Braidy Punch, Draculola and Scream Soda: How To Roller Derby for Girls

In this graphic novel for children, Victoria Jamieson tell the story of Astrid, who loses her best friend but gains roller derby. It wasn’t a trade-off she chose, but sometimes it happens like that. Fifth grade can be one of those turning points when you and your BFF suddenly have different interests, and can’t seem to get along anymore, no matter how you try.

When Astrid and Nicolle, who’ve been best friends since first grade, go with Astrid’s mom on an “evening of cultural enlightenment” to women’s roller derby, you can see the writing on the wall. Astrid is energized, while Nicolle is freaked out. Astrid wants to do junior roller derby camp together, but Nicolle doesn’t tell Astrid she’s doing ballet camp instead until the last minute, so Astrid lies to her mother about carpooling with Nicolle.

Astrid quickly finds out how demanding roller derby is, that it requires not only a tough spirit, but physical endurance and skill. She’s never even skated before, unlike the rest of the girls, and she’s one of the youngest girls, so she feels doubly disadvantaged. But with encouragement from the other girls and her roller derby hero, Rainbow Bite, she keeps at it.

I knew nothing about roller derby before reading this book, so it was fun to learn about how it works. The skating skill required reminds me of hockey, while the theatrics bring WWF wrestling to mind. There are legal hits and illegal hits and a penalty box, like in hockey. Players get to choose their own derby names, and they are usually a bit tongue-in-cheek: Braidy Punch, Draculola, Blondilocks, and Scream Soda, to name a few. The author’s bio on the back flap shows a photo of her in full roller derby regalia: Her derby name is Winnie the Pow.

Jamieson obviously speaks with authority on the subject of roller derby, but she is also convincing in her portrayal of this early coming of age story, and the loneliness of losing your best friend and realizing how much you were defined by that friendship. Astrid has to make new friends while somehow making peace with Nicolle, as well as explaining to her mother what is going on when mom finds out she’s been lying. 

Jamieson’s drawing style is realistic and expressive, while the color palette is bright and fun. Younger readers will enjoy Astrid’s bulldog persistence and feistiness; older readers will appreciate Astrid’s growing confidence in herself; moms like me will savor the bonus of Astrid’s pride in becoming a role model for younger girls.


Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg

This is a fabulous book. My 8-year-old daughter read it to herself after we started it with her, which told me two things: 1)It wasn’t boring, like a lot of books about growing up that put the reader to sleep with chapters on things like Personal Hygeine, and 2)it wasn’t TMI, because she didn’t freak out over it or stop reading it because it made her uncomfortable.

There’s a great intro page that explains what this book isn’t about: how babies are made, or sexual intercourse, which the writers, Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth, see as better dealt with in other books. This book deals a lot with the language around sex and what it means, and more especially, the feelings you might have. The only sexual activity it discusses is masturbation, which seems age-appropriate to me. I don’t want to scare my daughter about sex.  I want her to feel good about her body, first and foremost, and this book is great for that.

As you can see from the cover, it’s very colorful, and it depicts diversity in not only bodies but also gender.  These four characters are with the reader throughout the book, and when they are introduced in the beginning, they are not identified by gender, only by age, likes and dislikes. Each character responds differently to different topics.  This is one of my favorite layouts:

Zai is not specifically a boy or a girl, and they don’t know how they feel about it yet. (Notice this is not an issue until an adult uses this distinction to divide children up for some activity!) I really appreciate that the book normalizes contemporary discussions of gender, by doing such simple things as making this chapter called “Boys, Girls, All of Us.”

Another thing this book does consistently well is ask the reader questions, instead of handing them answers. The writers really encourage the reader to think about their own experiences and how they feel, and validate all those feelings. 

There is a good discussion of “Secret Touch” in the  chapter “Touch,” which makes a really sophisticated point that secret touch might feel good or bad, or make  you feel a lot of different ways, but what makes it wrong is that the other person wants you to keep it a secret. I also enjoyed the bit about maybe showing those annoying grabby relatives that you care about them without having to endure their touch. I remember one of my father’s friends always snaring me and my sister whenever he visited, saying “Give us a kiss, give us a kiss now!” Ew. So repulsive. 

I know my daughter thinks this book is no big deal, but as a parent, I think it’s a massive deal! And I know  her thinking it’s no big deal is a really good thing.  I’m glad Silverberg and Smyth felt there was a need to address sex at this stage, sort of after kids know how babies happen, but before kids want to talk about sex acts.  I don’t remember there being any books for this stage when I was kid, and it would have been nice to be encouraged to just get comfortable with my own body first, before I had to think about having sex with some other person.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Brandon Mull – Series Addiction

So this time I made sure there more in the series before I started on book one of Fablehaven by Brandon Mull.  There are five in the series, all published, and I just finished book three, Grip of the Shadow Plague. Needless to say, I love them! These might be good reading for someone who loved Harry Potter, because although there is no school for wizards, the two protagonists, brother Seth and older sister Kendra, are immersed in magic up to their necks when they visit their grandparents at what turns out to not be a ranch but a magical preserve, sort of like a wlidlife preserve but for magical creatures.  Their grandparents are the caretakers, and hope to pass on the job to Seth and Kendra.  And so begins their training. 

Ok, I just went down the rabbit hole looking for images of the covers, and there is a lot of wonderful fan art, including sculptures, of the different characters in the books, like the lovable golem, Hugo, who is made of earth and twigs and rocks, is about ten feet tall, and can easily carry Seth and Kendra comfortably in his huge palms while running away from baddies to the sanctuary of their grandparents’ house.

So, yes, there are naughty magical creatures as well as friendly ones. But they have just as much right to be there as the benign creatures, and there is a pact at Fablehaven that does not allow any creature to kill another, so that keeps mayhem in check. Sometimes.  Of course there are loopholes, and there is a rival organization to the caretakers of such places as Fablehaven, The Society of the Evening Star, who want to do away with all magical preserves and release the power of some really nasty demons upon the world.  

Seth and Kendra find themselves battling for the survival of Fablehaven, learning skills from different magical tutors, and gaining special powers as a result of some of these battles.  Their parents have no clue what’s really going on, as they are not receptive to the idea of the existence of magic.  Too bad! So the kids find themselves forming new bonds with not only their grandparents, but with their tutors, and even with some of the magical creatures.  Some of the tutors will turn out to be traitors, but some will be loyal to the death.

This is an engaging, exciting series full of magic, but also down-to-earth enough to include sibling rivalry between Seth and Kendra, and each kid deals with their own age-appropriate challenges that every kid reading this can relate to.  Seth is always looking for adventure, so he has a habit of breaking the rules, which gets them all into serious trouble at times.  Kendra is book-smart but doesn’t feel brave enough to deal with some of the unexpected challenges thrown at her.  She sometimes wonders if it would be better never to have known about Fablehaven and her grandparents’ secret.

Oh, did I mention Mull has written several other series’ as well?  When I couldn’t wait for my hold on the next book in the Fablehaven series to come in to the library, I grabbed this one: The Candy Shop War. I mean, how can you resist that title? I couldn’t. If you’re not into fairies, satyrs, and naiads, check out this action, that happens right in town. When a new candy shop opens, pals Nate, Summer, Trevor and Pigeon stop in on their walk home from school.  The proprietor, Mrs. White, offers them some free candy if they’ll help out around the store. They willingly agree. At first, she just wants to them give white fudge to all their families and friends, but warns them not to eat it themselves.  This seems a little odd, but they do as they are asked, and pretty soon they notice everyone eating the fudge is oblivious to what’s going on around them. Then Mrs. White starts asking them to steal things, artifacts that will assist her in some kind of treasure hunt.

With each new task, the group gets new magical candy to try out, which is fun, but they start to question whether or not they are doing the wrong thing, and whether they should trust this woman. Then along comes another magician, someone they all thought they knew, and the kids have to decide who to trust. It’s not an easy decision, and probably one a lot of children can relate to (minus the magic), trying to figure out which adults in their lives are trustworthy and which are just using them for their own gain.

There are two books in this series, and it’s very different from Fablehaven, although just as entertaining!

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

The banners on this blog show my various bookshelves, and one of them contains the book The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. I bought it at last year’s Twin Cities Book Festival, and actually met the author and had him sign my copy.  I was looking for new mysteries, possibly for my Mystery Book Club.  Eskens was very unassuming, approachable, and taking some flak for his quiet demeanor from a fellow mystery writer who was hawking her wares like a pro.  

I finally read it, and it was a page-turner.  I finished it off in two days, and it was, in a word, transporting.  It’s one of those books that makes you forget what’s going on around you.  There are two story lines, one in the past, and one in the present, and each is fraught with injustice, misunderstandings, and most importantly, characters you want to win against life’s crazy odds.

Joe, a college student, is trying to complete an assignment for his English class.  Sounds simple enough.  He has to find a stranger and interview that person and write their biography in brief.  His idea is to find someone at a nursing home to talk to, but the person he ends up meeting is not at all what he bargained for.  Carl Iverson is a convicted murderer who’s been in jail for thiry years, but has just been released to the nursing home because he’s dying of cancer. 

But Joe is committed to finishing the assignment.  It took all he had just to leave home and start college. And his mother keeps calling, needing him.  She’s an alcoholic and Joe’s been the parent of the household for a long time, putting his own life on hold.  Then his mother calls from jail, and Joe has no choice but to go back home, not for his mother, but to take care of his older brother Jeremy, who is autistic.  

Jeremy is a sweet kid, and Joe is stunned when Lila, the girl in the apartment next to his, who he’s been trying to chat up for weeks, warms up to Jeremy immediately. After Joe convinces Lila to come to dinner with him and Jeremy, she finds out about the interview and clashes with Joe over the idea. The argument ultimately causes the two of them to investigate the murder further, partly because Carl isn’t talking about it.   Joe doesn’t mind, as it’s more time he gets to spend with Lila, but it’s suddenly a lot to juggle–taking care of his brother, attending college, working a part-time job, trying to keep away from his toxic mother, and maybe having a girlfriend. 

Eskens’ writing is solid, and there were several passages that had me on the edge on my seat.  At one point, Joe upsets some people who don’t want him investigating Carl’s history, and he’s attacked and then stranded in the woods in a Minnesota snowstorm. How he survives is brilliant fun, a cross between one of writer Gary Paulsen’s wilderness survival tales for kids and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

The Life We Bury is a fabulous debut for Eskens. The characters are flawed and likeable, the setting is a beautiful, unpredictable character of its own–Minnesota in winter–and the action builds to a nail-biting crescendo.  Mystery/thriller readers will love it, but I suspect it will gain a wider audience.  Joe is just trying to break away from his family and figure out how to be his own person, and who can’t relate to that?

Podcasts and Bookmarks

Today I spent most of the day finishing making about seventy-five (physical) bookmarks I’m intending to sell at the Friends of the Nokomis Library book sale next weekend, to raise money for my very deserving library.  I used pages from a falling-apart copy of The Hobbit to cover one side, and the other side is some doodly art I had previously created.  Then I have scads of artsy yarn that is shit to knit with but looks really great in other arty projects like this! I was going to color all the bookmarks on the doodly side, until I colored about three and realized that it would take me about a year.  Then i realized that i should  leave them uncolored because, duh, adult coloring books, a thing now, so let the people color their own bookmarks!

While i was working I was listening to episode after episode of one of Book Riot’s fab podcasts.  I just discovered this one, it’s called Reading Lives, hosted by Jeff O’Neal, and it’s an interview format where he talks to one person for the whole hour, all about how they developed as a reader, who/what books were their influences, seminal reading moments, etc.  It’s heaven for reading junkies like me.  And you! Check it out.

Summer Book Bingo 2015

There are many ways to create a reading project, but this has to be one of the most creative: Books on the Nightstand’s Book Bingo! Go to the link and read about it, then get your own card.  Here’s mine:

It runs from today (Memorial Day) until September 7th, Labor Day.  I’m thinking I’ll go for the first column, because I was just thinking about rereading The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, a great children’s chapter book. Or maybe the bottom row, because I just picked up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, which is about a girl raised with a chimpanzee, so that would cover two squares. I’m trying not to cheat and use books I’ve already read or already started before today.  If you get stuck BOTNS has set up a Good Reads thing for people to make suggestions of books that fit different categories. Anyhoo, just a fun reading project for the summer to challenge yourself.  

Memorial Day 2015

I have very mixed feelings about this so-called holiday.  On the one hand, great, my husband gets a day off from work.  On the other hand, why? To remember people who served our country, maybe not just the ones who didn’t come back, but how about the ones who have come back and been permanently damaged, physically, psychologically, or both? My father served in Korea as a Marine and he  never, ever talked about it when I was growing up, only at the very end of his life.  I was a snot as a teenager, like all teenagers I suppose, thought I knew it all and that the military was just plain stupid.  How simple that was.

Anyway, I have renewed respect for people who have fought in wars, for whatever reason. I don’t judge them. So, enough already with the politics, right? Why am I going on about this on my book blog, you are wondering? Well, it so happens that I listened to a very good podcast yesterday about military fantasy/sci-fi, on one of my favorite shows, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Episode #143. There is a great panel that discusses writers of this subgenre, and how some writers get the whole “grunt” experience right and others don’t.  I found myself interested in this discussion,  about the stories that are not about the leaders of the war.


Two series mentioned that I’m currently looking into are Weston Ochse’s Seal Team 666, about a very special ops team who fight supernatural beings, and Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, about a band of mercenaries. I was especially interested to hear that Cook, who used to be in the Navy, wrote an essay about PTSD that doctors use now to better understand how to help returning soldiers.  In other words, he’s got cred.

Anyhow, if any of you have read these series I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m pretty new to this subgenre.