Posts Tagged ‘realistic fiction’

Two Kids by Richard Levine: A Review and an Interview

Author Richard Levine sent me a copy of his first book, Two Kids, for me to review. He also graciously agreed to answer my off-the-wall questions after reading the book.  I hope you enjoy reading about Two Kids and learning more from Richard Levine.
two kidsTwo Kids (Firedrake Books, 2014) is about, well, two kids.  DC is tall and gawky–except when on a tennis court or softball field. She moves to Westwood with her family and becomes frieds with Rob, who is shy and awkward–except when he’s making up headlines for his life.  The two friends share a wacky sense of humor and a vivid imagination that allows them to see more than just the world around them.
Two Kids is a quiet book, and more episodic, that tells the story of a friendship. Most of their adventures revolve around friends and family. How do you deal with a dad who is so strange he must be from another planet? How about a little sister who must be channeling the devil itself with her mischief? Some of my favorite scenes include their explorations of the Overhill property and their visit to Swinburn Island (beware of the birds!) There’s an unforgettable ride in a small airplane and a fishing trip where some of them end up all wet. Not all goes smoothly, though. Each of them faces a heartbreaking tragedy during the course of the year, but through it all DC and Rob hang together.
Before you read Two Kids for yourself, enjoy hearing from Richard Levine!
1. Fishing and flying play a part in several key scenes. What adventures have you had fishing or flying?
I’m not really a fan of fishing, as I find the idea of hooking fish for fun troubling – for food, of course, is a different matter.  I have, however, been out on party boats; in fact, once when my two daughters were young, like the kids in the book, we went out fluke fishing on the Long Island Sound.  Also on the boat was my mom’s second husband, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the time, and, I suppose, provided the inspiration for the old man in the book who goes overboard.

 I don’t have any experience flying in small planes, but years ago a friend of ours did learn to pilot small planes and once flew his whole family out to visit us in northwest New Jersey, landing his rented plane in a small air field.  When they took off to go home later that day, it was windy, and the plane wobbled on take-off, seeming to just barely make it over the tree line.  Watching that plane take off was pretty scary – as was, I later learned, being inside the plane! 

2. DC is tall and gawky (except on the softball field, of course) and frequently stumbles into embarrassing situations. What gawky scenes have you fallen into?
I’m of average height, and growing up pretty much always was – so I was never gawky or gangly, and always had good control of my limbs.  D.C., however, of course, is another story – gawkiness was just one of those attributes I could give her (there’s so much freedom in writing fiction!) that would contribute to her uniqueness or singularity, and that I could have some fun with in writing the story.
3. Rob likes to create headlines for the events in his life. What headline would you write for something in your life right now?
Hmm.  How about:  Retired Doc Wows with Debut Novel.  That would be a nice headline, daydreamy like Rob’s headline about winning the New York City marathon:  The Kid Wins!  Kenyan Second.
4. One of my favorite places in Two Kids is the Overhill property. It reminds me of all the hours I explored the woods and pond of fields surrounding my grandma’s house as a kid. Where is your favorite place to explore?
I suppose my favorite natural place right now is a local rail trail that’s been reclaimed as a park; it’s a trail that runs alongside a stream that feeds into a lake on which water lilies float and swans glide effortlessly.  I go jogging on the trail regularly and, while doing so, have come across all sorts of additional wildlife – deer, squiggly snakes, egg-laying snapping turtles, and once even a slowly moseying bear (yes, we have black bear in northwest New Jersey!).   Another time, while jogging there, a grey heron flew directly over my head, schooling me on how big those birds really are — truly pterydactylish!  Although not quite like the book’s more secluded and expansive Overhill property, it’s still a beautiful place to jog, walk, or roam.
5. What is your favorite kind of frog?
Definitely the dart poison frogs, because they’re so cute and colorful — but because they’re so toxic, they remain my favorites just so long as the terrarium glass that separates them from me is thick enough.
6. What was your journey with this book–from writing to publishing?
The journey was long, as I’m afraid the answer to this question will be.  I got the idea for the novel several years ago, but my first draft was way too brief – a fact brought home to me when one of my daughters read it in an hour.  The novel then ballooned to 400 pages, way too long.  When friends, family, and others who read it suggested ways to improve it, my first reactions were always defensive — but in the end, I would generally come around.  Motivated by the incorrect belief that the novel was “close,” I revised it no fewer than umpteen times (often a section that I had once thought well-written would make me cringe upon re-reading it later).  If I had been smart enough early on to recognize how far from “close” it really was, I might well have just given up.  But I was blind to that and kept on revising, with the notion of trying to make every word chosen, every sentence and paragraph crafted, just right.  When I thought I had finally gotten it right (again, mistakenly), I self-published it with the title, Island Eyes, Island Skies, but months later, revised it some more, and re-published.  It received some nice reviews, and was even listed with just four other books under the heading, Children’s Fiction, on a book list in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month compiled by the Cuyahoga County Public Library (Cleveland region) in conjunction with the Maltz Museum.  Late last year, Nikki Bennett, an author and blogger who had given it a nice review, founded a new publishing company, Firedrake Books, and agreed to publish my book.  She had some thoughtful suggestions about improving it, some of which I, of course, initially resisted.  Ultimately, I came around and made the changes she suggested as well as some additional ones, including the new title.  Firedrake published Two Kids this summer, and after all the work and many revisions, I believe it’s finally the book I set out to write several years ago.

It’s Monday! What are you reading?

It’s Monday! What are you reading? Is a meme sponsored by Sheila at Book Journey.  Kellee at Unleashing Readers and Jen at Teach Menor Texts gave the meme a kidlit twist.  It’s a great way to reflect on what you’ve read and reviewed the last week and plan what you want to read next.  Join up with us and discover what good books other people  are reading.

It was a quiet reading week, but I enjoyed meeting lots of interesting people that I interviewed this week. Now I have lots of writing to do!

I finished…

forgive me leonard peacockForgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick – Once I neared the end, I couldn’t stop listening. This is one of the most powerful books I have read in some time. Leonard will stay with me as well the questions this book raised. We never know how much the people we come in contact with every day might be hurting or how much our words and actions can impact them. I know I will be treating the people around me with more kindness and paying more attention.

chinese cinderellaChinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah – My heart ached for the rejection and cruelty that Adeline experenced within her family. As I read I marveled at her strength and courage and resilience. How did she do it? So many children would have withered under the acts of cruelty she lived with daily. She found strength in her Aunt Baba and grandfather as well as in her success at school.

I’m currently reading…

Poliser_SummerLettingGo_jkt_website_207_1The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner – We didn’t read much last week with all the work assigned before break and the last games of the soccer season. Now that my daughter is on fall break, I’m hoping we can get back to reading every night.

les-miserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo – It’s still slow progress, but I’m still reading some every week. The rebels are regrouping in the barricade, preparing for the next wave of attack from the army.

again calls the owlAgain Calls the Owl by Margaret Craven – I just barely got started with this one, but I can tell I will enjoy it. Craven’s prose brings to life such a different time in the world.

Secrets of Writing High-Performance Business-to-Business Copy(AWAI) – Another couple of chapters read this week and another class down. I am learning that I enjoy this type of business copywriting more than I thought I would.

Coming up…

We have lots of catching up to do over fall break–all those projects that kept getting pushed back until we have more time. There’s shopping for winter clothes and a college visit. I hope to make progress on the books I’m reading.

What have you read this week?

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

Poliser_SummerLettingGo_jkt_website_207_1Gae Polisner’s The Summer of Letting Go (Algonquin 2014) will haunt me in all the best ways long after I turn the last page.  If you are looking for THE book to take to the beach or to the pool with you this summer, this is it.  Even if you are nowhere near a beach or pool, this hopeful, heartbreaking story will transport you there.

Francesca (known as Frankie) Schnell has been stuck in her life ever since she let her little brother SImon drown four years ago.  Now that she is about to turn sixteen, things are changing whether she wants them to or not.  Her best friend Lisette is dating Bradley, the boy Francesca likes.  Then another Frankie–Frankie Sky–shows up and cracks open questions that Francesca may never be able to answer.

One of the things I love about this book is the questions that it raises.  What is Frankie Sky’s connection to Simon?  What happens after we die?  There are more than enough coincidences to make Francesca–and readers–wonder, but the questions linger instead of being neatly answered.  It is in the asking and living of the questions that Francesca begins to live again and to let go of the guilt that plagues her.

How can you not love characters that live in these pages?  I love Francesca’s awkwardness and confusion and courage.  She’s not perfect, but she is willing to step up and do the hard things.  Frankie Sky is a whirlwind of energy and mystery–a four-year-old that is wise and stubborn beyond his years even when he tries to fly.  It is definitely Francesca’s story, but I love the supporting characters just as much, from the mysterious neighbor Mrs. Merrill to the struggling Mrs. Schyler.  Even the parents come across as real people–a welcome presence in a YA novel.  Oh yes, there just might be even a little romance.

Now I hope I can talk my daughter into reading it, but I may have ruined my chances by raving too much about it.

Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

casual vacancyI’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter series ever since my first year of teaching when a student presented a book report on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I stood in line at midnight release parties to ge the latest book as soon as it came out.  So when I heard that JK Rowling had written another book after finishing the Harry Potter series, I knew I wanted to read it.  I just didn’t get around to it until now.

Someone donated A Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, and Co., 2012) in a box of books for our Little Free Library.  I have to confess that I snagged it out to read before placing it in the library.  I am so glad I did.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Even though A Casual Vacancy is set in a small English village, I felt right at home.  Pragford reminded me of many small towns I have lived in.  I guess people don’t change that much around the world.

The death of Barry Fairbrother sets off a chain of reactions that both reveal and shift the existing faultlines in the relationships of the characters.  At first I found it difficult to keep track of the many different characters affected by Fairbrother’s death, but soon I was making connections between them as Rowling skillfully wove their stories together.  Many times the characters were not even aware of the threads connecting them in unsuspecting ways.

The novel begins and ends with tragedy, but along the way it is filled with humor.  That humor is needed as Rowling gives an unflinching look at some of the more selfish motivations shared by many of us.  The good people of Pragford have never forgiven the poor people of the Fields (mainly government subsidized housing) for being thrust upon them.  The good people of Pragford are ready to do almost anything to remove the Fields filled with undesirable people from their picture-perfect village.  Of course, Pragford is only picture-perfect as long as no one looks too closely or digs too deeply for long-buried secrets.

Even though A Casual Vacancy is filled with Muggles only, I loved every page.  It is not a book for every fan of Harry Potter, especially younger fans.  Rowling gives an unflinching glimpse of real life–including the darker side of drug abuse and promiscuity and violence.  I will be looking for her latest books, published under a pen name, to see what else she can pull out of her pen.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

imageI was captivated by Willow’s voice from the first page of Counting by 7s (Scholastic 2013) until the very last page.  Willow is not your ordinary girl, and she won’t let you forget it.  First off, she’s brilliant, but not the teacher’s pet.  I suspect her teachers don’t get her.  She loves numbers and is fascinated by plants and medical conditions.  She also picks up other languages such as Vietnamese in her spare time.

She also does not fit in at her new middle school.  When she scores a perfect score on the state standardized test (after showing no aptitude for high ability to her teachers), the principal accuses her of cheating and refers her to Dell Duke, the school psychologist.  Outside of his office, Willow meets Mai, a chance encounter that will change all of their lives.

What do I love about this book?  Let me count the ways.  There’ll be seven since that is Willow’s favorite number.

1.  Connections:  Even when life seems random and cruel, connections bring people together.  Willow has a real talent for bringing people together, especially people who didn’t realize they needed each other.

2.  Voice:  Once you read what Willow has to say, you won’t be able to get her voice out of your heart.  She is true and honest and sees the world a bit differently–more brilliantly–than the rest of the world.

3.  Alternating points of view:  Willow is not the only teller of this story.  A third person narrator fills us in on the rest of the characters from pseudo-psychologist Dell Duke to Vietnamese nail salon owner Patty and generous taxi driver Jairo.

4.  Unforgettable characters:  Even the ones who rub you the wrong way at first–like Dell Duke and the angry Quang-ha–turn out to have a better side.  Mai is a loyal friend from the start, and Pattie opens her arms and home to a little girl.

5 .  Coincidences:  Is life random and cruel?  Is life random and lucky?  Maybe it’s all of these and none of these, but Willow experiences them all.

6.  Passion:  Willow gives everything to her interests.  She has mastered medical textbooks and would be glad to sit down with you to discuss any concerns you have.  She has created a garden oasis out of a desert–not just once, but twice.

7.  Family:  Whether it’s the family she’s lost or the new family she’s found, Willow comes home to people who love her for who she is.  Now if we could all be that lucky.

Holly Goldberg Sloan has crafted a brilliant story of love and loss, passion and friendship, tragedy and miracles.

Guitar Notes by Mary Amato

I don't have a guitar, but this book might inspire me to pick up my dulcimers again.

I don’t have a guitar, but this book might inspire me to pick up my dulcimers again.

For my students, music is not only the soundtrack of their lives (as it is for mine, too), but music is their lives.  If they could, they would go through their days with music pouring into their ears.  Many of them have music pouring out of them as well, through singing or playing an instrument.

As soon as I saw the cover of Guitar Notes (Scholastic 2012) staring at me from the shelf of the Scholastic Book Fair, I knew I wanted to add it to my classroom library.  Mary Amato did not disappoint me with this witty and heartwarming story.  The premise is clever.  Two students–completely opposite in temperament and musical styles–end up sharing a music practice room on opposite days.  They begin leaving notes for each other–at first insulting, but later revealing.

The point of view switches between Tripp Broody and Lyla Marks, letting us get to know them separately and gradually, just as they get to know each other.  Tripp is desperate to spend time with a guitar–any guitar–now that his mother has taken his away until he pulls up his grades.  Lyla is desperate, too, but desperate for a break from the high expectations her father and friends place on her for perfect grades and perfect cello notes.  Neither Tripp’s mom nor Lyla’s dad are bad parents;  they are just imperfect ones who don’t see what’s right in front of them.

The notes that Tripp and Lyla write are highlights of the book.  They are funny and sarcastic, downright snippy at first.  But soon Tripp and Lyla are looking forward to receiving and writing the notes.  They challenge each other to be honest, and they teach each other what they love about music.  As they come together, they begin writing songs to share together.  As I shared bits of the book with my students, they were sure romance was on the way.  I was glad Amato did not take the obvious path with that part of the plot.  The friendship that grows between Tripp and Lyla is so much more than just a romance, even if it takes a tragedy to reveal the depths of their friendship to their parents and friends.

This novel is an ode to the power of music, and it doesn’t stop with the last page. In the back of the book is a copy of the “Thrum Society Songbook,” which has the lyrics and chords for each of the songs that Tripp and Lyla write.  Throughout the book, Tripp and Lyla share pages from their notebooks where they brainstorm and write their lyrics.  You can also visit the Thrum Society website where you can listen to and download the songs for yourself.  Amato provides the tracks and karaoke tracks.  Even though the songs are copyrighted, Amato gives permission for readers to write their own lyrics, perform and record the songs, or create music videos for the songs for noncommercial use.  The website also gives free resources for songwriting–writing notebooks, blank chord charts, links to songwriting videos and more.

Wolf Storm by Dee Garretson

imageStefan auditioned for a part in the action movie Ice Planet Earth never dreaming that he would actually get the part.  Now he finds himself on location in mountains of Slovakia.  He is trapped with a stuck up costar Raine, annoying costar Jeremy, and supposedly cursed costar Cecil.  Throw in some trained wolves for the movie and wild wolves surrounding the set–a run-down abandoned castle–and a blizzard closing in, and Wolf Storm (Scholastic 2011) has all the ingredients for an action-packed adventure.

Dee Garretson creates a story filled with suspense and danger.  The tension between the young costars soon turns to tension to survive against ever escalating dangers.  A snowstorm turns into a blizzard.  A blizzard turns into an avalanche.  Wild wolves circle closer, hungry.  Now Stefan, Raine, Jeremy, and Cecil have one chance to do whatever it takes to survive.

The Batboy by Mike Lupica

imageMy middle school sports fans love Mike Lupica, and I enjoy his books, too, even though I’m not a big sports fan myself.  Now that baseball season has rolled around once again, it is the perfect time to introduce The Batboy (Scholastic 2010) to my classroom library.

Brian Dudley loves baseball, especially his home team of the Detroit Tigers.  Even though his dad was a big league pitcher, Brian knows he is lucky to have a spot on his travel team.  Along with his best friend, Kenny, he plans to make the most of this summer of baseball.  But travel ball is not the only ball in Brian’s summer.  He has his dream job–batboy for the Detroit Tigers.  He gets to see every home game from his post right beside the dugout and wear the Big League uniform.  Brian doesn’t care that being batboy involves lots of work both before and after the games as long as he gets his fill of baseball.

Just like Lupica’s other books, there is plenty of baseball action, but there is much more than sports.  Brian’s dad may have been a great pitcher, but he loved baseball more than he loved his family.  Brian is elated when his baseball hero, Hank Bishop, comes back to play for the Tigers.  Unfortunately, Bishop doesn’t act like much of a hero in the locker room.  Brian’s efforts to deal with the disappointment caused by his heroes provides the heart of this story.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

lit selfie fangirlHow do I count the ways that I love this book?  While I fell instantly in love with Eleanor and Park, it took me a little longer to get to know and adore Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.  However, Fangirl (St. Martin Griffin 2013) is one of those books that lingers in my mind and heart.  I haven’t wanted to pick up another book to read because I don’t want to leave Cath and Levi yet.  There are so many things I love about this book.  I think I will count them for you…or at least begin to count them.

  1. Cath is not just quirky.  She might just cross over the line a time or two.  After all, she lives more in the fantasy world created by a best-selling series than she does in the real world.  In fact, she often spends more time and effort avoiding the real world because new people and new places creep her out.  Despite her weaknesses, Cath shows strength and determination when it comes to protecting her dad and her sister.  Did I mention that Wren is her twin sister–her identical twin who promptly dumps her once they arrive at college.
  2. Fanfiction weaves in and out of this story in poignant and hysterical ways.  Yes Simon Snow is a boy wizard off to learn magic at a boarding school and destined to save the world from the evil Humbdrum.  Rowell treats us to “Encyclowikia” entries about the series, excerpts from the first seven (of eight) books in the series), and best of all,  excerpts from the highly popular fanfiction series Carry On, Simon by Magicath.  (You guessed it.  Cath writes this incredibly popular fanfiction that gets thousands of hits daily.)
  3. I wasn’t sure what I thought of Reagan at first.  She did terrify her freshman roommate, Cath, at first, but I came to relish her tough love.  Her brusque, matter-of-fact view of life is just what Cath needed.
  4. Levi is the perfect (slight spoiler alert) boyfriend.  I appreciate the fact it took half the book for the romance to blossom.  (I never liked that Nick guy anyway.)  Besides being absolutely adorable, he respects Cath for who she is–quirks and all–and will drop everything to be with her.  He’s even adorable when he messes up.
  5. Rowell deftly handles sensitive issues–mental illness and homosexuality–as part of the story but without making them ISSUES.  Cath worries about her dad and about herself,  but there different ways of seeing the world are just that–different, sometimes a challenge and sometimes a gift.  Most of all, I cheered for Cath as she discovered the strength of her own voice.

There is much more I love about Fangirl, but you should really read it for yourself.  Go get a copy while I wait for more books by Rowell.

The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

imageI already have a line of students waiting to read The Raft (Scholastic 2012) by S.A. Bodeen.  If they are looking for a gripping survival story, they will not be able to put this book down.  I picked the perfect time to read it, too, with the news story yesterday of the fisherman who survived a year at sea in his fishing boat before coming ashore on the Marshall Islands.

Robie thinks she is tough.  The fifteen year old survived the pain of getting her nose pierced by thinking of something worse.  It’s how she gets through unpleasant experiences.  She thinks she’s ready to say a week by herself in Honolulu while her aunt goes away on business, but once a homeless man attacks her, she gets herself on the next flight back to her home on Midway Island.  She’s an experience traveller and knows the pilot.  The co-pilot, Max, is new, but that shouldn’t be a problem.  Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the cargo plane runs into a thunderstorm and loses an engine.  Max shoves a life vest at Robie and prepares the life raft as the plane goes down.  She hits the water and Max pulls her into the raft, and their struggle begins.

Robie and Max don’t have a lot of options–no water and little food (Skittles, anyone?).  If they’re lucky, they might hit an island, but Robie soon realizes that no one knows she got on the plane.  Robie must learn just how tough she is if she has any hope at all to survive.

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