Thoughts on The 2010 Debut Author Challenge & other Reading Challenges of the Year

The concept of a Reading Challenge is a wonderful one.  It hopefully motivates us to reach beyond what we would normally read and stretch ourselves.  However, most of the time, I find that life gets in the way and I am unable to actually complete a challenge. 

Here are some of my thoughts on the Challenges that I did participate in:

A to Z Challenge:
With the A to Z Challenge (on GoodReads as part of the Wild Things: YA Grown Up Group) this summer, I read 26 books but didn't really get to every letter in the alphabet (thanks @angelasunshine on Twitter).  It was a fun reading challenge, and I enjoyed the on-line interactions with the other participants.  Can't wait for the A to Z Author Challenge which starts on January 1, 2011. 

Twitter's Book-a-Day Challenge (#bookaday):
With the Book-a-Day challenge started by Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer (@donalynbooks on Twitter) this summer, I actually found myself reading more than the equivalent of a book per day.  I also expanded my reading greatly by the interactions I found with the other participants.  I explored Graphic Novels and Manga for the first time.  Discovered that my love for picture books could be considered "real reading", and explored books in all genres that were truly wonderful.  The on-line Professional Learning Network that was developed through this challenge is still going strong and one that I deeply value.

The 2010 Debut Author Challenge:
One of my favorite challenges was the 2010 Debut Author Challenge hosted by The Story Siren (Kristi).  The goal was to read at least 12 Debut Author books.  I managed to read 21 Debut author books (including 3 debut picture books and there are probably more that fit the picture book categories), currently in the middle of 3 more 2010 debuts, and have a full stack of a lot more 2010 debuts that I wanted to read but just ran out of time.  In addition to reading these books, I loved interacting with the Debut Authors on-line, supporting their book signings when possible, and creating a buzz for their books even if I didn't get a chance to read them, yet. 

The ones I managed to read on time:
James Burks- GABBY & GATOR
Jennifer Cervantes - TORTILLA SUN
Shannon Delany - 13 TO LIFE
Adam Gidwidtz - A TALE DARK & GRIMM
Christina Diaz Gonzalez - THE RED UMBRELLA
Judith Graves - UNDER MY SKIN
Teri Hall - THE LINE
Anastasia Hopcus - SHADOW HILLS
Jennifer Hubbard - THE SECRET YEAR
Heidi R. Kling- SEA
Lauren Oliver - BEFORE I FALL
Candace Ryan - ANIMAL HOUSE (*)
Jacqueline West - THE SHADOWS
(*) picture books

Currently debut novels in progress:
Kiersten White - PARANORMALCY

Wished I had gotten to sooner - but they are coming:
Alexandra Bracken - BRIGHTLY WOVEN
Kimberly Derting - THE BODY FINDER
Rachel Hawkins - HEX HALL
Karen Kincy - OTHER

So what challenges did you participate in and how did you do?

Book Review - A Tale Dark and Grimm

Author: Adam Gidwitz
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile (October 28, 2010)
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:
Brooklyn schoolteacher Adam Gidwitz offers imaginative new slants on children's classics in this new collection inspired by nine Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Never before have Hansel and Gretel had an adventure like this!

The Brothers Grimm have met their modern day rival in Adam Gidwitz.  His debut book, A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, weaves the tale of Hansel and Gretel into various other Grimm fairy tales creating a new and inspired look at some old favorites.  I truly believe that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, famous for stories such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, would have approved of Gidwitz's twist on their stories.  
However, as the narrator of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM cautions "if there are little kids...why don't you go hire a babysitter.." Gidwitz does not hold back in his version of the classic folk/fairy tale. This tale is not one for the faint of heart. There is a cannibalistic old woman, and a moon that would like nothing more than to eat the tender flesh of a child, and the hacking off of various body parts.  

For those who want to protest that children would be frightened by Gidwitz's rendition of Hansel and Gretel, may I remind you of the popularity of books such as R.L. Stine's Goosebumps or the clamor of children around a campfire or at a sleepover for a scary story to be shared.  Children love scary stories. And they love stories with happy endings and where children turn out to be the heroes.  

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM begins with the narrator who sets the stage for what will be revealed and at various points in the story he interjects himself into the book to warn or explain to the audience what has happened or what will be happening.  Then he takes a step back and begins with the time shortly before Hansel and Gretel are born.  This movement backwards is critical for it sets the stage for what is to come and provides the parameters for the tale.  

As I read through the book, I loved the pacing of the story and how Gidwitz would throw in a "The End" and in turning the page a "Not really".  Hansel and Gretel evolve from very young and frivolous to young and wise.  The things that they have seen and experienced provide a foundation for this growth and teaches them important lessons along the way.  Part of their quest is to find parents who would be loving and kind and caring and not do cruel things to their children and yet they learn over and over again how hard that is to find or even be.  As well as what it means to forgive and to "under-stand".  

If you are in doubt about this book, I would encourage you to check out Gidwitz's Frequently Asked Questions (click here).  He does a much better job of explaining the reason and purpose for the blood and gore.  

For me, I will book talk it and get it into the hands of children who I know will love it.  Understanding that for some children, it might be better if they wait some before attempting to read this book.

I am excited to have discovered Adam Gidwitz's debut novel and I look forward to future books from this talented writer.

Book Review - Gabby & Gator

Author/Illustrator: James Burks
Publisher: Yen Press (September 28, 2010)
Age Level: 4th to 7th grade (independent reading level) - Enjoyment level 4 to 80
Source: Personal Copy
Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Description from GoodReads:
Little Gabby doesn't quite fit in with the kids her age. She's more concerned about saving the environment than gossiping with girlfriends. Gator doesn't fit in - well, anywhere really. Flushed down the toilet when he was just a little snapper, Gator's closest friends are probably the dogs in the neighborhood around his sewer home - and he eats them! When Gabby and Gator meet, they find in one another that rare individual who will appreciate them for who they truly are.

Over the past year or so, I have learned some things about publishing.  It seems sometimes publishers make decisions that make it harder to promote a book or get it into the hands of readers.  Additionally, authors, especially new ones, are limited in how much they can say or do about it.  This is where bloggers or reviewers can get involved.  We can get the word out about a book, where to find it, and help get it into the hands of readers.

James Burks debut book, Gabby & Gator, is one of those books.  If you are looking for the book, head straight to your favorite on-line ordering source because with the exception of Borders/Glendale, you will not find it in any local bookstore.  Second, booksellers aren't sure where to list it.  Is it a picture book? graphic novel? Is it for preschool? middle grades? Young adult?  Yes!  It is a bit of all of that.  Let me tell you how I see it....

Burks' Gabby & Gator is a story of friendship, acceptance of individual differences, and empowering children to stand up to bullies. It is funny, quirky, and wonderful on many level.  Burks' illustrations are bright, bold, cartoon-like, and draw the reader into the story.  (I apologize for my lack of artistic terms...what I am trying to say is I enjoyed them.)  Gabby is a little girl who follows a to-do list, eats a vegetarian diet, and recycles.  The others children just don't get Gabby.  Gator is a meat eater, afraid of toilets, and a little sensitive about being considered a monster.  This apparent odd couple meet up and form an unusual friendship.  Their acceptance of one another provides them with the ability to conquer fears and grow.  I laughed while I read it (and lately I needed a laugh) and I never once wondered what the author was trying to communicate.  It's a great book to have in a classroom collection. 

As an educator, I look at a book from the perspective of which students can I give a book to and why.  Burks' Gabby & Gator is essentially a middle grade graphic novel.  Yes, it is hardcover, and yes it has wonderful illustrations, and yes, adults can read it to preschoolers who will laugh and enjoy it.  However, as a picture book for preschoolers, it is technically a little long.  At 100 plus pages, it is about three times as long as a normal picture book (though about as many words if not less on a page than a normal picture book).  So parents will really need to know their child's attention span.  I could see this being difficult to use in a kinder class as a read aloud.

Where I do see it being most effective is with second graders on up.  Teachers could read it with a class as part of a discussion on accepting individual differences or talking about standing up to bullies.  And children within this age group (2nd to 5th) can read the book independently.  For reluctant readers, the limited amount of text will allow for them to read the book and have success and would be a good segue to more formal graphic novels or graphic novel/chapter book hybrids.

James reading from Gabby & Gator
If I haven't convinced you yet to check out Gabby & Gator, maybe exploring James Burks' webpage and getting a taste of his work will.  For more information about James Burks, check out his website

Book Review - Tortilla Sun

Author: Jennifer Cervantes

Publisher:  Chronicle Books (May 5, 2010)

Reading Level: Grades 4th to 8th

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

A tender, magical story about 12 year old Izzy Roybal who is sent to spend the summer in her nana’s New Mexico village where she is soon caught up in the foreign world of her own culture, from patron saints and soulful food to the curious and magical blessings Nana gives her tortillas. In Nana’s village she meets Mateo, the adventurous, treasure seeking thirteen year old boy who lives on the other side of the bolted door in Izzy’s bedroom and six year old Maggie who is raising her cat, Frida, as a dog and sees marshmallow ghosts float out windows. When the wind begins to whisper to Izzy, she is soon led on an adventure to learn about her father’s mysterious death, who she really is, and to connect the hidden pieces of her past.

Several months ago, I signed up to participate in The Story Siren's 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  I will add admit that Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes was a late addition to my list of Debut Authors.  However, I am so thrilled that I found this absolutely lovely book.

If you hang around me for any length of time, you will know that trying to find books that my students will relate to is a big concern of mine.  The majority of my students are from Hispanic backgrounds.  Many are Mexican American.  There are some but not enough stories that feature Latino characters.  I was barely a chapter into Tortilla Sun when I knew that this was a book that I not only wanted to share with my students but that I would use as a read aloud with my fifth graders.

By now you may be wondering, what is so special about Tortilla Sun? Cervantes has created a story filled with well-developed characters, a vibrant setting, and a message of loss, love, family, and hope (pull out your tissues when reading this - I sobbed for nearly the last 1/4 of the book).  Twelve year old Izzy never met her father who died before she was born.  Her mother and she have never settled into one house or an apartment for any extended time.  After moving into yet another new place, Izzy uncovers a box of things that belonged to her father including a baseball with the worn words "Because____ ____ magic".   Shortly after this discovery, Izzy's mother is called away on a research trip and sends Izzy off to spend the summer in New Mexico with her grandmother.  At first Izzy is unhappy with this decision but shortly after arriving she discovers that the summer may be a time where she can learn about who her father was and what are the missing words rubbed off from the baseball.  From her Nana, she discovers the magic of homemade tortillas, and learns that the past needs time to be revealed.  From 13 year old Matteo and 6 year old Maggie, she learns about friendship, adventure, and caring about others.  From the adults that surround her in this small village, she learns to embrace the magic around her and discovers who she is.  Cervantes also weaves together Spanish words and phrases along with wonderful references to food and activities that further embrace the Latino culture.

This coming of age story is beautifully and masterfully told.  Cervantes has hit her own home-run with this debut offering and I am eager to read any future books from her.

You can find out more about Jennifer Cervantes and her book at:

You can find Jennifer on Twitter @jencerv or on Facebook:!/jennifercervanteswriter?ref=ts

You can purchase a signed copy (while they last) of Tortilla Sun at Borders Glendale:

Debut Author Signing

Way back in December, I signed up for the Story Siren's 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  As I was searching for books to read for the challenge, I discovered Sea by Heidi R. Kling, The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and eventually Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes.  I loved all three of these books.  You can find my review of Sea here, and I will be posting reviews for The Red Umbrella and Tortilla Sun later this week.  Just a warning, keep tissues by you when you read them.  Each book deals with the themes of loss, grief, and hope in their own powerful manner, but don't be surprised when you find yourself tearing up.

After waiting for the books to finally be released, and chatting with the authors via Twitter and Facebook, I found out that not only would they be doing a book event in Southern California but that I would have an opportunity to help out.    Thanks to MyGirlSnark (Amber) and Frootjoos (Alethea), I was granted "green room" privileges.  Just a fancy way of saying I had a chance to hang with our wonderful authors before the event.  Here is Heidi signing a copy of Sea before hand (Christina is in the background signing books).

Jennifer Cervantes' daughters challenged Christina to try some of the hot salsa.  Here she is deciding whether or not her mouth was on fire.

At the signing, Jennifer, Heidi, and Christina shared the mic.  They talked about their books, read snippets, answered questions and brought goodies to raffle off. (Oops!  Forgot to take pictures of the raffle prizes.)

One lucky family won three of the prizes.  Since I was helping with the Q & A, and the raffle drawing, I didn't get pictures.  Next time, I need to make a list of the kind of things I need for pictures and assign someone the task (but thank you Frootjoos for trying to run around and snap some pictures).  I will say the prizes were very cool.  There was a Sea tank top, a red umbrella (read the book to discover the significance), a mug, and a beautiful Mexican bowl, and a couple of special necklaces.

After all of the books were signed, we did manage to group a group shot of the authors, Borders Staff members, and volunteer staff.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was very thankful for being allowed the opportunity to participate in the behind the scenes activities.

This is my last known author event for the summer but I am seriously looking forward to the Smart Chicks Kick It Tour in September.


P.S. If anyone is looking for a signed copy of any of these books, give Borders/Glendale a call.