The Joy of Reading Alongside Your Child

Yesterday I read an article about kids starting to drop off reading around age 8 due to an increase in electronics use. It made me incredibly sad, in large part because my son recently turned 8 (or 2, depending on how you count those Leap Day birthdays:) ), and the world of reading has truly opened up to him in the past few months. Now, we’re pretty strict about electronics anyway. We only let him play on the iPad twenty minutes a day, and he has to earn it. Sometimes he can earn up to an extra ten minutes, but I digress.

My kids’ school currently is holding a read-a-thon, so both of my kids are reading like crazy, and I love it. (The school is using a program called Whooo’s Reading, which I highly recommend!) Anyway, a couple of months ago I started reading STORY THIEVES by James Riley aloud to both kids. We were probably six or seven chapters from the end when the read-a-thon started and paused reading aloud so they could focus on their own books. Over the weekend, my 8-year-old decided to finish it himself as part of the read-a-thon. As soon as he did, we had the following conversation:

8-year-old: Mom, I have to read the next book right away.

Me: Ok, I’ll see if the library has the e-book.

8-year-old: Yes, do it! I have to know what happens next!

Thankfully, the library had the book available. He started reading the next morning, and a couple of hours later this happened.

8-year-old: Mom, I have to tell you what’s happening in the book.

Me: But I haven’t read it yet!

8-year-old: But I need to, Mom!

Me: Fine. Go ahead.

So I let him spoil a little of the book for me, but honestly, I didn’t mind too much. I was thrilled that he was enjoying the book so much he had to talk about it. And obviously I started reading the book myself so that I can stay ahead of him and avoid any further spoilers:). Now we are having daily conversations as we compare notes on where we are in the book. Perhaps when he finishes I’ll let him write the review–or we can write it together the way we’ve been reading together.

It’s a unique kind of joy to have a mini book club with my son. I look forward to sharing this same experience with my daughter in the future. (I’m back to reading STORY THIEVES to her so she can see how it ends as she’s still a couple of years away from reading it on her own.) My mom and I have been swapping books for years, so it’s sort of a family tradition.

I’m so glad I read middle grade and get to experience this with my kids. What about you? What books do you enjoy reading together?

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YA Review: THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US by Kasie West

Wow, I can’t believe it’s been more than a month since I’ve written a review. But then, I read a few adult books in the past month, and I don’t review those on the blog, so we’ll use that as part of my excuse. Moving on …

After starting a book I really wanted to like and just couldn’t get into, I decided to pull a book out of my Scholastic Warehouse Sale box that I was sure to like because I’ve loved every other book by this author. So today I’m reviewing THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US by Kasie West.

The Distance Between Us by Kasie WestMoney can’t buy a good first impression.

Seventeen-year-old Caymen Meyers learned early that the rich are not to be trusted. And after years of studying them from behind the cash register of her mom’s porcelain-doll shop, she has seen nothing to prove otherwise. Enter Xander Spence: he’s tall, handsome, and oozing rich. Despite his charm and the fact that he’s one of the first people who actually gets her, Caymen’s smart enough to know his interest won’t last. But just when Xander’s attention and loyalty are about to convince Caymen that being rich isn’t a character flaw, she finds out that money is a much bigger part of their relationship than she’d ever realized. With so many obstacles standing in their way, can she close the distance between them?

Here are the five things I loved most about this book:

1. The humor – I’m partial to sarcastic humor, so the main character in this novel is a perfect fit for me. I was chuckling through the whole thing. Here’s a short snippet when Xander has just asked her what kind of doll to buy for his grandmother.

“I’m partial to the eternal wailers.”

“Excuse me?”

I point to the porcelain version of a baby, his mouth open in a silent cry, his eyes squeezed shut. “I’d rather not see their eyes. Eyes can say so much. Theirs say, ‘I want to steal your soul so don’t turn your back on us.'”

2. The romance – I love the tension in this romance. It was a great mix of internal struggle with Caymen’s built-in rich boy issues and run-ins that kept making each of them second-guess how interested/involved the other person was. I believed neither would be ready to fully commit until the end.

3. The twist – There was a side plot running throughout the story with Caymen’s mom, and I had an inkling of what it was, but even though I figured out part of it, there was still a surprise twist that got me. So well done, Ms. West!

4. The hunt for the future – I wasn’t quite sure how to title this point, but I think a lot of teenagers believe they must have everything figured out by their senior year, and you don’t always know when you head off to college what you want to do with the rest of your life. I liked that these characters were still trying to figure it out.

5. Caymen’s growth – This book says it’s Pride and Prejudice meets Pretty in Pink, and I can see that. Caymen definitely had to get over both her pride and her prejudice in order to be with Xander. Considering where she started out, I wasn’t sure she would!

Well, this was the last book of Kasie West’s I hadn’t yet read. Fortunately she has another one coming out this summer, so I won’t have to wait long for another.

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Quick Tip: Listen to Your Manuscript WITHOUT Reading Along

I’ve read my manuscripts out loud to myself before and expounded on the benefits of it. After a commenter on my last post about it suggested I have my computer read it to me instead of doing it myself, I even tried that. It’s amazing how listening to the robotic text-to-speech program on my Mac highlights turns of phrases you’d think it would miss. So thanks for the tip!

Whenever I’ve done this before, I’ve always read along while listening. This time, I set the computer to read and averted my eyes from the screen. I have to admit, it was a unique form of torture for me. I can’t listen to talk radio without getting sleepy, so I had to keep that in mind when my own words–which I was listening to for the express purpose of ascertaining whether they’re ready for agents–made my eyes droopy. I tried all manner of drinks (ice water, coffee, soda), sugar (candy, Girl Scout cookies), and other snacks. I twirled in my chair; stared at my imitation Renoir dancer, pictures of my kids, or out the window; and generally drove myself batty to stay awake.

What’s my point with all of this? I needed to hear the words without seeing them. I absolutely caught nuances I wouldn’t have if I’d been reading along because it’s too easy to breeze past them with my eyes. I’ve been over them so many times they’re burned in my brain. I’m pretty sure listening triggers something different than seeing. Of course, I could be completely crazy on that:). Anyway, just a quick tip to consider when you’re revising.

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5 Signs You Should (or Shouldn’t) Be Tweeting Tomorrow

Last fall I wrote a popular post featuring two contests that were happening on the same day–On the Block and #PitMad–and I’ve revived it the last couple of times #PitMad popped up, but I decided it was worth updating the post to only cover #PitMad, so here goes.

In case you’re new to the Twitter pitching circuit, #PitMad is a twelve-hour pitch session that happens four times a year, dreamed up by contest queen Brenda Drake. I’ve participated in the past and received requests. It’s a great opportunity to discover agents who are interested in your premise–since that’s all you have room for in 140 characters:). On the eve of this opportunity, here a few words of both encouragement and caution.

5 Signs You Should Be Tweeting Tomorrow

  1. You have three solid tweets–or one amazing tweet–prepared. I’m not just talking something you’ve come up with off the top of your head. I mean you’ve run these tweets by people who’ve read your manuscript and people who haven’t to ensure they make sense and will draw interest. You are only allowed to tweet three times. It can be the same tweet, although if you’re only using one, it had better be so spectacular it’s worth not trying out two other variations. Because you never know how a different wording might strike one agent’s fancy and not another’s.
  2. Your opening pages are solid. Rarely does an agent ask for a full from PitMad. It’s likely that if an agent or editor likes your tweet, they’ll be asking for sample pages first, and as with any querying experience, that first impression is all-important.
  3. You have all of the necessary querying materials prepared. As with the opening pages, agents could ask for a synopsis or even a bio, so make sure you’re ready.
  4. You are 100 percent confident in your manuscript RIGHT NOW. If an agent likes your tweet tomorrow, they expect you to send your manuscript right away. It’s not an “I’m interested in seeing it whenever you have it ready” kind of thing.
  5. Your readers/other writers have told you it’s ready. Chances are you’ll never think it’s ready on your own, but if other people are telling you it’s the best thing you’ve written and agents are going to jump on it, that’s the best recommendation you can have to start testing the query waters. Might as well start with PitMad!

5 Signs You Should NOT Be Tweeting Tomorrow

  1. You are still waiting on feedback from someone. If you still have your manuscript out with a beta reader or critique partner, WAIT FOR IT. I know this is hard, guys. Believe me. There’s this fantastic opportunity to get in front of agents and it won’t happen again for months and … I’m going to stop you right there. Never rush sending out your manuscript. Getting a complete picture of what it needs is more important than a pitch contest, no matter how exciting it is to dive in.
  2. You don’t have a strategy for your manuscript. Do you want an editor? An agent? What kind of agent? PitMad is open to all kinds of industry professionals, so you should know what you’re looking for before you participate. You don’t have to respond to every like you receive, particularly if you think a publisher or agent may be sketchy. I recommend knowing what you want before you participate, but if you decide to test the waters anyway just to see who’s interested, make sure you research them all before you submit anywhere.
  3. You just want to see if agents or editors are interested in your concept. Just … no. If they ask you for more and what you send them is not query-ready, you’ve just wasted a first impression. You can’t go back to them later and say, “But I fixed it now!” You also can’t say, “It’s not ready yet but I’ll send it to you when it is.” By the time you have it ready, they might not be interested anymore. So much of this industry is catching the right person at the right time.
  4. It’s the best opportunity ever. I get how much of a thrill it is to have your pitch liked by tons of agents–or even just one. I think every contest or pitch opportunity that’s coming up seems like the most important, best ever–whether that’s Pitch Madness, Query Kombat, PitMad or the other Twitter pitch fests out there–but not if you’re rushing things to submit. I can’t stress that enough! Make sure it’s ready. Agents will assume it is if you put it out there.
  5. Everyone else is doing it. I can understand this temptation tomorrow, when you see everyone else tweeting pitches. It would be so easy to dash off a tweet, just to see … but don’t do it unless you’re ready. Like your parents always said, if everyone else was jumping off a cliff, would you do it? Don’t be a lemming!

Best of luck to everyone pitching during PitMad tomorrow. And if you decide to hold off, remember that many, many writers have found their agents the old-fashioned way through the slush pile. Since I’m not in a position to pitch tomorrow, that’s the route I’ll be taking!

Posted in Contests, Pitching, Querying, Twitter, Writing | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice

As I have my manuscript out with another reader, it occurred to me that in addition to not doing a voice check since an earlier round of edits, I also hadn’t done a check for repeated words. Although my reader may give me some line edits–she doesn’t have to :)–that’s not the main focus at this point, so I decided to do a final check for overly repeated words.

The funny thing is, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve managed to weed out some of words I used to have issues with–something, one–but I still overuse common words like think and know. Who doesn’t, right? Ooh, there’s another common word–right! Often taking a careful look at the use of any of these words will cause me to realize that another word would be stronger or perhaps I need to rephrase the sentence entirely. And in other cases I decide that it should stay exactly as it is. Sometimes you don’t need to fix what already works!

Anyway, I wrote last year about how crutch words affect voice, but I think it bears repeating since I just did a voice check and I’m now going through it again. So here are some common words and some things to think about–ooh, or consider!–before you swap those words out for a synonym. Since I’ve already gone there, I’ll start with think:).

Think

  • As I was reading, I discovered one of my MCs frequently says “You’d think I had … ” and proceeds to give some type of metaphor. I didn’t even realize this was part of her voice until I did this search. Obviously I couldn’t swap that out! A lesson in when not to eliminate a repeated word.
  • On the other hand, there were several instances of dialogue where an adult was speaking to one of the MCs, and based on the tone of the conversation, they would be likely to use a word like ponder, assume, believe, consider, contemplate–or even a phrase such as be under the impression.
  • Sometimes it’s stronger for the character to imagine, expect, suspect, anticipate, or consider than to think. It all depends on the context. Sometimes they should just think.

Even

  • Um, this word is now in my second sentence, but I’m not even removing it. I think even is a particularly good voice check word as it’s a word that adds emphasis. Do you need that emphasis? When I went back through, I discovered that often it was unnecessary, or the sentence could be restructured. However, when not abused, it can have impact in a character’s voice.

Know

  • Know is especially hard to get around from a voice standpoint, particularly if you’re writing young adult. There’s no easy swap for I know. You might be able to use I get it a few times or I understand, but your choices after that become I’m aware, I’ve been informed, I realize, I sense, etc. There might be a few instances where you can get away with these in a teen voice, but mostly they’ll come off as phony, so you either have to write out the knowing altogether or leave it and ignore the repetition. On the bright side, if it’s within adult dialogue, the adult could be aware or informed.
  • Then there’s the other form of I know–the people I’m acquainted with, the people I’m friends with, the people I’ve met. Yeah, those are all better for voice than just saying the people I know [sarcasm].
  • If you’re using I know as in I’m positive or I’m sure, well, there are a couple of options to substitute.
  • I don’t know could be I’m not sure, but keep in mind these aren’t exactly the same. The first statement is more definite.
  • Do you know could be Have you heard.
  • Do your characters say, You know? Mine do. And a lot of the time, I left it–because that’s how they would talk.

Like

  • I don’t just like, I love my similes and metaphors, so there are quite a few likes scattered through my manuscript. Sometimes they can be exchanged for as if or as though, but it depends on who is speaking and also how the sentence is worded. It’s both a voice call and a structural issue. You can’t just swap out like for as if or as though and call it a day. You’re often better off leaving it or, if there are two likes close together, rephrasing one of the sentences entirely.
  • On the other hand, if you have a rather formal adult–or pretentious child or teenager–you might want to slip in something even more formal than as if or as though. Perhaps an in the manner of, similar to, such as, for instance, characteristic of, etc.?
  • Don’t eliminate voice phrases. One of my MCs says It’s not like quite a bit, but since it’s part of her voice, I didn’t change it. However, when I noticed someone else saying it, I made a change so it would stay unique to her.

Get

  • Get away with, I get it, get out of–these are all phrases that come up frequently in my manuscript. The tricky part is that often these are already voice substitutes for other common phrases like I know (I get it). However, that doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be rephrased to something else. As with the previous words, be wary of switching out a more sophisticated phrase if it won’t fit the voice. Evade, abscond, or avoid might work in place of get out of–but they might not.
  • It might be fine for certain characters to obtain, acquire, land, procure, grab or score an item instead of get it. Just make sure whatever verb you use as a replacement is a good voice fit.

This post is getting–oops!–long, so I’ll stop there for today. I might continue with some more next week.

Keep in mind: just because the words are repeated doesn’t mean they have to go. Yes, if they’re repeated in close proximity, you should probably take a look and see if you can make a change. And even the act of going through and examining those common words will help you see where some words could be stronger, but sometimes–particularly if you’re on a later draft–the words you already have are what should be there. Don’t feel like you have to change all of your words or get fancy with a synonym to avoid too many occurrences in the manuscript. If it fits with your MC’s voice, keep it. Just be aware of the words you’re using.

What other tricky words do you hold on to/change for voice?

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MMGM: THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH’S by Lee Gjertson Malone

I’m back with another MMGM! I have to say the cover of this one caught my attention when it kept popping up in my Twitter feed, so I clicked on it to read the description, and then I had to get my hands on the actual book. I’m so glad I did.

The Last Boy at St. Edith's by Lee Gjertson MaloneSeventh grader Jeremy Miner has a girl problem. Or, more accurately, a girls problem. Four hundred and seventy-five of them. That’s how many girls attend his school, St. Edith’s Academy.

Jeremy is the only boy left after the school’s brief experiment in coeducation. And he needs to get out. His mom won’t let him transfer, so Jeremy takes matters into his own hands: He’s going to get expelled.

Together with his best friend, Claudia, Jeremy unleashes a series of hilarious pranks in hopes that he’ll get kicked out with minimum damage to his permanent record. But when his stunts start to backfire, Jeremy has to decide whom he’s willing to knock down on his way out the door.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The friendships – Really, you could say the theme of this book is friendship and figuring out what it means to Jeremy. He has two girl best friends, one of whom he takes for granted, and even when he meets another boy, he doesn’t really get that they’re friends. Jeremy learns how to navigate those friendships during the course of the story.

2. The crush – The description of Jeremy’s crush and how he can’t even explain why this girl is different from the hundreds of other girls who surround him is so spot on. The moment he met her was one of my favorites in the book, and watching him stumble through his interactions with her was just priceless.

3. The pranks – I also loved not so much the pranks themselves but Jeremy’s yo-yoing emotions as he and Claudia performed them. At heart, he’s a good kid and doesn’t want to get in trouble, even when he thinks he needs to in order to achieve his goal of getting kicked out of St. Edith’s. But the prank where they get post-its and … well, I won’t spoil it:).

4. Jeremy’s character arc – So the prank discussion leads to Jeremy’s growth. I loved how experiencing the pranks led him to figure out what was really important to him in a number of areas. Did he really want to get kicked out? What was more important, getting credit or staying safe? He had to answer these questions and more and come out stronger.

5. The stakes – I have to say the stakes surprised me several times. I thought the pranks wouldn’t be a big deal and then–bam!–things were much worse than anticipated. Well done, Ms. Malone, on raising the stakes! I wasn’t sure how things would turn out in the end.

Overall, I thought this was a fast-paced and enjoyable read. I highly recommend it!

Posted in Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Quick Tip: After A Major Revision, Do a POV Voice Check

When you’re writing multiple points of view, it’s important that those voices stay distinct. I’ve recommended before that you revise each POV individually early on in the process to ensure the characters have their own arc and voice (Revising One Character at a Time, 3 Tips for Revising One Character at a Time). It must have worked with the manuscript I was working on at the time because readers listed the distinct voices as a strength.

However, as I received later feedback and made additional changes to the manuscript, I skipped this process. When a new reader went through the manuscript recently, I received the comment that the two POVs sounded too similar. Even though I’d dealt with the character arc early on, I still needed to monitor the voice. Oops! I’d forgotten my own advice.

So, that’s my quick tip for the day. If you are writing in multiple points of view, don’t forget to do another voice check after a major revision, particularly if you’re alternating POVs. It’s so easy for the voices to start blending together again if you’re revising linearly. Once I separated the two characters out, the words and phrases that didn’t fit for each voice jumped out at me pretty quickly. Thankfully I had a good reader who pointed it out to me:).

Do you have any other tricks for nailing individual voices? I also read aloud multiple times.

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YA Review: UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee

Sometimes I have a book on to-be-read list that I keep saying, “I’ll read that soon.” UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee had been that book for months and months. Finally a friend of mine listed it among her favorite reads for 2015 and I made it a priority. Of course then I kicked myself for not reading it sooner:). I could not put this one down, folks. Here’s the gorgeous cover and description.

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey LeeMissouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – Girls disguised as boys! I mean, you know I wrote one of those, right? I never get tired of this premise, and there are so many ways to do it well. For Samantha and Annamae, the disguises are necessary for their own safety. Do they work? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out!

2. The writing – I love the way Ms. Lee weaves music into Sammy’s thoughts. It’s so gorgeous. Sammy often speaks to her father, who–small spoiler!–dies in the opening pages. Here’s an example.

“Father, you told me music is a world that measures virtue by grace notes, and truth by the vibration of pitch against your soul. Will I ever find my way back there? Or is that world gone forever, now that you are no longer part of it?”

3. The friendship – It’s clear in the beginning Sammy hasn’t had many opportunities for friendship. Although her Chinese heritage doesn’t brand her a complete outcast from society like Annamae as a slave, she is a curiosity and an outsider. The bond these two girls forge is beautiful.

4. The romance – Although the romance isn’t as much of a focus as the friendship, it’s still a major part of the story. And of course, when the girl is disguised as a boy, that complicates things. I like the way Ms. Lee handles it, with the question being as much, “Does he suspect the truth?” as “Is he upset he might have feelings for a boy?”

5. The hope – Despite a lot of ugly things that happened to Sammy and Annamae during the story, I felt hopeful at the end. In large part this hope originated with the three cowboys they traveled with, but also with other people they met along the way who demonstrated there was a better future in store for the country. Everything wasn’t resolved perfectly–there were a few questions I would have liked answered–but I was hopeful.

I highly recommend this book. I think perhaps I didn’t pick it up for a while because of the Western setting, but that was a mistake. It’s a fast-paced read with a well-drawn friendship and tension-filled romance. So worth moving to the top of your reading pile!

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Check Out My Interview at Caffeinated Fiction!

Happy Thursday, everyone!

Last year I connected with author Laura L. Zimmerman after she visited my blog and we started up a dialogue via email. I love how blogging has expanded my writing community! A few weeks ago, Laura asked if she could interview me for her blog, and the post is live today. So, head over to Caffeinated Fiction to read about the first stories I ever wrote, my favorite book of all time, and a few other fun tidbits.

Thanks again, Laura, for having me!

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MMGM: STORY THIEVES by James Riley

Hi there, MMGM readers! I know it’s been forever since I did a middle grade review. It should be no surprise that a James Riley book would bring me back into the fold, considering how much I love the HALF UPON A TIME series. I’ve been meaning to read STORY THIEVES for a while, and I’m thrilled it lives up to my expectations for a James Riley book. Here’s what it’s about.

Story Thieves by James RileyLife is boring when you live in the real world, instead of starring in your own book series. Owen knows that better than anyone, what with the real world’s homework and chores. 

But everything changes the day Owen sees the impossible happen—his classmate Bethany climb out of a book in the library. It turns out Bethany’s half-fictional and has been searching every book she can find for her missing father, a fictional character.

Bethany can’t let anyone else learn her secret, so Owen makes her a deal: All she has to do is take him into a book in Owen’s favorite Kiel Gnomenfoot series, and he’ll never say a word. Besides, visiting the book might help Bethany find her father…

…Or it might just destroy the Kiel Gnomenfoot series, reveal Bethany’s secret to the entire world, and force Owen to live out Kiel Gnomenfoot’s final (very final) adventure.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The cover – Normally I don’t talk about the outside of a book, but I have to with this one. I brought STORY THIEVES along with me to a couple of my kids’ activities, and people kept asking me, “What is that book? What’s it about?” So obviously the cover grabs attention and makes people want to read the book! Way to go, Vivienne To! (Yes, I just looked up the illustrator so she can have credit.)

2. The premise – Um, seriously, who doesn’t want to jump into their favorite book and hang out with the characters? I so identify with Owen. Poor Bethany, trying to rein him in and explain that mixing the real world with the fictional world is a bad idea. And it so is …

3. The stakes – That bad idea? Do you really want to become Harry Potter? Or Katniss Everdeen? Think about what they go through. No thanks. Now think about the havoc Voldemort or President Snow could cause if they got out into the real world and had the same power. Pretty terrifying.

4. Kiel Gnomenfoot – I love this character so much! I love that he delivers zingy liners whether he’s in the book or in the real world–which, ok, is still a book that I’m reading, but whatever.

5. The ending – I love where the characters are at the end and the adventures they have left to explore. I’m so ready for the next book, which is already out, by the way.

Man, I already used up my five things, but you know James Riley’s books are hilarious, right? Even the acknowledgements, where he promises to send all readers a thousand dollars in cash … but I already tried, and he says his publisher nixed it. Oh well:). Still worth the read!

Posted in Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments