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Doll Bones by Holly Black (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Doll Bones by Holly Black (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

Just in time for Halloween…  A spooky edition of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf!


DOLL BONES by Holly Black

Published by Doubleday Children’s, May 2013

Winner of a 2014 Newberry Honor Medal

suggested age range:  10 – 14




Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever. And for almost as long, they’ve been playing one continuous, ever-changing game of pirates and thieves, mermaids and warriors. Ruling over all is the Great Queen, a bone-china doll cursing those who displease her.

But they are in middle school now. Zach’s father pushes him to give up make-believe, and Zach quits the game. Their friendship might be over, until Poppy declares she’s been having dreams about the Queen—and the ghost of a girl who will not rest until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave.

Zach and Alice and Poppy set off on one last adventure to lay the Queen’s ghost to rest. But nothing goes according to plan, and as their adventure turns into an epic journey, creepy things begin to happen. Is the doll just a doll or something more sinister? And if there really is a ghost, will it let them go now that it has them in its clutches?

-courtesy of Holly Black’s website

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  Friendship, growing up, loyalty.  Includes the idea of the death of a child in the past, but this is not the main focus.    


Back cover of Doll Bones hardcover.

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I was almost too scared to read this based on its description.  I’m glad you talked me into it, but it WAS scary to me–enough so that I avoided reading it at night.  I don’t read enough ghost story type books to know if this is typical, but I liked how the story always seemed to have two possible explanations for anything ghostly.  So it was easy to read along thinking, well….maybe Poppy is making this up.  Or, maybe it was a raccoon who trashed the campsite, etc.  


Eva:  That’s funny because although I enjoyed Doll Bones, I was hoping for it to be MORE of a straight-forward ghost story.  For a lot of the book it seemed like Poppy was perhaps just making it up, and that made me a little disappointed and made the stakes for getting The Queen to the graveyard not as high.  I kept thinking, “this better be real or I’m going to be disappointed!”  Of course, I was a kid who LOVED reading ghost stories in upper elementary and middle school.  


Meagan:  One thing I loved was the specificity of the setting.  It’s set in modern-day, post-industrial towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and having been in that part of the country, it feels spot on.  The buildings, the landscapes, everything feels just right and not generic.

I also saw that Doll Bones was a winner of something called The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature.  According to the award website, It honors books for beginning readers to age thirteen, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia.  I will definitely look at their nominees and award recipients for reading recommendations in the future!


Eva:  I’m not surprised this book has won awards!  I thought this was well-written with good pacing.  And the mix of ghost story and real-life adventure was unique and interesting.  I liked the characters — although Zach annoyed me sometimes —  and I liked the adventure overall.  Black did a great job of blending magical aspects with real life adventure.  Like you said — the very specific setting was a great benefit.  

But honestly, I think my favorite thing was the creepy doll and the ghost story surrounding her.  I love that she lived in a locked glass cabinet in Poppy’s living room and that the three kids called her The Queen:  

The Queen was a bone china doll of a child with straw-gold curls and paper-white skin.  Her eyes were closed, lashes a flaxen fringe against her cheek.  She wore a long gown, the thin fabric dotted with something black that might be mold.

And I loved the stories the kids made up about the doll:

According to the legend they’d created, the Queen ruled over everything from her beautiful glass tower.  She had the power to put her mark on anyone who disobeyed her commands.  When that happened, nothing would go right for them until they regained her favor.


Doll Bones is illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.


Meagan:  I also want to mention that the themes are superbly developed.  They aren’t overly obvious, but once I started thinking about what they were, I found they were woven in in so many different ways.

Reality versus Fantasy is an obvious one.  Is the ghost of Eleanor real?  Is she really doing these things?  It’s also present in the way the three kids play:  a pretend quest (like with the action figures at the beginning or a real quest that they go on later).  It’s also in their struggle with middle school identities.  Are their childhood selves their real selves?  Are their newer interests in sports and dating pretend identities that they are putting on in order to fit in, or are these part of their real selves too?

Another theme is Hanging On versus Letting Go. There’s the whole idea that a ghost is hanging onto life in this world versus passing on to the afterlife.  There’s also the story of how Eleanor’s father couldn’t let her go and hung onto her in a creepy way.  And then there’s the challenge Zach, Poppy, and Alice face:  can (or should) they hang onto childhood and their friendship as it was?  Will hanging onto it actually destroy it?  Should they let go and be okay with becoming teens and introducing a new dynamic to their friendship?


Eva:  You’re absolutely right about the themes.  This is much more than a straight-forward ghost story because Black did such a great job of weaving in coming-of-age themes.  

I have to say, though, one thing that bothered me was Zach’s motivation.  At the beginning of the book, his dad throws away his action figures, so Zach tells Alice and Poppy that he can’t play the make-believe game anymore.  I kept thinking, “couldn’t he just get some more action figures?” and “Does he even need the action figures — aren’t they just playing make-believe anyway?”  

I understand that he was upset with his dad and that it sent a message to Zach that he needed to grow up, but I think his motivation for quitting the game would have been stronger if his father forbade him from playing with the girls, OR, even better, if some of his teammates found out about the game and he was embarrassed.  As it was, I didn’t totally buy the fact that a)  his father throwing away the toys makes him decide to quit the game and b) that even after days go by he still feels like he can’t tell his best friends what happened.



Meagan:  Really?  That didn’t bother me at all!  I was impressed with what believable interiority and emotional reactions we get from Zach.  His response to his fight with his father (hiding it from his friends for fear of crying about it) feels tragic, but also so real.  Holly Black is a female writer writing a male protagonist very well.  It can be done!

My one writing criticism is that I was a little surprised by some of the “telling” descriptions of the characters.  There’s a fair amount of “Poppy is fierce” and “Alice is quiet” rather than just showing us that through choices and action.  It didn’t wreck it for me though.


Eva:  Yeah, although there were a few things I would have changed, I really enjoyed the book overall.  I thought she did a GREAT job of writing an appropriately scary/creepy story for middle grade readers.  When the kids find the little bag of ash inside the doll — oh!  So creepy and awesome!  But also, the story was never too creepy and scary for middle grade readers.  I also liked the historical explanation at the end.  It seemed very plausible.  Like I said, I really enjoyed the ghost story aspect of it, and I think kids will, too.    



Eva & Meagan are the hosts of Middle Grade Bookshelf.



Meagan:  I don’t know!  If I had accidentally started reading this book or one like it when I was a kid, I would have put it down in a hurry!  I can tolerate (though not totally embrace) the ghostly stuff as an adult, but as a kid, it would have given me nightmares.  So…I can’t think of any titles for comparison.

Eva:  Meanwhile, I LOVED ghost stories as a kid, especially anything by Mary Downing Hahn (Wait Till Helen Comes, The Doll in the Garden).  But I was most reminded of The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatly Snyder, which is also a Newberry-Honor-winning novel (1967) about a group of kids playing a make-believe game.  I remember reading this book multiple times as a kid, and each time I expected it to be something different than what it was.  I thought it would involve real magic, but it was just kids playing make-believe (and there was a real-life menace).  So I came to Doll Bones with that same sense of wanting there to be a real supernatural element, but not sure whether or not I was going to get it.



  • Adventure story
  • Setting and tone
  • Well-developed themes
  • Interiority
  • Close 3rd person narration
  • Appropriately scary story for middle-grade



Meagan:  For me as a writer, this book is an inspiration to develop multi-thread themes!  A good theme isn’t too obvious (not stated outright) and shows up again and again in the main plot, the subplots, and in different ways for different characters.

Eva:  This is a great books for kids who like ghost stories and/or action/adventure.


Babymoon, #AskALibrarian, & the Best Libraries

Babymoon, #AskALibrarian, & the Best Libraries

Last week, my husband and I went on a “babymoon” to Los Angeles. We’d been talking about taking a trip to L.A. for a long time and finally decided we’d better do it now. (It’s much easier to travel when the baby is still in utero.)

And why Los Angeles, you ask? Well, Paul spent some time there a few years ago and loved it – the sunshine, the ethnic food, the comedy club scene, the terra cotta roofs. Meanwhile, I lived in L.A. when I was nineteen and twenty (trying to be an actress and all), and I left with the opposite feeling. Back then I was young and poor and spent most of my time either working thankless extra jobs or driving on the clogged freeways to get to the thankless extra jobs. When I lived in L.A., I never ate out or went to clubs or did anything touristy. So this trip was a way for Paul to show me why he loves the smoggy, sprawling metropolis, and for me to come away with a positive L.A. experience.

And I’d say it was successful. On Friday we went to Disneyland, which was cute and fun. On Saturday we walked around in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. On Sunday we went to Griffith Observatory, hiked to see the Hollywood sign, and visited the La Brea tar pits. We also ate some delicious food. (I had my first ever Iranian rose water ice cream, and man it was amazing!) I still think L.A. is smoggy and traffic-clogged, but it’s got some good things going for it, too.


Here I am in Beverly Hills!

One thing I wondered was if we should visit my old stomping grounds. Fifteen years ago I lived in a less-than-great neighborhood in North Long Beach, and my memory of it is filled with 99-cent stores, liquor marts, nightly police helicopters, and sketchy dudes wearing bandanas in the park.

“You know,” I told Paul, “I don’t feel the need to go there.”

We were staying in Westwood, near Beverly Hills. We had a rental car, but it would take forever to drive to Long Beach in the L.A. traffic. And once there, then what? It would have been interesting for me to see my old neighborhood, but there wasn’t really anything else to do or see there. (There’s the Carl’s Junior! And there’s the park where the gang member said hi to me!)

“Wasn’t there anything you liked about your neighborhood?” Paul asked me.

“Well… I liked the library,” I said. “And actually, the residential area around the library was really cute. These little bungalows with terra cotta roofs.”

I had forgotten until that moment about how I used to walk two miles to the library at least once a week. No matter where I am, the library is always a comfort to me.

And that’s actually what I want to write about today. Not Los Angeles or gangs in the park. I want to discuss libraries and librarians.




No matter where I live or how long I stay, I always get a library card. If you look at my keychain right now, you’ll see cards from Cape Cod, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Maryland. (I’ve long since lost my Long Beach library card.)

I know that as a writer I should support the industry by buying books, but I’m a cheapskate who reads a lot – the library is an invaluable resource. I check out anywhere from two to ten books a week (both regular and e-books), plus DVDs from time to time. I often tutor at the library, and I’ve used the quiet rooms in various libraries as places to write. I’ve taken advantage of free library wifi, bought books at library book sales, and gone to free movie screenings at the library.

But one thing I rarely take advantage of are the librarians. In these days of electronic check-out, you don’t even have to interact with them at all. Which is too bad, because librarians know a lot about books, and they can be great resources for people like me who read and write.


Librarian Eva


The other day I happened to notice that it was #AskALibrarian day on Twitter. You could tweet about the types of books you were looking for, and librarians would answer. I had a field day!

Screen Shot 2016-10-07 at 3.41.31 PM.png

For every tweet I sent, I got a couple of tweeted recommendations back. You have no idea how helpful this is. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the decision of what book to read next, but thanks to the librarians, my to-read list is now packed!

And then it occurred to me, I don’t need it to be #AskALibrarian day on Twitter to get this kind of help… I can just go to the actual library and ask a librarian in person!

My friend Meagan (of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf) recently went to the Georgetown library in DC, which has an excellent children’s section. She was looking for possible comps for the middle grade book she’s writing, so she asked the librarian: “I’m looking for recent middle grade science fiction – like Ender’s Game but published in the last ten years.” The librarian gave her a hefty list of suggestions.

“That’s brilliant!” I told her. Why had I never thought of this before? In addition to always needing reading suggestions, I also want to find comps for the book I’m writing.  In all my years of taking advantage of the free things the library has to offer, I’ve ignored one of the most valuable resources: the people that work there and spend their days surrounded by books.

So I intend to start talking to librarians more often and seeking out their advice.  After all, I need to stock up on books for when the baby comes.  Meagan tells me that the constant breast-feeding I’ll soon be doing is a great opportunity to get some reading done!



Bad picture of the Hollywood sign, but good picture of my baby bump!




Seattle Central Library: This 11-story library made of glass and steel is an example of SUPER cool, modern, eco-friendly architecture. (The building was completed in 2004.) If you’re in downtown Seattle it’s worth touring because this is such a funky, unique, “digital-age” library.


The Seattle Central Library


Latter Branch Library in Uptown New Orleans: This library is housed in a gorgeous, neo-Italianate mansion (built in 1907) on famous, tree-lined Saint Charles Avenue. It’s a small library, but I used to love sitting at an antique desk in one of the reading rooms and imagining that I was a rich, turn-of-the-century New Orleanian. Oh, and the book sales take place weekly in the carriage house out back.


Biblioteca Publica in San Miguel de Allende: This library in Mexico offers books in both Spanish and English and was one of the first places in San Miguel to offer free wifi (although I never could get it to work for me). I like this library for its open-air courtyard, adorable café, and small theater that often shows free international films.


Courtyard of the San Miguel Library.  Picture courtesy of TripAdviser.


The Library of Congress in Washington, DC: Part museum and part research library, this building is BEAUTIFUL inside and out, and houses Thomas Jefferson’s original book collection. (The Library of Congress is also, apparently, the largest library in the world.) In order to get into the research part of the library you need special credentials, but I like peeking in there and seeing all the dark wood and soft lamps arranged in a circle below the impossibly high ceiling. It looks to me like a library out of Harry Potter. Gorgeous.


The Reading Room of the Library of Congress.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress website.


Brewster Ladies’ Library in Cape Cod, MA: A beautiful little library housed in the home of an 1800’s sea captain (with some modern additions), this library is noteworthy because it was founded by twelve women in 1853. When it first opened, men were allowed to borrow books, but they had to pay more than the ladies. (That rule is no longer in effect.) I used to enjoy sitting in the parlor by the fireplace, pretending that I was a Massachusetts lady with a whaling ship captain for a husband.


The Main Library in Roanoke, VA: This was my first library love: the place where I got my first library card. I remember reading Dr. Suess books here. I remember the day I first strayed from the children’s section into the adult fiction stacks. I remember doing research for high school papers here (using the microfiche machine!) I always thought this was a pleasant building inside, but I used to LOVE climbing on the big rocks outside the library.  (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of the big rocks.)


Interview with Middle Grade Author Shelley Tougas

Interview with Middle Grade Author Shelley Tougas

Recently I posted about The Graham Cracker Plot on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf (see here), so I was excited for the opportunity to interview its author, Shelley Tougas.  Since 2014, Shelley has had a middle grade novel published every year, and she’s got another in the works for 2017.  Dang.  Naturally, I wanted to know her secrets!  Read on to find out what she told me.


A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids, coming October 11, 2016!


Hi Shelley!  So tell us about your newest novel, A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids, which is due out in just a few days.  How did it come to be?  

The book is about a 12-year-old girl [Mary] tapped to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her cousin, whose social anxiety disorder requires Mary to be the bride’s advocate. Mary has to manage the wedding chaos and the aspirations of a meddling grandmother, all while navigating her first crush on a boy who challenges her religious thinking. My editor likes to describe it as a middle-grade version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I started A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids nearly 10 years ago. At the time it was a young adult novel with four alternating narrators. The book had no religious references and a different title — a title so bad I won’t repeat it in public! The only character who survived the original version is Eden, the bride. It took years for me to figure out what the book is about at its core. Romance? Faith? Family? For me, it’s about Mary accepting herself as a flawed person and loving herself anyway. She redefines her role in the family and learns to see the world in shades of gray. There are no easy answers.


Mary, the protagonist of the novel, is Catholic, and this is very important for both her character and for the story itself.  I was raised Catholic (my grandmother used to give me holy cards for my birthday!), so I definitely recognized her world.  What about you?  Were you raised Catholic?  Do you see any of yourself in Mary?

I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school for nine years. But 12-year-old Mary is nothing like 12-year-old Shelley, or even the adult me. You might think I come from a devout family because my parents forked out cash for Catholic school tuition and because I wrote a book with Catholic themes. But my family isn’t devout. We didn’t regularly attend church. We attended church bingo nights more often than Mass. I always wondered what my classmates thought when they went to church on Sunday and I wasn’t there.

Honestly, I had little awareness of patron saints. I knew Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, but I had no idea there were so many patron saints and for such odd things. There’s a patron saint for carnival workers. There’s a patron saint for people who fear wasps. That’s incredibly specific. My ex-husband’s family introduced me to this world. His aunt gave us a Saint Christopher medal to keep in our car to protect us from accidents. Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers. She also told us about burying a Saint Joseph statue in the yard to help sell our house. We kept the Saint Christopher medal in the car, but we never buried Saint Joseph, and we still managed to sell our house in two days. I guess you don’t need Saint Joseph in a hot real estate market.


Shelley Tougas


Were you at all worried, writing a book that has religion as such a central focus?  

My answer is one of those annoying “yes-and-no” answers. The “no” part of my answer is because the story isn’t about religion—it’s basically a tween romantic comedy. The family just happens to be Catholic. They could’ve been Lutheran or Methodist or any other religion. It’d still be the story of a people-pleasing girl trying to save her cousin’s wedding while navigating her first crush.

The “yes” part of my answer is I worried that having the word “saint” in the title might limit the audience. But when I talked to my editor about a book steeped in Catholicism, she made an excellent point: Church is a huge part of many kids’ lives (regardless of religion). She said there aren’t enough books for kids reflecting a church-going lifestyle.


You started off your career as a journalist, and you’ve also written some nonfiction books for kids.  How did you transition to writing middle grade novels?  

I started writing fiction in elementary school and considered being an English major. I didn’t want to teach, though, and I knew I wouldn’t support myself writing novels as a young adult. I decided to study journalism because I knew I’d get paid to write. Journalism combined my interest in writing with my interest in politics and social issues. Great journalists don’t just type up facts. They tell compelling stories.

When I left journalism for public relations, I met an editor who wanted to hire journalists to work on a series of educational books about iconic news photos that changed society. I took that gig, and my second book in that series, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, sold well and got great reviews. Booklist and School Library Journal put it on their lists of the top ten best books for kids in 2012. I knew I had a window of opportunity. I wrote a middle-grade novel called The Graham Cracker Plot, and I leveraged the success of Little Rock Girl to get my fiction into the world. I found an agent (Susan Hawk) within a couple of weeks, and after two rounds of revisions with her, she sold it quickly at auction.



Tell us a little bit about your agent, Susan Hawk.  How did you find her?  What is it like to work with her?

I was one of Susan’s first clients. I was interested in working with her because she had a long career in publishing (mostly in school and library marketing) before joining an established agency. We clicked immediately. She’s an incredible reader with spot-on revision advice. Most importantly, she wanted to work with me on building a career and not just selling a book. She talks to me about my long-term goals, and then we discuss the steps to getting there. I’m very lucky to have her.


Since 2014, you’ve had a novel published every year, and you’ve got a novel in the works for 2017 (called Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life).  Amazing!!  How are you managing to be so prolific?!

When I’m sitting at my computer, staring at the same paragraph for two hours, I definitely don’t feel prolific! Journalism taught me speed. You have nights where you’ve literally got fifteen minutes to write a news story. I wrote The Graham Cracker Plot (my first novel) in five months. Since then, I’ve become a slow writer. Maybe it’s because I knew the plotline for GCP when I sat down to write it. Typically I start with a concept and a few plot points, and I end up working it out as I go. It’s not the most efficient process. A detailed outline is key. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to write full time. Most writers have to balance their writing with a full-time job. There’s not enough money in publishing to support a middle-class lifestyle unless you have a partner who can cover expenses in between your paychecks.

Recently I started working a few hours a week as a library clerk. I love talking to people about their favorite books and what their children are reading. Writing is lonely. I’ve been missing the busy world of an office with people chatting in the break room and bouncing project ideas off each other.


Speaking of Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, can you give us a sneak-peak?  What is the one-sentence summary?  

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life is about Charlotte Lake, a girl whose adventure-loving mother drags the family to the Minnesota prairie so she can tap the spirit of Laura Ingalls while writing her first novel. Charlotte has to find her place in this new world.


The nonfiction book that helped Shelley get a foot in the door as a fiction writer!


What is your favorite thing about being a middle grade author?

I love the age of the audience. Tweens are still wide-eyed and imaginative, but they’re beginning to see the world in shades of gray. I also love the flexibility of my schedule. I can volunteer at my daughter’s school and be home with her during breaks. I can nap and take long lunches with friends. I can write in the middle of the night. There’s tremendous freedom.


And finally, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?   

My favorite piece of advice comes from a friend of mine, author S.A. Bodeen. We talk a lot about our inability to control so many aspects of publishing—who reviews you, how the marketing unfolds, what readers say about you online, etc. The one thing you can control is the writing. Get to your laptop and write. You can and should effectively manage your part in the process.


Shelley Tougas worked in journalism and public relations before becoming a novelist. Her book, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, was among Booklist and School Library Journal’s top ten best books of 2012. Her middle grade novels include The Graham Cracker Plot, Finders Keepers and A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids. She lives outside the Twin Cities.


Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

This fall I’m doing a work-study at Willow Street Yoga. In exchange for working two hours a week, I get one yoga class per week for free. Pretty sweet deal. Not only does this appeal to my frugal side, I also like meeting the people I practice with and feeling more connected to the yoga community.

One interesting thing that Willow Street offers is “Living Yoga” classes. According to their website, in these classes they “combine yoga and discussion, group coaching and self-work, to co-create empowered, expanded self-conception, and supportive, intentional community.”

As hippie-dippie as this sounds, it makes a lot of sense. Westerners tend to think of yoga as exercise, but yoga should also include mental and spiritual components. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the physical yoga poses were originally created in order to help yogis sit longer in meditation.

This fall, one of the living yoga classes is reading Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck. I’m not taking the class, but I picked up the book at the library out of curiosity, and because I’m a fan of Beck’s memoir, Expecting Adam. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I did like the first chapter, which was about starting at the end.



In this chapter, Beck says to think about the things you want in life and think about how you will feel when you get them. Then imagine that you already have those things and try to live your life in that “feeling-state.” She calls this “living backwards.” She suggests you actively, vividly imagine that you have gotten the thing you want and then focus on that visualization for a full ten minutes – every day. She guaruntees that you will be amazed by the results.

It sounds hokey, I know, but when I applied the idea to something in my life, it started to make sense. I want to write books that get published by a major publishing house. I think that when this happens I will feel more confident in my writing (and stressing about it less means I will enjoy it more). I will also feel more confident and secure in my life decisions – that pursuing this difficult goal was the “right thing to do.”

So, according to Martha Beck, I should live my life as if I’ve already published books. Who says I can’t feel confident in my writing and confident in my life decisions right now? There’s nothing stopping me except for my own mind.

Beck says that some of her clients push back against this idea, saying things like:

“Well, if I just wanted to feel good by deluding myself, of course I could do it… Anyone can feel good. What I want is to get ahead.”

To this Beck says,

“If you agree that it is better to look good than to feel good, be my guest – stay miserable. But please bear in mind that as a miserable person, you’ll have a much harder time getting ahead.”

And it’s true. When I stress about my writing – Is this good enough? Why haven’t I been published yet? What must people think of me? – not only does it feel unpleasant, but it makes the writing more difficult as well.

Better to start at the end. I will publish books with a major house. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will, so there’s no need for me to stress or lack confidence. I can enjoy my writing and feel secure in my decisions, knowing that I will get what I want in the end. Delusional? Perhaps. But isn’t it a more pleasant way to live?


Noose pose.  photo credit.


Ironically, when I went for my free yoga class the other day, the teacher talked about starting at the end, too. She showed us a deep twist called “noose pose” and explained that we were working towards a full bind with our arms.

“This is the someday pose,” she said. “You may not be there yet, and that’s okay. There are still a lot of interesting things to learn along the way.”

Beginning yoga students often feel bad about themselves when they can’t get into a certain pose. (And beginning writers often feel bad about themselves when they aren’t published.) But instead of feeling bad (because what’s the use in that?) you should hold firmly the knowledge that someday you will get there, and in that way you will have the confidence to enjoy yourself now and learn a thing or two as you work your way towards “the end.”

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

As a woman, as a Virginian, and as a former high school math teacher, the topic of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures both excited and moved me. She tells the true story of the black, female mathematicians who, during the labor shortages of World War II, came to work at NASA’s Langely Field campus in Hampton, Virginia. These “human computers,” most of whom had previously worked as underpaid math teachers in segregated public schools, stayed on at NASA after the war ended and became an important part of America’s race into space.

Fascinating, right? Totally. Except I had some trouble actually getting through the book.

Largely this was due to my taste in books. I was hoping for a highly-personal narrative that closely followed the lives of these brilliant women. I was hoping, to be honest, for another The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a highly-personal nonfiction book that I devoured in two days). But that is simply not what Hidden Figures is.

Hidden Figures cover

I received Hidden Figures for review from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours


The book does follow four women in particular: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. We learn about their personal lives as well as their careers and contributions to NASA. But it is done in a much more distant way than The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; instead of staying close to these women’s stories, the book often spans way out to address the wider historical context. For example:

So far, Hampton Roads had avoided the strife that had befallen Detroit, Mobile, and Los Angeles, where tensions between whites and blacks (and in Los Angeles, between Mexican, Negro, and Filipino zoot-suited youths and the white servicemen who attacked them) boiled over into violent confrontations…

…Negro resistance to this injustice had been a constant ever since the first ship carried enslaved Africans to Old Point Comfort on Hampton’s shores in 1609. The war, however, and the rhetoric that accompanied it created an urgency in the black community to call in the long overdue debt their country owed them.


Margot Lee Shetterly AP Photo by Aran Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampon, VA where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures.


Also, unlike The Immortal Life, Shetterly, as the author, stays firmly behind the scenes (except for in the Prologue which, as it happens, was one of my favorite parts).  But all of this is not to say that Hidden Figures is bad or unreadable. The opposite, in fact.  It is a beautiful-written and expertly-researched book about a fascinating topic. It is the perfect book for people who love history and/or love reading nonfiction (especially if they enjoy nonfiction books about history). It’s not, however, the best choice for people like me who prefer novels, or at least nonfiction books that read like narrative fiction.

While this book wasn’t quite for me, I’m so glad it was written. I was happy to learn about these women, who proved you can be black and female and a top-notch mathematician (something, that, unfortunately, is still not as common as it should be.)  This is an important story that  most people knew nothing about until now.

What I’m greatly looking forward to is the motion picture; that’s right, Hidden Figures is going to be a movie! I’m guessing the film will likely focus on (and likely embellish) the narrative threads woven throughout the book and will provide me with the strong, personal story I tend to need when digesting my history.  The movie is due out this January.  It stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and features Octavia SpencerJanelle MonáeKevin CostnerKirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons.




The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

Meagan & Eva’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf Presents…


Published by Roaring Brook Press, September 2014

suggested age range:  8 – 12 years




Daisy Bauer doesn’t have much.  She doesn’t have a nice place to live or especially responsible parents (her mom is on vacation with her new boyfriend, and her dad is in jail).  What Daisy does have is hope, a vivid imagination, and an after-school friend named Graham.  When Daisy and Graham are left at their trailer park on their own, they hatch a plan to bust Daisy’s dad out of jail and escape to Canada to start a new life.

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Touches on a number of hot-button issues:  poverty, alcoholic parents, neglect, parent in prison, mental illness, and a brief mention of drugs.      

So what did we think?  

Eva:  This book is so fun and funny!  The story is made up of letters that Daisy is writing to Judge Henry in an effort to explain herself, so even though we don’t know at the beginning what Daisy did exactly, we know it was something bad enough to land her in major trouble with the law.   Daisy’s voice throughout is great; she explains her world with humor, and the story deals with difficult topics in a light-hearted and middle school appropriate way:  

The Chemist is my dad, but he’s not the kind of dad who lives in your house.  He doesn’t drive me to school or fold socks or put away dishes.  My parents were never married, so he didn’t learn that stuff.

The Chemist’s the kind of dad who buys presents and lets you watch zombie movies and gives you ice cream even though you already had cookies.  Mom was like that, too, back when she’d put booze in a travel mug and pretend it was coffee.  But now, she’s all, “Eat your peas and do your homework and that’s enough TV for one day.”  

Meagan:  I agree that Daisy’s voice is memorable and a very strong part of this book.  Shelley Tougas writes Daisy’s socio-economic status into her voice subtly and in a way that is driven by Daisy’s character.  Daisy is a fast-talking, no-filter kind of person to begin with, and her lack of mature adult role models shows up in her word choice and topic choice.  

Eva:  Not only is Daisy’s voice great, I love the humorous (and realistic) banter between Daisy and her friend, Graham.  For example:   

“I’m definitely the brains of this operation.” (Daisy said.)

“More like the butt of this operation,” he said.  

Meagan:  Speaking of butts, as a writer, my favorite line in the whole book is: “My butt was cold.”  It’s a totally unnecessary thing to mention, she’s just telling it like it is, AND it gives away that Daisy has not had a model of a more formal, respectful way of speaking that one might use with an authority figure such as a judge.  To me, that one line exemplifies the author’s brilliance in bringing Daisy’s voice to life.

Eva:  Daisy is also a great example of an active protagonist.  She is not just an observer.  She makes bold (often misguided) decisions that propel the plot forward.  At the beginning of the story, she throws a tantrum and gets banned from visiting her father in prison.  Not only is this realistic for a kid in her situation, it shows us her emotions and it sets the rest of the story in motion.  


Meagan:  Another notable element of this book is the story-framing device. As mentioned, the story is told as a series of letters Daisy writes to Judge Henry.  It gives a strong, authentic-to-the-character reason for the story to be told and adds an extra layer of humor because you’re constantly thinking I can’t believe she’s telling the judge about the sound of someone peeing or dog barf or whatever.  Initially I didn’t think much of the letter format.  It seems to me like this sort of thing has been done before.  But on the other hand, it works, it supports the story, and I don’t think any kid readers would be bothered by it.  

Eva:  The book also manages to be hugely visual.  There is a part where Daisy and Graham accidentally trash a stranger’s house, and I could see it all playing out in my head like a movie:  the dog’s muddy footprints on the white comforter, the refrigerator tumbling over onto the kitchen floor…  Tougas isn’t afraid to make things go from bad to worse and beyond!  It’s a great example for writers who tend to be too cautious or “quiet” in their storytelling.  

Meagan:  Yes, she does a great job with her action scenes, like the house-trashing incident you mentioned.  Writing action scenes can be a real challenge.  At least it is for me.  I remember when I first started trying to write action, I wondered what really made a scene “actiony.”   I certainly don’t claim to have mastered it, but my working hypothesis is something like this:  a character makes a plan to do something difficult and midway through something goes wrong and they have to change course and make a new plan on the fly.  I know there’s more to it than that, but I do find that to be a useful definition to work from.  So, by that definition, the entire book of The Graham Cracker Plot is practically one big action scene, and that IS kind of how it feels to read it.

Eva:  That’s a really good observation.  Maybe that’s why I could so easily see this book as a kids’ comedy-adventure movie.  It’s a series of hilarious mishaps and plans going awry.  

The only concern I had was about the character of Ashley, who is mentally-impaired.  Sometimes she seemed like nothing but a plot device, and I wonder if her character was perhaps not handled in the most sensitive way.  But otherwise, I was impressed with the book, and it seems like you were, too.  It was action-packed and a lot of fun.



Eva & Meagan



Meagan:  I distinctly remember the books Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson making a big impression on me because they were about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds (one who is homeless, the other in foster care).  Learning to love characters with lives that are very different from your own is one of the ways that reading can really enlarge your world as a kid (and as an adult).

Eva:  I had a similar thought.  While reading The Graham Cracker Plot, I thought of a book I LOVED in middle school:  Silver by Norma Fox Mazer.  Although it has a totally different tone (much more somber), it was about a girl who lived in a trailer park and had to deal with difficult issues.  I remember thinking it was refreshing to read about a character who didn’t have a lot of money.  

In the same way, I think Daisy is a great character because certain kids can identify with her and her situation, and other kids, by reading Daisy’s story, can learn to sympathize with kids who are in difficult situations.  



  • Active protagonist
  • Character/narrator voice
  • Story framing device
  • Humor
  • Dealing with difficult topics in an age-appropriate way
  • Contemporary middle grade fiction



Eva:  If The Graham Cracker Plot were a movie, it would be a family-friendly  comedy-adventure.  I think kids will love it.  I really enjoyed the voice and the action-filled plot.

Meagan:   I’ll put this on my writer’s reference shelf as an example of brilliantly crafted character voice.


Shelley Tougas has a new middle-grade book coming out in October:  A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids.  Click here for my interview with the author.  



Come back soon for more Middle Grade Bookshelf posts!


Ode to the Metaphor: A Guest Post by Justine Polomski

Ode to the Metaphor:  A Guest Post by Justine Polomski

It’s back to school time again, folks.  Remember those tired old essay topics from English classes of yore?  Write about the person you admire most, tell about your summer vacation, describe a time you overcame an obstacle…  Well, my cousin Justine, a sophomore at Clemson University, got one such assignment for her speech class; the topic was “I believe…”  Normally that would be a big old yawn, right?  But Justine did something creative with it, and I decided to share.


Sixteen-year-old Eva and baby Justine.


I Believe in Metaphors

by Justine Polomski

I believe in metaphors.

With over one million words in the English language, people should be able to find a few of them to convey anything and everything they want to say. Every word has a meaning, but what if that meaning is not accurate enough? Not true enough? Not powerful enough for your thoughts?

I’ve concluded that individual words with their messy, misguided interpretations cannot articulate every fact, figure, and feeling of the human experience. Life is not as clear-cut and literal as the words we use to describe it, so I believe in metaphors.

People think in thoughts, not in words. Words are just a commonly used tool to translate our abstract thoughts from one mind to the other. But things definitely get lost in translation; just ask anyone ever. If we could take our thoughts as they come and place them directly into another’s mind, everyone would be understood perfectly, and there would be no teenagers making punk music about how no one understands them. But because no one will ever be able to fully comprehend another person’s abstract thought, metaphors are what help us come as close as possible where words may fail.

A metaphor is a direct comparison of two things that have absolutely no business being together. As communicators, we hold the power to draw these unexpected connection lines just because it makes sense to us.

For example, we use metaphor to convey feelings because people have more emotions than words can accommodate. There’s happy and there’s sad, but there’s also millions of unnamed ones: “I feel blue”, “I’m walking on air’’, or just pointing at a half-smushed panini on the road and saying, “My life right now”. I believe in metaphors.

Some metaphors have become so widely used, they are now just clichés: judging a book by it’s cover, the elephant in the room, a slippery slope, a red flag, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls”, whatever that means.

Even society itself uses metaphors all the time to explain its own complexities: the circle of life, time is money, America the melting pot, the glass ceiling, the iron cage. Would we be able to fully comprehend these ideas we live by without metaphor?

In everyday speech, any meaningful insult is always a metaphor in one way or another. And calling someone “low-hanging fruit” or “an actual bag of trash” delivers a heavier blow than any slew of negative adjectives ever could.

Maybe you love something or someone so much more than just a word. So you use a metaphor to let them become something beyond a person. For example, “You are my rock”, “You are my world”, “And Juliet is the sun.” -William Shakespeare.

Or maybe you are trying to explain your love life as “skinny love”, or as a long, convoluted, extended metaphor about stagnant ponds.

Words can be weak, and talking is hard, but getting figurative can sometimes be the only way to go. I believe using any means to say what you mean. I’m Justine and I believe in metaphors.


Justine Polomski