Feature Book of the Week The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Mike tries so hard to please his father, but the only language his dad seems to speak is calculus. And for a boy with a math learning disability, nothing could be more difficult. When his dad sends him to live with distant relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer to work on an engineering project, Mike figures this is his big chance to buckle down and prove himself. But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. The project has nothing at all to do with engineering, and he finds himself working alongside his wacky eighty-something- year-old aunt, a homeless man, and a punk rock girl as part of a town-wide project to adopt a boy from Romania. Mike may not learn anything about engineering, but what he does learn is far more valuable.


Hey.  I’m Mike.  And this is my story.  My dad, the brilliant math professor (and space cadet) wants me to be a math genius.  Only I have a math learning disability.  So trying to make me a math expert is like trying to teach your dog (no opposable thumbs) to play video games.  Your dog might want to be good at it because dogs like to please you and everything, but it’s not going to happen, right?  But Dad doesn’t see the obvious so he went on a trip, again, and sent me to work on an engineering project with his aunt and uncle.  Whom I’ve never met.  In a tiny town in Pennsylvania.  Probably near where that groundhog lives. 

So here I am with Poppy and Moo (you heard right) and I have to admit, Moo is wacko but cool.  Poppy is comatose.  Dad forgot to mention that their son died recently.  He also forgot to give me any money.  Or tell me how poor they are -- I’m not just talking no air conditioning or wide screen TV, I mean electricity and phone service cut off, catching water in buckets in the front yard, and drinking powdered skim milk.  Oh, and that engineering project?  There is no engineering project!  But there’s an orphan in Romania that the minister is trying to adopt before the time runs out … in three weeks!  And she needs forty thousand dollars.

Guess what this orphan’s name is?  Misha.  That means Mike!  Like me.  I think it’s fate.  I was meant to come here to save this kid.  Every kid should have a family.  That’s what Past says, too.  He’s this homeless guy I met who’s really smart, except for his quirks like he has a conniption if you try eat a Twinkie or potato chips.  He has nothing but health supplements in his shopping cart.  Of course, he isn’t the only wacky one.  Why does Gladys (don’t let the name fool you) put up with a mean boyfriend like Numnut?  And the three guys who hang out in the park . . . they are so like the Three Stooges it’s scary.

Now I have a project:  making sure Misha has a family.  In fact -- this is freaky -- I’m in charge of the project!  That means raising money, getting the paperwork together, and getting Poppy off his butt because he’s chairing (so to speak) one of the fund raising efforts.  Plus, I’m taking care of Moo who really shouldn’t be driving because she can’t see -- which makes her cooking interesting -- and protecting Gladys from Numnut and figuring out the real story behind my homeless friend.

And it doesn’t have anything to do with math, Dad.  It’s about life.  And that a whole lot more valuable.

Note from the author:  I love quirky books and interesting characters.  And laughing, and finding out that things are not always what they seem.  And I love learning without even realizing I’m learning.  That’s why I write the books I do, like The Absolute Value of Mike.  I hope you like Mike and see that he has value, just like all of us, even if we’re not good at some things.  Usually it means we’re really good at something else.  If you don’t believe me, it’s only because you haven’t found that special talent yet.  (I didn’t even start writing until I was an adult, and it’s my second career.)  You definitely have talent, probably many talents.  Absolutely.  You’ll see.


Where I'm from . . .
THE NETHERLANDS . . . where I was born.
ISRAEL . . . my first memories . . . of sand, friendship, and men emptying our house of everything we owned while my mother stood by calmly and they drove away in a truck. (Movers, only I didn't know what that meant at the time.)
SOUTH AFRICA . . . where I slept in the bush, and got my inspiration for IBHUBESI: THE LION. More firsts . . . school, where I carried my bookbag on my head and sang African songs . . . first sense of place, believing I was African, despite my sister's insistence that we were Americans . . . first taste of politics, the terrible policy of apartheid . . . first realization that grownups are not perfect and sometimes quite nasty.
SCOTLAND . . . my school was like Hogwarts, without magic, but complete with . . .
   1.  Houses (mine was "Douglas," gold badge)
   2.  Colorful teacher nicknames (The L, Giant, Furry Forrie)
   3.  Detentions (I still remember writing lines: "I must ask permission when this is necessary.")
   4.  Prefects (to be avoided--can lead to #3, above)
   5.  Plimsoles (sneakers), rubbers (erasers), prep (homework), berets (the hat kind), vests (the undershirt kind), knickers (the underpants kind), "elevenses" (snack), pudding (dessert), eating at high table (think: sitting between Dumbledore and McGonagall in the Hogwarts dining hall), and the best, a "siggie" or "signature" (a coveted slip of paper bearing the Headmistress's signature, recognizing you for a brave act or noble deed, and earning you extra points for your House as well as the admiration of your peers).
NEWFOUNDLAND, CANADA . . . icebergs in the harbor, Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights), the silver thaw, Bayman versus Townie, Miss Conception, cod jigging, caplin running, fish and bruise, curling, screech, mummers, and if none of this makes sense, look for explanations in an upcoming novel . . . .

VIRGINIA . . . home, though I still love traveling and, as always, learning, reading, writing, playing games, eating chocolate, drinking coffee, and laughing with family and friends. (your can learn more about Kathryn Erskine's book at her website.

Feature Book of the Week Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


“I’ve got my entire life planned out for the next ten years — including my PhD and Pulitzer Prize,” claims 16-year-old overachiever Vassar Spore, daughter of overachiever parents, who in true overachiever fashion named her after an elite women’s college. Vassar expects her sophomore summer to include AP and AAP (Advanced Advanced Placement) classes. Surprise! Enter a world-traveling relative who sends her plans into a tailspin when she blackmails Vassar’s parents into forcing their only child to backpack with her through Southeast Asia.

On a journey from Malaysia to Cambodia to the remote jungles of Laos, Vassar sweats, falls in love, hones her outdoor survival skills — and uncovers a family secret that turns her whole world upside-down.     

Vassar Spore can plan on one thing: she’ll never be the same again.


Howdy, all you Book Battlers!  I’m totally flattered that my comedic adventure, CARPE DIEM, was included in the line-up of books this year.  So, khawp jai lai lai!  (As they would say in Laos.)

My main character, Vassar Spore, would have been thrilled to participate in a Battle of the Books – if not a little cocky.  After all, she’s the prototype Type A Overachiever, and would have read all twenty books three times over before school even started.  Hanks, on the other hand, would have asked if there were any books on cowboys, and then gone back to lassoing a stump.

Anyway, here are the answers to some of the questions readers have had about CARPE DIEM – which you may have if you’ve read the book already.  If you haven’t read it, beware of spoilers!  (Berhenti! -- as they’d say in Malaysia.) 

Q & A

Are any of the adventures in CARPE DIEM based on your “real life” experiences?
Around 80% of the situations in CARPE DIEM actually happened to me during my travels through Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos.  (Truth really is stranger than fiction, let me tell you!)   I almost wrote this book as a travel memoir, but my imagination always wanted to heighten the drama.  And I thought it would make a better Y.A. novel about a sheltered teen girl transformed by international (and intrepid!) travel.

(SPOILER ALERT!  Proceed at your own risk.)

Did your ear really get nibbled?

Yep.  I really did encounter a real-life Ear Nibbler in Malaysia -- I tell the story in CARPE DIEM almost exactly how it happened.  (And I think his "museum" is probably still running!) 

Did you get stuck in a bullet boat in Cambodia?

Almost.  But I managed to “unstuck myself” just in time.

But you couldn’t have REALLY been held hostage!?

Ah, but I really was held hostage in a hut in the remote jungles of communist Laos.  I tell that, too, pretty much how it happened, down to the opium den and “sleeping wrong.”  Except that it was only a couple hours of actually being held captive – not the many days Vassar had to endure.  By the way, I had to leave out some parts of my real life adventures, because they wouldn’t be believable – like my run-in with the Laotian Mafia.  (Seriously!)

Is there really a Stick Girl?

Yes, there is.  I met her during my “hostage crisis” in the Laos jungle village.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her after my trip.  Unfortunately, since Laos is communist, “behind the scenes” (which tourists don’t witness) the government oppresses the ethnic and religious minorities – like Stick Girl and her fellow villagers.   So, the last three times I’ve visited Laos, it’s been to lead outreach trips to help those minorities: providing medicine, food, supplies, doctoral and dental care, supporting the underground churches, and meeting other needs.  (In fact, we’re going back again next summer!)

What’s Vassar’s deal?

Like all of us, Vassar is a complex creature, a mix of both positive and negative traits and characteristics.  One of her issues is that she’s a bit of a control freak.  During her crazy adventures in Southeast Asia, she comes to realize that she has the choice to either L.I.M. (Live in the Moment) or to continue to attempt control her future.  We see her self-sufficiency and smugness gradually peel off her like layers of an onion.  Each crazy situation escalates to the climax where she finally realizes she really can’t plan her way out of everything!  She’s ultimately not in control.  And just who is?  (Hmmmm!:))

Does LIMMING come easy for you?

LIMMING most certainly does NOT come easy to me.  In fact, I’m always trying to balance the planner Vassar side of my personality with the artistic Grandma Gerd side.  I’m more of a Type A szperfectionist who’s always planning the future or rewriting the past – instead of enjoying the present moment.  But trekking through jungles and having kids – especially babies – sure helps you focus on the immediate!  Boy, howdy!

Have you eaten durian?

Yes, I ate the exotic and stinky fruit that resembles a giant brownish yellow hedgehog when I was in Malaysia.  Sweet, savory, creamy, oniony -- and the most pungent fetid smell ever!  And yet – strangely good.

Did you steal an apsara from Angkor Wat?

No, unlike Grandma Gerd, I most certainly did not steal an apsara while in Cambodia.  But!  I could see how tempting it could be for the tourists – so few guards around and so many priceless relics all over the place.  (And what a perfect travel souvenir.)  But that’s just wrong.

The bottle scene in the hut…?

Yep.  It happened, too.  My husband held up the blanket.

Can you tell me how you came up with The Big Secret?

I would, but if anyone hasn’t read the book yet, I don’t want to give away that mystery in case they want to try to solve it.  Sorry!

Do the Foreign Food Sanitation Spray and the Traveler's Friend Hygienic Seat actually exist?

Don’t I wish!  They would totally come in handy on all my jungle treks.  Unfortunately, they’re simply figments of my much too active imagination.  (However, someone really should invent them!)

Please, please, please tell me that a real Hanks exists!?!

Sorry – he, too, is a figment of my imagination.:)   (Unless a Chinese Malay cowboy with chops and a drawl happens to attend your school…?)


Squat toilets, profuse sweating, bamboo huts, jumbo centipedes, ear nibbling — these are just some of the delights Autumn has encountered in her global travels.  Not to mention the can’t-believe-it’s-true Laotian jungle adventure when she was actually held hostage -- which inspired her first young adult novel, CARPE DIEM.  The novel was first published in the U.S., then Germany, Holland, and China. 

A travel junkie, Autumn has explored (and survived!) twenty-four countries and counting.  She’s spent many a summer working with refugees and orphans in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.  (And even smuggled money and supplies into Burma to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.)  Southeast Asia remains close to her heart since her days as a missionary kid in New Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) — where she ate her weight in guavas and mingled with reformed headhunters and cannibals.  (Which, she realizes now, is nothing compared to navigating the intrepid jungles of motherhood!)

After spending the rest of her childhood in Washington State (specifically Port Orchard, which was “Port Ann” in the novel), Autumn moved to California to attend Biola University, married her college boyfriend (they clicked while dancing to The Smiths and watching Monty Python), and refused to leave the sunny climate.  She currently lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, J.C., and two children, Dexter and Clementine.  (And a truckload of travel souvenirs).

Many thanks to Autumn Cornwell for her wonderful post. Hope everyone enjoys the book as much as I did.

Feature Book of the Week Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


The close relationship of a pair of biracial twins is tested when their grandmother enters them in a pageant for African American girls in this new story from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award winner Sundee T. Frazier.

When Minerva and Keira King were born, they made headlines: Keira is black like Mama, but Minni is white like Daddy. Together the family might look like part of a chessboard row, but they are first and foremost the close-knit Kings. Then Grandmother Johnson calls, to invite the twins down South to compete for the title of Miss Black Pearl Preteen of America.

Minni dreads the spotlight, but Keira assures her that together they'll get through their stay with Grandmother Johnson. But when grandmother's bias against Keira reveals itself, Keira pulls away from her twin. Minni has always believed that no matter how different she and Keira are, they share a deep bond of the heart. Now she'll find out the truth.


Writing The Other Half of My Heart ranks in the top ten hardest things I’ve ever done (maybe even top five). But as with many things that require much of us, it also ranks as one of my most rewarding accomplishments. I hope you have enjoyed (or will enjoy) reading it as much as I enjoyed sending the final manuscript off to the publisher!
I always find it fascinating to learn where stories come from and which elements are based on authors’ real-life experiences. So I thought you might like to know some of the real-life occurrences that shaped and showed up in my novel.

First, there’s the whole concept of the book: twin sisters who have such different physical features that people don’t think they belong to the same race, let alone the same family. Believe it or not, this happens. The more people mix and mingle, the more it’s going to happen. On my web site you can see some examples of twins like the ones in my book (http://www.sundeefrazier.com/heart2.php).

The idea actually came from my editor, who had read a news story about such a family. She told me about the article and asked, “I wonder what those girls’ lives will be like when they’re ten . . . Do you think you could write a story about that?”

Never one to turn down a challenge, I said, “Sure!” Of course, it wasn’t long until all kinds of doubts set in, but I continued to press on, believing that if anyone could write such a story, I could, being that I’m a mix of black and white myself.

Now, I know I’m African-American, but others often assume I’m white, which is why I chose to write from the white-appearing sister’s point of view. Minni is sort of shy, a bit insecure, unsure of her talents, a lover of animals and books. She longs to be brave and to make the world a better place, like her hero, Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of this is true of me. I’ve never used olive oil to try and brown myself up in the sun, as she does, but I have often wished I were darker so that I would be more recognizable as a black person.
As a non-black appearing black person, I have at times been in the awkward position of overhearing racist comments, just as Minni realizes in the dress shop that she and her sister have been treated differently because of the owner’s racism. The dress shop scene is completely fabricated, but the experience of realizing I am treated or seen differently because I have light skin is not.

Likewise, my light skin has caused some black people not to recognize me as black, just as Minni experiences when Grandmother Johnson is signing her and Keira up for the pageant (or should I say, the “achievement program”?). These experiences have been very painful and I drew on my emotions from those times to write this scene.

There are many other ways I drew on personal or family stories to create the novel. Grandmother Johnson’s experience of being raised by her white-appearing grandmother is based on my own grandmother’s story: Her grandmother was the daughter of a slave and master, biracial under a whole different set of circumstances, in a time when “biracial” didn’t exist. One of my African-American aunts inspired Miss Oliphant’s “wisdom dolls.” She made one of these dried apple dolls for me when I was a girl, and it was she who encouraged me, “There are many ways to be black, Sundee.” Wise words, indeed.

One scene that has nothing to do with race that is based on real-life experience is the scene where Grandmother Johnson nails a bag of dog poop to her neighbor’s door. My husband and I used to live in a condo and one of our neighbors let his dog roam (and poop) all over the place. Finally, my husband had had enough, so to let our neighbor know he didn’t appreciate the poop everywhere, he bagged some and tied it to the man’s door handle.

When Grandmother Johnson grabbed that hammer and started pounding, I didn’t realize that my subconscious had actually taken the memory of my husband’s “justice crusade” against poop and turned it into a scene. I had actually forgotten all about it! But that’s the power of the subconscious in this whole writing process – sometimes we know exactly what we’re doing and where it’s coming from. Other times it’s more mysterious. Hopefully the end result is a good read. I certainly hope The Other Half of My Heart will be such a read for you!


was the kind of kid who noticed the little flowers growing in sidewalk cracks, shaved my hairless doll's legs with a real razor, and stuffed olives up my nose just to see what would happen. I pretended bits of glass I found on the playground were diamonds and went searching for clues to mysteries that didn't exist. I wanted to be a magician, a geologist, a detective, a singer, and a radio broadcaster. A Charlie's Angel would also have been fine.

One thing I never thought to be was a writer. (Although I recently found out from my mom that at age nine I announced I wanted to publish a book. I don't remember this, but I believe my mom, of course.)

Near the end of my time in college, I took a children's literature class. Our final project was to write and illustrate a children's book. I stayed up all night to finish my assignment in time, and I didn't even need to drink any coffee to do it! Writing that story made me feel like a kid again: It was like playing!

Over the next eight years, I did a bunch of things — like hanging out with college students, and kids, and women trying to better their lives, and making music with my husband, and traveling to places like South Africa and Guyana and Italy.

Then on an airplane going to somewhere I can't remember, my husband asked me, "If you could do anything you wanted, and money weren't an issue, what would you do?"

I didn't even think about it. "Be a children's writer," I said.

And that's what I set out to do. And what I continue to work on being better at every day, by which I mean trying to become more honest. Being honest as a writer means telling the truth about who we are, both the good and the bad.

Even though being the most truthful, imaginative, skilled writer I can be is very important to me, it will never be more important than my family. I have a wonderful husband (who I will always thank for asking me that question on the airplane), and two very fun and inspiring daughters, Skye and Umbria (I call her Umi) — named for the sky and the ocean, two vast expanses that remind me to stay open to wonder, possibility, and most of all, love.

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