Remembering

As I set out to photograph the flowers around my apartment complex, I couldn’t help remembering my grandmothers: Lela (paternal) and Marie (maternal). Both are dead now, one as recent as 2011. Seems fitting to think of them on Memorial Day. Though neither fought in a war—Memorial Day being a day to pay honor to military service people—they were soldiers nevertheless. Just not in the military.

    

In keeping with my habit of not posting family photos (I’m writing this blog under a pen name after all), I will not post photos of my grandmothers. (Sorry to disappoint.) Instead, think of the flowers I photographed as representing my grandmothers. 🙂

Now, what do I mean by soldiers? Imagine being dirt poor and having kids to raise. You fight a battle against despair every day. But you have to win this battle for the sake of your kids. Both of my grandmothers had large families—my paternal grandmother having nine children, and my maternal grandmother having fifteen. You read that right. Two of my mother’s siblings did not live to adulthood.

My grandmothers didn’t go to college. One grandmother didn’t even go to high school. But all of her children did. College too. Both grandmothers wanted their children to have a better life than they did.

    

When I was a kid, my family spent many a weekend traveling to Pontiac, Michigan, to visit my paternal grandparents, and many a summer’s day driving to see my maternal grandmother in Lake Providence, Louisiana. We never thought about the fact that my grandparents were poor. They loved us, and we loved being with them.

My paternal grandmother taught me to crochet. My maternal grandmother taught me to be generous even if I have next to nothing to give. That was how she lived.

Some people talk about antiques or trust funds passed on to them by grandparents. Neither of my grandmothers had much to leave anyone. But they left something money couldn’t buy—a legacy of resilience, faith, and unselfishness. Not to mention precious memories of time spent with them. Their personalities imprint just about every story I write (and even one that I ghostwrote under a different name).

   

This Memorial Day, I also remember the people of Manchester and the victims of the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert on May 22. My blogger friend Laura said it best in this post. She provided excerpts from a post and comments by another blogger friend, Andy, who lives in Manchester. Many of you follow his City Jackdaw blog.

Memorial Day also is a day for me to remember that I’m giving away two books.

    

Thanks to the random number generator, the winner of The World’s Greatest Detective is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Nancy Hatch!

The winner of Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L. M. Montgomery is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Jill Weatherholt!

Nancy and Jill, please comment below to confirm. If either of you would prefer an eBook to a physical copy of the book, please let me know.

Rosie Bloom is shocked to discover that the flowers she planted came up crocheted. She plans to contact the seed company to demand answers.

Photos by L. Marie. Rosie Bloom by Moose Toys.

Check This Out: The World’s Greatest Detective

Hi, ho! Please help me welcome back to the blog the one and only Caroline Carlson. (Click here for Caroline’s last visit.) Today is the birthday of her latest middle grade novel, The World’s Greatest Detective! It was published by HarperCollins with a cover illustrated by Júlia Sardà. You can read an excerpt of the book at Entertainment Weekly’s website. Click here to do so.

    

Caroline is represented by Sarah Davies. Now, grab your deerstalker and magnifying glass, and let’s talk to Caroline!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Caroline: I believe there is an inherently delicious way to cook any vegetable, but sometimes that way is hard to find.
I can tap dance. I’m pretty good.
I am that obnoxious sort of person who likes to get to airports several days in advance of my flight.
I’ve been visiting schools and bookstores talking to kids for five years now, but I still get nervous every time!

El Space: You’re known for your pirate series—The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates. So, what inspired your new middle grade mystery novel, The World’s Greatest Detective? Is this a series also?
Caroline: I’ve always loved reading mystery novels and have wanted to try my hand at one for a while now. All three books in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series have elements of mystery in them, actually, but The World’s Greatest Detective is the first book I’ve written that’s styled after classic whodunits. Readers who are familiar with Sherlock Holmes or with Agatha Christie’s novels will probably recognize a lot of the story’s elements, and that’s intentional—one of my goals was to honor my favorite mystery icons and introduce kids to the genre in a fun and humorous way.

     

The World’s Greatest Detective isn’t part of a series, at least for now. I’d love to send Toby and Ivy on a new adventure someday, but I don’t want to write another mystery novel unless I have a really good idea for the mystery at the heart of the story, and that hasn’t happened just yet. It’s also been lots of fun, after working on a trilogy, to write a book that can stand on its own metaphorical feet.

      

El Space: Batman considers himself to be the world’s greatest detective. But he’s got money and gadgets to help him out. Without giving any spoilers, what do Toby and Ivy have to help them solve mysteries?
Caroline: I don’t know if Toby and Ivy would be any good at saving Gotham, but they do the best they can with their limited resources. Toby has learned a little bit about detective work from his uncle Gabriel, who has an office on the famous Detectives’ Row, and he also happens to be enrolled in a correspondence course to become a junior detective. Ivy’s got a huge library of true crime stories, a clothes rack full of disguises, a skeleton named Egbert, and a knack for setting traps with tablecloths and trip wires. Ultimately, though, they’ve got to put away their gadgets and rely on their powers of deduction to solve the murder that happens right under their noses.

El Space: Sounds exciting! Steve Moser, who was a former police detective in real life, gave some tips from this article at the Police Magazine website. Here is one of them:

Take time to step away and regroup. Sometimes you have to step back and either do something else or just take a break. Many ah-ha moments occur this way.

Would your characters agree? Why or why not? Why is this also good writing advice?
Caroline: Toby and Ivy would hate to step away from a good case, but I think they’d grudgingly agree that some of their most crucial insights have come at the moments when they’ve been forced to remove themselves from an investigation. And I certainly agree that breaks are essential to my own writing process. By the time I’ve finished a first draft of a book, I’ve been working on it nonstop for months, and I usually don’t have much of a sense of what’s working and what’s not. It’s hard for me to view the manuscript objectively—as an editor or a reader would—until I’ve taken some time away from it. Sometimes a writing problem that seems intractable can be solved with a little bit of time and distance.

  

El Space: Did you have a favorite mystery book or series when you were a kid? If so, what? Why?
Caroline: Yes, lots! I particularly loved mysteries that encourage readers to solve a puzzle along with the characters. My favorite example of this type of book is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. There are a few subtle Westing Game references in The World’s Greatest Detective; let me know if you find them!

El Space: What will you work on next?
Caroline: I’m just finishing up a draft of my next book, which is a fantasy adventure tentatively called “The Door at the End of the World.” It has a little bit of magic, lots of jokes, and too many bees.

Thanks, Caroline, for being my guest!

And thank you to all who stopped by to chat with Caroline. Looking for Caroline? You can find her at her website, Twitter, Facebook.

The World’s Greatest Detective and other novels by Caroline can be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound. But I will send a copy of The World’s Greatest Detective to one of you who comments below. Winner to be announced on May 29. (Another giveaway also will be announced then.)

Author photo by Amy Rose Capetta. The World’s Greatest Detective cover courtesy of the author. Other covers from Goodreads. LEGO Batman from fanpop.com. Detective images from cctvcamerapros.com and clipartpanda.com. Veggies from clipartlord.com. Bee image from Pinterest.

Much Ado About Middle Grade Books

A really helpful blog post by my good friend Sharon Van Zandt—“Hemingway’s Way”—and my recent review of several manuscripts for a venue I cannot name at this time prompted this post. You can get to Sharon’s post by clicking on the post’s title. Sharon mentions a tool I used to check my WIP. But I’ll talk more about that later.

First, let me ask you this: When you think of the primary audience of a middle grade book, what age group comes to mind? (If you’re an adult like me who reads middle grade books, maybe you think of yourself. Ha ha! If so, you and I should have ice cream together someday.) Do you think of middle graders—sixth through eighth grade? Makes sense, right? Middle graders—middle grade books.

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Here’s where life throws a curve. Middle grade books are for kids in third through sixth grade—kids 8-12. Yes, some middle graders read middle grade books. But young adult books are geared toward middle grade to high school-aged kids—a wide range of readers.

Remember the books you loved as a kid? Middle grade books are typically shorter than young adult books—around 30,000—50,000 words (longer for fantasy books). There are some exceptions, as you’ll quickly note if you’ve read the books in the following list.

Some Middle Grade Books
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

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Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
• The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
• The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

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Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Holes by Louis Sachar
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

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Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
Under the Mermaid Angel by Martha Moore

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And many, many others. There are some exceptions to the rules. The Harry Potter series is an exception, because it evolved over time. Its audience spans from children to adults. But this series started off middle grade.

I’m writing a middle grade book with an eleven-year-old protagonist who is about to turn twelve. I don’t pretend to be an expert on middle grade books, so I seek help whenever I can. The tool Sharon’s post mentioned provided one kind of help. It assesses the grade level when you copy into the tool an excerpt from your work.

When I copied several of my paragraphs into the tool, they were assessed at the third and fourth grade levels, which is fitting for a middle grade book. (Whew!)

Another help: the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which gauge the ease or difficulty of a passage read in English. Because of these tests, many periodicals and books have been assessed at a sixth grade level. Many middle grade books have a lower readability level than that. Again, there are some exceptions. Classic stories, crossover stories, some fantasy stories, and other stories meant for family reading might score higher.

Recently I read a few middle grade manuscripts with a high vocabulary (around the eighth grade level) that included F-bombs and other profanity, romantic relationships (including the desire for sex), and long passages of introspection. The inclusion of these items shows a lack of understanding about what’s considered appropriate for a middle grade book.

I don’t make the rules. But I’m tasked with enforcing them. And what became apparent to me very quickly was that these authors probably had not read many (or any) books geared toward the age level for which they claimed to write.

Do you know any musicians who never or only seldom listen to the music of others? Sounds ludicrous, right? Yet writing is a discipline that some feel they’ve mastered simply because they’ve written a story, all the while claiming they “don’t have time” to read books. (Or they don’t need to read, since “everyone” can write.)

Want to write a middle grade book? You might start by reading middle grade books—as many as you can get your hands on. Study the pacing, characterization, rhythms of dialogue, and the plots. Check online for the requirements for middle grade books, particularly word count and subject matter. Just because your favorite author could get away with a 90,000-word middle grade book that doesn’t mean you automatically can! And don’t forget that kids like to read about kids older than them, but still close in age. So though your protagonist might be 11 or 12, your core reader might be 8 or 9.

Click here for an excellent post by Marie Lamba on the difference between middle grade books and young adult books. Another good post is by Malinda Lo (click here for it) and this one by Judith Rosen. The latter mentions a bookstore that delineates middle grade fiction books as books for middle graders. 🙂

Click here for a great reading analysis post by Shane Snow.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books?

Book covers from Goodreads and Pinterest. Ice cream from smartcanucks.ca.

No Peeking!

004Remember when you were a kid, and you tried to figure out what was in those boxes under the Christmas tree? (Maybe you still do.) Perhaps you grabbed a box and did the shake test to figure out its contents. (With the shake test, you run the risk of it backfiring if you are particularly vigorous and the package’s contents particularly fragile.) Or, maybe you were bold enough to tear off a tiny corner of the wrapping paper, which you later blamed on the dog or cat or a sibling, especially after a parent told you, “Hey, no peeking!”

If you’re anything like me, you didn’t wait for presents to be added to the tree. You went looking for them. I usually did, especially after hearing my older brother say, “I saw something in Mom and Dad’s closet.” Yes, I was gullible enough to take him at his word. And of course I didn’t find anything in the closet. But I continued the search by poking under their bed and in the living room closet. And you know what? My parents were way ahead of us. With three curious children, they didn’t bother hiding gifts in the house. A locked car trunk ensured that our Christmas gifts remained unopened until Christmas Day.

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Hello Kitty wants to peek inside this gift. But the tied string thwarts her. Poor Kitty. She failed to realize that the gift is in the envelope. The thing on top of it is a crocheted Christmas tree light stuffed with cotton.

What is it about surprises that make us try to figure them out beforehand? Some surprises, like wrapped Christmas gifts, are all about delayed gratification. But in our instant, I-can’t-even-wait-a-second-for-my-download society, we have to know NOW. “I’ve gotta peek,” we tell ourselves. But does learning the outcome right away make getting the gift any better? (I hear some of you murmuring, “It sure does.”)

Waiting is part of the magic of Christmas. Think about it. When a parent refused to give in to any demands to tell you RIGHT NOW what’s in those packages, the anticipation was all the more heightened. Consider how excited you were as you lay in bed, counting the seconds until you could spring up and rush to the tree.

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This season, is there anything for which you’re waiting? What can you do to regain that delightful sense of anticipation if you haven’t felt it for a while?

While you think about that, let me move on to another item of business. Those of you who waited for the Christmas book giveaway reveal, the wait is over! (Wondering what I’m talking about? Look here.) Drumroll, please . . .

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First up is a preorder of Audacity by Melanie Crowder.

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The winner of is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Courtney Stein!

Next is The Terror of the Southlands by Caroline Carlson.

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The winner of is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Nancy Hatch!

Last, but not least, is Caminar by Skila Brown.

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The winner is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Laurie Morrison!

Congratulations, winners! See? You didn’t have to shake a package or look in a closet or under the bed. Merry Christmas! When you confirm below, please provide an email address. Thanks for commenting.

Christmas gifts from ivysays.com. Santa hat from dcafterfive.com. Drumroll from funylool.com.

Deck the Halls with Three Good Books (Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la)

santa 9Ho ho ho! Santa’s got a brand-new bag. (If you’re a James Brown aficianado, you’ll have “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in your head now. Mwahahaha!) Today on the blog, I’m thrilled to welcome three great authors and fellow VCFA alums: Melanie Crowder, Caroline Carlson, and Skila Brown. They agreed to a quick interview without any coercion from moi or that cupcake-wielding supervillain, Hello Kitty. If you’re totally confused by that last statement, go here.

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Melanie, who also wrote Parched, is here to talk about her upcoming young adult historical novel-in-verse, Audacity, which will be coming to a bookstore near you on January 8, 2015 (published by Philomel Books/Penguin). Melanie is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Caroline is here to discuss The Terror of the Southlands, book 2 of her middle grade series, The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, published by HarperCollins. If you were around last year, you’ll remember that Caroline stopped by just before the first book of her series debuted. (See here and here.) Good times. Caroline is represented by Sarah Davies.

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And last, but certainly not least, Skila is here to talk about her middle grade historical novel-in-verse, Caminar, published by Candlewick Press. Skila is represented by Tina Wexler.

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After our discussion, I’ll talk about a holiday giveaway that I hope will be an annual thing.

El Space: Greetings and welcome to the blog. Could each of you provide an elevator pitch for your book to bring readers up to speed about it?
Melanie: Audacity is the inspiring story of Clara Lemlich, whose fight for equal rights led to the largest strike by women in American history.

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Caroline: Hilary Westfield is a full-fledged pirate now, but if she doesn’t prove her boldness and daring by rescuing a kidnapped Enchantress, she’ll be kicked out of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates for good.
Skila: Set in 1981 Guatemala, this novel-in-verse tells the powerful tale of a boy who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war.

El Space: Awesome. So, tell us what inspired you to write your book.
Melanie: Clara’s story just wouldn’t let go of me. I first discovered her in 2010, while looking for topics to try my hand at picture book biographies during the second semester of my MFA at Vermont College. But the more I read about Clara, the more I was captivated. I began to suspect that this would turn into a novel-length book. And then her voice showed up—in free verse, no less! I had to follow. . . .
Caroline: The Terror of the Southlands is a sequel to my first book, Magic Marks the Spot. I wanted to continue the story of Hilary’s adventures on the High Seas, explore more of her world, and learn more about the characters I’d created for the first book. Also, I love detective stories, and this book, while not a traditional mystery, is absolutely swarming with detectives. Pirates too, of course!

pirate_clipart_ship_2Skila: I spent a long time reading and learning about Guatemala’s Armed Conflict and the role that the U.S. played in that violence. It made me angry—angry about what happened and angry that not many people know about it. There are so many things I can’t do about so many issues in the world. But one thing I can do is tell a story. So that’s what I did. I told a story about a boy who survived. I think survival stories are the best kind of stories to read.

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El Space: You’ve all intrigued me! If you had a choice of educating, astounding, amusing, or challenging a child or a teen with your writing, which would you choose? Why? You can pick a combination of two if you wish.
Melanie: Challenging. Definitely. This is a book for teens, and Clara was a teen when she became an activist. I absolutely want readers to find her story and to know that they, too, can change the world.
Caroline: I love reading and writing humor, so one of my main goals every time I sit down at the keyboard is to amuse both myself and my eventual readers. That said, I hope that while kids are laughing, they’re also being challenged, astounded, and only very occasionally educated.
Skila: Challenging. I was the kid who loved to be challenged and also who loved to challenge. There’s always that one kid in every class, right? Raising her hand in class to say, “I think you’re wrong,” to the teacher. I would love the idea of my book challenging what you might believe about war, or the way you think about the world, or the capabilities of a child. I love books that make me think. I hope Caminar is a book like that.

El Space: If your main character had a Christmas stocking or made a Hanukkah wish, what would this character wish for? Why?

     Hanukkah  christmas_stocking
Melanie: Books! Clara loved poetry, and she loved learning—languages, social theory, literature—all of it!
Caroline: Hilary’s Christmas stocking would probably include a sword-polishing kit, a packet of homemade cookies from her governess, and a good book she could read aloud to her gargoyle.
Skila: Carlos would probably wish for food, for obvious reasons. But on a lighter note: candy! And maybe a radio.

Thanks, Melanie, Caroline, and Skila for stopping by! I’d love to have you guys come back again!

And if you’ve popped over to check out these authors, thanks for stopping by. There are other places where they can be found. Looking for Melanie? Look here. Looking for Caroline? Look here. Looking for Skila? Look here. You can find each wonderful book by clicking on its title:

Audacity (preorders only)
The Terror of the Southlands
Caminar

You can also find each book at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you’ve been wishing for more books this holiday season, your wish is about to be granted. I’m giving away a preorder of Audacity and a copy of The Terror of the Southlands and Caminar. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winners will be announced on Monday, December 22.

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Jordie and his archnemesis have agreed on a truce during the holidays. Each is hoping Santa will bring him/her books by Melanie, Caroline, and Skila. Um . . . yes, Jordie and Hello Kitty still believe in Santa. Don’t you?

Christmas ornament from realestateyak.com. Hanukkah menorah from tucker-tribune.blogspot.com. Christmas stocking image from dryicons.com. Santa bag from its-so-cute.blogspot.com. Pirate ship from free-clipart-pictures.net. Strike photo from historymatters.gmu.edu.

Do You Believe in Magic?

I wasn’t going to post today, but the thoughts were fresh in my mind, thanks to a conversation with a friend, and couldn’t be ignored. I’m in a rather soapboxy mood, so feel free to tune in or tune out.

Remember in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion discovered the “wizard” hiding behind the curtain? This “wizard” tried to play it off by his warning to them to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

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Too late. He’d already been exposed as a complete sham—a humbug, according to the Scarecrow. He didn’t have a drop of magic within him, and couldn’t really give them what they desired—a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Cowardly Lion, and a trip home for Dorothy—except through nonmagical means. But there was magic in Oz. The witches proved that. Later, even the humbug wizard gained magic. You have to read Baum’s Oz books to learn how. Yet the man-behind-the-curtain notion is still pervasive in our day and age.

We live in a cynical age. We’re used to reality TV and news reports that take us “behind the curtain” by debunking magic acts or exposing as frauds politicians and authors who claim they’re telling a “true” story while making up key facts. We’re tired of the lies, aren’t we? If there’s a man behind the curtain, we want to know!

Sometimes we take this mindset to the books we read. As adults we learn to “put away childish things” like believing there are fairies in our backyard or that dogs can talk in order to embrace reality. That’s why we categorize fairy tales and other such stories as stories of childhood, rather than for adults. If we happen to pick up a fantasy book, the use of magic is severely scrutinized, slapped with a deus ex machina label, or written off as “convenient” if it doesn’t seem “realistic” enough to suit our adult sensibilities.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanYou know what? I for one have had quite enough of the search for the man behind the curtain. This doesn’t mean I plan to bury my head in the sand and totally ignore reality or reality-based fiction. It means I’m going to continue to unabashedly cherish those stories that take me to magical places or to ordinary places that seem magical, and then try my best to offer that kind of journey through my own writing. The stories I loved as a child I still love as an adult. Grimm’s Fairy Tales has a prominent place on my shelf, not hidden underneath the bookcase out of fear that someone will check my bookshelves and ask about what I’m reading. I’m a firm believer in story magic. I love miraculous escapes and magical derring-do. And many of you do too. I wasn’t the only adult reading Harry Potter’s adventures.

I love the fact that authors like J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Holly Black, Juliet Marillier, Jaclyn Moriarty, Charles Yallowitz, Caroline Carlson, K. L. Schwengel and many others are unapologetic in the use of magic in their stories. If you haven’t already, you might check out Moriarty’s Colors of Madeleine series; Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere series; Carlson’s The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series; or K. L. Schwengel’s Darkness & Light series.

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Or consider stories like Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, The September books by Catherynne Valente, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and other books that remind you of the magic (and sometimes sadness) of childhood. Be willing to suspend your disbelief and leave your cynicism at the door as you take a journey through these pages.

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Do you believe in magic? I do. I still believe in the power of stories to transform us and transport us to unforgettable places. Do you?

Oz photo from takaiguchi.com. Book covers from Goodreads.

And the Winner Is . . .

Welcome back. I won’t make you wait this time. The winner of the $15 Amazon ecard to preorder The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson is . . .

Andy of City Jackdaw!!!!!

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Congratulations, Andy!

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Please comment with your email address below. Or, if you prefer a bit of privacy, you can email it to me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com. Since you’re in the UK, I will send you an ecard from Amazon UK. (The book is £10.99 there. :-))

Thanks to all who commented!

And now, if you’ll indulge me, I would like to announce another winner: me. I can’t help thinking of how smugly Gilderoy Lockhart said, “Allow me to introduce you to your new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher: me” in the second Harry Potter movie. I don’t want to come across that way.

Kenneth Branagh as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart

The blog has been given the following awards by the wonderful Patty of Petite Magique:

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And by the delightful Elaine Jeremiah:
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I hope I’m not forgetting one. That’s the problem with procrastination! These awards were given ages ago, so I’m really sorry for not acknowledging them sooner. I’m humbled and honored by your kindness. I often doubt myself as a blogger, so your kind thoughts encourage me. I’m still thinking about nominees, so I’ll just say thank you for now. It’s great to be part of such a welcoming community.

And now, I’ll leave you with this photo that greatly delights me:

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Hello, Kitty!

Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart from fr.harrypotter.wikia.com. Cat from LOL Cats. Congrats image from free-extras.com.