Posts Tagged Kerry O’Malley Cerra

You Don’t Have to Be Age 8 – 12 to Love Middle Grade Novels

I admit it—I LOVE middle grade novels, and I’m not afraid to show it. Years ago, I was reading a middle grade novel on an airplane with my daughter. She fell asleep and I kept reading…until someone tapped my shoulder. The woman across the aisle said, “She’s sleeping. You don’t have to read her book anymore.” I smiled and said, “Thanks, but this is actually my book.” Her mouth opened wide, but she didn’t say another word to me the entire flight.

Another time, I was reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate in public and couldn’t stop smiling. The woman next to me couldn’t wait to find out what book I was reading. When I showed her the cover and she saw a giant gorilla, she didn’t know what to say. But I gushed about how amazing Ivan’s voice is (I even read her the first few pages) and told her that it says so much about humans in such a unique way…she decided to borrow a copy from the library.

Inspired by the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, this illustrated book is told from the point of view of Ivan himself.

Having spent twenty-seven years behind the glass walls of his enclosure in a shopping mall, Ivan has grown accustomed to humans watching him. He hardly ever thinks about his life in the jungle. Instead, Ivan occupies himself with television, his friends Stella and Bob, and painting. But when he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from the wild, he is forced to see their home, and his art, through new eyes.

 

And now I’ll make another confession…I can’t remember the last time I read an adult book. There are so many incredible middle grade novels on my must-read list, I just can’t pry myself away from them. I love the heart, humor, unique viewpoints, and amazing characters. Here are some of my favorite books. I hope you’ll love them, too.

I love meeting all kinds of inspiring characters, like Auggie in Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Everyone needs to read this book! I instantly fell in love with Auggie and love how it shows the story from different viewpoints in addition to his. And yes, I still highly suggest reading it even if you’ve seen the movie—I think it’s even more powerful.

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid–but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face.

WONDER begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

 

Speaking of inspiring—have you read Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart yet? It’s easy to see the heart in this book from the second you glance at the cover which says: Be brave. Be bold. Be you. How inspiring, encouraging, and validating. The back says: Sometimes our hearts see things our eyes can’t. Did this get your attention yet? Things have changed so much since I was in high school—and luckily, more and more people are realizing that nobody should have to hide who they are.

Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in the eighth grade. Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from the New Jersey town he’s called home for the past thirteen years. This would be hard enough, but the fact that he is also hiding from a painful secret makes it even worse. One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, and their lives forever change.

 

Feel like laughing? There’s so much humor and heart in This is Not the Abby Show by Debbie Reed Fischer. It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite movies—The Breakfast Club. I loved this book from the very first chapter heading: Pretty much everything I do is inappropriate. I totally relate to that, and rooted for spunky, impulsive Abby through her hilarious journey.

Abby is twice exceptional–she is gifted in math and science, and she has ADHD. Normally, she has everything pretty much under control. But when Abby makes one HUGE mistake that leads to “The Night That Ruined My Life,” or “TNTRML,” she lands in summer school.

Abby thinks the other summer-school kids are going to be total weirdos. And what with her parents’ new rules, plus all the fuss over her brother’s bar mitzvah, her life is turning into a complete disaster. But as Abby learns to communicate better and finds friends who love her for who she is, she discovers that her biggest weaknesses could be her greatest assets.

 

Have you ever gone on a vacation that’s so amazing, you don’t ever want it to end? Then you’ll love The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone. This book is full of heart, mystery, friendship, art, and really made me look closer at things I’ve wished for and choices I’ve had to make. It reminds me a bit of the movie Groundhog Day.

What if you could get a do-over–a chance to relive a day in your life over and over again until you got it right? Would you?

After finding a mysterious set of paints in her backpack, eleven-year-old Haleigh Adams paints a picture of her last day at the New Jersey shore. When she wakes up the next morning, Haleigh finds that her wish for an endless summer with her new friend Kevin has come true. At first, she’s thrilled, but Haliegh soon learns that staying in one place–and time–comes with a price.

And when Haleigh realizes her parents have been keeping a secret, she is faced with a choice: do nothing and miss out on the good things that come with growing up or find the secret of the time loop she’s trapped in and face the inevitable realities of moving on. As she and Kevin set out to find the source of the magic paints, Haleigh worries it might be too late. Will she be able to restart time? And if she does, will it be the biggest mistake of her life?

 

Are you in the mood for something that’s both laugh-out-loud funny and scary? Read Night of The Living Cuddle Bunnies by Jonathan Rosen. This action-packed book has the hottest holiday toy come to life (and the live version is far from cuddly), hilarious dialogue, water guns, bubble wrap…and a quirky new neighbor who might be a warlock.

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever? This is a very funny “scary” book for kids, in the same vein as the My Teacher books or Goosebumps.

 

Do you remember how you felt on 9-11? What about soon after that? I never looked at the world the same way again. Can you imagine what it would be like if you were a child then…and classmates turned on your best friend just because he was an Arab Muslim? Read Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra to experience this poignant world.

Ever since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart–and outrun–the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI, and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. In the end, Jake must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

 

I hope you’ll proudly read middle grade novels everywhere you go, no matter what age you are!  And if you’re looking for more great ones to read, check out our New Releases and Unique Book Lists. They’ll keep you busy for at least the next few years.

What do you love about middle grade novels and what are some of your favorite books that you think everyone should read?

International Day of Peace: Middle-Grade Books that Promote World Harmony

The International Day of Peace, established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly, is now celebrated worldwide every September 21.

international_peace_day_logoTo commemorate the message of the day, I’ve chosen to shine a light on a few middle-grade books that share themes of nonviolence, empathy, and dignity for all.

These books not only promote peace by highlighting the challenges of fighting against war, racism, poverty, etc., but they also underscore the importance of large and small acts of courage by individuals to create change and move toward a more harmonious world.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear about your favorite books on the subject in the comments section.

9780062377012Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Pennypacker’s novel, Pax (literally “peace” in Latin) was recently longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s literature. The story highlights peace by portraying the costs of war through the eyes of a boy and his beloved fox, Pax. Time magazine writes: “Pennypacker’s elegant language and insight into human nature spin a fable extolling empathy above all. By the novel’s poignant ending, Pennypacker has gently made the case that all of us should aspire to that view—children and adults alike.”

9781442485068Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Baskin’s novel tracks the stories of four children of different backgrounds before and after the tragedy of 9/11. While the characters have their own individual stories, they all share the fact that their lives were impacted by the event. The ending (spoiler alert) shows the characters, one year after the tragedy, at the memorial service in New York City. It’s a powerful scene demonstrating the courage of coming together in love and peace. Publishers Weekly writes: “Baskin focuses on how her characters emerge wiser, worldlier, and more sensitive to others’ pain after surviving a profound and tragic piece of history.”

9781629146133Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra

In Cerra’s book, also about 9/11, Jake’s life is turned upside down when the father of his best friend Sam is detained by the FBI after the attacks. Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, who is Muslim, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. In the end, Jake must decide: walk away from Sam and the revenge that a racist classmate has planned or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

9780316043069Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn’t make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner’s son. When Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane, the older River Road folks feel threatened. But as Sugar befriends young Beau and elder Master Liu, they introduce her to the traditions of their culture, and she, in turn, shares the ways of plantation life. Sugar soon realizes that she must be the one to bridge the cultural gap and bring the community together.

9780888999597The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis

This volume contains Ellis’s three novels, The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City. The Breadwinner is set in Afghanistan, where 11-year-old Parvana lives with her family in a bombed-out apartment building in Kabul. When her father is arrested for the crime of having a foreign education, the family is left with no money or resources. Forbidden to earn money as a girl, Parvana must transform herself into a boy and become the breadwinner. In Parvana’s Journey, her father has died and the family has scattered. Parvana, now 13 years old, is determined to find them. Again masquerading as a boy, she joins a group of wandering children, all refugees from war, who exist mainly on courage. In Mud City, the focus shifts to 14-year-old Shauzia, who lives in the Widows’ Compound in Pakistan and dreams of escaping to a new life in France. Ellis’s look at the human cost of war is also a story of hope and survival.

9780547577098Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

As the German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.

9780545464406Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine

Red has just lost his father to a fatal attack, and everything is different in his life. And when Red comes to realize the racial injustices connected to his Virginia family and community, he’s faced with some hard challenges. Publishers Weekly writes: “(Erskine) frankly explores the difficulty in fighting a corrupt system, but also stresses the difference one individual—even a child—can make, providing hope that justice can prevail.”

9780547577319A Long Walk to Water (Based on a True Story )by Linda Sue Park

 A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about two eleven-year-olds in Sudan, a girl in 2008 and a boy in 1985. The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay. Enduring every hardship from loneliness to attack by armed rebels to contact with killer lions and crocodiles, Salva is a survivor, and his story goes on to intersect with Nya’s in an astonishing and moving way.

9781600606571Poems to Dream Together/Poemas Para So by Francisco X. Alarcon, illus. Paula Barragan

A young boy dreams that “all humans / and all living / beings / come together / as one big family / of the Earth.” As we travel through the boy’s colorful universe, we learn about his family and community working together and caring for each other and the world in which they live. Neighbors help repair adobe homes. The boy and his family share old photographs, tend their garden, and pamper Mama who “works day and night.” Tribute is paid to those who toil in the fields, and to Cesar Chavez. Most of all, we see how dreams can take many forms, from the fantastic imaginary ones that occur while we sleep to the realistic ones that guide our lives and give us inspiration for the endless possibilities of the future.

9780805089967Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts about Peace by Anna Grossnickle Hines

Illustrated with handmade quilts, these poems explore various notions of peace. Some, written from a child’s point of view, explore themes of fighting with a sibling and bullying on the playground. Other poems, using personification, are narrated by a house in turmoil and peace itself. The collection compels the reader to act with compassion, respect, and hope. Back matter highlights famous peacemakers such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Jimmy Carter, as well as a few lesser-known advocates.

9780525477341Paths to Peace: People Who Changed the World by Jane Breskin Zalben

Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nobel Prize winner, Dr.Wangari Maathai, are some of the people Zalbren chose to represent different eras and parts of the globe. Many started down their path to peace during childhood, and all challenge us to think about improving the lives of others. Also included are art notes, a glossary, a bibliography, further reading, and an index, making it an excellent resource for teachers and students.

What are your favorite books that promote peace?

Dorian Cirrone is the co-regional advisor for the Florida Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She has written several books for children and teens. Her most recent middle-grade novel, The First Last Day (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin), is available wherever books are sold. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at: http://doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/

Kerry O’Malley Cerra Interview and Giveaway

Kerry Offiicial Author Photo copyI’m thrilled to welcome Kerry O’Malley Cerra to the Mixed-Up Files blog. Kerry is a former high school history teacher who often enhanced textbooks with historical fiction to bring time periods to life. Just a Drop of Water, her first middle grade novel, was inspired by a deeply personal experience following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In this gripping and intensely touching novel, Kerry brings the events of September 11 into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event. You can visit Kerry on her website and on Twitter and check out the amazing  Just a Drop of Water trailer below.

I’m so glad you’re visiting the Mixed-Up Files today, Kerry! I’d love for you to share with our readers what inspired you to write Just a Drop of Water and why it’s set in Florida.

My very short answer, in regards to inspiration, is simply to promote peace. I have no doubt that it begins with children. If you’d like a longer answer, jump over to this blog post I did with Darlene Beck-Jacobson. There are a couple of reasons why I chose Florida as the setting. First, one of the terrorists lived in our small-ish town, so our city quickly became an FBI hot-spot and, as you can imagine, it was pretty freaky. We also lost six residents in the attacks that day. While many people associate 9/11 with New York and sometimes Pennsylvania and D.C., I want kids to know that the events of that day extended far and wide. It was a national tragedy, not just a New York tragedy. I don’t know anyone who was old enough to remember that day that wasn’t affected deeply. I want readers to know that.

How did you come up with the title, Just a Drop of Water?

My book, from the time I began dabbling with the idea for it in 2008 until the very last draft before submission in 2013, was titled September 13. I really loved that title and I still do. But, a good editor friend of mine brought up a great point when we were discussing it. While she understood my reasoning (even though most Americans’ lives changed on September 11, 2001, Jake is just a kid and doesn’t get to see the world for what it really is until September 13, 2001 when his whole world is turned upside down; the day he is forced to grow up and will never be a kid again) she felt the title took away from those who lost loved ones in the attack on September 11. When she put it like that, I knew I’d have to change the title. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, and that day is just too difficult for people already. I wasn’t married to the title enough to potentially add to that grief unnecessarily. The new title came about in my very last draft. I wasn’t planning to add that thread in. It sort of came out of nowhere. I was consciously looking for a line from the book that I could possibly use to name the book while I worked through my final revision but, for some reason, the words of that song (sorry, I’m being vague to avoid spoilers!) kept popping up in my head every time I came across a scene that included the grandmother. So, not only did it happen just before I got an agent and sold the book, it pretty much came from my subconscious. But, I do love it. It just works.

I love it, too! And I love how much the tension builds as your story moves closer to September 11. How did you decide to start your novel on September 7th?

I really, REALLY love this question, Mindy. Thanks for asking it. This novel had so many different beginnings that I really can’t even keep track. As a writer, we always hear that we should start with a bang. Jump right in so kids will be hooked. But, my super-talented writer friend Gaby Triana made a great point at a workshop we did one day. I already knew that starting on Sept. 10 wasn’t working. She pointed out that readers wouldn’t have enough time to see the strength of Jake and Sam’s friendship prior to September 11—so when their friendship went south, the readers wouldn’t really care. She was dead on. From there, I knew I needed to back it up some, but it took a few more drafts to really find the right spot. Readers now experience the normalcy of the days before 9/11 and the friendship of two everyday kids. I hope that when their friendship turns rocky, that readers are invested in the boys enough to ache for both characters and hope that the boys find their way back to each other. One of my favorite, yet potentially viewed as unimportant, scenes is when the Madina family comes over to Jake’s house to have dinner with the Greens for Jake’s birthday. This not only happens prior to 9/11, it happens in the very first chapter of the book. To me, inviting someone to your dinner table is an almost sacred act. It shows trust and friendship. My editor initially wanted me to cut this because it doesn’t necessarily move the story forward. She might be right about that, but it’s a scene I couldn’t part with. When Jake’s mom goes into her tailspin and refuses to let Jake hang out with Sam and his family, it shows readers just how much and how quickly sentiments and lives in general changed after that heartrending day.

Do you have any activities that tie Just a Drop of Water into school curriculum?

Oh, I love this question, too! Yes, I worked over the summer to come up with discussion questions that lend themselves to Common Core. There are currently 23 on my website under the Teacher Resources tab. Likewise, after attending the awesome SCBWI Florida workshop on Common Core this past June, my brain clicked to autopilot and I came up with some cool extension activities that teachers can use in the classroom for Just a Drop of Water. Finally, in working with some pretty awesome 5th grade teachers at Maplewood Elementary School, we created lesson plans that they have implemented as their entire 5th grade classes are reading the book. I’ll be posting them on my website soon.

I absolutely love your cover! What can you tell us about it?

I know most authors never get to speak to their illustrators, but I’m so fortunate that Katy Betz—an incredibly talented and dear friend from my SCBWI Florida chapter—was hired to do my cover. I actually thought this would mean that I could just tell Katy what I wanted and…poof, my wish would be granted. I knew she had read the manuscript and I told her exactly the scene from the book that I thought should be brought to life on the front of the book. It’s the scene when Jake is walking to school on September 13 and is seeing all the flags up and down his street for the very fist time. I was determined that that would be my cover. But, Katy worked closely with the art director at Sky Pony and I think at some point she gave them three concept sketches based on their discussions. From there, the publisher narrowed it down to one. That’s when I first got a peek at what would soon be my real cover. Because Katy is my friend, I was so nervous when the email came in. What if I hated it? What if I had to get my agent involved to try to get another cover? And, when I opened it and saw the boy’s leg and him stepping in a puddle, I was shocked that it wasn’t my street scene. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I liked it—though I knew I didn’t hate it, for sure. My boys had a bunch of friends over that day so I showed it to them. Not only did they love it, they told me all their reasons for loving it. And the more they talked, the more I let go of my boring old street scene. Within minutes, I was hooked except for one thing. I really, really wanted a flag somewhere on the front, so I sent Katy a most delicate email telling her how excited I was, but asked if she could add a flag. Within seconds she replied, telling me to look in the puddle where I’d find stars. The sketch I got was in black and white, so it was impossible to know at that point that Jake was actually stepping in a puddle that was reflecting a flag from a house. And oh my gosh, it was so brilliant. When I saw it in color several weeks later, it seriously blew me away. I love the crème colored background—it gives a timeless feel. I love that it’s Jake on the cover alone, because even though Sam is a huge part of the story, this is Jake’s coming-of-age tale. The leaves in the puddle perfectly illustrate that this takes place in the fall, and that groovy font for the title…perfection! Ironically, I always preach to my kids about not having expectations, but that’s exactly what I did. I’m so glad that Sky Pony and Katy went in a totally different direction, because my idea was so dull compared to the gorgeous artwork that is now my official cover. Love!

Mindy, thank you so much for having me on the Mixed-Up-Files blog and for your thoughtful questions. Big hugs to you!

Kerry Just a Drop of Water CoverYou’re welcome, Kerry. Thank you so much for visiting the Mixed-Up Files today—big hugs to you, too. I loved learning how Just a Drop of Water was born. And thank you for offering our readers a chance to win a signed copy of your book!

Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below, and one lucky winner will receive a signed copy of Just a Drop of Water. The winner will be announced on Thursday, September 11th. Good luck!

*You must live in the United States or Canada to enter the giveaway.
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Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.