Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Whenever I begin a new project I like to read several books in the same genre. This helps me get a feel for trends and what’s happening in the market. My current focus has been reading picture book biographies.

I have to admit that biographies are not my favorite in the picture book genre. They tend to be long, wordy and I find myself losing attention pretty quickly. But to my surprise, I discovered several biographies that broke this mold.


Title: Me…Jane

Author: Patrick McDonnell

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Book Description from publisher:

In his characteristic heartwarming style, Patrick McDonnell tells the story of the young Jane Goodall and her special childhood toy chimpanzee named Jubilee. As the young Jane observes the natural world around her with wonder, she dreams of “a life living with and helping all animals,” until one day she finds that her dream has come true.

One of the world’s most inspiring women, Dr. Jane Goodall is a renowned humanitarian, conservationist, animal activist, environmentalist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 1977 she founded the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), a global nonprofit organization that empowers people to make a difference for all living things.

With anecdotes taken directly from Jane Goodall’s autobiography, McDonnell makes this very true story accessible for the very young–and young at heart.Me-Jane-image

Book Thoughts:

Me…Jane is a lovely picture book. Jane’s  heart and passion for animals are threaded through the spare text and illustrations. This is a biography that reads like a picture book. If you are looking for an in depth description of Dr. Jane Goodall’s life, this is not the book for you. This is more of a peek through the window of her life and leads you to search out more answers.


Title: The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever

Author: H. Joseph Hopkins

Illustrator: Jill McElmurry

Publisher: Beach Lane Books

Description from the publisher: 

Katherine Olivia Sessions never thought she’d live in a place without trees. After all, Kate grew up among the towering pines and redwoods of Northern California. But after becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a degree in science, she took a job as a teacher far south in the dry desert town of San Diego. Where there were almost no trees.

Kate decided that San Diego needed trees more than anything else. So this trailblazing young woman singlehandedly started a massive movement that transformed the town into the green, garden-filled oasis it is today. Now, more than 100 years after Kate first arrived in San Diego, her gorgeous gardens and parks can be found all over the city.

Part fascinating biography, part inspirational story, this moving picture book about following your dreams, using your talents, and staying strong in the face of adversity is sure to resonate with readers young and old. tree lady 1

Book Thoughts:

Author H. Joseph Hopkins has written a beautiful picture book that dares to defy the traditional picture book biography model. All of the pertinent information is present and accounted for, but the fun refrain at the end of each paragraph helps give this book a more traditional picture book feel rather than dry biography.


Title: Thomas Jefferson: Life, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything

Author: Maira Kalman

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Book Description from publisher: 

Renowned artist Maira Kalman sheds light on the fascinating life and interests of the Renaissance man who was our third president.

Thomas Jefferson is perhaps best known for writing the Declaration of Independence—but there’s so much more to discover. This energetic man was interested in everything. He played violin, spoke seven languages and was a scientist, naturalist, botanist, mathematician and architect. He designed his magnificent home, Monticello, which is full of objects he collected from around the world. Our first foodie, he grew over fifteen kinds of peas and advocated a mostly vegetarian diet. And oh yes, as our third president, he doubled the size of the United States and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it. He also started the Library of Congress and said, “I cannot live without books.” But monumental figures can have monumental flaws, and Jefferson was no exception. Although he called slavery an “abomination,” he owned about 150 slaves.

As she did in Looking at Lincoln, Maira Kalman shares a president’s remarkable, complicated life with young readers, making history come alive with her captivating text and stunning illustrations.imgres

Book Thoughts:

This is another book that defies the definition of dry boring picture book biography. Packed full of interesting facts and fun, quirky illustrations, Ms. Kalman’s biography is anything but boring. This book is great for children interested in looking a little deeper into the subjects life.

While different in subject and execution, each of the above books have perfectly managed to take a subject that could be boring and present it in a new and interesting way. Do you have any other biographies that break the mold? I would love to hear about them?

Happy Reading,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk


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Who would write a book about weeds?

Weeds 100The other night, my SBB Sarah and I went to visit author Cindy Jenson-Elliott at a book signing for her new picture book Weeds Find a Way (Beach Lane Press, 2014). We caught Ms. Jenson-Elliott  just as she was near the end of her story and were able to listen in on the questions posed by the children in the audience. One question that stood out was:

“Why did you write a book about weeds? Why not flowers or something?”

While this question received a few chuckles from the adults in the audience. I thought that Ms. Jenson-Elliott’s subject matter was brilliant. If you search the bookshelves in a bookstore or library you will no doubt find tons of books written about flowers or animals, but I can guarantee you will not find a large number of books written about weeds.

As authors we are constantly striving to find a new subject to write about or an interesting or different way to present it. A book about the tenacity of weeds is just such a book. We are also urged to write about what we know and Ms. Jenson-Elliott has tremendous experience with the outdoors and gardening.

Weeds-Find-a-Way-InsideThe spare and lyrical text is enhanced by Carolyn Fisher’s beautiful illustrations. This lovely non-fiction book would be a great addition to any classroom library. The back matter includes a list both identifying and offering further facts about the plants pictured in the book.

If you’d like to learn more about Ms. Jenson-Elliott  or to get a curriculum guide for the book be sure to check out the author’s site.

Happy Reading,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk

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skinandbonesFrom the publisher (Albert Whitman & Company): Sixteen-year-old Jack, nicknamed “Bones,” won’t eat. His roommate in the eating disorder ward has the opposite problem and proudly goes by the nickname “Lard.” They become friends despite Bones’s initial reluctance. When Bones meets Alice, a dangerously thin dancer who loves to break the rules, he lets his guard down even more. Soon Bones is so obsessed with Alice that he’s willing to risk everything–even his recovery.

I have a personal connection with SKIN AND BONES. I met author Sherry Shahan while we were students together at VCFA. When I heard the announcement for the sale of this novel, pitched as, “ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LOVE STORY set in an eating disorder hospital in which an aspiring ballerina and a quirky nerdboy fall desperately in love only to become each other’s next deadly addiction,” I knew I had to read it!

In this realistic YA novel, Bones is worrying about making friends and falling in love – exactly like many other teen boys. Except he’s doing this within the walls of a residential treatment center for eating disorders.

This is a tough book that gets into the nitty-gritty tricks of the eating disorder trade: Faking weight checks, sneaking in laxatives, adjusting menus and food prep. It’s an exhausting feat, starving one’s self. Some of the people Bones meets are over-eaters, some are bulimic. It’s interesting how all the different groups and hierarchies are established within the treatment center.

During the course of his stay at the hospital, Bones falls in love with enigmatic Alice, a ballerina who’s been to this place before. Many times. Bones doesn’t see her struggle at first. He only sees perfection.

The thing is, eating disorders are a very real issue. All my life I’ve known people with eating disorders. Although plenty of people – most, I’d say – have some kind of issue with food, (aka bad habits); I mean actual life and health-altering disorders. And as a parent of a pretty girl who is also an athlete that has spent the majority of her life in tight-fitting lycra, I’ve been on guard a bit with regards to body image issues.

One day at work, a mom was in the middle school health office having lunch with her eighth grade son. He was a nice boy, handsome and articulate. Wiry and athletic in build, all-around fairly average. I mean average in the very best way. She was pleasant and friendly. How nice, I thought as they sat together chatting. And different. It’s the rare eighth grade boy who eats lunch with his mother at school.

Once he left to go back to class, his mother sighed and shook her head. The worry was clear on her face. She shared with me the reason for her lunch time visit. Her son had been struggling with anorexia. He was only just getting back to school. He needed supervision to ensure that he consumed enough calories.

This student’s trigger had been long distance running. After having success – and tying that success to concurrent weight loss – he’d become obsessive about his training program and started denying himself food.

It just kind of broke my heart to see this boy who looked so perfect in his lovely average sort of way and to meet his nice mother who was trying to hard to help him and know that he was fighting these demons already. 

So glad Sherry has written this book for this boy and the many others who share this struggle. Sherry is going to stop by soon in one of our author spotlights to share more about the story behind this story. Bring your stories and questions!

Sarah Tomp


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The way I like my love stories:

  • IMG_4909Messy and complicated. Real love between real characters with all kinds of flaws and mistakes and challenges.
  • Part of a bigger story. Intimate personal connections are made all the more poignant by being part of something else–whether it’s the real world or an imagined one. The love story is one layer of many.
  • Both emotional and physical. I believe in the soul connection, the deep inside you complete me kind of love; but I also like the reminder that we are physical beings. I don’t need a lot of nitty gritty details, but the reminder that there is a physical component to love.

Some of my favorites on this particular Valentines Day~in no particular order:


Sarah Tomp


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Hooray for all the ALA Award Winners!

I have mixed feelings about awards. On the one hand, I love to see authors rewarded for their hard work and courage – and it’s so nice to see a favorite book all dressed up with a new shiny sticker. And yet, my oh so non-competitive self (the one that is a mystery to my children) feels wistful for the other awesome and worthy books that remain sticker-free. 

But I love having books pointed out to me that I might have missed. 

booksAllIEverWantedCoverThis year, somewhere along the way, I discovered ALL I EVER WANTED by Vikki Wakefield. It was in light of her newer book, FRIDAY NEVER LEAVING being considered as a Printz possibility (which I still need to read)… but me oh my, this realistic YA novel from an Australian author was the exact book I needed to read right now. 

Book Love!

I love the voice, the language, the way Mim is surprised and changed – the reminder that other people may not be what we think. And there’s a helluva plot, too. I never would have found it if it wasn’t for the award discussion.

I can’t wait to read Friday’s story too. 

Sarah Tomp


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I am meeting a friend today to chat about books. It’s nothing formal, we just realized we’d read several of the the same books and decided to share and compare. And to see if she can convince me I am wrong about one of them. (Ha! I will be convincing her, of course.)

But more and more, I realize how subjective reading is. Even for myself. The when I read a book can make a difference. Right now I am re-reading an old favorite…and I don’t love it the way I used to. Something has changed. It’s not the book, obviously.

This is something I think is particularly tricky when it comes to reading books for children–as adults. We can imagine what our child-self would have thought or felt, but do we have it right? And does it even matter? 

As a recent participant in the First Annual San Diego Mock Newbery Discussion hosted by Jonathan Hunt, I was struck by the subjectivity of reading–and discussing–books. I found my opinion shifting simply by talking about each of the brilliant books we’d read. And the discussion in Oakland hosted by his blog partner, Nina Lindsay, had completely different results when voting on the exact same books.

During the proceeding School Library Journal Heavy Medal Blog discussion, Jonathan posted this idea: “We often think of ourselves as perfect readers and the books as flawed, but what if it’s the other way around? The books are perfect and we are flawed.”

Interesting to ponder!

Sarah Tomp


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13 Books From 2013

Happy last day of 2013!

This has been a whirlwind of a year for me – but a really great year, writing-wise! When I think about where I was last January and where I am now, I am once again amazed and grateful. 

And now, for 13 books from 2013! These are books that have touched me deeply somehow and have stayed with me. (Not all were published this year.) I jotted down the list off the top of my head, and then double-checked my goodreads* list and yep, these are the 13 that rise to the top of my brain. I’m including links to posts for the books I’ve previously mulled on here. [PB=Picture Book, MG=Middle Grade, YA=Young Adult]

In no particular order:

  1. THE MIDNIGHT DRESS by Karen Foxlee (YA)
  2. CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn (YA)
  3. COUNTING BY 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (MG)
  4. 17 & GONE by Nova Ren Suma (YA)
  7. WILD AWAKE by Hilary T. Smith (YA)
  8. SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY by Karen Harrington (MG)
  9. THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp (YA)
  10. IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE by Julie Fogliano (PB)
  11. ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell (YA)
  13. THE WEIGHT OF A HUMAN HEART by Ryan O’Neill ~ an inventive short story collection written for adults. **If you’d like to have your heart broken in less than 900 words, read this story by the same author. ** 

Looking forward to getting back to blogging in 2014!

*Regarding goodreads, my novel MY BEST EVERYTHING has been updated there – feel free to add it to your “want to read” list! 


Sarah Tomp


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The short thought: Oh my goodness, love, love, love. 

And now, the long:

Even though I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book’s release, and even though I had it sitting on my to-read pile, and even though I’d heard gushing things about COUNTING BY 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan…it sat, unopened. 

I didn’t want to not-love it. I’ve been doing a lot of not-loving in my reading lately. But then my good smart friend, Tam, mentioned how much she loved it. 

I am feeling so so thankful for Tam. For lots of reasons, but at this particular booky moment, for nudging me to read the exact book I needed.

7sFrom goodreads: Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now.
Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read. 

There are so many reasons to love this book. I think it’s the kind of book that will touch people in different ways. For me, there is a very personal reason why this book touched my heart. My father was killed in a car accident. Loss is always hard. But when it happens without any kind of warning, it shakes everything. There is no preparation, no plan in place.

It happened a long time ago, and yet, sometimes, particularly in October, it feels not so long ago at all. And this October, on the anniversary of his death, my lovely amazing daughter turned 19 – the age I was when he died. So. I cried while reading this one. A lot. But I needed to, and this book helped me realize that. And, a little bit like what happens to Willow, some surprising things – some good, but confusing things – got wrapped up in that time. Loss or not, life goes on. Grief can get mixed up in goodness, too. And anniversary dates can get new meanings. 

But this also means I need some help articulating what else I loved about this book. 

Tam and I exchanged a few emails about it once I was done reading – and then Sharry chimed in too. I’ve decided to post our thoughts below–our comments may be raw and rough, but they are also honest and true. 

ME:  Love is such an elusive thing, ain’t it?  I think it’s because all the characters are so imperfectly perfect. Just doing the best they can. There’s so much good being done in small simple ways that turned out to be bigger than they should have been. And serendipity always makes my heart thrum, even when it’s orchestrated. Most of all, I think it’s because it made me cry when I needed to, but didn’t have a reason. I do love getting in other peoples’ heads.

TAM: Yes!  They were so imperfectly perfect.  And yes they were all trying to do good in their own small ways. They were also all so big hearted.  Even if they didn’t quite know it.  I think I love that.  Watching a heart reveal itself.  It all felt so raw to me.  Like watching a running race.  Bodies moving, hearts pumping, breath moving in and out.  Willow and everyone around her were so raw and alive.  Serendipity makes my heart thrum too…  I can never get enough.  How we are all connected. How we inevitably, unintentionally affect one another.

 ME: And the white space too. That there’s room to figure out what each person is thinking – it’s not spelled out. In fact, I’m sure we filled the gaps in slightly differently. But that’s the magic. We read the same book, but a different one too. 

TAM: Yeah!  The white space!  I LOVED that about Counting By 7s. White space combined with heartful characters really works magic, I think.  You are drawn in by their hearts and then once you are in, you are given space to let yourself feel and imagine and hope and create….  Kind of spectacular.

SHARRY: I loved Willow–all of her quirks and lovely oddness around her brilliance. I loved the cast of outsiders and how they came together–how their own outsiderness made them empathetic and responsive to what Willow needed. I loved watching especially Dell and Quang-ha blossom and reveal themselves. I loved the way Holly showed and handled Willow’s grief. I cried through half the book and laughed through the other half. 

Yep. Go read it. Get connected. (Yes, I am being bossy.)

Sarah Tomp


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whaleThis must be the week of whales.

Last Saturday I had a the privilege of co-leading a workshop on writing picture books with the oh-so-brilliant Andrea Zimmerman. 

Before our workshop I stopped by the fabulous independent bookstore, The Yellow Book Road, and ended up bringing home a new favorite picture book.

IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE is written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin Stead – two creators who, according to the book jacket, worked together in a NY City bookstore at one point. (They also are the co-creators of the picture book AND THEN ITS SPRING.)

I love that two friends worked together on this book. And I love this book.

My love for it is on a very gut level. It’s an I know it when I see it kind of love.

But because Andrea has taught me so much about figuring out the why of PB love, I’m going to break it down to identify specifically awesome elements of this book – and ones that I think are common to many successful picture books.

  1. It’s INTERACTIVE. This story begs to be read aloud, As you can tell by the title, it’s talking to the reader. It invites us to be an active part of the story. It’s meant to be experienced together. Adult and child, all full of wonder and curiosity.
  2. The LANGUAGE is lilting and rhythmic. Spare in spots, not in others. The words and the illustrations match in tone and share the weight of the story – each one adds to the other.
  3. There is a narrow FOCUS. There is a lovely and simple clarity of action. It’s not too busy and trying to do too much. We are zoomed in to one idea, one moment.
  4. It has a CHILD-LIKE perspective.
  5. There is PASSION and INTENSITY. Not a frantic wildness, because it’s not that kind of book. But, if you want to see a whale, you need to really want to see a whale.
  6. The THEME(s) are layered and complex. Sometimes when I read this story it makes me feel hopeful and joyous. Other times it seems more melancholy. Either way, it makes me want to pay attention, to not let my life and goals slip away.
  7. The ENDING is surprising and inevitable and satisfying. All wrapped up with hope and joy.


It is better to be outside a whale than in one.

Sarah Tomp


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the-mythic-guide-to-characters-coverTitle: The Mythic Guide to Characters

Author: Dr. Antonio Del Drago

Publisher: Mythic Scribes 2013

Review Source: Review copy provided by author

Book Description: 

How do you create characters who are so compelling that they hook readers from the start?

As a professor, writer, and philosopher, Dr. Antonio del Drago has immersed himself in the literary and mythological traditions of the world. His search for answers led him to uncover the common elements behind all great myths and stories.

Applying this knowledge to the writing of characters, he has developed a layered approach to character creation.

In this guide, you will discover:

  • The secret to writing multidimensional characters
  • How to develop your character’s unconscious motivations
  • Four ways in which characters interact with their worlds
  • Five formative relationships that shape your character
  • Nine mythic archetypes and how to use them
  • The difference between proactive and reactive protagonists
  • Ways to define a character through dialogue and physicality

The guide also includes a detailed worksheet that walks you through the stages of character development.

This is more than a book on how to write characters. This guide offers a practical, step-by-step approach to character creation that is sure to take your writing to the next level.

Book Thoughts:

When I was approached by Dr. Del Drago to review this book, I was unsure of what I would find. But I decided to give it a chance and I am glad that I did. The Mythic Guide to Characters is a well thought out and interesting book. Using simple every day language, Del Drago introduces theory and process, as well as the various types of characters useful examples and explanations.


Here are some of the things I found helpful:

  • Real world examples are taken from work that most people are familiar with, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter Series,  Jurassic Park and The Godfather.
  • The theories explained in this book can be used by beginners as well as experienced authors.
  • While written with a fantasy writer in mind, The Mythic Guide to Characters can be used to help other authors develop well-rounded and interesting characters.
  • The handy character sheet at the end of the book helps you apply all of the principles learned throughout the book.

Please note this is not a step by step guide but is more of a theory book that can be especially helpful for newer authors.

Happy Writing,

Suzanne Santillan

Writing on the Sidewalk


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