Book Review Wednesday

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I am thrilled to review fellow Maine illustrator, Chris Van Dusen’s, new book The Circus Ship. You may already know Chris from his illustrations of Kate DiCamillo’s, Mercy books. He is also the author of the rhyming Mr. Magee books, and If I Built a Car. I happen to know that Chris did some circus posters for Barnum early in his career. The story of The Circus Ship is based on a true story and is also told in rhyme. When the mean and selfish Mr. Paine, the circus owner, runs into bad weather while transporting the circus off the cost of Maine, he abandons the animals and saves himself. The animals, all bedraggled, end up on an island of Mainers not too thrilled with their new guests. A heroic act by the tiger endears the animals to the island residents who then cleverly fool Mr. Paine so the animals can safely stay with them.

The illustrations for this book are so lush and vibrant that you will be mesmerized by each spread. Incredible sunrises with gradients as smooth as silk will have you reaching for your sunglasses. This is one good reason to read this book with a child who will nudge you after a few minutes and remind you to turn the page. The other good reason is to share the intense emotions with some one you love. From Mr. Paine’s yellow toothed screams, to the weary and worried expressions on the animals’ faces, to the look of surprise and relief of the island folk when one of their own is saved, Chris Van Dusen connects with the core of the reader/viewer. Finally, you will need a small friend to help you find all the animals when Mr. Paine comes to town to claim them.

Chris is an expert of exaggerated angle and point of view. If you are a Van Dusen fan like me, you may remember the impossibly large waterfall in Camping Spree With Mr. Magee. In Circus Ship, when the ship carrying the animals crashes, Chris puts the viewer in the middle of the action. Mr. Paine and the circus animals are propelled overboard and right into the reader’s lap. (click to see this image on Chris’ blog) The reader is treated to this in-your-lap 3-D action in the image of the tiger leaping from the flames and when Mr. Paine strides into town to claim his animals. Both times, Chris uses elongation so that the subject of the illustration straddles the spread creating movement and tension for the reader.

As with many beautiful books that feel like a work of art, this one is published by Candlewick and includes many lovely design elements. The end papers are a lovely two-toned gold stripe that mimic the tents of the big top. The book starts right after the title page with a lush spread and the front matter is in the back. The back matter page contains an author’s note that let’s us know more about sadder true story that sparked The Circus Ship, the sinking of the the Royal Tar in 1836.

On the flap text, Chris says, "I’ve focused on light sources and textures in the artwork for this story– on details like paint peeling off the clapboards of the houses. This makes the book more complex and richer overall than my previous work." The reader is the richer for The Circus Ship. Congratulations, Chris!

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Colfer, Eoin. Half-Moon Investigations. New York, NY: Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children, 2006.

Doubtless, Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer does not need me to help him with marketing. However, I could not pass up a review of Half-Moon Investigations. Fletcher Moon is a kid with curiosity coursing through his veins and an eye for details. After graduating from FBI Detective Bob Berstein’s online investigators course, Fletcher has the know-how and a badge to prove it.

Colfer uses the old-time, hard-boiled detective as his mold for Fletcher Moon, but he makes it accessible to kids with a theft mystery that is completely believable to his readers. The language in this style is so fun to read but sometimes authors overdo it or use similes that don’t mean anything to kids. Colfer gets it right.

The book is filled with the usual cast of characters: bullies, princesses, and nerds, but Colfer manages to use the stereotypes to the advantage of the mystery– leading the reader and Fletcher down various paths of inquiry and surprising them with a twist of character. Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books are far from tame but the violence in this book is minimal and propels the plot.

If your reader enjoys connecting to other on-line resources connected to the books they read, this Puffin Publishing sponsored website has plenty to offer. There is a web comic version of some of the cases in the book as well as a newsletter with cases your young detective can crack.

Half-Moon Investigations is an engaging book to offer boys ages 10 and up but the book is great for any mystery or an adventure fan at home.

Five on Friday

1. My husband and I were talking about Banned Books and commenting that if a child/teen really wants to get their hands on information they want or need they will do it with or without their parent’s permission. I think my job as a parent is to make the information and myself accessible at the same time. This way I am available to discuss my children’s questions when they arise. Looking at the banned book list on the ALA website (use the sidebar to navigate these lists) I’m surprised by how many of the books are nonfiction books about puberty and sexuality written for children and teens. As an educator, I know that this is information vital. Along with the information, though, they need the support of their parents to help them learn about responsible and respectful relationships.

2. Hubby and I enjoyed a long and lovely bike ride from our home, looping into the farmland near the coast and back to home again. Sometimes it is great to have him at home while I work, but I’m afraid that I take too many breaks when he’s here.

3. Working on inking those sketches for my September 30th illustration deadline.

4. If you live in my area, check out the new Lion’s Pride restaurant. The place has only been open for about two months and is sort of tucked into a mini-mall setting but inside the oversized labels and amazing blow glass tap pulls create a cozy atmosphere. An awesome pub for the over 30 set. Our waiter was incredibly knowledgeable and attentive. I had a great glass of wine and Chris tried a local brew. The food was great (fish and chips, the Philly cheesesteak, the belgian frittes, and the Capitole salad). Portions were huge so sharing is definitely an option.

5. Five, hmmm… time to write!

The First Book Review Wednesday




It has been one of those days. One of those unproductive Wednesdays when I just can’t seem to get over the hump. Lucky for me, today is also suppose to be my first day of book review. In the future, I will try to get these written in advance so I can post them in the early morning on Wednesdays, but that is another goal. The first is just to write and post one Middle Grade and one Picture Book review.


Many reviewers focus on books that are new and shiny, some might even have release days in the near future. Those are the books that everyone crowds around, bringing casseroles for the new author, asking if they can booksit to give the new author some time for a nap. I will certainly try to get my hands on some of those books. (Look for my upcoming Circus Ship review.) Then there are other books that have sat on bookshelves, growing past their crawling and walking stages until they are no longer cute and dimpled from shipping. I’ll be looking at these books too, hopefully adding some personal insight or observation. I tend to skip over longer blog posts so you can bet that I’ll keep these short and sweet. Any suggestions? Leave a comment. (Click on the book cover to link to Indiebound. Support your independent book stores!)


Law, Ingrid. Savvy. New York  ;Boston  Mass.: Dial Books for Young Readers;Walden Media, 2008.


            Mibs is turning thirteen, and in the Beaumont family, that means that her savvy is about to be revealed. Mibs’ family tree is filled with characters who create storms, sparkle with electricity, or jump back in time when they sneeze. When Mibs’ father is injured in a car accident, her mother and older brother travel to the hospital leaving Mibs and her two other brothers at home. Mibs will not sit around and wait. She embarks on a journey to the hospital, sure that her savvy will save her father.


            Mibs’ voice is so genuine in this middle grade novel that, at times, I felt she was telling the story right into my head. Descriptions such as “a small-fry hobbledehoy boy,” or “harum-scarum hurly-burly of a rising storm,” or “My insides went wishy-washy” makes Mibs an endearing and three-dimensional character even though her adventures border on the unbelievable.


            Readers will be eager to ride along with her on the pink bible bus to see if she gets what she wants. Most interesting to writers will be how her desires evolve and change throughout the story. Law leaves us with an ending that might not fulfill the original promise in the way the reader expects, but provides hope all the same. My son was especially drawn to the adventures that stem from the family’s super hero-like abilities. The more nuanced story is about finding what you do well, that special something that makes you uniquely you, whether you are a member of the Beaumont family or not. Newberry Honor Book, 2009



Hutchins, H and Herbert,G. Mattland. Toronto: Annick Press, 2008.


            In this interesting picture book, from Canada, the text is sparse. The illustrations by Dusan Petricic, are wonderful, and in my opinion, carry the book. The subject is the timeless story of moving to a new neighborhood and finding friends. Interestingly, the reader only sees the main character through shadow and reflection. This technique lets the reader identify with the main character who feels overlooked and invisible.

            The illustrations change from dull and muddy, to green, to lush and rainbow bright as children build an imaginary city from “scattered building scraps” and recycled materials. As the story continues, the illustrator uses white space to create room for text just as the children in the neighborhood make room for their new friend. The children build and rebuild the imaginary city while they build real friendships. Best for children 3-6, Mattland is an excellent read aloud choice for pre-school and kindergarten educators who want to address acceptance and welcoming attitudes in their new classroom communities. Just give plenty of time for the illustrations to sit before you turn the page.


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Banned Books

I hope you’ll read this intelligent and eloquent posting by Laurie Halse-Anderson. I second her call for thoughtful and civil discourse on the matter.
My heart goes out to the authors who have to deal with book banning: Laurie, certainly, but also my friends Jo Knowles and Sarah Brannen. All of them have written (and illustrated) amazing books that have found and changed the lives of their target audiences. A huge thank you to the librarians and teachers who keep connecting children with meaningful literature.
Tomorrow: book reviews.

Spotty Blogging Citation

You may have noticed that my blog posts are few and far between. So much so, that perhaps I am probably writing this only for myself as any audience I may have garnered in the past has probably disappeared. 

There are a couple of reasons that I’ve been posting less:

  1. I am neck-deep in my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adult program with Vermont College of Fine Arts. The packets require a great deal of me in terms of time and emotion and reading and writing.
  2. I am illustrating a lovely picture book manuscript for an organization called the Telling Room in Portland. The manuscript was written by two high school authors and tells the story of a Sudanese child who moves into a neighborhood filled with silent, disconnected residents. He and his new friend create community through gardening. The book will be released in May of 2010.
  3. I am journaling for myself more in a paper and pen way. Most of my entries there are about my insecurities and my process as I go through the MFA program. Some of that will come up here too so don’t feel that you are missing out on anything.
  4. I’m also journaling for my main character in his own composition book. This helps me get to the voice and emotional core of my character in a messy, down and dirty way.
  5. I’m using all the in-the-cracks time to read books for children and young adults and yes old adults as well.

So I have the following thought:

Since tonight is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and I need to make a resolution, and also to make this blog relevant to the wider world, I will review some of the wonderful books that I’ve been reading. I know, this is not a new or unique idea and there are plenty of other blogs out there for this but I’m going to give it a try. I will attempt to post reviews each Wednesday and will review at least one Middle Grade book, and one Picture Book. These could be fiction or nonfiction, audio or traditional. I’m not going to venture into the YA realm here, there are so many other wonderful blogs out there for that.

So what will you get here that you won’t get anywhere else? Me. I bring my experience as a writer but also as a parent of two boys, a teacher, a student of writing and an illustrator. I’m hoping that the reviews will help parents find books that their children will love. As my son’s teacher said last night, "If your child doesn’t like reading they just haven’t found the right book for them." If you have titles that you’d like me to review, leave a note in the comments. If you’d like a fresh start to your year, you can also leave your New Year’s Resolution in the comments. Happy Reading! See you on Wednesday.

Delaying the Happy Dance

I am back in the singles game anew, looking for that soul mate, that agent of my heart. Yesterday’s post by Editorial Anonymous, regarding the enthusiasm of new authors upon being offered representation, caught my eye. An Offer of Representation. The responses to Editorial Anonymous were filled with hysterical laughter and LOL’s. I can only hope they are laughing at themselves because they have experienced first-timers eagerness and not because they are laughing at those of us who have.

This business is about as personal as you can get.  We are not selling water bottles (as one agent pointed out to me) we are selling our creative property. And while creative property is not really a piece of our souls, it takes a lot of soul (and time and work and energy and sacrifice) to create property worth selling. So surely Editorial Anonymous can understand the relief that comes when someone from an industry filled with "no" says that they recognize our talent and our potential– when someone finally says, "yes."

One of the comments to the EA blog post asked, "What should I be asking?" I wondered the same thing before I had a talk with the agent who first offered me representation. At that time, I Googled the subject and jotted down a long list of questions, asked them (not really paying attention to the responses). What I knew then was that my "yes" at the end of the phone call meant that I had moved one step closer to my dream. One step farther on this long (getting longer) journey.

What I learned in the 18 months I spent with my agent is that we should be asking ourselves, "What do I need from this relationship?" What kind of communication do I need? Email, phone? Do I want to be left alone? Do I want someone to check in with me on my WIP? Should that person ask about my personal life or do I want the relationship and communication to be completely business? How often does the agent need to contact me about submissions? How about pulling manuscripts? How do I see my career progressing? What houses do I want to work with (if you know)? How much editorial help do I need? Why am I getting an agent in the first place?  What type of work do I do most often and do they represent that kind of work? If you have a clear picture of yourself you’ll be able to honestly say, "This is who I am, this is what I need, can you give this to me, and can we put it in the contract?"

Perhaps next time I’m offered representation or a contract (I have high hopes that this will happen) I will be self-assured enough to delay my happy dance, ask for the fine print and ask the right questions.  I can’t promise anything.

Hello. This is a friends locked message.
Just want to tell you that I’ve parted ways with my agent. Therefore, I’m looking for new representation. Here’s what I’m hoping for:

  • someone who will not think that I am over-bearing or pushy, (even though I am sometimes)
  • someone who will give editorial feedback on new work, which includes telling me if they think something is ready for submission or not
  • someone who has a communication style that includes giving you comprehensive information about to whom and when your work will be submitted and is good about checking back on those manuscripts regularly, and getting back to you.
  • someone who calls or emails you from time to time,and might even be interested in who you are as a person, your family, and the other works you have in progress
  • someone who is open to author-illustrators

If you are represented by someone like this and would like to refer me I’d really appreciate it.
Thanks all.