El Deafo, by Cece Bell

el deafoThis year’s Newbery was announced not long ago, so I rushed to grab a copy of the new winner. I was rather disappointed. In fact, I haven’t really liked a Newbery winner since 2011, Clare VanderPool’s Moon Over Manifest. Perhaps all the edgier, more experimental types of literature like graphic novels and verse I’ve been seeing lately are leaving me in a bygone era. I don’t know. I just know I much prefer the old-fashioned literary novel.

El Deafo is a graphic novel, 233 pages that took only 90 minutes to read, that tells the real-life story of author, Cece Bell. It is emotional, focusing on the feelings she experienced as she traversed grade school with an oversized, strap-across-her-chest hearing aid with cords that went up her ears. It shares the challenges she faced (kids speaking too slow and emphatic, staring, teasing) as well as the triumps. We get a pretty funny account of Cece acting as auditory lookout for the off-task classroom when her teacher, who wears a microphone, leaves the room. There is much that I related to, and much that I learned.

However, I found the graphic format of the novel mildly obnoxious. The entire 233 pages are laid out like a never-ending comic strip, and the rabbit-people characters come off looking a little ridiculous. I know lots of kids take to graphic novels, and there are arguments to be made for the benefits they pose to low readers, but I just want to READ my books minus all the goofy drawings. The thing I disliked most, however, is that the pictoral format limited, in my opinion, the emotional output of the story. Bell has a very touching story to tell. She’s the odd one out, a child who’s longing for acceptance and friendship among her peers. But the simplified story failed to elicit much emotion in me, and the writing just isn’t very pretty. Dialogue bubbles don’t leave much room for artistry of that sort. The force of the message could have been amplified tenfold in a more traditional telling.

So there you have it, my bias against graphic novels. I just don’t like them. At all. While this one was acclaimed all over the web last year, and I am sure there are kids out there somewhere with whom the story resonated, I’m having a hard time giving it much of a recommendation.

New Release–Ella Wood … and Audiobook Winners

Ella Wood new cover11After nearly a year in the writing, Ella Wood released yesterday! I now have links for you at the top of my sidebar. Paperbacks will follow in a few weeks.

If you’re new to my blog and have never heard of Ella Wood, you can get the scoop here.

Apparently, I didn’t do a very good job publicizing my audiobook contest last week as I finished Ella Wood rewrites. I have five copies to give away and only two contest entries. I’ll get those two out. If anyone else would like those last free audiobooks of The Candle Star, l’ll send them out to the first three people to request them in the comments below.

And now that Ella Wood is on the virtual shelves…I’m taking a break from further writing this week. I’m going to read a book!

Pictures of Hollis Woods, Patricia Reilly Giff

Hollis woodsI’d seen this book on the list of Newberry honors (2003), so when I stumbled on it as a library Kindle download, I grabbed it to read over Christmas break. It’s a good one, in a relaxed, lazy day kind of way. I couldn’t help but feel for Hollis, a twelve-year-old orphan girl whose dream for a family mingles freely with her talent for drawing pictures.

The book feels a bit disjointed at first. Each chapter has an italicized prelude describing one of Hollis’s drawings, always done in the past. First, her desire for a family, drawn as a class assignment with a father, mother, sister, and brother. Then pictures of one family, nearly perfect, that she paints one by one. Chapters tell her present situation, entering a new foster house. An old lady this time, Josie, a former art teacher, someone who recognizes Hollis’s talent and her dreams. As Hollis slowly comes to love Josie, she also recognizes how forgetful Josie has become. How old. Josie needs Hollis as much as Hollis needs her.

But what about the perfect family? Slowly, we learn the backstory, the tragedy that tore Hollis away, the running. And slowly the stories merge. To protect Josie, Hollis must go back. To the empty house she once loved. And what she finds there…

Nope. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

Giff really gets us into Hollis’s head, showing us how this angry, trouble-making child is really an individual with talents and dreams and a nobility all her own. Two thumbs way, way up.

Grab the Kindle version.

It’s also a 2007 made-for-TV movie.

The Candle Star AUDIOBOOK…and a GIVEAWAY

TheCandleStar_Audiobook_coverMy first audiobook is finished! And let me tell you my narrator, Fred Wolinsky, did a knock out job. Fred reads with a grandfatherly voice that I was drawn to immediately. It sounds so appropriate for this audience. He creates fabulous character voices, and he also put forth extra effort in the pivotal Frederick Douglass speech scene. To prepare, he studied Martin Luther King recordings to nail his lofty speaking style, then he adjusted the acoustics to make it sound like it really is taking place in a church. AND he actually got online and found the old freedom hymn I end the meeting with…and he sings it!

The Candle Star audiobook is available on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. But I’m giving away coupons for five free audiobooks. Did you hear that?

I’m giving away five free audiobooks!

I’ll draw winners next Monday. Want to enter? Just say so in the comments below.

If you don’t know much about audiobooks, keep reading. My friend, author Susan Kaye Quinn, gave me permission to use this snippet she wrote up for the audiobook uninformed.

How Do I Listen to Digital Audiobooks?
Virtually any device you own will play digital audiobooks (Kindle Fire, Kindle Touch, Kindle Keyboard, Android phone, iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad, Android tablets, even your PC or MP3 player). All you have to do is download the Audible App for your device and BOOM you are listening to audiobooks. EASY PEASY.

Aren’t Audiobooks Expensive?
Since CDs are no longer required, digital audiobooks tend to be cheaper.
Plus, if you own the ebook, often you can get the audiobook for RIDICULOUSLY CHEAP.
Look for the Whispersync! 

I don’t have Whispersync…yet. It takes Amazon a month or two to run quality control and make sure text and audio are the same. So hold on…

In the meantime, if you didn’t win or don’t want to enter, there is one more easy way to get The Candle Star audiobook free. Try a free 30 day membership on Audible. Here are the details.

By the way, if you aren’t familiar with The Candle Star, venture over to my sidebar. All digital editions are free. You can read the blurb here. Or read about the Divided Decade Collection here. (I’m in the process of making all ebook versions of all three books in the Collection free. I want to make them easily accessible for classrooms. Where they haven’t gone free yet, they’re only .99. Know a librarian, teacher, or homeschooler? Give them a nudge for me, please!)

Good luck. And enjoy the read…er…listen!

The Collar and the Cavvarach, by Annie Douglass Lima

I read Annie Douglass Lima’s Anals of Alasia series on the recommendation of a friend and loved all three books. I’ve since “met” Annie online. When I heard she needed beta readers for a new teen action/adventure book, I jumped at the chance! And I was not disappointed. I also agreed to participate in her cover reveal, but I want to throw my own review in here, too. So read through Annie’s post, take a look at her awesome cover, and catch my review at the bottom.


I’m excited to announce that my young adult action and adventure novel, The Collar and the Cavvarach, is scheduled to be released next month!  Here is the cover, created by the talented Jack Lin:

About the Story:

Bensin, a teenage slave and martial artist, is desperate to see his little sister freed. But only victory in the Krillonian Empire’s most prestigious tournament will allow him to secretly arrange for Ellie’s escape. Dangerous people are closing in on her, however, and Bensin is running out of time.  With his one hope fading quickly away, how can Bensin save Ellie from a life of slavery and abuse?

What is the Collar for, and What is a Cavvarach?

The story is set in a world very much like our own, with just a few major differences.  One is that slavery is legal there.  Slaves must wear metal collars that lock around their neck, making their enslaved status obvious to everyone. Any slave attempting to escape faces the dilemma of how and where to illegally get their collar removed (a crime punishable by enslavement for the remover).  

Another difference is the popularity of a martial art called cavvara shil.  It is fought with a cavvarach, an unsharpened weapon similar to a sword but with a steel hook protruding from partway down its top edge.  Competitors can strike at each other with their feet as well as with the blades.  You win in one of two ways: disarming your opponent (hooking or knocking their cavvarach out of their hands) or pinning their shoulders to the mat for five seconds.

Connect with the Author Online:


Me again. Glad you made it down  here. :) Here’s my take on The Collar and the Cavvarach:

Bensin was born into slavery. He hardly knew his dad, who’d been sold away years ago. And his mom was dead. His last promise to her had been that he’d care for Ellie, his newborn sister…and that he’d see her set free. But then he’s sold away. Though he’s given the opportunity to study cavvara shil, the martial arts sport he excels at, his attempts to help Ellie go terribly wrong. The destiny of Bensin and Ellie comes down to one monumental moment—the Grand Imperial Tournament.

The thing that makes this story so unique is that it’s not set in 19th Century America but in a fictional, modern world with automobiles, internet, and a high tech society. It gives pause and makes you consider the slavery that still goes on today.

Annie Douglass Lima is the author of the Annals of Alasia series, which I enjoyed. That series is characterized by smooth, easy flowing prose, sharp dialogue, and excellent world building, and her skills have only improved. Though this one is classified young adult, I’d say it’s easily appropriate for age 12+ due to the absolute absence of language, a romantic element, or graphic content. Bensin is whipped. And the action does get intense, but the book has an innocent quality to it. Oh, and I have to add that cavvara shil is an awesome sport! Fully developed and acted out with beautiful movement and description, I had to ask if it was real. It’s not, unfortunately. I sort of wanted to take in a tournament. :) Highly recommended.

Ella Wood Research–Distance and Speeds


Another post in a series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Ella Wood.

A central bit of research necessary for historical fiction is finding out just how long it takes to travel back in the day. Ella Wood takes place in 1860. I put the plantation on the map along the Ashley River between Summerville and Ladson, which is approximately 20 miles outside downtown Charleston, SC. So how long would it take to make the trip into town? That would depend on the method of transportation as well as the condition dictating that type of travel.

Here’s a look into the process by which I calculated how long it would take to travel from Ella Wood to Charleston:

schoonerRiver boat – 8 to 10 hours downriver

Boats will only go as fast as a river’s current unless a power source is used. Ella Wood’s plantation schooner would make use of the wind, though it could also be rowed. I had to do some research here on how sailing a river actually works. It’s best if you sail faster than the current so you can control your rudder. The strength of wind and the amount of sail used determines your speed. But you also have to consider the direction the wind, as tacking becomes necessary if you travel against it.

Nearest I could tell, by digging into some tide/current charts, the Ashley River flows at a top speed between 1.7 and 2.3 mph, depending on the tides, which depend on the position and phases of the moon and change ever 6 hours. During rising tides, the river actually flows backwards! But those river speeds were recorded where it starts to widen, so I assumed a little faster upstream. According to various sailing sites, small sailboats do best at 5-12 knots in open water, less in a river. With so many factors affecting speed, I arrived at a very unscientific 4 to 5 mph average downstream speed, assuming my boat leaves at ebbing tide and must fight rising tide for at least a couple hours. I doubled the distance to Charleston to account for all the twists and turns or the river. My best guess is that a trip downriver would take between 8 and 10 hours. Upriver would take probably a third to half of that again, though they could catch upstream tides.

Carriage ride – 4 to 5 hours

Carriage-Drawn-Horse-002In earlier centuries, roads would have been the slowest way to travel. I assumed that by 1860 the roads to these incredibly wealthy plantations had become somewhat decent. Still bumpy gravel with the chance of sandy or muddy conditions, but not the abismal wilderness tracks of previous generations. And these wealthy gentlemen would have had the motivation and wherewithall to keep them passible.

According to various horse sites, stage coaches ran between 3-5 mph. Another site gave average horse walking speeds between 3-4 mph, trotting speeds between 8-10, cantering at 10-17, and a gallop at 30ish. I walk at 3 mph easily and for long distances. As this is a 20 mile trip, and that’s considered a full day for a horse, and assuming roads aren’t too terrible, I figured a team pulling a light carriage could easily sustain 4 or even 5 mph average over 20 miles, making it a 4 to 5 hour trip.

Horseback – 3 hours

Based on numbers and websites above, I figured a horse carrying a 180 pound man could easily maintain an average 6 to 7 mph for 20 miles.

Train – 2 hours and change

A railroad ran from Charleston to Ladson, which was four miles from Ella Wood. I had to dig into antebellum trains, and learned that most Southern lines were pretty shoddy by Northern standards. (They were often rebuilt by Union troops.) I dug into some particulars on this railroad line and figured a ballpark 15 miles per hour speed. Taking into consideration the two railway stops (total guess at 12 minutes each, including slow and start times) and the four miles by horse to the plantation, I came up with just over 2 hours.

You can see several hours of research went into these simple figures. Historical fiction does take an exorbitant amount of time, but I want to be as accurate as possible, even in the small details. It makes the whole thing come off as more plausible. And honestly, I love the challenge and process of discovery.

Oh, just for fun, it only takes about 11 minutes to drive from downtown Charleston to Lasdon today. Wouldn’t the Preston family be shocked!

The Cay, by Theodore Taylor, 1969

the cay“Dis be de mos’ outrageous good story, Phill-eep!”

I can almost hear the words as they would sound spoken in Timothy’s Caribbean cadence. Timothy’s an old friend of mine. So are Phillip and Stew Cat, the trio of castaways in The Cay. This is a book I’ve treasured since my childhood. I shared it recently with my boys, and I must give it a place of honor here on my blog. It is quite easily among the five best books I’ve read. Ever. It strongly, strongly influenced my decision to write in the middle grade genre. I’m evidence that the right book in the hands of the right child can have a lasting impact. I’ve been that child. Now I want to be that writer.

Let me share some of the accolades The Cay has received:


1970 Jane Addams Book Award
1970 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award
1970 Commonwealth Club Award
1970 Award of the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People
1970 Woodward School Annual Book Award
1970 Friends of the Library Award, University of California at Irvine


The Horn Book Honor List
The Child Study Association’s list of Children’s Books of the Year
Publisher’s Weekly’s list of Children’s Books to Remember
The American Library Associations Notable Books
The New York Times Best Books of the Year
School Library Journal‘s Best Book of the Year

Pretty impressive, eh? And in my opinion, The Cay should have at least won Newbery honors that year (although William Armstrong’s Sounder would have been very difficult to topple). I wish I could meet Mr. Taylor. I’d dearly love to talk to him, but he passed away nine years ago. For what it’s worth, I’m going to honor him and, in my opinion, his best work with a Squeaky Award.

The Cay takes place at the outbreak of World War II on the tiny island of Curacao, a major supplier of gasoline for allied forces, where Phillip’s father has been called to oversee the refinery. When the Germans target the island, Phillip’s mother freaks out and attempts to return to America with her son. Unfortunately, the ship they sail on is torpedoed.

During the chaos, Phillip is struck on the head by a falling beam and wakes up to find himself on a raft in the middle of the Caribbean with only Timothy, a giant black sailor, and a cat for company. He’s repulsed by Timothy’s ugly face and angry at his unreasonable stubbornness. Then his world darkens and blindness sets in.

They land on a small cay far off the shipping lines. Without the benefit of his eyes, Phillip learns to “see” Timothy for what he is, an amazing man of wisdom, strength, and kindness. It is an extraordinary, heart-warming tale, one I would recommend to every single person with the ability to read. About a fifth to sixth grade independent level, it’s appropriate as a read aloud for children far younger.

Squeaky AwardThe dedication page reads: To Mr. King’s dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand. April 1968, Laguna, California

Mr. Taylor, your book has had a lasting impact.

The Kindle version of The Cay sells for 5.99. It’s the best purchase you could make this year.