Middle Grade

Review: The Girl in the Well is Me

The Girl in the Well Is MeThe Girl in the Well Is Me by Karen Rivers
My rating: 4.5 stars

Summary: Eleven-year-old Kammie is stuck in a well, and the only people who know she’s in there– three mean girls from school– may or may not be going for help. As Kammie slips further and further down the shaft, feeling every scrape on her raw skin and drifting in and out of hallucinations, she thinks back on the last few tumultuous months of her life, allowing the reader to piece together, bit by bit, who the girl in the well really is.

On the cover of The Girl in the Well is Me is a quote from Katherine Applegate that says, “I dare you to pick up this riveting novel without reading straight through to the heart-stopping conclusion.” When I saw that, I scoffed. I hate it when people tell me they read a book in one sitting because I almost never do, no matter how short it is, and I certainly didn’t believe Ms. Applegate about this 200-page middle grade novel. But I had to eat my words this time, because she was right. I read this book straight through, only stopping once to eat dinner. And even then, I felt guilty for leaving poor Kammie in the well while I sat on the couch eating pasta.

What I loved about the book:

* It’s a fast, riveting read, especially for a novel with so little dialogue.
* Writers are told to let bad things happen to our characters, and Karen Rivers really takes this to heart. It’s possible to argue that getting stuck in a well is not the worst thing that has happened to Kammie and even if it is, it’s the cherry on top of a large sundae of terrible things that have happened in her life recently. The book deals with some big bad issues, but it does so in a way that is appropriate for the intended audience.
* The way the back story is woven in is well-done (no pun intended). The revelations are surprising without feeling forced and continue to paint a more vivid picture of the character.
* Despite how much Kammie suffers, the book is also quite funny in places. She has a great voice and a few lines were hilarious enough to make me laugh out loud, like the part about the cats’ names on page 114, and this sentence from page 104: “It doesn’t get worse than being a Grandma-quoting well-bound girl in Texas with a crabby spider on your foot.”
* In her notes at the end of the book, the author makes reference to Baby Jessica, the eighteen-month-old who was stuck in a well in Midland, Texas, for more than two days in 1987. I also vividly remember following that story when I was in elementary school, which is another reason why this book appealed to me. I enjoyed reading from the point of view of the girl in the well, even though Kammie was much older than Baby Jessica.

Why not 5 stars?

First, I didn’t love the very end. It’s hard to explain why without giving anything away, so I’ll just say that I wish the book had ended a little sooner. Also, I really enjoyed reading this book in one sitting. It made it feel like I was there with Kammie, experiencing the trauma in real time. But there’s part of me that feels like you NEED to read the book that way to really enjoy it. I could see how repeatedly putting it down and picking it up again over the course of days would take away the immediacy of the situation. It might feel slower and more repetitive that way since, after all, this is a book that takes places almost solely in a well.

Overall, though, The Girl in the Well is Me is a great read that I think would appeal to a lot of kids.

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Carie’s Lists: 10 YA & MG Books That Deserve More Readers

I love reading books for kids and I love talking about books for kids. Most of the titles I mention to fellow kidlit readers get nods of recognition or at least the comment, “I’ve heard of that. Is it good?” But lately I’ve seen more and more blank looks when I mention certain titles, so I decided to do some investigating. The following ten books have been rated by fewer than 900 people on Goodreads, and for many the number is much lower. However, I’ve given them all at least three stars, sometimes four or five.

I think these books, which have been passed over for some reason, deserve another look. There’s good stuff here– memorable characters, touching stories, and a lot of diversity. Take a moment to scan the list and see if there’s not at least one book you or your child might be interested in reading.

[Note: All summary information is from Goodreads unless otherwise noted.]

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1. The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin – 1960

A little lost witch undergoes a magical transformation when she’s loved by a human family in this heartwarming story. When Felina, a little witch, breaks her broom on Halloween and can’t fly home, she is stuck with the Doon family and their black cat, Itchabody, for an entire year. Although she’s homesick and unhappy, the Doon parents and their daughter, Lucinda, do their best to make Felina feel welcome. (And she has no trouble with Itchabody at all!) As time passes, the mischievous Felina learns what it means to be part of a family—and how, with love, she will always belong.

My Rating – 5 stars

My Comments – This is such a beautiful little story. It’s not at all what I thought it was going to be, but I absolutely loved it. To see my full review, click here.

2. How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Sara Nickerson – 2003

Margaret’s father died in a mysterious drowning accident when she was eight years old. Four years later, her mother still won’t talk about it — in fact, she doesn’t talk about much of anything. But when Margaret’s mother takes her and her little sister, Sophie, to a strange abandoned mansion and puts a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign in the front yard, Margaret is determined to solve the puzzle of her family, once and for all.

Armed with three strange clues — a swimming medal, a key, and a handwritten comic book — Margaret returns to the mansion alone. With the help of Boyd, the lonely, comic-book-obsessed boy next door, she discovers that truth can be stranger than fiction — depending on who’s telling the story.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – This book was a favorite in my classroom library, partly due to the graphic component. Part of the story is told through comic book format.

3. Sees Behind Trees by  Michael Dorris – 1999

Visually impaired Walnut cannot earn his adult name the same way other boys do, by hitting a target with a bow and arrow. With his highly developed other senses, however, he earns a new name: Sees Behind Trees. “Dorris takes on some meaty existential issues here; he does so with grace, bighearted empathy, and always with crystal-clear vision”. —School Library Journal

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – This is a tiny book– only 100 pages– but it makes a big impact.

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4. The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph  – 2000

Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa is a blossoming writer growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country where words are feared. Yet there is so much inspiration all around her — watching her brother search for a future, learning to dance and to love, and finding out what it means to be part of a community — that Ana Rosa must write it all down. As she struggles to find her own voice and a way to make it heard, Ana Rosa realizes the power of her words to transform the world around her — and to transcend the most unthinkable of tragedies.

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – This is a sad story, but one with hope through words.

5. Trouble Don’t Last by Shelley Pearsall – 2003

Eleven-year-old Samuel was born as Master Hackler’s slave, and working the Kentucky farm is the only life he’s ever known—until one dark night in 1859, that is. With no warning, cranky old Harrison, a fellow slave, pulls Samuel from his bed and, together, they run.

The journey north seems much more frightening than Master Hackler ever was, and Samuel’s not sure what freedom means aside from running, hiding, and starving. But as they move from one refuge to the next on the Underground Railroad, Samuel uncovers the secret of his own past—and future. And old Harrison begins to see past a whole lifetime of hurt to the promise of a new life—and a poignant reunion—in Canada.

In a heartbreaking and hopeful first novel, Shelley Pearsall tells a suspenseful, emotionally charged story of freedom and family.

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – Samuel’s endearing voice is what I remember most about this gripping historical fiction novel.

6. On the Devil’s Court by Carl Deuker – 1991

Summary from Amazon:

What would you give to be your school’s superstar? After reading Dr. Faustus, Joe considers the merits of selling his soul to the devil. Suddenly, he finds himself changing from a lousy basketball player and a C student to the star athlete he always dreamed he could be. Even though he isn’t sure if he actually made a deal with the devil, he can’t help but enjoy the benefits that come with his newfound abilities. But is achieving his dreams worth what he may have given up?

In this coming of age sports novel, Joe learns the power of belief and that the only goals worth attaining are the ones that you earn — on your own.

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – I’m not a big fan of sports novels, but the angle that this one took really kept my attention. Fans of Mike Lupica’s books would enjoy this one.

7. My Thirteenth Winter by Samantha Abeel – 2005

In this beautiful and chilling memoir, twenty-five-year-old Samantha Abeel describes her struggles with a math-related learning disability, and how it forced her to find inner strength and courage.

Samantha Abeel couldn’t tell time, remember her locker combination, or count out change at a checkout counter — and she was in seventh grade. For a straight-A student like Samantha, problems like these made no sense. She dreaded school, and began having anxiety attacks. In her thirteenth winter, she found the courage to confront her problems — and was diagnosed with a learning disability. Slowly, Samantha’s life began to change again. She discovered that she was stronger than she’d ever thought possible — and that sometimes, when things look bleakest, hope is closer than you think.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – This is such an important book. Abeel’s descriptions of what her life was like with an undiagnosed learning disability haunted me for weeks after I read it, and her joy at finally getting the help she needed brought tears to my eyes. In my opinion, it is a must read for educators. Also, this summary doesn’t mention the fact that, while Abeel struggled in some areas, she was always a talented writer and poet. After you read My Thirteenth Winter, check out her poetry in Reach for the Moon.

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8. Leslie’s Journal by Allan Stratton – 2000

A gripping story about the dark side of a first love.

Leslie can’t seem to avoid trouble, whether it’s at school or at home. Just as life seems at its lowest, Jason McCready, the exceedingly cool new guy at school, enters her life.

Now Leslie is the envy of all the girls. But Jason’s appearance is deceiving — he is determined to control every aspect of Leslie’s life, and he begins terrorizing her in unimaginable ways.

When a substitute teacher reads the private English-class journal in which Leslie reveals Jason’s abuse, Leslie is suddenly forced into hard choices and terrifying action to take back her life.

Updated to reflect the contemporary world of the Internet, cell phones and text messaging, Leslie’s Journal is a suspenseful, fast-paced story about love, friendship and what it means to stand up for yourself

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – Apparently this book has been updated, but I’m pretty certain I read the original version. This story deals with some heavy issues, so it’s for more mature readers.

9. After the Death of Anna Gonzales by Terri Fields – 2002

“I can feel
The whispering of the hallway walls
Growing louder as the groups gather.
Each clique adding to its morning input.

“Did you hear?”
“Who told you?”
“Do you think it’s really true?”

New at this school,
I stand alone.
Watching . . .”

Brutally honest and authentic in tone, this collection of voices centers on the suicide of high school freshman Anna Gonzales. Each piece, read alone, portrays a classmate’s or teacher’s personal reaction to the loss, taken hard by some, by others barely noticed. Read together, the poems create a richly textured and moving testimony to the rippling effects of one girl’s devastating choice. Terri Fields has written a thought-provoking, important work that resonates with both pain and hope. This is a book that will stay with readers long after they put it down.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – There were waiting lists for this book in my classroom library. I couldn’t keep it on my shelves. Students read it until it was falling apart and then eventually it disappeared completely. Teen suicide is a horrible thing, but kids like to read about the hard stuff, and this book deals with it in an honest way. Fans of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why would be a good fit for this book and it is a very quick read.

10. All Hallows’ Eve: 13 Stories by Vivian Vande Velde – 2006

A boy is trapped in a possessed car that has stalled in the path of an oncoming train. A girl is dragged into a crypt during a field trip to an eighteenth-century cemetery. A group of friends meet their fate after an unsettling visit with a backwoods psychic. And that’s just the beginning. Celebrated author Vivian Vande Velde is at her spine-tingling best in this collection of thirteen scary stories, all of which take place on Halloween night. With tales that range from the disturbing to the downright gruesome, this is one collection that teens will want to read with the lights on . . . and the doors locked.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – I love scary stories and there are some scary stories in this book. Too many horror stories for kids have the Scooby-Doo ending. Oh! It was just Farmer Bob in a mask! Not these. I enjoyed almost all of the 13 stories, but it was the third one– “Morgan Roehmar’s Boys”– that made me sit up and take notice. It reminded me of when I first picked up The Hunger Games back in 2009 and thought, Is she REALLY going to have kids killing kids? Oh, yep. She is. Vivian Vande Velde’s book hit me the same way. Is this real horror or kid horror? Oh, real horror. Got it. Now to check behind me before I keep reading. The stories are both scary and clever, and Velde will keep you on your toes with all the twists. Seriously, go read this book.

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See? Do you see what I’m talking about now?

These are good books, and they deserve more attention.

Go read one of them today!

Review: Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers

Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers
Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers by Mary Kole
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’ve been within ten feet of me over the past two weeks, then you’ve most likely heard me talk about Writing Irresistible Kidlit. I’m pretty stingy with my five-star ratings, but I cannot say enough good things about this book.

In order to keep myself from rambling, here is what I loved about Mary Kole’s writing guide in bullet form:

* Straightforward, To-the-Point Advice: I love reading books about writing. I’ve read many of the classics like On Writing, Writing Down the Bones, and Bird By Bird and enjoyed them all. But most books about writing craft are at least part memoir. The author’s advice is mixed in with the author’s story. Kidlit isn’t like that. Mary Kole doesn’t take the reader on a journey through her life with books or go on tangents about the beauty of writing and our connected passion as lovers of the written word. She stays focused on the task at hand, and that task is to make the reader a better, more successful writer. She does not sugar coat or soliloquize, and I appreciate that.

* Enjoyable, Easy to Read: Saying that the book is straightforward does not mean that it is dry. The format is logical, and the language and style make it easy to read. Kole is also funny. She’s obviously a fan of puns and peppers the book with them. It’s like she can’t help herself. It cracked me up.

* Great Examples & Quotes: In every section of the book, Kole provides specific examples from literature to back up her points and show authors at their best. The quotes come from over forty different middle grade and young adult novels, most of which were published in 2008 or after. I’ve added SEVERAL titles from her recommended reading list to my to-read page.

* Recent & Relevant: You know that moment when you’re reading a book on writing craft and feeling so inspired and then the author says something like, “Whether you’re writing longhand or using a typewriter…”? That won’t happen when you read this book. At least not for another ten years or so. Kidlit was published in 2012, and Mary Kole is a current lit agent who is (as of July 30, 2014) actively seeking MG and YA manuscripts. The advice she gives is extremely relevant, and there is absolutely no mention of typewriters.

* What, When, Where, Why, and How: This book covers every aspect of writing a good novel, from diagramming your plot to creating a good hook to finding the theme of your work to understanding your reader’s mindset to crafting your query letter. (And a lot more.) And Kole does not just tell us what to do, she also provides a plethora of exercises along the way to help us understand how to do it. Seriously, there is so much useful stuff here. I just flipped through my copy and it’s difficult to find a page where I haven’t highlighted at least one thing.

If the above points aren’t enough to sell you on this book, then try this: The best thing about Writing Irresistible Kidlit is that it not only made me want to write, it made me want to rewrite and revise and outline and start over and keep working until I get it right. And really, isn’t that what a writing book should do?

If you are an author or an aspiring author of stories for children, go get this book. You won’t be disappointed.

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