Friday, October 12, 2018

Garbage Island, by Fred Koehler

Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew) by Fred Koehler is the kind of book that feels like a throwback to earlier days of middle grade literature and alarmingly contemporary at the same time. Archibald (he prefers to go by “Archie”) is all exploration, creativity, and invention, the kind of character that any STEM student will recognize in themselves.



Archie is a shrew living on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which gives him a seemingly endless supply of resources to tinker with as he invents new objects meant to make the lives of those on the garbage patch a bit better. He shares the patch with a diverse collection of animals who have organized their different cultures and priorities into a workable truce under the leadership of their mayor, a mouse named Mr. Popli. While Archie’s strongest motivation for inventing is to be helpful, he commonly lets his enthusiasm get the better of him, which often leads to problems within this society. One day one of these moments leads to a chain of events that sets Archie and Mr. Popli off on an adventure at sea, one which could also have a lasting impact on the welfare of the citizens of Garbage Island and their home itself.

There were a number of things I enjoyed about this book. It was a lot of fun to read a story with animals for characters, and fully-realized characters at that. Each character or group had their own collection of traits and motivations working together to keep the story moving. The extensive world-building on display here was both amusing and disturbing — amusing because of the way Fred Koehler came up with imaginative ways to introduce everyday items as useful parts of the environment, but disturbing to realize that many of Archie’s abundant resources could likely be found out on the Garbage Patch in real life. The world-building didn’t stop with the physical though, but also permeated throughout the community the different animals had created together, to say nothing of their politics.

Fred Koehler won a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for his illustrations for ONE DAY. THE END. He is the author-illustrator of HOW TO CHEER UP DAD, which received three starred reviews, and he is the illustrator of THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT DRAGONS and PUPPY, PUPPY, PUPPY, and FLASHLIGHT NIGHT. He lives with his children in Lakeland, Florida.


Monday, October 8, 2018

After Zero, by Christina Collins


In After Zero, a debut middle grade by Christina Collins, twelve-year-old Elise finds it hard to utter more than a few words, especially when she is at school. At home, and with her best friend Mel, Elise is comfortable enough to speak freely. But at school, her anxiety takes over. Elise, formerly homeschooled, doesn’t know the “rules” about her new school, Green Pasture Middle. She’s never been in a classroom before, and every time she opens her mouth to speak, she accidentally spills secrets or says wrong answers. It’s easier not to talk. Elise carries a notebook full of tallies, each stroke marking a word spoken. Five tally marks isn’t bad. Two is pretty good. But zero? Zero is perfect. 

At home, things aren’t much easier. When she’s not teaching an online class, Elise’s mother is locked inside her bedroom.One night when Elise can’t sleep, she discovers her mother rummaging through a shed in their backyard. Later, Elise discovers bins full of teddy bears, photographs, and sympathy cards inside the shed—evidence that her father was killed in a car crash on the day she was born. From the cards, it appears that her two toddler brothers survived the crash. When Elise discovers a card from a grandmother she never met, she’s convinced her granny is raising her brothers.


Armed with her grandmother’s return address, Elise sets out to meet her granny and the family she’s always longed for. After a dangerous journey through a forest, Elise approaches a cliff where she sees two boys in wheelchairs, playing violins. A grandmother figure appears and tells Elise that she will be reunited with her brothers on her 13th birthday if she remains silent. If she doesn’t say a word, all her wishes will come true.

Elise, determined to remain quiet so she can be reunited with her brothers, falls further into what she calls her “bubble”. She is silent to the point where can’t even bring herself to cry out for help when school bullies lash out, both physically and verbally.
When Elise can’t tell the guidance counselor why she didn’t cry for help during the abuse, a beloved English teacher encourages Elise to write a letter detailing all that has happened to her in the past few months. In the letter, Elise shares that she saw her brothers and will be reunited with them if she remains silent until her 13th birthday. The school counselor shows the letter to Elise’s mother, who is befuddled because Elise’s toddler brothers died in the same car crash that killed Elise’s dad thirteen years ago. The counselor explains that Elise’s silence, a condition called selective mutism, often co-exists with other types of anxiety. Elise’s sleep deprivation caused hallucinations, making her “see” the brothers and grandmother she wanted to believe were still alive.
And now, for the happy ending...
An epilogue shows Elise two years later, after therapy, entering high school. The word “Quiet” still feels inked into her like a tattoo. But like the mysterious raven that follows her throughout the story, Elise is now ready to spread her wings and fly.
My review: Four stars. Selective mutism is a topic not covered in middle grade literature, and this book will be a helpful addition to the genre. Although the hallucination scene was a bit confusing for me as a reader of realistic fiction, the gripping, fast-paced plot left me rooting for Elise. I appreciated the recommended resources at the end of the book for kids who struggle with selective mutism.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Are Writing Conferences Worth It?

So, you’re an aspiring writer, and you’re considering going to a writing conference. Is it worth it? What should you keep in mind?

1. Do I need to attend conferences to become a professional writer?
No, you don’t. Conferences cost money, and sometimes you just don’t have it. What you do need is grit, a willingness to learn, a broad knowledge of the literature you’re trying to write and an awareness of how the industry works. It also helps to have a supportive group of fellow writers, who share your dreams, will give you constructive feedback on your work and will cry and/or celebrate with you when required. Attending a writing conference or joining a professional group, like SCBWI, can help with many, but not all of those things. If you are looking to learn more about the industry and to join a supportive community of writers, then attending a conference can be a great first step.

2. Will I get an agent or sell a book at a conference?
Maybe, but probably not. You are there to learn and make connections. Be open, ask questions and don’t be afraid to talk to the industry professionals attending the conference. They are regular people just like you. Learn how to give and receive feedback. Many conferences provide an opportunity for attendees to receive manuscript critiques from agents or editors. Don’t stress out. This is a learning opportunity. Make sure to listen and give yourself time to process any critiques before responding or dismissing feedback. Defending your work at first is totally natural, but try not to do it out loud, especially in your one-on-one with an editor or agent  Be open to making changes. Feedback that sounds wrong at first may end up enhancing your story if applied in the right way. Of course, the opposite remains true as well. Not every piece of advice that you receive from a critique partner or professional will improve your work. By joining a regular critique group, you can learn how to parse out which pieces of feedback to apply and which to ignore.


3. Will it be worth my time and money?
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In my experience, yes. I always come away inspired and energized to work. I have made excellent friends through my affiliation with SCBWI, and I can’t imagine going on my writing journey without them. Plus, you will get to meet amazing people like these (goose not included):

To learn more about SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, visit https://www.scbwi.org/ or https://oklahoma.scbwi.org/ for the Oklahoma chapter.