Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sophie's Squash

Oh, how we adore this book! A spunky, creative, female main character....tender parents....a heart-tugging ending....fabulous illustrations. Combined, they deliver a story that we have read over and over and over again:


The premise of Sophie's Squash (written by Pat Zeitlow Miller and illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf; Schwartz & Wade, 2013) is incredibly unique: Sophie helps her parents select a squash -- intended for dinner -- from the farmer's market. But as Sophie cradles the squash in her arms, she realizes it is just the right size to love. No turning back, Sophie gives the squash a face and names her Bernice, and Sophie's mother has to make alternate plans for dinner.


As the days pass, Bernice goes everywhere with Sophie, but she starts to get a little soft and blotchy. Her parents warn her that Bernice will soon rot, and they suggest ways to use Bernice before it's too late.


Sophie won't hear of it and, instead, asks a farmer for advice on how to keep squash healthy. She follows his words of wisdom, and in the spring is met with a completely wonderful surprise!


Miller has created a delightful character in Sophie. She is strong and feisty and loyal and so very lovable. But the parents, while minor characters, also play an important role in the heart of the story. Always referring to Sophie in some sweet, foodish way ("Sweet pea," says her mom; "Sugar beet," says her dad), they handle Sophie's odd but completely all-in devotion to Bernice with gentleness and understanding. It is so sweet.

And the ending Miller created? Absolutely perfect!

The story is further heightened by Wilsdorf's sweet, detailed illustrations. With watercolor and ink, they show Sophie's big personality, her childlike room, her mom's fabulous fashion sense, and the tender moments between Sophie, her parents, and Bernice.


This book is an all-around winner. It's one of those books that I wish I had written and would love to emulate in terms of character, pacing, and heart. We just love it.

And for more of Sophie, check out Sophie's Squash Go To School. We've read that one just as much. ;)

Happy reading!

~Jen

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

I Wish You More...

Have you read the beautiful and heart-breaking article by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (AKR) "You May Want to Marry My Husband" printed in the New York Times?

Rosenthal, the author of books for children and adults, is in her final days of her battle with ovarian cancer. Her piece is poignant and moving and as sharply-written as the books she has published. It is a beautiful tribute to her husband and the life they have shared.

I've been thinking about AKR a lot this week, and in her honor we checked out all of her picture books that our library holds. My favorite of hers is Little Pea, with a close second being the lovely I Wish You More...



In her article, AKR talks about her tattoo of the word "more" on her wrist, and how she wishes she could have more time on this earth with her husband and children. In a live Facebook message on March 5, Matthew Winner listed all the "mores" he wishes for Amy in these final days. I echo them.

Sending much love...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dream Gardens Podcast

In January, I was interviewed for my first podcast! I had the opportunity to talk with Jody at Dream Gardens about a middle grade novel that I love: Ms. Bixby's Last Day.

http://jleemott.com/2017/02/15/podcast-8-ms-bixbys-last-day-by-john-david-anderson/

In very brief summary, Ms. Bixby's Last Day is the story of three 12-year-old boys on a quest to bring a celebration to their beloved teacher who has to leave the school year early due to a serious health crisis. The book is deeply moving, funny, full of adventure and heart....and I can't recommend it enough!

Take a listen here. Even better, pick up a copy of John David Anderson's book and share it with the kiddos in your life. I think you will love it.

Happy reading,

Jen

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Children's Book Academy

Well, hello!

It has been awhile since I've posted here, but that is because I've been absorbing myself in an absolutely wonderful writing class. At the beginning of January, class began for the Craft and Business of Writing Children's Picture Books via the Children's Book Academy. The course is taught by Dr. Mira Reisberg and Kelly Delaney (editor at Knopf), and it takes a scaffolding approach so that it is useful for those at the very beginning of their writing venture as well as those who are farther along.

It has been great, and I've really wanted to glean as much as I can while the course is up (this is our last week!). This is not an ad, but if you have ever considered taking a writing course but didn't know if the expense was worth it, let me share why I have loved this course:

1. The course is densely packed with useful information. For over a year now, I have been reading about and studying the picture book business and the craft of writing for children. And I have learned a lot in doing so! But this course goes beyond all of that. Dr. Mira has so much to share from her vast experience as an author, illustrator, former agent, and professor of writing, so each day's lessons are such a treat with much to absorb. We study picture books and what makes them successful, tips for developing character and plot, editing for brevity, how to pitch to editors and agents, and how the business side of it all works once the book is acquired. And more.

2. The homework is relevant to our goals. Dr. Mira's assignments specifically target aspects of the manuscripts we are working on. In our shared homework page, students post assignments, which range from our story ideas to our hook to our characters to our endings. Then, we all comment on each other's work to help improve the ideas and execution of those. This has really helped me to develop and tighten my manuscript in a useful way.

3. The webinars. Each week, there is a webinar that focuses on a different topic: hooks, conflict, endings, etc. Students are given a deadline to post their ideas or actual excerpts from their manuscripts, and then Mira and Kelly critique them via the webinar. I've learned so much through having my ideas critiqued, as well as hearing their advice to others.

4. The community. Through the homework comments, the webinars, class Facebook page, and critique group in which I was placed, I have loved the community aspect of this course. I didn't know this was something I needed so much, but it's certainly something I'm going to seek out as I continue writing. In addition, Mira and Kelly are warm and welcoming, full of love and extremely generous in helping aspiring authors grow.

5. The golden ticket. Finally, there is a golden ticket opportunity to submit our work to editors and agents. This hasn't happened yet, but soon we will pitch our story, and if the editors and agents that Mira has lined up are intrigued by our pitch, they may ask to see our manuscript. No guarantees here, but I'm beyond excited and hopeful for this opportunity.

So there you have it. It's a fabulous course that I highly recommend, and I'm sad that it's almost over. Good thing we have access to the course materials for 6 more months as I'll likely go through the process again. :)

~~~

We have still been reading some fabulous picture books, so I have some lovely reviews planned for the coming weeks!

Happy reading and writing,

~Jen

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Great Spruce

Well, I've found a book after my own heart. It's a book about Christmas, family, traditions, and protecting the life and longevity of trees.

I just love trees. I like having lots of trees on our property and having our house shaded by them. I love their beauty and history. I love the way the sun catches the leaves, making them glow and sparkle. I love their beauty in the fall, and the sounds of crunching leaves under my feet. And I love to see and hear my kids climbing them -- just as I loved climbing them when I was little.

And I hate to see trees cut down. I know that there are many valid reasons for tree removal -- they might be dying or posing a danger to others if they are prone to breaking. I get it, but I still miss their beautiful presence.

So when my kids and I read The Great Spruce by John Duvall, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2016), I fell in love with it. I think you will, too.


The book begins with Alec and his love for climbing trees -- especially the great spruce. "It was the most magical of all the trees, tall and strong and spreading ever upward." Such lovely writing.

Alec's grandpa had planted the spruce long before Alec was born, and together they decorate it each winter with lights and tinsel.


Alec and his grandpa are not the only ones who love the tree: visitors arrive who ask if they can take the great spruce for the city's Christmas celebration. Alec is appalled that his tree would be gone forever, and he blocks the men from cutting it down. Instead, he convinces them to dig the tree up by its roots and borrow it!


And that's just what they do. They dig up the great spruce and it is transported to the city where it is enjoyed by thousands. One girl, in particular, loves the tree, so Alec gives her one of its cones, encouraging her to plant the seeds that are inside so that she might grow her own great spruce.


By spring, the spruce is replanted and is thriving at home, and Alec is still spending his days climbing its beautiful limbs.


Exquisite endpapers
The writing in this book is beautiful and lyrical, the story is sweet, the characters are selfless, and the spruce's legacy lives on. And the illustrations by Gibbon are so perfect for this story: they are colorful and detailed and convey, page by page, a world that is full of life, beauty and goodness.

Sigh. It's just such a wonderful and hope-filled story. And here's the best part: there's an author's note at the end of the book.


It tells of the history of the giant Christmas trees used for celebrations like those in New York -- how the trees used to be dug up and borrowed for the season, and were later replanted in their home. Because it is cheaper to just cut down a tree, though, this practice changed. Now, John Duvall devotes his work to gently removing trees for celebrations such as these and then returning them to the earth. I love that. To preserve these magnificent trees so that they can continue thriving is a beautiful thing, indeed.

I hope you get a chance to share this book with your little ones this season. It's a special one!

Happy reading,
~Jen

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Twelve Mice of Christmas

Happy Sunday and Happy Holidays!

I've been busily working and writing lately, because I wanted to have an entry to share for Susanna Hill's 6th Annual Holiday Writing Contest. The guidelines this year are to write a 300-word (or less) children's holiday story based on the structure or concept of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The story can be "poetry or prose, silly or serious or sweet, religious or not, based on Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate."

So...my attempt is below! (296 words) Thanks for stopping by and reading.


THE 12 MICE OF CHRISTMAS
by Jennifer Garthe

 

Within the snowy woodland,
12 mice were gently creeping.
Inside a cabin in the woods
Their friend Old Bear was sleeping.               


This time each year they loaded up
With gear for celebrating,
To bring the feel of Christmas
While their friend was hibernating.


The first mouse of Christmas
Placed a wreath with bow and berry
Upon the door to welcome guests
And make the house look merry.


The second mouse of Christmas
Set a stocking by the fire,
Followed by the third mouse
Bringing garland to admire.


While Bear snored on, the next four mice
Brought in the Christmas tree.
They placed it in a corner
Just where Bear would wake and see.


The eighth mouse of Christmas
Brought in strings of twinkle lights.
Soon the tree and garland glowed
With glints of frosted whites.

 
Mice 9 and 10 came in with
Shiny tinsel for the tree,
And ornaments of red and gold
That sparkled brilliantly.


The 11th mouse of Christmas
Brought sweet cocoa to the house.
He’d serve warm mugs to Bear
And then to each and every mouse.


The 12th mouse of Christmas
Brought their favorite treat of all:
His shiny wooden fiddle
To delight ears big and small.


The house was warm and ready.
The tree was glittery.
The mouse took up his fiddle
And began a melody.


The music stopped Bear’s snoring
And the mice knew he could hear it.
He slowly woke and saw
His house aglow with Christmas spirit!

 
They brought Old Bear his cocoa
And some slippers for his feet.
They listened to the music
In the room so snug and sweet.

 
“Thank you, friends,” he said
With mug in hand and raised to tell:
“Cheers to a happy Christmas
And to friends who love us well.”



Happy Holidays to you and yours -- and best wishes to those who submitted entries to the contest!

~Jen

UPDATE (12/19/2016): My entry won an honorable mention in the contest! While the story didn't qualify for the list of finalists, I'm happy to have gone through the process and to now have a manuscript that I can polish. Excited to stretch my writing muscles more in the coming months!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Gateway Books

Yesterday, on my Instagram account, I posted about the latest bookish podcast that I adore. In episode #51 of Anne Bogel's What Should I Read Next, she talks with the creators and hosts of The Baby-sitters Club Club podcast.


How awesome is that?! A podcast devoted to the beloved series and gateway books for so many of us. And perhaps the best part? The hosts are two men in their thirties. 😂

If you grew up reading these books like I did, you are going to want to check out this podcast. Each episode is devoted to one of the books in the series, and they go in chronological order. The hosts, Jack and Tanner, take their discussion ever-so-seriously. It is a riot. For instance, they explore the question that has been plaguing us all: did the sitters need to take out a small-business loan to get their business up and running? Also, what is up with Stacy's suspicious behavior? Well, of course they can't discuss that until episode 3. :) The discussion is a hoot, completely tongue-in-cheek, and oh so nostalgic.

I adored these books. Adored. I saw myself in the characters and wanted to be like them (and write like them. Remember the diary entries?? I loved their handwriting!).


These were the gateway books in my life -- the books that got me constantly reading and wanting to read more. And I never stopped reading after I grew out of them.

I also remember the books that had me reading and running to the bookstore for new releases after I grew past the BSC -- Christopher Pike novels. Did you read his books? Not quite as silly as the Goosebumps books, but not nearly as sinister as Stephen King's work, Pike's teen thriller novels had me hooked!



There was death and murder and malice and suspense, and I loved the thrill of it all. I'm grateful that my parents let me read what interested me. I eventually moved out of my teen thriller phase onto other literature, but these gateway books opened doors to a lifetime of reading.

Take a trip down memory lane -- what were the gateway books in your life?

Happy reading,

Jen

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Hallo-weiner

It's OCTOBER!!!

Sing it: It's the most wonderful month... of the year!

It's truly my fave -- the crisp air, blue skies behind colorful trees, the crunch of leaves, pumpkins and of course Halloween!

Eons ago, my sister gifted me what has become one of our favorite picture books on our shelves. We read it throughout the year, but definitely most in October. If you love dachshunds, Halloween, puns, and an underdog story, then you will love The Hallo-weiner!

 
The Hallo-weiner, written by Dav Pilkey (of Captain Underpants fame), was published in 1995 (Blue Sky Press). The story opens with Oscar (who was "half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long") going to obedience school. Unfortunately, Oscar was teased by the other dogs, and this upset him. That is, it usually upset him, but it was Halloween and he had excitement on his mind!
 
 
Upon returning home from school, though, Oscar's excitement is snuffed when his well-intentioned mother shows him the costume she got for him:
 
 
He's humiliated, but wears it anyway because he doesn't want to upset his mother. The night continues to unravel, though, as the other dogs in his group take all of the candy at each house, leaving nothing for poor Oscar. (And the puns delightfully abound here.) But then, something scary frightens the group as they are cutting through the cemetary on their way home from trick-or-treating. And because of Oscar's unique shape and size, he is able to save the day.
 
 
Besides being an entertaining read-aloud, this book shines with Dav Pilkey's art. Of course it is hysterical to see mother dogs in pearls kissing their pups and handing out Halloween candy. But the pictures and spreads are full of bright colors and interesting effects. On many pages, Pilkey shows an enormous full moon in the background with colorful swirls in the sky, and you can see the silhouettes of the dogs in their silly costumes. The details create a just-right spooky mood that leads to a heart-warming ending full of furry smiles.
 
 
I love that at over 20 years old, this book is not at all out-dated. The artwork, word count, and story are just as appealing to readers today. Truly, there is much to love about this howl-oween book, and I hope you can get your paws on it soon! (Aw, c'mon -- sometimes the puns just have to come out!)
 
Happy reading,
 
~Jen
 
 


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

5 Bookish Podcast Episodes of the Week

Podcasts: Oh, how I love you.

I used to be the type of person to always have the TV on for background noise or news. But now I've been more actively listening to podcasts, instead -- while doing the dishes, while mowing the grass, while walking or running, or while driving (though, really, I'm mostly blasting Toddler Radio on Pandora in the car). There are such a variety of podcasts out there, ranging from informational to humorous to inspirational, and I am sure there are gems that I don't know about!

For today, I'd like to share five recent podcast episodes that I haven't been able to get off my mind. All of these are available on iTunes or can even be accessed through the links provided. Check them out!

1. The Yarn -- George Unraveled with Alex Gino (episode #29)

The Yarn is a podcast on children's literature hosted by school librarian Travis Jonker and teacher Colby Sharp. In this episode, they talk with author Alex Gino about their middle grade novel George. In the book, George is viewed by everyone as a boy, but she knows she's a girl, and desperately wants to audition for the role of Charlotte in the school play, Charlotte's Web. Though the teacher won't allow it, George devises a way for everyone to see her for who she really is.

While I haven't had the chance to read this book yet, the discussion was moving. Gino says that when they began the book 10 or so years ago, they weren't sure how this topic would be received. But as our culture has evolved over the years and has become more open to having these conversations, Gino knew they had to get this story out there.

But while our culture is indeed more open to embracing trans people, there are still people very uncomfortable with the topic. Our own school district is introducing new health ed curriculum that will touch on topics of gender identity -- and this has been controversial. For me, I am proud of the new curriculum and hope our world continues to move in the direction of loving others for who they are. 

"I ask you to remember the young trans student,
alone and with fewer resources than you,
who needs to find themselves represented in literature."
~ Alex Gino

2. What Should I Read Next? -- The books we can't wait to read this fall (episode #41)

My very favorite independent bookstore in St. Louis is the Novel Neighbor. It is located in my old neighborhood of Webster Groves -- a charming, tree-lined municipality with two bustling town centers. The bookstore is charming, itself, filled with books and bookish gifts and an adorable children's nook. So I was thrilled to hear owner Holland Saltsman on this episode of Anne Bogel's What Should I Read Next!

Anne and Holland discuss the books they are excited to read this fall, from children's lit to YA to adult. There is lots of inspiration to be found here -- and lots of great titles to add to your "to read" list.

3. This American Life -- One Last Thing Before I Go (episode #597)

In this episode, two journalists tell two very moving stories of final words. In the first story, citizens in Japan who lost loved ones in the tsunami travel great distances to visit a phone booth -- a phone booth that is not wired, not connected -- to speak with those lost in the tragedy. The idea is that their words are carried on the wind, perhaps out to sea, to reach their loved ones.

In the second story, two estranged brothers in their 80s pay a visit to one another after 40-some years. Their bitterness tries to resurface, but new insight leads to a new perspective on past hurt.

Deeply moving.

4. All the Wonders -- Mac Barnett and Adam Rex (episode #287)

This author-illustrator pair is fuuuuuuuuny. I found myself chuckling many times as host Matthew Winner talked with them about their new book How This Book Was Made. They are smart and creative and I so enjoyed listening in to their process. And their words to the kids at Matthew's school at the end? Hilarious!

5. Stuff You Missed in History Class -- The Death of Poe

I recently discovered this podcast, and if you enjoy hearing stories from history or insights into significant moments that you've never heard, then you will want to check this one out.

This episode is perfect for our approaching Halloween season. Who doesn't love Poe? His creepy stories and poems are so unique and rich, and his life and death so mysterious. This episode sheds light on the life and death of this beloved icon of American literature.

* * *

Do you have any podcasts that you love and would recommend? Please leave a comment! I'm always searching for new stories. :)

~Jen

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Hungry Lion

There are so many wonderful books out there. Daily, I read about book birthdays or up-and-coming new releases, and I either immediately request them from my library or mentally file them away as "must reads."

But then sometimes life happens, and that mental file box malfunctions -- and I forget to get that desired book until months later. And that's what just happened with A Hungry Lion, or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals.


I cannot believe we haven't read this book sooner! But I'm so glad we have it now. Released in March of this year (Atheneum), and written by art director/illustrator Lucy Ruth Cummins, A Hungry Lion, or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals is the story of a very hungry lion and a cast of additional animals. But wait -- the animals keep disappearing! What could be happening?! Well, readers (and little listeners) think they know -- but they don't know. This book has a twist -- and then another surprise -- and then another!


The surprising twists in the book serve to elicit different reactions from the reader. At once amused, you are then touched ("Awwww!"), and then you are horrified, and then you are laughing again! These twists make this book sooooo fun to read with kids.

Accompanying this fun story are Cummins' playful illustrations. That bold, hungry lion sits among an otherwise muted palette of characters who are smiling pleasantly. Each page turn brings a surprising detail -- missing animals, dancing bunnies, a mischievous grin on the lion's face.


Cummins' use of marker and gouache (just love those bold strokes in that lion's mane) -- paired with her unique narrative voice -- have created a book that is truly kid tested, mother approved. Add this one to our faves of 2016!

* * *

And you know my love for the All the Wonders resource of podcasts. Check out their episode with Lucy Ruth Cummins. I really enjoyed this one!

Happy reading,
~Jen