In book one, Twinchantment, identical twins Flissa and Sara must act as one person (Princess Flissara) to escape the Kingdom of Kaloon’s Magic Eradication Act which cites twinhood as reason for removal and re-homing. Book two, UnTwistedby Elise Allen, picks up on Ascension Day as the girls officially take their individual places in line for the throne. However, the new Magical Unification Act hasn’t been a simple fix for harmonious living. A top priority in the Kaloonification was bringing together the Mages, Genpos (people without magic from the general population), and Magical Animals at a school called the Maldevon Academy. However, cooperation between the groups is easier said than done, and someone is out to destroy the unity.
Favorite characters of mine from book one continue in UnTwisted: Galric and his adorable black kitten Nitpick, evil lioness Raya, and Loriah—who I’m happy to see has a bigger role. New characters like Zinka enliven the story. Plot misdirection keeps the twins searching for who’s behind the escalating ripples of unrest while they also navigate newfound friendships and how to fit in at school.
Chapters once again alternate viewpoints between Flissa and Sara. Allen successfully extends character development across both books. In UnTwisted, the girls’ individualities take center stage and their sisterly bond fractures. I like how the books show Kaloon progressing from the Magic Eradication Act to the Magical Unification Act, and the problems of both all-or-nothing edicts.
This series will appeal to kids who like books about adventure, magic, and relationships. The delightful Twinchantment novels combine high-stakes action with relatable, dimensional tween issues. It feels there’s more to come from these dynamic twins.
Make room on your bookshelves for The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, the middle grade novel debut by Aaron Reynolds. Sixth-grader Rex Dexter always wanted a dog. A chocolate Labrador to be exact. For his birthday, Rex’s parents give him a chocolate cake shaped like a Lab with chocolate ice cream and—finally!—his gift is in a box with air holes so it must be . . . a chicken?! When Rex complains that a chicken isn’t a pet, it’s a Happy Meal, he’s told this is his practice pet. So he does what any kid would: puts a leash on his chicken and heads out with his best friend, Darvish, to buy pet supplies. Then the strangeness begins.
With a nod to the Tom Hanks movie, Big, Rex finds a vintage carnival game called the Grim Reaper. Thanks to some chicken pee, Rex loses the game and receives a cryptic curse. But, it may be worse news for the chicken who, in Rex’s care for about an hour, has a run-in with a steamroller; the steamroller wins. Rex failed to keep his practice pet safe but, no worries, Rex will have plenty of time to make amends when the squashed, “ghostly fritter” of a chicken returns to haunt him—though the chicken believes their besties and wants to just chill. The now-named Drumstick is merely the first dead animal to accompany Rex through this hilarious story.
Aaron Reynolds is a master at comedy and this middle-grade novel is no exception. He had me at the title. If you like a mysterious ghost story that’s not very spooky, then this is the book for you. Kids will enjoy trying to figure out “who done it” as endangered animals in the zoo start meeting their demise and showing up in Rex’s bedroom as ghostly nuisances. More than two dozen black-and-white images scattered throughout add to the humor.
I’m a big fan of Reynolds’s books and read his releases hot-off-the-press. My favorite book of his had been (picture book) A Creepy Pair of Underwear but The Dead Pets of Rex Dexter is now tied for that spot.
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If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giantsby Dave Matthewsand Clete Barrett Smith. You may recognize the first author’s name as that of the world-renowned musician, environmentalist, and humanitarian. He’s teamed up with children’s book author Smith to write this timely middle-grade novel. Its underlying messages are about pulling together as a community, remembering the past, and taking care of nature. Kids will root for Kirra to find her way, and love the fun elements (such as living in trees and using their collective skills to become gigantic).
Hidden inside the walls of a dormant volcano, ten-year-old Kirra’s life is idyllic. Her people, the Zedu, respect nature and collaborate with one another, having assigned tasks. Kirra’s father is the Storyteller, the only Zedu who goes Outside—until recently, when Kirra begins to travel with him and learn this vocation. Her curiosity, however, leads her to make a grave mistake instigating the demise of her village by a violent new group called the Takers who seek only to conquer and destroy.
Jump forward four years and fourteen-year-old Kirra now lives aloft with the Tree People, taken in when she was in dire circumstances and treated with kindness ever since. To get by, Kirra must suppress memories of the past—until those memories become a reality.
The images by Antonio Javier Caparoprovide glimpses into Kirra’s world. Framed by intertwining branches, the natural colors underscore the importance of working harmoniously with nature.
I appreciate how the book engages the reader with quick-moving, interesting scenes yet also tackles big issues affecting us today. This story delves into what family means and how you fit in. For Kirra, it’s also a coming-of-age tale as she finally faces her demons and finds her way. e
Angelenos will home in onThe Echo Park Castawaysfor its title—Echo Park—because we know that place! This neighborhood is where the story’s characters converge in their latest foster-care home. Quentin, a boy on the autistic spectrum, is the newest addition to Mrs. K’s house. Though almost nonverbal, he clearly communicates his desire to go home to his mom. Nevaeh, Vic, and little Mara may be veterans of the system but they understand Quentin’s need.
The reader is shown how each character struggles to get by since the story is told in three viewpoints. “Loud Boy” Vic lives in a fantasy world where he’s a superspy spinning tales about his father’s absence—anything is better than accepting the fact he was deported to El Salvador. “Quiet Girl” Mara barely speaks English but can get through to Quentin. As Vic plots how to reunite Quentin with his mom, “Tall Girl” Neveah has to put aside her already too-full workload of chores and college prep to keep the younger kids out of trouble; she’s their caretaker, like it or not.
Circumstances beyond their control bring these kids from different walks of life together. Though obstacles face them in everyday life, they forge connections and make a family for themselves. This fast-moving story illuminates how children with limited options adapt to a flawed system.
The Echo Park Castaways is a deeply personal book for the author, M.G. Hennessey, who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in the L.A. foster care system. In that position and as a youth mentor for the Lifeworks program, Hennessey has witnessed the system responsible for society’s most vulnerable children. The book presents characters based on case stories that illustrate the very real challenges foster children face every day. There are 30,000 kids in L.A.’s child welfare system—the largest in the nation.
I’M OK Written by Patti Kim (Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.
The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.
The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.
This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.
In the new middle grade novel, All the Greys on Greene Street, twelve-year-old Olympia is trying to solve a mystery with her two friends, Alex and Richard. She knows her father, an art restorer, has left the country. She knows why her mother hasn’t gotten out of bed since her father left. And she knows something is amiss with an art piece her father and his business partner and devoted friend, Apollo, have been working on restoring. What she doesn’t know is why her father decided to leave so suddenly and why there are people knocking on the doors of her parents’ Soho loft, demanding answers.
All the Greys on Greene Street is Laura Tucker’s debut novel, a historical fiction story set in 1981 when Soho’s large industrial lofts housed artists instead of chain stores and the subway cost 75 cents. Narrated in first-person by Olympia, (Ollie to her family and friends) Ollie is a keen observer, and tries to make sense of the complex adults in her life. She is devoted to her parents and to Apollo, whose studio she visits and who cares for her like his own child. When her father leaves, Ollie tries but can’t rally her mom to get out of bed. She hides her mother’s depression, trying to move through her world as if everything is fine. For weeks, she gets herself to school, concentrates on school projects and eats lots of canned soup. She refuses to ask for help or even share what’s happening with her mom. She manages to convince the neighbors that things are okay, but her friends discover her secret. Ollie pleads for secrecy, but Richard and Alex refuse, and betray her trust. Ollie is just beginning to work through her feelings when catastrophe rocks their neighborhood.
Like the title suggests, Ollie has the eye of an artist. Everyone in her life encourages her to look closely at her world and really try to understand what is happening. Kelly Murphy’s pencil illustrations help the reader see what Ollie sees and what she draws. And the writing is beautiful. There are no easy answers and there is no villain, just friends trying to do their best with what they have. Tucker offers some very smart history and art lessons imparted with the lightest touch. Apollo teaches Ollie about color and craft and the lessons will stay with the reader, as much as they impact Ollie.
Kids and parents were different in 1981 and these sixth graders are allowed to navigate New York City in a way that tween and teen readers with hovering helicopter parents might be surprised by. But even with absent parents and independence, Ollie and her friends are never alone. Their own friendship, their strong community and their neighbors keep them safe. Readers might be tempted to compare Ollie to Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. They both have keen observation skills, but Ollie is softer and savvier than Harriet. Ollie’s biggest lessons are about how to ask for help, and friends who become family and how some of life’s hardest questions have more than one answer.
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Cynthia Copeland Cynthia Copeland is a television and digital producer, who is always writing on the side. She is currently writing a YA contemporary novel. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @listenupbucko and she’ll share the small mystery that author, Laura Tucker revealed to her about the novel, All the Greys on Greene Street.
RIVERLAND Written by Fran Wilde (Amulet Books; $17.99, Ages 10-14)
★Starred Review – Booklist, Shelf Awareness
In Riverlanda debut (older) middle grade novel by Fran Wilde, Momma promises everything will be all right, but sisters Eleanor and Mike know better. Things aren’t OK, no matter how hard they try to be good. The girls weave stories about how “house magic” will fix whatever’s wrong this time. When Poppa breaks the family heirloom (a glass witch ball), a river appears in their secret hiding place and the girls venture to a place where dreams grow in reeds.
A heron made of metal, glass, and driftwood explains that nightmares are made of “failed dreams, smoke, and the river mist” and that “the same magic that kept dreams and reality apart also held back the nightmares.” Anassa, a snake-headed monster, upsets the balance. As the damage in one world seeps to the next, the sisters try to understand their family’s guardian’s agreement while facing new kinds of danger and the possibility of never returning home. Sisterly love fiercely connects them, yet Eleanor worries her temper dooms her to become like Poppa.
Lines between fantasy and reality blurred long before the enchanted river. The girls and their mother live fearfully in denial, unwilling to admit Poppa’s abusive nature. Though Eleanor’s new friend Pendra and Pendra’s mom (school guidance counselor) surmise something’s wrong, Eleanor keeps up the façade and her friend at arm’s length; without confirmation others are powerless to help.
Riverland depicts children trapped in a dysfunctional home and the ways in which they escape reality. This important book shows a family’s coping mechanisms for domestic violence. Older middle graders and YA readers may be best suited to recognize and process the nuances of this story.
Many children’s stories get the parents out of the way by killing them off. New middle-grade series, Henry & Eva and the Castle on the Cliff begins with the newspaper headline “Prominent Environmentalist and Oceanographer Die in Boating Accident.” However, Andrea Portes’s story surrounds this incident rather than pushing it out of the way and moving on. Siblings, Henry and Eva, suffer from this sudden shock but it’s the first of many in regard to their parents’ death.
Details make the story come alive such as Eva’s voice, “[the article in the paper] says that I am twelve and that Henry is ten but it doesn’t say that Henry will be eleven in three weeks and we were already starting to plan his birthday party.” Palpable grief engulfs the kids as they face a new life, one without their folks. Matters are complicated with caregivers, Uncle Claude “the Clod” and his girlfriend Terri “the Terrible,” seeming opposites from Henry and Eva’s parents.
Super-smart Henry has sunken inside himself; Eva tries to cajole him out with silly antics. The kids have a lot to deal with—then the mystery starts! Portes weaves in otherworldly elements in a fresh manner with dimensional and likeable characters. Even the “bad adults” have interesting traits. Levity and humor shine in clever lines of dialogue.
Portes is the best-selling author of two critically lauded adult novels: Hick, her debut, which was made into a feature film, and Bury This. She also writes popular YA novels.
Mr. Wolf’s Class: Book #1 The First Day of School by Aron Nels Steinke is not your mother’s back-to-school middle grade chapter book. It’s a smart, funny, insightful look at fourth-grade in graphic novel format and I enjoyed every page. From the realistic, contemporary dialogue to the perfectly captured facial expressions on the diverse line up of teachers and students, Steinke succeeds in helping readers connect with and care about an assorted and appealing cast of characters. And that’s a good thing since this is Book #1 in a new series that is sure to captivate even the most reluctant kid.
In this first book, we’re introduced to Mr. Wolf, a new teacher at Hazelwood Elementary. In fact, even before Chapter One (there are eleven chapters in total), anthropomorphic artwork full of color and movement shows Mr. Wolf conscientiously preparing his classroom followed by frames of each student, with illustration clues, as a quick and clever way to hint at their personality or issue. There’s new-in-town student, Margot, eager to start school but nervous about making friends; there’s Penny, poor, wiped out Penny, whose constantly crying baby sibling is keeping her from getting a good night’s sleep; there’s Aziza, a dedicated student but slightly snarky; and there’s Sampson, who’s brought something special to school to share at show-and-tell.
As an elementary school teacher and parent, Steinke totally gets this age group and the ever-changing dynamic of the classroom. One minute there’s silent reading and the next there’s chaos. All types of conflicts caused by all kinds of kids can occur throughout the day and Steinke’s chosen a few good ones to portray in Mr. Wolf’s Class. He’s included geeks and smart alecks, thoughtful and mean kids. He’s also got bossy and meek ones, tattle tales and show offs. With that kind of composition, anything can and does happen under Mr. Wolf’s supervision including a missing student, show-and-tell, and a burgeoning friendship.
I’d like to emphasize here that this book can be appreciated year round for its wit, its engaging illustrations and the delightful depiction of fourth-grade from multiple perspectives. Join Mr. Wolf and his students to see first-hand what’s happening at Hazelwood Elementary.
THE LANGUAGE OF SPELLS Written by Garret Weyr Illustrated by Katie Harnett (Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus Reviews
In the middle-grade novel, The Language of Spells, homeschooled eleven-year-old Maggie lives in a Viennese hotel with her father. She knows many things, but how to make friends isn’t one of them—until she meets Grisha (a dragon who’s spent decades observing humans and has grown up without doing any of the proper dragon things). Born in 1803, he is the last of his kind. “As the world of men built new and extraordinary things, the world of magic began to decline. No creature lives beyond its own world, and a dragon is nothing if not a creature from the world of magic.”
All dragons were summoned to Vienna and, due to the inconvenience of their existence, most mysteriously disappeared. While the Department of Extinct Exotics controls the gold-eyed dragons who were allowed to remain, Grisha struggles to remember what happened to the others. Maggie’s determination to help sets them on an investigative journey. Though they know using magic requires a sacrifice, Maggie and Grisha travel across Europe to fight injustice and face difficult decisions.
The Language of Spells is a different sort of dragon tale—one worth a deliberate read and thoughtful introspection. Each chapter opens with a charming illustration by Katie Harnett. The uplifting scenes enhance the story’s relationships. Weyr’sslow-building, sometimes funny tale has an old-fashioned lyrical feel. The book raises questions about the cost of power, the bonds of families and friendships. When few can see the magic left in the world, does it still exist?
Until now, Stacy McAnulty has been best known for her picture books. (EXCELLENT ED is one of my favorites.) But her middle grade debut, THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL, puts her squarely in the category of must-read middle grade author, as well.
12-year-old Lucy Callahan narrates the book. Thanks to a chance meeting with a bolt of lightning, Lucy is a math genius. She’s been homeschooled for the four years since the accident and, technically, she should be going to college. Lucy’s grandma just has one requirement before sending her young charge off to university: “Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!).” The mysteries of calculus, algebra, and geometry are easy for Lucy to solve. But the mystery of how to survive middle school? It’s an impossible equation—especially for Lucy.
Lucy’s not very good at making friends. And, though she’d prefer to blend into the background, a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (another result of the lightning strike) makes her stand out. For example, she can’t just sit down. She needs to sit, stand, sit, stand, sit (otherwise she incessantly recites the numbers of pi in her head). And a germ phobia means she goes through a good number of Clorox wipes during the school day. (Lucy would want me to give you an exact here, but I can’t.) However, in spite of this, Lucy is comfortable with herself and I love that. In fact, McAnulty never gives the impression that the things that make Lucy so unique (and make middle school so difficult for her) are problems to be solved. They’re just part of Lucy—for better or worse. There are other problems too. Lucy’s mom is dead; her dad is absent; and her grandmother struggles to make ends meet. But these are all just part of Lucy’s life. McAnulty doesn’t let them become the focus of the book, which is just as it should be.
I don’t want to ruin the fun of reading this book by giving too much away. I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the world through Lucy’s eyes. You don’t need to love (or even understand) math to love THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL. It’s a book for anyone who has ever felt out of place, vulnerable, or just plain weird. And I’m pretty sure that’s all of us.
★Starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal.
OPEN IF YOU DARE Written by Dana Middleton (Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)
is reviewed by Colleen Paeff.
Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton begins at the end. It’s the last day of elementary school and three best friends Birdie, Rose, and Ally are about to embark on their very last summer together. Rose is moving back to England in August and Ally and Birdie will attend different middle schools come September. Nothing will ever be the same again and the girls know it.
They are looking forward to a blissfully predictable summer of swimming, softball, selfies, and lots of time together on their secret island. But the discovery of a mysterious box and its sinister contents takes the trio on an unexpected search for the identity of a dead girl and the villain who killed her.
Middleton expertly weaves mystery with coming-of-age, as the girls experience crushes and rivalries, bad decisions and harsh consequences, parental expectations and annoying siblings – in other words, Life – in the midst of their search for answers. When the clues run dry, Rose and Ally would happily give up the hunt in favor of milking as much fun as possible out of their last summer together, but Birdie, our narrator, can’t let it go. Perhaps it’s because, for her, solving the mystery of the dead girl seems easier than solving the mystery of what life will be like without Rose and Ally by her side.
Like any good mystery, there are twists and turns and startling connections. And the setting, based on Middleton’s hometown in Georgia, comes to life with evocative details and fully realized characters of all ages. Ultimately, though, Open if You Dare is a story about friendship and where Middleton truly shines is in her depiction of the joys and complexities of building relationships with the people who understand us most in the world and the heartbreak of letting them go.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that, by the end of the book, the mystery of the dead girl is solved. But the mystery of what life will be like in middle school? Alone? Let’s just say Rose, Ally, and Birdie are ready to take it on. Let the adventure begin.
Review by Colleen Paeff – Colleen lives in Los Angeles, California, where she writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She hosts the monthly Picture Book Publisher Book Club and its companion blog, Picture Book Publishers 101. Look for her on Twitter @ColleenPaeff.
The Stars Beneath Our Feetby David Barclay Mooreintroduces us to Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul, a twelve-year-old boy reeling from his older brother’s recent murder. Lolly almost thinks it’s a joke, that Jermaine will reappear and everything will be fine. However, the heaviness in Lolly’s chest makes him realize life is unfair: “it’s all about borders. And territories. And crews.”
For years, Lolly built Legos per the box’s instructions because they provided relief from the real world. When Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend begins giving him garbage bags full of Legos, it unleashes his imagination but their apartment isn’t big enough for his artistic endeavor. At his community center after-school program, Lolly finds the storage room a peaceful retreat where he can build alone, forgetting about everything else until he must share his space and blocks with a quiet girl the kids call Big Rose.
When Rose does speak, she repeats comforting words to herself: “Your mama, your daddy—they were buried under the ground, but they’re stars now, girl, stars beneath our feet.” Her seemingly obscure statements affect Lolly. Their unlikely friendship evolves to include an understanding of shared pain. In the Harlem projects, death is too commonplace.
Throughout the book, Lolly and his best friend, Vega, feel pressure to join a gang for protection; yet, that’s what led to Jermaine’s death. Lolly wavers between fear, anger, and acceptance of what seems to be his only path. The question of how to fit in pulls Vega away as they search for their own answers, boys on their way to becoming men.
Moore’s book reveals our world’s imperfections and complications. Yet, hope shines through. We relate to Lolly’s conflicting emotions and understand his worries about the future. We all must decide how to best live our lives. The Stars Beneath Our Feet shares a glimpse of one boy’s journey.
Hilary Taber of Flintridge Bookstore Interviews Roderick Townley
I recently wrote to Mr. Townley to inquire if he would be agreeable to doing this interview with me. It all seemed something like tossing a penny into a wishing well, one of those moments in life when you shake hands with the universe on an agreement that you will both, ever so briefly say “Who knows? It could happen!” When Roderick Townley responded that he would do the interview, I was happy and completely astounded. I wondered what I would ask this “wizard of words?” This author’s writing always seems to have the charm of a fairy tale, the adventure of a contemporary fantasy novel and the depth of a poem. The Great Good Thing, The Blue Shoe, and The Door in the Forest are all among his literary treasures. Each of these works are well written, highly polished, deeply profound, and leave the reader the richer for having read them.
The Great Good Thing, his first children’s book, was published in 2001. Since then, Mr. Townley has continued to captivate readers of all ages. Possessing a rich background as a poet and also as a journalist, Roderick Townley manages somehow to pull on both imagination and reality. He has crafted books that have inspired his fans to create board games, blue shoes, dolls, and gorgeous illustrations. The author confesses that some of these tales once began as bedtime stories and then “grew up” into the wonderful books we know today – full of beauty, magic, mysteries, adventure, danger, villains, and heroes. It indeed makes sense that Townley’s books started as bedtime stories. As Prospero said in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Hilary Taber: What is your full name and where did you grow up?
Roderick Townley: Grew up all around New York City: East Side, Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, Long Island.
H.T.: What was your family like? Did they encourage your writing?
R.T.: They read, but were not “literary,” conventional in tastes, but encouraged my writing. My mom always thought I should write children’s books. A decade after her death, I published my first.
H.T.: Who was the greatest inspiration to you in your young life? Is there any one person that stands out in particular?
R.T.: I’ve had encouragers all along the way. Teachers especially, several of whom I saw as father figures after my own dad died. Mostly, though, it was what I read that inspired me. I thought of myself as a poet, and as a teenager was imitating Lawrence Ferlinghetti and (disastrously) Dylan Thomas.
H.T.: Are there a few writers that you could name that have influenced your writing for children and teens?
R.T.:Every writer I’ve ever read has influenced me. Bad writers have shown me what doesn’t work; good writers what does. What I look for is intensity (e.g.,James Agee), wild imagination (John Crowley), and depth (Melville, Rilke). You’ll notice that these are not children’s writers. But writing is writing, and in my books for young readers I am always trying for those qualities: intensity, imagination, depth.
H.T.: I’ve read on your website that when you were a young boy you would write in a notebook, and that writing filled you with excitement that others didn’t seem to notice. What gave you that excitement? Do you still have that excitement now just as it was when you were young, or has it changed?
R.T.: Back then, I was just excited by the story as it unfolded under my racing pencil. It was also exciting to realize that I was creating it–and could change it! What’s different now is that my stories are more dimensional, and I erase almost as much as I write. That makes the process slower and more painstaking. Less “fun” at times, but in the end more satisfying.
H.T.: I’m a great admirer of your heroine Sylvie from your book The Great Good Thing. If you could close your eyes to enter a more dream-like state and “see” Sylvie, how would you describe what you see?
R.T.: I see her in motion, a flash of wind-blown hair, quick eyes, dirty knees, disgracefully muddy blue leather shoes. Equally interesting to me is the way others have seen her. The German edition has her sitting in a tree on a sofa (!); the Chinese edition depicts her in stylized woodcuts. And kids send me drawings of Sylvie that are wilder than anything I could have imagined. Every reader meets a different Sylvie, and that’s as it should be.
H.T.: I read that a few of your books begin as a bedtime story to your wife Wyatt. How much of Wyatt do readers see in your heroines like Sylvie, Emily, or Sophia?
R.T.: There’s some of Wyatt, a good deal of me, and a fair amount of our daughter Grace in Princess Sylvie. There’s a whole lot more of Wyatt in the two sequels, Into the Labyrinth and The Constellation of Sylvie, because I consciously wrote her in, as the character, Rosetta Stein. Wyatt, like Rosetta, teaches yoga, and both have the same restless hair–and restless spirit. But Wyatt’s presence in my books has to do with more than her resemblance to certain characters. She’s involved in the whole writing process, from the generation of plot ideas to the elimination of dangling modifiers.
H.T.: It would seem unfair not to ask the same questions of you! How much of yourself do you see in your characters Daniel or Hap? Is there a character that you identify with most?
R.T.: I am, in fact, all of my characters, boys, girls, villains, grandmothers. Even the poisonous jester, Pingree. You shouldn’t write any character that you can’t find within yourself.
H.T.: A good deal of your books seem to be infused with poetry. This is not an easy question to answer perhaps, but how do you feel your background in poetry interacts with your writing for children and teens?
R.T.: Children’s literature, at its best, is closer to poetry than to any other kind of writing. I’m constantly distilling, cutting away the unnecessary modifier, the weak verb, the chatty dialogue. And always reaching for the magic that lies just beneath the surface of so-called ordinary life. Those concerns come right out of my apprenticeship a s a poet.
H.T.: Madeline L’Engle made this statement, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is true?
R.T.: It’s a striking statement, and reminds me of Philip Pullman, who said there are some themes so deep that they can only be addressed in a children’s book. That is true of a few extraordinary children’s books (Pullman’s among them), as well as of fairy tales and myths, which evoke archetypes of the unconscious. It’s not true, alas, of most “kid lit,” which tends to the cute, the shallow, and the vampiric.
H.T.: If books had a genealogy just as people do, what books might be in your family tree of the books you have written? For example, often I have a Harry Potter fan that wants a book similar to the series. So I explain to them that there are such things as “book cousins.” Some books seem to be related to each other. They are somehow alike. What books might be considered cousins, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers and so on of your writing for children and teens?
R.T.: Publishers say they are looking for work that’s completely original. That is not true. Often they are looking for something very much like a well-known work–but with a twist. Let’s say, Harry Potter on ice skates. When I wrote The Great Good Thing, I didn’t think it was like anything I’d ever read. Reviewers later said it reminded them of Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, although my book came out a year before hers. Basically, I try for stories that don’t remind me of other stories–why repeat what’s already been done? I leave it to others to discover the “cousins.” Those relatives do exist, but I don’t know about them beforehand and don’t concern myself about them later. Not my job.
H.T.: Are you in the process of writing a new book?
R.T.:I am. In the new novel, tentatively called The Black Rose, a woman disappears during a magic act, and her daughter, Cisley, is determined to find her and bring her back. The girl lives in a glass castle and walks her pet lobster on a golden leash along the seawall each morning. I’m open to suggestions about how it ends.
H.T.: What do you hope for most that your readers will remember after reading your books?
R.T.: Aside from the name of the author? I hope, of course, that they’ll think of the story with delight; but more important, that they’ll be left with a sense of their own inner world, the substratum of magic that is our deepest self.
H.T.: Imagine that you found a book in the woods behind your house. This book is a mystery. It has a short beginning and an equally short ending already written. However, there is nothing written in the middle of the book. You’ve asked around and it seems to belong to no one. In fact, it appears to be very old and possibly entirely magical. Would you finish writing it or would you leave it alone?
R.T.: Oh, of course I’d have a go at finishing it. The hardest parts of writing, for me, are finding the beginning and the end. If those are supplied, I’d be in writing heaven.
H.T.: Imagine an enchantress who has a magical ring on each of her fingers. These rings have magical powers. What does each one do?
R.T.: That’s ten powers, if she has ten fingers. (Does she? Does she have eleven?) I have no idea what her powers would be. If I had a ring, I’d hope it would magically do the dishes and put out the trash.
H.T.: Imagine that the wind is a friend who visits you and Wyatt every so often. What does the wind look like or can you see the wind at all? What do you three talk about?
R.T.: We live in Kansas, named after the Kanza Indians, called “People of the Wind.” Mostly the wind talks to us, rather than the other way around. It circles the house, enters and leaves our lungs, prowls through our poems. Its moods are unpredictable, one day furious (we live in “tornado alley”), the next day sweet natured. The thing I most admire is its fashion sense. Invisible itself, it dresses up in trees, smoke, flying debris, and the smell of violets. It’s why we live where we live.
Many thanks to Roderick Townley from all of us at Good Reads With Ronna for his time, his talent, his insights and for bringing us “the magic that lies just beneath the surface of so-called ordinary life.” For more information about his wonderful books for children and teens, please visit www.rodericktownely.com. Click here now to read Hilary’s post about his novels. Why not tell us your ending for his new novel tentatively titled The Black Rose? We’d love to hear from you.
Do you like fan art? Please click here to see some fab fan art. Find an artistic rendition of Princess Sylvie from The Great Good Thing with quotes from the books all along the edges. A huge tribute to Townley’s work by Shaylynn Rackers!
Stop by the Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse today to pick up your copy of these great books, buy gifts, enjoy their extensive selection of other great reads and relax over a great cup of coffee. Check out the website atwww.flintridgebooks.com to keep up-to-date with story times, author events and other exciting special events. And when you stop by, keep a lookout for Hilary peeking out from behind a novel.
I once heard black author Rita Williams Garcia say that some of the fans who connected most closely to her characters were Asian. Apparently, the story Rita wrote held truth for many families.
The authors of these books have all won major literary awards, but don’t save these books for Black History Month. These are terrific human stories that show that even though our experiences may be different, we all feel longing, heartbreak, injustice, and self-consciousness.
These books can all prompt great discussions about how the characters feel, what they have to deal with and what choices they make. I especially recommend them for book reports or Mother/Daughter book clubs.
THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE($15.99 – Hardcover, $7.99 – Trade Paperback, Random House/Wendy Lamb Books)by Christopher Paul Curtis
I love eleven-year-old Deza Malone, a smart, sassy girl who loves to read and write. Like many during the Depression, her family is surviving on the edge until an accident forces them apart. Getting the family back together is the heart of this story. Great themes of love, family loyalty, and hard work. Historical Fiction (8+)
THE OTHER HALF OF MY HEART ($16.99, Delacorte Books for Young Readers)by Sundee Frazier
Twins Minerva and Kiera are like their parents, one is black and one is white. When their Southern grandmother invites them to visit and insists they enter the Miss Black Pearl Contest, the two sisters’ bond is tested. Grandmother clearly prefers one girl over the other. Kids will respond to this injustice. (8+)
Ella’s always been on the outside. The only black student in a white school, she also has a large birthmark on her face. When a cool new black boy arrives, Ella has to choose between staying loyal to her only friend or being popular. It’s a dilemma that kids will easily identify with. Contemporary Fiction (9+)
Three sisters are sent to spend the summer with the mother who walked out on them seven years before. Their mother is distant and resentful of their presence, and eleven-year-old Delphine must keep her sisters fed and busy at the Black Panther’s youth program. Readers will cheer these three girls as they speak up for themselves and try to form a bond with their mom. Historical Fiction (9+)
Please visit the Flintridge Bookstore today to pick up your copy of these great books, buy gifts, enjoy their extensive selection of other great reads and relax over a great cup of coffee. Also visit the website at www.flintridgebooks.com to keep up-to-date with story times, author events and other exciting special events.