Posts Tagged ‘Middle grade novels’

There are just periods when one cannot find the time – or brain – to post. Really, I’m kind of still in one of those, but I guess I had to share my love of books – and this amazing haul – with you book lovers out there. Today was day #1 of the annual Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. And below is what I brought home, limited¬†only by the fact that I literally could not carry any more. (Though the library folks said they’d be happy to help me get more to my car. ūüôā

This year, I went with a list – some MG/YA (since I continue to write children’s books, I always want to read the good stuff out there): a goodly bunch of fiction titles; and a selection from a list my friend had recently sent me from Buzzfeed entitled¬†37 Books with Plot Twists that Will Blow Your Mind. Hey, that sounded promising, so I perused the list, eliminated those I’d already read, and added those of interest to my library sale list. Now I was ready to go!

Amazingly, I actually found 6 from my list – The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin and Savvy – Ingrid Law (both MG/YA);¬†The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield; Fingersmith – Sarah Waters; and The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee from the “plot twist” list. While I couldn’t find others from the Buzzfeed group, I did find alternative books by a couple of the authors, so picked upThe City of Falling Angels – John Berendt, in place of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Infinite Plan – Isabel Allende, in place of The House of the Spirits – a chance to check out new authors.

And then there were these that I just happened upon – The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry because The Giver and Gathering Blue were excellent; Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver because she’s one of my favorite authors; I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak because The Book Thief is one of my favorite all-time books and I promised myself I’d read something else of his and try not to compare; Forever – Pete Hamill because I love the premise and he’s an excellent writer; Morality for Beautiful Girls – Alexander McCall Smith as I love his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series; The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky (MG) – just wanted to read it; ¬†same for¬†Evermore – Alyson Noel (YA) and Ape House by Sara Gruen.

And then, The Art of Racing in the Rain – ¬†Garth Stein, recommended highly to me years ago by my dearest friend, since passed over; Pushing the Bear – A Novel of the Trail of Tears – Diane Glancy, because I know this will touch me deeply; and Louise Penny’s Still Life in excellent condition, a wee gift to my own town’s small local library for their shelves (I had to borrow the copy I’d read from the county library). And there you have it.

The two big questions: where will I put them all? and what will I read first after I finish the wonderful book I’m already reading? The first is a minor problem but solvable; the second – just a delicious conundrum. I wish you all happy reading – it is truly one of the riches in our lives.

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I can hardly believe t’s been a week already since I’ve returned from the 2-day children’s book conference in Princeton. I know I’m not alone when I say I come home exhausted, exhilarated,¬†optimistic, grateful, exhausted, happy, enriched, hopeful, challenged, and oh .. did I mention exhausted?


Jumping into my standard 40+ hour work week the very next day¬†does not leave a lot of time for reflecting on all that transpired, reviewing materials, notes from critiques, etc. But numerous thoughts and conclusions were ribboning through my mind on and off all week long, even while I looked forward to this weekend to catch up on some rest and start seriously considering where I was going with children’s books.

And a¬†direction became¬†clear. One of the big attractions of the New Jersey SCBWI Conference is that we offer “one-on-ones” to both writers and illustrators. This is often the focal point of the weekend for those writers who wish a detailed critique¬†from agents and/or editors on¬†their children’s books and illustrators who can have art directors review their portfolios. This year, I went full steam ahead and booked two¬†agent critiques for my middle grade novel and one¬†editor critique for a picture book I’m working on. Of the three critiques, one was so incredibly helpful, I was just thrilled.

In the past I have submitted manuscripts that were as finished and polished as I could get them. They’d been looked at by my critique partners, gone through numerous¬†revisions, and perhaps even been seen at previous conferences. This year was different. The picture book is in the very early stages of development and I sought some insight¬†¬†and direction. The novel had once been a picture book, and through a number of professional critiques had moved through the chapter book phase to its true calling, middle grade. But I had questions, and I wanted to hear an agent’s opinion.

ADogsPurpose-WBruceCameron2The good news is that one agent confirmed my story is unique and not on the market, and she really liked the concept. The not-surprising news is I have a lot of work ahead of me, as in, now I have to write the rest of the book! This agent really paid attention when looking at my synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript, and offered solid advice. I also came armed with lots of questions, and the ensuing discussion helped to highlight areas I need to focus on, existing concepts I might change to improve it, etc. So for that critique alone, the conference was worth it.

Am I writing today? Not yet. But I am making a plan on how I’m going to get this book written. One aspect of the plan is what I read. You know how you sometimes buy a book but when you get it, you know it’s not the time to read it and temporarily shelve it? The book I need to read right¬†now is pictured here, A Dog’s Purpose. ¬†It was recommended to me at least 4 years ago by the CSR of one of the major printers I work with in my capacity¬†as a graphic designer. As little time as she and I had¬†to chat beyond the work-related, she highly recommended this book for me, and said she knew I’d love it on every level. I know the timing is now perfect and reading it will also enrich the story I’m writing.

More on the conference here¬†…





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Armed with nothing more than a mere paper list and 2 canvas bags, I prepared to do battle in the County Fairgrounds Grange Building, to find hidden treasure at the Annual Library Book Sale.


And find treasure I did!!

On my list were several broad categories ‚Ķ first I was looking for a particular chapter book series for my friend’s son, then books on model trains for another friend and particular cookbooks for another friend and myself. But then … I had a¬†list of MG and YA novels and adult fiction strictly for my own reading pleasure. Some of these were Newbery winners or honor books that I’d been trying to find for awhile, others were books gathered from the 100 book bucket lists from an earlier post, some recommended by friends. What would I find?

Book Sale Books3 hours and a terribly aching neck later, I did quite well. Let’s take a closer look.

At left¬†we have the known writers up top and¬†books on my list below. The top 3 are among my favorite authors – Patricia Briggs, fabulous writer of urban fantasy and the Mercy Thompson series with Raven’s Strike, Alice Hoffman with ¬†Incantation which in theme seems to be along the line of recently enjoyed The Dovekeepers, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams which I’ve been wanting to read for some time, and found quite unexpectedly.

Another Jerry Spinelli MG classic, Milkweed, and Almost Home another MG by Joan Bauer of Hope Was Here, plus a healthy kitchen book by another fave of mine, Dr. Andrew Weil, and the only book of Nicholas Evans, of The Horse Whisperer fame, that I haven’t read, The Divide. Below them, books I’ve had on a list for awhile – ¬†YA Schooled by Anisha Lakmani, and MG¬†The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and Crispin, the Cross of Lead by Avi.

I also found the next book after The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses about her grandmother Smith whom we met in her memoir. I am so impressed by Walls’ writing that I was hoping to find this book and The Silver Star¬†but am real happy about at least getting one of them. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr is another much-praised memoir, and Water for Elephants also has gotten rave reviews if I can get through what I hear is a fair amount of brutality¬†to the elephants. They could lose me there; we shall see.

BookSale2014-Stack1-2And on to the lucky finds ‚Ķ I was looking for The Giver by Lois Lowry, but found instead Gathering Blue, perhaps dark, but intriguing, as may be the collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors. The Te of Piglet is a companion to the Tao of Pooh which I already own and love – a can’t miss for me. ¬†Shanghai Girls¬†by Lisa See seems to have the flavor of Memoir of A Geisha which was outstanding, and The Red Leather Diary¬†is a book I remember reading about being excellent some time ago. A surprise¬†and hopefully another treasure.

I was first introduced to The Whale Rider as a movie about the New Zealand Maori tribe, specifically Kahu, a girl who should receive this sacred honor by lineage but which is only bestowed upon boys and men. It was excellent and I was thrilled to stumble upon the book by Witi Ihimaera. I am trying a sci-fi book by C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet. I am not generally a sci-fi fan, but this sounded great. I also found The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle and Horses and the Mystical Path by three McCormicks, because what would my (reading) life be if not inclusive of animals? (And yes, 2 cookbooks are in that pile, too!)

Today¬†I feel rich, very rich. I didn’t find a bunch of the books¬†on my list, but am more than happy with what will keep me engrossed for quite some time. The ones I couldn’t find? They’re on a new list under a magnet on my fridge, and whenever I am¬†so inspired, I can toddle on over and pick them up from my local library, where I’ll also sit and soak up picture books to feed the¬†writer and illustrator within.

Oh, and not to mention I am waiting for my inter-library loan of Deborah Harkness’ second book The Shadow of Night. Sometimes it seems crazy that something¬†so simple can bring such happiness, but such a good crazy!


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ManiacMagee-JSpinelli2How did Jerry Spinelli manage to cover the subjects of race, homelessness, bullying, friendship and the loneliness of the elderly all in one middle grade novel AND do it with humor, insight and compassion? This book was a revelation to me, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants an excellent, (and fast), read even though it’s hero is 12 year old Jeffrey (Maniac) Magee.

I began to read Maniac Magee and found quickly that Maniac was into sports – how fast he could run, how far he could throw a football – and I thought it might not be for rather unsporty me. Was I wrong. It’s not about sports; it’s about an orphaned kid on his own who encounters a variety of life’s toughest situations, (aside from losing his parents), and how he deals with them. He finds more than his share of challenges, some friends and/or admirers along the way, and some pretty scary antagonists. Maniac/Jeffrey loses some of his naivet√© but his optimism always prevails.

Spinelli writes in a beyond-engaging style. His word choices and phrases and his sense of humor had me turning the pages and never wanting to put the book down. Every character is developed beautifully, but of course, especially Maniac. It’s no wonder this book earned Spinelli a Newbery Award.

And what’s also surprising is that although Maniac Magee was written in 1995, it is totally contemporary. Somehow Spinelli wrote a timeless tale – almost a folk tale or legend – that is as meaningful right now – maybe even more so – as it was back then. I am in awe of this author and in love with this story. Walk – no, run – to your library or bookstore and get Maniac Magee.

p.s. I have also read Stargirl, Eggs and Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli – all worthwhile reads as well.

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Have you ever experienced periods of time in which you wanted to read … well, everything in sight? Yet at the same time, you couldn’t find exactly the book you wanted to read? It’s a special and odd kind of frustration.


Here is but one bookshelf of books all waiting to be devoured … but I can’t make a choice. These are largely from the library’s annual book sale, but a couple are purchased or from a friend, and I really do want to read every single one, but I can’t choose.

BooksToBeRead2-2But wait – there’s more! Like one of those TV infomercials in which you can get twice as many items for the same price if you’ll just order NOW, there are more books waiting to be read! Some of these are middle grade, some YA and some adult … some from my friends’ book swap … and all are calling to me as well. (And we don’t want to know, there is another small group on top of another bookcase.) Plus I’m still in the middle of another fabulous book, Paradise by Toni Morrison. So what’s with the restlessness? Are you experiencing this, too?

I’m thinking it might be the holidays – schedules are completely off for work, rest, entertainment, visiting … and distractions, wonderful as they are … are at a yearly high. Sometimes we just have too many choices. But if fabulous books that cost me little or nothing are what I have too many of, well … it sure could be worse.

Things are settling back into some semblance of a routine and the evenings have become particularly chilly. Seems like the right time to cozy up with a hot cup of cocoa and open up a good book. That and the sound of so many fabulous authors calling my name is becoming deafening.

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You might think I was a fundraiser for the Hunterdon County Library, (which I am not), but I can’t help but share this wonderful annual opportunity to purchase books at ridiculously low prices! The annual Hunterdon County Library Book Sale is an event not to be missed if you like to read. And that goes for all age groups, fiction and non-fiction.

The sale is held in the National Guard Armory on Rt. 12 in Flemington, New Jersey on Saturday, April 21 and Sunday, April 22nd. In general, hard bound books are $2 and paperbacks, $1, and both are half-price on Sunday. How can you lose? Fiction is in the main armory with a special room for children’s books, and non-fiction in a separate building just across the parking lot. In that section are lots of cookbooks, biographies, history, self-help, etc.

The only problem I see in waiting til Sunday is that last year almost all the YA novels were already gone, certainly the most desirable ones. Bring cloth grocery bags or something to collect and carry your books in while you shop. There is a room where you can “park” what you’ve gathered while you continue to peruse the titles, no charge. But be aware, people come in and buy CARTONS of books – just in case you really want something special.

Parking is free and when the armory lot is full, you can park in the County Complex, (location of the main library), and jitneys run back and forth all day long. Here is all you need to know about the book sale.

Just a note – in 2010, there were 120,000 titles to choose from … I suggest you bring more than one bag.

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One of the things I love talking about with friends is what books we are reading and what we are writing. The two topics are often in the same conversation.

One friend is working very hard on her middle grade novel. I am generally working on picture books; however, a middle grade novel is slowly writing itself in my head. I’m asked if I’m not writing this down. I am not. But little by little I am getting to know my characters and I have a fair idea of where they’ve come from, what is shaping their dilemmas and where they are going. When the time is right, and when I know them better, I will begin the writing process.

Meanwhile, I read. ¬†In talking with my friend, we discussed the 3 books I have just finished. She had not read two, but was interested in doing so for the reasons I’ll describe. She was reading, but lost interest in and abandoned, the third.

The first is The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares. I had seen the movie – it was light, probably a “chick flick” – but I liked it.
Advantage to Writer? Observing and understanding realistic  dialogue and relationships between teenage girls.

The second is The Divide by Nicholas Evans, probably best known as the author of The Horse Whisperer. I also read The Loop by him. What a way Evans has of engaging you in a story, building up suspense, then taking a sharp turn away to another character, leaving you wanting more. I only hope, whenever I write my novel, that I can hold a reader’s interest like he does.
Advantage to Writer? Learning how to pace a novel for maximum effect.

The third, (and unfinished by my friend), is The Lovely Bones by Alice Siebold. This was a daring first novel, told from the first person POV of a 12 year old girl who is raped and murdered, and is now in heaven. This could have been really strange, quirky or sappy. It was none of these, and it had my attention through to the end.
Advantage to Writer? Learning to trust in your own unique story ideas, that writing from the deepest and most real place within is where the best stories will always come from.

I trust that all I’m learning is soaking into my unconscious and always making me a better writer. And so the enjoyment of wonderful books continues. What is your reading bringing to you?

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When I’m offered coffee, I don’t want tea. When I’m offered a ride, I don’t expect to walk. When I choose a book entitled Taming the Star Runner, with a number of horses on the cover, and a jacket liner which pumps up the story of a horse named Star Runner, I don’t expect a story about a teenage boy named Travis. But that’s what I got.

Taming the Star Runner  by S. E. Hinton is a coming-of-age story about a 15 year old named Travis, who, while he sees himself as very cool, is always on the edge of getting in more trouble than he can handle. After attempting to kill his abusive stepfather and doing some time, he is sent to live with his uncle on a ranch in Oklahoma. Here he meets, among others, a teen barely older than himself, Casey, rider and riding instructor, and then we finally meet who seemed to allegedly be a main character, her horse named Star Runner. Had I not been excited to read a story about this wild horse, who only first appears halfway through the book, I may have liked the story more. Or maybe not picked it up at all.

S.E. Hinton, deliberately using only her initials as an author, (lest it be realized she was a very young woman author), broke ground in the 60’s, writing about gangs. Her first published book was The Outsiders, written when she was 16. This story is similar in the sense that Travis is another angry, angst-filled teen, feeling unappreciated, isolated and ever on the edge of an emotional explosion. The story is fairly good, actually. Travis’ character is well-drawn, as are other characters, and the plot has some interesting twists and turns, even if, in my mind, they are not all tied up that well in the end. Still, this particular tale became more interesting for me when the powerful spirit of Star Runner was introduced and the girl who wanted to tame him.

Having read a number of Newbery-winning and other middle grade novels, and having learned what editors are looking for and what is being published nowadays, I can’t help but wonder if Hinton would have been published today. Or at least if she remained in her own writing style. Being mindful of what we are told at workshops, conferences, online, etc. I am sometimes amazed at how she worded things, switching tenses, using unmarked self-reflective dialogue in the same paragraph as lengthy descriptions, etc. It made me realize how much more refined the craft of writing – in this case, for teens – has become.

I don’t mean to sit and criticize S.E. Hinton for what she did – she brought a whole new way of life and type of character to light in her novels. They were groundbreaking, have become classics, and continue to resonate well with many readers today. I only wish the book had really been about what the title told me.


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Or perhaps I should say what I’ve been reading, but haven’t been blogging about. It seems there are just times when blogging about books isn’t as compelling as reading them and moving on to the next one. Here’s my book list over the last few months from the most recent back …

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli – what a wonderful, extraordinarily well-written YA novel. ¬†Truly this book deserves to be written about at great length, (and I’m sure has been elsewhere on the web), but as this being only the second of Jerry Spinelli’s books I’ve read, I must say how impressed I am. Told in the first person by a child who only knows his name to be stop thief, the tale takes place in 1939 during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. How the lives of everyone changed as the Jackboots settled in the city, as Jews and others were herded into the newly-created ghetto and later forced onto trains, as people slowly starved, as smugglers were hung, and friends made and lost is what the author describes. Stop thief goes through many transformations during this time, including being given a history as a gypsy to try and protect him, and observes the horrors of the Nazi occupation. Yet somehow, these horrors became an integral part of everyday life in ways I cannot imagine, and the story is seamlessly told through the eyes of this child. Milkweed is so different from The Book Thief, and seemed so much more accessible to me, for lack of a better word. I highly recommend it.

Bunnicula, The Howliday Inn and The Celery Stalks at Midnight by James Howe (and Deborah Howe in Bunnicula only) – I had expected more of Bunnicula, the vampire bunny, but in these three consecutive middle grade mysteries, each becomes better than the previous with funny dog and cat characters trying to solve them. The best of the three for me was The Howliday Inn, as it was the most complex and the humor was getting better, too.

Great Joy – Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline – I picked this picture book up for the magnificent illustrations, but was disappointed in the story. And I really do enjoy DiCamillo’s writing. Something was missing for me, but the illos were fabulous.

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins – this YA novel is a Newbery winner. For me, it wasn’t as absorbing as many of the other YA novels I’ve been reading, but it was a very true-to-life depiction of ¬†that awkward time when kids grow into adolescents. It takes place in the 60’s, and shows the growth of several young boys and girls and their relationships. Not heavy on plot, but nice – and nicely drawn – ¬†characters.

Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman – this was unexpected as I hadn’t realized it would be a graphic novel/picture book! For some reason I had expected a YA novel like The Graveyard Book (yet to be read). However, I loved the story and the fabulous illustrations by Dave McKean, who also did Coraline, and which really make this book come alive.

Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen – a story of an abused woman, who finally reaches out to get help to save her life, taking her son with her as well. This help takes place in being given another identity and being relocated in another part of the country by a little publicized agency who specializes in helping abused women. However, Fran Benedetto cannot escape her police officer husband forever as he wants his 10 year old son back, and somewhere, in an untold story behind hers, is searching for both of them. This book is hard to put down, and recounts, through her eyes, the “accidents” that she can no longer bear nor justify to others, and her new life which almost seems normal. The abuse is harrowing and painful to read at times, and her new life is always overshadowed for the reader with the anxiety of Bobby finding her. A good read.

Heaven Eyes by David Almond – a YA novel by one of my favorite authors. Almond’s characters and plots are so uniquely his own. There is a magic threading through all of his stories which happens to resonate with something in me every time without fail. Heaven Eyes is a child who is living with an elderly man who saved her from the muck outside a deserted industrial site. Three runaways from an orphanage up the river land on the edge of the brackish mud adjacent to where she lives, and their intertwining stories unfold slowly to reveal a deeply disturbed man and a child who’s been given a history not based in reality. The three orphans are well-drawn characters in their own right with their own history, and find drama and revelation in their encounter with Heaven Eyes and Grandpa. Ultimately, they ¬†must decide to stay in an unreal environment or hope to return to the world from which they came, bringing Heaven Eyes and her spirituality with them. A Fantastic read, (and I’m truly not doing it justice here.)

No Small Thing by Natalie Ghent – a middle-grade novel about 3 children who acquire an unwanted pony during very rough times for their family. Their mother tries to keep it together after their father walked out on them, profoundly affecting them all. It is a story in part about the responsibilities of owning a pet, but also of the children’s relationships, caring for one another and managing their lives together. Some good spots, but for me, was just OK.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Hunting Ground by Patricia Briggs – from the Alpha and Omega Series. Fabulous. The first Briggs novel I read was Moon Called, and this is a storyteller whose books I cannot put down!

During this time I am reading one or more metaphysical books on an ongoing basis, but that, for another time …

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Here are two books for middle grade readers by the same author, Patricia Reilly Giff, and both winners of the Newbery Honor Award. I think, in addition to their both being very strong pieces of work, they demonstrate how an author has grown in even a few years.

I first read Pictures of Hollis Woods a few months ago as part of a list I’d made to learn more about writing for middle grade by reading Newbery winners. This book is the strongest, most memorable, and deeply touching of any I have read to date. Hollis is an artistic 12 year old girl who was abandoned at birth, and who has been in several different foster homes ever since, ultimately running away from them all. In the present, she is placed with Josie, a retired art teacher and artist who is slowly losing her memory. Hollis develops a real fondness for Josie, and does her best to not let the foster system know that Josie is becoming incapable of caring for her.

Interspersed with chapters of the present, are chapters describing pictures that Hollis has drawn of a situation in the past, where a foster home wanted to adopt her … a home where she was truly happy. However, something terrible happened and she ran again. Giff has artfully balanced Hollis’ present day circumstances with the pictures she’s drawn telling the story of what happened in the home where she wanted to stay. The two juxtapose until they are woven together into the present. The two story lines become one, building to a great climax. I am amazed at how skillfully Giff has done this. I am deeply touched by Hollis’ character; she is so sympathetic, that it never matters a moment that she “is trouble” or can be flip or fresh. I only cared to see what had happened at that special home and how it would turn out. Talk about a book I couldn’t put down! What a wonderful story and group of characters, and what an inspiration, I would imagine, for Giff’s middle grade readers.

I just finished reading Lily’s Crossing, written 5 years earlier. It’s a very different story, and without the alternating of present with past. Again, the story takes place in Queens, (which, having lived in NYC for quite some time, I always enjoy), in 1944 at the time of the Normandy Invasion. Lily’s Crossing brings with it a much deeper glimpse into a period in time than Hollis Woods, and for that I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, and it may not be fair to compare, Lily’s character, while very likable, isn’t as deeply sympathetic for me as that of Hollis.

Lily is cared for by her father, Poppy, and Gram, his mother. Her mother passed away when she was much younger. When school is out they go to Gram’s house in the Rockaways, where Lily meets Albert, a refugee from Hungary. He has escaped the Nazis, but lost his parents and left behind a sister, from whom he was separated, in France. As Lily and Gram prepare to go to Rockaway, Poppy is called into the service and ships out to France to fight the war. Lily is a funny, somewhat flawed but appealing character, who happens to tell lies quite often, one to her new friend Albert that later endangers his life. But for me, the dramatic tension could have been so much stronger. Still, the characters were all well drawn, the 1944 backdrop always of interest, and the ending very satisfying.

What was missing? I think I was spoiled by the strength of Pictures of Hollis Woods! These stories were written 5 years apart, and really are both ones to read. But it also showed me the growth of an insightful author who clearly cares about her characters and their growth over the course of a novel. I like it when I really care about a character and what happens to her. Patricia Reilly Giff earned those Newbery awards for a very good reason.

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