Friday, October 17, 2014


There's nothing I like better than a chill October day full of swirling leaves, ominous skies, and scares aplenty. I don't know why humans love to be frightened, but I count myself among those who do. It was the same when I was a kid. In that spirit, I'm going to bring you some of my favorite scares every Friday. Today's is the classic Alvin Schwartz collection, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Title: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Author: Alvin Schwartz
Pub info: HarperCollins, 2011 (orig Scholastic 1981); 128 pages
Genre / Audience: horror anthology / ages 10+ 
Caveat to Younger Readers: Well, it's horror--there are dead people doing things dead people oughtn't. But it's nothing terribly graphic. However, read on for more info ...

Goodreads summary:
Some boys and girls were at a party one night. There was a graveyard down the street, and they were talking about how scary it was.
"Don't ever stand on a grave after dark," one of the boys said. "The person inside will grab you."
"A grave doesn't scare me," said one of the girls. "I'll do it right now. . . ."
Welcome to the macabre world of Scary Stories, where folklorist Alvin Schwartz offers up the most alarming collection of horror, dark revenge, and supernatural events of all time. Here is a selection of extraordinarily chilling tales along with spine-tingling illustrations by renowned artist Stephen Gammell.
My impressions:
These stories scared me silly when I was a kid. I must have read this collection over many times, because it's stuck with me. Recently I checked it out of the library to see if the scares still held.

Well, yes and no. The stories are genuinely creepy--though a large section of the book is dedicated to silly/funny "scary" tales--but the writing is not terrifying. The stories are told in a straightforward, unadorned style, and are quite short. Schwartz took his inspiration from urban legends and folktales from different countries. (As an adult, I was most interested in the bibliography he supplies in the back.)

But here's the kicker: The illustrations, depending on which edition you get, can be truly frightening. The original edition featured black-and-white drawings by Caldecott Medal winner Stephen Gammell, and I realize now that it was the drawings coupled with the stories that kept me up nights as a kid. Indeed, it's been theorized that the drawings are what's landed this book on the radar of banned-book enthusiasts, along with its two sequels. When HarperCollins released a 30th anniversary edition, however, Gammell's controversial artwork was gone, replaced by illustrations by Brett Helquist (A Series of Unfortunate Events). While Helquist is a talented artist, his depictions don't have the haunting, unearthly, and frankly terrifying quality of the Gammell illustrations. The Horn Book praised the new edition, calling it "handsome and accessible; now young readers have a choice of how scared they want to be—just a little, or a whole lot." Take your pick according to your comfort level, but when I was a kid, I wanted to be scared a whole lot--always. Click here to read an interesting comparison (with illustrations) between these two editions.

About Alvin (from Amazon):
Alvin Schwartz is known for a body of work of more than two dozen books of folklore for young readers that explore everything from wordplay and humor to tales and legends of all kinds. His collections of scary stories--Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Scary Stories 3, and two I Can Read Books, In a Dark, Dark Room and Ghosts!--are just part of his matchless folklore collection. Schwartz died in 1992.

About Stephen:
Stephen Gammell, who won the 1989 Caldecott Medal for Song and Dance Man (written by Karen Ackerman), also won the Caldecott Honor Medal for The Relatives Came (written by Cynthia Rylant). He lives with his wife in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Read more about Alvin Schwartz in this New York Times obituary. Click here for yet another take on Gammell's eerie artwork for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Need more scares? Every Friday in October I'll serve up a new one. Search for the tag Scare of the Week to see them all.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Scare of the Week: FRIGHT NIGHT

I don't guess my best friend (worst enemy?) could call me a horror movie aficionado. I don't like slasher flicks because they all seem so similar--some teens get together, get friendly with each other, and eventually they all end up dead. Plus, there's blood. After the first couple of deaths, the film is thumpingly predictable and it just stops being scary.

But I am a huge fan of the Scottish actor David Tennant, who has starred in BroadchurchThe Escape Artist, and yeah, as the incomparable Doctor #10 in Doctor Who. He's also a regular on the Royal Shakespeare Company stage in London.

That said, Tennant also had a delicious role in the recent remake of the film Fright Night, starring Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin. I never saw the original Fright Night, but how could I resist this film, written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Marti Noxon and featuring some very attractive Brits?

In this truly frightening flick, Anton Yelchin plays a high school student whose new next-door neighbor just happens to be a vicious vampire beast (Farrell). Yelchin turns to the only source of information he has--alcoholic onstage illusionist and vampire killer Peter Vincent (Tennant).

Fright Night is perfect for Halloween month. Here are some of Tennant's wonderful scenes:

And here's the full trailer:

Leave the lights on.

NOTE: This film is rated R for language. While teen sex is hinted at, there's no nudity or graphic displays. The gore isn't graphic, either. But the scares are real, and if four-letter words bother you, don't watch.

Need more scares? Every Friday in October I'll serve up a new one. Search for the tag Scare of the Week to see them all.

Monday, October 6, 2014

October Giveaway

It's another giveaway for More Middle-Grade Madness! For those who don't know, middle-grade is a publishing industry term that means, generally, ages 9-12 (abbreviated MG). It doesn't mean "written for middle schoolers (grades 5-8)," as many people assume. Any of the books below would be wonderful for a third grader who's a good reader and would be interesting all the way up to a 6th, 7th, or even 8th grader, depending. (Everyone seems to love Rick Riordan, so these age designations are somewhat arbitrary.) Pick your favorite of these, enter, and win! To find out more about each book, click the title and read my review.

by Chris Columbus & Ned Vizzini
MG fantasy adventure (#1 in the House of Secrets series)
A new house takes 3 siblings on a wild adventure

by Pseudonymous Bosch
MG fantasy / mystery (#2 in the Secrets series)
Cass & Max-Ernst try to unveil the mystery behind the Terces Society

by Rick Riordan
MG fantasy adventure (#1 in the Kane Chronicles series)
2 siblings try to save their dad from Egyptian gods

by Cornelia Funke
MG fantasy (#2 in the Inkheart Series)
Meggie and her friends get trapped inside Inkworld

1. U.S. entrants only, please.
2. Be sure to note the book you want to win AND WHY.
3. Giveaway prizes will be brand-new books delivered to you via They will be paperback editions unless the book is still available only in hardcover (or choose a Kindle ebook edition of you wish).
4.  This giveaway ends 12:01 AM OCTOBER 14.
5. There's a new giveaway every month! CLICK HERE to receive a brief email every time a new giveaway is posted on the blog. 

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review: INKSPELL by Cornelia Funke

Title: Inkspell
Author: Cornelia Funke (translated from the German by Anthea Bell)
Pub info: Chicken House / Scholastic, 2005; 635 pp
Genre / Audience: fantasy / ages 9+
Caveats for Younger Readers: a fair bit of death by swordpoint, but not too graphic; book will be too long for some

Goodreads summary:
The captivating sequel to Inkheart, the critically acclaimed, international bestseller by Cornelia Funke, an author who is emerging as a truly modern classic writer for children.

Although a year has passed, not a day goes by without Meggie thinking of Inkheart, the book whose characters became real. But for Dustfinger, the fire-eater brought into being from words, the need to return to the tale has become desperate. When he finds a crooked storyteller with the ability to read him back, Dustfinger leaves behind his young apprentice Farid and plunges into the medieval world of his past. Distraught, Farid goes in search of Meggie, and before long, both are caught inside the book, too. But the story is threatening to evolve in ways neither of them could ever have imagined.
My impressions:
The marvelous characters that Cornelia Funke brought to life in Inkheart continue to captivate the reader of Inkspell. This book does a very handy thing that other authors/publishers should take note of: It provides a cheat sheet in the front to reintroduce the characters. Since it had been several years since I'd read the first book in the series, I found this indispensable.

My only complaint with the book is its length. Despite Harry Potter--those doorstop tomes we wordy writers always like to bring up--it's a lot to ask of, say, a fourth grader to wade through 635 pages. At times I was thoroughly engrossed in the story; at other times, I was frustrated and wanted it to move along more quickly. Part of this was just my own bias. Sometimes a marvelous book that you've been looking forward to for months--in my case, Lauren Oliver's Rooms--arrives in your mailbox and you just want to put down Inkspell and have at it. But even discounting that bias, I would say that shaving 100 pages off of this book wouldn't have been a bad idea.

Still, that said, the story is marvelous, the world building complex and fantastical, and anyone who loved Inkheart will be pleased with Inkspell. Caution: It does end on a doozy of a cliffhanger, but no worries; Funke has completed the series and you can pick up a copy of Inkdeath to complete the story. 

About Cornelia:
Cornelia Caroline Funke is a multiple award-winning German author of fantasy/adventure children's and YA fiction. Praised as the "German J. K. Rowling," she has written 24 books and is best known for her Inkheart trilogy. She is also the author of Dragon Rider  and a new YA series, Mirrorworld. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California.

Cornelia maintains a fun, interactive website here, in English (also available in German and Spanish). Her Facebook page is a mixture of German and English postings, and she also has a Twitter account at this link. Read a preview of Inkspell here.

Want to win a free copy of this book? The first Monday of each month features a giveaway of any of the titles I've reviewed the previous month. Pick your fave, enter, and win! Next giveaway: October 6.  SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.

To follow my progress as I bulldoze my way through a stack of 51 to-be-reads this year, search for the tag 2014 TBR Shelf. Read all the reviews here

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TBR 2014: Book No. 27

Years ago I read Cornelia Funke's Inkheart (Scholastic, 2004), and loved it. For some reason, it took me awhile to pick up the second book in the series, Inkspell (Scholastic, 2005), and several more years to read it. But here I am, ready to go!
"Funke delivers more than enough action, romance, tragedy, villainy, and emotion to keep readers turning the pages."  --Kirkus
Coming along for a fantasy romp?

That's right: I've committed to reading all the books on my TBR Shelf this year--and blogging them! Click here to read the reviews I've posted so far.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: THE RED PYRAMID by Rick Riordan

Title: The Red Pyramid
Author: Rick Riordan
Pub info: Disney-Hyperion, 2010; 516 pp
Genre / Audience: fantasy adventure / ages 10+
Caveats for Younger Readers: none, though it's a long read for the under 10 set, and the plot gets pretty complicated

Rick Riordan gained fame from his Percy Jackson series, which focused on kids descended from Greek gods. Here, he takes on Egyptian mythology.

Goodreads summary:
Since their mother's death, Carter and Sadie have become near strangers. While Sadie has lived with her grandparents in London, her brother has traveled the world with their father, the brilliant Egyptologist, Dr. Julius Kane.

One night, Dr. Kane brings the siblings together for a "research experiment" at the British Museum, where he hopes to set things right for his family. Instead, he unleashes the Egyptian god Set, who banishes him to oblivion and forces the children to flee for their lives.

Soon, Sadie and Carter discover that the gods of Egypt are waking, and the worst of them—Set—has his sights on the Kanes. To stop him, the siblings embark on a dangerous journey across the globe
a quest that brings them ever closer to the truth about their family and their links to a secret order that has existed since the time of the pharaohs.
Status: finished 9/17/14

My impressions:
Rick Riordan is a master of middle-grade adventure, and in The Red Pyramid he kicks off his three-volume Kane Chronicles series with a bang. Even those of us who don't know much about Egyptian gods get caught up quickly in this battle between good and evil. Like House of Secrets, which I recently reviewed on this blog, The Red Pyramid keeps the adventure coming page after page throughout its considerable length. But let's face it: Riordan is just better at writing this stuff. The novel reads like a good action film--problems crop up that seem in hindsight inevitable, and everything follows logically in this tightly woven, though complex, plot. Adding to the fun is Riordan's technique of switching off point of view between Carter and his estranged sister, Sadie. Each character brings something unique to the story, and their voices are distinct and offer varying perspectives. Even the fact that they're a mixed-race family comes into play. Characters aren't going to be covered in huge depth when you've got this much action going on, but they are developed.

Riordan is just plain funny, too. He really gets what makes middle-grade readers laugh, and Sadie especially brings a snarkiness that helps temper the book's scarier moments. The humor overall keeps the story from getting horrific, planting it square in the realm of old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat adventure. Kids won't even realize they're learning quite a bit about Egyptian mythology in the meantime, which is a bonus. Thankfully, the series is finished, so I can launch right into Book 2 (The Throne of Fire). The only caution here is that the length of the books will intimidate some readers, but the read is lightning-quick.

About Rick:
Rick Riordan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the Kane Chronicles, and the Heroes of Olympus (a spinoff of the Percy Jackson series). He is also the author of the multi-award-winning Tres Navarre mystery series for adults. His children's books have won dozens of awards.

His next book will be The Blood of Olympus, the final installment in the Heroes of Olympus series, due out October 7. He's also working on a new series featuring Norse gods, the first of which is scheduled for publication next year. For fifteen years, Rick taught English and history at public and private middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Texas. Now a fulltime writer, he lives in Boston with his wife and two sons.

Rick maintains a fantastic website here, which gives not only information on all his projects but great background on Greek and Egyptian mythology. Teachers' guides, FAQs, and all kinds of goodies are rampant on this site. You can also find Rick on Twitter and Facebook. Read a preview of The Red Pyramid here.

Want to win a free copy of this book? The first Monday of each month features a giveaway of any of the titles I've reviewed the previous month. Pick your fave, enter, and win! Next giveaway: October 6.  SIGN UP HERE TO RECEIVE A BRIEF EMAIL WHENEVER A NEW GIVEAWAY BEGINS.

To follow my progress as I bulldoze my way through a stack of 51 to-be-reads this year, search for the tag 2014 TBR Shelf. Read all the reviews here

And be sure to visit Shannon Messenger's blog to see more fun links to great middle-grade reads and giveaways!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Arrr, me hearties, and a lovely Talk Like a Pirate Day to you! What? Yeah, it's a real thing. Who would make this up? If you love a good drum of grog or a fine plunder of gold, then step up and claim all the goodies coming to you. Here are some of my favorites from around the web:

Tom Mason & the Blue Buccaneers Exhort You to Talk Like a Pirate!

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts will give you a free doughnut or a FREE DOZEN DOUGHNUTS if you follow the Pirate Code outlined here. (I know--they're really more guidelines.)

Here are 50 PIRATE MOVIES to screen today. In my mind, you can't beat Johnny Depp in the very first Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The full list is here.

Love PIRATE BOOKS? Try these:

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: The classic original story of Long John Silver and the young boy who sailed with him
Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy by L.A. Meyer : First of a fantastic, fun YA/MG adventure series about a girl turned pirate (well, she's pretty moral, for a pirate); plenty of boys in this story too
Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates has a new member: Hilary Westfield, who neglects to tell the league that she's a girl! Great magical adventure fun for middle-grade readers. Continued in The Terror of the Southlands.
Pirates! by Celia Rees: Another girl-turned-pirate yarn--a multi-award-winner
Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly: a nonfiction account of pirate history--nicely done and easy reading (but written for the adult market)
The Pirate Primer: Mastering the Language of Swashbucklers & Rogues by George Choundas: All you'll need to talk like a pirate (nonfiction)!

Finally, be sure to visit the original Talk Like a Pirate Day website, which has loads more fun stuff for buccaneers old and young!

Why am I all up in your face about pirates, anyway? Because my next book, The Wand & the Sea, features a fine band of pirate ruffians! Coming to you from Margaret K. McElderry Books in 2015.