Delightful and insightful are two words that describe Lisa Yee’s middle grade fiction Maizy Chen’s Last Chance, (Random House, 2022). Yee’s wonderful sense of humor is on display, enhancing the tale of Maizy’s attempts to solve family and community mysteries, both contemporary and historical. The story within a story about the immigrant experience, told to Maizy by her grandfather Opa, is skillfully sprinkled throughout the narrative, like nuggets of pork in a scrumptious stir fry. I came to love Maizy and her family (past and present) and the townsfolk she befriends at the Golden Dragon, the family’s Chinese restaurant in Last Chance, Minnesota. With such memorable characters, a mystery to solve, foodie tidbits, and some poker tips from Opa thrown in, it’s no surprise that this novel has earned so many awards, capped off by the prestigious Newbery Honor Medal. If you’re ready to smile some, cry some, and learn some, take a chance on Maizy Chen.
The Owl and the Story
A great horned owl visited our house in Colorado over the past couple of weeks. He would arrive at sunrise and spend the day high above in a pine tree near the rear fence, facing the winter sun as it crosses the sky, with a view of Cheyenne Mountain to the west. Not wanting to disturb him, I snapped this hazy picture from my doorway. As you can see, much of him is hidden and his face is a mystery. What does this have to do with writers and their stories? Like the owl, sometimes the inkling of a story alights, unexpected. And like the photograph, much is concealed. Where did this owl come from? Is the nearby mountain his hunting ground? Why did he visit and will he come back? I don’t know. Much like story ideas. As Neil Gaiman once said: “I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop.” I certainly hope Gaiman’s ideas don’t stop. Or mine. As to the owl, I named him after that other great hunter who nightly crosses our winter skies. And like new story ideas, I hope my Orion returns. #thewritinglife
Gary Paulsen and Northwind
In the middle grade novel Northwind, Gary Paulsen hearkens back to the ancient times of seafaring and tells the story of Leif’s solo canoe journey north along the seacoast of Norway and its fjords. Those who love Brian and Hatchet will surely find a place in their hearts for orphan Leif and Northwind. Paulsen’s language is rich and powerful in this classic story of a boy-man fighting the wild forces of nature, while at the same time finding his place in nature. The wilderness adventures and scenes painted by Paulsen are stunning. I’m grateful for this final entry, published posthumously in 2022, into Paulsen’s catalog of stories. Years ago, at my very first SCBWI Conference, I had the honor of hearing Mr. Paulsen’s keynote address. I listened to him, mesmerized, talk about his life experiences, journeys, and explorations. He also talked about the importance of a person’s name, his last name having been often misspelled. At the book signing that followed, when it was finally my turn, we chatted as he signed my book, the 20th Anniversary Edition of Hatchet. He stopped mid-sentence and looked up at me in horror. He had misspelled my name. He was truly distraught and wanted to get another book for me. I insisted it was okay. I was charmed by the whole experience and knew I wanted the inscription just as he had penned it while we talked. That signed edition of Hatchet will always have a special spot on my bookshelf and in my heart. As will Northwind, his last memorable contribution to the literary world.
JambaLAya Is a Wrap!
JambaLAya Kidlit 2022 wrapped us last weekend. So why do we attend SCBWI conferences? To learn from the best and the brightest. This year picture book author/illustrator Leslie Staub, “Arc and Refrain”; middle grade and picture book author Marti Dumas, “The Writer’s Journey”; agent Saba Sulaiman from Talcott Notch Literary “Tackling (and Surviving!) the Query Trenches”; and publisher Scott Campbell from Pelican Publishing/Arcadia, “A Conversation,” (interviewed by me), presented their topics on different aspects of children’s literature — shedding light and imparting wisdom on that phenomenal industry that is kidlit. Can’t wait to attend the next SCBWI Conference!
JambaLAya Kidlit Returns
In March 2020, on the eve of JambaLAya Kidlit – Editor’s Day, SCBWI-Louisiana/Mississippi cancelled its event. I never dreamed it would be over two years until we could again hold an in-person conference. While we continued to connect with our kidlit community through Zoom conferences, critiques, retreats and webinars, we missed the camaraderie and networking (and hugs). This month the SCBWI-Louisiana/Mississippi Region will have its first in-person conference since 2019. I can’t wait to be in that special space where a group of kidlit creators gather together. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Calliope Kate and the Voice of the River by Karen Konnerth
Middle grade and young adult novels are my favorite reading, but who doesn’t love a great picture book? Calliope Kate was born on a shanty boat on the Mississippi River in the late 1800s. This tall-tale heroine can “out-shout a thundercloud, knit a sock big enough to keep a whole family warm, and pull every twist and turn out of the Mississippi River.” Ma says Kate must forget her wild ways and be more ladylike. But Kate surprises everyone when she puts her piano lessons to use by pounding out a sound so BIG on a Mississippi River steamboat calliope, that she tames a hurricane! Karen Konnertth uses her extensive work as a professional, world-traveled puppeteer in her storytelling and in her images to create a read-aloud book to be enjoyed over and over. Reading ages, 5-6. Interest level, all ages! (Pelican Publishing 2022)
Wildseed Witch by Marti Dumas
In Wildseed Witch, the first of a middle grade fantasy series, 13-year old Hasani discovers she’s a witch. No sooner than you can say #BlackGirlMagic, she receives a scholarship to a “charm” school where for generations girls from witch families have learned to harness their magic. Can Hasani learn to manage her gift, see herself as she truly is, and realize the goals she set for her YouTube makeup channel? I enjoyed finding out in this middle grade read and look forward to the next in the series. Ages 7-12
Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff
Bug doesn’t want to spend the summer learning how to apply makeup or plan a new wardrobe to get ready for middle school, like best friend Moira. Bug has more important things to do, like figuring out why a ghost is haunting Bug in the eerie old house that is home. And maybe in figuring that out, Bug might also discover another important truth. Too Bright to See masterfully blends a creepy (but not scary) ghost story with dealing with grief and the struggle to find one’s true self. (Dial Books 2021) Ages 10-12. Newbery Honor Book. National Book Award finalist. Stonewall Book Award.