Saturday, August 31, 2013

Small Actions by Uma Krishnaswami - Guest Post - August 2013

Krishnaswami, Uma. Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, The. Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon and Schuster), 2013. 288p. $16.99. 9781442423282.

Read on and find out how you don't have to be the main character to keep the story moving. Also, take a sneak peak at Alana, Ollie, and Chef!

Small Actions That Count: 
The Role of Alana 
The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Romantic love played a larger-than-life part in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, in Dolly’s disarrayed love life, but it also had a smaller, quieter place in the characters of Lal the postman and his wife Lila. They were a kind of glue that held the story together. Lal carried the letters back and forth, but it was Lila who gave him the support and courage to speak up at the moments when that was needed. Lal and Lila, of course, could not travel to the United States for the grand opening of Dolly’s movie in The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic. As I wrote the second book, it became clear to me that their places needed to be filled.

Because of Dini’s fan letter, and Lal’s job, mail and the delivery of mail was very important in The Grand Plan. A cake and catering took up that spot in the second book, so it was only natural that the related action of this subplot would shift from post offices in India to the kitchen of an irascible chef in Washington, DC.

Enter Alana. She’s the sous chef. She’s competent, ambitious, and sensible. Dini, our protagonist, is in awe of her. Ollie the line cook—well to paraphrase a poem of a couple of centuries ago, Ollie laughs with delight at Alana’s smile and trembles with fear at her frown. He recognizes in Dini a kind of Alana-in-progress. Like Lal and Lila, Ollie and Alana are a team, and the fact that they’re falling head over heels in love is something our young characters are keeping a sharp eye on as well. Plot-wise, this resonates with Dolly’s Bollywood movies and offers Dini a kind of real-life envisioning of something yet to come in her own life, something magical and grownup and nearly impossible.
Alana with Ollie and the Chef

Alana is very much the glue that holds Ollie together, but she’s also the one who can speak truth to the bad-tempered chef, which in turn allows him to change and grow. Who but Alana would have the courage to meet Dolly’s unusual meal requests, combining ingredients that would surely outrage the chef? She’s the character who helps the slight heroics of the book gain momentum, becoming a dance of small actions that count.

About the Author
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of several books for children, including the first story featuring Dini,
Maddie, and Dolly, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. She is also on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Ms. Krishnaswami was born in New Delhi, India, and now lives in Aztec, New Mexico. To learn more, visit her website:

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Catching a Moment by Kathi Appelt- Guest Post - August 2013

Appelt, Kathi. True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp,The. Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon and Schuster), 2013. 336p. $16.99. 9781442421059.

If you're looking for a great middle grades novel that BEGS to be read aloud - look no further than the True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt!

 Keep reading below to find out why Grandpa Audie carries a Polaroid Land Camera. You'll wish you carried one too!

Cameras and Birds and Other Surprises
My father loved cameras, and he loved taking photographs. But he never owned a Polaroid Land Camera, at least not one that I can recall. However, our neighbor across the street, Tom Cunningham, owned one. And about the time that my sisters and I ranged in ages from 5 (me) to 3 (my youngest sister B.J.), with Patti (4) in between, Uncle Tom as we called him, walked across the street one night with that big, fat camera and took a group shot of the three of us.

That photo is long gone, but I definitely remember it. Patti was sitting in the middle atop our overstuffed living room chair, and B.J. and I sat on the opposite arms, straddling them like we might straddle a pony. To say that we looked goofy would be an understatement. We were all in our summer nighties, too, which added to the goofy charm. A scruffy trio of sisters, our hair still wet from our nighttime baths, and our faces scrubbed and shiny, looking directly into the camera, looking surprised.

It was a sweet photo, and my father treasured it for many years, long after it was taken.

The thing about a Polaroid was that it was automatic. There, right in front of you was an instant photo. I know that these days, with digital photos, that’s nothing new. But back in the late fifties and early sixties, photographs were anything but instant. The Polaroid was an exception. It didn’t require a darkroom, it didn’t require a two-week wait while you sent the film off to a lab to have it processed and hoped like crazy that at least one photo had merit.

But the Polaroid had requirements nonetheless. I remember watching Uncle Tom. As soon as he took the photo, he popped the melted flashbulb out of the camera where it dropped into the palm of his hand. There he bounced it up and down to keep it from burning his skin. “Don’t touch,” he told us.

Then he pulled the film out of the back of the camera and waved it back and forth in the air. If he had said the word, “abracadabra” it couldn’t have been more magical.

While we watched, he carefully peeled the film apart. Then, he took a lipstick-shaped tube of fixer and rubbed it over the finished photo. Voila! He held it front of us and said again, “Don’t touch.” It wasn’t hot, but it was still sticky from the fixer. A touch would leave a fingerprint that would never go away.

We gathered around. There we were, three small girls smushed together on the chair, only minutes older than we were when he snapped the shot. We were fascinated. But not as much as our father. He loved Mr. Cunningham’s Polaroid Camera. And he loved us, his three daughters. He kept that photo for as long as he lived, and by the time he died, forty years later, it was so faded that you had to know what was on the surface of it to actually see it.

What I know about that long-gone Polaroid photo is that it was important to my dad. And thinking about it, it’s still important to me. It reminds me of my two sisters and me and how many moments we shared together, the three of us taking up space together, happy. 

So, when I thought about my character Audie, and his quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, it seemed important to me that he use a Polaroid Land Camera, not necessarily because it was the only camera in town, but because it reminded me of the wonder of catching a moment in time that can’t really be repeated, only treasured. 

I suppose every photo is like that, to a certain extent. But there was something magical about that Polaroid process—the melty flashbulb, the film being pulled out of the back of the camera, the lipstick-shaped tube of fixer. Everything had to happen in a certain order for the magic to occur. 

When I sit down to write my stories, I think hard about the objects that my characters use and carry and treasure, because I think they say something about the characters themselves. But sometimes, like it was with the Polaroid, I simply hand over to my characters something that I loved too. I loved Tom Cunningham’s Polaroid camera. I loved my dad and sisters. I especially loved the surprise of it all. And that is the very best part of all about writing and reading stories. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you even get a photo, like my character Audie did, of a surprised armadillo. Or a bird that was so beautiful people said, “Lord God,” whenever they saw it fly over their heads. 

We might not be able to get the Polaroid back. But maybe we can find the bird. Lord God, I hope so.

What Kathi's Reading
And speaking of surprises, I’m right in the middle of reading Uma Krishnaswami’s new book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic. It had me from the very first page. (The Brain Lair will be talking about The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic next week! Make sure you tune in!)

More about Kathi Appelt
Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honor-winning, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award-winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the highly acclaimed novel Keeper, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, and many picture books. She is a member of the faculty at Vermont College’s Master of Fine Arts program. She has two grown children and lives in Texas with her husband. For more information, visit her website at

Watch these two rascally raccoons in the most adorable book trailer ever:

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Batty About Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Batty About Books presents    
Summer of the Mariposas
Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This is it, the final installment of Summer of the Mariposas! I know you are dying to know what Maria (@mselke01 in the purple below) and I (in the blue) thought of this book. Make sure you head over to Maria's Melange to read her take on this final section. First time here? Check out the previous weeks before, then dive right in!
Week 1 - The Cover
Week 2 - The Departure
Week 3 - The Initiation
Week 4 - the Return pg 259 - 334
After that action-packed middle, this section was something of a let down. The journey home seemed to pass quickly with few obstacles to hinder any progress. Even the very final confrontation was done quietly. I think your point about reading a book as a whole may have helped here. If this chunk hadn’t been read alone, would it have bothered us as much to have it over so quickly?
The Voice
Often I kept going back to the beginning to see if I could determine when Odilia is telling this story. She often came across as much older than her fifteen years or as if she’d been caring for the girls most of her life. Do you think she was looking back on these events from somewhere in the future? That’s funny - I didn’t really see her as acting too much older than fifteen. I guess it could partly be because I don’t know that age group well (I teach younger students, and my own sons are well below teen years) and partly because I assumed her maturity was partly due to being the oldest.

Immediately After
As soon as I was done I compared that last scene to when they dropped the dead guy off at his house. It was the night of his daughter’s quinceanera and proved to be a disruption. I thought the dad would make some sort of scene but it was over before it fully begun. I liked how we circled back but I would have liked to see more of the sister’s growth since the time in this section passed so quickly. I liked that the dad didn’t make a scene here - I think it fit with what the Virgen said to Odilia earlier about the sun needing to descend into darkness for a time in order to learn. I can hope that her father has learned from his slide into darkness, and may become a better person because of it. I agree that I wanted to learn more of the other sisters! The whole point of the “five sisters together” made me think we’d get more about them.

The Hero’s Journey: The Return
Although none of the ladies wanted to leave their grandmother, they were all anxious to return to their mother. Again I flashed back to the beginning when they paid off the attendant to get across the border and wondered why that wasn’t being done here. Was it because back then, they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves but now the task was done it was of no consequence? I guess if they were discovered on the way down - with a dead body - it would have been a bigger problem. On the way back, if they are snagged there will be a media frenzy but they’d still be sent home eventually.

We definitely had elements of the “magical flight” as well as “rescue from without”. Once again Virgen de Guadalupe (I wonder if the author is named for her) comes at the last spinning of Odilia’s earrings. This time they get to visit her (flight part 1) and then she prepares for their safe return (flight part 2) intertwining these two stages of the journey. Ahh... I didn’t analyze the journey carefully enough at this stage. I guess that “rescue from without” is a piece I missed. It’s like Han Solo sweeping in at the last moment to help Luke as he attacks the Death Star. I didn’t like how little the girls themselves had to do to return home, but I can see that it could fit with the overall type of story here.

I thought the crossing of the river as well as the meeting with dad were both parts of “crossing the return threshold”. They literally crossed on the boat in the same waters that started their journey. The scene with the father, while weird, was one Odilia and the mom both needed. It solidified Odilia’s maturity and set their mom on her journey to “...remind her who she is, who we are, and what we are all meant to become...” (275). The mom points out how everything is about to change but everything will be all right. (292-3) (Though in hindsight I wonder how she got to the station to begin with?) I found the scene with dad - especially those other girls - to be a bit over the top. Those girls are what rubbed me the wrong way while reading, though once we got more information about their mom the scene felt more realistic.

Odilia becomes the “master of two worlds” when she realizes who the flowers are for as well as when she becomes happy for her mother’s new relationship. She understands how both things will help to set the future right. Which leads to the very final part of the journey the “freedom to live”. La Llorona is set free from her wanderings and so is the family. I liked how this part turned out. While the last chunk felt like it jumped ahead too quickly, I did like how both her mother and La Llorona’s stories ended. It felt hopeful, yet real.


I enjoyed this book. I do wish that the ending was as fleshed out as the other two parts because it would have been interesting to see how the sisters matured. We know it happened along the way but what changes did this new maturity  bring to their relationships with each other as well as their father? Since they’d heard rumors about the dad, can we assume he’d stayed near? Why did he ever think his scheme would work after being absent so long? I will need to reread this one in one big gulp to see how it impacts my overall enjoyment. I wanted more at the end. I didn’t really “get” the dad... but I wonder if that is more because of the background I have (with my father and husband, I just can’t even get into this dad’s head at all). I really loved so many things about the book, though. I loved the mythical entwined with the realistic. I loved the sisters. I loved the imagery. This was a winner, and I think McCall absolutely deserves the honors she’s received for it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Batty About Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall - The Initiation 3

Batty About Books presents    
Summer of the Mariposas
Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Week 1 - The Cover
Week 2 - The Departure
Here we are at Week 3 and it's only taken us over a month to get here! My time has just been consumed by other! I look forward to the rest of the year playing out in a much calmer manner!! ::crossesfingers:: ::knocksonwood:: ::saysaprayer::  Thank you to my book buddy, Maria, for hanging in there with me!

This week we discuss Part 2 of the book, The Initiation. As a reminder, Summer of the Mariposas is a modern day retelling of The Odyssey.  Head over to Maria's Melange to read her thoughts on this section. She has some interesting thoughts on how this book relates to Homer's and which, if any, characters align to his original ones.

Week 3 - The Initiation - pgs 103 - 258
Wow, it’s been a little over a month since we were supposed to finish this! I can’t believe I let so many things get in the way! But, hopefully things are settled now. The horizon looks clear and the reading looks fun!
Let me say it was hard to remember what had happened in the story and there is something to be said for writing these down RIGHT AWAY! I went back and re-read both parts 1 and this section. It was easier than I’d thought it would be to get back into the story. I always mean to write down my thoughts AS I read... but sometimes I don’t. For this section, I just read the whole thing and then went back to jot down my notes on a reread.
The Spanish
I love how McCall uses spanish words and works their meaning into the writing. If I’ve said this before, it bears repeating. I’ve read books where you have to look the words up in the glossary and it takes you out of the flow of story. That being said, I was thoroughly confused about El Nagual and Un Brujo.  Did they both mean The Warlock? I also love the way she incorporates the Spanish! I like the fact that there is a glossary, but I don’t want to have to use it for everything. There was at least one phrase I couldn’t find the glossary, though.... but I can’t remember what it was now! I’ve cleaned up my house a few times for visitors since I jotted down my notes and I can’t find my journal.

The Darkness
Wow! This section took a decidedly darker turn. I don’t want to give too much away but the car, the fairy tale lady (I kinda wish we weren’t told who she reminded them of, it might be a fun connection to get students to guess), and the 3 trials! Whew! I liked the darkness in this section. I think all too often we assume that kids can’t handle dark. But I’ve read several really dark books this summer (like Doll Bones) and some that just had dark aspects (like Sidekicked, which tempered the humor with the ethical discussion and darkness)... and I think kids really want and need these types of books. I agree. I was just not expecting it. Of course, they did fish a dead man out of the river and drive around with, dark is relative here.  I will, of course, have all three of these in the library with Doll Bones going on the Mock Newbery table.

The Hero’s Journey
The Initiation covered what could be the middle part of the hero’s journey. We had trials, the Goddess, and the Temptress. Following the same path from part 1, the girls would need to have an Atonement - which I think is the Grandma. She provides a place of rest and relaxation for all the girl’s and, in particular, Pita. But what is the Boon or gift that they are to return home with? Is it their renewed faith in each other? The realization that what happened between their parents was not their fault? Or did I miss it?

It’s also possible to consider this stage the “Apotheosis” - a stage I rarely discuss with my students because it is confusing. The Wikipedia page for the Monomyth defines this stage as


When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.”
(I added the italics to the section of the definition I think fits here)
I’m not sure yet about what they will be bringing home. I discuss the healing aspect in my thoughts as well. That may be it, or maybe it will be something else?

This book goes back and forth between Middle Grades and Young Adult. Who is the intended audience? I’m having a hard time determining which students would be interested (beyond a book club) or if I would just hand this to teachers.  It also seems to be a book you need to read straight through and discuss in-depth. I find it easy to forget details when I put it down or is it that due to the reading I did in between?

I think I could make a case for using this with my very strong 5th grade readers, but I can’t see just putting it into an elementary library. There’s just too much they wouldn’t “get” out of the story, I think. I think I’d remember a lot more of the detail if I read it straight through, though. I also think this would tie in well with a unit on the hero’s journey, especially for kids who are interested in myths and Greek legends. If I didn’t do it with a group, I could definitely picture several students that would love this story. But my kids aren’t typical upper elementary readers.
I think this book would be marvelous with enthusiastic readers in middle school - again, the ones who have the Greek background (Much more common now, due to the popularity of Percy Jackson).  So I could do a hero’s journey book club or a modern mythology book club.  Hmm...possibilities.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Batty About Summer of the Mariposas - Cover Appeal, Redux

reposted August 3, 2013
Batty About Books presents     

Summer of the Mariposas
Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This week we discuss the cover. I'll talk about why I wanted to read this one and Maria has provided us with links to her Connect the Pop guest post she did at School Library Journal (SLJ) about The Hero's Journey, my current obsession.  We hope to discuss Summer of the Mariposas through the eyes of the Heroine's Journey.  Stop by Maria's Melange to get a more detailed look at the cover.

The Front
 I love the simplicity of the cover. The font of the title seems to want to fly while the author’s name seems to ground the image.  I like the stylized version of the mariposa (butterfly in Spanish) as a constellation. I also like the five girls on the cover but wonder if it will limit who picks the book up.  I had the same thought, about the girls. I’m hoping that the fact that they aren't lounging in dresses or gazing coyly at the reader will help. If boys who love mythology hear there is an Odyssey connection that may also help.
The Back
Cinco Hermanitas. Five Little Sisters, Together Forever, No Matter What.
I love that. It’s simple. Although, beyond telling you that the five girls on the front are sisters, it doesn't tell you much about the book. Sometimes I don't want to know too much. I love this tagline.
On the Jacket Flap 
I love the opening of the synopsis: “When Odilia and her four sisters find a dead man in the swimming hole near their hometown of Eagle Pass, Texas, they embark on a journey to return the man’s body to his family in New Mexico.” The whole idea of finding a dead body reminds me of the movie Stand By me, which I loved. I'm a little concerned with the several references to the Odyssey. Will it turn off students who haven't read it? I'm thinking the mythology references will be a plus to my population (even if ends up being a book I can only recommend to students once they leave me).

Why I Wanted to Read This

It’s a nominee for a committee I'm on, so I have to read it.  It’s a nominee for the 2013 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy and every year I promise myself I will read those books and I'm finally fulfilling that by reading one per month. This book is also diverse, something else I’ve been thinking more and more about and through reading more books with multicultural characters, not only will I be able to help my teachers broaden their selections but my students, too.
Last week, Maria and I had a great conversation about the hero’s journey and she mentioned the “heroine’s journey” which I'd never heard articulated.  She really sparked my interest! I'm excited to learn more about this from her as we work our way through Summer of the Mariposas.


Maria’s post for School Library Journal’s “Connect the Pop” series on using fandom to teach the Hero’s Journey - includes links to simplified HJ page and video. 

Author Website - Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Batty About Summer of the Mariposas - Part 1, Redux

reposted August 3, 2013
Batty About Books presents    
Summer of the Mariposas
Guadalupe Garcia McCall

It's been a while, I've had a lot going one, but Maria and I are back.
Today we discuss the first part of Summer of the Mariposa's called The Depature. Check out our cover discussion below.
Don't forget to stop by Maria's Melange and get her take on the first part of McCall's book.
Summer of the Mariposa's was nominated for an Andre Norton award for 2013. If you are looking for some Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy reads, check out The Andre Norton Award for ideas.
Week 2 - The Departure - pgs 1 - 102
This first part covers the discovery of the body, an introduction to Odilia, the story of Llorona, and the beginning of the heroine's journey. Weirdly, I love the paper in this book. It feels luxurious to my hand! Can I say that I agree? I love books that feel lovely. I’m particularly hooked on the trend for silky feeling covers. (This book didn’t have that feature, but many recent releases have.)
The Call to Adventure
In this first summer where the moms not around to call the shots, Odilia and her sisters decide they just want to have fun. As they are out at their favourite swimming hole, the come across a dead body. Juanita decides they need to take the man’s body back to his family.
Here we see the relationship of the sisters unfold. They are the Cinco Hermanitas- the five Garza sisters- together forever, no matter what! We have Odilia, the oldest at fifteen, is like a second mom and the voice of reason. Juanita, fourteen, is the compassionate one. The twins Delia and Velia, 13, are the heck raising middle sisters and Pita, 10, just wants to be taken care of, to stay the baby a little while longer. It will be interesting to see what role each girl plays as we move through the novel. I discuss this, too! I love how almost any student will be able to find a mirror for their own family role in this group.
Refusal Of the Call
Odilia refuses the call at first. I love how she thought she was tricking the sisters but they'd already worked a plan. What would have happened if she hadn’t jumped in the car? I adore how she tries to be in charge, but is forced to change her plans. It seems like the girls know each other really well.
Supernatural Aid
I'd never heard the story of La Llorona! I did find mentions of several picture books that recount the story of the Legendary Weeping Woman who drowned her own children and hope to pick them up soon.. It would be interesting to have students find and compare several versions of the story. It would also be interesting to compare those tales to the Llorona we meet. I adore mythical stories from other cultures. I need to learn more about this one.
When she gets the earring, I thought each ring would somehow help each sister directly since the earring has five rings. Does the number five hold significance in Mexican culture? I had a similar thought, but didn’t write about it. There was also a scene with the 5 shooting stars. I’d love to know if it just ties to the girls, or if 5 is a magical number in this culture.
Crossing the Threshold
“I listened to my inner nut and sped out of the caseta, leaving behind everything that was familiar and normal and full of life and crossing over the threshold into the darkness of a dead man’s life.”
Not much else I can say here. I love that sentence. The cadence. How she didn’t use commas and used ands so you can feel the rhythm and pretend you were driving with the Hermanitas! I loved this, too!
Belly of the Whale
This section was, by far, my favorite part of the novel. Things took a darker turn and here we will see how the sisters stick together and Odilia will for sure come into her own! I want to find out about the dead man, and how he came to be in the river, and why his children are so much older than the pictures? Why don’t they miss him?? What did he do? I’m so glad we’re done chatting about this section now so I can plunge into the next part of the tale!

I am not sure what I think! I like it but so many things happened in my personal life this month that reading was pushed aside. Which meant having to scramble to do my committee reading. Which meant this fun reading felt like less fun.  I don’t think it’s the book. Things should start easing up since I’m practically done with work. I’ve had weeks like that - weeks where I felt like “it’s not the book, it’s me” felt real. I hope that now that things are calming down you’ll be able to relax and enjoy.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.


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