Monster Juice Guest Post by M.D. Payne

For Halloween, I have a special guest post by M.D. Payne, author of the Monster Juice Series (Penguin, August 2013).  He tells us what it was like to write for Middle Graders.  Thanks M.D. Payne for stopping by Kid Lit Frenzy.

Imagine that you were a building a house. You walk up to the beautiful acre you’ve just purchased, ready with every imaginable material—and a dozen burly workers—to get started. You’re ready to go, but before you can, the town authorities pay you a visit.

“We’re so sorry, Mr. Payne,” they say, “but regulations state you can’t actually use that type of wood. Oh, and those colors of paint are going to have to go. Ooooh, and would you hand me that hammer? It’s far too big. You’re limited to five fireplaces and one toilet, or you could have two toilets and three fireplaces. It’s your choice. Also, we’ll need to take any of your workers who are over 120 pounds. You can only keep the four smallest workers. Great! See you later. Have fun building your new house.”

You stand there, in shock and horror, wondering how on earth you’re going to build your dream home with just 1/3 of the material and help. You turn to your workers (who, by the way are in equal shock, as they’ve just been called out as the smallest), and the five of you shrug.

You’ve just got to get started.

This is exactly how I felt diving into the Monster Juice series. When you’re writing for 8-10 year olds, you’ve got less material (words, sentences, even story ideas) to work with than when you write for adults or even older kids. You can become quite limited, not only by plain words, but by streamlined plot devices. You can’t confuse the reader or they’ll slam the book shut, but you still need to keep the story going—and interesting.

The first outline I sent my editor for the series was warmly received (clearly, or I wouldn’t be here writing about my new books), but I remember him telling me, “there’s just too much going on here. You’re going to make their heads spin. You’ve got to focus on a few things and flesh those out.”

I was shocked. My number one worry was that there wasn’t enough going on—I never thought that I would be told that it was too much. And, the funny thing is, I understood I’d have to be careful about words. I had just forgotten that I had to be simpler in every aspect—including with my storyline. I had to keep things entertaining and straightforward—if I strayed from the main path, I might not have readers left when I get back on it.

On the other hand, what I lost in words, sentences and story ideas, I gained in two key tools: the hilarious mixing of horror and humor, and the ability to gross-out. Writing Monster Juice brought me back to my time in middle school, when Young Frankenstein was my favorite movie, and the first goal of one summer was to mow enough lawns to buy The Addams Family on VHS. I got to release my inner boy, and I had forgotten what a gross little monkey he was. He delights in a well-placed fart or inappropriate burp, something fueled by years of watching Ren and Stimpy, for sure.

And, don’t get me wrong—I’m not talking about dumbing things down, here. First, I had to learn the limitations of my audience, and then I pushed them a little farther. My overall goal for this series has always been to get reluctant readers in the door and absorbing more complex ideas and words than they thought possible. Once I got my readers hooked with the farts and barf, wouldn’t they be more likely to take in a larger word or more complex thought without blinking, because they were having so much fun?

So, after my initial frustration of feeling like a Picasso with only 1/3 of my palate, I dove in and had a hilariously marvelous time.

In that time, I’ve placed a number of post-it notes on my computer, my desk, my wall (practically everywhere but on my 14 month old baby, but I’ve thought about it). But there are two that are front and center, right in front of my eyes, always vying for attention. One states “Keep it SIMPLE.” The other states “SCARIER. FUNNIER. SPOOKIER. GROSSER!”

These are my main goals as I build the Haunted House that is Monster Juice.

Official Book Trailer for Monster Juice: Fear of the Barfitron

For more information about M.D. Payne: twitter | website

Tea with Molly Idle

On April 9th, Viking Juvenile/Penguin released Molly Idle's new book Tea Rex.  It is a charming story of a little girl who invites Tyrannosaurus Rex to tea.  On Friday, April 12th, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend afternoon tea with no other than Molly Idle and some local booksellers and librarians.  The tea was held at the very lovely Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California.   

Before reading the rest of the post, please check out the official Book Trailer of Tea Rex:

At each seat, guests found a lovely menu for the day's tea along with a complimentary copy of Molly's book.  

Each of us had these beautiful name tags.  Here is Molly's.

The food came out in two waves.  First, the sandwiches and then the desserts and scones. 

I had the good fortune to be seated right next to Molly. 

During tea, Molly shared about her road to becoming a children's book author and illustrator.  She also shared about how her son asked her one day if "dinosaurs liked crumpets" which inspired this story.  I also found it fascinating to hear her share about her research of Emily Post's Etiquette Rules.  Molly was charming and very entertaining.

Molly took time to sign everyone's copy of Tea Rex.

Here is my book...Thanks Molly.

Of course, we had to take a group photo. 

Thank you Nicole White (Penguin Sales Rep Extraordinaire) and Penguin Publishers for inviting me and for arranging such a special afternoon for all of us.

Book Review - One For The Murphys

Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin (May 10, 2012)
Source: Copy for review
Read Aloud: Grades 4th to 8th
Independent Reading Level: Grades 4th to 8th
Fiction * Foster Care * Family 

Description from GoodReads:
A moving debut novel about a foster child learning to open her heart to a family's love

Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she's blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong--until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She's not really a Murphy, but the gifts they've given her have opened up a new future.

My thoughts on the book:
This is a tissue book.  Yeah, just thinking about the book, I have to pull out the tissues again. *wipes eyes, starts again to write* This is also a good book.  It came highly recommended and after reading it I understand why.  I challenge someone to start this book and not finish it in one sitting?  I couldn't put it down.  As a reader, I was so drawn into Carley's story that I just had to keep reading.   

Lynda Mullaly Hunt has created a very special book.  Readers will be pulled in by Carley, her story and by the Murphys just like Carley is drawn in.  Carley's own family life has been far from stable.  Raised by a single mother, Carley has been taught street-wise survival skills but after a severe beating by her step-father, Carley is placed in foster care.  Carley has heard about foster care and she is fully prepared not to like the Murphys.  Initially, Carley is determined to use humor, sarcasm, and even some anger to keep the family at a distance.  Over time,  Carley learns that there may be more choices in life for her than she originally believed. 

Writing stories about children in tough home situations or foster care can be a dangerous road to walk for an author.  Finding the right message and the right balance between telling it like it is and writing a "happily ever after" story is not easy.  Hunt has created a touching, heart-warming story that still manages to ring true and not gloss over some of the more difficult issues and choices that children such as Carley face while in foster care.  As Carley grows and develops from her interactions with the Murphys and with some of the students at her school, the reader also sees how Carley changes their lives as well.   

Since I wanted to know if I should include One For The Murphys in my fall recommendations to students and teachers, I knew I had to read this one before the school year was too far in.  I am glad that I have read it and excited to share Carley and her story with students and teachers.  This will definitely be one book that I recommend over and over again.   
Check out the book trailer below:

For more information on author Lynda Mullaly Hunt: website | blog | twitter | facebook

Book Review - Three Times Lucky

Author: Sheila Turnage
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin (May 10, 2012)
Read Aloud: Grades 4th to 8th
Independent Reading: Grades 5th to 8th
Source: Review Copy; Personal Copy
Fiction *

Description from Penguin:
A hilarious Southern debut with the kind of characters you meet once in a lifetime.

Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone's business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she's been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her "upstream mother," she's found a home with the Colonel--a café owner with a forgotten past of his own--and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

Full of wisdom, humor, and grit, this timeless yarn will melt the heart of even the sternest Yankee.

My thoughts on this book:
"Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.  Almost before the dust had settled, Mr. Jesse turned up dead and life in Tupelo Landing turned upside down." - Three Times Lucky, Sheila Turnage
Thus begins the opening paragraph of Turnage's debut middle grade novel set in the fictional town of Tupelo Landing, North Carolina.  Are you hooked? I was.  

The story is told from the perspective of Miss Moses "Mo" LoBeau, rising sixth grader.  Mo is spunky and has a penchant for getting into her fair share of trouble along with her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III.  This middle grade mystery has several layers to uncover not just "who killed Mr. Jesse".   Readers soon discover that Mo has been trying to find her "upstream mother" for years.  She was rescued as an infant by the Colonel during a hurricane when he found her attached to a raft floating downstream.  Mo lives with the Colonel and Miss Lana who have been her guardians and the only parents she has known her whole life.  However, the Colonel and Miss Lana seem to have some secrets as well.  As Mo and Dale seek to discover who killed Mr. Jesse, where the Colonel has disappeared to, and more, pieces of everyone's stories are revealed.

Three Times Lucky hits all of the things that I like about a story.  Great characters that you find yourself wanting to know in real life, lots of things that make you laugh, just enough mystery and action to keep the story moving and some absolutely great one lines (and I am certain I didn't even pick the best ones).
"He's dead." he said promptly. Dale has a nose for the obvious.

"Dale can choose not to worry like he chooses not to wear socks. Miss Lana says I have more of a Jack Russell brain. I think things apart for sport.”

I shook my head. "Our drink du jour is Mountain Dew," I said. "I got a two-liter breathing in back."
For as many laughs in this book, there are also some serious issues such as Dale's father who drinks heavily and is physically abusive to his wife and son.  This does have a more hopeful resolution than I suspect is true for most cases of domestic abuse.

In looking at the comments/reviews of other individuals, I noticed that some had concerns with the portrayal of people from the south.  It might be easy to dismiss this story as just another one of those books that portray all Southerners as backwards, ignorant, and foolish. I am reminded of the TED talk The Danger of a Single Story,  Chimamanda Adichie warns "that if we hear only a single story about another person or a country, we risk a critical misunderstanding".  It is a powerful speech and one worth listening to.  Educators should take heed in that if the only books we shared with students were stories about poor, ignorant Southerners living in small towns, then we too would be "in danger of a single story".  However, there are Southerners (just like there are northerners) that live in small towns filled with eccentric, quirky characters.  Our responsibility as educators and reading leaders is to provide students with a rich variety that represents all types of people living in a specific region or during a designated time period.

Since I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Michal Freidman, I may have been struck more by the language Turnage uses to describe things.  There are tons of sayings and phrases that would keep a teacher of English Language Learners busy for weeks exploring what they all mean.  I quickly realized that if I (a Northern Yankee) tried to read this one aloud students would miss the cadence and rhythm of the story which is essential to understanding the setting and feel of the story, and to appreciating various aspects of the characters.  From this, I think I was struck by the importance of sharing a story like Mo LoBeau's with students.  

Though I admit that I truly enjoyed Three Times Lucky, I recognize that others may not have the same feelings.  I respect their choice to include or not include this in their classroom selections, but I do hope that they would give either the book or audiobook a chance before making that decision. 

For more information about Sheila Turnage: website | blog | facebook

Author Event & Book Feature - When Blue Met Egg

Today I had a chance to meet the wonderful Lindsay Ward, author/illustrator at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena.

Lindsay introduces the book When Blue Met Egg to her young audience.  

Children and parents had a chance to hear Lindsay read of When Blue Met Egg.  I enjoy listening to authors read their own books.

Here Lindsay shares with readers that the end pages of the book contain images of all the places in New York City that Blue & Egg visit. 

Lindsay shared with the audience that they could go to her website and download a paperdoll of Blue.   If you take a picture of Blue wherever you are, she would love to see it.  She has a spot on her blog called Where in the world is Blue?

Lindsay explained that she cuts each image out of paper that she has collected.  She searches around for unique and vintage paper to use in her art.  Each of the pieces in the picture above were created from different pieces of paper.  When you look at it from that perspective, the illustrations in this book are even more amazing.  

Here is a favorite picture of mine when Blue finds Egg for the first time and decides he needs to find Egg's mother.

Lindsay also explained that she cuts each piece to scale.  I was hoping the imagine would give readers a sense of how small some of the details are.  These are all really tiny.  I can't believe what it would take to make such a tiny cut-outs.

Here is part of the bridge scene that is a 3 page spread that opens up.  Lindsay admitted that it was a challenge to create the bridge from one piece of paper.

Blue and Egg go on lots of adventures throughout New York City.  They even take a ride on the subway. 

Blue and Egg is a story of friendship and adventure.  It is a delightful book and one that is in my top 10 picture books for the year.  If you haven't had a chance to read When Blue Met Egg, I encourage you to seek it out at your local library or independent bookstore.   

For more information about Lindsay Ward: website | blog | facebook | etsy | twitter