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A review of The Magical Imperfect and an Interview with Author Chris Baron

THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT

by Chris Baron

(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

 

A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron

by Karol Silverstein

 

 

MagicalImperfect_CVR

 

Starred Review – Booklist

 

REVIEW:

In The Magical Imperfect, Etan has had trouble speaking since his mother checked into a hospital to get well, and his friends at school don’t know what to make of his silence. Baseball is about the only thing he can share with his father, but luckily, 1989 is looking like a good year for their Giants. Spending time with his immigrant grandfather, a shopkeeper in the local village, is much easier for Etan. Though his family is Jewish, their small hometown north of San Francisco is home to many refugees from various countries, so he’s exposed to many different cultures.

On an errand to deliver items for one of his grandfather’s fellow shopkeepers, Etan meets Malia, a girl who has severe eczema and began being homeschooled when the bullying at the local school became too much. These two outcast kids have an instant connection and build a moving friendship. Etan’s grandfather has a small supply of clay from “the old country,” which is supposed to have curative properties. Could the clay possibly cure Malia’s eczema? Etan wonders. Malia has tried many medicines and “cures” and is more interested in connecting with and learning from the nature that surrounds her, particularly the trees. Malia also dreams of singing in the town’s talent contest—unthinkable before she met Etan. As the talent show—and the World Series—draw closer, Malia practices her performance with Etan’s encouragement and Etan secures some of his grandfather’s “magic clay,” hoping it will help a particularly bad eczema outbreak Malia is experiencing. If only the scary tremors would let up…

As was the case in author Chris Baron’s 2019 debut All Of Me, the gentle unfolding of character and emotion through evocative verse is again on full display in The Magical Imperfect. The juxtaposition of Etan and Malia’s small tremors of growth with San Francisco’s devastating 1989 earthquake provides a potent metaphor for how life can shake you up but not necessarily knock you down. I worried a little that this book might delve into “magical cure/disability that needs to be fixed” territory that hampers many books with disabled and/or chronically ill characters and can actually be harmful to that community. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Etan’s clay isn’t really the magic fix he’d hoped for, and I believe both kids come to realize that acceptance and small victories are, in the end, what matter most.

Ultimately, the intertwined themes of love, culture, baseball and just a touch of magic . . . or is it faith? . . . make this a wonderful and wonder-filled read.

 

INTERVIEW:

Karol Silverstein: The Magical Imperfect is set around the time of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. How and at what point in the writing process did you decide on that time period? What led to this decision?

Chris Baron: This is a great question with a very twisty-turny answer. Let me see if I can straighten it out enough. Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school. This place is just a part of me. The setting lives in my heart—from the ocean to the redwoods and beyond.  I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as a big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.

 

Karol: Baseball, music, food, and cultural traditions are wonderfully intertwined in your book. Can you talk about how you worked with these themes to tell Etan’s story?

Chris: Intertwined is actually a beautiful word for this. I think all of these things are intertwined in the story. When we hear a song, we feel the beat and hum the melody. We can remember the words no matter how long it’s been. Not only that, if the song has a special meaning to us, the music and the lyrics come together to fuel the memories that bind us together. I think it’s the same with cultural and sacred traditions, (which of course include food). The traditions, the tastes, the people—they become intertwined in who we are. They connect us. Even though Etan and Malia are from different cultures, and even though traditions might look different, they find that their values are actually intertwined.

As for baseball: Baseball is its own tradition—a symbol, an activity played at every level, and just a very fun game. For so many of us, baseball represents normal life, but it’s powerful enough to bring so many kinds of people together. For Etan, baseball is one of the only ways he can connect with his father. When things get tough, they at least can talk about baseball.

In 1989, when a unifying tradition like the world series was shaken by an earthquake, it caused many of us to feel scared and uneasy, but the quake also brought many people together. I tried to weave that into the backdrop of the story. There is so much news coverage from that day, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wanted to explore what it would be like for this close-knit town to experience this event together. I also have to confess that writing poetry about the earthquake was all-consuming. I think I wrote one hundred pages of “moments’ from the quake, but of course only a few made it into the book.

 

Karol: Both Etan and Malia have health conditions. What drew you to create characters with selective mutism and eczema, respectively? If you don’t have personal experience with these conditions, what type of research did you do?

Chris: Great question. I have the deepest respect and empathy for those of us who live with these health conditions. Both selective mutism and eczema are extremely complex.

I wrote about the life of an artist’s family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, and like most kids his age (and especially in 1989), he doesn’t know how to recognize it. In Etan, I am writing a character I know well—someone who suffers from anxiety. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions: There was always joy and excitement of moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but of course it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another. I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually, I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out.

Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife Ella deCastro Baron explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has had extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment (2012) is all about a life lived with eczema. When we first got married, she had eczema that ravaged her body from head to toe. The triggering effects of the condition caused so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life. Watching her deal with chronic bouts of eczema has been some of the hardest parts of our life together (and still are at times). In The Magical Imperfect, Malia experiences a similar bout of eczema. It’s so bad that she is isolated from school because of the way other kids treat her and because of her own discomfort.

The healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places.  That’s a big part of what I explored in the book.

I also want to note. Even though these conditions are integrated into my own life, I did more research than I expected. I know that these conditions vary from person to person, so I talked to many. I interviewed doctor friends about both subjects, and a few others who have firsthand experiences with these conditions. I also read Christina Collins’s stunning book, After Zero which I highly recommend.

 

Karol: The “magic” in your book is very much left up to your readers’ interpretation. Can you discuss what role you feel magic plays in helping Etan and Malia get to a better place emotionally by story’s end?

Chris: I know one thing I hope readers don’t take away—the idea that magic is some sort of cure for everything. Without too many spoilers, I would say that the magic in the story connects the many worlds of the characters. There is ancient magic from the worlds more connected to Etan’s grandfather and the other immigrants in town, but also hidden everywhere. This is the part I had the most fun writing. I think the magic is crucial for Etan and Malia—not because it cures things—but because it provides hope and makes it tangible in their everyday lives. The story is rooted in the idea that magic is all around us—that if we might only stop and listen—pay attention—we will see and hear the trees, or discover the ancient things living right beside us.

But also—I love trees—and I know that they are made of magic.

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Chris Baron is the author of the middle-grade novels in verse, ALL OF ME and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT (2021) from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, a Junior Library Guild Selection. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center. Learn more about him on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron, Instagram: @christhebearbaron, Facebook:  Chris Baron – Author, Poet, Educator, and on www.chris-baron.com.
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WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase from Run For Cover Bookstore
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Click here to purchase from Mysterious Galaxy

 

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Kids Book Review – Saving Emma the Pig by John Chester

SAVING EMMA THE PIG
(The Biggest Little Farm)
Written by John Chester
Illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer
(Feiwel & Friends; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

saving emma the pig book cover

 

Last month I had the good fortune to see the delightful documentary, “The Biggest Little Farm” and I’m not kidding when I say my husband thought I’d immediately head home to don overalls and work boots after the film had ended. Yes, I was that enthused but I’d also like to add that you don’t have to have seen the film to appreciate this farm story or the real life characters in Saving Emma the Pig reviewed here today.

Saving Emma the Pig, an utterly adorable 40-page nonfiction picture book just recently released, is going to win fans and perhaps even inspire future farmers and vets once in the hands of young readers. “Based on the award-winning film” by documentary filmmaker John Chester about bringing Apricot Lane Farms to life in Moorpark, California, Saving Emma the Pig is the first in a new series of children’s books. Each book, narrated by Chester, will capture a unique and engaging tale of an Apricot Lane Farms animal and “the special people who care for them.”

 

saving emma the pig interior spread 1
Interior illustration from Saving Emma the Pig: The Biggest Little Farm written by John Chester and illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer, Feiwel & Friends © 2019.

 

Chester’s debut story recounts the true events about a particularly personable and apple-loving pig named Emma. Not just a new arrival at the farm, Emma also happens to be pregnant, and ill. Chester is determined to get her well again so she can properly care for her piglets. The premise here is quite simple yet also powerful, selflessly give love and devotion and it’ll come back to you tenfold. And that’s exactly what Chester, his wife Molly and his team set out to do.

Everyone expects Emma will have a fairly normal sized litter but when she goes into labor, the piglets keep coming. It doesn’t even stop at a dozen. Nope, seventeen piglets are born, close to a record number and quite a feat for a sickly swine. But the poor hog isn’t producing milk so the newborns move into Chester’s “teeny-tiny” farmhouse where they can be looked after while hopefully Emma recovers. There’s just one problem and it’s rather a big one. Emma has no appetite and in order to get better she must eat.

 

saving emma the pig int illustration 2
Interior illustration from Saving Emma the Pig: The Biggest Little Farm written by John Chester and illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer, Feiwel & Friends © 2019.

 

Perhaps offering Emma apples is the way to get her back onto her feet. When this solution doesn’t work and Chester is at his wit’s end, there’s just one last thing to do to save Emma, bring back the piglets. Clearly they were missing their mama and she was missing them because, once reunited, Emma’s health and spirit improve. Together again, Emma and her piglets thrive with the piglets eventually growing up and moving into their own pasture.

It’s here both in art and text that Chester introduces another farm animal, Greasy the rooster, who bonds with Emma. This unlikely and funny friendship is setting the stage for what is sure to be the next book in the series. Meanwhile, John and Molly figure if Emma can handle seventeen little ones, surely they can “raise one of our own,” and an addition to the Chester family is also depicted.

 

saving emma the pig int illustration 3
Interior illustration from Saving Emma the Pig: The Biggest Little Farm written by John Chester and illustrated by Jennifer L. Meyer, Feiwel & Friends © 2019.

 

Artist Jennifer L. Meyer’s illustrations are so good that I cannot picture anyone else’s working as well. There’s a warmth that emanates from every page and brings Chester’s charming narrative to life. In the second spread we even spot Greasy taking up much of the left hand page as he watches Emma from a distance following her arrival. I also like that she’s added bees in her artwork. Another spread, with the piglets splashing, burping and slurping in the Chester home, shows Molly and John just outside a window wondering how they will cope with the litter and worrying if Emma will recover. An author’s note on the last two pages details the origin of Apricot Lane Farms, tells a bit more on Emma who now weighs in at seven hundred pounds and includes acknowledgments as well.

Bring the Chester family and the animals of Apricot Lane Farms into your life today. Share the Biggest Little Farm stories with your family to enter the wonderful world of bio dynamic farming where humans and nature are interconnected, helping us to learn about more about ourselves and the world around us.

• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read more at the links below:

John Chester

Jennifer L. Meyer

 

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Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton

 

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 cover image

 

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.

Click here to read an excerpt.

Author website:

http://www.danamiddletonbooks.com/

Interviews with Dana Middleton:

Kick-butt Kidlit – http://kickbuttkidlit.tumblr.com/post/165186394040/kicking-back-with-kick-butt-and-dana-middleton

StoryMammas – http://storymamas.com/wp/2017/10/16/open-if-you-dare-interview-with-dana-middleton/

 

  • 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.

 

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The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom

 

THE CRUELTY
by Scott Bergstrom
(Feiwel & Friends; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

 

cover image for The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom

 

Initially, seventeen-year-old Gwendolyn Bloom’s worst things in life include being bullied by rich girls at her “diplobrats” school and aching from the tenth anniversary of her mother’s brutal death. Gwendolyn’s worldview is soon upended when her father’s kidnapping propels her to action.

With the help of friends (including a blossoming first love), Gwendolyn escapes to Paris in pursuit of her first lead. She discovers that cruelty has no borders as she travels through the underbellies of France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Surviving in the shadows using intrigue and deception, Gwendolyn perseveres.

The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom is a fast-paced read; with each chapter, Gwendolyn grows more deeply involved in gambling, arms smuggling, and human trafficking. She sacrifices everything in the hope of freeing her father—then finds bigger causes to fight for.

While this modern-day spy book exemplifies female strength and independence, the life of this spy is rarely glamorous. The title tells all: cruelty rules. Opting for activism means becoming tougher and craftier than her enemies. Gwendolyn learns there’s no going back from these irreversible choices.

Find Scott Bergstrom’s website here.

The Cruelty is available on February 7, 2017.  Book two, The Greed, is scheduled for release next year.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Wolf in the Snow written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell

 

 

WOLF IN THE SNOW
Written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell
(Feiwel & Friends; $17.99, Ages 2-6)

 

★ Starred reviews – Booklist, Horn Books, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, SLJ

Wolf in the Snow cover image

 

Matthew Cordell’s notable picture book, Wolf in the Snow, balances a chilly winter landscape with warm sentiments of kindness. A young girl in a red triangular-shaped parka loses her way home from school when snows obliterates the path. At the same time, the severe weather separates a wolf cub from its pack. The two youngsters find one another and the girl’s thoughtfulness sets the story’s tone.

 

Interior artwork from Wolf in the Snow written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends ©2017.

 

The only words in this book are plaintive sounds: whines, barks, howls, exhausted huffing. Children not yet literate can easily follow the images. Be sure to view the pictures before the title page which convey important information about the girl, her parents, and their dog. These also start us with the idea that, though the girl becomes lost, she is not alone—help will come, though not necessarily in the manner expected.

Blowing snow illustrations are bookended by ones of cozy comfort, communicating a safe opening and conclusion. Icy storm and natural colors contrast sharply with the bright jackets worn by adults and children. Wolves are depicted with distinction.

 

Interior image of wolf from Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell
Interior artwork from Wolf in the Snow written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends ©2017.

Animal lovers will appreciate the resounding connection between humans and creatures. Wolf in the Snow reminds us that helping one another is an idea without boundaries.

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Three Winter Themed Picture Books

Let it Snow!
A Winter-Themed Review From Rita Zobayan.

The holidays are over, but winter is still in full force in parts of the country! Grab a blanket, your favorite warm drink, and cuddle up to enjoy these wonderful winter stories.

29226You Make Me Smile by Layn Marlow is a sweet and simple story about a little girl who makes a snowman smile. As the first snow falls, a normal day becomes special for the girl who ventures out of her warm house to create a snowy friend. She gathers her materials and builds a buddy, and while the oncoming seasons may separate them, they will once again be able to share their friendship at winter’s return.

I enjoyed the clever play of words during the description. Is the narrator the girl describing the snowman or vice versa?

You’ll be cold, cold, cold, with a radish-red nose. Your arms may be stiff, but your eyes are going to shine. A long woolen scarf around your neck should keep you warm, but the cold doesn’t seem to matter to you, because…today is the special day…when you make me…smile.

The illustrations and typography suit the story well. They are inviting and warm, even though they depict winter. Look for small details, such as the girl’s watchful father, his birdhouse, and its inhabitants. You Make Me Smile certainly brought a smile to my face.

(You Make Me Smile by Layn Marlow, Holiday House, $16.95, Ages 3 and up)

 

17262331In Pip and Posy: The Snowy Day by Axel Scheffler, Pip the rabbit and Posy the mouse are excited to play in the snow! There’s so much to do: leave big footprints, catch snowflakes on their tongues, make snow angels, and go sledding. But when it comes time to create a snow creature, they can’t agree.

“Snowmouse,” said Posy.

                  “Snowrabbit,” said Pip.

Posy was so mad at Pip that she threw the snow creature’s head at him. Oh, dear! Then Pip was even angrier with Posy, so he pushed her very hard and she fell in the snow. Oh, dear! Now Pip and Posy were both very cold and very sad. Poor Pip! Poor Posy!

Will they work out their differences? Can they remain friends? Pip and Posy: The Snowy Day shows children that even best friends can disagree, and that kindness and consideration are really what makes for a great friendship.

(Pip and Posy: The Snowy Day by Axel Scheffler, Nosy Crow, $12.99, Ages 3 and up)

 

Snow can seem magical—its stark purity, its delicacy as it falls, and its ability to create what can seem like another world. When It Snows by Richard Collingridge takes us on a magical journey with a little boy and his teddy bear. On his adventure, the boy finds polar bears, skiers, “the place where the snowmen live,” and the Queen of the Poles who introduces him to “tiny fairies that glow” and “thousands of elves and other magical creatures.”  But the best wonder of all is revealed at the end, and it is one that readers will hold dear.

The illustrations with muted colors and shading perfectly create a feeling of other-worldliness and capture the wonder seen through the boy’s eyes. My four-year old daughter was captivated by this book, I think, mostly because of its sense of fantasy. She even said, “I want to go in there,” pointing to the book, which just goes to show that a book dealing with snow can bring warmth to your heart.

(When It Snows by Richard Collingridge, Feiwel and Friends, 2013; $16.99; ages 4 and up)

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