Review of The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg

Candice Phee CoverCandice Phee is autistic. She lacks certain social skills that enable her to make and maintain “normal” friendships. However, when she tells her friend’s mother that she isn’t autistic, the mother asks, “Then what are you?” She replies, “I’m me.”

And she is. She is also brutally honest, painfully literal, and fastidiously observant. These characteristics serve her well when completing her English assignment to write something about her that happened in the past, one paragraph for every letter of the alphabet. Twenty-six paragraphs turn into a book, in which she makes it her mission to ensure that those around her are happy. So, she attempts to help her friend Douglas Benson from Another Dimension get back to his own dimension, and she concocts a scheme to bring her father and his estranged brother back to together. Add to that the need to have her mother stop drowning in sorrow from having lost a child several years ago, and you’ve got one busy girl.

This award-winning Australian novel is a gem in the world of children’s literature. You will root for Candice, grieve for her parents, and appreciate Douglas’ seriousness. I adored this book, and so will you. This would make a great read-aloud with middle grade students.

Note: This review was written from an advance uncorrected proof, supplied by Chronicle Books, via The LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. A Common Core-Aligned Teachers’ Guide is available on the publisher’s website.

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How Not to Let a Little (or Big) Storm Get in the Way of Writing

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The wind blew the rain under the door, and the lights went out in the Dojo, plunging us into darkness.

 

Sounds like the opening to bad story, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this happened to me on July 8, as a storm barreled through the 1.6 square mile village where I live. The storm, called a microburst by meteorologists, acted like a tornado without the rotating winds. It pushed down 75-foot trees as if they were corn stalks, and the trees dragged the utility lines with them. Power was out for most people for 2-3 days. Some residents’ properties suffered more damage than others (roofs crushed, cars smashed, fences demolished, sidewalks and driveways uplifted as 12-foot-wide tree roots escaped the ground). My family was more fortunate. We had a few branches fall, and our power came back on 26 hours later.

 

After I knew we were safe, I became very concerned about my writing. I’m participating in Teachers Write!, a virtual summer writing camp for  educators founded by Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jennifer Jones Vincent, and Jo Knowles. Without electricity, I couldn’t access the daily prompts or the writing community.  My 4-year-old laptop’s battery couldn’t hold a charge for more than one hour, so I couldn’t work on my novel. My husband and I had to run around looking for a generator (a bit late, I know).  I just didn’t have enough time to write. I was frustrated to say the least. However, my frustration was short-lived as I decided to not let this storm and its after-effects stymie my writing.

 

The morning after the storm, I grabbed my notebook and pen. My family and I drove around the village to see the damage first-hand. I wrote down descriptions of what I saw, noises I heard, and  smells that made their way to my nose.  I reflected on the night before and what my environment looked, felt, and smelled like as the thunderstorm moved in. People’s reactions were raw. Neighbors helped neighbors. Everyone was walking because streets were blocked by felled trees and downed power lines.

 

I took it all in. All the sensory details I wrote down for future reference. This process kicked my powers of observation into high gear, and reminded me that I should always be on, always be looking for ways to write.

How do you look for ways to write? Have you had something like this happen, where your lack of online access curtailed your writing? How did you cope with the situation? I’d like to hear what you did.

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July 15, 2014 · 10:02 am

Review of The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner

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For Francesca “Frankie” Schnell, “there are never any good summers, only survivable ones.” This summer promises to be the same. She begins it with a huge crush on her best friend’s boyfriend, a sneaking suspicion that her father is having an affair with a neighbor, her mother deeply entrenched in her charity work, and the ever-present guilt she carries with her over the death of her brother, Simon, four years earlier.

Then she meets Frankie Schyler (aka Frankie Skye), a four-year-old boy who bares a striking resemblance to her deceased brother. When the boy’s mother offers Francesca a mother’s helper job for the summer, she feels so drawn to the younger Frankie that she can’t refuse. Soon she discovers that not only does the boy look like her brother, but she begins to believe that Simon is a part of Frankie Skye.

With the help of the ever-so-honest Frankie Skye, an unexpected shoulder to cry on, a heart-breaking confession, and the attention of a special boy, Francesca learns to let go of the guilt that should never have been hers to begin with.

Polisner has crafted a story that gently enfolds the reader in it’s arms, and then reveals a character’s heart that is so broken that we feel the pain ourselves. As with her freshman novel THE PULL OF GRAVITY, Polisner creates authentic, fleshed-out characters whom we love from the very first page. Even secondary characters get a chance to shine.

Frankie and Frankie will stay with you for a long time.

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Time to Get Moving!

Thanksgiving morning, 2012 I woke up to a revelation. I had been “thinking about” writing a novel (based on my grandmother’s childhood spent in a Catholic orphanage) for several years. I’d been thinking and planning, and thinking some more, but not doing any writing. So, that fall morning, I had this realization – If I had started writing this novel a year ago, then I’d be a year further along. Duh!

And so I began…

to research.

In order to start writing, I knew I had to do a bit of looking at the time period (1918-1919) in order to get a feel for it, before I could begin to form a story. I went back and looked at my grandmother’s genealogy notes that I had collected over the years. I delved into websites, books, and articles. I read and took notes until…well, until I really had to get my butt moving and write!

Then along came Teachers Write! This wonderful virtual summer “camp” is the catalyst that got me really believing that I could do this writing thing. Although I first “enrolled” in the summer of 2012, I was only a lurker. But when founder and children’s author Kate Messner tweeted about the 2013 camp, I jumped right in. I haven’t looked back.

Undoubtedly the most beneficial part of TW for me has been Friday Feedback with author Gae Polisner. She and her invited author friends provide critiques of participants’ writing pieces. They’re helpful, supportive, friendly, and encouraging. I was never so sad to see summer end.

And then…

And then at the end of the camp’s session, Gae offered to continue Friday Feedback on a monthly basis! Talk about generous.

Regardless of her offer, I didn’t participate immediately. I got caught up in getting back to school and into a new-old routine. My own children began their sports activities for the season, and Mommy Taxi (AKA I have no time for myself) started up gain. It took me until this past Friday to get going.

At the end of 2013, I knew I would come up with my writing goals for the new year, and that I would actually write them down. And I did.

As a matter of public record here is my major writing goal for 2014:

FINISH A ROUGH FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL.

In order to achieve this major goal, I needed to identify minor goals as building blocks.

1) WRITE EVERY DAY.
This goal is probably the most difficult for me to meet. I always have good intentions, mostly to get up earlier each morning, get ready for work, and then sit down to write. I recognize that I can’t always do that (due to personal or professional demands), but I always attempt it. Maybe the writing gets done in the morning, maybe during lunch, maybe at night. Or maybe, like my first excerpt submitted to Friday Feedback on 1/10/14, in five-minute increments between requests from my husband and children. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing, and I know myself well enough that if I don’t feel like doing something, it ain’t getting done! So, in those instances, I read or do more research instead.

2) SUBMIT TO FRIDAY FEEDBACK EVERY MONTH.
Goal number one above directly impacts my ability to achieve goal number two. I’m always cognizant of this. Even if Gae is not able to host FF, I still have this monthly goal in the back of my mind. It’s very motivating. Therefore I write…

3) POST MORE REGULARLY TO MY BLOG.
More writing. Always more writing. In meeting this goal (as vague as it is), I’m actively working at my craft (and maybe even inspiring others to do the same).

So, there it is. This is the first year I’ve actually put my goals in writing. I believe this is the first year I will accomplish what I had in my mind to do.

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Review of The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner

Rarely do I read a book more than once. This book is the exception. I read it once, loved it, put it down, misplaced it, found it, and then read it again. It’s not your typical coming-of-age novel, but then again it is. Nick reluctantly follows Jaycee on a journey, fights some demons (internal), and comes out stronger in the end. I loved the characters immediately. Nick is funny and insecure, and Jaycee is quirky and adorable. Polisner gets into the head of a 15-year-old boy, conveying convincing inner dialogue, and adeptly relaying his fear of uncharted territory: first love, the potential for a first kiss, staying in a hotel with a girl, and wandering around an unfamiliar city. Nick feels most comfortable when faced with Jaycee’s fever because he’s been through it himself. He is the Fever King! However, he still feels a bit of anxiety over whether he’s doing the right thing. Polisner does not portray him as an over-confident, unbelievable teen. Just when he’s starting to feel comfortable with the idea of being away from home with a girl, he makes a discovery that turns his world upside down. He’s angry and depressed and resentful. Just like a typical 15-year-old would react in this situation. Get this book. Read it. And maybe read it again. And then you might want to go out and get Of Mice and Men and read that again.Pull Of Gravity

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My Son’s Spirit in a Quiet Moment

I lay here with you and look at the grey light. It’s almost dawn, and I want it to stay this way forever. You, my little boy, are asleep and so quiet. I find myself trying to hold my breath as I watch yours go in and out, your small chest rise up and down. Your face is so peaceful, belying your daytime demeanor. How did you get like this, so grown already? I have to wake you soon, but my soul takes a picture of this moment so that it becomes part of my eternal memory. I turn away from the approaching daylight and look at you once more. I’m certain your spirit glances at me briefly before returning to its earthly home. “Thank you,” it says with a smile. “I love you,” I whisper in reply. Then, dawn breaks.

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My First Tuesday Quick Write for Teachers Write 2013

Sometimes on the south shore of Lake Ontario, the fish wash up and stink up the whole place with their fishy smell. Their mooneyes stare up into the sky and cloud over. Their once-shiny bodies become dull, but the seagulls find them delectable, their cries calling their friends to the feast. It’s hard to find a place to enter the water, with limp bodies strewn about. Still, the sand is cool and soft beneath my feet as I walk along the beach. If I dare to venture closer to the water, careful to avoid the dead fish, the hard, wet sand feels reassuring on my soles. It’s firmer and cooler that the dry stuff. Bits of shells and water-worn glass poke out from the sand. These I pick up. And the piece of driftwood that catches my eye. I place these items in my pocket, running my thumb over each surface, committing their feel to memory; memory of a childhood that drew to a close ages ago. There is no breeze this morning. The water is calm, with only the slightest kiss against the shore. I turn and walk away, the sounds of summer and youth fading behind me.

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