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A Review Plus an Interview with Author Dana Middleton

A REVIEW PLUS AN INTERVIEW

WITH

 DANA MIDDLETON

AUTHOR OF

NOT A UNICORN

(Chronicle Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

 

 

 

REVIEW

Dana Middleton’s third novel will delight middle-grade readers who enjoy a story that blends contemporary issues with just the right amount of magical realism and likable, relatable characters who would be fun to hang out with.

Readers learn early on that the main character, Jewel, age 13, has a unicorn horn on her forehead. Her friend Mystic  likes it because it makes Jewel different, the way she feels and Nicholas believes it’s cool and magical. “Are you kidding?” he tells her at one point, “You don’t have to have a horn to be different.” These three spend their time at the “freak” table (where Jewel has found refuge following an unintentional impaling of a fellow student who survived), discussing ‘the horn,’ comics, the upcoming French essay competition, and the popular kids. As the story progresses, Carmen, Jewel’s invisible magical guardian unicorn begins to play more of a role in the plot.

In her apartment, Jewel lives with her mom, and early on her grandmother moves in and shares her bedroom. The family is portrayed as lower-class where money is tight and Jewel’s mother wants her to have a better life. “You are going to graduate from college. Got it? You’re not going to end up like me.” While they clearly care for Jewel, they don’t seem to grasp how much Jewel struggles with the horn and wants to have it removed. But doing so involves great risk. It also means a huge expense, a trip to Los Angeles, and initially going behind her mother’s back.

As the story unfolds, Jewel’s lost friendship with her former best friend Emma rears its head again at the prospect of her horn being surgically removed and becoming popular. Complicating things is Mystic’s stealing a necklace from Emma’s pal, Brooklyn, the ultimate popular girl. There’s so much for Jewel to consider and weighing heavily on her is having been offered a chance to tell her “horn” story in French at the competition she has dreamed of.  At the same time, calling attention to it will make her feel like she doesn’t fit in even more, and reconciling those two feelings are taking their toll on her. Additionally, it turns out that reuniting with Emma may not be all Jewel hoped it would be.

The good news is that Jewel ultimately gets her wish and has her horn removed in Los Angeles. But the horn, it seems which bonded her to Carmen, will kill the unicorn unless she can find a way to save her.  It’s here Dana has cleverly tied in a graphic novel that Jewel has been working on with Nicholas called Highwaymen. When the storyline mixes the graphic novel into the quest to save Carmen, there is action and adventure around every turn that will keep readers in suspense in the best possible way.

I loved how when the book ended, the characters stayed with me and filled me with hope. The thoughtful and exciting journey Jewel took brought her to a place where she could finally embrace her horn and her uniqueness. Coming to terms with what made her different ends up being the biggest and most satisfying magic Jewel, and readers, experience.

Since I could not put down Dana’s latest book I felt compelled to ask her some questions to satisfy my curiosity. I hope you’ll scroll down now or return to the interview below when you’ve finished reading Not a Unicorn.

INTERVIEW

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome to the blog, Dana. I’m thrilled to discuss your latest middle-grade novel, Not a Unicorn. Do you recall how the idea for it came to you?  

Dana Middleton: Actually, it was all Jewel. This girl with a unicorn horn showed up in my mind and wouldn’t let go.

 

GRWR: Was it a long time until you fleshed out the story? 

DM: It did take quite a while, in part because I thought the idea was so weird and I wondered if people would get it. And then I thought, maybe people would think I was weird, too! Like Jewel, I had to accept all the parts of me (even the weird ones) to be able to write this. I was sure about one thing early on though—that there would be three parts to this story concerning Jewel’s horn. I won’t spoil it here, but that initial structure never wavered. I knew how it had to go, but I wasn’t sure if I could write it.

 

GRWR: One of my favorite parts of the story is the friendship between the main characters, the “different” kids Jewel, Mystic, and Nicholas. I love how they stayed with me after the story ended because I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. What did you draw upon when writing them?

DM: I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them, too! Nicholas was loosely based on a friend of my nephew’s, and Mystic came from someplace unknown. And then Carmen, Noah, and Tall Ethan wandered in. I felt like it was so important to get these characters right because each of them had such a profound effect on Jewel.

 

Dana signing books OnceUponaTime
Dana signing books at Once Upon a Time bookstore in L.A. Photo Credit: ©Jessica Palacios.

 

GRWR: I’m a Francophile like Jewel. Is there any of you in her or maybe the popular girls like Brooklyn or Emma? 

DM: Like you, I am a Francophile! I studied French and even went to study at the Sorbonne for a summer during college. I always wanted to travel and by imbuing Jewel with this desire, it created conflict because of course, she felt like she couldn’t be seen in big spaces. I always had this picture in my mind of Jewel looking up at the Eiffel Tower because she’d become brave enough to go there.

And as far as Brooklyn and Emma are concerned, I definitely wasn’t either of them. But Brooklyn, that girl turned out okay. She became someone I didn’t quite expect.

 

GRWR: How did your hometown in Georgia influence the setting or anything else in the novel? 

DM: My family moved to the mountains of North Georgia (to a town called Dahlonega) when I was a teenager and that’s the town where Jewel lives. It’s a mixture of Dahlonega past and present, and some of it made up in my mind. I thought if you had a unicorn horn on your head, it would probably be best to live in the relative safety of a small town. That also created for Jewel more fear about the possibilities of venturing into the outside world.

 

GRWR: Can you speak to what it was like incorporating the graphic novel/comic you created called Highwaymen into the plot?

DM: Let me just say that Highwaymen was a complete surprise to me. I had no idea how that would develop in the story but it kept developing into something and I kept following. I really love Highwaymen, and like Jewel, I have a soft spot for Esmeralda. She’s so bad-ass awesome!

 

GRWR: What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Not a Unicorn?

DM: Trusting that it would all work out. I guess a lot of writers feel this way, but sometimes I wasn’t sure I could make this book what I wanted it to be. I was very blessed to have an agent and editor who believed in Jewel and helped me to make it the best book that I could.

 

GRWR: If young readers took away one thing from your novel, what would you hope that would be? 

DM: The best question for last! I hope this book helps young readers accept who they are more deeply. Because we all have something that we just wish we could change— it may not be a unicorn horn, but it’s something. If Jewel can help someone accept their ‘difference’ and make it into their superpower, then my job is done.

My sincere thanks to Dana for taking the time to chat with me about Not a Unicorn. Here she is below with author Jill Diamond during her virtual book launch.

Dana with author Jill Diamond at Virtual Book Launch

BUY THE BOOK

Purchase Dana’s book here: https://danamiddletonbooks.com/books/not-a-unicorn/ 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA

Website: https://danamiddletonbooks.com/

 

Author Dana Middleton
Author Dana Middleton Photo Credit: ©Peter Atkins

BRIEF BIO

Dana Middleton is a middle-grade author of contemporary novels for young readers who enjoy a dash of fantasy and mystery. Her latest book, Not a Unicorn, is from Chronicle Books. She is also the author of The Infinity Year of Avalon James (a Young Hoosier Book Award nominee and Oregon Battle of the Books selection), and Open If You Dare. Dana grew up in Georgia, but lives in Los Angeles with her British husband. You can visit her online at danamiddletonbooks.com.

 

 

 

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Kids Picture Book Review – Itty-Bitty Kitty Corn

 

Itty-Bitty-Kitty-Corn

Written by Shannon Hale

Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

(Abrams BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

itty-bitty-kitty-corn cover

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

 

Itty-Bitty-Kitty-Corn, written by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, begins on the front endpapers with Kitty who is gazing admiringly at a picture of a unicorn. But how, she wonders, can she make herself into one?

She gets an idea and takes out her crafts box, removing paper, paint, and glue. She makes herself a colorful horn out of paper and ties it to her head with a piece from her purple ball of string. Now, the text takes off with Kitty looking in the mirror and seeing a unicorn in the reflection. “She feels so perfectly unicorn-y.” But much to her dismay, Parakeet and Gecko tell her she’s not a unicorn, just a cat, bursting Kitty’s bubble of happiness as a unicorn. This scenario repeats itself with Kitty becoming more and more dejected. It is not until she meets Unicorn who shows Kitty that she herself is actually a Kitty-Corn just like her, that Kitty is able to be who she really is and sees Unicorn for who she is too.

 

Itty Bitty Kitty Corn int1
Interior art from Itty-Bitty Kitty Corn written by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, Abrams BYR, ©2021.

 

At forty-eight pages, this length exceeds today’s standard for a fiction picture book title and allows for a more relaxed reading experience with the young listener. Each page has very few words and lots of white space which allows the expressive illustrations to shine through. The most ardent of non-cat lovers will melt at the sight of Kitty.

 

Itty Bitty Kitty Corn int2
Interior art from Itty-Bitty Kitty Corn written by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, Abrams BYR, ©2021.

 

Everyone, both children and adults alike, has an idea of how we perceive ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others. This is our reality when we look in the mirror each day and when we venture out into the world. Itty-Bity-Kitty-Corn’s positive message of instilling in children the notion that they can be anything they want to be, no matter the naysayers they may come across is very self-affirming. We should all have the confidence that Kitty finds in her friendship with Unicorn to be our true selves and see others in their true light as well.

  • Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili

 

KittyCorn_Downloadable_ActSheets.pdf (abramsbooks.com)

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Three Halloween Books for Little Ones

NEW CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR HALLOWEEN

PART TWO

A ROUNDUP

 

 

This year there were so many fun new Halloween and Halloween season books to choose from, especially for the littlest trick-or-treaters, that we decided to share one more roundup to cover them all. If your new faves weren’t included, please let us know in the comments what other books you’d recommend.

 

One Black Cat coverONE BLACK CAT
Written by Robie Rogge

Illustrated by August Ro
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)

This die-cut novelty book is so cute! Shaped like a black cat (it even stands up!), you undo a notch at the collar to reach the rhyming story within. “Black Cat sets out on Halloween / in the dark, without being seen.” Robie Rogge’s 12-page board book, One Black Cat, follows a kitty and trick-or-treaters as they enjoy Halloween. The adorable illustrations by August Ro are in fall-toned colors. I especially like the way Black Cat’s friend (at the end) is drawn.

 

IN A SPOOKY HAUNTED HOUSE:
 A Pop-Up Adventure

Written by Joel Stern
From an idea by Nancy Hall

Illustrated by Christopher Lee
(Little Simon; $12.99, Ages 3-5)

In a Spooky Haunted House by Joel Stern is a beautifully made 14-page pop-up board book. We’re welcomed in for a funny tour through the rooms. “Now here’s a hallway where young witches learn to fly a broom. / This one’s flown right through a hole and found a secret tomb.” Just about every kind of (not-very-spooky) ghoul is depicted. My favorite scene reveals ghosts making pancakes; detail shows the other items in the kitchen, including a silly vampire bat. The well-constructed rhymes and fun art by Christopher Lee make this book a winning Halloween adventure.

 

UNICORNS ARE THE WORST!
Written and illustrated by Alex Willan
(Simon & Schuster BYR; 17.,99, Ages 4-8)

Unicorns Are the Worst! by Alex Willan is the Halloween book for kids who aren’t that into Halloween. This funny story features a goblin who, of course, thinks unicorns are the worst—a clever twist on the ever-popular unicorn tales. Willan’s art contrasts the goblin’s world with that of the unicorns, building the pace. The variety in the illustrations really works. For example, a sepia-toned scene spotlights super-secret goblin magic, and panels throughout give sections of the book a graphic feel. There are also LOL images, such as where the goblin’s trying to wash that all that annoying unicorn glitter out of his smock.

 

 

 

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    Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20
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