Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from children's literature

Nancy Drew and the Cold War: The Apothecary Review

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I love all things apothecarial, I always have. Something about creating poultices, potions, and magic out of earthly elements has always appealed to the latent pagan in me. Maile Meloy’s middle grade novel is billed as Nancy Drew meets Harry Potter, and while this was more far more Nancy than Harry, it’s a fairly accurate comp.

When Janie Scott’s screenwriting parents uproot her from her LA existence and move to a dingy flat in London, she is less than impressed. But then she befriends the son of the local apothecary, a handsome boy who spends his free time practicing to be a spy. On one of their practice missions they stumble upon a legitimate case of espionage involving an ancient book of magic. Suddenly instead of pretending to spies, Janie and Ben are caught up in an international and age-old caper.

The mix of Cold War drama and old-school alchemy is unusual but totally works. The spunk and energy of Meloy’s prose feels very old-fashioned (hence the Nancy Drew comp) and yet her relationships feel modern.  Janie is a delightful protagonist, a smart girl who prefers pants to skirts and is doing her best to keep her feelings for her partner in crime hidden.  This becomes exceedingly difficult in a particularly memorable scene in which Janie and Benjamin test a truth serum by asking each other who they like. As you can imagine, the excruciatingly awkward scene that follows is classic middle grade.

There is a murder fairly early on in the book, and instead of being a convenient catalyst or plot device, both Janie and Ben are thrown by the crime. In very action-packed adventure stories often heinous crimes happen and the characters move on fairly unscathed emotionally, though perhaps determined to avenge/seek justice for the crime.  In The Apothecary a good deal of time and thought is given to Janie’s emotional reaction to the murder. The mystery isn’t purely fun- it’s a matter of life and death. I appreciated how Meloy dipped into her character’s emotional reactions to the events and considered the logistics of being an adventurer (do you call the police? How do you tell your parents, who you love, that you’re heading to Russia in bird-form to stop a nuclear disaster?)

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The classic feel to this story is heightened by the book’s gorgeous design, which includes spot illustrations and a dreamy, chalky cover by Ian Schoenherr. The sequel, The Apprentices, is recently out and by all accounts shaping up to be just as engrossing and delightful. Fans of  traditional fantasy and Shannon Hale, the Septimus Heap books, and The Mother-Daughter Book Club series will champion Janie and Ben.

The Apothecary is available in paperback now from Penguin Canada.

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Close Up on Family: After Iris Review

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One of my favourite aspects of British middle grade fiction is the tendency to feature large, kooky families. The Queen of Kooky Families being Hilary McKay, with her wonderful Casson family being the gold standard of fabulous fictional families. The Gadsby’s reminded me of a more scholarly, ever so slightly more subtle Casson family. Flora is a perfectly moody but infectious teenager, Jasmine and Twig are adorable without being twee, and then there is lovely, lovely Blue, the narrator of this wonderful book.

Blue’s twin sister Iris died three years ago, something that each of the Gadsby family members have processed quite differently. Mr. and Mrs. Gadsby grow increasingly busy with work and therefore absent from the family, enlisting Zoran, a PhD student of Mr. Gadsby’s, to step in as au pair. Zoran is unprepared for the drama of the Gadsby house (including rat breeding, a trouble-making boy next door, and Blue’s constant filming), but he turns out to be exactly what this fractured, grieving but fiercely alive family needs.

Blue is a typical middle grade protagonist in many ways: smart, observant, suffering from her first crush, and very relatable. But she is also an aspiring filmmaker, and many of the scenes are written as screenplays of actual events. In another author’s hands this could be fatally gimmicky, but Natasha Farrant cleverly uses the screenplays as a way for Blue to disengage with more emotional subject matter and also to provide interesting subtext for the book. I could write a whole post on how effectively this works, but instead you should read it for yourself and see what I mean.

It is tricky to pick a favourite among such a vivid group of characters, but Zoran, the Bosnian piano-prodigy turned au pair takes the cake.  I love that the primary care-giver in this case is male and that not only is he good at his job, but he loves it. We need more male babysitters in children’s fiction. In a perfect fictional world he would end up with Rosalind Penderwick, gentle and caring eldest sister in The Penderwicks books, and the two of them would solve world hunger.

Now THAT is fan fiction I would read.

Fans of contemporary middle grade with a classic feel, such as Walk Two Moons, Olive’s OceanThe Penderwicks, Hilary McKay’s Casson Family books and Wendy Mass’ books will love Blue and her unruly family.

After Iris will be available in hard cover from Penguin Canada in July.

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YA is Too Late: Gay Characters in Middle Grade Fiction

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I can’t remember when I learned what the word gay meant. I remember people snickering when Maria sings “I feel pretty and witty and gay!” in West Side Story and not getting the joke. I remember how “that’s so gay” was used as an insult in middle school and I repeated it, not fully understanding what it meant. Will & Grace came on the air just as I entered high school. That is likely when I started to understand what gay meant, though it was packaged in a bright, shiny, made-for-prime-time TV package.

Will and Grace

There have been many TV shows, movies, and books since the explosion of Will & Grace that address LGBT issues and feature well-rounded characters instead of just stock characters. YA fiction in particular has been very good at addressing the need for more LGBT content. More Than Just Magic is doing a month long YA Pride series, so be sure to drop by and check out her recommendations (including my book Days That End in Y). Teenagers are famously preoccupied with love and relationships, so it’s only natural that questions of sexual identity and preference are explored in YA fiction. But the middle grade years (ages 9-12) are when kids are the most in need of answers, empathy, and someone to relate to. YA is too late. You need to reach children in their middle grade years, when it really counts.

So I wrote for them.

I knew many boys like Benji growing up. I babysat them, drove them to camp, sang in choir with them, sat next to them in school. Only they were not openly gay then. Some of them were too young to identify. They may have felt different, but couldn’t put their finger on why. They may have understood that it wasn’t safe for them to come out, and so they waited until they were much older and long gone from their hometowns to do so. Do these boys see themselves in fiction? I certainly had a hard time tracking them down.

Days That End in Y Cover

It was always my intention to address Benji’s sexuality but it needed to be at the right time. I am thankful to Scholastic Canada for giving me three books to develop his character and bring him to a place where he can admit such a deeply personal and scary thing to his best friend. I hope that my readers who have grown to love Benji can accept him as well, and in turn, accept those in their lives who need all the love and support they can get.

I hope that when children read my series about Benji and Clarissa they learn something about empathy and bravery. I hope kids who are struggling with their own sexuality are inspired by Benji’s bravery and comforted by Clarissa’s acceptance. I hope it prepares kids to be open and compassionate when their own friends come out to them.

We still have a long way to go. Books featuring gay characters are among the most consistently banned or censored books in America. I recommend the following middle grade novels featuring positive gay characters or children questioning their sexuality. Please feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments:

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Stitches by Glen Huser

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Drama by Raina Telgemaier

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See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

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Marco Impossible by Hannah Moscowitz

Pride is about love and acceptance- so go forth and spread the love!

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The Passage for Kids: The Fifth Wave Review

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Those of you who have heard me say ‘I don’t really read much sci-fi or fantasy’ probably have a hard time believing me given the number of speculative books I’ve reviewed recently. The truth is I LOVE a well told fantasy or sci-fi novel, I’m just EXTREMELY picky about what I read. The Fifth Wave is is one of better ones. If you’re looking for a fast-paced survival story with a touch of sci-fi, this should be your go-to summer read (in addition to Summer Days, Starry Nights of course).

Despite being a standalone book, The Fifth Wave has the scope, range of characters, and the same taught tension as Justin Cronin’s best-selling The Passage. We are introduced to Cassie, sixteen, paranoid and alone, hiding from an unknown alien foe in the woods. Cassie tells us about the previous waves of invasion and how quickly earth’s population has been decimated in a matter of months. Next we meet Ben, a schoolmate of Cassie’s who has been recruited by a covert military operation who are training children to become ultimate alien-killing machines, a la Ender’s Game.

The teens in this novel are up against some pretty serious odds. Parts of the book are vivid and brutal, including Cassie coming upon a dying soldier in an abandoned convenience store, and scenes of cruelty involving a rather sadistic commander and his child soldiers. It’s not gratuitous and helps build up the characters of Ben and Cassie, but it may be hard for some younger readers to stomach.

The strongest part of the novel is how plausible it all felt. I like my sci-fi near-fetched, as opposed to far-fetched. Rick Yancey‘s ‘waves’ of invasion feel frighteningly possible: power outage, natural disasters, viral outbreak, etc. I don’t want to give too much away because the joy of reading this novel is having it unravel as you get deeper into the story. There is a moment when Cassie, who is the character we spend the most time with and grow the closes too, mentions her few possessions, one of which is a box of tampons. YES. Even when on the run from unseen alien invaders, a girl needs tampons. I wish more survival novels acknowledged the necessities of life.

At times The Fifth Wave dips into melodrama in the form of some teen angst and relationships, but I appreciated how Yancey acknowledges that even in the middle of an apocalypse, teens are going to have feelings, much like the teen angst that rears its head in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Overall I could not get enough of this well-paced, suspenseful read. Yancey is an accomplished storyteller who reels you in from the very beginning. This book feels tailor-made for adaptation, perhaps as a miniseries. This is one of those rare books that appeals to both male and female readers, and fans of The Passage, Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games and well-told survival narratives with eat this one up.

The Fifth Wave will be available from Penguin Canada on May 7th.

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An Interview with Author Rachelle Delaney!

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I am a big fan of Canadian middle grade author Rachelle Delaney. Her books are breezy, delightful, and a great example of classic children’s literature with a modern narrative voice. Click here to check out my review on her latest treat, The Metro Dogs of Moscow. I decided she would be the perfect subject for my first author interview ever!

VV: First, the obvious question. Are you a dog person?

RD: Through and through. My family always had dogs while I was growing up, and for a while I was totally obsessed with learning about all the different breeds. When I was 10, I had almost as many posters of Great Danes and Weimaraners on my bedroom walls as there were posters of horses. I have particular a soft spot for really big dogs.

VV: I have this great image of you observing dogs in their natural habitat, aka the dog park. What sort of dog research did you do for the book?

RD: I guess I’m always observing dogs, even when I don’t realize it. I’m the kind of person who will always take note of a dog but rarely the human holding its leash. So yes, I continued my usual dog observations while preparing to write the book, but I also read some really interesting books on animal behavior to help me get inside a dog’s head and understand its motives. My favourite was the aptly named Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.

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VV: Tell me a bit about your inspiration for this book.

RD: The inspiration came from an article I read three or four years ago in the Globe and Mail. It was just a tiny article, basically stating that in Moscow, there are about 35,000 stray dogs. And some of them have started to take the metro to get around the city.

Obviously, I was intrigued. So I hopped online to do more research, and sure enough, there were entire websites dedicated to these Russian metro dogs. They know where to get on and where to get off to get the best food, and they navigate around the city by listening to the announcer’s voice (which, I discovered on my trip to Moscow, is actually quite helpful. When you’re headed toward the centre of the city, the announcer is male; when you’re headed out, it’s female).

Growing up I was a huge fan of 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, so I immediately saw the potential to create that kind of a charming adventure inspired by this great premise.

VV: Tell me about your trip to Russia, and how that affected your writing.

RD: I traveled to Russia after the novel had already been accepted for publication. The setting I’d written was lacking in good, sensory details that can only come through experiencing a place firsthand. And I love travelling more than practically anything, and I was so curious to explore Russia.

It was an eye-opening trip. I’d originally described Moscow and kind of a jolly place, where people stopped to pet the stray dogs in the street. I have to laugh at that now. Moscow is huge and chaotic, very polluted and colder than I ever thought possible (and I grew up in Edmonton!). I got a taste of the crazy traffic, the crush of the metro, and distinctly un-Canadian cultural rules like never, ever smiling at strangers. Details like these changed the tone of the story, and also made it richer and more authentic.

VV: Did you have a favourite character to write about in the book?

RD: I love my main character JR. He’s a Jack Russell terrier (hence the name) who is driven by energy, curiosity, and a need to explore. He tries hard to be good, but sometimes his human George is just so maddening that JR—being a terrier—just has to destroy something. I’ve really enjoyed giving him a voice and trying to put his canine sentiments into words. I also love Pie, the submissive and innocent Australian shepherd JR befriends.

VV: What were your favourite books as a child? Do you think you’ve been inspired in any way by these books in your own writing?

RD: My favourite books were usually about animals, so yes, they’ve definitely inspired me. I loved Black Beauty, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web, and Bunnicula. I was also drawn to large casts, like in The Story Girl and Little Women, which might explain why I can’t seem to write a novel with fewer than 15 or so characters. And I loved feisty, funny female characters, like Pippi Longstocking and Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness books.

VV: Like many Canadian writers, you have a day job. How do you find time to write?

RD: Right now I’m lucky enough to work four-day work-weeks, so that certainly helps. I basically dedicate about three hours a day, Friday through Sunday, to writing. If I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll also sneak in an hour of writing before work (usually without actually leaving my bed), but that gets exhausting after a few weeks. It takes a lot of self-discipline, but I’ve been doing it for years, so my writing patterns are very much ingrained now.

Thanks very much to Rachelle for being my first-ever author interview! If you are a Canadian resident and would like to receive a copy of Rachelle’s wonderful book The Metro Dogs of Moscow, please say so in the comment section! The winner will be selected at random next week.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Under-sung Series

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Nothing breaks my heart more than a truly outstanding series that for whatever reason does not achieve the success it deserves. As a busy reader and writer, I rarely get to sequels or subsequent books in a series. When I do, I know the series is a winner. And so I present to you ten series that are worth your consideration!

For the purposes of this post, the term series refers to at least two sequential books, and under-sung means that while most of these series are critically regarded, they exist just below the mainstream. Let’s see if we can change that!

Kiki Strike & The Bank Street Irregulars 

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If you’ve been reading this blog you KNOW I cannot get enough of these five delinquent girl scouts who solve international mysteries while also experiencing life, love and friendship in New York. (Proof here and here). If you have EVER enjoyed a Nancy Drew book, if you like a healthy dose of sass in your reading, or just love NYC, for GOODNESS SAKES pick up this series!

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place

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Maryrose Wood lovingly pokes fun and also celebrates the “governess and her cheeky charges” trope in a delightfully old-fashioned yet never dry style. There is something a bit Snicket-ish in her tone, particularly in the way Wood plays with language, puns, and definitions. It doesn’t hurt that the books include spot illustrations by the unstoppable Jon Klassen.

The Montmaray Journals

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This sweeping, epic saga is exactly the kind of series I like to sink into on a Saturday afternoon, only to emerge when my tea is cold or gone. Witty teenage royal Sophie observes the odd lives of her family, the royals of Montmaray. Think I Capture the Castle meets Downton Abbey. If you have a female tween, teen, or adult who loves historical YA in your life, be a hero by gifting them this series.

Real Mermaids 

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With the exception of Ariel, I’ve never been a big mermaid fan. That being said, Canuck Helene Boudreau‘s series has always been more about relationships, puberty, and identity  (that middle grade trifecta) than mermaids. Her humour is light and the keystones of growing up (first period, first crush, first dance, etc) are spot on.

The Mary Quinn Mysteries

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Another wonderful Canadian author adds some spice to the Victorian era by imagining a secret society of female spies. Mary Quinn’s mixed heritage and mysterious youth adds depth to what would otherwise be a simple mystery series.  Y.S. Lee’s background ensures the historical details are rich and accurate.

Spud

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Thirteen year old boys can be tough customers when it comes to reading, but I have yet to meet a boy who didn’t howl with laughter over this boarding school series from a young South African author. A great blend of heart, gross-out comedy, and fun.

The Casson Family series

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I have a weakness for British middle grade, and no one does it better than Hilary McKay. The off-kilter Casson family get into all sorts of wacky drama. You’ll be so busy laughing you don’t see the emotional moments coming. Saffy’s Angel is widely considered the best of the series, but Permanent Rose is number one in my heart.

The Stanley Family Series

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Zilpha Keatley Snyder was one of my favourite childhood authors. What I loved best about these books is that they always had a mysterious or supernatural conflict that ends up having a perfectly rational explanation. They are not quite issue books, although divorce, blended families, and sibling rivalry all play big parts in the plots of this quartet, but Snyder is able to combine said issues with warmth, wit, and the possibility of magic.

The Ingo Chronicles

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I don’t read a ton of fantasy but when I do, I like rich writing, plausible worlds, and character development. Enter Helen Dunmore. This series about one family’s connection to the undersea world of Ingo will make you want to pack up your bags and head to Cornwall. Hmm….despite a previously stated indifference to mermaids I appear to have TWO mermaid-esque series on the list…re-evaluating my stance on merfolk now.

The Guests of War Trilogy

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This feels a little like cheating. Kit Pearson‘s classic Canadian series featuring Nora and Gavin, who are sent from England to spend the duration of the war in Canada, is multi-award winning, best-selling and beloved: not exactly under-sung. But in my opinion you can not talk about this series enough.  Like the best middle grade, Pearson uses a greater conflict (WWII) to heighten the coming-of-age moments in life. Historical, emotional, evocative and lovely, this is a study in character development at its finest.

Have you read any of these series? What are your favourite under-sung series?

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The Secret Lives of Dogs: Metro Dogs of Moscow Review

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As a child who could not get enough of ‘the secret lives of animals’ narrative- think 101 DalmationsThe RescuersThe Aristocats- I very much appreciated this fun romp which seems tailor made for an animated film adaptation from Canadian author Rachelle Delaney.

JR is the dog of George, who works for the Canadian embassy. George travels a lot, which means JR doesn’t get what he most wants in the world: a home. When they arrive in Moscow, JR decides not to get too attached to the city, since they’ll probably be leaving sooner or later. But then he has a chance encounter with a group of savvy stray dogs who introduce him to history, delicious Russian food, and most importantly, adventure.

The premise is like catnip (pardon the cat reference in a post about dogs) to kids. The secret lives of dogs in a foreign city is not only a genius concept, it’s one based on  reality! Check out this savvy stray on the metro system in Russia:

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Delaney folds in bits of history and Russian culture throughout the narrative in a manner that is natural and not overwhelming. I particularly enjoyed the parts about ‘dog’ history, perfectly in keeping with the canine characters’ interests but also fun for readers.

Rachelle Delaney has a very classic take on the middle grade narrative. Her stories are gentle, well-paced, full of light humour, imagination, and carefully delivered character growth. I hesitate to use the term old-fashioned, because there is nothing stuffy or out-of-date about her writing. It is timeless rather than trendy. Her books would be comfortable alongside the work of Enid Blyton or Mary Norton. Younger readers  (grade 2-4) who can handle novels but perhaps not older subject matter will be right at home with the Metro Dogs of Moscow,  along with fans of the animal narrative, humour, and a unique concept.

The Metro Dogs of Moscow is available now from Penguin Canada.

Stay tuned for a Q&A with Rachelle sometime this month!

Vancouver folk! Rachelle will be holding a book launch at Kidsbooks  (West Broadway location) on February 7th at 7pm. Click here for more info!

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Out of This World: Maggot Moon Review

The always fabulous Sally Gardner has outdone herself with a chilling speculative vision of a fascist 1950s regime in her Costa award-winning novel, Maggot Moon.

Standish lives in Zone 7, a forgotten slum of The Motherland where every day is bleak and violent. Without Gramps and his friend Hector, life would be unbearable. But when Hector and his family disappear in the dead of night and the day of the much-anticipated first moon landing draws nearer, Standish decides that something must be done. Despite his challenges (Standish has difficulty reading), he could be the person who throws the rock that takes down the giant.

The novel takes place in what feels like 1950s England, should the Nazi’s have won WWII. The Motherland is racing towards the first moon landing to prove their supremacy to the rest of the world. The author has been a bit mum on the exact setting but gives an eloquent explanation of it here.   In this lovely piece Gardner also talks about dyslexia, something her character Standish (and she herself) struggles with. Standish’s narration is full of unique observations, something the author contributes to his dyslexia, which allows him to see the world differently. This makes for some memorable and fresh descriptions.

The narrative is steeped in metaphor and told in jagged, non-sequential sections. There is a lot left to the imagination in terms of the setting, the details of The Motherland’s rise to power and regime, and what exists in the outside world. Despite some graphically depicted scenes, there are moments of tenderness and hope, such as Standish’s dreams of a world in technicolour, with ice-cream coloured Cadillacs and Croca-colas, his friendship with Hector, and his loving, supportive Gramps, an ex-scene painter who is part of the resistance (if you can call it that). One of my favourite moments is when a relentless bully sides with Standish and sticks up for a child who is brutally beaten by a cruel teacher.

This is a powerful book with scenes of graphic violence and horrifying abuses of power. It reminded me in parts of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Janne Teller’s Nothing, a book that chilled me to the bone. Though it may be too strong for some readers, it provides an excellent basis for discussion on power, rebellion, hope, humanity, and change. Sometimes a piece of well-written speculative fiction is the perfect mirror in which to reflect what’s happening in the world today. The central metaphor of David taking down Goliath is well drawn and moving. There is just enough distance that readers can disassociate from the truly terrifying situations, but there are lots of opportunities for them to make comparisons to our own world. Very powerful stuff.

Maggot Moon is available now in hard cover from Penguin Canada.

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Waiting on Wednesday: Days That End in Y

My third book, the final in the Clarissa and Benji series, Days That End in Y is available in three weeks! I can barely contain my excitement. I’ve already received my author copies from Scholastic Canada, look how pretty:

Days That End in Y. author copies

Doesn’t the blue make you think of summer? Doesn’t Clarissa look just ever-so slightly more mature and angsty? Aren’t you so excited to find out what happens before she starts high school?

Also, look how nice all three books look together. Don’t you want all three for your bookshelf?:

Clarissa trilogy

In honour of Waiting on Wednesday I’d love for you to add Days That End in Y to your Goodreads shelf, 50 Book Pledge bookshelf, pre-order online at Amazon, Indigo, or at your local bookstore. Also, stay tuned for some giveaways, when you could win a brand-spanking new copy of Days That End in Y OR the whole trilogy! i still can’t believe that I wrote a trilogy, but there they are, three books with my name on them!

Somebody pinch me!

Clarissa trilogy. spine out

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Paradise for Bookish Kids: The Unwanteds

Kirkus reviews claims this series is “The Hunger Games Meets Harry Potter,” which is music to many readers (not to mention publisher’s) ears. A little more HP than HG, this was a cozy, delightful first novel in a series that brought me right back to my own middle grade years. Also, can we talk about that cover? This is a perfect cover; who does not want to read a book that features a flying cat statue prominently on the front?

In the bleak, totalitarian world of Quill thirteen year olds are deemed Wanted or Unwanted. Wanted children stay and learn at the prestigious university while Unwanted children are sent to their deaths at the Lake of Boiling Oil. So imagine their surprise when the Unwanted children arrive at a virtual paradise called Artimé where they are taught to hone their artistic and eventually magical skills. For the first time, Alex is free to develop his talent for art and make genuine friends. But Alex’s enjoyment of  Artimé is tainted by thought of his twin brother, Aaron, left alone in the repressive world of Quill. He risks everything to speak to him one last time, an action with irreparable consequences.

I loved the world of Artimé , which is a bookish child’s dream. A virtual paradise where creative arts and nurtured and encouraged. Like Hogwarts, this is a school of never-ending food, encouragement, and magical delights. Each of the children are given a tutor to help them nurture their specific talent (painting, acting, music). This instruction eventually includes magic, so what was once an accurate painting of a door actually BECOMES a door, or a soliloquy takes on the power of a spell. This is an engaging concept that middle grade readers will love and McMann is creative and innovative in this aspect of her world building.

The book lacked depth in some places and not enough time was spent developing some of the relationships (Alex and Lani’s relationship came out of nowhere and felt forced). This did not take away from my enjoyment of the book, but removes it from the ranks of richer literary fantasy, such as Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or The Peculiar. I’m curious to see what happens in the subsequent books. Gentle readers who like fantasy, magic, and animals will love this new series.

The Unwanteds is available now in paperback from Aladdin.

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