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A Review + Interview – Karol Silverstein Interviews Author Elaine Dimopoulos

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MIDDLE-GRADE AUTHOR ELAINE DIMOPOULOS

BY KAROL SILVERSTEIN

 

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow (Book #1)

Written by Elaine Dimopoulos

Illustrated by Doug Salati

(May 16, 2023, Charlesbridge, Ages 8-11)

 

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow cover bunnies fleeing.

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The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow (Book #2)

Written by Elaine Dimopoulos,

Illustrated by Doug Salati

(May 21, 2024, Charlesbridge, Ages 8-11)

 

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow cover rabbit chased by birds.

 

 

INTRO + REVIEWS:

I came to these wonderful books a little backwards—that is, I read book 2 first! The good news is you do not need to have read the first book to thoroughly enjoy the second. The even better news is that both books are equally enchanting!

 

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow int1 Rabbits in Root Room.
Interior art from The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2023.

In The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow, we’re introduced to expert storyteller Butternut. Storytelling is a way of life for her colony of rabbits, led by the wise Grandmother Sage. Along with storytelling techniques, Butternut and her many siblings are taught to stick to their own kind and avoid unnecessary danger.

The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow int2 Fierce Owl Flying
Interior art from The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2023.

All that changes when Butternut befriends a joyful robin named Piper. Her new first and best friend believes that all creatures have good in them and crave one another’s company. Butternut’s anxieties—which she calls her “brambles”—spin into overdrive when Piper suggests they befriend a wounded faun, but the more she pushes past her fears, the more confident she becomes. When the need for the titular remarkable rescue arrives, Butternut must convince her family to be as brave as she’s become to help save a litter of coyote pups. The experience changes life in the meadow for the better.
 Starred reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly

 

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow welcomes back Butternut and all her meadow friends. But exciting new creatures, a traveling theater troupe of wild turkeys, enter stage right. The talented turkey thespians are marvelous storytellers, which makes Butternut a bit jealous. When the troupe enlists the meadow dwellers to put on a fabulous play, Butternut’s brambles tell her that something’s not quite right with these grandiose gobblers. She senses her friends and family are in danger but struggles to figure out what, exactly, the wild turkeys are up to and how thwart their plans.   Starred review – Kirkus Reviews

 

The first-person storyteller style employed by author Dimopoulos for both books is pitch-perfect, as are Salati’s delicate illustrations. Butternut herself spins her tales with dramatic precision, utilizing tension, foreshadowing, plot twists, and character building as any great writer would. And though the books’ characters are animals, their emotions and motivations are very relatable to human listeners. In particular, Butternut’s “brambles”—which sometimes are overwrought and hold her back and sometimes grant her heightened and accurate insights—are a wonderful metaphor for young readers who are learning to navigate and interpret their own inner thoughts.

INTERVIEW:

I asked Elaine Dimopoulos to tell me a little more about the creation of this delightful duology. Here’s what she had to say:

Karol Silverstein: The tradition of storytelling, begun by Butternut’s Grandmother Sage, is a way of life for the rabbits of Milkweed Meadow. Why rabbits and why storytelling?

Elaine Dimopoulos: In 2017 I moved to a suburban home near a meadow and saw rabbits frolicking on our lawn every morning and evening. They delighted me and my family. I decided to write about a young rabbit who lives on the border of a lawn and a meadow and who grows curious about the human family in the house although her elders have told her to stick to her own kind. The emphasis on storytelling came from my many years teaching writing. I had been rolling craft concepts around in my head for so long—conflict, tension, voice, character growth—and wanted to create a narrator who was an expert storyteller and who commented metafictively on the story as she was telling it. I had a lot of fun creating Butternut’s narrative voice.

 

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow int1 Butternut and Piper.
Interior art from The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2024.

 

KS: Butternut’s “brambles”—which readers will likely recognize as similar to their own worries and anxieties—are an important part of her character. Was her anxiety a characteristic you set out to explore from the beginning or did it develop as she revealed herself to you?

ED: I knew Butternut would have anxiety from the very beginning. I’d noticed an increase in anxiety in the students I taught and began to think about how many children out there were having anxious thoughts these days. I wanted to create a character they might see themselves in, who learns to manage her anxiety, act bravely, and live a full life.

 

KS: In the second book, a traveling theater troupe of wild turkeys comes to the meadow, and the Gobblers entrance the inhabitants with their theatricality. Why wild turkey and why theater?

ED: In addition to rabbits, I have gorgeous wild turkeys on my lawn! The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow is a sequel, and I really wanted to get turkeys into the first novel, but there wasn’t room. I’m so thankful I got the chance to include them in Book 2. Here’s a photo I snapped. They’re such divas!

 

Wild Turkeys in yard of Elaine Dimopoulos

 

 

As for theater, I acted through middle school, high school, and college. I love performing and knew I could write about it with expertise. I also loved the idea of the meadow creatures putting on a midsummer show.

 

KS: Redemption—and characters who change and/or turn out to be different than they first seem—is featured in both books. Why is it important to explore this theme in kids’ books?

ED: It seems to me these days that we are quicker than ever to criticize and slow to forgive. We all make mistakes, adults as well as children. If we change our mind about something and apologize, we should be able to earn forgiveness. This is an important part of human connection. We ought not to lose the ability to extend kindness to each other and to turn the page on the past.

The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow int2 Turkeys and Piper.
Interior art from The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow written by Elaine Dimopoulos and illustrated by Doug Salati, Charlesbridge ©2024.

 

KS: Was there always going to be a second book (or more)? If so, how much of the plot for The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow did you have set in place before publishing the first book? If not, how did you and Charlesbrige decide to continue Butternut’s story, and what sort of decision-making went into creating the storyline of The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow?

ED: I wrote the first novel wishing that I could continue the story of these characters. Nothing was guaranteed, however, so I didn’t focus on setting anything up for book 2. The sequel was happily greenlighted before the first book came out, so I was able to influence, of all things, the map endpapers. I figured out that there would need to be a little clearing in the oak forest where the performance in the second novel would take place and also a swing set clubhouse where Butternut and the little female human from the house would meet. Doug Salati was kind enough to add these elements to the endpapers of book 1 so there would be continuity.

I knew I wanted to include a theatrical troupe of turkeys in the sequel, but I was struggling with Butternut’s central conflict. My editor, Julie Bliven, helped me see that Butternut ends the first novel confident in her storytelling abilities, so it would be interesting if this confidence was shattered when a new art form entered the picture. I ran with this idea!

I hope to write even more stories set in Milkweed Meadow. The first two books are set, respectively, in spring and summer, so I’d love to complete a seasonal quartet and write an autumn and a winter book. We’ll see!

 

Huge thanks to Karol and Elaine for this informative interview!  – Ronna

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Belmont Books (signed & personalized): https://www.belmontbooks.com/book/9781623544270

Bookshop.org: The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow a book by Elaine Dimopoulos and Doug Salati (bookshop.org)

Publisher’s Page: The Perilous Performance at Milkweed Meadow – Charlesbridge

 

Elaine Dimopoulos Headshot Photo Credit Ars Magna Studio
Elaine Dimopoulos Photo Credit: Ars Magna Studio

AUTHOR BIO:

Elaine Dimopoulos is the author of several novels for children, including the critically acclaimed Milkweed Meadow series, Turn the Tide, winner of the Green Earth Book Award in Children’s Fiction, and the young adult fast-fashion dystopia, Material Girls. Elaine served as the Associates of the Boston Public Library Writer-in-Residence and has taught writing at Simmons University and GrubStreet. She lives in Massachusetts. She lives in Massachusetts with her spouse, two children, and a Balinese cat named Plato. www.elainedimopoulos.com

 

 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA:

• Author Elaine Dimopoulos

https://twitter.com/ElaineDimop

https://www.instagram.com/elaine_dimopoulos/

• Illustrator Doug Salati

https://dougsalati.com/

Doug Salati Photo Credit: Erin V Carr

ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

Doug Salati is the creator of the picture book Hot Dog, recipient of the Randolph Caldecott Medal and Ezra Jack Keats Award. His first book was In a Small Kingdom by Tomie dePaola, and his second, Lawrence in the Fall by his partner, Matthew Farina, was an Ezra Jack Keats Illustrator Award Honoree, a Society of Illustrators Original Art Show selection and Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. Doug lives and works in New York City.

 

 

 

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Karol Ruth Silverstein (she/her/disabled) is an award-winning children’s book author and longtime SCBWI member. Her debut young adult novel, Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019), was loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at thirteen and won the Schneider Family Book Award in 2020. Originally from Philadelphia, Karol now lives in West Hollywood, California, with two unmanageably fluffy cats. Find her online at
Author Karol Ruth Silverstein.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Alien Superstar

ALIEN SUPERSTAR (Book #1)

Written by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Illustrated by Ethan Nicolle

(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Alien Superstar Book Cover

 

int art152 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

The first installment of this new middle-grade series by the super-duo Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver (who also delighted us with their Hank Zipzer books) was an instant New York Times best seller. In Alien Superstar, thirteen-year-old Citizen Short Nose escapes from his planet to avoid the removal of his sensory enhancer. He lands at Universal Studios, Hollywood, and, upon emerging from his ship, is crowded by tourists wanting to take selfies. In a series of fortunate opportunities, Short Nose (now Buddy C. Burger) becomes a costar on a show where the ratings were nosediving until his silly, honest acting debut. When his nutritional wafers run out, Buddy must quickly find Earth foods he can eat. Luckily, he’s made some human friends who rush to help him out.

Winkler and Oliver continue their winning combination of sincere, likable characters and laugh-aloud moments. Ethan Nicolle’s endearing illustrations enhance the story’s humor especially the images where we see Buddy lounging in the bath trying to absorb as much water as possible, or caught mid-transformation.

 

int art244 from Alien Superstar
Interior art from Alien Superstar written by Henry Winkler + Lin Oliver, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, Amulet Books ©2019.

Living in LA, I find it’s not all that outlandish that an alien would walk through our midst and Angelenos wouldn’t bat an eye—that’s the clever charm of this story. Preconceived notions of aliens taking over are soon dispelled when Buddy’s friends realize he’s only here to escape the bad things happening on his home planet and that he very much misses his Grandmother Wrinkle. Kids will enjoy this likable antihero; the suspenseful ending will leave them eagerly awaiting what happens next in Buddy’s wacky, mixed-up world.

 

 

Read another review by Christine Van Zandt here.

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Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff) by Liz Pichon

The British are coming … Again!

Tom Gates: Excellent Excuses (and Other Good Stuff)
Written and illustrated by Liz Pichon
(Candlewick Press; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

TomGatesExcellentExcuses.jpgWhile Paul Revere is probably rolling in his grave, Pichon’s American fans will be rolling over with laughter as they read the next book in the hilarious saga of British fifth grader, Tom Gates.

Those who read Pichon’s first book, The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, will find that Tom, now on a two week break, is still up to his usual hijinks: finding new and improved ways of annoying his sister, Delia, devising the most ingenious excuses to get out of troublesome situations, eating his favorite snacks (caramel wafers), doodling, and hanging out with his best mate (friend), Derek.

Tom’s biggest hope is to find a drummer for his band, DOGZOMBIES and secure the band’s first gig. But in typical Tom Gates fashion, there’s a whole lot of everyday life – and his reaction to it – swirling around: a bad tooth, his prank-playing cousins, the ongoing rivalry with class smarty pants, Marcus, and the field trip from hell. Oh, and as Mr. Fullerman, his teacher, keeps reminding him, there’s still an overdue homework assignment to turn in. To give Tom a little incentive, Mr. Fullerman (who’s wise to this procrastinating day dreamer) has sent one of his prize worthy, tongue-in-cheek notes home to his parents. So now Tom’s got his parents on his back about that (and undone chores),

The DOGZOMBIES land their first gig, thanks to Tom’s zany grandfather, at the Leafy Green Old Folks Home (where many of the residents truly don’t mind loud music). Their success at Leafy Green even inspires Tom’s principal to ask the band to play at an all school assembly (Tom puts him off by claiming Delia injured his arm when she punched him).

In one of the book’s many subplots, Tom becomes suspicious about the growing number of gold stars Marcus has earned on the classroom Gold Star Award Chart. So he begins to spy on Marcus and observes him purchasing gold stars. Aha! Tom brilliantly exposes Marcus’ cheating and finally finishes his homework assignment. In the process, he earns three gold stars, putting him ahead of all his classmates.

Tom’s clever doodles are a treasure and often visually extend the narrative, supporting young readers with additional clues about the story and characters. And for those readers who don’t know “British” check the handy (and well doodled) glossary in the back.

Visit Pichon’s website for more information about the author and the series. You can also find several videos, including book trailers, “How to Draw Like Tom Gates,” and “Fun Stuff” to do. Visit The World of Tom Gates website, too. Click here for a sample chapter.

New to Tom Gates? Read my previous review of The Brilliant World of Tom Gates on the Good Reads With Ronna blog to get acquainted with this terrific series. Highly recommended for tweens, ages 8-12, who enjoy the humorous, diary-style series.

– Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by Liz Pichon

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates (Candlewick Press, 2014, $12.99, Ages 8-12), written and illustrated by Liz Pichon, is reviewed by Dornel Cerro.

The British are coming, the British are coming …

… with the brilliant and hilarious world of Tom Gates.

 

TheBrilliantWorldofTomGates

 

It’s the first day of a new school year and 5th year student Tom Gates writes in his journal:

“Woke up-listened to music
Played my guitar
Rolled out of bed (slowly) …
Played some more guitar
Realized I hadn’t done my ‘summer reading homework’
PANICKED … (p. 3).”

Alongside the words “woke up,” Tom draws a pair of sleepy eyes. This wonderfully chatty middle grade fiction book is accompanied by a multitude of extremely funny doodles and eye catching font types that will draw kids in.

At school, Tom’s teacher, Mr. Fullerman has moved him to the front of class. In his journal Tom wails:

“This is a DISASTER. How am I going to draw my pictures and read my comics? Sitting at the back of the class, I could avoid the teacher’s glares. But I am SO close to Mr. Fullerman now I can see up his nose (p. 6).”

Guess what Tom doodles in after “nose?”

For Tom, forgotten homework assignments, playing tricks on annoying students, and other antics keep him in perpetual trouble – and coming up with convincing excuses for his behavior. Tom’s attempt to get out of an assignment by claiming he spilled water on it is hysterically rendered in a smeared doodle (p. 47).

At home, Tom must also deal with his moody teenage sister, Delia, and his eccentric grandparents, “The Fossils,” who love to experiment with such unsavory food combinations such as pizza with banana topping.

When Tom finds that Dude3, his favorite band, will perform in concert locally, he’s determined to attend. However, things go sour (and get really funny) when his best mate’s dog eats the tickets.

The comic doodles and varying fonts, while creating a busy page, make the story more visual for reluctant readers. This book will be a big hit with children who enjoy the humorous diary/journal formats of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Ruth McNally Barshaw’s Ellie McDoodle series.

Unfamiliar with “British?” Check out Tom’s glossary in the back and learn that a “climbing frame” is British for “jungle gym” (p. 243). Despite the differences in languages, Pichon demonstrates that 5th year kids are the same on both sides of the pond.

British author Liz Pichon won England’s Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize (2011). Visit the author at her blog and sneak a peek into Tom’s world by watching the book trailer below.

Click here to download a sample chapter.

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