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Little Willow

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Author Spotlight: Wendy Mass

Novels by Wendy Mass will make readers think about life on a grand scale as well as a more personal one.

A Mango-Shaped Space

Every turn of the page offers another peek into the mind of a 13-year-old girl named Mia. She sees colors related to numbers, letters and sounds but has kept this a secret ever since she was little and realized that other people do not see things the same way.

Once she finally admits this to her family, and after she sees a series of doctors, she realizes there is a name for her condition: synesthesia. This eye-opening book accurately depicts the condition, explaining how it is different for those who have it (called synesthetes) and that it is not a disease so it is not "catching" nor can it be "cured."

I was truly moved by Mia's story and Mass' writing. The author has done a great job of detailing synesthesia, making them sensitive to Mia's condition while crafting a solid storyline.

A note to readers who own pets and/or are sensitive to animal storylines: bring your tissues, and avoid complete book summaries until you have finished reading the book yourself.

Leap Day

In 2004, a very cute and insightful book entitled was released in anticipation of February's special day: February 29th, a date that comes only once every four years. The book was Leap Day by Wendy Mass.

The main character was born on Leap Year. The story takes place over the course of 24 hours on her 16th - technically her 4th - birthday. Each chapter has two portions: the first part in first person from her point of view, and the second part in third person from every other character's point of view. Due to this unique rewind technique and double-perspective narrative, the reader learns that first impressions are sometimes made in haste, and that assumptions may far from the truth.

Random note: I was born on Labor Day, but it is a floating holiday, so it only falls on Labor Day once every seven years. Last year, the paperback of Leap Day was released on my birthday. As Tucker on the TV series Flash Forward would say, "What are the odds?"

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

When Jeremy was just eight years old, his father passed away in an automobile accident. His family had been dreading this day almost all of his life, ever since a fortune-teller told him he would die at age forty. She was wrong: He died at age thirty-nine.

Five years later, one month before his thirteenth birthday, Jeremy gets a package in the mail that contains a locked, carved box and a note from his father. Fascinated by this gift, Jeremy and his lifelong best friend Lizzy are initially saddened to hear that the keys to the box were lost. Almost immediately, they become determined to find these keys and discover the meaning to life, something which the carving and the note both promise.

The search that follows is filled with ups and downs, tears and smiles, as Jeremy and Lizzie meet many strange and wonderful adults who attempt to help them unlock the box. Though Jeremy ultimately learns that some things are set up to happen in a certain way to aid him in his search, he embraces spontaneity a little bit as well. Throughout the story, he honors the memory of his father, as does his mother. She is still mourning the loss of her husband but is nevertheless a strong character who is a great means of support for her son. He is surprised when he realizes how much she needs him, too.

Think of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass as I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak for the younger set. This Meaning of Life is a sweet, touching tale, and readers need only to turn the pages to discover it.

Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall

Imagine coming upon a bag of forgotten things, then reliving memories for each and every item you touch. After being beaned on the head during a game of dodgeball, high school junior Tessa finds herself in what she thinks is heaven - but what looks a lot like the local mall.

Is she dead or just dreaming? She remembers being hit by the ball. She remembers falling down on the gym floor. She remembers being a "mall brat," which she compares to being an army brat, but without the moving around. Because both of her parents work at the mall, it's just as familiar to her as her own home.

Soon, Tessa meets an oddly interesting boy who leads her to a bag filled with things she's obtained from the shopping center over the years. The bag includes a baby shoe, a box of crayons, a pair of flip-flops, and a prom dress, among many other things. Tessa then relates a series of events, one for each item. She remembers scenes with her parents, her older brother, her friends, the girls she wanted to befriend, the boys she wanted to date.

Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall is a fast, compulsive read. The story flows smoothly. Though it is written as a verse novel, it does not rhyme and is not set to a certain meter. Tessa's memories are related in chronological order, making it easy for readers to quickly learn the story of her life.

This isn't a maudlin modern Our Town, but rather a charm bracelet come to life. Instead of this being a scrapbook of the best and happiest times of Tessa's life, it's an honest look at what she's been though. She's not proud of everything she's done, and she must learn to take responsibility for her actions. As her shame and secrets come to light, Tessa begins to realize that she can still shine -- and that (hopefully) she's got a lot of living to do.

Twice Upon a Time

Wendy has written three books in the Twice Upon a Time series: Rapunzel: The One With All the Hair, Sleeping Beauty: The One Who Took the Really Long Nap, and Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn't Run Away. This line of funny stories for younger readers retells familiar fairy tales from two points of view, typically that of the fabled heroine and the dashing prince. The dual narrative gives more insight into the storybook characters, who are a little feister and funnier than you may expect, based on the originals. Hurrah for princesses and princes who have loftier goals than marriage and inheritance!

Every Soul a Star

Ally loves her home. Her family owns and operates a campground in "the Middle of Nowhere, USA." It's a good life, filled with stargazing and studies. She dreams of discovering a comet, something that would have made her late grandfather proud. She likes being homeschooled and working alongside her parents and her younger brother, Kenny. In fact, she enjoys all of it and can't imagine ever living anywhere else. Ally's a happy girl.

Bree doesn't fit in with her family. She loves them and everything, but she's just so different front her physicist parents and her brainy little sister Melanie. Though she appreciates what her parents do and she herself is a bright girl, Bree isn't into science. She wants to be a model when she grows up - or sooner, as she points out to her parents that most supermodels started at age fourteen or fifteen, and she's already thirteen and a half. Bree's an ambitious girl.

Jack has never seen his father. His mom cut his dad's head out of all of their pictures after he left the family. The man went away when Jack's older brother Mike was four and Jack was still in his mother's womb. Jack might seem quiet, but he's very observant. He has watched his mother marry (and divorce) a procession of men, some of which were cooler than others. He is aware that he could be doing better in school. He knows that he is overweight. He enjoys his dreams, in which he feels like he's flying, but when he's awake, he'd rather be inactive. Jack's a lonely boy.

Each of these characters is in for a surprise - or two, or three. Jack gets a cool offer from his science teacher: go on an eclipse tour with a bunch of adults instead of going to summer school. He arrives at Moon Shadow Campground, owned by Ally's family, around the same time that Bree's family drags her there. This book covers two weeks in their lives and details their reactions to each other, to their families, and to unexpected changes and challenges that come about as the eclipse approaches. The book culminates with the historic event, by which time the three kids - along with the girls' younger siblings and Ally's longtime friend and possible crush Ryan - have created an unlikely bond.

The story is related by all three characters in turn, with each speaking in first person for a chapter at a time. Readers get to know the kids as they detail their reactions to each other, to their families, and to the unexpected changes and challenges that come about as the eclipse approaches. They always speak in the same order - Ally, Bree, Jack - and each voice is distinct, with Ally being content yet curious, Bree being headstrong and sophisticated (in her mind), and Jack being cautious and full of self-doubt. Ally, with her scientific mind and family ties, was my favorite, but I liked all of the leads and supporting characters. The descriptions of the eclipse as well as Ally's affection for astronomy will certainly inspire young readers to look up at the night sky with newfound curiosity and respect. Another solid book for middle school readers from Wendy Mass.

11 Birthdays

11 Birthdays is Groundhog Day for tweens.

Amanda and Leo have known each other forever. No, really. Their parents met in the Willow Falls Birthing Center the day that their kids were born. Exactly one year later, they all happened to be at the same place for their birthday parties. Leo offered Amanda his stuffed bear, and the two babies became friends. They celebrated their birthday together every year since. Then, during their tenth birthday party, Amanda overheard Leo say something that really hurt her, and they pretty much stopped speaking to each other.

Amanda's eleventh birthday isn't horrible, but the day doesn't exactly go according to plan, either. She gets talked into trying out for the school gymnastics team by her friend, then freezes up when she's supposed to do a back handspring. Her dad has a terrible cold. Her older sister Kylie seems preoccupied. In honor of her movie-themed birthday party, her mom got Amanda a Dorothy costume that's uncomfortable. With Leo having his own party at the same time, only half of the kids that were invited come to Amanda's house, and some leave early to go to Leo's place. Wearing an itchy dress and shoes that hurt her feet, Amanda's pretty miserable, but she doesn't really complain. As she crawls into bed that night, she's thankful for what she has - her family, her health, the upcoming weekend - and is grateful that the day is over.

Then she wakes up the next day - or what she thinks is the next day - only to discover it's Friday again! At first, she thinks her family is teasing her, but her sister's wearing the same outfit and her parents are insisting that she goes to school, so she goes with it. Almost everything that happened the previous day at school happens again, and the same things happen that night at her birthday party. Amanda's puzzled, to say the least, but sure that everything will go back to normal the next day.

Then the next day ends up being the same day again - and she discovers that Leo's reliving their birthday, too! Once they team together to figure out what's going on, they try all sorts of things to break the cycle. One day, they find out what happens if they bend the rules. Another day, they perform random acts of kindness. By repeating the same day over and over again, they are able to anticipate what's going to happen. They also manage to mend their broken friendship, thanks in part to a mysterious and kind elderly woman with a duck-shaped birthmark.

Once again, Wendy Mass captures a precious age without pretension, without making her characters too precocious. It's very nice to see a boy and a girl be just friends, without any romance involved or assumed. Throughout the story, Leo and Amanda act their age: they are stubborn, truthful to a fault, impulsive, even silly at times. This is a totally cute story that both kids and their parents will enjoy.

11 Birthdays was the first of Wendy's novels set in Willow Falls. The magic continues in Finally, 13 Gifts, The Last Present, and Graceful. Read the books in order to appreciate the crossovers and cameos.

Additional novels by Wendy Mass which I have yet to read:
The Candymakers
Pi in the Sky

Real Stories

Wendy has also written several non-fiction titles.

Read my exclusive interview with Wendy Mass.

Visit Wendy's official website.
Tags: author spotlight, books, cybils, reviews, scholastic

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