“The Missing President” (Adventures of Alleykats Historical Sleuths) by R. J. Williams. Illustrations by Daveia Odoi. Book Review.

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 Click to buy Adventures of Alleykats: Historical Sleuths: The Missing President (Volume 1)

This is an early chapter book, 26 pages long, containing periodic full-page and half-page colored illustrations. Williams says it is the first in a series of historical mysteries for children. The illustrations are simple but effective and appear to be a compilation of computer graphics.

It features three children, Kat, Albert, and Leyla, who use libraries and documents to solve historical puzzles. I love this concept. What a great series this could make for teachers to use in their classroom. This is more of a discovery book than a suspense novel. The children are never in danger at any time.

I wondered about the title, but being Canadian I don’t know that much about American presidents. Once the children started to uncover information about the president who has been ignored by history, I understood. “During the war (1861 – 1865), President Abraham Lincoln was the President of the Union and Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy.” What a clever way to introduce a little-known historical fact. I was glad to see the author mentioned that history is written by the winners. Basically, this means we only ever get half the story and that half from a singular perspective with its own agenda.

Two things I would suggest this author works on avoiding before her next publication are the dreaded info dump and inconsistent verb tense. The author needs to know all the characters backgrounds the reader really doesn’t.

Here’s an example of what I mean by verb tense.

The Alleykats have definitely had a full day and it looks like they will make it home in enough time for dinner with their families. “I’m going to share this information with my family at the dinner table this evening,” said Leila. Kat turns to Sgt. Major and says, “You have been great Sgt. Major, thank you for everything especially the tour, we learned so much.”

You probably also noticed author intrusion and unnecessary repetition about dinner. I would recommend a stern editor go over Williams’ next manuscript before publication. This is such an original and educational series, it deserves to be perfect. This first book is worth sharing with a child.

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

The author, R.J. Williams was interviewed on this blog February 1, 2017.

Other books for your child.

    

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Happy Happy Holidays. Felices, Felices Dias Festivos. By S.J. Bushue and Deb McQueen. Book Review.

 

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

Obviously, this is a bilingual book. It is part of a series featuring So Big, a mammal, and Little Bit, a frog. It is basically an explanation of the major American holidays in both English and Spanish. For example, on the first page it reads, “New Years Day, January 1st” and then at the bottom of the page “el Día del Aῆo Nuevo el primero de enero.” So Big is wearing a diaper and a party hat and blowing a noisemaker as he carries an hour glass. Little Bit is jumping into the air and wearing a party hat and carrying a spinning noisemaker. Confetti fill the air and there is a balloon that reads Happy New Year. The characters’ clothing changes as they explain each holiday.  It was great to see some variation in cultural holidays listed.

The book features the following holidays:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Groundhog Day
  • Valentine’s Day
  • Presidents’ Day
  • Mardi Gras
  • Patrick’s Day
  • April Fools’ Day
  • Easter Sunday
  • Earth Day
  • Cinco de Mayo
  • Mother’s Day
  • Memorial Day
  • Flag Day
  • Fathers’ Day
  • Independence Day
  • National Grandparents’ Day
  • Labor Day
  • Native Americans’ Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Halloween
  • Veterans Day
  • Thanksgiving Day
  • Hanukkah
  • Christmas
  • Kwanzaa

At the back of the book there is a list of the holidays with two or three sentences explaining their significance and practice. I had to laugh when I read the blurb on Fathers’ Day. “Fathers’ Day recognizes the contribution that fathers and father figures make to their families. The day is often symbolized by cooking out, gifts, homemade cards and ugly ties.”

As a resource for Spanish speaking immigrants, this book would be wonderfully helpful. I can also see it being used by people who are learning Spanish as a second language.

I did not know that Native Americans Day and Columbus Day were celebrated at the same time. Interesting. I also noticed there is no apostrophe on Veterans Day.

If you go  here you can listen to the book being read aloud in Spanish. There are also coloring pages. You will find a four-line song here that can easily be adapted for a classroom game.

This is a useful and informative book for Spanish speaking children, and adults too, who want to learn about American holidays, cultures, and traditions.

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Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Finding the Forgotten: Author, Documentarian, and Archivist Ronnika (R.J.) Williams Three Random Questions Interview

Ronnika (R.J.) Williams is a documentarian and archivist who has used her skills to create her first children’s book, Adventures of Alleykats – The Missing President.

Ronnika

Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Ronnika. The seed for becoming an archivist was planted quite early. Can you tell us a little about it?

Williams: Hi Bonnie, Thanks for having me! I was surrounded by historical artifacts/documents growing up, I would say around the age of five is when I became fascinated with old photos.  I caught on quickly the importance of preserving them.  I know this is going to sound weird, but I would make sure that my parents, and grandparents saved an obituary from every funeral they attended.  Why? I loved reading about a person’s life and their family. 

Ferrante: Photography/videography is also one of your passions. Where has that led?

Williams: It led me to the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.  I’m currently a student there, and it has broadened my awareness of how complex both photography and videography truly is.  Before I never cared about lighting, I would just click and shoot, or simply record.  Especially when it comes to certain projects I’m working, and with freelance.  I’m more critical of the finished product.

Ferrante: Tell me a little about your partnership with “Savvy Sessions” to provide educational tools for elementary students.

Williams: My sister is an elementary school teacher, so this is her baby.  She provides the blueprint, and I strive to bring the lessons to life through storytelling.  Focusing more on summer activities to keep the students minds sharp all year round.

 Ferrante: Your first children’s book, Adventures of Alleykats – The Missing President, is receiving rave reviews. It seems parents and children love it. Why did you choose this topic on which to base a children’s story?

Williams: I was a summer intern at the Museum of Confederacy (Now the American Civil War Museum) in Richmond, VA for three summers.  Whenever I would tell people where I worked I would either get weird stares (why are you working there, or what’s that face).  I wanted to find a cool way to bring awareness to a place, person, and time in history that’s often omitted from the history books.  I’ve always wanted to know all sides of a story.  The good, the bad, and the truth!

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 Click here to buy Adventures of Alleykats: Historical Sleuths: The Missing President (Volume 1)

Ferrante: What strategies did you use to merge factual history and fictional events?

Williams: I still love a good mystery, and adventure.  Something that keeps me guessing, so I honestly talked with teachers, and they provided me with books that the children were into these days.

Ferrante: Was there ever a missing President?

Williams: He’s missing from the history books.  There’s so much that’s missing from the history books.  Hopefully my series can help bridge the gap.

Ferrante: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Williams: I want my readers to have fun while learning.  It’s just that simple.

Ferrante: What did you enjoy the most about writing this picture book? The least?

Williams: I love how the story was constantly expanding.  I wrote the outline over 3 years ago, while I was in graduate school.  Working with the illustrator truly brought the story to life. I would say the least would be the editing process.  That was stressful, and a hint of perfectionism was creeping out every time I received a revision.

Ferrante: It seems as though the first book is the beginning of the series. What are your plans for subsequent stories?

Williams: I’m currently working on Book 2.  It’s going to be another adventure of course.  I want to be able to build upon the series, and provide unforgettable content to be used in classrooms.  I want the Alleykats to be a household name.

Ferrante: My deepest condolences on the loss of your father. I read that you promised him three things “before he passed away after a battle with cancer, that she would finish graduate school with high honors, pursue her love of documentary studies, and publish a children’s book series.” It seems that you have fulfilled all of these promises. Where is your journey taking you now?

Williams: Thank you Bonnie!

My journey has led me to give back to my community with my ongoing documentary project.  My current photography campaign (final48.org) focuses on stories, and photos of individuals talking about their journey with grief.  Even though it is very different from the Alleykats Series, it keeps me writing, and traveling the country collecting the stories. It truly gives me a lot of joy. The type of joy when someone tells me they love “The Missing President.”  I know that every decision I’ve made has unlocked another amazing opportunity.  Accepting that internship was definitely one of the best decisions I could have made for my professional career. I know that all of my sweat and tears for all of my projects has been worth it. 

Ferrante: What were your favorite children’s books growing up? Do you feel they have influenced your writing?

Williams: My parents gave me a book when I was little girl that was full of African American biographies.  They were in alphabetical order. I’ve asked my mom has she seen the book lying around in my old room. I’ve moved so much I know it’s in a box at her house. I had to do a book report on W.E.B. DuBois, but I was constantly distracted by the other figures in that book.  That goes back to what I said before.  I’ve always been fascinated with “the dash” of a person’s life.  That book was my Wikipedia back in the day.

I was a HUGE Goosebumps and Nancy Drew fan.  I can remember challenging my friends that they couldn’t finish a Goosebumps book in a day.  Other than attending summer camps, I would sit in my room, or in the backyard, and READ.  I was able to finish a couple of Goosebumps books in a day.  Talk about an accomplishment that was before going to middle school. 

Ferrante: Is there anything you would like to share that I haven’t asked?

Williams: I love hearing from my readers.  I’m in the process of revamping the Alleykats website, but social media is quite active.  Feedback is always welcome, and whenever I receive a new Amazon review it totally makes my day!

three random questions

Ferrante: If snow could fall in any flavor, what flavor would you choose? (Being from Michigan, I assume you get snow.)

Williams: Oh yes, I have a Ph.D in tasting snow, and quite an imagination growing up with my neighborhood friends.  I’ve always wanted the snow to taste like the different flavors of KOOL-AID! I would have to choose Lemon-Lime or Cherry.  I can’t pick one!

Ferrante: If you could know one fact about every person you ever meet, what particular fact would you want it to be? (Assume that the other person would not have to be aware that you know this fact about them.)

Williams: Their level of optimism.  These days I choose to surround myself with people that prefer to encourage, enlighten, and uplift.  If there is a problem we are striving to find the solution.  What is that person doing to make the world a better place.

Ferrante: If you could have the original of anything in the world, what would you want it to be? (Assume that you would never be allowed to sell it for money; you must simply enjoy it for what it is.)

Williams: I would want the original of my father’s U.S. Army photo.  I found his uniform with his plane ticket home in his pocket, and later on found the photo.  The photo is damaged inside of the picture frame, so I would want his original draft photo.  Nothing in this world could compare to that.

Ferrante: That would be priceless. I lost my father at age 29 so I understand how meaningful these things become.

Thank you, Ronnika, for sharing your thoughtful and open-hearted answers with us today. I look forward to the release of your second Alleykats book. Good luck with all your amazing endeavors.

The Missing President will be reviewed on this blog February 3, 2017.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

 

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

Inferno by Dan Brown. Book review.

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Click here to buy Inferno (Robert Langdon)

In order to enjoy Inferno, you need to have an interest in history, architecture, and art as a good third of the book is focused on one or more of these. Fortunately, I do enjoy reading about these subjects although I felt at times less would have been better. Most of it is essential to the plot and intricately woven into the mystery.

There were moments where I felt the plot stumbled. In chapter 9 or 10, I laughed out loud because it was so unbelievable. Sienna went next door to find clothes for Langdon. While looking around, Langdon accidentally spilled a pile of newspaper articles about Sienna that basically told her entire life story. Later on in the novel, this is explained. However, Langdon is intelligent enough that he should have wondered why this “here is her life file” was sitting there. In the same scene, he googled himself to see if there was any news about his disappearance. Since google was available, the pile of life story clippings wasn’t necessary. It would’ve been much more believable if he had googled the doctor’s name instead of finding the clippings.

Three times, by chapter 9, we are told of Langdon’s visions/hallucination about the gray-haired lady surrounded by dying and dead bloody bodies. “Seek and you shall find” is repeatedly told. Instead of building suspense, I started to feel bored by the repetition. Unfortunately, it was even repeated a few more times after that. As well, the description of the underground lagoon where the virus was located became less and less suspenseful and more and more irritating as the novel progressed.

In chapter 16, when Sienna decides that Langdon is being pursued by his government with orders to kill him, she continues to help him. Why? He has done nothing to show her he is innocent of crime. He has no memory. However, why would she even believe it was the government after him since her friend, the doctor, was callously and unnecessarily gunned down in the hospital. Neither of these things made sense to me. This too is explained later on. However, Langdon should have been suspicious about this odd behavior.

In chapter 22, when discussing death masks, Brown mentions Shakespeare’s. This threw me because this is hotly contested. It has not been widely accepted that the death mask found in Germany in the 1800s is authentic. This made me wonder about all the other facts shared by the author. It would have been better to leave out something so controversial.

Other than these little jolts, the plot progressed well. It was suspenseful and interesting. While the biological solution to overpopulation was not original, it suited the story and gave more dimension to both characters and plot. It is, in fact, a logical and humane solution to what is an unavoidable crash of the human population overcrowding and destroying the planet and all life forms on it.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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 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

Little Miss History Travels to Mount Vernon by Barbara Ann Mojica. Book Review.

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 Click here to buy Little Miss HISTORY Travels to MOUNT VERNON

Barbara Ann Mojica is an expert on interesting sites to visit in the United States of America. In her latest book we are taken on a tour by Little Miss History through Mount Vernon. Being a Canadian, I knew absolutely nothing about this place. Barbara gives an interesting overview of George Washington’s plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

On the one hand, we are given a tour of the grounds and the inside of the mansion. Several of George Washington’s rooms and gardens are shown. There is an interesting story about a key in a framed box on the wall. The key was used by the revolutionaries in France to storm the Bastille. I found it ironic, and somewhat disturbing, that a symbol of downtrodden people fighting for their freedom was hung on the wall in a plantation where slaves were used.

Last spring I had the opportunity to tour two large plantations in New Orleans. The emphasis was on the ostentation and history of the white plantation owners. What intrigued me the most was the snippets we were given on the slaves’ lives. I was very pleased to see that Mojica did not undervalue the story of these brutalized people. She mentions in the book that George Washington did not allow “harsh treatment of his slaves”. I guess he judged this on a continuum. Owning a person, selling them at will, controlling every minute of their every day, working them from dusk til dawn, is pretty harsh on its own.

By the second page of the book, we are made aware of the use of slaves to keep the grounds pristine. They used scythes to keep the Bowling Green usable by the free and wealthy. Martha Washington managed the kitchen with a hired person and several slaves who would’ve prepared many foods they were not allowed to eat. The quarters of 85 slaves were built out of sight of the main house. Doesn’t that speak volumes? I was pleased to see that, whenever possible, Mojica named the slaves and their specific duties. She explained the conditions under which they lived and their meager possessions. She related how long and hard they worked under a man who believed it was the government’s responsibility to end slavery and did not free his own slaves until his death wherein he was given a memorial. Even after their deaths, however, slaves were treated as chattel and buried in unmarked graves.

This book lends itself well to discussion. One of the most disappointing traits of humans is the ability to compartmentalize and avoid ownership of the results of their behavior. We can have a man who does not believe in slavery owning slaves. We can have an animal lover who hunts. We can have a psychologist who manipulates his wife. Accountability, responsibility, truth, all become evasive when humans can rationalize their behavior. It is especially damaging when leaders, such as presidents, can say one thing and do another.

I’m not sure if it was Mojica’s intention to raise these issues. Her books are for history lovers and those who like to symbolically visit interesting locales while sitting in a comfy chair. However, for me this book was more than that. An excellent addition to her wonderful series.

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Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund. Performed by Susanna Burney. Book Review.

This novel is written from the point of view of Marie Antoinette beginning at age 14 when she was married off to the 15-year-old Dauphin, later to become King Louis XVI. Marie Antoinette has been groomed by her mother, the Empress of Austria, to be the perfect wife, obedient, cheerful, beautiful, and eager to bear children. However, things become more challenging than anticipated when Louis does not consummate the marriage.

Marie Antoinette, although genuinely eager to be a perfect princess and future Queen, behaves, in many ways, like a typical teenager. The author, Naslund, used Marie Antoinette’s letters as the major resource for her novel and as such, the young woman’s voice comes through with clarity and power. It is a voice that can be wearying on the listener but is both vivid and compelling.

Naslund writes in great detail of the sensual world Marie Antoinette experiences and interprets. The listener feels pulled into both time and place. I used an audiobook read by Susanna Burney whose story evolves impressively from that of an eager to please child to that of a mother and wife struggling for the survival of her family.

It is easy to condemn Marie Antoinette’s extravagances, especially her enormous gambling debts and expenditures on jewelry and clothes but, given an identical situation, many modern young women would behave in the same way.
In spite of her Habsburg lineage, Marie Antoinette is a woman ruled by her husband and country and therefore at the mercy of others. There is little mercy during the French Revolution.

Another perk of listening to the audiobook is the interview with the author after the novel is complete. This provides insight into the historical Queen and why the author chose to present her in this light. If you enjoy historical fiction, especially those that get deeply into the minds of the protagonist, you’ll love this book.

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BUY Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette (P.S.)

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Bray, Libba. A Great and Terrible Beauty. Book Review.

A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy)

The setting and characters are the real stars of this novel. The plot is interesting but it was the world of these Victorian girls that kept me turning the pages.

It begins in June 1895 in Bombay, India. Gemma, the heroine of the story is turning 16 and cannot understand why her parents will not take her to London, England. In Victorian culture, women have a short period of time in which to catch a man who will support them for the rest of their lives. Emma wants to join English society and participate in balls, shopping, and dining out. While she does get her wish to go to England, it is through disastrous events that change her life forever.

The dynamics of an English boarding school and the division between the social classes is fascinating. These girls live a life most modern teenagers could never imagine filled with restrictions and expectations of their every move and word. Yet, the jealousies and cruelties are no different than those practiced in high school today.

The plot centers around a magical realm and powers that draw Gemma and her friends into dark intrigue. The ending was not as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. The revelation of Gemma’s mother’s past destroyed my compassion for her. Pippa’s decision, while understandable, seemed childish and suicidal. The threat from Kartik’s people seemed to go nowhere and was unresolved while the romance between him and Gemma was disappointing.

Libba’s writing style is vivid and enjoyable. This is her first book and I would definitely read more of her work.

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Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Burton, Jessie. The Miniaturist. Book Review.

I really wanted to like this book. I like historical novels and I love miniatures, especially houses that are replicas of real buildings. I read to page 106 but just could not continue. The pace was slow, the characters had potential but failed to hold my interest, and the plot was threadbare.

Because I did not finish this book, I cannot give it a fair rating. Another reader may make it to the end and love it. I just couldn’t manage it.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Lewis, Amanda West. September 17. Book Review.

Click here to buy September 17: A Novel

This is a young adult fictionalized true story of the City of Benares, a cruise ship, transporting children and some families to Canada during the Second World War. The British government was trying to protect children from the German bombings. Unfortunately, the ship was torpedoed, sending a few survivors into small lifeboats and the rest of the passengers to the bottom of the ocean. This book traces the story of several children and their experiences with their family before departure, on board the ship, and after the sinking of the ship.

Due to the factual, third person viewpoint, I initially thought this book would be dry and the characters would remain distant. However, while remaining true to the language and culture of the time, Lewis gently draws us in and shows us how these were real, lovable children. The stories told of each lifeboat are fascinating, suspenseful, and moving.

Although the story is deeply tragic, the determination, heroism, courage, and compassion of passengers and staff are inspiring. This book is an example of how far-reaching and horrifying the effects of war are on even the most innocent victims.

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Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages