Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review Tuesday: Color Song by Victoria Strauss

I'm doing something a little different for Book Review Tuesday today.

Please welcome author Victoria Strauss to the blog. She is the author of nine novels for adults and young adults, including the STONE duology (THE ARM OF THE STONE and THE GARDEN OF THE STONE), and a historical novel for teens, PASSION BLUE. She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards.

An active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), she’s co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that tracks and warns about literary fraud. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website, Facebook page, and blog, for which she was a 2012 winner of an Independent Book Blogger Award. She was honored with the SFWA Service Award in 2009. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Victoria's newest book is Color Song.

From the publisher:

Artistically brilliant, Giulia is blessed – or cursed – with a spirit’s gift: she can hear the mysterious singing of the colors she creates in the convent workshop of Maestra Humilità. It’s here that Giulia, forced into the convent against her will, has found unexpected happiness, and rekindled her passion to become a painter – an impossible dream for any woman in 15th century Italy. 

But when a dying Humilità bequeaths Giulia her most prized possession – the secret formula for the luminously beautiful paint called Passion blue – Giulia realizes she’s in danger from those who have long coveted the famous color for themselves. Faced with the prospect of lifelong imprisonment in the convent, forever barred from painting as a punishment for keeping Humilita’s secret, Giulia is struck by a desperate idea: What if she disguises herself as a boy? Could she make her way to Venice and find work as an artist’s apprentice? 

Along with the truth of who she is, Giulia carries more dangerous secrets: the exquisite voices of her paint colors and the formula for Humilità’s precious blue. And Venice, with its graceful gondolas and twisting canals, its gilded palazzi and masked balls, has secrets of its own. Trapped in her false identity in this dream-like place where reality and reflection are easily confused, where art and ambition, love and deception hover like dense fog, can Giulia find her way? 

This compelling novel explores timeless themes of love and illusion, gender and identity as it asks the question: what does it mean to risk everything to follow your true passion? 

I thought it would be neat to find out the writing process of a children's author and Victoria was kind enough to answer some questions for us!!

Where do you get your inspiration for your characters and your plot? 

From everywhere! I've gotten ideas from my dreams, from my friends' dreams, from news items, from other books, from a ruined house glimpsed for a few seconds from a car window. I have a file on my computer where I jot these down, and when I finish one project I browse through the file to see what sparks my imagination.

My main characters develop as I turn an idea into a plot, and I always spend some time working on character sketches for my protagonists before starting a novel. But often the most fun characters are the ones I didn’t plan, who pop into being as I’m writing. In Color Song, Alvise, the nasty apprentice whose jealousy puts Giulia at risk, is one of those. I didn’t know he’d be in the book until the minute Giulia encounters him.

Do you write outlines before you begin or just start writing and let the story evolve…do you know the ending before it is written? 

When I first started writing, I was a pantser—I never did any planning. I’d have a strong idea for the beginning and the ending and some vague notions of the middle, but apart from that it was all a blank canvas. I worked like that for three books, but I wrote myself into so many dead ends, and had to spend so much time finding my way out of blind corners, that I realized something had to change.

These days I write a detailed synopsis, covering the main story arc, themes, plot points, and characters. I try to make it dramatic, imagining myself telling a story to a rapt audience around a campfire at night. This ensures that I can get all the way from start to finish without getting lost in the middle.

Then I put the synopsis away and don’t look at it again, and write from memory. Not slavishly referring to a plan gives me the room for improvisation that I need, for those “aha” moments that are the most exciting thing about writing (my finished books always differ, sometimes significantly, from my initial plans). But because I do have a plan, I don’t go too far off track, and where I do diverge, it’s productive rather than destructive.

Favorite place to write? 

I write at the dining room table, where I can look out the window into my garden. I don’t know if it’s a favorite place to write, but it’s less distracting than my office, with its reminders of bills to pay and emails needing to be answered.

How do you choose names for your characters? 

It depends on the book and the setting. For historical novels like Color Song, I research names from the appropriate country and time period, and just choose names that I like. I’m not one of those writers who becomes attached to character names—as I work my way from first draft to finished novel, names often change, sometimes for practical reasons (for example, Giulia was originally called Gemma; I made the change when I realized that Gemma is the name of the main character in another YA historical novel) and sometimes because the first name I choose winds up not feeling right (Humilità had at least three different names).

For fantasy novels, I work out naming protocols, to be sure that the names give a sense of cultural consistency. Often I base my naming protocols on real-world ones--for my fantasy novel The Burning Land, for instance, I based the names for one group of characters on ancient Persian names. One of my pet peeves in fantasy is random naming (George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you).

Do you treat your writing like a 9 to 5 job and keep writing hours or are you moved to write in a less structured way? 

Well, both, really. I try to keep structured hours, because waiting for inspiration to strike is not a recipe for productivity. But I’m a terrible procrastinator, so even if it’s my goal to sit down to write by 10:00am, I often don’t manage to hit that mark. Between trying to be structured and trying to avoid structure, I somehow manage to get things done.

How do you research settings to make them believable? 

I do research for all my books, whether historical or fantasy (most of my fantasy settings are based on real-world historical periods and places).

The bulk of my research is book-based--I’m lucky to live in a town where there's a large state university with a big research library. I also use the Internet for spot-checking details (what was a typical dowry in late 1400’s Italy?), finding images (the market square in Padua), and so on.

Where I can (and where my budget allows), I do real-world research, including traveling to the locations I use in my books. For Color Song, I spent time in the studio of an artist who uses Renaissance painting techniques. I got to see gesso applied to a walnut panel, pigments being ground and mixed, color glazes applied over underpainting, and much more. Very cool!

You can reach Victoria at her website,  Facebook page, Twitter, Google+, and Goodreads.


2 Grand Prizes Winners: 

One Kindle Paperwhite with custom Color Song cover with Color Song and Passion Blue ebooks pre-loaded, plus swag (postcards, bookmarks), and signed paperback editions of Strauss's Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) (US only) 

2 winners:

Signed hardcovers of Color Song and Passion Blue, plus swag (postcards, bookmarks) (US and Canada) 

5 winners:

Signed paperbacks of Color Song and Passion Blue, plus swag (postcards, bookmarks) (US and Canada)

Giveaway ends at 11:59pm on October 10th. You must be 18 or older to enter. Winner will be chosen via Rafflecopter on October 11th and notified via email. Winner have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

3 Websites I Can't Teach Without

I'm joining the Teaching Trio's Technology Thursday linky today where they are listing 3 websites that they can't teach without.

#1 is GoNoodle.

I was introduced to this website from several primary teachers last year. For awhile, I thought that my 5th and 6th graders were too old for it but then I decided to try it with them.

They LOVED it!!! We only had a month left in school, but I tried to use it as much as possible.  This year, I introduced it as soon as school started.

I have my 6th graders in the morning. We always start with math, so I decided that for our transition into science or social studies we would do a brain break.  GoNoodle lets you upload your own YouTube videos to your page. I wanted to use something my students could relate to so I went searching for some current songs.  YouTube user Average Asian Dude has a playlist of Just Dance 4 game plays that are perfect for my 5th and 6th graders.  They are mostly current songs that the kids know and they really get into it.

If for some reason, we don't have time for our brain breaks the kids are so disappointed.  This is definitely something all upper elementary teachers should give a try!!

#2 is WorksheetWorks.com

I LOVE this site and use it ALL THE TIME!!  How often do you just need a practice page for a math skill? Your students need to practice adding fractions. With just a few clicks of the button, you can have a customized page ready in seconds.

I use the site for mainly math worksheets, but they do have other sections too:  English, Geography, Puzzles and Miscellaneous Topics.

Some of my favorite non-math sections are:  Graphic Organizers, Graph Paper Generator, Magic Squares, Sudoku Puzzles, and Coordinate Picture Graphing.

Be sure to check out the site. I guarantee that you will find something that you love!!

#3 IXL

I love this site because you can have your students practice the skills they need to work on and track their progress.

I keep track of the skills my students have mastered and am able to use IXL to give them more practice on skills they they haven't quite mastered yet.  The students can go into any given standard (they have skills listed by state and common core standards) and they can do problems until they show mastery. I really like IXL because if a student misses a problem, the site shows them the correct solution with the steps to get to that answer. The students are also motivated by earning rewards for completing so many problems.  My students sometimes have a friendly competition of who has the highest percent mastery as well and they motivates them to try their best on every problem.

For the teacher, they have great data collection. You can see how many problems a student has attempted, how many they got right and wrong and at what percent of mastery they currently have.

I hope you find these websites as useful as I do.  You can hop on over to the Teaching Trio for more great web resources!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review Tuesday: If... by David J Smith

If...A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers

Illustrated by Steve Adams

From the publisher:

If the Solar System's planets were shrunk down to the size of sports balls, and Earth were the size of a baseball, what size would the other planets be? If your lifespan was represented by a pizza divided into twelve slices, how many slices would represent your time spent in school? These questions and more are explored in this innovative and visually appealing book about very big concepts made accessible when scaled down to kid-friendly size.

My Review:

This is definitely a book I want in my teacher library. It covers many topics including:  Our Galaxy, The Planets, Inventions through Time, Species of Living Things, Energy and many more.

Children have such a hard time understanding large numbers.  The page about the Planets is something I will definitely be using when I teach our Earth and Space Science unit.  The author used everyday items that my students (and yours) can relate to when describing the size of the planets in relationship to each other.

The illustrations by Steve Adams are amazing and very kid-friendly.

This book definitely belongs in your classroom!!

You can purchase it at Amazon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review Tuesday: Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin

Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves:  A play about the Cherokee Syllabary

Illustrations by Siri Weber Feeney

From the publisher:

In the early 1800s, white settlers and missionaries were intent on bringing the English language to the illiterate Native Americans. Sequoyah was intrigued by these leaves of paper with strange marks that talked. Doing what no one had ever done before, Sequoyah set about creating a written Cherokee language - helping preserve the tribe's history and culture even today.

My review:

I think this is definitely something that I would use in my classroom during our Native American unit.  My students love reading plays and this would make a great story for readers theatre.

I liked how the story let the reader know when they are reading fact and when they are making conjecture. I would definitely consider this a fiction title based on real events.

The publishers suggest this for grades 3-5 and I agree with that. I can definitely see using it with my 5th graders.

You can get this book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review Tuesday: We're the Center of the Universe by Christine Zuchora-Walske


We're the Center of the Universe by Christine Zuchora-Walske.

From the publisher:

The universe circles around Earth. Creatures live on the sun. You can tell the future by looking at the stars. At one time, science supported wild notions like these! But later studies proved these ideas were nonsense. Discover science's biggest mistakes and oddest assumptions about physics and astronomy, and see how scientific thought changed over time.

My review:

While most of the information in the book is accurate, there are some things that are not. The author also describes some events in incorrect terms.

When she describes the apparent motion of the planets, the author says that they move in ovals.  As a science teacher, I'm not happy about her using that term. She could have said that the planets move in an elliptical orbit and then described what that meant. I don't want to students to say the planets move in an oval shaped pattern...

When talking about the mission to Mars, the author states that the first pictures of Mars were taken by an orbiter. It was in fact a flyby, the Mariner 4 (US), that returned with 21 images according to the NASA website.

Having said all that, the book does contain a lot of good information. If you use it in your class, just point out the inaccuracies and make it a teaching moment. 

You can purchase the book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble