~ Reviewed by Amanda Smith
Mary’s Monster tells the story of a young girl whose loving home is turned into an oppressive prison by a jealous step-mother. After two years’ exile to Scotland, where she finds love and acceptance, she is called back to London to help in her father’s bookstore. Her mundane home life is interrupted when she meets a charismatic poet. The poet, sixteen-year-old Mary, and her younger step-sister run away together and travel through Europe and eventually back to England.
Mary experiences beauty, freedom, and life. She sees the destruction of man and war. She meets unbearable challenges, heartache, and abuse. And through it all she fights circumstances, society, and mental illness for the right to live with, and love, her poet. Her struggles and darkest moments lead to the discovery of her own voice and her defining work.
Mary’s Monster is the tormenting story of a remarkable young woman. It is also the biography of Mary Shelly, author of the iconic Frankenstein, and wife to poet Percy Bysshe Shelly. Seeped in extensive research, Mary’s Monster leads the reader through the events and places that formed Mary Shelly and gave birth to Frankenstein.
Just as Mary Shelly invented the modern science fiction novel, Lita Judge shatters genre boundaries by bringing us a biography that reads like a YA novel, in free -verse, accompanied by magnificent, haunting illustrations. “Like a picture book, it is a dance between words and art, in which each medium takes a turn telling the story and the two become inseparable,” Judge explained.
Mary’s Monster would serve as an excellent companion text to any high school student studying Frankenstein, but the book is so much more than a biography and educational tool. It is a stirring story, transporting the reader to a different time, yet carrying themes (such as first love, struggles with parents, and mental health issues) with which most young adults can identify today.
Mary’s Monster is masterfully crafted in so many ways. The structure of the book is tight and purposeful, reflecting the multiple points of view of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. It is divided into nine parts, echoing the nine months it took Mary to write Frankenstein. Quotes by Percy Bysshe Shelly, Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelly’s mother), and Mary herself introduce each part and lend to the authentic voice of the book. There is a mindfulness in every aspect of this book, including the placement of art.
In fact, the amazing interplay between art and text is something never before seen in a biographical novel. The artwork draws the reader in, accentuates the action and emotion in the verses, and adds atmosphere and tone, as well as symbolism. It is just as important a story telling device as the writing.
Lita Judge consistently, yet with subtlety, builds on themes central to Mary’s life and her creation of Frankenstein (such as rejection, love, death, women’s rights) throughout the book. With clever foreshadowing and striking word choice, she leads readers through Mary’s journey of self-discovery.
However, the most brilliant part of this book, is Judge’s decision to weave direct quotes from Mary Shelly’s journals, and from biographies written about her, into the verse. This is done seamlessly and adds authenticity to the voice (The reader may find the quotations when perusing the back-matter.)
Biographies, or the genre that Frankenstein belongs to, might not be every reader’s cup of tea. But the illustrations and human drama of Mary's Monster will compel the biography adverse, non-horror genre reader to grab this book. In doing so, readers will not only learn about Mary Shelly, her life and her challenges, but also about themselves. Mary’s Monster urges readers to reflect deeply on how the world has changed for young women. And the many ways it has not.
For more information on Lita Judge, visit her website at https://www.litajudge.net/
To learn more about her process in creating Mary’s Monster, and the significance of the art, read https://www.litajudge.net/mm_timeline/
~by Amanda Smith
Noah is a pretty typical middle schooler. He attends a small school where everybody knows everybody’s business, and the biggest news is who’s kissing who behind the storage shed. Yet, in Noah’s family, the Thing That Happened silently rules their household and interactions. As Noah’s sister, Emma, becomes increasingly controlling about food, Noah notices signs that The Thing is happening again, but his parents’ denial and efforts to keep Emma from relapsing cause Noah to suppress his own concerns. He frustration grows as his best friends bicker and fall out over, what seems to Noah, insignificant issues, while his family is unraveling.
STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS (2016, Candlewick Press) explores eating disorders and their effect on family members from a sibling’s point of view. Noah’s love and concern for Emma contrasts with his inability to understand why she makes herself sick, and his anger at her for doing so. Knowles illustrates these conflicting emotions in Noah’s response towards Curly, the school cat, who is, like Emma, stressed, frail, vulnerable and adored.
With a gentle touch, spots of bright humor, an interesting cast of secondary characters, and a loveable, believable main character, this thoughtful novel will have readers laughing out loud while reaching for the Kleenex. With empathy, Jo Knowles shows us the devastating effect of depression and eating disorders on families, while emphasizing the importance of relationships (with friends, parents, teachers, and pets) in times of crises.
Jo Knowles has a wonderful ability to reveal character in bite-size bits. When she first introduces a new character, she gives a short description, but builds on that description throughout the novel. This mirrors the little-bits-at-a-time way in which we get to know people in the real world, and results in readers feeling as if they’re gaining a circle of new friends.
In STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, Knowles also employs the animal characters in various ways. They are not just pets, but Curly and Captain offer comic relief, evoke empathy, and drive home points about characters and events in the story.
In the same way, food is used throughout the novel to convey emotions, illustrate differences, build tension, amp-up turning points, and reveal aspects of Noah’s character. Using food as a device in a novel about eating disorders is pure Jo Knowles brilliance!
To learn more about Jo Knowles and her books, visit her website www.joknowles.com/
In this video clip, Jo talks about the inspiration for the hilarious chapter titles for STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
In CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND, Clayton is devoted to two things: his grandfather and his blues harp (no, it’s not a harmonica!). All Clayton hopes for is a solo with the Bluesmen, the group his grandfather and Clayton perform with in Washington Square Park. So when Clayton’s grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, dies unexpectedly, the soulful melancholy of the blues songs he played becomes all too real. Devastated by his mother’s insistence to rid their lives of all things that remind her of Cool Papa, Clayton takes off in search of the Bluesmen, certain that when he finds them, they’ll take him under their wing and mentor him musically as his grandfather did. And he’ll finally get that solo he’s wanted to play so badly. But life on the run has other plans for Clayton, and his harrowing adventure opens up problems Clayton never dreamed he'd encounter. Throughout the story, Rita Williams-Garcia tenderly and skillfully navigates the emotions Clayton experiences as he struggles with the sudden loss of his grandfather and the resentment he feels towards his mother, who wants to bury Clayton’s love of the blues right along with Cool Papa.
CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND (Amistad, 2017) is a middle grade novel for children ages 8-12. This beautifully written story reads like a blues score with language that captures the very spirit of the music it features.
Rita Williams-Garcia explores the complexity of losing a loved one from the child’s perspective while also depicting the contrasting experiences of the parent. Written in third person, CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND does not shy away from the difficult topic of death; it seamlessly weaves the sadness of loss with the joy of how a person’s impact can keep shining even after he's gone. The characterization is strong, and the wailing tones of a blues melody are captured in every line, making it a laudable example of using linguistic style to elicit the tone of a story.
Rita Williams-Garcia is the bestselling author of many award-winning books, including One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. For more information on her work, visit her website at https://rita-williamsgarcia.squarespace.com/.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
I must admit, I don’t gravitate to the nonfiction shelves of the children’s section very often. But recently, I’ve been checking out an increasing quantity of nonfiction biography children’s books to read as mentor texts for a project. And it has been an amazing journey of discovery!
Why hadn’t I lingered around those children’s nonfiction shelves more in the past? There are some fascinating and well-written books there! It was difficult to choose just one title for my book pick this week.
Fear not! I narrowed it down and selected the inspiring picture book biography I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016), by Debbie Levy.
Levy not only highlights the life events and remarkable career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she also brings light to the importance of fighting for equality and pursuing your passions in life no matter the odds. Told in relatable language, which include some of Ginsburg’s school-aged experiences and feelings that most children are sure to relate to, Levy shares with energy and light humor the story of the first Jewish woman (and second woman overall) to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Elizabeth Baddeley’s spirited illustrations and bold use of text illuminate I DISSENT in a manner certain to draw in young readers. The writing and the illustrations work together to convey the vital message that disagreement doesn’t have to be mean-spirited, and voicing your own beliefs can lead to worthwhile outcomes.
I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK is picture book biography for children ages 4-8 years old.
With I DISSENT, Debbie Levy has written a strong, inspiring biography which is accessible and interesting to young readers. Far more than a timeline or string of factual events, I DISSENT tells Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story with heart and personality. This makes the biography relatable, especially to children who may feel their dreams are beyond possibility. For writers, it is a strong mentor text for picture book biographies as Levy covers the the major events and shaping influences of Ginsburg's life without the story feeling watered down, and she tackles sensitive topics in a kid-appropriate manner.
For more information on Debbie Levy’s work, visit her website at http://debbielevybooks.com.
For more infomation on Elizabeth Baddeley’s work, visit her website at http://ebaddeley.com.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
If your children enjoy adventure and a hearty laugh, then get your hands on IT’S NOT JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (Two Lions, 2017) for a new twist on the classic fairy tale. In this latest picture book by Josh Funk, Jack questions the narrator at every turn, challenging the storyline and often going off-script. In the process, the narrator’s attempt to tell the traditional version of the story is turned upside down by the feisty and strong-willed boy. These twists, and the sassy interactions that ensue, create a funny, high-energy story that children will want to hear (or read) again and again. Edwardian Taylor’s bright, lively illustrations paired with fun cartoon speech bubbles capture the spunk of the story and add humor beyond the text. The perfect read-aloud, IT'S NOT JACK AND THE BEANSTALK will engage young readers with vibrant images and clever storytelling.
IT’S NOT JACK AND THE BEANSTALK is picture book for children ages 4-8. Pick up this witty story for guaranteed giggles!
IT’S NOT JACK AND THE BEANSTALK is a strong mentor text for fractured fairy tales and meta-fiction (breaking the fourth wall). Funk blends the traditional story with modern attitude and language to create an amusing clash between the narrator and the main character.
For more information on Josh Funk’s work, visit his website at www.joshfunkbooks.com.
For info on Edwardian Taylor’s work, visit his website at www.edwardiantaylor.com.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
In THE HIDDEN MEMORY OF OBJECTS, Danielle Mages Amato’s debut young adult novel, fifteen-year-old Megan Brown’s brother has just died, supposedly from a drug overdose. Megan is confused and angry, insisting the Tyler she knew never would have taken his own life, let alone used drugs. When the police start digging further into the circumstances surrounding Tyler’s death, Megan sees the memory of the brother she adored being defaced before her eyes. A talented collage artist, she turns to Tyler’s possessions to find comfort. In the process, she discovers she has an ability to “see” the memories held in those objects. It is a talent that causes Megan much upheaval and pain—literally—and takes her and two friends, Eric and Nathan, on a journey which generates more questions than answers about her brother’s life.
Megan’s devotion to the brother she loved clashes abruptly with the betrayal she feels as she uncovers a side of her brother she never knew existed. In her attempt to makes sense of her newfound visions, Megan enlists the assistance of an artifact historian, Dr. Brightman, who specializes in "murderabilia"—and may have a few secrets of his own. As she seeks the truth about Tyler’s death, Megan learns there is far more to people than can be seen on the surface, even those she thought she knew the best.
THE HIDDEN MEMORY OF OBJECTS, a contemporary young adult novel with a dose of paranormal, grabbed me from chapter one. Megan was a believable, likeable character, and her relationships with Eric, a close classmate, and Nathan, a friend of her brother’s whom she doesn’t recall meeting, add nice dimension to the plot. THE HIDDEN MEMORY OF OBJECTS blends family bonds, mystery, a touch of romance, betrayal, corruption, paranormal abilities, and history into an engaging, multifaceted journey. This beautifully written story kept me turning the pages long after I should have turned out the lights!
Amato’s character development is strong, as she skillfully uses her characters' dialogue and actions to build their personalities for the reader. There is no info dumping here. She delves into the complex emotions that can arise with the tragic, unexpected loss of a loved one and portrays them in a believable manner throughout the story. Contemporary and paranormal genres are blended seamlessly, and every scene and character contribute to the movement of the tightly woven narrative.
For more information on Danielle Mages Amato’s work, visit her website at www.daniellemagesamato.com.
Review By Kelly Carey
Whether you are 5 or 50, we all have a Snurtch that we must contend with and control. In Sean Ferrell’s THE SNURTCH, Ruthie is struggling to manage her Snurtch, a wonderful personification of her bad temper and poor behavior. Ruthie’s Snurtch causes big trouble at school...trouble for which Ruthie takes the blame.
Ferrell’s book offers a platform for discussing those moments when we are not at our best. It is much easier to assess our own actions if we can blame our poor choices on a Snurtch, an ever present goblin of sorts that causes trouble. Ruthie’s Snurtch pulls her hair and makes her grumpy. He makes her run in the classroom and push her classmates. When she burps back at the Snurtch or returns his tongue out face, Ruthie ends up alone on the playground or relegated to the teacher’s time-out chair.
Who can’t relate to being blamed for something you didn’t do? The Snurtch did it!
But as Ruthie looks hard at the Snurtch, Ferrell finds a unique plot twist to show that Ruthie is ready to claim responsibility for the Snurtch. Ruthie transforms the Snurtch from a scapegoat for her misdeeds to a safe way to say “I’m sorry.”
THE SNURTCH is a wonderful, whimsical, and humorous character, conjured up with the same care as the imaginary bunny Harvey who landed Jimmy Steward in a looney bin – lucky for Ruthie, she found a way not only to own her Snurtch, but she found classmates who have Snurtch issues of their own.
Ferrell has taken a universal childhood problem – managing our behavior and impulses – and wrapped this complex problem up in simple straightforward text. His plot is complex, which keeps the pages turning and the story interesting – but the easy flowing text meets the readers at just the right level.
What could be simpler and yet more provoking than an opening line that reads “Ruthie has a problem at school”?
What I find most intriguing about this book is the wonderful marriage between the author’s words and the illustrations. While the book is illustrated with Ruthie and her classmates in fun and realistic artwork, the troublesome Snurtch is a crayon scribble that interacts with the other drawings like the cartoon Roger Rabbit walking amidst live action scenes and actors. The result is a clever visual representation of how the enigma of our mood and behavior can have a drastic effect on our everyday life.
Read Ferrell’s wonderful picture book, and get a grip on your Snurtch.
A review by Annie Cronin Romano
Set over a ten-month span during World War II, Lois Sepahban's PAPER WISHES follows ten-year-old Manami and her family as they are uprooted from their home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, to the Manzanar Japanese relocation camp in California. Manami is devastated by this move, particularly when her beloved dog, Yujiin, is not allowed to go with them. The emotional trauma of the move and internment causes Manami to go mute. Unable to verbally communicate, Manami turns to drawing and painting as a means of expressing herself. In her efforts to bring Yujiin back to her family, Manami sends some of her artwork up into the winds in the form of paper lanterns, hoping Yujiin will sense her wishes and find her again.
Sepahban thoughtfully and vividly depicts the confinement of Japanese-American families through Manami’s eyes. Told in the first person, PAPER WISHES skillfully captures Manami’s fears and hopes while strikingly depicting the pride and beauty of her family’s traditions, commitment to one another and, ultimately, Manami’s bravery. PAPER WISHES, a middle grade novel for children ages 9-12, unfolds like a fan into a rich canvas of devotion and courage. Do not let PAPER WISHES pass you by!
Lois Sepahban delves into the tensions of wartime mistrust with tenderness and spare yet vividly poetic language. The novel is structured so that each chapter depicts one month, beginning with March and ending in December. The great emotional distance travelled by Manami and her family during this time is conveyed brilliantly by Sepahban, and the pacing is well-balanced and engaging. Sepahban illuminates this important, morally disturbing event in America’s history with delicacy and emotional depth.
For more information on Lois Sepahban’s work, visit her website at www.loissepahban.com.
A review by Annie Cronin Romano
In COUNTING THYME, Melanie Conklin’s middle grade debut, eleven-year-old Thyme Owens is uprooted from her San Diego home and moved to New York City so her younger brother, Val, can undergo experimental cancer treatment. Thyme is determined to return home by March so she and her best friend can celebrate their birthdays together. Challenges at her new school and having to share a room with her emotionally volatile older sister further spur on Thyme’s desire to return home. Thyme uses her parents’ time reward system—a half hour for doing the dishes, an hour for helping with laundry—to save up enough days to visit her best friend. With each passing day, however, Thyme is making friends and mediating drama in New York, and she feels herself drifting further away from her previous life. These changes heighten Thyme’s desperation to return home. Anger and fear set in as Thyme begins to suspect that returning to San Diego may not be part of her parents’ plan after all. Throughout the story, Conklin tenderly and skillfully navigates the conflicting emotions Thyme experiences as she struggles between the resentment she feels about moving and her fear of losing her brother to his devastating disease.
COUNTING THYME is a contemporary middle grade novel for children ages 10 and up. This beautifully written story is engaging and heartfelt. A must read!
With humor and sensitivity, Conklin delves into the complexity of dealing with what Thyme wants (to go home) versus what she has (a brother with cancer). Written in first person, COUNTING THYME does not shy away from the emotional struggles of having a family member battling a serious illness. Conklin illuminates the importance of selflessness and sacrifice without being preachy or heavy-handed.
For more information on Melanie Conklin’s work, visit her website at www.melanieconklin.com.
A review by Francine Puckly
Goals are vitally important. They steer behaviors, work plans, and creative journeys. In light of this, I’ve chosen to showcase The Magic of Thinking Big, by David J. Schwartz. Originally published in 1959, Schwartz’s book remains in print, guiding those of us who dare to go after our dreams.
Let me start with an example of the impact this book has had. In 1966, Lou Holtz was hired by Marvin Bass to coach with him at the University of South Carolina. Holtz and his wife spent every last penny they had on a down payment for a house and moved to South Carolina with two kids and a third on its way. One month later Marvin Bass resigned to coach an expansion team for Canada’s Continental League and at 28 years of age, Holtz was unemployed. He recalls that it was the lowest point in his life. His wife, Beth, gave him a copy of this book. And that was the day Lou Holtz began making history. After reading it cover to cover, he made a list of 107 life goals. It provided the guiding force his life needed. To date, Holtz has achieved 102 of the 107 goals, including having dinner at the White House, being on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, coaching a team to a National Championship, and becoming coach of the year. Big goals. Big achievements. Inspired by one little book.
The Magic of Thinking Big delivers three hundred pages of life-changing advice. While some people might say Schwartz’s advice is cliché, he zooms in on thinking and how it colors our future—either for better or worse. His talk is heavy on attitude and how negative attitudes will block our goals and positive attitudes foster actions to accomplish them. He walks us through how to stop making excuses, how to develop confidence, as well as how to generate ideas and create a life environment that will make us successful. He emphasizes that we should be doers (and how to get into the “Action Habit”) and guides us to set up 30-Day Improvement Guides for immediate action as we march toward ten-year goals.
Although the language is dated and there are references and analogies that aren’t considered politically correct today (which is to be expected in any 57-year-old book), Schwartz offers timeless advice on making the most of our lives and our dreams.
I’m a firm believer that autumn is a new beginning and the perfect time to establish goals. Why not pick up a copy of The Magic of Thinking Big this August and use Schwartz’s guidance to help build your long-term goals. Oh! And don’t forget to look back at last summer’s planning blogs for help with establishing specific tasks!
Dreaming Big: anything-but-ordinary.html
The Five-Year Plan: planning-part-two-charting-your-5-year-plan.html
The One-Year Plan: planning-part-three-your-one-year-roadmap.html
Charting Tasks: planning-part-four-setting-a-realistic-measurable-quarterly-plan.html
Aim high! Work hard! Your goals are just a few actions away.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.