an expert at bullying, even doing so to a kid with a disability and an overweight classmate. His words and actions hurt many. I wanted to stop reading at many points, but continued on hoping there was change coming for this troubled boy. We soon find out, his home life is what fuels many of his aggressions. A mother who in modern day would be jailed for her beatings on Tommy, and a father who looks the other way and fails to take full responsibility for his family.

Change does come through with his love of cowboys and western movies, his fear of communism, and friendships he gets while delivering papers. It’s an emotional ride that will eventually have you riding off into the sunset with a smile on your face.

Not only is this a bit hefty in length for an MG book, but it’s too bad historical fiction is tough sell in my world. Young readers want fantasy, humor, and time travel. They most likely could care less about life in 1953. I’ll keep pushing books like this to them not from the historical angle, but that they will learn a lot about what growing up is really about.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon):  Though he thinks of himself as a cowboy, Tommy is really a bully.  He’s always playing cruel jokes on classmates or stealing from the store. But Tommy has a reason: life at home is tough. His abusive mother isn’t well; in fact, she may be mentally ill, and his sister, Mary Lou, is in the hospital badly burned from doing a chore it was really Tommy’s turn to do. To make amends, Tommy takes over Mary Lou’s paper route. But the paper route also becomes the perfect way for Tommy to investigate his neighbors after stumbling across a copy of The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper.

Tommy is shocked to learn that one of his neighbors could be a communist, and soon fear of a communist in this tight-knit community takes hold of everyone when Tommy uses the paper to frame a storeowner, Mr. McKenzie. As Mr. McKenzie’s business slowly falls apart and Mary Lou doesn’t seem to get any better, Tommy’s mother’s abuse gets worse causing Tommy’s bullying to spiral out of control.


  1. You will marvel at how the author ties up the many plot points threading through the story. It’s not a neatly tied bow at the end, but that’s the way life’s problems are sometimes. It’s a beautiful thing when treated with such care as Ms. Levine has done.
  2. The diverse cast of neighbors who provide growth and support for Tommy’s family. A huge reminder to get to know your own neighbors. There’s so much more to them than what you see from across the street.
  3. Life without cell phones or computers is a pleasant reminder how the world used to be. Today’s constant need to be always on was back then a time for talking with family, neighbors, reading, and a variety of outdoor activities.
  4. I’d use this one in a history class with older students learning about the Cold War. There are so many gems of discussion possibilities that fly off the pages.
  5. The author’s notes that this is based on her father’s life. I think other adults may see themselves as one of the characters presented here and in turn understand themselves a little better.

FAVORITE LINES: As we mixed and baked, my thoughts were mixed-up too. I knew communists were bad and evil. I knew they wanted to deny us, and even their own people, freedom of speech. Commies didn’t believe in freedom of religion either. Heck, they didn’t believe in religion at all. The Reds wanted to take all the businesses away from their owners and give them to the government. According to Mr. Sullivan, they might even be planning to drop an atomic bomb on Chicago! So why did I kind of like Mrs. Glazov? What was wrong with me?

AUTHOR QUOTE: “My hope for my readers is that they, much like Tommy in THE PAPER COWBOY, will never stop striving to finds ways to create a supportive community in their own lives.” (Kristin’s website)


Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.



A few weeks ago I told of a plan to drop middle grade books around my community (Original Post Here). I inserted a postcard explaining why the book was left behind. I asked the lucky new owner of the book to mail the postage paid card so I would know the book was in good hands. I dropped two off that week, two more last week, and another two this week. I made the drops around 7:30 in the morning in places where families and kids would show up as the day progressed.

I’m happy to report I’ve received four postcard confirmations so far. Each new reader responded with a short message:

“Thanks for the awesome book. My sister is jellus, Austin.”  (Note: I kept his spelling as is.)

“I’m a Grandma but my grandchildren are visiting next week and are all in the 8-12 age range. Thanks so much.”

“My daughter found the book and brightened our day. She even started reading it at the pool.”

“Wow, that was cool and unexpected. Hugs, Rachel.”

It’s time to scout some new locations. I plan to continue this for another 4-5 weeks until the start of school pulls everyone’s attention away.

Don’t worry if you feel left out. I’ll be dropping some books and more on a few of my blog readers in a contest next month. No postcards involved in this one.

Have a super weekend.



SCHOOL OF CHARM for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday

I doubt I could talk any middle grade boys into picking this one up, but I finally did myself to discover a charming book set in 1977. Yes, especially for any male out there, you really can’t judge a book by its cover (or its title).51XnY5I48fL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Chip makes for one of the most endearing female protagonists ever, telling her story with heart and emotion. She is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole – otherwise known as her family. There is a touch of magic not only at the School of Charm but also in the beautifully written words. Set in North Carolina, it’s a gentle reminder of life in the south almost 40 years ago.

I kept turning the pages anxious for the next surprise. Now I can’t wait for more from this author.


FULL PLOT (From Amazon):  Eleven-year-old Chip has always been her daddy’s girl, so when he dies she pins her hopes on winning a beauty pageant to show her family of southern belles that she still belongs. But she’d rather be covered in mud than makeup! Can a rough-and-tumble girl ever become a beauty queen? A universal story about finding your place in the world, School of Charm explores themes of loss, family, and friendship.


  1. Change – not only for Chip, but for her mother, a bitter grandmother, and her obnoxious older sister. Talk about a character arc! This one covers every element of character development in a perfect way.
  2. The charm bracelet Chip and her two friends wear is such a great underlying story telling device. Once you have growth in the way you think then a related charm falls off.
  3. So many themes and historical references make this story stand out. Roles of male and females, acceptance of African Americans, first female in space, and the death of Martin Luther King to name a few.
  4. You want a wicked witch? There’s not one here, but instead a horrible antagonist in the form of Chip’s grandmother. You will despise this woman from the get go, but slowly the reasons for her actions surface from a locked room. Luckily for Chip she has another adult in her life that becomes her hero – Miss Vernie, the School of Charm teacher.
  5. Kids who don’t fit in might find hope with this story. Sometimes you have to look in the most unlikely places to find understanding.

FAVORITE LINE: And then I realized what I had to do. The answer had found me, just like Daddy always said answers would. “Just like a lost dog, they’ll show up,” he’d tell me. And my answer was pawing at the door. I would work on the pageant in secret and surprise them all on the day of the competition.



Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.