Book Review: Open If You Dare by Dana Middleton — One of the Most Relatable, Heartwarming, and Tear Jerking Books I’ve Read

Hi guys! Today I am heading back home to the United States! I have had such an amazing vacation in the Philippines, and I am super grateful for all of the blessings, adventures, experiences, and memories over the past two months. Back in the spring, I had the lovely opportunity to read Open If You Dare by Dana Middleton, who I met at the amazing Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival! A few weeks ago, she and Alyssa Hollingsworth were on the blog in the June edition of our LILbooKtalks, and it was so fun to talk with the both of them about “Never Losing Hope in a Future of Uncertainty.” I hope you enjoy this review and hopefully check out this amazing book!


About Open If You DareOpen If You Dare

Like Birdie Adams didn’t have enough problems this summer. But Birdie’s Birdie. And if a long-buried box has “Open if you dare” written on its lid, then Birdie and her best friends, Ally and Rose, are going to open it.

And now, along with everything else that’s going on–Ally’s pitching slump, Rose’s banishment to Britain, and Birdie’s annoying younger sister being, you know, annoying–the best friends are caught up in solving a mystery planted by a dead girl forty years ago.

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4 Stars

Disclaimer: I received a free hardcover copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This will not affect my review in any way.

Sometimes a book deserves a 5-star when it is written very exceptionally. Other times it deserves one when it resonated so deeply inside me, to the point where I laughed and cried. Dana Middleton and her protagonist Birdie wrenched and warmed my heart so much in Open If You Dare that I just wanted to give my copy a big hug. Although I read this book back in March (or April?), it was one of the best stories I read at the time, thus breaking a really long 5-star drought. Open If You Dare is one of the most relatable books I have read this year—Birdie’s feelings and struggles regarding dealing with friendships (and possibly losing them) and a future full of fear and uncertainty could be applied in a sense to my life. As a high school who has had some social problems in the past and is almost off to college in a year, Birdie’s story struck a very deep chord in my heart.

Knowing that her two best friends are not going to be around in a few months, Birdie is determined to make this last summer with them the best, but her plans get sidetracked as they discover a box that has clues that could solve a possible murder mystery that occurred decades ago. Open If You Dare explores how important the power of imagination is as she fuels the creativity of both her characters and her readers. Birdie’s curiosity and love of books show readers that both reading and reality can take one on wild adventures that will make memories of a lifetime. This book was definitely very fun to read! It filled me with a lot of smiles, love, and laughter. It’s the perfect summer read that will have readers not only savor the story but also go out and make their own adventures and memories.

Open If You Dare’s main internal conflict revolved around Birdie trying to deal with an uncertain future where her friends won’t be around. Will she lose her friendships? Will she be all alone next school year? Will she find new friends? Her emotions and questions are some that I feel everyone, including me, has gone through. It is tough trying to find out who’s a true friend. I’ve had my share of troubles and tears as I entered high school—losing some best friends, dealing with toxic relationships, encountering feelings of loneliness, and figuring out who are my best friends (or friends, if at all). And I still struggle with some of these challenges today. But to be able to walk with Birdie as she waded through her river of worries and fears was very comforting for me. I truly could connect with how she felt at times, to be misunderstood, to be conflicted, to be worried, to be alone. For her to deal with her problems has given me a lot of hope and reminded me that having a few best friends is what matters the most and that I must cherish them as much as I can before we leave. It may be tough at times, but they will always be there for you, no matter what. Open If You Dare instills hope within readers so they can remember that everything can be and will be alright.

Open If You Dare will warm your heart to the point of tears, and it will make you reflect about how you deal with your friends, your future, and ultimately your life. It serves as a reminder that we must live each and every day to the fullest, regardless of whether it is good or bad. Dana Middleton definitely impressed me with her sophomore novel abounding with hope and love, and I will be looking forward to reading more of her novels. Open If You Dare is not just one of the best MG novels I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I have read in 2018. Readers of all ages will find themselves connecting so much with Birdie’s struggles and adventures and be moved to reminisce over childhood summers, adventures, and friendships as they start this story of a lifetime.


About the AuthorDana Middleton

Dana Middleton grew up in Georgia before moving to Los Angeles to work in film and theatre. She produced an Academy Award-nominated short film and won an Ovation Award but writing for kids is what she loves most! Her middle grade novels THE INFINITY YEAR OF AVALON JAMES and OPEN IF YOU DARE were inspired by her Georgia childhood which she writes about from her sunny Los Angeles home.

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Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

Have you read Open If You Dare? Do you like MG contemporary?

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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June LILbooKtalk: “Never Losing Hope in a Future of Uncertainty” with Dana Middleton and Alyssa Hollingsworth

Hi guys! I am really excited to share with y’all this month’s LILbooKtalk! The theme is “Never Losing Hope in a Future of Uncertainty,” a theme that is present is most Middle Grade novels. That is one of the biggest reasons why I love MG because they certainly boost my hope whenever I feel overwhelmed or sad. Today, I have two wonderful authors here to discuss this topic, Dana Middleton and Alyssa Hollingsworth, and they both provide some amazing insight into the worlds of MG and contemporary. I hope you enjoy!


About Open If You DareOpen If You Dare

Like Birdie Adams didn’t have enough problems this summer. But Birdie’s Birdie. And if a long-buried box has “Open if you dare” written on its lid, then Birdie and her best friends, Ally and Rose, are going to open it.

And now, along with everything else that’s going on–Ally’s pitching slump, Rose’s banishment to Britain, and Birdie’s annoying younger sister being, you know, annoying–the best friends are caught up in solving a mystery planted by a dead girl forty years ago.

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About The Eleventh TradeThe Eleventh Trade

From debut author Alyssa Hollingsworth comes a story about living with fear, being a friend, and finding a new place to call home.

They say you can’t get something for nothing, but nothing is all Sami has. When his grandfather’s most-prized possession―a traditional Afghan instrument called a rebab―is stolen, Sami resolves to get it back. He finds it at a music store, but it costs $700, and Sami doesn’t have even one penny. What he does have is a keychain that has caught the eye of his classmate. If he trades the keychain for something more valuable, could he keep trading until he has $700? Sami is about to find out.

The Eleventh Trade is both a classic middle school story and a story about being a refugee. Like Katherine Applegate, author of Wishtree, Alyssa Hollingsworth tackles a big issue with a light touch.

The Eleventh Trade releases from Roaring Brook Press on September 18th, 2018! Pre-order it today!

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LILbooKtalk August 2018

Questions are in bold

Kester: The first author we have today is Dana Middleton, MG author of Open If You Dare, which released last year. I was able to meet Dana at the SE-YA Book Festival back in March, also! Could you tell us a bit about your latest book and your background?

Dana: Hi Kester. So great to be here! My latest book is called Open If You Dare. It’s set in Atlanta (in the real neighborhood of my youth). It’s a mystery but it’s mostly about three friends during their last real summer together. I live in LA now but most of my MG fiction takes me back to my childhood in the South.Open If You Dare

Kester: Thank you for joining us today, Dana! I certainly loved Open If You Dare!Alongside Dana, we have Alyssa Hollingsworth, whose MG debut novel The Eleventh Trade is set to release in September of this year. Would you like to share with us a little about your book and yourself?

Alyssa: Sure! Thanks for having me. The Eleventh Trade is a contemporary story set in Boston about an Afghan boy who loses his last heirloom from home and goes on a quest of trades to get it back. I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old, got my master’s in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, and seem to have accidentally landed in the niche of MG books with fun plots and an underbelly of humanitarian themes.

The Eleventh TradeKester: I am really excited to read The Eleventh Trade! I’m glad that you’re here with us!

Both Birdie in Open If You Dare and Sami in The Eleventh Trade are faced with great challenges, such as dealing with one’s best friends moving away or trying to buy back a prized possession, that require a lot of hope and perseverance to overcome. What is the central message that you want young readers to take away from your novels? How do you want your book to help readers who are going through similar trials?

Alyssa: Great question! Boiled down to its very basic core, The Eleventh Trade is about how loss opens us up to community (friendship/belonging), and how community brings healing. I hope that readers will see the book as an opportunity to be aware of others’ struggle and actively jump in to give help and hope.

Dana: I agree with Alyssa. When a reader can identify and/or become aware of others’ struggles, the world becomes a smaller and kinder place. As an author, I feel like it’s my job to step into the skin of my protagonist. Birdie, in this case, is a lot like me and a lot different, too. She feels deeply about the impending loss of her friends (one is moving away and the other will go to a different school next year) but she also grows to understand that she can stand on her own and that the future can be different and good at the same time.

Alyssa: “Different and good” — I love that!

Dana: Right? I think I still struggle with that as an adult!

Kester: I definitely agree with the both of y’all. It’s very important to foster empathy in readers so they could make the world a better place.

Dana: In all fiction, but perhaps especially in middle grade fiction, it’s all about empathy and showing readers a variety of experiences. I’m excited to read The Eleventh Trade, partially for that reason. And also because it sound really good!

Alyssa: 🙂

Continue reading “June LILbooKtalk: “Never Losing Hope in a Future of Uncertainty” with Dana Middleton and Alyssa Hollingsworth”

Exclusive Guest Post with Wendy McLeod MacKnight, Author of The Frame-Up, on “The World Behind the Frame”

Hi guys! Today I am at the Tennessee American Legion Boys’ State, where I will be marching and learning more about the inner workings about the government for the entire week. It is an honor to be representing my community this year! Today, I have a special guest post by Wendy McLeod MacKnight, the author of It’s a Mystery, Pig Faceand the upcoming release The Frame-Up, which looks so fascinating! Can you imagine traveling to the worlds inside paintings?


About the BookThe Frame-Up

Don’t let anyone know the paintings are alive. Thirteen-year-old Mona Dunn has adhered to that rule for almost one hundred years, ever since her portrait was hung on the walls of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. So when the gallery director’s son, Sargent Singer discovers the truth, she’s sure she’d just exposed the gallery’s biggest secret. But Sargent, an aspiring artist himself, just wants to know more about the vast and intriguing world beyond the frames. With devious plots, shady characters, and grand art heists, this inventive mystery adventure celebrates art and artists.

Featuring sixteen pages of full glossy pictures of the masterpieces who are characters in the book, this book is a must-read and a useful tool for teachers and parents who want to introduce children to art and artists in a fun, accessible way.

The Frame-Up will release from Greenwillow Books on June 5th, 2018!

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Don’t miss her pre-order giveaway!


Wendy McLeod MacKnight Guest Post.png

The World Behind the Frame: The Frame-Up

I’ve always loved art.

From an early age, I was inspired by art, although I didn’t show a particular aptitude to make it myself (though I admit to the odd dabbling).

I remember visiting my grandmother as a little girl and seeing the portrait of my mother as a teenager on the wall.

Patsy Rider
Photo Courtesy of Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Yes, my mother is Patsy Ryder, the visitor in the story!

The girl in the painting was flat. I wondered what she was looking at. I wondered if she found the grownups conversations boring, as I sometimes did.

What was it like to be in there, behind the frame?

Creating the world behind the frame before I began to write the book was time-consuming.

The world of the art gallery was easy; I had only to wander around the Beaverbrook Art Gallery take notes.

For the world behind, there had to be rules.

First of all, there was the whole travelling between paintings business. I don’t explicitly spell it out in the book, because I want the reader to imagine how it works for themselves, but in my mind’s eye, there is a magical rabbit’s warren of hallways connecting the paintings to one another. Usually, the residents take their time going between the paintings, often times not entering another painting as they go, but other times, they simply walk from painting to painting, especially if the painting is a landscape.

And then there is the whole issue of what exactly is IN any particular painting.

Since the artist’s vision is supreme and what brings the painting to life, I decided early on that the only thing that existed in any given painting was entirely dependents upon what the artists was thinking about while he or she painted.

So Helena Rubinstein gets to have a few rooms at the back of her portrait, as well some cookies, because artist Graham Sutherland thought of them at the time he painted her.

Not so fortunate is a sketch of Somerset Maugham’s head. Since Sutherland was so focused on getting Maugham’s features right for the final portrait, he only thought of the head. The Maugham in the sketch will be forever dependent on the kindness of other residents to get him where he wants to be.

Depending on the imagination of the artist, the painting can go on far into the distance. For example, Mona Dunn ends up in the painting MerryMaking, and ends up travelling for miles on a bitterly cold winter day, thanks to Krieghoff’s imagination.  This is mostly true of all the paintings, though sometimes to almost comical lengths. In Dan Vigilio Lake Garda, John Singer Sargent doesn’t stock the café with chocolate gelato because the proprietor ran out of it on the day Singer visited!

Mona’s painting is very bare: a small throw, a stool, and a shadowy room. It is not wonder that she adores visiting paintings like San Vigilio, Lake Garda!

There are other rules in the world outside the frame: a resident should not go into another residents’ painting when they are not there without their permission.


About the AuthorWendy McLeod MacKnight

Wendy grew up in St. Stephen and wrote her first novel at age nine. She worked for the Government of New Brunswick for twenty-five years, ending her career as the Deputy Minister of Education when the siren call of writing became impossible to ignore. Wendy is represented by Lauren Galit of the LKG Agency in New York City. Her debut middle grade novel, It’s a Mystery, Pig Face! was published by Sky Pony Press in 2017. Her second book, The Frame-Up, a fantasy set at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, was sold at auction to Greenwillow Books in a two-book deal and will be published June 5th 2018.

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Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

Are you excited for The Frame-Up? Do you like MG Fantasy?

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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Exclusive Interview with Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, MG Author of “A Dog Like Daisy”

Hi guys! School is out in less than two weeks! I am super stoked for summer to come! I have AP exams next week (ugh) and after graduation, I’m off to Boys’ State! Woo hoo! This year has been really awesome for me, and not only have I grown so much with everything, but this blog has grown a lot. Even though it might not have the reach it once had last year, it means a lot more to me to be able to touch more hearts rather than to just reach out to them. That is truly what being a blogger is about.


About A Dog Like DaisyA Dog Like Daisy

Max meets A Dog Called Homeless in this sweet and poignant middle grade novel told from the humorous, thoughtful perspective of a rescued pit bull as she trains to be a service dog for an injured veteran and his family.

Daisy has only ten weeks to prove her usefulness or else be sent back to the pound. Yet if she goes back, who will protect Colonel Victor from his PTSD attacks? Or save the littler human, Micah, from those infernal ear muzzles he calls earphones? What if no one ever adopts her again?

Determined to become the elite protector the colonel needs, Daisy vows to ace the service dog test. She’ll accept the ridiculous leash and learn to sit, heel, shake, even do your business, Daisy when told to. But Daisy must first learn how to face her own fears from the past or risk losing the family she’s so desperate to guard—again.

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Kristin O'Donnell Tubb Header.png

1. Your latest novel A Dog Like Daisy, which released last summer, follows the story of Daisy as she tries to prove her usefulness as a service dog before being sent back to the pound. What was it like writing from an animal’s perspective, and how is it different from storytelling with a human’s point of view? Could you describe to us your approach as you created Daisy’s narration?

I love research, because it often gives me many plot points (hello there, “truth is stranger than fiction” adage!), and it sometimes even provides the voice of character. That was certainly the case for Daisy. I read while researching that some experts believe dogs experience the world as a human with synesthesia might – in other words, their five senses blend into something beautifully unique. Someone with synesthesia might see colors when they hear music, or experience a certain taste when they have intense feelings; something in their brain combines multiple senses exceptionally. When I read that – boom! – there was Daisy’s voice, in all its bacon-loving, color-hearing glory.

2. What inspired you to write a novel about service dogs? Would you like to tell us some of your experiences and adventures working with them?

Ideas are dust – they’re floating everywhere if you’re paying attention and look hard enough to find them. (From this statement it should be obvious that cleaning is WAY LOW on my priority list – ha!) The idea for Daisy came about when my dog was playing with a neighbor’s dog. She mentioned in passing that the man from whom she bought her Great Dane also trained dogs that assist veterans. I thought, “Hmmm. I wonder what that training looks like? I’ve read what service dogs can do, of course, but how do they learn it?” I’ve learned that when I say “hmmmm” to myself, it’s likely that others would say “hmmmm” to that same question. And that? That is a story idea.

I didn’t have personal experience with service dogs prior to researching Daisy, but one thing I’ve found in my decade of writing: people love to tell you about their passions, and those who train service dogs are very passionate about it. I was fortunate enough to chat with Katie Young, a trainer for Southeastern Guide Dogs (https://www.guidedogs.org), and she taught me gobs and gobs about training service animals. Since then, a Southeastern trainer came with a dog-in-training, Rickie, to Daisy’s launch party. I give out information about Southeastern at my book events. And a portion of all sales of A Dog Like Daisy goes to Southeastern for their amazing work. Needless to say, I believe in what they do.

3. In your book, Colonel Victor struggles with PTSD, but Daisy is there to protect him. Why do you believe it is important to portray mental illnesses such as PTSD in middle grade fiction, and in what ways do you want A Dog Like Daisy to impact readers, young and old alike?

A Dog Like DaisyOne review of Daisy captured something that I honestly hadn’t considered when writing the story; the reviewer said that approaching a topic like PTSD from a dog’s point of view makes the story a bit more approachable to a young reader. I agree with that; the story would be far different if the main boy character, Micah, had told it.

Many middle graders experience mental illness in their own homes, and some, in their own bodies. Since the release of Daisy, I’ve met a nine-year-old with PTSD, and her mother tearfully thanked me for writing a book for her age group that included a character with her same challenges. I’ve met a twelve-year-old whose father is a veteran; she told me she’s read the book four times and each time sees something new. I had a veteran who bravely writes speaks about his PTSD request that I join him and other veteran-writers on a panel, and he thanked me for writing this book for military families. I’ve even had a unit of disabled veterans buy copies of the book and donate them to their local library. Honestly, I’m humbled and honored by the response to this story. I’m just delighted that Daisy seems to be offering her service-animal skills far off the page, especially to people who have given so much of themselves to our country.

Kristin's Dogs4. Who are your favorite fictional and/or real-life dogs? Do you have any pets of your own?

Snoopy, for certain. I love the idea of him leading all these secret lives, while Charlie Brown thinks he’s simply lying atop his dog house, waiting for dinner. I can’t wait to see the Isle of Dogs – it looks gorgeous. And of course Dug from Up – “Squirrel!”

I have two dogs – Lucky and Cookie. I narrate their thoughts all the time; Lucky is goofy and lovable, Cookie is neurotic and headstrong. They are very much a part of our family. I’ve included a photo of them here!

5. What is your favorite part about the writing process (i.e. research, drafting, revising, creating characters, writing dialogue, etc.), and why?

Researching! I love discovering and learning new things, and research helps me make real-life connections to the thoughts and feelings I hope to convey in the story. That is the BEST feeling! Research helps me with voice, plot, characterization, setting – I always struggle quite a bit with writing if I don’t take enough time to soak in the aspects of a character’s world through research.

6. It is so great to meet another wonderful author from my home-state of Tennessee! What do you like most about living in the Volunteer State and the Nashville area, which both have amazing writer communities?

Nashville’s literary community is second-to-none! Between Parnassus Books (http://www.parnassusbooks.net), the regional chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI Midsouth; https://midsouth.scbwi.org), the Southern Festival of Books (http://humanitiestennessee.org/programs/southern-festival-books-celebration-written-word), and the best libraries and librarians in the known universe (including those who organize SEYA: https://www.seyabookfest.com), there is no shortage of incredible writing, writing workshops, and events that celebrate powerful stories. I love this community; readers and writers are the heart and soul of stories, and I’m delighted and honored that I get to be a part of it.

7. As a veteran author with multiple books published across various genres (contemporary, fantasy, historical fiction), how have your writing abilities transformed over the past few years? What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned throughout your writing career?Kristin O'Donnell Tubb

Probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that every book comes to life differently. Simply because The 13th Sign was written one way doesn’t mean that A Dog Like Daisy or The Story Collector will be written similarly. And I don’t mean voice or characters here – I mean the actual process of creating. Some books beg to be written long hand. Some books are written chunk by chunk, rather than in plot order. Some are outlined, other pour out of your fingertips. I think that’s why it can be so difficult for authors to give advice on “how to be a writer;” they are many different types of writers themselves!

8. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?

I think Liz Gilbert (author of “Eat, Pray, Love”) said it best on her “Magic Lessons” podcast: Writing is the only thing that, when I’m doing it, I don’t feel like I’m wearing a mask of any sort. I am fully, completely, 100% me when I’m writing. It’s when I feel most authentic.

I had an amazing opportunity when I was in sixth grade, thanks to my wonderful school librarian: I got to interview Madeleine L’Engle by telephone! (Yep!) When I told her I wanted to be a writer, she said, “Good for you! Keep reading and you can do it.” Well, when Madeleine L’Engle tells you you can be a writer, you give it a try! And you know what? My first poem, a haiku called “The Weeping Willow,” was published in a student anthology the very next year. I visit a lot of schools now, and I try to pay that same sentiment forward.

9. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?

Oh, picking a favorite genre is like picking a favorite flavor of ice cream! It just depends on what you’re in the mood for: Salted caramel? Creamy vanilla? Super-rich dark chocolate swirl? A Wrinkle In Time has a special place in my heart, for obvious reasons (see above) and I still say it’s my favorite book of all time. But recently I’ve adored The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – I adore poetry, and would love to try a novel-in-verse someday. And I attribute Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself by Judy Blume for my love of historical fiction; my favorite historical titles of late have been anything by Ruta Sepetys and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (both Tennessee writers!). See? I can’t pick just one!

10. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?

There’s a time when a writer isn’t writing? J I feel like I’m always observing, always listening (read: always eavesdropping), with hopes that I can write better characters, build a better fictional world, tell a better story. But for some reason, that doesn’t feel like a full-time job to me; the actual writing happens around real life, in stolen quiet moments.

The Story Collector11. Your upcoming novel The Story Collector is slated to release this August from Henry Holt and Co. (BYR). What could readers look forward to in The Story Collector, and are there any secrets about it you would like to share with us?

EeeeEEEEeeee I’m so excited about this story! The Story Collector is based on a real-life girl, Viviani Fedeler, who was born and raised in the flagship building of the New York Public Library – the iconic one at 5th and 42nd, with the lions. She and her brothers have sleepovers, play in the stacks, hide from guards – all within the library. It’s a ghost story (many claim the building truly is haunted by a ghost named Big Red) and a mystery, based on a real-life stamp collection that was stolen from the library while the Fedelers lived there. The book also features photos from the NYPL (https://www.nypl.org) archives, a timeline, and gorgeous illustrations from Iacopo Bruno (http://iacopobruno.blogspot.com)

It’s also a story about a young writer who struggles to find her voice, which I think a lot of writers can relate to. So in that spirit, I’d like to share the first three paragraphs of the story:

Some people are story collectors. While others collect seashells, or stuffed animals, or stamps, story collectors wrap themselves in words, surround themselves with sentences, and play with participles, even those pesky, perky dangling ones. They climb over Cs and mount Ms and lounge in Ls. Soon enough they land in the land of homonyms, then, WHAM! They stumble into onomatopoeia, that lovely creaking, booming bit of wordplay – and that, Dear Friend, is where our story begins:

Crack!

The bat swung over Viviani Fedeler’s left shoulder, then clanged to the terracotta-tile floor of the New York Public Library. She shrieked and ran, red hair flying, nothing short of a firework whizzing about the bases.

The book is available for pre-order, and if you get it from Nashville’s awesome indie, I’ll sign & personalize it for you! Just put how you’d like the book personalized in the comment section upon check-out. Here’s the link:
http://www.parnassusbooks.net/book/9781250143808

12. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers reading this interview?

I firmly believe that EVERYONE – yes, EVERYONE – is a writer. (Now, whether or not you want to share your story is a personal choice.) You’re likely already doing the kinds of things that professional writers do on a daily basis: if you text, you’re writing dialogue. If you play video games, you’re worldbuilding. If you’re a rule-breaker, you’d likely excel at poetry. So first, think about the kind of writing you’re already doing regularly, that you already love, and hone that skill.  Then: get involved in your local community of writers! There is nothing like sharing your ideas with other writers to give you the courage to share your stories with the world. Best of luck, story collectors – I am cheering you on!

Thanks so much, Kristin, for coming onto the blog! It’s so great to have you here today!


About the AuthorKristin O'Donnell Tubb

Kristin O’Donnell Tubb is the author of The Story Collector series, A Dog Like Daisy, John Lincoln Clem: Civil War Drummer Boy (written as E.F. Abbott), The 13th Sign, Selling Hope and Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different. She’s also written many activity books featuring well-loved characters like Scooby-Doo, Bugs Bunny, the Powerpuff Girls, and Strawberry Shortcake. Kristin lives near Nashville, Tennessee with her bouncy-loud family. Just like her two dogs, she can be bribed with cheese.

Kristin can be found far too often on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Oh, and she has a website, too.

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Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

Have you read A Dog Like Daisy? Do you like books set from an animal’s perspective?

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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Exclusive Interview with Melissa Roske, MG Contemporary Author of “Kat Greene Comes Clean”

Hi guys! Yesterday I just got back from Washington, D.C., and I definitely had a really great trip! Man, April’s almost over, and that means this entire school year is quickly coming to an end. In just a few weeks, it will be AP exams time, so I will be cramming as much studying as I can before then. Today I have another interview with the wonderful Melissa Roske, MG debut author of Kat Greene Comes Clean! I hope you enjoy!


About the BookKat Greene Comes Clean

Eleven-year-old Kat Greene has a lot on her pre-rinsed plate, thanks to her divorced mom’s obsession with cleaning. When Mom isn’t scrubbing every inch of their Greenwich Village apartment, she’s boiling the silverware or checking Kat’s sheets for bedbugs. It’s enough to drive any middle schooler crazy! Add friendship troubles to the mix, a crummy role in the class production of Harriet the Spy, and Mom’s decision to try out for “Clean Sweep,” a competitive-cleaning TV game show, and what have you got? More trouble than Kat can handle. At least, without a little help from her friends.

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Melissa Roske Header

1. Your MG debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean follows a young girl as she manages through a turbulent time in her life, including dealing with her cleaning-obsessed mom, her parents’ divorce, the school play, and many friendships. How do you want readers to be impacted from Kat trying to be the “parent” when her mom is unable to? Why do you believe it is important to show how young children overcome these struggles in their everyday lives?

Although I was never thrust into a parental role the way Kat was with her mom, I can certainly relate to being an eleven-year-old with familial and social struggles. I mean, who doesn’t struggle as a preteen? My struggle was primarily with my physical development. At Kat’s age, I was extremely small and underdeveloped, and I used to get teased for it all the time. I was always picked last for sports teams too. One boy in particular—who shall remain nameless—called me “Flatsy,” because, well, you know… and it was humiliating. I was teased for being flat-chested at summer camp, too. I know what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but the scars left by all the teasing and name-calling never fully healed. That’s what I tapped into when I wrote my book. I wanted kids to know that life’s struggles are incredibly difficult—but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.

2. How has your personal experiences and those of others helped shape Kat Greene Comes Clean? What aspects of Kat’s life and personality are based off your life?Kat Greene Comes Clean

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but my book based on my own experience with OCD—or, to be more accurate, my dad’s OCD. His compulsions are the polar opposite of Kat’s mom’s, though, because my dad is extremely messy and keeps everything. (I recently found a datebook in his apartment from 1973!) He’s also a checker, which means he must check the front-door locks, and the gas jets on the stove, multiple times a day. I too have obsessive-compulsions tendencies, including the need to have my window shades fixed at a certain level, but I wouldn’t say they impede my life. They’re just extremely distracting—to my family, and to myself.

3. What about Middle Grade Contemporary drew you as an author and a reader? What inspired you to write for kids and from a child’s point of view, and what were some of the challenges that you faced writing your debut?

I’m not sure if I should admit this, but in many ways I still feel like an eleven-year-old girl. That’s why I’m drawn to MG. It focuses on a phase in one’s life when feelings and thoughts and creativity—even love—are bubbling at the surface, ready to come up for air. I also love the openness, and the receptiveness to new things, that tweens exhibit and express. They say want they mean, and they mean what they say. Who doesn’t love that?

In terms of challenges as a debut novelist, I’d say it’s learning how to manage my expectations. As author, you hope your book will be enthusiastically received, and that it will sell well. But that is not always the case. Some things are beyond your control, as it’s important to realize this and manage your expectations accordingly.

Continue reading “Exclusive Interview with Melissa Roske, MG Contemporary Author of “Kat Greene Comes Clean””

Exclusive Interview with Jake Burt, MG Author of Greetings from Witness Protection!

Hi guys! In exactly one month, I am going to be off to Washington, D.C., with my choir, and I am super stoked about it! I have always wanted to visit our nation’s capital, and I am super blessed that I have this opportunity to go there along with my fantastic choir that I have definitely bonded so much with over the last few months. Speaking of the government (haha, Kester, good/cheesy segue), today I am having Jake Burt, author of Greetings from Witness Protection! on the blog in this exclusive interview, and I am so excited to have him because if you had read my review of his debut, you’ll know why I loved it so much. I hope you enjoy this interview!


About Greetings from Witness Protection!Greetings from Witness Protection!

Nicki Demere is an orphan and a pickpocket. She also happens to be the U.S. Marshals’ best bet to keep a family alive. . . .

The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.

Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.

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Jake Burt Interview

1. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?

First off, thanks for hosting me, Kester, and for all you do to support MG and YA literature! To answer your question, I fell in love with stories first. My dad used to read aloud to my brothers and me every night – stuff like The Hobbit and excerpts from Mark Twain’s Roughing It. It was easily the highlight of my day. Then, when I was in grade school, I discovered that I could create my own stories. I had a string of really good teachers who encouraged me (or, rather, at least tolerated my nascent attempts at authorship), and that allowed me to develop a love for the written word.

2. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?

Books: The Hobbit. Le Morte D’Arthur. James and the Giant Peach. The Last Unicorn. Charlotte’s Web. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Snow Crash. Are You My Mother? The Golden Compass. Faeries. Tuck Everlasting.

Genres: Fantasy. Sci-Fi. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.

Authors: Tolkien. Malory. Dahl. Pullman. Basically anyone who wrote one of the above books. I’ve also got a special place in my heart for the authors of the books I devoured when I was a kid – sprawling Dungeons and Dragons fantasy novels by R.A. Salvatore; Lone Wolf game books by Joe Dever; sci-fi short stories by Bradbury, Vonnegut, et al. Given all that, you’d think I’d be churning out middle grade fantasy novels, right? I thought so, too. And yet, here I am with MG contemporary…and I couldn’t be happier with the stories I’m telling so far. As far as the writers who had the greatest impact on me and my writing style, though? If I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably TV writers – those behind-the-scenes authors of dialogue I’ve found particularly memorable, of scenes that have stuck with me long after the show is done. It’s often teams of people, so I don’t know precisely who to credit, but I can name characters on shows about whom I think, “I want my MC to talk like that,” far more than passages in books about which I think, “I want to write like that!” (not that I’d turn down having my descriptions compared to E.B. White’s, or anything…)

3. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?

I’m not sure if I’d describe writing as a job. It’s more like a passion. And lest that come across too tritely, I’m talking about the “If I don’t write this story down and get it out of my head, I’m never going to stop obsessing about it” kind of passion, rather than the “The heavens are my muse, inspiring me to the glory that is” sort. Writing IS work, of course, and often times it’s hard work. It just never feels that way to me, because it’s never monotonous. The same goes for my day job – teaching 5th grade. I love both of them, and for similar reasons: they’re nothing like the hardest job I’ve ever had. That dubious honor goes to working a hydraulic press in a gasket factory one summer in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was hard for me because it was repetition. The sameness of it about drove me mad; I have incredible respect for people who can manage it. I couldn’t, so I’ve spent most of my life engaged with careers that allow me to be as intensely creative as I can be. Writing and teaching provide those opportunities.Greetings from Witness Protection!

4. Your debut novel Greetings from Witness Protection!, which released last year, follows Nicki Demere as she joins the Witness Protection Program’s Project Family and adopts a new identity to help protect the Trevor family from those seeking to kill them. How did you research and learn more about WITSEC as you conceived your story? How did you figure out how to portray WITSEC for middle grade readers without sacrificing a thrilling story to avoid anything too “graphic” or “adult?”

I did what research I could on WITSEC, but as you can imagine, there’s not much to go on. It’s not like people in witness protection are lining up to let an author of middle grade fiction interview them about their experiences. I did access the US Marshalls’ website, Google Earth’ed the facility in Glynco, and read whatever accounts I could get my hands on, but much of what I did in portraying WITSEC and the witness protection program was fashioned after how it has been portrayed in other books, movies, and television shows. I figured if I couldn’t get at the truth about WITSEC (and that I couldn’t is decidedly a good thing!), then I could at least portray a version of it that was consistent with the rest of the body of fiction. As far as keeping it kid-friendly? I don’t necessarily know that I did. I hoped that my readers would be able to handle what I put my characters through, and as long as I was honest about the emotions behind it – Nicki’s desire to be part of something, Jackson’s anger, Brit’s trepidation – then it would read true for them. Those are real for kids, and I trusted that they’d relate. This sentiment was explored beautifully by Matt de la Pena in TIME recently, and both his essay and Kate DiCamillo’s response are modern-day required reading for MG authors, as far as I’m concerned. Check them out here: http://time.com/5093669/why-we-shouldnt-shield-children-from-darkness/

Continue reading “Exclusive Interview with Jake Burt, MG Author of Greetings from Witness Protection!”

Review: Greetings from Witness Protection! by Jake Burt — A Heartwarming yet Thrilling Tale of Family and Fitting In

Hi guys! Right now, I am at the Tennessee DECA State Career Development Conference, otherwise known as SCDC! If you are reading this, then I am currently competing for a coveted spot in the top 5 in the state for my event Marketing Communications Series. I’ve learned to love marketing a lot this past year, and I hope that I could come home with a trophy! Also, tomorrow I’m going to be at the Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival, and I’m so stoked to attend it again! I have 20 books awaiting to be signed (yes, somehow I’ve accumulated 20 books this past year) and there’s so many authors I want to meet and connect with! Today, I am reviewing Greetings from Witness Protectionby Jake Burt, whose interview with me is being posted in just a couple of weeks! Hope you enjoy!


About the BookGreetings from Witness Protection!

Nicki Demere is an orphan and a pickpocket. She also happens to be the U.S. Marshals’ best bet to keep a family alive. . . .

The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.

Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.

Goodreads


4 Stars

Disclaimer: I received a free hardcover copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This will not affect my review in any way.

Greetings from Witness Protection! shows readers what it truly means to be a part of a family and to love them so much to be willing to sacrifice everything for their safety and protection. It’s the heartwarming story about a girl who tries to fit in with her foster family as they take on a new identity in a new town with a multitude of responsibility under the Witness Protection Program. This book both warmed my heart so much yet placed me on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happens next. My heart was pounding as I sympathized with Nicki and her struggles with kleptomania and being a part of a new family. It even made me laugh so many times, and the storyline had the perfect mix of light humor and deep issues. Greetings from Witness Protection! is an MG part-spy thriller and part-family contemporary novel that will have readers of all ages inspired to fight for their loved ones.

Continue reading “Review: Greetings from Witness Protection! by Jake Burt — A Heartwarming yet Thrilling Tale of Family and Fitting In”

February Reading Re-Cap!

Hi guys! March is going to be a crazy month for me! I just performed last night in my choir’s Evening with the Madrigals, and I sang and/or played the piano to “Hold Me Now” by Johnny Logan, “Home” from Beauty and the Beast: The Musical, and “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera. Next week is Midterms week, along with my DECA State Convention and the SE-YA Book Fest. And that’s only the first two weeks of March, and there’s much more in store for me. At least last month, I was able to finish 10 books somehow!


5 Stars

Cry of the Sea by D. G. Driver

Cry of the Sea

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4 Stars

These Ruthless Deeds by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

These Ruthless Deeds

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Greetings from Witness Protection! by Jake Burt

Greetings from Witness Protection!

Goodreads

AutoFocus by Lauren Gibaldi

AutoFocus

Goodreads

Legends of the Lost Causes by Brad McLellan and Louis Sylvester

Legends of the Lost Causes

Goodreads

Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

Goodbye Eyes

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Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

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Rook by Sharon Cameron

Rook

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3 Stars

These Vengeful Souls by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

These Vengeful Souls

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Love Songs & Other Lies by Jessica Pennington

Love Songs & Other Lies

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In Case You Missed This Month’s Posts

Author Interviews

Adrianne Finlay, author of Your One & Only

Mary Weber, author of Reclaiming Shilo Snow

Chelsea Sedoti, author of As You Wish

LILbooKtalks

“Healing through Stories: Two Novels of Uniting Families” with Corabel Shofner and Leslie Hauser

Discussions

The Power of Middle Grade Novels

Reviews

Your One & Only by Adrianne Finlay (5 Stars)

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce (4 Stars)

Legends of the Lost Causes by Brad McLellan and Louis Sylvester (4 Stars)

The Lairdbalor by Kathleen Kaufman (3 Stars)

Blog Tours and Cover Reveals

Your One & Only by Adrianne Finlay (ARC Review)

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce (Review)

Fighting Fate by Shaila Patel (Cover Reveal and Excerpt)

Reclaiming Shilo Snow by Mary Weber (Scavenger Hunt and Author Interview)

Misc.

January Reading Re-Cap

Blog Update: Re-Organization of Archives


Happy Reading!

+ J.M.J.

~ Kester

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts?

Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!

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Discussion: The Power of Middle Grade Novels

Hi guys! I haven’t posted a discussion post written by myself in such a long time, but I finally have one ready for you all! As the blog is rapidly expanding these past few months, I have become acquainted with so many amazing MG authors that have inspired me to become more involved in the MG community. Yes, I am a primarily YA-based author, but there’s so much power in MG novels! I want to give a big shout out to Jarrett Lerner, author of Enginerds, for inspiring me to finally post this discussion. It’s been way overdue, and I hope you enjoy it!


MG Novels

When you think of middle grade novels, what do you think of? Series such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid come into mind. As an elementary school student growing up, I didn’t read those series, honestly–except Harry Potter, which I read all seven books in either fourth or fifth grade. I had the mindset that I did not want to read anything that had a low reading level (what caused it? AR!), and because of that, I ended up reading only classics and Encyclopedia Brown books. This is what caused me to not read at all in middle school–I felt so constrained to classics that I just did not want to read more of them anymore. I focused my free time on Lego’s and video games instead.

As a kid, I always had the misconception that middle grade books had little literary value and were “taboo” since I had a higher reading level than many kids. In seventh grade, I read only ten books. There was a special party for those who read and wrote about ten books, and I crammed A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a weekend (which was too much for me as a non-reader) as the tenth book under my belt. (I completed 91 books in 2017, which I never would have foreseen back then!)

When I became a blogger, I slowly transitioned into being primarily YA/MG-based. Since the moment I first read Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz and Just Like Me by Nancy J. Cavanaugh, I realized the power middle grade novels have not just to the high school student but to adults, too. Middle grade is NOT just for kids–in fact, anyone can learn from its lessons.

Continue reading “Discussion: The Power of Middle Grade Novels”

This Month’s LILbooKtalk: “Healing through Stories: Two Novels of Uniting Families” with Corabel Shofner and Leslie Hauser

Hi guys! I am super excited for this month’s LILbooKtalk! I had the amazing opportunity to read both of these excellent debuts, and they share so many similar themes and conflicts that I had to invite both of the authors in our February panel. Today, we have Corabel Shofner, author of Almost Paradise, and Leslie Hauser, author of Chasing Eveline, on the blog today to talk about “Healing through Stories: Two Novels of Uniting Families.” It was definitely a fun chat to moderate, and I hope you enjoy it!


About Almost ParadiseAlmost Paradise

Twelve-year-old Ruby Clyde Henderson’s life turns upside down the day her mother’s boyfriend holds up a convenience store, and her mother is wrongly imprisoned for assisting with the crime. Ruby and her pet pig, Bunny, find their way to her estranged Aunt Eleanor’s home. Aunt Eleanor is a nun who lives on a peach orchard called Paradise, and had turned away from their family long ago. With a little patience, she and Ruby begin to get along―but Eleanor has secrets of her own, secrets that might mean more hard times for Ruby.

Ruby believes that she’s the only one who can find a way to help heal her loved ones, save her mother, and bring her family back together again. But being in a family means that everyone has to work together to support each other, and being home doesn’t always mean going back to where you came from.

Goodreads


About Chasing EvelineChasing Eveline

Sixteen-year-old Ivy Higgins is the only student at Carmel Heights High School who listens to cassettes. And her binder is the only one decorated with album artwork by 80s band Chasing Eveline. Despite being broken-up since 1989, this rock band out of Ireland means everything to Ivy. They’re a reminder of her mom, who abandoned Ivy and her dad two years ago. Now the music of her mom’s favorite band is the only connection she has left.

Even though Ivy wavers between anger and a yearning to reconnect, she’s one-hundred percent certain she’s not ready to lose her mom forever. But the only surefire way to locate her would be at a Chasing Eveline concert. So with help from her lone friend Matt—an equally abandoned soul and indie music enthusiast—Ivy hatches a plan to reunite the band.

The road to Ireland won’t be easy, though. And not just because there is no road. Along the way they’ll have to win over their Lady Gaga-loving peers, tangle with some frisky meerkats, and oh yeah, somehow find and persuade the four members to play a reunion gig. It’s a near-impossible task, but Ivy has to try. If she can’t let go of the past, she’ll never be able to find joy in the present.

Goodreads


LILbooKtalk 3

Questions are in bold

Kester: The first author we have today is the wonderful Corabel Shofner, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Southern Festival of Books last October. Her Middle Grade debut novel Almost Paradise released last summer, and I enjoyed it so much that I finished it in a day! Could you describe to us a bit about your book and yourself?Almost Paradise

Corabel: ALMOST PARADISE is a Middle Grade contemporary novel with lots of whimsy, humor and heartbreak. In some ways it is a reverse coming of age story, since Ruby Clyde had taken on the adult role in her family and needs to reclaim her childhood. I am a wife and mother who lives in Nashville, TN. I had a very colorful life before I settled in the suburbs and I love it out here. ALMOST PARADISE is my debut novel although I have written law, short stories, essays and such.

Kester: Thank you, Corabel! It’s so great to be having a local Tennessee author here on the blog! We also have the amazing Leslie Hauser, who I was able to interview on my blog last summer. I loved her Young Adult contemporary debut Chasing Eveline, which I also devoured in a single day! Would you also like to share with us a bit about your novel and your background?

Leslie: Hi! Thanks for having me here. CHASING EVELINE is about 16-year-old Ivy HIggins and her desire to reunite her mom’s favorite 80s band. She thinks it may be the only way to find her mom who left Ivy and her dad several years prior, but also the music is a way to keep her mom present in her life. It also has some humor and heartbreak–sounds like a good companion to ALMOST PARADISE! I am a middle school English and history teacher in California and CHASING EVELINE is my debut novel.

Kester: Chasing Eveline and Almost Paradise are definitely great companions! (And you provided the perfect segue for my next question, Leslie!) That’s why as I read both of your novels, I noticed that each of your main characters share the common goal of healing their broken families. How do you want readers to be impacted by Ivy’s attempts at finding her long-lost mother or Ruby Clyde’s actions to help her mother avoid being imprisoned? How do your characters learn what it means to love those around you?

Chasing EvelineLeslie: Losing someone is difficult. I realized after my aunt passed away that every year, the memories became dimmer. It’s to the point now where I can’t even see parts of these memories (like the picture in Back to the Future! If you’re familiar with that movie.) Ivy’s quest to reunite Chasing Eveline is her way of dealing with loss and trying to keep her mom present. I wanted to write a story that shows that there are productive outlets for grief. I would hope readers would see that as a takeaway.

Corabel: Hi Leslie, I haven’t written anything with music as an element but I love the way Ivy seeks her mother through her mother’s favorite 80’s band. Reminds me a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy where he’s stomping through puddles listening to his mother’s old music, on an old player. Ruby Clyde is a self possessed little thing. She willingly steps up to care for her fragile mother but when the Catfish (mother’s rascal boyfriend) launches off on a cross country trip and gets them both arrested, Ruby Clyde is consumed with a longing for home and a growing realization that she might not be able to single handedly save her mother from prison. I want my readers to feel brave. Bravery is contagious.

Leslie: Sounds like Ivy and Ruby both have to step up in their families. Ivy feels compelled to take care of her dad in her mother’s absence. Bravery is definitely important when dealing with these struggles.

Corabel: Everybody loves the precocious child, the ‘little mother’ or the one who takes care of everything because a parent is damaged. People should realized that these children pay a price by losing their childhood. My sister did that in our family and it did not end well. I’ve since seen other children try to play this role and it breaks my heart. But their old personalities in the miniature bodies is often hilarious.
Continue reading “This Month’s LILbooKtalk: “Healing through Stories: Two Novels of Uniting Families” with Corabel Shofner and Leslie Hauser”