Friday, July 26, 2013

North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration

Last week I traveled for work.  It was a short, four-day trip to DC for a conference.  But I still had a lot to do to get ready for that trip.  I had to pack up Frances and Gloria to stay with their dad for the week, including leotards, swimsuits and soccer uniforms.  I packed my suitcase, arranged for a pet-sitter for our cat, and traveled for about twelve hours each way.  It was a lot of work to leave home for four days, but nothing like what the animals of the world go through to get to the Arctic.

I suspect that most people picture the Arctic as I did before I read North - a cold, frigid, forbidding place where perhaps only polar bears and Santa Claus feel at home.  In reality, there are four seasons in the Arctic, including a glorious summer.  And, incredibly, animals and wildlife travel for thousands of miles to arrive in the Arctic during the summer.

Dowson sets the stage for this migration by describing the deepest winter.  During that time of year, "even the seas freeze deep" (p. 4).  But eventually the winter ebbs, and the polar bears and arctic foxes are no longer the only Arctic inhabitants.  It begins with warmer seas as spring evolves.  Algae bloom under the ice, and plants grow as the ice melts and recedes.  As the spring continues animals begin their treck toward the Arctic in what Dowson terms "THE GREATEST JOURNEY ON EARTH!" (p. 11).

There are tons of animals, birds and other wildlife on this incredible journey.  Gray whales travel for eight weeks up through the Pacific Ocean without eating.  Terns fly to the Arctic all the way from the bottom of the world in Antarctica.  Snow geese fly from Mexico, caribou travel from Canada, walrus swim up the coast of Alaska.  "By late May, travelers crowd together near the very top of the world." (p. 36)  And summer has finally arrived, just in time.  "Tundra flowers grow rainbow-bright, the calm air hums with summer bees...New life is everywhere." (p. 40).  Animals have risked their lives, traveled unceasingly, gone without food to reach the Arctic at precisely this moment.  And their seasonal cycle will continue until September, when winter begins to descend again.  Next spring, most of these animals will begin this journey again.

This book was on the Cybils nominations list for Non-fiction Picture Books, and one of the panelists really loved this book.  When I first looked at it, I liked the illustrations, and was struck by their crystalline beauty.  Benson uses mostly blues and whites in these illustrations, all in a limited palette.  There is also cream added, particularly as the summer begins, and some accents of black and gray.  The blue, almost a greenish teal, reflects off the frigid waters and the ice.  White isn't used just for the ice and glaciers, but striates the walrus' thick skin and delineates the feathers of the terns' wings.  The illustrations are highly realistic, but also majestic.  One of my favorite illustrations takes place along the gray whale's journey.  A young gray whale swims up the Pacific.  The top half of the double page spread shows the whale passing Los Angeles; in the bottom half she surfaces near the Golden Gate Bridge.  The light is golden in Los Angeles as skyscrapers and hotels stand witness to her journey.  In San Francisco, a mother, her child and their dog monitor the whale's progress.  I love the way this page is divided.  It spreads across both pages, making the reader sense the enormity of the journey.  Many of the pages are divided in a variety of ways, keeping the action of migration fresh and compelling.  There are close-up illustrations that show the stress of the trip on some of the wildlife, some illustrations that show the expanse of the Arctic.

These illustrations match so well with the text.  Dowson's writing is poetic, yet conveys the information clearly and concisely.  I was surprised at how much I learned from this book, which seems relatively simple on the surface.  This takes a very unique look at migration and its impact on the Arctic.  As he describes herrings on their journey, Dowson writes "With bright scales like mirrors, they swerve together, fin by fin." (p. 33).  It is gorgeous, emphasizing the awesome journey these animals undertake.

As for back matter, there is a note giving more information about the Arctic.  The note also asks readers to consider global warming and its impact on this migration.  There are also some websites on the Arctic, a glossary, and an index.  While this story makes my trip to DC seem minute in comparison, it does an amazing job explaining the migration of this group of animals, fish and birds for a summer in the Arctic, just where they all want to be.  This book does a terrific job of detailing the greatest journey on Earth.

North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration.  Nick Dowson; illustrated by Patrick Benson.  Candlewick Press, 2011.

sent by the publisher for consideration for Cybils

Note: I was on the Cybils nonfiction picture book panel, but this blog post only reflects my personal ideas and  thoughts on this book.

Friday, July 12, 2013

New Worlds, Every Day

I am honored to welcome author Nikki Loftin to my blog as my first EVER guest post.  I am also thrilled that she is giving away a signed copy of the book, along with stickers and bookmarks, to one my readers (enter the giveaway with the Rafflecopter link below).
Again, this is part of the 2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz.  There will be a Twitter party on July 19th at 7pm, with the hashtag #2013SummerAuthorBlitz.  There is a Facebook party going on all month as well, located here:  Thank you, Nikki!!!

“Are you writing a sequel?”

Someone asks me this almost every time I speak to groups of kids or adults about writing. It’s a natural question – and a flattering one sometimes, from readers who fell in love with the brave, funny characters in my debut novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy. Readers ask it with a hopeful tone, and helpful ideas for what I might want to consider adding to Book Two.

Some people ask because they know I have sold two more Middle Grade novels to my publisher, and they assume that must mean a series, right? I mean, why would an author write stand-alone books, one after another, creating new worlds, whole new slates of characters, again and again? Isn’t that slightly Sisyphean? (Or, you know, harder than necessary?)

Or is it just dumb? I mean, Everyone knows the real money in writing is coming up with a hot property, stretching it out as long as you possibly can, spinning out the last thread of a story’s life so that every question is answered, every mystery solved. Maybe I’m just not a very clever businesswoman, not smart enough to figure out how to make this writing thing into a real career. Could be true. But I don’t think that’s it. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to try writing a series someday. I would also love to drive a Lamborghini like all the other authors who write series, and eat off new plates every single night like them, wearing their Jimmy Choos, and… sorry. The sound of all my writer friends laughing is distracting me.

But the answer is no. I am not writing a sequel, or a series. I’m not planning on writing a sequel to any of the books I’ve sold. And I may never write a series. (Although I have this great idea for one titled Barry Potter and the Toiletsnake of Doom. Instant classic, right?)

Here’s the thing: I love writing. Pretty much love it more than anything short of eating ice cream. And so far, the best things I’ve written – the things that people have actually (this still amazes me every day) PAID me to write – are stand-alone novels.

New idea after new idea? Yep, I’ve got my Muse on speed dial, people. I adore her, and she’s been pretty good to me, too. My favorite part of the whole process is imagining the new world, coming up with the things that make my books different from all the others. Even from all my others.

Some of my favorite books in the world are stand-alones.  The Graveyard Book, Bridge to Terabithia, The Underneath… when I finished reading these books, I didn’t need another book to give me that shivery wonderful feeling of being enraptured with a new world. I pretty much just wanted to read those books again and again – and I did.

When I was a girl, the very best part of reading was when I reached the end of a story, and couldn’t let it go – and so I’d sit by myself and daydream the rest of the day or week or month. I’d let the characters in my favorite books loose in my head, and let them live out new lives, new stories. Sometimes I’d even write my new stories down. (It’s called fan fiction now. I hear some authors have done very well with it.)

I think in part those moments of continuing favorite stories made me into a writer. If all the loose ends had been tied up? I might have read more of those authors’ books, but I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time playing at being an author myself. 

Learning to be an author.

So, the book I’m writing now, Nightingale’s Nest, is not a sequel. It’s completely new. But I think – I hope – when some young reader finishes it, if I’ve crafted the ending just right – they’ll get to have that shivery feeling, too. And then maybe they’ll write a sequel in their minds – and get a taste for the magic that is creating.

Because as much as I love creating new worlds, I really, really love creating new writers.


About The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy:

Lorelei is bowled over by Splendid Academy—Principal Trapp encourages the students to run in the hallways, the classrooms are stocked with candy dishes, and the cafeteria serves lavish meals featuring all Lorelei's favorite foods. But the more time she spends at school, the more suspicious she becomes. Why are her classmates growing so chubby? And why do the teachers seem so sinister?

It's up to Lorelei and her new friend Andrew to figure out what secret this supposedly splendid school is hiding. What they discover chills their bones—and might even pick them clean!

Mix one part magic, one part mystery, and just a dash of Grimm, and you've got the recipe for a cozy-creepy read that kids will gobble up like candy.

Reviews for Sinister Sweetness:

"A mesmerizing read. . . . a fantasy that feels simultaneously classic and new."—Publishers Weekly

"An irresistible contemporary fairy tale. . . . Deliciously scary and satisfying."—Kirkus

About the Author

Nikki Loftin is a writer and native Texan who lives just outside Austin, Texas, with her two boys, an assortment of animals, and one very patient husband. The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy is her first novel. Her next novel, Nightingale’s Nest, is also for young readers and will be published in February 2014.

About Nightingale’s Nest:

Twelve-year-old John Fischer Jr., or “Little John” as he’s always been known, is spending his summer helping his father with his tree removal business, clearing brush for Mr. King, the wealthy owner of a chain of Texas dollar stores, when he hears a beautiful song that transfixes him. He follows the melody and finds, not a bird, but a young girl sitting in the branches of a tall sycamore tree.

There’s something magical about this girl, Gayle, especially her soaring singing voice, and Little John’s friendship with Gayle quickly becomes the one bright spot in his life, for his home is dominated by sorrow over his sister’s death and his parents’ ever-tightening financial difficulties.

But then Mr. King draws Little John into an impossible choice—forced to choose between his family’s survival and a betrayal of Gayle that puts her future in jeopardy.

Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, Nightingale's Nest is an unforgettable novel about a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a girl with the gift of healing in her voice.


"An extraordinary read—I had to tear myself away from it."—Katherine Catmull, author of Summer and Bird

"Perfectly captures the challenges of growing up and dealing with loss. Get ready to have your heart touched."—Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities

"Tugs and tears at the reader’s heart. . . . lovely and magical."—Bethany Hegedus, author of Truth with a Capital T and Between Us Baxters

"Riveting. . . . This is a book you'll long remember."—Lynda Mullaly Hunt, author of One for the Murphys

"Loftin's eye for strange beauty in unexpected places often takes the reader's breath away."—Claire Legrand, author of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

"Will haunt your soul—and lift your heart."—Kimberley Griffiths Little, author of The Healing Spell and When the Butterflies Came

"A haunting, beautifully told story!"—Bobbie Pyron, author of The Dogs of Winter and A Dog's Way Home

"The kind of book I wanted to read slowly."—Shelley Moore Thomas, author of The Seven Tales of Trinket

"This is a work of tremendous heart."—Anne Ursu, author of Breadcrumbs

&lta Rafflecopter giveaway

Just picked a winner for the giveaway (which is now closed) - Mackenzi V, you will be getting an email from me soon!!! Thank you all for entering!

Monday, July 8, 2013

2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz!

Hi everyone!  Just a quick note to let you all know that I am part of the 2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz, and I am really excited to let Nikki Loftin take over my blog later this week (July 12th).  She is also going to do a giveaway - something I've never done on my blog before - so get ready to win some prizes! I can't wait for her post and giveaway.  It should be fun.

I will hopefully do a review of Nikki's book, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy in the next few days as well.  It looks spooky and, well, sinister, doesn't it??

And here is Nikki's website, with more information about her upcoming book, Nightingale's Nest, which has some great blurbs from terrific authors - it doesn't come out until 2014, which makes me a little sad - I can't wait to read that one too.  If Anne Ursu likes it, count me in!

If you'd like to participate more fully in the 2013 Summer Author Promo Blitz, there  is a list of blogs and participating authors here.  There will be a Twitter party on July 19th at 7pm with the hashtag #2013SummerAuthorBlitz.  There will also be a Facebook party going on all month at  It should all be a lot of fun!  See you on the 12th to learn more about Nikki Loftin!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Big Beasts: Eagle, Polar Bear, Tiger, Whale

So as you all know by now, I've become much more focused on children's nonfiction in the last few years.  I went from having very little interest in nonfiction to wanting to find all the latest, greatest, and the unusual nonfiction - the nonfiction that stands out  from the crowd.  So when I got an email earlier this spring that School Library Journal was hosting a webinar called "What's the Buzz? New Books in Nonfiction", I thought I needed to attend.  Unfortunately, my day job comes first, and a meeting was scheduled at the same time as the webinar.  Luckily, School Library Journal offered an archived version.  It still took me weeks to find time to watch it. When I watched the webinar, I had my library's website and Amazon open at the same time, so I could check for many of the books mentioned from Scholastic, Capstone and DK.  We've already read and enjoyed many of them, including some Star Wars books (Frances and Gloria have become Star Wars fans this spring) that we've ended up buying.

But the publisher that most intrigued me was Black Rabbit Books.  I've been in the library world for a long time, and I wasn't familiar with them.  My public library didn't have any of the titles in their catalog.  But the nonfiction that was highlighted in the webinar seemed to fit very nicely with both my girls' reading levels and interests.  So I did something I rarely do, and requested them from the publisher for review.  I was really delighted to receive some of the books for review, and also really pleased to write about them here.

I was sent four books in the Big Beasts series, written by Stephanie Turnbull - Whale, Tiger, Eagle and Polar Bear.  Frances will be going into first grade in the fall, and I thought these might be a good fit for her reading level.  And they are.  Each book is set up in a similar way.  It starts with a statement about the animal or bird about how large they are (tying back into the series title).  Then there are two-page sections with groups of facts organized by a heading.  For instance, in Eagle, there is a section titled Dinner Time!  There are three facts about eagles and their feeding patterns on the double-page spread.  There is a large, clear photograph of the eagle, swooping down into a body of water.  There are also smaller photographs of some of the eagle's prey.  The facts usually tie together clearly and  flow naturally.  The language is concise but exciting.  On the Dinner Time! page, Turnbull includes the fact "They swoop down faster than a speeding car and grab prey in their long talons. " (p. 11).  These are perfect facts for young readers - written at their level and also written in a way that helps them visualize animals they will most likely never see up close.

At the end of each of the four books, there is a spread of BIG facts about the big beast.  Three of the four books I was sent use fabulous graphics to illustrate these BIG facts.  "Polar bears can be longer than you and a friend lying end to end." (p. 22) is illustrated with a photograph of two children stretched out.  Again, these graphics really help new readers envision these facts in a very concrete way.  A picture of a house illustrates the fact that a whale's spout of air and spray shoots higher than a house.  I found most of these BIG facts incredibly informative and well-done.  Tiger, however, just had a list of facts without all the same types of connections made for readers.

All of the books have a variety of photographs on every page.   These photographs all show the animals and birds in the wild, not in zoos, so readers can see them in their own habitats.  As I mentioned earlier, the books include information about the animals' feeding habits.  Photographs of the polar bear and tiger show them bloodied by their kills.  I think these photographs can also be attractive to some readers - they like to see the blood and gore!  The photographs are clear and vivid and demonstrate the Big Beasts' behaviors.

I was surprised by the breadth of facts included in these books.  I was also surprised by what I learned about animals I would have thought I knew everything about.  I really thought that a book aimed at kindergarten and first graders wouldn't have anything new to offer me.  But I learned at least one new thing from every book.  Did you know tigers have three different kinds of teeth for three separate tasks (biting, tearing and slicing)?  I didn't.  Or that polar bears roll on snow to dry their fur after getting out of the water?  I always advocate for adults to read children's nonfiction too, and this series is a great example of how much we can learn, even when the facts are presented in a simple manner.

My favorite book of the four is Whale.  It covered many different kinds of whales, and included lots of fascinating facts about whales.  But all of them are great.  Each book ends with an index, a glossary of "useful words" and a web link to help set the bar for nonfiction for young children.  I am happy to see that information for these young readers still takes the idea of back matter seriously.  I really like this series - I know Frances' school would love to have them, but I'm sure I can part with these books yet!

Eagle.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Polar Bear.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Tiger.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.
Whale.  Stephanie Turnbull.  Black Rabbit Books: Smart Apple Media, 2013.

books sent by the publisher for review