Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Sword and Verse

Written by Kathy MacMillan

I hate it when I can’t put books down. I don’t get anything else done. But that what the case with this book.

 First of all, personal disclosure: I know the author very well. For a while, I avoided this novel because doing a review for it felt a little odd. But I’m so glad I finally did read it. I’m putting the review on my personal blog because (1) because the review seems a little personal and (2) I don’t really have anywhere else to review a young adult story, which is this definitely is.

Written in first person, the story follows Raisa, an Arnath slave in Qilara. Born the daughter of a Learned One, she is captured as a child and forced into servitude. She would have been killed along with her parents had the raiders known who her parents were, but she is protected by her anonymity. She spends her days with other children, trying not to fall and die while they painstakingly clean the walls, ceilings, and statues in the palace. Arnathim, other than Tutors, are prohibited from reading and writing. Even ordinary Qilarites are not allowed to know the writings of the royal class, but the Tutors must learn all symbols in order to pass them along to royal heirs. When a Tutor commits treason, Raisa is selected to replace her. Her fellow student is Mati, the current heir to the throne.  They fall in love. Meanwhile, Mati is betrothed to a girl whose family would shore up the kingdom treasury, and Raisa tries to help the slave children. Palace intrigue and a slave revolt add to the fast pace and exciting story.

One of the compelling features of this story is the difference between Qilarite and Arnathim writing. That difference is based on conceptual versus sound-based writing, for which the author obviously draws on her training in American Sign Language. The author also creates a mythology, followed chapter by chapter as the main story unfolds.  Fascinating and effective technique. MacMillan skillfully weaves numerous symbols into the story, including the asoti birds that give their quills for writing and live in cages without bars. The bars are intangibles that hold them back. Raisa protects a written link to her past, which she decides is insignificant, but is in fact the key to her understanding of her situation and freeing the Arnathim.

The characters are not all well-developed, but Raisa certainly is.

I think we’ll be looking for more novels from MacMillan.

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sword-and-verseTitle: Sword and Verse

Author: Kathy MacMillan

Published: Harper Teen/HarperCollins Publishers, 2016

Reviewer: Sue Poduska

Format: Hardcover, 384 pages

Grade Level: 14 up

Genre: Fantasy, Fiction

ISBN: 978-0-06-232461-0

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Good Stories – They’re Everywhere!


Bubba in March

It’s amazing the things in our lives that are really good stories and we rarely ever realize it. I bring this up partly because we just got a new dog a couple months ago. He’s a Pomeranian. If he gets up to six pounds, he will probably be fat. He was 5.4 pounds at his last checkup, and he’s very muscular. But he’s just under five months old. Like most dogs and all puppies, he feels he needs to be involved in everything. So, when we empty the dishwasher, he invites himself inside the thing, even if the bottom rack is pulled out. Does this not sound like the jumping off place for a picture book?

In other words, he’s too cute for his own good. At his obedience class, the instructor – a somewhat grizzled man who’s been working with dogs for over 35 years – has to pick him up and let him lick his face at every single class. And he chases his tail. A lot.

Then there’s my husband who rattles through the spice shelf, going “Mmm, we can use this for grilling.” Who can’t see this turning into a young inventor or fantasies played out in the attic? (Not that I’m saying my husband is a six-year-old.)

Or, two dogs meet for the first time. When one calms down, the other gets excited.

We watch a lot of baseball. There is always something new in baseball. A while back, someone got an unassisted triple play. You guessed it, I’ve been working on a story about a kid making a triple play.

So, don’t tell me you have a good story for me. Either tell it yourself or tell me how to approach what I already have.

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A Really Good Book – The Great American Whatever

I really don’t have enough time to read a lot of young adult or general books. I read so much for my review blogs that there aren’t enough hours in the day. That, and the fact that I seem to require an awful lot of sleep, particularly in the evenings. I even joined a book club expressly so I would be forced to read something other than picture books and middle grade novels.

But I made an exception for Tim Federle’s The Great American Whatever. And it was a good decision.

Quinn, or Win, is coming up on his seventeenth birthday. He lost his sister, Annabeth, nearly six months before and is just beginning to come to terms with the loss. It was his great hope that he and Annabeth would make great movies together under Q&A Productions. Now, he’ll have to find his path without her. In addition, he feels guilty over her death, find he may not have known her as well as he thought, and is just beginning to emerge as the gay man he’ll become. An awful lot to deal with. His friends, siblings Geoff and Carly, are working to get him back into the world. Carly sets him up with another friend.

The coming-of-age and grief issues Quinn faces are universal, making all the characters relatable and likeable, whether or not you relate to being gay or even to losing a sibling. One blurb compared Quinn to Holden Caulfield, but Quinn is much more of the world than Holden and much more open about his real emotions. He loves his mother and defers to her whenever possible. He has mixed feelings about his absent father, which also makes the character ring true. He misses his sister and realizes he needs Geoff. He has hopes and dreams, though he wonders if they’ve changed with Annabeth gone. His quick wit is delightful. And he doesn’t seem to worry about phonies.

So, if you don’t have time to read this book, make time.

Buy on Amazon

Great American Whatever

  • Title: The Great American Whatever
  • Author: Tim Federle
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
  • Genre: Young adult fiction, coming of age, grief
  • ISBN: 978-1481404099





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Back At It

This is unabashedly personal, so read if you want to know about ME.

I knew I hadn’t posted anything on here in a while, so I looked back to see how long it had been. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Four months is quite a moratorium.

I did complete Picture Book Idea Month, and I even got a few workable ideas from that. And I’m working on a couple.

National Novel Writing Month saw a good first week, so I got a good start on one of my middle grade ideas – a hybrid of two ideas I had worked on before. Nothing is ever wasted.

After that, came holidays, a personal writing retreat, a new critique group, the opening of registration for our regional SCBWI next month, and a trip to New York for the SCBWI conference there. Whew!


Two different manuscripts found their way to the writers roundtable in NY. I got a lot of great feedback on both, so, naturally, I have even more work to do than before. Many words of wisdom flew around during the main conference. Queries should remain relevant to the work you’re trying to sell. Diversity is good, but not just for the sake of diversity. Common denominators for good middle grade writing include: know your market, know your reader, use an authentic voice, be original, write about things that matter, characters should stand out, include surprises, and leave the reader with something of substance. Endings are also important.

Next, I’m planning to participate in the great Reading for Research Month challenge conducted by colleague Carrie Charley Brown, which involves a lot of note taking and trips to the library for picture books. Yes, I AM a glutton for punishment.

Oh, and the last book I finished was NOT a children’s book. For a book club, my husband and I read Deep, Down, Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hectór Tobar. It’s a very engaging account of the mine disaster from 2010. All the men survived. I remember being gripped daily by the news stories for the two months they were buried. The author did a great job of putting a face on the men, their families, and the rescue team. Highly recommended.Deep Down Dark

On to the next project.

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Writing, Ho!

PiBoIdMo15participantI’m sure I’ve said it before, but writing really is a lonely business, which is fine with me most of the time. A lot of writers, like me, are also introverts. But, once in a while, we need to come up for air.

I love going to writer conferences because there are so many like-minded people at them. They are my tribe, after all. That does not mean I spend every waking moment communing with the other attendees, though.

But it’s also great keeping in touch with all the other creators on the internet.

While I toil away at various tasks, including some actual writing, I can check to see what everyone else is up to and be inspired.

To that end, I’m planning to participate in two of the national challenges this November – PiBoIdMo and NaNoWriMo.

PiBoIdMo, which is the brain child of writer Tara Lazar (, challenges writers to come up with thirty new picture book ideas in thirty days. I have done this challenges a few times before. Granted, the ideas are not all winners, but I like that it gets me thinking in the right direction. Also, Tara has wonderful guest bloggers every day of the month and for the few days surrounding it. So I get even more inspiration and reminders that we’re all in this together. It’s great! Come join us.NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo ( – the National Novel Writing Month – encourages writers in all genres to just sit down and write. The idea is to write a 50,000-word novel, all during the month of November. Sometimes, you have to be reminded to put the butt in chair. I did this challenge in 2009. I think I’ve finally recovered.

I may be crazy, but at least I’m not alone.




Or maybe I’ll do the Mini WriMo. Hmm …


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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Boys in the BoatI don’t often review adult books. Partly because my other blogs,, are geared toward first through sixth grades. But I just finished a book that I was reading for the neighborhood book club, and it deserves to be highlighted. It also deserves to be in a lot of school libraries. Boys and girls can both learn a lot.

Listed as an ALA Notable Book for Adults, this would be a wonderful addition to any history class, as it makes history come alive. Jesse Owens wasn’t the only American who shattered the dreams of Hitler and Goebbels. The Germans wanted to show the superiority of the Aryan “race” and stick it to those who punished them for World War I. Nine University of Washington men, learning to pull for each other, showed the world what teamwork can do.

The main focus is Joe Rantz, a Washington native who led an extremely difficult life. He was abandoned – literally – by his family several times. As a result, he had to learn to trust his teammates to work toward their common goal. The reader also learns a lot about Al Ulbrickson, head crew coach, and George Pocock, the shell builder who contributed much more than shells.

In a way, the many races leading up to the Olympics are more exciting than the actual event. Because it’s obvious what the result will be. It’s more about the process and about the closeness of the gold medal race (and why it’s close) anyway. But exciting it is.

The level of research going into this book is incredible. Meticulous detail went into each and every page. I can probably build a reasonable racing shell now. The author readily admits that he improvised dialogue, but much of it comes from the people who were there. He interviewed many participants and read every diary and letter he could get his hands on. And he is careful to set the story in the history of the day, noting the effect of the Great Depression on the nation and of the Nazis on Germany and the Olympics.

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  • Title: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
  • Author: Daniel James Brown
  • Published: Penguin Books, June 2013
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Paperback, 417 pages
  • Genre: Narrative nonfiction, Biography, History
  • ISBN: 978-0143125471
  • Extras: Authors’ Note, Notes, Index
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LA – Worth the Trip

logo-scbwiThis is a little long, but it was a really great conference.

Knowing that not all of us can make the trip does not in any way keep me from getting excited when I go to the SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. The atmosphere is infectious, the people are wonderful, and I learn so much. Over 1200 writers, illustrators, editors, agents, and others gathered to learn and draw energy from each other.

I can truthfully say I enjoyed every single event I attended, though I did need to take a breath a couple of times. Keynotes included:

  • Mem Fox, who not only was riveting with reading her books to us, but shared a lot about her process,
  • Meg Wolitzer, who can do it all,
  • Adam Rex, who knows how to make a picture book,
  • Dan Santat (What can I say?),
  • Jane O’Connor, a lively talk on creating characters,
  • Varian Johnson on doing the work,
  • Molly Idle, who says “Yes, and …?” a lot,
  • Deb Halverson, who knows an awful lot about the market,
  • Stephen Fraser, who shared many shining examples of great literature,
  • Shannon Hale, who wants boys and girls alike to enjoy enjoyable things,
  • Dan Yaccarino, and
  • Kwame Alexander, who slam dunked it.

And then we all said “Whew!” and collapsed.

Seriously, though, I also attended wonderful breakouts by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, Bonnie Bader, and Kristy Dempsey; intensives by Paul Fleischman and by Arthur Levine; a very informative discussion about LGBTQ issues; the marathon regional advisor training; and the sparkling and shining Saturday poolside party.


Here are some of the keys to the kingdom I gathered.

Mem Fox on picture books:

  • “Great art communicates before it’s understood” (TS Eliot)
  • A deep sense of rhythm can’t be taught. It must be caught.
  • It’s only the comfort of the right words in the right place that bring children back again and again.
  • It looks easy, but time is not the only consideration.

Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer on adding humor to nonficition: Some subjects aren’t as funny as others, so you may need to work to find an angle to add humor. Sacajawea: Lewis and Clark would be lost without me. Sonia Sotomayor: I’ll be the judge of that. Lincoln was a funny guy and told jokes. The Beatles were hilarious in their interviews. Cultivate your own sense of humor.

Dan Santat on creativity:

  • Think about why you like things.
  • Study the fundamentals, but be flexible.
  • Learn by imitation, but be careful.
  • Start improvising.
  • Immerse yourself fin life and culture.
  • Think about craft first and foremost.

Varian Johnson on doing the work: Show up for work even if the muse doesn’t.

Stephen Fraser recommends the following middle grade novels as reference for various reasons:

  1. Charlotte’s Web (EB White) – Carefully crafted writing
  2. Stone Fox (John Reynolds Gardner) – Drama
  3. Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards) – Imagination
  4. The Clockwork Three (Matthew J. Kirby) – Inventive and mixes genres
  5. Heart of a Samurai (Margi Preus) – Bringing history alive
  6. Holes (Louis Sachar) – Take two years or more if you need it to write a great story and for its humor (Don’t be afraid to be funny.)
  7. James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl) – Having fun unapologetically
  8. Junonia (Kevin Henkes) – Writing to the emotional age
  9. Missing May (Cynthia Rylant) – Place can be a character
  10. Sarah, Plain and Tall (Patricia MacLachlan) – Make each word resonate
  11. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) – Let joy spill out
  12. Harry Potter (JK Rowling) – Don’t be afraid to write a long book. Good books can be enjoyed by all ages.

Kwame Alexander on taking the creative leap:

  1. You’ll never make it if you don’t keep shooting.
  2. Work harder.
  3. You must have a good game plan.
  4. Loss is inevitable.
  5. Grab the ball. Take it to the hoop.
  6. Real teammates cheer you on.


There was way too much at the intensives to even begin to share. I highly recommend them to attendees.

Hope you enjoyed this little peek at LA.

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Hey, Boo

MockingbirdThe recent release of Go Set a Watchman has created a lot more controversy than anyone expected. (Well, maybe those who knew the contents of the newly published novel had some clue about some of the controversy.) And this post is just my opinion. Plus, I have not finished Watchman. I’m reading it a few chapters at a time to let it sink in.

For more than fifty years, Harper Lee would not – or could not – publish a second novel. We can only guess at her motives, which have probably also evolved over the years. It’s entirely possible she knew what a legacy she had created and didn’t want to endure the firestorm of the publication of Watchman.

But let me tell you why I intend to finish Watchman and ignore all the uproar.

I love Atticus Finch. Unconditionally. The fact that he turns out to be a racist SOB does not in any way alter my love for him or change how I feel about Mockingbird.

Within the world of Jean Louise, we are looking at two entirely different narrators in Scout and Jean Louise. The eyes of a six year old and the eyes of a twenty-six year old should not and could not be expected to see the same things. A six year old will often see a beloved parent as a god who lives up to every ideal. A twenty-six year old should see an aged parent as a human being with all the warts and scars of Dorian Gray. A changed view doesn’t begin to excuse all Atticus’ actions, but it can explain them. And Jean Louise doesn’t try to excuse his actions. In fact, she’s appalled by them. Even the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial is different in Watchman. That can also be attributed to Scout’s rose-colored glasses.

Within the world of Harper Lee, Watchman is very much a first draft. As a writer myself, I see passages on nearly every page that could have been edited better. Mockingbird is rewritten and heavily edited. If anything, this gives me more respect for editors and reminds me of the merits of the traditional publishing route. What if Harper Lee had self-published Watchman?

Within my world, I am reminded that these are works of fiction. Just because I don’t particularly like the new Atticus, that does not mean I can’t still get chills when the people stand for him out of respect in Mockingbird. In many ways, he’s not even the same character. The themes of racism obviously still need to be addressed. And not just in terms of the KKK South. Let’s use Watchman as a springboard to show how even the best of us need to be aware of prejudices and how our backgrounds can make us less than we can be. People like Atticus exist. Whether or not we acknowledge them.

I will continue to love Atticus, especially the one from Mockingbird, and try to help the one from Watchman be a better man.

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Anger May Be Appropriate, But …

The recent events in Charleston are upsetting on so many levels. Understandably, most people are angry. And everyone wants to comment. But most of need to be careful we’re not just adding fuel to an already-raging bonfire.

Yes, much of the media is skewed with rhetoric that favors the white majority. Yes, we need to get guns off the streets, particularly automatic weapons. Yes, the Confederate flag has become a symbol of hate, at least to most people. Yes, we should all pick our words carefully. Words do matter. The discussions too often deteriorate into shouting matches and accusations, though. And nothing is accomplished beyond making everyone angry again.

So, beyond denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, what should we do in response to all the violence and, yes, racism? And beyond making sure that the shooter never again hurts anyone in this manner.

I’m hoping that something positive can come of the latest horrific event. I’m hoping that our acts of kindness are not so random.

Attend religious services at a house of worship you’re unfamiliar with. Go to an AME church or a synagogue or a mosque. Bet anything the usual attendees will “be nice” to you. If you can find out about any outreach program they have, plan ahead and show up with nonperishable food or clothing or supplies for a woman’s or homeless shelter. Go the extra mile to show you care. And take the children with you.

Attend a rally or commemoration for a cause.

Volunteer for a cause.

Pay for someone else’s groceries or meal. Someone struggling with the kids. An elderly couple. Or just someone who looks unhappy. You’d be amazed how much goodwill even $20 will buy.

Read a book or other material (to yourself or with the kids) you might not normally read. Don’t make me outline which ones are available.

Come up with your own solution. One step at a time.

Get to know your neighbor and live with a purpose, for goodness sake.

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Stories, Stories Everywhere

Aunt Mary's 95th

Norma, Mary (95th), Shirley (Mom)

This past week, I traveled to Iowa. What was supposed to be my aunt’s 100th birthday party turned into a funeral when she died suddenly, four days before her actual birthday. I say “suddenly” because, even though we all knew her time was short, she was in relatively good shape and was very much looking forward to the party.

The one good aspect was that most of the family already had travel plans. I saw all my living cousins on that side of the family for the first time in many years.

Even though the minister officiating didn’t know her well, he did an excellent job of gathering stories about the wonderful woman my aunt was. Naturally, there were aspects of her life that were too painful for anyone to bring up, but I’m sure the good memories triggered thoughts in everyone of those other times.

Any family gathering is rife with stories. Not all of them can be easily adapted to the story you’re trying to tell, but taking notes (or at least taking note) is a really good idea for writers.

Aunt Mary was an incredible cook. She learned a lot of what she knew from my grandmother. Borne at least partly out of the Depression and hard times, her meals always consisted of plentiful and basic ingredients. They always had a huge garden, and she canned or froze everything. Green beans, pickles, strawberries, cherries, corn, rhubarb, and horseradish. Although I don’t think I’ve had gooseberry pie since Grandma died. Must not have been a favorite of Aunt Mary’s. Homemade chicken and noodles is as close to heaven as you can get. Nothing like Aunt Mary’s macaroni and cheese. Knowing these flavors can only help a story.

My cousin, who preceded her mother in death, was mentally challenged. She was the closest thing I had to a sister growing up. My aunt and uncle could have chosen to have her institutionalized, but she lived with them well into her fifties. As she aged, Judy developed health problems that also affected her personality. Through it all, Aunt Mary dealt with whatever came. Taught me so much about how to approach people and how to deal with what’s in front of you.

These are just two areas where I feel my aunt’s influence enriched my life and my writing. She was a force to be reckoned with and I shall carry her with me forever.

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