Book Review: THE PROPHET CALLS, by Melanie Sumrow

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Cover artist: Colleen Tighe. Cover designer: David DeWitt.

Dystopian books explore what might happen to our world when something fundamental is different from what we know. Often, it’s society-based, though sometimes technology is part of it. These are books that start with a “What if” world tangled into our own. We see aspects of life we recognize, but something feels off or wrong or just plain disturbing. And it’s the main character’s role to figure out how to survive, or escape.

When I first read Melanie Sumrow’s middle grade debut The Prophet Calls, I knew it was based in the real world, and what is no doubt a very real world for certain populations in the United States. But this book felt dystopian to me. I’ve known people from religions akin to, but fortunately not as restrictive, as the one that dominates this narrative, and I’ve read of the religions that keep similar tight bonds on their women and girls, but never explored the story of one of those girls.

Yet Gentry’s story is not what you expect. It’s partly a tale of rebellion against a religion that keeps women and girls submissive. But it’s a fast-paced thriller as well, as the best dystopian stories tend to be.

The Prophet Calls begins with a children’s game: “apocalypse,” in which government agents are chasing God’s chosen. Gentry has just turned 13 and is therefore, according to her people, a woman. And a woman cannot play a children’s game. Yet she does, with her sister Amy fleeing from the “agents,” who her include her brother Tanner and her friend Channing Snell. We’re drawn into the chase, into escape and hiding, in a scene that is strangely tense for a children’s game. But this is by design. In the first chapter, Sumrow plants the seeds of much that will be important later in her book: the multiple “mothers” each child family has, Amy’s terror that Gentry will leave her behind, Tanner’s wild abandon, the bruise on Channing’s neck which we see as he urges Gentry to play, and that inexorable sense of dread.

That dread is present when Tanner and Gentry sneak off to perform at a music festival, a competition that the two, both talented violinists, have planned to attend for months. But they must attend in secret: The Prophet, the ruler of their enclosed religious community, has phoned from his prison cell to decree that woman are no longer allowed to leave the compound. This happens the day of the game, Gentry’s 13th birthday, in her first hours of being a woman.

But that doesn’t stop her. Gentry and Tanner perform. They do well. They come home. And they’re caught. And Tanner, Gentry’s friend as well as her brother, is banished from the compound, worse than dead, she’s told. And Gentry is forbidden to play the instrument that gives her such joy and freedom.

More people whom Gentry loves are banished. “Women” (of all ages) with whom she is close are forced into marriage with men of the Prophet’s choosing. But this “woman” tries to fight, though doesn’t know how, and soon it’s a matter of survival.

This is a powerful read, one rife with opportunities for discussion of restrictive gender roles, of religious rules, of what freedom really means. It’s an upper middle grade book, but perfect for a tween nearly but not quite ready for young adult. And it will introduce some of the dystopian themes that young will find in the young adult genre, but its own middle grade—chillingly realistic—manner.

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Diane Magras is author of the NYT Editors’ Choice The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, which came just before The Hunt for the Mad Wolf’s Daughter. All things medieval fascinate Diane: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of Scotland, where her books are set.

Launching a Community Book Club & a Conversation with Harper and Maggie: Books Between, Episode 62

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone! And welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to incredible stories. I believe in the power of books to bring communities together. And my goal is to help you connect your children and your community with fantastic books and share inspiring conversations with the people who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of a 9 and 11 year old, a 5th grade teacher in Central New York, and glad to be back with you after a short hiatus to focus on school and supporting some local candidates in the mid-term elections! Before this year, I had NEVER done any phone banking or canvassing, but after being inspired by so many of YOU – I knew I had to get off my bum and get to work.

This is episode #62 and Today’s show is all about promoting literacy in your community.  First, I’ll share some advice about launching a community book club based on my experience starting a ProjectLIT Book Club at my school. And then I’ll share a conversation with Harper & Maggie, two young girls who’ve launched Books & a Blanket – an organization to promote literacy and well-being among young children in need.

Before we get started, I have a BIG announcement that I am delighted to tell you about!  For the whole month of December, Annaliese Avery and Jarrett Lerner and myself fromDs2bST1XcAABnFm MGBookVillage are teaming up with Lorie Barber and Erin Varley to bring you #HappyPottermas – a month-long celebration of all things Harry Potter! There will be daily Twitter prompts and all the 9pm EST Monday night #MGBookChat topics throughout December will be all about Harry Potter! And…. I’ve got some special guests lined up for the December episodes of the podcast to talk about the Wizarding World.  And I would love to feature YOU on the show as well. So if you have THOUGHTS about Hogwarts, Snape, the books vs. the movies. If you have OPINIONS you want to share – I really, really want to hear what you have to say!  So, if you are interested in being featured on this podcast, just check out the link posted in the show notes, and I can’t wait to hear from you!

Main Topic – Launching a Community Book Club

This week I’m sharing some things I’ve learned about launching a community book club based on my experiences starting a ProjectLIT Book Club at my school. But whatever type of book club you might already have going or are considering starting – whether that’s a ProjectLIT club or not – I think you’ll get some good ideas from today’s discussion.  And – just know that every document I mention (flyers, surveys, discussion guides, etc…) are all available for you to download right in the show notes and on this episode’s post at MGBookVillage.org. And all of them are editable so you can download and adjust them however you need.

Today I’ll be talking about the difference between ProjectLIT and other traditional community book clubs, including the pros and cons of each. Then I’ll share some ideas about how to prepare to launch your club, some ideas about how to decide what books to read and how to get copies of those books, how to get students and the wider community involved and excited, and then I’ll get into some specifics about planning meetings and hosting a community-wide book celebration.

That’s a lot to cover! So let’s dig right in!

What is the difference between a traditional book club with community involvement and a ProjectLIT Community Book Club – and what are the pros and cons of each?

ProjectLIT is a grassroots literacy movement with community book club chapters all over the country. As of this week, there are now 592 chapters. Their goal is to increase access to culturally relevant books and promote a love of reading in our schools and communities. Each spring the ProjectLIT team consults with chapter leaders and announces a list of 20 books from middle grade to YA that include topics that will generate lots of discussion and bring awareness to issues in our society. Since this is the second year, there are now 40 books to choose from. The books feature characters from a wide variety of backgrounds and are usually #ownvoices – written by authors who share the marginalized identity of the main character. For example, some ProjectLIT books are Amina’s Voice by Hena Kahn and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Some of the YA choices are Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. ProjectLIT is all about bringing together a community to discuss the big ideas put forth in these booksand to encourage students to take a leadership role in planning community meetings and doing community service projects to promote literacy. It’s beyond just a book club that might meet to read and discuss books.  If you want to know more about ProjectLIT, their founder, Jarred Amato was a guest on this podcast on episode 54. So, if you are bb54featureconsidering whether or not to launch a more traditional book club in your school or to be a ProjectLIT chapter, here are some pros and cons to keep in mind.

Cons:

  • The book choices are more limited. There are about 20 middle grade titles to choose from and about 20 YA, but I found that the middle grade titles weren’t all the best fit for my club which is geared toward 4th and 5th graders. For example, the March graphic novels are listed as middle grade but I decided to not offer that as one of our choices since it seemed more like a middle school fit.  I’m really hoping that the book options next year will include some lower middle grade titles to expand the choices for elementary kids and to include a variety of reading levels for older students, too.
  • Many of the titles are newer so they are only available as hardcover which makes it financially challenging. And students are less familiar with them so you might need to do some book talks and sampling to get them really pumped about reading them.
  • If you advertise an event as ProjectLIT, it does need to be one of the approved titles. You can mix things up but it does make it more complicated. And if you are trying to make your book club ALSO connect with other things like Battle of the Books or March Book Madness, it is a little bit limiting in that way.

PROS:

  • The book choices ARE amazing! Long Way Down, Amal Unbound, The First Rule of Punk, Ghost, The Parker Inheritance – truly – these are fabulous reads!!
  • Yes, they are new. But that also means that most kids haven’t already read them. I know when I’ve attempted book clubs with really popular books that have been out for awhile, some kids didn’t come because well – if they were interested in the book, they’d already read it. Newer books pull in those readers who will be literacy DhM7H6RV4AAXvH0-1leaders. Those kids who want to be on the cutting edge and draw in the rest of their peers and community with their excitement.
  • You have an amazing supportive community who are all working toward the same goals and really eager to help make your life easier by sharing ideas and resources. If you need discussion questions for Towers Falling – they are already done! There’s a wonderful Facebook group, a Sunday Twitter chat, and a weekly newsletter emailed to you. So, you are not in it alone. And because of that, there are great opportunities for clubs to collaborate and maybe Skype with other groups reading the same book to discuss beyond their community and to get ideas from each other.

How can I prepare my launch to make the book club successful?

Doing some work ahead of time can really help get your book club started off on the right foot and get some community behind you from the very beginning. One of the first things I did was to decide who I might strong-arm into, I mean…. invite to partner with me. In most schools there are at least a couple book lovers who would be down with helping out. At my school – that would be the amazing Kelly. So I emailed Kelly – who was totally excited about launching a club at our school!  Sometimes you just have to ask people. Then I emailed our local public librarian, the PTO, our principal, and let them know about the awesome new club for kids that was coming soon.

Then, I needed to decide how often we would meet, when, and where.  And that really depends on two main factors – time available at your school or library. And YOU!  Because honestly – you are the one who needs to be the main force in making this work. So just…decide and promote the heck out of it!  Since our school day starts early, a before school time was not going to work. So I decided to offer the club to 4th and 5th graders after school from 2:10 to 3:15. The reason I went with 3:15?  Because that’s the time that Drama Club and the Book Cooks let out so I decided to be consistent with them so parents wouldn’t be confused about pick-up times. I also decided to go with Thursdays to avoid those other club days as well.  Now, I will say – I’ve had to do some push back against getting sucked into meetings on Thursdays. But I am holding firm. I don’t want the job to get in the way of my actual work – expanding literacy and love of reading in my school. So if there is a meeting on a Thursday? I’m not going. I’m with the kids doing THAT important work.

The next thing to decide is how many books you want to read throughout the year and when you want to hold a community-wide celebration of those books. Again – this all depends on YOUR availability and how many books you think you can get.  Maybe you start small with just 4 books and 4 events. Maybe every other month works for you. Since I have no chill whatsoever, I decided to go for once a month but to use our first month of school to let everyone get settled and start promoting it, and then officially launch in October.  Kudos to ANYONE who can jump start something the first month of school – I just can’t quite manage the logistics of that. So – cut yourself some slack and give yourself a month head start.

After looking at the calendar and our school schedule, I decided that our community-wide celebrations would be the first Saturday of every month from 10am to 11:30am. I went with this for a few reasons –

  • Everyone seems to already have things in the evenings and I really wanted parents and adults to be able to come. Our school gets out at 2:10 – very few adults can make it at that time if we had after school events.
  • Sundays are often tough for some people in our community because of religious observances in the morning so I wanted to avoid any conflict there.
  • I wanted it to be early enough in the day so that it didn’t wreck people’s entire day. They can come, enjoy, and then have all the rest of Saturday do whatever they want.
  • The first weekend of the month tends to avoid most major holidays.

That being said – there is absolutely no possible way you can accommodate everyone’s schedule and avoid hockey tournaments and dance recitals and the plethora of other obligations people have. So – no worries!  If kids can’t come to the Thursday after school meetings, they are always welcome to just attend the celebration event! And if they can’t attend the community celebration, they are still welcomed wholeheartedly to the after school meetings. And if November doesn’t work out – come join us when your schedule frees up in the spring!  I really try to make it as socially and emotionally easy to join us as possible – whenever they can.

Okay – so once you’ve decided the meeting days and when your community book club celebrations will be – figure out a place to meet.  We meet in my classroom after school because I know that location will be available and I am not inconveniencing anyone else. And we meet in the school library for those Saturday celebrations. I had considered meeting at the local public library, but opted for the school library for a couple reasons – one, I am familiar with that space and have access to it so I can set up the night before. Perhaps you are noticing a theme here – make it as easy as possible for YOU. Also, I want the school and our library to be a literacy hub for the community.  And I wanted access to the technology in that space – Promethean Board and Chromebooks. And the public library didn’t have those options and the students and I were comfortable with our school’s space and technology.

Alright, so your prep phase should include the Who, When, and Where. Who – figuring out who will help you and who you will reach out to to let them know the amazingness that is coming. When you will meet with students and when you and those students will host the community book club celebration. And where -the location of these meetings.

How do you decide which books to read?

Picking awesome and interesting books are what’s really going to get people excited.  And I recommend letting kids have some ownership of that process. Kelly and I decided to pick the first book ourselves so we could do some work ahead of time to get copies and then have the kids vote on the other middle grade ProjectLIT choices.  You might decide to have the students pick from a list you provide or have them pick every other month so there is some variety but also honors student choice. We launched our book club with Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. For us, this seemed like a good start for a few reasons. It was one of the books with an easier reading level and being in New York, our families have many personal stories about 9/11 that this book club would give them an opportunity to share. So I’d recommend picking a really high interest book to start that will get a lot of support in your community.

During our first after school meeting, I had the students do a book tasting of 15 ProjectLIT books that I thought would be a good fit for our 4th and 5th graders – Ghost Boys, The Wild Robot, Amal Unbound, Wonder, The Crossover, Rebound, Booked, Ghost, Patina, Sunny, The Parker Inheritance, The First Rule of Punk, Wishtree, and Refugee.  Perhaps you could give some choices that align with your goals and that ensure a variety of perspectives.  So – I had scrounged up multiple copies of each book and printed out evaluation forms. (Those are available to download right in the show notes!) Kids sat in groups of about 4 and examined and previewed about 3 books at a time.  Just like any other book tasting, I encouraged them to look at the cover, read the teaser material on the back cover or inside flaps, and read the first page. And I framed this for them as – don’t JUST think about what YOU like. Think about what books you like and what titles you think would be important and interesting for our community to discuss.  So – then they voted on their top choices. I had intended this to be done on a Google Form (which I will share with you) but our internet went down so we went old school and they wrote down their lists and we tallied them up. The seven books that got the most votes were The Wild Robot, Wonder, Amal Unbound, Ghost, Sunny, Wishtree, and The First Rule of Punk. And… I’m not gonna lie. I was a tad heartbroken that a certain book I really, really wanted to read with them didn’t quite make the cut. BUT – I had committed to honoring their choices. Also – Sunny was chosen but NOT book 2 of that series (Patina), so I just decided to go with it since each book can really stand on their own.

After that, I matched each book to a month – putting the two Jason Reynolds books (Ghost then Sunny after each other later in the year since their reading levels were more challenging) and timing Wishtree so our celebration would fall close to May 1st since that date plays a big part in the novel. So, as you schedule the books, think about what seasonal connections you might make and consider putting those more challenging books later on in the year. Also – some books will be available in softcover later in the year, so you might want to schedule those then to reduce costs.  Speaking of costs….

How do you get copies of the books?

This is the big challenge. Ideally, you want to gather enough copies for each student who wants to participate AND some extras for those in the community to borrow as well. (But that’s not always possible.) So, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Ask students to purchase the books themselves if they are able (I have this listed on our permission slip for each month’s club and having families that are willing and able to purchase books for their child helps free up funds to get books for other kids)
  2. Ask the PTO/PTA for funding – our PTO actually approached ME to attend a meeting and share the goals of the club.  Not only did I get more families interested in joining by talking to their folks, they gave us $250 for books! So definitely seek out your PTO!
  3. Take advantage of Scholastic points and perhaps ask teachers in your building to donate some copies. Not all of our books were available through Scholastic, but we had several members of the staff donate copies of Towers Falling because it was only $4!
  4. Try doing a Donors Choose project!
  5. Apply for grants! Right now, Kelly and I have a grant submitted that would totally cover the cost of the remaining books – so cross your fingers for us!
  6. Ask local businesses and organizations for support! Our local Lions Club is really receptive to opportunities to support the schools. And those local businesses and organizations might be EVEN MORE into it when you invite them to read the books with you and come to the book celebrations. I also make sure to thank all our donors by name during the meeting and you can also have a few “Sponsored by” flyers around as well.
  7. Collaborate with your school library and the local public library. They can often gather copies for you that kids and the community can check out.  The library right down the street from our school has a special display for our book club with our monthly flyer and the books stacked right underneath it available to check out.
  8. Start an Amazon Wishlist and share that link EVERYWHERE – in your email signature – in a newsletter – on social media… Ask friends to share it with their friends and family who might be looking for an opportunity to support a great cause.

How do you get students and the community to join your book club?

Alright – now that you’ve built something amazing and have everything organized and have a plan to get those books – you need to build that excitement so kids will come and continue coming!  And the community will read the books with you and come to the celebrations. Let’s start with the kids:

  • I think the single most effective thing we did was at the beginning of the year, Kelly and I went into all the 4th and 5th grade classrooms with a stack of the book options and gave a quick book talk of each one and passed them around for the kids to look at. And then we passed out the permission forms.  After that, I make a quick visit at the beginning of each month to do a quick chat about the upcoming book and pass out those permission slips so you know who is coming and if they need a copy of the book. (And an editable copy of that slip is right in the show notes for you to download.)
  • Wherever your school promotes events – on the morning announcements, in a newsletter, on a school calendar… get the club mentioned!  About once a week, I make an announcement reminding the kids to come to our weekly meeting AND reminding folks to come to the upcoming Saturday celebration. Our school also has a weekly news show – The Minoa Morning Messages – and some of our members made an appearance to promote the club and announce the next book.
  • Be visible! Last year I spent a lot more time in my classroom whenever I could but this year I am making more of an effort to hang out by the buses at dismissal and say hello to kids not in my class during lunch. I have been surprised by how many kids approach me during those casual times and ask about the book club or see me and suddenly remember their permission slip! If out of sight means out of mind, then you‘ve got to literally be in their sights. And each of those encounters builds interest and awareness among the other kids (and staff) who observe those conversations!

So – how about getting the staff and community to come to your celebrations?  That can be a bit trickier, but I do have some ideas for you:

  • Have the students invite them!  Each month, students help design an invitation and I print off a bunch of copies. Then we get some envelopes and personally invite every single member of the staff – not just classroom teachers, but secretaries, TAs, custodial staff, lunch monitors, the superintendent – everyone!  One student even Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 11.57.50 PM.pngsnagged the mail carrier on his way in and handed him an invitation! I also give students multiple copies of the invitation – and the digital version for them to invite family members. We also branch out and invite folks at the town hall, the mayor, the fire chief. And based on their suggestions, I drive around and post flyers in areas they think would be a good idea – like the post office or the fire department or the local pizza shop.
  • Another way to get the staff involved is to email them and ask them to read the book and come to the celebration. And last month, we had some extra copies of Towers Falling, so some of the kids just walked around after school and asked the staff if they wanted to borrow the book and talked up how good it was. And of course, included an invitation tucked into the front cover.
  • Harness the power of social media! Our club has both a Twitter account (@ProjectLITMinoa) and an Instagram account (@ProjectLITMinoa) and are both nice places to showcase what the students are doing and share those awesome pictures of your events. And if you are on the social media platforms that parents and kids already use, it makes it easier for them to tag you and start to build awareness among the community. Have a social media presence also makes your club Google-able. You could also make a website, but that’s definitely an in-the-future step for us.
  • Make a display and put it in a high traffic area in your school! Last month, I finally realized I needed to make a display of some kind because people kept asking when the next book club was and what books we were reading next. So having one place they can look is really helpful both to be informative and to also serve as an advertisement!DsJMe6UVsAAH56p.jpg

How do you run the student book club meetings?

One thing that I did on a whim was to start our very first meeting with a quick get-to-know-you activity. I definitely didn’t know all the students and I’m certain they didn’t know each others’ names, so we did a quick round of “When the Cold Wind Blows”. Basically each kid takes a turn standing in the center of the circle and says their name and something about themselves. Like, “My name is Corrina and I like Harry Potter!” And if that applies to you, you stand up and move like the wind to another seat.  That went over so well, that each month, when we have a new mix of students, we start with a new ice breaker. During that first meeting, I pass out the reading schedule (and yup – that’s right online for you!), and we start reading together! Sometimes we listen to the audio book and sometimes Kelly and I take turns reading it out loud. For the meetings after that first one, we take the first 10-15 minutes to discuss the reading we did last week – talking about any confusing parts, big ideas, connections, questions, favorite parts, or favorite quotes… and then I read aloud or we listen to the audio book for the next 20 or so minutes. And the last 20-30 minutes is planning time. This is when the kids take care of invitations, come up with discussion questions, trivia questions, brainstorm new ideas together – and basically take care of all the things that come up when planning an event. After that, we pack up and I escort the crew down to the main hall to be picked up and take that opportunity to connect with parents and answer any questions. So basically, our after school book club meetings are discussion, read together, plan together.

How do you host a great community book club celebration?

Honestly, I wasn’t sure this was going to work out at ALL. The Saturday morning of our first event, two things happened that did not bode well.  First, despite the fact that I had requested the room through the proper channels and filled out all the school-required paperwork, the library was locked and NO ONE with the key was available. Okay – so we just relocated to my room, and I scrambled to get the space organized. Second – several of the kids and staff had volunteered to come in early at 9:30 to help me set up and it was 9:50 and NO ONE was there but ME. And I thought – well…. I’ll just hang out here and grade papers and eat the cider and muffins I brought myself. But – then…. EVERYONE showed up!! And our final count was over 40 people and it was an amazing event!  So – here is the schedule we followed.

  • First – ask for some volunteers to bring in drinks and snacks. We had cocoa (a BIG hit!), cider, donuts, and muffins. Kelly and I brought in some and parents had volunteered to supply snacks and drinks, too.
  • When people arrived from 10:00 – 10:20, there was a sign-in sheet, and we had an Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 12.01.28 AM.pngactivity set up at each table for them to complete when they came in. For Towers Falling, we supplied big pieces of paper and markers, and had people create their own Social Units diagram. For our next read, The Wild Robot, we’re planning on a build-your-own-robot craft. I think having something fun to do for the first 15 minutes as people arrive is a good idea since families want to get a snack and everyone wants to chat anyway.
  • From 10:20-10:30 I welcome everyone, give a brief introduction – go through the agenda, explain what ProjectLIT book clubs are all about, show pictures of the book club in action that I’ve been taking throughout the past month, and give thanks to the organizations and donors and volunteers that have helped us out. It’s a quick power point, and I’ll drop a link to that in the show notes if you want to use it for your events.  Also, as each person arrives, we hand them a half-sheet copy of the agenda with an exit survey stapled to the back to we can get some feedback.Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 12.00.33 AMScreen Shot 2018-11-26 at 12.00.26 AM
  • From 10:30-10:50 is Group Discussion time!  Students pass out a discussion guide with six questions they’ve developed.  And each group takes about twenty minutes to chat about the book! These could be general questions like, what character could you relate to the most or what scene stood out to you? Or they might be specific to the novel, like “Why do you think Dejá’s father didn’t want her to learn about 9/11?”  For this particular book, we also asked the adults in each group to share where they were on 9/11 and what were their experiences and feelings on that day.Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 11.59.19 PM.png
  • From 10:50-11:15 is trivia! I created an online quiz based on the trivia questions that the kids made using the website Kahoot – which was lots of fun!  You do need access to a device though, so traditional trivia is fine, too!  We had everyone break up into teams of no more than 6 and then the top team each won a prize of a full-sized Hershey’s Bar, the second place team each got a Hershey’s mini, and the 3rd place team each got a Hershey’s kiss. That trivia game and those little prizes were such a HUGE hit – and the competition was quite fierce!  I’ll drop a link to that Kahoot if you want to check it out.
  • From 11:15 – 11:20 – We drew prizes!  We were lucky enough to have some community members and parents donate books and a few small gift cards to Barnes & Noble and a local yogurt shop. So at the beginning of the meeting, we had a student in charge of passing out tickets and then we just drew names at the end of the meeting.
  • From 11:20 – 11:30 is cleanup!

A few things I would change – we forgot to explicitly ask people to fill out the surveys and return them to us. Oops! And I forgot to take a big group picture! Next time, I’d also make sure that at least one of the book club kids were seated at each group. We also didn’t get DrHDC6pU4AA_-9kas many community members who weren’t directly connected to the school as I had hoped. So, we are going to keep reaching out! And our next steps are to do more community service events like book drives and to find ways for the students to be literacy advocates in other ways in our community.

So, overall – it was REALLY successful and a TON of fun! Our new principal came – even though he hadn’t technically started until the following week! We had almost all the book club kids come with at least one family member – including bringing older siblings who were former students which was wonderful!  About six staff members came, including one with her new baby.

I was truly overcome with the passion and excitement and generosity that our community showed. And really – all I did was provide an outlet and an opportunity for kids and the community to express their passion for reading and literacy.

I know, if you decide to start a community book club in your school, you won’t regret it!   And if you have any questions at all, I’d be happy to chat more with you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or reach out on Twitter or Instagram at the handle @Books_Between. And if you have some suggestions or tips about how to run a successful community book club – I’d love to share your ideas so we can all learn from each other!

Maggie & Harper from Books and a Blanket – Interview Outlinebooks_and_a_blanket_1_blog.jpg

Our special guests this week are sisters Maggie & Harper – founders of Books and a Blanket!  We talk about the origins of their project, their favorite books, and how you can help them promote literacy and well-being among young children in need.

Take a listen…

Books & a Blanket

What is Books and a Blanket and how did it get started?

How has Books and a Blanket changed from when you first came up with the idea?

How do you get all the books and blankets? And do you accept both used and new?

What are your plans for the future of Books and a Blanket?

How do you decide who gets them?

If our listeners wanted to get involved and help you out, what could they do?

Your Reading Life

One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and librarians and parents inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books.  Did you have a special teacher or librarian who helped foster your reading life?

We have a lot of teachers and librarians listening. What is something you want them to know?

What is something you wish teachers did MORE of?

What is something you wish teachers did LESS of?

What are some of your all-time favorite books?

What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?

Links:

Books & a Blanket website – https://booksandablanket.com

Books & a Blanket on Twitter

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

 

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Chris Grabenstein)

The Penderwicks (Jeanne Birdsall)

Penderwicks at Last (Jeanne Birdsall)

The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling)

The Hunt for Red October (Tom Clancy)

The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)

The Candymakers (Wendy Mass)

Nevermoor (Jessica Townsend)

The Land of Stories (Chris Colfer)

Rick Riordan

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)

Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer)

Closing

Okay, that wraps up our show this week!  I hope you’ll head over to BooksandaBlanket.com to help support a great cause.

And remember to check out #HappyPottermas throughout December for some magical fun.

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Lady Pod Squad and the Education Podcast Network. This network features podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit edupodcastnetwork.com

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org. And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

 

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How Stories Bind Us Together and Promote Empathy

The Colors of the Rain

When I was a child, I didn’t know what it was like to live in tribes or be forced to marry foreigners or give up your homeland. But I discovered the novels of Scott O’Dell and realized there was a whole other world out there than the one I’d known.

In high school, I was drawn to Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, who wrote about growing up black; I felt a kinship with them because I had never read stories that felt so real and representative of my experience in a low income (or, rather, poor) family.

In college, I read Tim O’Brien and Mary Karr and David Sedaris and Katherine Applegate and Richard Wilbur and Sylvia Plath and everything ever written by Shakespeare and William Faulkner and Charles Dickens, and I felt seen and understood by some and enlightened by others.

Stories have the ability to be both mirrors, showing us more clearly who we are, and windows, peering in on a life that is different than ours.

The question has come up in this month after the publishing of The Colors of the Rain: why did I write it? There are many answers to this question; I don’t believe in simple answers. But if I could boil it down to its barest simplicity, I would say that I wrote it to be a mirror and a window.

In a mirror, we find ourselves. In a window we find each other.

It’s the latter that can be the most transformative—because of empathy.

Scientific studies have proved again and again that stories build empathy in children (and in readers of any age; we are never too old to develop empathy). That’s why stories are so important. Empathy—the development of it—is vital to understanding people who are different from us, to putting ourselves in their shoes and imagining their worlds, to building the muscles of love, compassion, and kindness. We read and we transform.

My sons are encouraged—urged, really—to read every chance they get. I suggest books that show them who they are, and I suggest books that show them who others are, because the more we listen to the stories of those who are different—who live differently; love differently; believe differently; play, work, dream differently—the more we come to recognize that we are all connected by the same threads: we are all human, we are all creative, we are all clinging to hope.

While we may live worlds apart, we are bound by stories. We are shaped by stories. We are made better by stories.

And as long as we keep reading stories, we will remain: connected, understood, and much more than we could be alone.

Rachel Toalson

 

Rachel Toalson is an author, essayist, and poet who regularly contributes to adult and children’s print and online publications around the world. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and six boys. The Colors of the Rain is her first traditionally published novel. You can visit her online at www.rltoalson.com.

Cover Reveal: THE CRYPTID KEEPER, by Lija Fisher

COVER_REVEAL

Hi Everyone!

Thank you for attending my cover reveal for THE CRYPTID KEEPER, the second book in my humorous adventure duology about a boy’s search for legendary creatures like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot! 

It’s only been a few months since my debut novel, THE CRYPTID CATCHER, came out and it has been such a fun ride! When I first started writing about cryptids I had no idea what a rich, fascinating world it would turn out to be. I didn’t know that by talking about Bigfoot, kids would tell me about other animals that roam the forests. Or how exploring the possibility of aliens would lead to discussions about the bottom of the ocean and what creatures could be lurking there. Cryptozoology, a pseudo-science, has truly acted as a gateway science in my visits with kids, and I’m so excited to continue with the adventure!

So, without further delay, here’s the cover of THE CRYPTID KEEPER, where Clivo Wren and the Myth Blasters continue their quest to discover the immortal cryptid before the evil resistance finds it.

CryptidKeeper_SKETCHFINAL_WITHLETTERING_v2.jpg

~ Lija

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Lija Fisher was raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Her debut novel, THE CRYPTID CATCHER, received a starred review from Booklist and was a Junior Library Guild selection. Lija was the Aspen Words Writer in Residence in 2017. For more information about the Junior Cryptozoologist Club where kids can continue learning about legendary creatures, please visit LijaFisher.com.

 

Cover Reveal: ALL OF ME, by Chris Baron

COVER_REVEAL

I’m thrilled to welcome Chris Baron to the MG Book Village today. Chris is here to reveal the cover of his debut novel, ALL OF ME. Written in verse, ALL OF ME is, among other things, a story about a boy who’s bullied because of his weight — an issue I’m glad and grateful is being written about more often as of late. Check out my interview with Chris below, check out his book’s exquisite cover art, and check out the handy links at the bottom of the post — including one to help you preorder Chris’s book from Mysterious Galaxy, his local indie.

~ Jarrett

. . .

This is your first time here at the MG Book Village. Would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi everyone, my name is Chris Baron! I am so thankful to be here at MG Book Village!  This place has been such an inspiring and welcoming community.  I am an MG author, poet, and I have the privilege of working as a professor in the English Department at San Diego City College where I get to be the director of the writing center!  I love my job–it’s the most diverse campus in San Diego, and my students inspire me every day.  Probably my most important job is husband and father to my own 3 MG-aged kids.  MG books have been pivotal in my life–from reading Bridge to Terabithia to Narnia and Middle Earth, books have always been there for me even in the most difficult times!

You’re here to reveal the cover (and new title!) of ALL OF ME, your debut Middle Grade novel. Can you talk about your journey to writing this book, and to storytelling for Middle Grade audiences?

Thanks! Yes. The new title for WEIGHT is ALL OF ME! I have been waiting for a long time to reveal that! More on the title journey later. I actually have the privilege of collaborating on a really fun, longer article for MG Book Village about this journey with two other MG authors, Josh Levy and Rajani LaRocca, about our adventures as a lawyer, a doctor, and a professor writing MG books, so a shorter answer for now is about seeing the passion for stories grow in my own kids. They want to be transported into magical worlds, but they also love to hear about anything we can tell them about growing up—the want “all the real stuff” (sometimes way too late after bedtime).

Also, here is one little anecdote I consider a “launch pad “story. When my book of (adult) poetry came out a few years ago, at the release, I was reading to a theatre full of people, and some of the poems were extremely serious. I decided to read some of lighter poems about growing up, and about my own children. I will never forget what happened after that. I read this poem “First Kiss.” Here are just a few lines…

“Fat kids don’t have girlfriends.
Friends yes, but not kissing,
not even in third grade.
So imagine my surprise…”

The audience laughed with relief, but I remember looking out and seeing a good friend of mine, a pretty amazing YA writer who would later become one of my greatest supporters, looked at me wide-eyed from the crowd. After the reading, he ran up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Dude, you have got to write a Middle Grade Book!” I read Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING, and he gave me a stack of other books to read, and then I read everything I could find.

My journey was launched! I took a sabbatical from work, and started writing WEIGHT in the late night hours, in the early mornings, wherever I could find the time. And now, here it is as ALL OF ME, and I couldn’t be happier!

Let’s get to the book itself. Tell us about ALL OF ME.

Sure, yes. The short version: Set in San Francisco, it is the story of Ari Rosensweig, an overweight, seventh grade boy who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games.  Ari is tired of being bullied and letting his weight define him. His parents’ marriage is struggling. They are too busy to focus on his life, much less help him with his already late bar mitzvah, and things take a turn for the worse. Ari’s mother, a painter and sculptor, decides to open an old gallery at the beach that summer. She puts him on a diet, and with the help of some unexpected friends, he tries to make a change physically, but that’s only the beginning of their adventures and the real change that comes.

As a kid, I was bullied for my weight. And in the books I read at that age, overweight characters seemed to be included exclusively for comedy relief. I know I would’ve loved to have found a story like Ari’s back then. What led to you telling it?

I am so sorry that you had that experience.  I know this story well.  I lived it myself, and I think that’s part of why I want to tell this story. Overweight kids are often left out of the story. My first memory of being bullied about my weight is so strong. I grew up in Manhattan, and I remember the cold air on the playground and the hum of the dodgeball hitting me in the stomach, and the voice of the kid, laughing, “Fatboy probably didn’t even feel it.”  The ball hurt when it hit, but I remember being much more hurt by his words. So I shook off my tears, and I just laughed along with them. Sometimes this might be the right thing to do, but the name-calling continued, and I started to believe what they said about me. I think that’s part of it. As kids, we so often take on the identities that others attach to us–even if they are not the most positive.  I really needed someone at that time to tell me that I didn’t have to listen to them, or believe what they said, or I could get help, whatever that meant.

But your point about comedy relief is really interesting.  I love comedy relief as much as anyone, but there is no reason why overweight kids can’t also be heroes of the story.  I wanted to tell a story of a character who experiences real life challenges and learns how to be confident, healthy, brave, and have authentic self esteem, and at the same time be vulnerable (and have comic relief). Like you mentioned, a story that I would have loved to have found as a kid.

ALL OF ME is a novel told in verse — a form that has in recent years been growing increasingly popular in kid lit. Why do you think that is?

I will say that so many kid lit authors have incredibly poetic, lyrical lines in their prose, so the gap isn’t always that wide. I think that poetry speaks to the heart. We see with more than just our eyes, and the music of poetry helps to make words sing directly to us.

Poetry relates to all kinds of readers. There is space on the page, measured breaks, pacing, music, and movement of lines that a reader of almost any level can find their way into. The structure of verse creates an intimacy with a reader that allows them to hear the tone and cadence of a character’s voice. This can create even stronger connections for readers.

What do you hope your readers — in particular the young ones — take away from ALL OF ME?

I love this question: I want to shout something like self-confidence! Hope! Adventure! But I am also embracing the “I don’t completely know yet.”  I am so excited to hopefully visit some schools and find out what kids take away from the book. I am working with some incredible classes right now as a part of the #KidsNeedMentors program, and I am looking forward to asking the kids what they take with them when they read the book.  I do know this though: I want kids to see some part of themselves. I hope readers will learn about empathy and kindness for others, Jewish culture and tradition, but also faith in general, overcoming struggles with body image, friendship, taking risks, and learning more about being brave and being themselves no matter what. I hope readers, especially the young ones, will know that if they are going through difficult things like the characters in the book, they will know that they are not alone.

All right — now that we know all about you and your upcoming book, let’s talk about the title change and check out cover. Did you play a part in either of these processes?

This book has had so many titles through the drafting process. But when I went to query it, I used WEIGHT, which I love–but through the course of revising and editing with my incredible agent Rena Rossner and editor Liz Szbala, we realized that the book is about so much more than what the title WEIGHT suggests about the story, so after hours and hours of brainstorming it transformed into ALL OF ME!

What was your reaction when you first saw the cover?

I was teaching a creative writing class, and during the last 10 minutes, the students were working in groups.  So I checked my email, and I saw the message from my editor.  In my head, I told myself, Stop! Wait until later! But my heart and hands had other ideas.  I clicked it immediately.  There it was.  I choked up right away, and I couldn’t hold back tears.  Some of my students noticed, but I think I managed to keep it together as they smiled and walked out.  Thankfully, my wife teaches at that time just down the hall, so she came to look, and we had tears together. The light, the colors, it’s extraordinary. The cover artist is the incredible Chris Sheban!

Okay, let’s check it out:

AllOfMe_CVR.jpg

I LOVE it! What a powerful, moving image. I love how it captures his strength and celebration of himself in the face of what life has thrown at him.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them — especially those planning to add ALL OF ME to their classroom libraries?

Yes! Thank you for the work you do!  I just want to be a part of the community, so please let me know how I can help–whether that’s a school visit, or letter writing, or a study guide, a reading, or even if there is just a kid who might have a question. I want to be available the best I can be.  Thank you.

Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

ALL OF ME will be out June 11th from Feiwel and Friends. You can find preorder links on Amazon, Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, Barnes and Noble, Macmillan, and all the usual places.

Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/All-Me-Chris-Baron/dp/1250305985/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1542049981&sr=1-1&keywords=all+of+me+chris+baron 

Mysterious Galaxy Books:

https://www.mystgalaxy.com/book/9781250305985

I can also be reached through my website:

www.chris-baron.com

baron bio pic 1 2mb.jpgChris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, is coming June 2019. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College. Baron has published numerous poems and articles in magazines and journals around the country, performed on radio programs, and participated in many readings, lectures, and panels. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, was released in 2012 on CityWorks Press as part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology). He is represented by the amazing Rena Rossner, from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency.

Cover Reveal: DOUBLE CROSS: MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS #3, by Beth McMullen

COVER_REVEAL

Thanks so much for choosing the MG Book Village to host your cover reveal. We’re thrilled to have you! Before we get to the new book and its cover, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi everyone!  Thank you to MG Book Village for having me! I’m the author of the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls series, featuring boarding school student Abby Hunter, who never lets a little danger get in her way, and her best friends, Izumi, Charlotte and Toby.

All right — onto the new book, the third installment of the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls series. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I’m totally excited for Double Cross: Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls #3! In this installment, Abby and friends are invited to Briar Academy to participate in the Challenge, where teams of the best and brightest students from around the country are invited to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Our friends, still trying to prove to the not-so-kind Mrs. Smith that they belong in spy school, figure winning the Challenge is the best way to prove they are worthy. But during the competition, it becomes clear that Abby’s nemesis, the Ghost, is up to his old tricks and trying to steal ideas from a fellow Smith School team to use for nefarious purposes. Of course, Abby can’t let this happen. Chaos ensues. Naturally.

One of the things I love most about your books is the dialogue. I could read the back-and-forth between the characters all day long. How do you do it?!

I talk to myself a lot! Seriously, there’s a space between language that doesn’t sound as if it could ever be spoken and how we really speak. You can’t write dialog that exactly mimics conversation because it would be very hard to follow – we tend to speak in something less than complete sentences – but you don’t want your characters to sound like they are cardboard. So finding that space in between is the trick. I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan and he’s a master at the rapid fire, rat-a-tat-tat dialog I love so much. I want my characters’ conversations to fly back and forth with some sparks!

Okay, let’s get to the cover. Were you involved in the process at all?

My publisher always shares the pencil sketch early in the process of cover design. I might have a comment or two but I’ve been amazingly lucky to have the incredibly talented Vivienne To doing my covers. She really captures the essence of the books. Around Halloween, I get parents emailing me photos of their kids dressed up like Abby on the cover of the first book. That is all because of Vivienne!

Let’s get to it! Here’s the new cover:

Double Cross cover.jpeg

WOW! So much energy and movement! It’s electrifying! What did YOU think when you first saw the art?

As the series has progressed, the covers have gotten brighter and bolder. I love how the colors jump off the page and the kids look so active, like they might just charge right into your room at any second. I wanted to write a series with a lot of action, with girls in the lead. The covers bring that idea to visual life.

When can readers get their hands on the book?

Double Cross hits the shelves on August 6, 2019.

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Beth McMullen is best known for the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls trilogy,  middle grade spy thrillers, packed with action, adventure and humor. She also writes the Sally Sin series for adult readers. Beth lives in Northern California with her husband, kids, cats and a very tolerant parakeet named Zeus. Visit her website at BethMcMullenBooks.com or follow her on Twitter at @bvam.

 

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Crafting Striking Visual Descriptions

HOTELBETWEEN_FINALCOMP

Okay, so we all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But have you seen the absolutely glorious cover of the Middle Grade at Heart November book club pick, The Hotel Between? Isn’t it stunning and intriguing?

The cover artist, Petur Antonsson, did an incredible job with the illustration, and the author, Sean Easley, gave Antonsson a whole lot to work with because this book features some truly masterful visual descriptions. Let’s take a look at a few passages to see how Sean Easley manages to evoke rich, specific images while also leaving just enough to the reader’s imagination and conveying a sense of his narrator’s personality.

First, here’s how the book’s narrator, Cam, describes the fantastic and mysterious Hotel the first time he sees it:

I turn back to the door and catch a glimpse of…something unbelievable. Thick, velvety maroon carpet stretches deep into an open foyer and up a twisty staircase. Warm light shines from old, Thomas Edison-style bulbs in intricate brass fixtures. A sparkly chandelier with long, dangly chains of crystals casts rainbows everywhere, flooding the enormous space with warm, smoky light. I can’t even see the ceiling, it’s so high. And I think I smell blueberries. 

There are so many vivid sensory details in this opening description. We get a sense of the vastness of this place, how old it seems, and how it’s too big and too complex for Cam to fully take in. There’s a sense of oddness, too, and a bit of unexpected humor with the ending sentence about blueberries. There are interesting verbs (stretches, casts, flooding), and we can see from the word choice and specificity that Cam is intelligent and perceptive, despite how self-deprecating he can often be.

The description also doesn’t go on too long; pretty soon, the door to the hotel closes and the action starts back up. Easley doesn’t take up so much space with his lush descriptions that the action drags. He leaves us wanting more and imagining what else Cam doesn’t see in his first glimpse of this intriguing place.

Soon, Cam visits lots of international locations through the Hotel’s magic, and the descriptions of these places are just as striking as the description of the Hotel itself. Here’s how Cam describes the scene he takes in when he walks out the “Budapest Door” into the city of Budapest:

All around us, tall glass-and-stone buildings drip with light. Carved granite arches glow as the sun sets beyond them. Warm, yellow strings of incandescent bulbs drape from the pop-up tents scattered throughout the square. Tree branches twist and curl, carrying the lights into the sky like the fiery breath of a dragon. 

Again, check out all those striking verbs (drape, twist, curl, carrying) and the way we get plenty of vivid details but not too many; we have space to imagine what else is going on in this scene and to feel its glowing warmth. The use of figurative language is also terrific. That simile about the “fiery breath of a dragon” is not only original and interesting, but it also reveals something about Cam, who is a very cautious character and sees this world he’s stepping into as something amazing…but also frightening.

And it’s not only places that Sean Easley describes effectively; he also has a knack for describing characters’ appearances. Here’s a passage from when Cam first meets a mysterious man named Agapios:

And at the desk in the center of the room sits a man who looks like Death on his way to the prom—flat, angular forehead with a receding hairline and slick black hair. His face is long—way longer than it should be—and his cheekbones look like someone surgically inserted dice into his face.

Isn’t that an outstanding paragraph? The simile about “Death on his way to the prom” reveals Cam’s sense of humor as well as his lingering fear. Plus, it leaves the reader space to imagine what this man is wearing and what might make his features look “deathly.” The humorous (but disturbing) line about dice being inserted into Agapios’s face also paints quite a visceral picture! Based on the way Agapios is described, the reader immediately wants to know more about who he is and what he’s up to.

Let us know on Twitter if there are other descriptions in the book that strike you as especially effective, and we hope you’ll enjoy our newsletter about The Hotel Between, which will go out on November 26th. And don’t mis our Twitter book club chat about the book, which will take place at 8pm EST on Tuesday, December 4th with the tag #mgbookclub!