Determined, Funny, & Opinionated: Gianna the Great by Becky Villareal. Book Review.


Click here to buy Gianna the Great

This is an early chapter book with intermittent, small cartoonish illustrations. I wondered how the author was going to interest children in a story about finding her genealogical roots. But, the first sentence showed me she knew her target audience. It begins, “I was nosey.” The top half of the page shows a girl with brown pigtails, round red-framed glasses, pencil in her hand, her eyebrows raised, her mouth open, and her finger pensively touching her cheek.

The little girl, Gianna, tells the story in first person. She is a funny, insistent child with a lot of spark. Her thoughts are often judgmental, even snide, but she treats others with respect. I think the character is realistic and honest.

The story follows Gianna as she develops an interest in her family tree. We learn that there is no father’s name on her birth record which her mother dismisses as a mistake. Her teacher finds her mother’s baptism certificate and explains that in Mexico that is when children receive their full name. He also shows her a border crossing record and a picture of Gianna’s grandmother.

When Gianna shows the documents to her mother, her mother cries with happiness. The story ends with Gianna saying, “I can find out more Mama! Lots more!”

This would be a fabulous book to introduce to a child who is going to research her family tree. It reminds us that immigrants often lose contact with their family and their roots. Whether a child’s family crossed the border from Mexico into the United States, flew in as a refugee of war, or sailed over the ocean decades ago for a better life, there was always loss along with the gain.

Even if a family has been living in the same country for several generations, it is surprising how few children, and even adults, don’t know their grandmother’s maiden name or their family’s roots. When I researched my family tree in the 1980s, everything was done by mail (for a price) or by searching through books and microfiche. Now, entire lineages are available for free online as well as immigration documents, ships’ passenger lists, birth and death certificates, and more. You would have to help your child understand the difference between an original or primary document, a secondary source, and indirect evidence.

Although this is a niche book, it serves its purpose well. An adult could read it to a child in twenty minutes. Or, a child with third grade reading skills could manage it on their own.


Click here to get FREE family tree charts to print for your child.

Choose from 2 to 5 generations, adoptive family, birth and adoptive family, with a wide variety of backgrounds, in color or black and white.


The author was interviewed on this blog, January 4, 2017.

A copy of this book was generously donated by the author to my Little Free Library.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages



Our Roots Keep Us Strong: Author Becky Villareal Three Random Questions Interview

Becky Villareal taught early childhood in Dallas Independent School District for 23 years. For the past ten years she has been completing family research. She spent the last 10 years working on family research. She has written two books about Gianna the Great.

Becky V

Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Becky. Tell us a bit about your writing and your most recent work.

Becky Villareal: I have worked with many children who come from multicultural backgrounds. Since I come from a similar background, I was always trying to place myself in a group. I wrote Gianna the Great to address those inner conflicts that children face and followed it by Halito Gianna: The Journey Continues to let the children know what happens when you don’t give up.

Ferrante: What research did you do for this picture book?

Villareal: Through working with the National Archives and multiple genealogy websites, I was able to piece together the parts of my family tree that have been missing. I used this research to develop this story.

Ferrante: Do you think it is important for people to know their roots?

Villareal: On my website I use this Chinese Proverb, “To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.”  When a person comes from a multicultural background and has little knowledge of that history or culture, they feel lost like a boat at sea with no shore in sight.  Once they feel they have found their place, they can embrace those strengths and weaknesses that are inherent in their own personalities that are part of their DNA makeup i.e. creativity, personality, intuitiveness etc..

Ferrante: Why did you create the character Gianna the Great?

Villareal: In truth, I created Gianna to express to all children how wonderful they are, how unique, and how special.  It doesn’t matter who our parents are, what background we come from, what matters is that there never was nor will ever be again someone just like them.


 Click here to buy Gianna the Great

Ferrante: What do you feel makes your writing original?

Villareal: When I am writing from Gianna’s point of view, my writer’s voice comes out in full force.  I want the reader to experience what Gianna is experiencing as she goes through her journey to find her family history.


 Click here to buy Halito Gianna: The Journey Continues (Gianna the Great Book 2)

Ferrante: What is the most important thing you have learned about writing?

Villareal: The most important thing I have learned is to trust the Lord to give me the insight into what I need to write.  He has given me the gift, now I trust His direction.  Also, never lose faith in yourself or your writing.

Ferrante: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Villareal: Gianna is a series with a third one in the hands of my agent Jessica Schmeidler from Golden Wheat Literary Agency.  I am more than happy to help other novice writers by reading and reviewing their works.

three random questions

Ferrante: In all your travels, what is the most awe-inspiring bridge you have ever crossed?

Villareal: The bridge that goes into Galveston, Texas.

Ferrante: If you lived on a farm, which chore above all others would you definitely not want to do?

Villareal: I would not want to pick okra without gloves.  I did it once as a girl and suffered for it.

Ferrante: If you had to rearrange the letters of your first name to give yourself a new name, what would your new name be?

Villareal: Racebec

Becky’s Blog 

Gianna the Great will be reviewed on this blog Monday, January 9, 2017.


Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.

Review of Gianna the Great January 09, 2017.

Review of Halito Gianna February 11, 2017.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

How Do You Deal with an Unfair Father? – The Passover Surprise by Janet Ruth Heller. Illustrations by Ronald Coffman. Book Review.


Click here to buy The Passover Surprise

This is an early chapter book with some simple black-and-white illustration suitable for children aged seven and eight.

In The Passover Surprise, a brother, John, and sister, Lisa, compete to win a special stamp collecting book from their father. In order to prove their worthiness, they both work hard hour after hour on their stamp collections while their father assesses their commitment. In the end, the father gives the stamp book to the boy reasoning that he put in equal effort but he is younger child. Lisa is devastated and feels the decision was unfair. After a conversation with her mother, Lisa decides to approach her father and discuss her feelings. Her teacher also coaches her in how to handle this discussion. The father is completely understanding and says, “When I was young, only the boys in my family collected stamps. I didn’t realize that the album meant so much to you.” Even though the family is struggling to make a payment on their house, father manages to give his daughter a new stamp as well during Passover.

This is a good story on perspective. The daughter felt the father was unfair and sexist. Father thought he was making a fair and informed decision. Because the father was kind and receptive, the problem was resolved happily.

There is an explanation of Passover and Seder, a short discussion on discrimination against African American soldiers in the Second World War, and sharing of family history.

This would be a good book for Sunday school or other values teaching. Children will connect with Lisa and find helpful advice on how to approach difficult discussions with their own parents.


A copy of this book was generously donated by the author to my Little Free Library.

An interview with the author will appear on this blog on January 25, 2016.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

The Second My Life Changed Forever…Stories of Life Changing Moments. By Eileen Doyon. Book Review.

 Click on the cover to buy the book.

This book is part of the Unforgettable Faces and Stories Series. In this series, Eileen Doyon collects true stories under a specific theme. This book is about incidents such as deaths, births, beginning a new business venture, meeting someone who will play a significant part in your life, etc. They are told in the person’s own words and usually consist of one and a half to five pages. If you enjoy the structure of Chicken Soup for the Soul books, this series will probably appeal to you.

There were approximately 45 stories in this 189 page book which contains about a third pictures and the occasional completely blank page. That leaves an average of about 2 1/2 pages per story. If you like these little snippets, then you’re probably going to enjoy this. I’m not a Chicken Soup fan because I like depth to my reading. However, I found the stories in the Chicken Soup series more stirring than this one, perhaps because they were rewritten by professional authors.


I felt the stories in Doyon’s book were lacking something. I wanted to get to know the people more, to get into their shoes. Some were so short it felt like I was reading a news account. I wish there had been about 10 stories with greater detail and more emotion. There were few that struck a chord. I’m the kind of woman who cries during long-distance telephone commercials, on Christmas morning, and kindergarten graduations, so it should have been easy to invoke an emotional response. But on the whole, I had to keep forcing myself to keep reading.

The writing skill definitely varied since these were told in the people’s own words. I think it is very difficult to dig deep and use vocabulary that conveys your most intense emotion in personal and life-changing moments, as anyone who has tried to write a memoir knows. As a result, I often did not feel I was sharing or living the moment with the authors. Writers would call this problem “show, don’t tell.”

I think it is admirable that Eileen Doyon has given a venue to people who want to share personal and important stories. I know she has touched many lives, readers and writers alike. I hope she continues her series but, perhaps, she might consider that sometimes less is more.


A copy of this book was generously donated by the author to my Little Free Library.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Weeds in Nana’s Garden by Kathryn Harrison. Book Review.

Click here to buy Weeds in Nana’s Garden: A heartfelt story of love that helps explain Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias.

The story begins:

“I love my Nana.

I love playing in Nana’s garden.”

Through out spring, summer, and autumn, we share the little girl’s delight working and playing with her Nana in the garden. Using descriptions of sight, sound, smell, and texture, Kathryn Harrison invokes the reader’s senses.

The writer is also the illustrator. The full page, often double spread, pictures are impressive. Nana is portrayed as an elderly but lovely woman with a warm, gentle smile.

When mother explains about the tangles in Nana’s brain, the little girl compares them to weeds in the garden. They discuss what is most likely to happen and comfort each other.

“Remember,” Mom soothes, “like the beautiful blooms beneath the weeds, Nana is still Nana underneath.”

As Nana’s health deteriorates, so does the condition of her garden. The granddaughter does her best to fight the weeds. When her grandmother, one day, begins to rip out the flowers along with the weeds, the little girl realizes that it would be more upsetting to try to stop her. After Nana stops on her own, the little girl gives away the bouquets. What an incredibly powerful message.

Eventually Nana has to go to a care facility but the little girl, who is now quite grown up, keeps up the garden for her.

Throughout this story, both the granddaughter and the Nana mention fairies in the garden. This is not stressed but I think it is another important image. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease as of yet, fairies represent hope in the possibility of a cure. They also show us that innocence, a sense of wonder, and a lightness of attitude can help to bring a family through a tragedy even as the big as this.

Harrison has done a beautiful job of addressing a heart breaking family situation. This is the book I would recommend these shared with young children in a family with an Alzheimer’s sufferer.

I was given a free ecopy for review.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

An Old Man’s Dirty Secret. Recycled Sundays.


One of the best things about summer holidays is doing family activities you don’t have time for during the school year. Somehow, between all the lessons, columns and school events, we seldom take advantage of the free library and Parks and Recreation programs.

We even less often have time for special open-host club events or visits to parks and museums. My kids now know that summertime means examining antique dental chairs, feeding snakes, listening to lectures on the Precambrian Shield, peering through telescopes, tasting wild plants, or hiking through ruins.

Imagine my daughter’s surprise when I asked her if she wanted to go to a Rock Show.

By the time we were heading down the driveway, she realized there would be no loud music or flashing lights at this Rock Show. Guns and Roses would not be playing. I guess I should have said Rock and Mineral Show.

Enthusiasm rose when we entered the West Arthur Community Center and saw the beautiful displays. There was enough glimmering jewelry available to keep any 13-year-old interested. The artisans presented creative blend of fanciful imagination and cold, hard rock. My son was drawn to the clear crystals made into pendants and purchased one similar to that which Vincent gave Catherine in Beauty and that Beast.

We were all captivated by the very elderly gentleman who had prepared a fascinating and informative display on fossils. He asked us if we would like to learn a little about and warned us not to suggest he’s been there during the Reformation. I glanced at his thin body, white hair, heavily-lined face, and smooth pink lashless eyelids and bit my tongue. He explained the air is involved during the formation of the plant and animal fossils. We were impressed with the discovery of a creature older than the dinosaurs hidden inside a dull looking rock.

Surreptitiously, the gentleman drew my husband aside. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the lady and the young ones,” he stage whispered, “but do you know what this is?”

My husband bent to examine a blackened, round object the size of the cantaloupe. He could not identify it.

“It’s dinosaur dung,” exclaimed the gentleman gleefully.

I laughed and pulled both my wandering kids back. This would be better than seeing Guns and Roses any day. “Look, kids,” I said. “It’s fossilized dinosaur doo.”

The children examined it and then exchanged glances. At that moment a voice in the intercom announced that a talk on amethyst was beginning. We hurried off, forgetting about the dinosaur doo, for the moment.

On the way home, I asked everyone what they had liked best. We discussed the exhibits. Suddenly my son piped up. “I don’t believe that man about the fossils, though,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I think a dinosaur boob would be a lot bigger than that round black thing he showed us!”

A discussion of mammary glands and dinosaur food followed. My son laughed when he realized what the deposit really was. I asked my husband about his strange smile.

“I was just imagining if a dinosaur boob really existed.”

Rocks and Minerals for older kids site

Kids Dinosaurs site

Fossils for Kids


Click on the book covers for more information.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Does the New Kid Always Get Bullied? – Malcolm Devlin and the Shadow of a Hero by Michael Ferrari. Book Review.

Click here to buy Malcolm Devlin and the Shadow of a Hero

Malcolm Devlin and the Shadow of a Hero begins with a riveting and heartbreaking chapter. Malcolm and his parents are a circus family. Mom stands in the middle of a centrifuge while dad drives around her at top speed on a motorcycle. Malcolm is never afraid as he firmly believes his mother’s love is unconditional and his father is invincible. As a result, Malcolm is protected and loved completely. What happens in the first chapter completely shatters Malcolm’s belief in personal safety and security.

When Malcolm’s father is killed being a hero, we understand the title of the book and the motivation of the protagonist. The reader is quickly invested in Malcolm’s well-being and wants to know what will happen to him.

Fatherless, and living with a mother who has lost her glow, Malcolm lives in constant fear. His coping mechanism is to separate himself from society and try to be invisible to the bullies that inevitably dog his life. When his mother sets up her traveling flea market in the theatre of a small town, Malcolm is targeted by three dangerous, violent bullies. The leader of this trio is the grandson of the harsh and manipulative mayor. Malcolm seems doomed.

Just when things seem the most hopeless, in walks a mysterious gypsy woman with a magical trade. She promises it will help him live without ever being lonely or afraid, the two most dominant emotions in his life. What unfolds is humorous, touching and suspenseful.

The only time this book did not feel believable was during the fire scene but that is probably because I have been researching this topic recently for my own work.

This is the kind of book that would translate easily onto the big screen. There are laugh out loud scenes that would be even funnier to watch. Although some things are little clichéd, it doesn’t matter because the character of Malcolm is so well-rounded and lovable that we buy everything at face value. The author has a talent for atmosphere and characterisation. Readers 10 years old and up will find time flying by as they enjoy this wonderful book.


A copy of this book was generously donated by the author to my Little Free Library.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

“I don’t know what I want to do. Nothing interests me.” (Recycled Sundays)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how many young people (teens and twenties) elect to do nothing in the absence of finding a “fulfilling” or “exciting” job (with good pay, holidays and benefits to boot). Personally, I’m of the belief that this almost never happens. I think we MAKE our jobs fulfilling or exciting, just like we make our lives.

I believe only boring people are bored. A creative person can find something interesting to do with a stick and a rock. A boring person can whine in a room full of toys and entertainment systems.

I think the two are related.

Stimulation rarely comes from outside. Sure, the first time you see fireworks as a child or ride a wild rollercoaster, your are pulled outside yourself. But, the rest of our lives, we need to nurture our interests. We need to investigate, experience,study, ponder, and interact with what is around us.

We need to INVEST in the experience in order to feel anything. Eventually, with time and successful encounters, our interest, attachment, and enjoyment increases. It does not fall into our lap like Newton’s apple. We grow it like the little red hen’s wheat.

So why do so many young people have difficulty doing this? It may be because we have raised them to be passive intakers. They take ballet lessons instead of inventing a dance with a broom and a record. They belong to competive teams (I am really amazed that timy little football uniforms exist) instead of organizing a game of kick the can with friends. They play on safe plastic structures in supervised and restricted ways instead of hammering together boards and an old tire. The play with gaming systems, often against people they can’t even see, instead of playing hopscotch in the driveway with the neighbour. They put batteries in their dolls who move and talk whether the child is in the room or not. Many children go to daycare, to school, and then to lessons/clubs/teams and then watch tv and go to bed.

None of these things in and of themselves are bad. They do, however, have a cumulative effect.

I wonder if living such controlled lives has disempowered our children. Are they shocked and disappointed upon reaching adulthood to find that the perfect job does not arrive shrinkwrapped and tailor made?

Just a thought.

(September 30, 2010)


Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Stars Only Shine in the Dark – THE DARKEST DARK by Chris Hadfield and Kate FiIllion. Illustrated by Terry and Eric Fan. Book Review.

 Click on the cover for more information or to buy a copy.

This picture book is written by Chris Hadfield, one of the, world’s most famous astronauts, and Kate Fillion a best selling author. Together they tell the true story of Chris’s childhood fear of the dark.

As a small boy, Chris love to play astronaut. He liked to pretend he was fighting deadly aliens, but his imagination created a fearful atmosphere when his room was dark. “The kind of dark that attracts the worst sort of aliens.”

His parents struggled to get him to sleep in his own bed. They even gave him a bell to ring if he was nervous. But nothing seemed to help.

One special day, Chris’s family joined several others watching the moon landing on television. Chris was amazed and he also noticed that outer space was darkest dark ever. That night, he was able to cope with his dark room. He became hooked on exploring the night sky. He seriously pursued his dream of becoming an astronaut and one day, it came true.

That is where the story ends. Fortunately, Hadfield has written two other books about his experiences as an astronaut. After reading this picture book, children can find more about Hadfield from these books or online.

What a wonderful twist for a little boy who is afraid of the dark to grow up and travel into space, in fact live there for five months. How inspirational for children who have similar fears. This book teaches them that as they grow and learn, they will change and be able to conquer the things that hold them back. How reassuring to know an astronaut was once afraid of the dark.

The vocabulary in this book is suitable for children ages 5 to 8. There is just the right amount of text on each page. Both the text and the illustrations are infused with a subtle sense of humor.

When it was time to get out of the bath and go to bed, he told his father – politely, because astronauts are always polite – “Sorry, no can do. I’m on my way to Mars.”

On the page where Chris dreamed he flew a spaceship to the moon, his rocket is made from cardboard, his dog is also suited up and floating beside him, and Chris carries a flag with pictures of the two of them and their names printed in childish script “Chris and Albert.”

Although the book is in color, gray and black are dominant throughout. At first, because of Chris’s imagination, the dark holds frightening creatures with glowing eyes. As Chris matures, those glowing eyes are replaced by twinkling stars and glowing galaxies.

The last two pages read as follows.

And, he realized, you’re never really alone there. (in the dark)

Your dreams are always with you, just waiting.

Big dreams, about the kind of person you want to be.

Wonderful dreams about the life you will live.

Dreams that actually can come true.

This is a well written, beautifully illustrated picture book that will teach your child about a brave, brilliant, and personable Canadian hero as well as inspire him or her to pursue big dreams.


I won a free copy of this book.

Click on the images for more information or to buy the product.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages


I’m Not Eating That! (Recycled Sundays)


Children alter the contents of a refrigerator more than marriage, low-calorie diets, or self-improvement classes. They may not do the grocery shopping, but nine-tenths of the list will be the parents’ desperate ideas for edibles the child might be induced to eat.

Cave Daddy had it easy. He simply clubbed a sabre toothed rabbit, carried it home, and handed it over to Cave Mommy who skinned and cooked it open-pit fire style. Cave Baby either ate it or starved. The first time Cave Daddy, in an effort to improve his family’s diet according to the Neanderthal Food Guide, brought home a swamp weed, Cave Baby spoke his first word, “Yuck!”

Urban parents can forget bean sprouts and avocado, even for themselves. There’s no room beside the currently favourite fruit, apples and only apples For two full years this will be the only unprocessed fruit the child will eat, switching virtually overnight to pears, only pears, I hate apples.

There are no ice cubes in the freezer since space is taken up by Current Cartoon Remake TV dinners. These are most often used after the parent has spent hours cooking from scratch. The child will recognize that the twenty piece casserole contains parsley, which he decided yesterday was worse than swamp weed, and announce, “I’m not eating that!” This is also true when the home-cooked meal has exactly the same meat, vegetable and dessert as the TV dinner. If parents could learn how to add that specialized cardboard flavour, they’d have a chance.

Children will eat cereal that sparkles, comes in the shape of stars, letters, donuts, or hockey sticks, makes noise, and contains a prize package guaranteed to cause a minor tidal wave when it falls into the milk filled bowl. Granola doesn’t qualify because it has weird stuff in it.

Parents learn to save empty margarine containers and stock up on plastic ware. At least two-thirds of refrigerator space will be taken up with leftovers, as in “You’re not having another cookie until you eat your Zoodles, spaghetti, bacon and eggs, pancakes, soup, steak, and vegetables.” The child will reply, “I don’t like Zoodles anymore. The spaghetti is too old. The bacon’s too greasy. The eggs are dried out. The pancakes have raisins and I wanted chocolate chips. The steak is too fatty. The vegetables taste like swamp weed.” In stubborn persistence, (far simpler with a microwave than an open-pit cave fire but just as futile) the parents will continually reheat the leftovers until they have the texture and flavour of drywall.

Pity the poor parent who expresses delight when the child likes a new food outside the home. Just because the child ate the chilli in a restaurant, doesn’t mean he’ll eat homemade.

“Too tomatoey,” he’ll say.

“Of course it’s tomatoey,” Urban Mommy foolishly responds. “Chili is made with tomatoes.”

“Yeah, but these are real tomatoes.”

“They’re from our garden,” interjects Urban Daddy. “You helped pick them. Everybody’s chilli has tomatoes.”

“I only like it when you can’t tell, “he’ll respond firmly.

Time for the Cartoon TV dinner.

Child care experts (few of whom I’m sure actually live with children) say parents should learn their child’s preferences. Right. They hate macaroni and cheese casseroles, but love it packaged. They prefer chilli without beans, lasagne without onions, and pizza with cheddar cheese instead of mozzarella. Any of this can be reversed at the stoke of midnight. In which case, the parents will put the newly rejected food in the refrigerator in a plastic container knowing it will be eaten the same day their children claim to be receiving too much allowance.

Originally published in the Chronicle-Journal/Times-News 1991


Click on the book covers for more information.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages