Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fifteen Favorite Female Fictional Characters

 I began thinking about my favorite literary characters after reading the latest newsletter from DIYMFA. It was such a fun topic, I decided to expand my thoughts into a blog post, and (hoping to avoid a ridiculously long post) I focused on female characters. My musings dovetailed nicely with the official Top Ten Tuesday theme of the week at The Broke and the Bookish, which is Top Ten Characters I’d Like To Switch Places With For 24 Hours.

This week it's a hodge-podge--not just middle grade, though it does skew in that direction. And, after a weekend of nonstop fun (including Saturday's visit to the Saint Louis Zoo's new Sea Lion Sound exhibit and Sunday's hike around the Cache River Wetlands/Heron Pond cypress swamp in southern Illinois, currently drought-depleted, but still beautiful) I can't even begin to wrap my brain around the switching-places part. Nor could I limit myself to ten, or even fifteen. It sounds so nice and alliterative in the title ... but, alas, it's a lie.

Here, in no particular order, are my 15 16 FAVORITE FEMALE CHARACTERS IN FICTION:

Charmain Baker
House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones)

Scout Finch
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Meg Murry
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Frankie Landau Banks
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Clara del Valle Trueba
House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Elizabeth Bennet
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Harriet M Welsch
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Randy Melendy
The Saturdays, Four-Story Mistake, and Then There Were Five
by Elizabeth Enright

Hermione Granger
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

Barbara Kingsolver deserves special mention, because I love so many of her characters. If I were forced to choose an all-time favorite author, it would probably be Kingsolver,who is simply brilliant at creating memorable and nuanced characters, both male and female.

Deanna Wolf
Prodigal Summer

Taylor Greer
The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven

Codi Noline
Animal Dreams

Frida Kahlo
The Lacuna

Who are your favorite fictional characters?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Review: Small Medium at Large

Joanne Levy
  Lilah can hear ghosts … and, boy, are they annoying!

I thoroughly enjoyed Small Medium at Large. The trouble starts when Lilah, the delightful seventh-grade narrator, gets struck by lightning. She’s fine after a night in the hospital, except for one thing--now she can hear dead people speaking. Lilah’s grandma, Bubby Dora, is a frequent visitor, but Lilah meets other memorable spirits, too, including a famous fashion designer and an attention-seeking bad boy named Rufus. 

When she’s not mediating between the dead and the living, Lilah is a normal twelve-year-old. She watches ANTM with her best friend, talks back to Dolly the mean girl, gets her first bra, obsesses about her crush, Andrew Finkle, and looks forward to her upcoming bat mitzvah. She also worries about her dad, who was more upset than he’ll admit about Lilah’s mother’s remarriage. Throw in a school dance, a fashion show, and a rock concert, and it all adds up to a funny and sweet story for tween girls.

This is author Joanne Levy's debut novel. Check out her website here.

And here's the book trailer:


Coming Tuesday: 
Fifteen Favorite Female Fictional Characters!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Ten MG Books With Vivid Worlds

Today's Top Ten Tuesday theme is TOP TEN MOST VIVID WORLDS. As usual, mine has a middle grade spin. Here are some of my favorite and most unforgettable settings--worlds that made such an impression on my mind that I feel as though I've been there. Although I've only listed the first book, many of these have sequels or are part of a larger series, so lucky readers can immerse themselves in these worlds again and again.

J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit 

J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter 

R. L. LaFevers

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos 
Edwardian London

C. S. Lewis

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A. A. Milne

The Hundred-Acre Wood

Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 
Willie Wonka's Factory

Anne McCaffrey


L. Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Nancy Farmer

The Sea of Trolls
The lands of the Vikings

Angie Sage

The world of Septimus Heap

And I'm adding an extra. I'm only halfway through the first book in the series, but the world of Luxa and Henry has already come alive in my imagination.

Suzanne Collins

 Gregor the Overlander
 The Underland

What literary worlds do you find most vivid and memorable?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict

Nicholas, the hero of The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart, has a lot of challenges to overcome. He’s a funny-looking orphan with a big nose, and he’s plagued with a bizarre, nightmare-inducing form of narcolepsy that causes him to drop in his tracks when overwhelmed by strong emotion. But Nicholas is also a genius of uncanny brilliance. His keen intellect is his only defense against the Spiders, the bullies who rule the orphanage with an iron hand.

Stewart has accomplished a tricky task: turning a self-centered, somewhat arrogant youngster with superior brainpower into  a memorable hero whom readers will love and cheer for. The story is a gripping one, replete with Sherlock-Holmesian deductions, forbidden midnight rendezvous, unexpected alliances, and a compelling quest for a hidden treasure, all leading to a logical, yet startling and heartwarming conclusion.

I found the first chapter to be a bit slow. But as soon as Nicholas arrives at the orphanage, in chapter 2, the story takes off at a gallop. I enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed the first three Mysterious Benedict Society novels, to which this is a prequel.

Go to The Mysterious Benedict Society Website for brainteasing games, amusing character sketches, and fun facts about the author, who hails from Little Rock, Arkansas. Since my mother grew up in Arkansas and I went to college at UCA in Conway, not far from Little Rock, I was happy to discover that geographic connection.

Here's the review from Kirkus.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Else Holmelund Minarik, R.I.P.

Else Holmelund Minarik, author of the beloved Little Bear books, passed away last week at the age of 91. I have enjoyed Little Bear and its sequels with my own children and countless students. Thank you, Ms. Minarik--Little Bear will always hold a special place in my heart.

Besides being an author, Minarik worked as a journalist and as a first grade teacher. She and her family immigrated to the US from Denmark when she was four.

Minarik's sweetly humorous easy-to-read books are lovely, and Maurice Sendak's exquisite pen-and-ink drawings perfectly complement the text.

Little Bear (1957)
Father Bear Comes Home (1959)
Little Bear's Friend (1960)
Little Bear's Visit (1961)
A Kiss for Little Bear (1968)

Another well-loved Minarik-Sendak easy-to-read book is No Fighting, No Biting, published in 1958.

Here is her obituary from The Hornbook Magazine.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Top Ten MGs to Reread

The theme of the week over at The Broke and the Bookish is "If you like X book/author, here are some similar books you might enjoy." There are some GREAT lists this week, and you can find links to all of them here.

I'm doing a rogue Top Ten List and sharing the top ten middle grade novels I intend to reread in the near future, and why I want to reread them.

Magyk - I enjoyed this one so much, but never got around to the other books in the Septimus Heap series. I want to reread the first one before reading the rest.

The Secret Language of Girls - because I think Frances O’Roark Dowell is a fantastic writer, and I love the story of Kate and Marilyn and how they navigate the tricky social waters of sixth grade.

Knee-Knock Rise - because Natalie Babbitt is a genius. 'Nuff said.


A Wrinkle in Time - because Madeleine L’Engle is one of my heroes, and I haven’t read this classic fantasy in a while.

When You Reach Me - because it’s an homage to A Wrinkle in Time, so reading them one after the other just makes sense.

The Secret Garden - because I’ve recently read several books that are reimaginings of TSG (The Humming Room, Beswitched) and because it contributed some inspiration for one of my WIPs).

The Grimm Legacy - because I love how Shulman puts fairy tale magic into a contemporary urban setting.

The Alley - because I absolutely adore Eleanor Estes, and the story of Connie and Billy and their idyllic-but-not-perfect neighborhood is one of my all-time favorites.
Check out the cute, new cover on this reissue!


The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode - because it’s a continuation of The Alley, and an exciting story--and it’s fun to see how the quirky Alley kids have grown up. And ditto on the cute, new cover.

 Inkheart - This isn't really a reread, though I'm familiar with its story and it's been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I blush to admit I have never read it from cover to cover. My daughter loved it in the fifth grade, and it’s time for me to read it for the first time.

Do you like to reread books? Which of your favorites stand up to repeated readings?

Check back on Monday for a review of The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict!

Coming Tuesday:  Top Ten MG Novels with Vivid Worlds!

MG Summer "Great Escapes" From Hornbook

Here are some great recommendations from The Horn Book Magazine:

Looking for a delightful middle grade summer adventure? Here are four surefire winners.

The Horn Book has also published an excellent summer reading list in PDF format. And it's the best kind of summer reading list--made for pure fun, not self-improvement!

And here's their review of a book that sounds like loads of fun for boys in particular: Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey.

What middle grade books have you enjoyed this summer? Or what do you want to read?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How Do You Pronounce That Name?

Well, this is the coolest thing ever! An audio-guide to pronouncing author names correctly, with cute little sound-clips from the authors themselves!

Author Name Pronunciation Guide

Check it out! Some of them just pronounce their names. Others go on and on, telling anecdotes about the derivation of their name and describing creative ways people mispronounce it. I found this site via a wonderful kid lit blog called Bigfoot Reads. Thanks, Bigfoot!

I'm so excited--now I know how to say the name of Jon Scieszka, author of the Stinky Cheese Man and many other wonderful books. It's SHESKA, in case you were wondering. Rhymes with Fresca.

Be sure and listen to Jane Yolen.

Also Daniel Pinkwater.

Sherman Alexie is interesting, too.

And E. L. Konigsburg sounds so nice!

Seriously, did everybody except me already know about this? Which ones are your favorites?

Clip art from Discovery Education's Clip Art Gallery created
by Mark A. Hicks, illustrator.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Missing on Superstition Mountain

Elise Broach has given us another delightful novel in which contemporary kids attempt to unravel a historical mystery; this one set in the American west. In Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a planned trilogy, the Barker brothers--Simon, Henry, and Jack--move to the desert town of Superstition, Arizona with their parents, after inheriting a house from wild, adventurous Uncle Hank. The boys have been warned that they must NEVER go up on Superstition Mountain. But when their cat, Josie, runs away,  that’s exactly what they do. It’s scary up there--there might be snakes and mountain lions, and Henry can’t shake the feeling that they’re being watched. When little Jack tumbles into the canyon, Simon and Henry are afraid they’ve gotten in over their heads. They climb down and find, to their relief, that Jack is all right. But they also make a horrifying discovery: lined up in a neat row at the edge of the ledge are three human skulls.

The brothers climb off the ledge and, after wandering, lost for some time, make it safely home. A few days later, they find their cat held hostage in the home of freckled, pigtailed Delilah, who is also new to town. Although the boys don’t like Delilah at first, she proves to be useful, and the four of them team up to find out just what the adults aren’t telling them. Is there really a lost gold mine? Do the strange occurrences on Superstition Mountain have a rational explanation, or is something supernatural at work? And what, if anything, does it have to do with Uncle Hank?

Disaster strikes when the children return to the canyon a second time. All is well in the end, but the book's main mystery remains unsolved, to be continued in the remaining two books in the trilogy. Missing on Superstition Mountain is a fun mystery with likeable characters. Antonio Javier Caparo's soft pencil illustrations beautifully depict the characters' personalities. I recommend this book for young readers who won't be too freaked out by the thought of bones, skulls, or mentions of death by shooting and decapitation (alluded to, but not described in grisly detail).

Superstition, Arizona is a fictitious town, but the Superstition Mountains are real--they are located less than an hour east of Phoenix. The Weaver's Needle, a rock formation mentioned in the book, is a thousand-foot rock column that is visible for miles around. As the book suggests, it is a rough and dangerous area. Sadly, the Superstition Mountains claimed the life of a hiker just this past week.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: Beswitched

BESWITCHED by Kate Saunders is a very enjoyable read. Like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Flora Fox is accustomed to having her own way. When a family emergency forces her parents to take an extended trip to Italy, Flora is sent off to spend a term at Penrice, a progressive, child-centered boarding school. But something happens on the train. Instead of going to Penrice, Flora winds up at a different boarding school called St. Winifred's--in the year 1935.

Besides learning how things were done 75 years ago, Flora must adjust to her three roommates, nicknamed Pogo, Pete, and Dulcie. These girls are the only ones who know Flora came from the past. In fact, it's their fault--it seems they somehow summoned her while experimenting with a spell. Pete's personality is as strong as Flora's, which initially causes the two of them to butt heads. They eventually become close friends, until a disastrous conflict threatens to separate them for good. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so I'll just say there's a twist at the end, and I didn't see it coming.

Beswitched has a lot of different covers. The hardback cover to the left, depicting a girl standing outside a gate with her face obscured, seems to me to suggest a more YA tone, perhaps a paranormal romance. The blue one above is the paperback cover--it's lively and appealing, but perhaps too cartoon-y for the tone of the novel, which was humorous at times, but not slapstick. The library copy I read featured the cover at the bottom, with the 1930s Flora staring into the mirror at her contemporary self.--and I think I like it the best of the bunch.

Check back on Monday for a review of MISSING ON SUPERSTITION MOUNTAIN by Elise Broach!