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Phew! What a whirlwind this week has been! The weather flip-flopped between winter and summer, the Bat Mitzvah RSVPs flooded in and my fourth book released to critical and commercial acclaim. It was also the week that I got a swift kick in the gut.

The jolt came in the form of an Amazon 1-star review that felt like a personal attack because of its mean-spirited content and because two more 1-star reviews followed for my other books. My first thought—someone out there really hates me. (And really idolizes her cat.)


But then I corrected myself. Someone out there really hates my success. The success that’s come from eight years of hard work, learning about the business of children’s literature, building a respected blog, and writing (and rewriting) picture books. Someone out there is envious and thinks that the best way to feel better is to put me down. And it’s the most impossible thing for me to understand.

I want to say to this person—please, don’t feel threatened—feel buoyed. Why? Because the children’s book market is doing so well. Think about it, picture books could be dead right now. The portent of their demise came…but has now passed, unwarranted. The Newbery Medal was awarded to a picture book! Ebooks didn’t replace a physical book in a parent’s lap. Apps and video games didn’t rob us of story time. Children’s books remain a bright spot in the publishing industry. So be happy for those people who have worked hard to achieve and work hard to achieve, too.

Look, LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST released on the same day as EVERYONE LOVES BACON. Did Josh Funk and Kelly DiPucchio go at each other’s throats…or breakfasts? No. Those books help one another sell even better because they are both delicious titles. Right now there are a ton of YETI books being published and it’s making YETIS become all the rage. People are now seeking out abominable snowmen books because they see they’re becoming popular. Our books HELP one another.

Lady Pancake Cover Image bacon cover

Now, this is not to say I’ve never been jealous. Of course I have! It’s a natural human emotion. But I’ve never sought to strike down someone who has enjoyed success. Whether or not I personally like a book, that artist deserves the sales and the accolades. Hopefully, one of my books will reach the same level of success some day. That’s what I keep working toward.

I think this attitude comes down to the fact that I’ve been kicked in the gut before, but by a disease. Being diagnosed with MS was the worst thing to ever happen to me, and after being in a funk for a year, I realized that if this was the worst thing then I had it pretty darn good. Great husband, two beautiful daughters, a comfortable home—that’s all I really need to be happy. Maybe it sounds cliché, but it’s true.

I was warned that speaking out about this review might cause a backlash. After all, maybe the review was legitimate and I’m just a sour puss. Sure, I could be overreacting. But the timing of the review (just minutes after I posed about NORMAL NORMAN’s #1 New Release status on social media) and having two more appear on different books suggests to me otherwise. However, yes, that person had the right to leave those reviews and I accept that.

Thankfully I’ve moved past that initial sting. I have, more than ever, realized that authors and illustrators are in this together—if we’re to keep selling books, we’re to celebrate each other’s successes. Be happy for those who get on the best-seller lists or receive starred reviews from the journals. They are bringing attention to our format and keeping it strong and desired. They have worked hard for the limelight and they should shine. My hope is that we can all shine just as brightly…and yes, even Marie Poppy’s cat.


If you’re a bibliophile, do something grand for a favorite kidlit book today. Write an online review!

It need not be of professional magazine quality—just show your love with some stars on an online book site!

According to a study from Stanford University, when x-star ratings increase in number, it’s more likely for the next review to be of that same star. So if you show your love for a particular book with 4 or 5 stars, other people will, too. It’s contagious!

Some tips when writing reviews:

  • If your rating is really 3 1/2 or 4 1/2, round off to the next higher number. The author will thank you for it.
  • Emphasize the child-pleasing qualities of the book. Parents want to know their kids will like it. An adult liking it may not hold weight for them.
  • Talk about both the text and the illustrations.

Erm, that’s about it. I want this to be an achievable goal for you today.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love a book!

So this self-proclaimed intergalactic superpower Mike Jung and I have a little middle grade book review thing going. You may have read our bookish banter regarding Nan Marino’s touching Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me or our unique take on Newbery Medalist Rebecca Stead’s time-travel thriller When You Reach Me. (After all, Elizabeth Bird did mention our review in FuseNews.)

In a pathetic, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants fashion we dubbed ourselves the Ebert and Roeper of children’s book reviews.

We think you agree that the name lacks the imaginative flair and je-ne-sais-quoi mystique you’ve come to expect from Tara and Mike. Especially Mike. In the words of the immortal Steve Martin, he’s a wild and crazy guy.

So we thought–hey–we’re writers! We can do better than that. What’s better yet–we know a lot of writers! Smart writers! (Notice how I’m buttering you up.) They can certainly do better than that! In fact, why don’t we sit back and do nothing while they do all the work? Yes, we’ll have THEM choose the title for our review series while we collect all the middle grade glory!

We’re even offering up a prize! And again in the words of the immortal Steve Martin: “I’m picking out a Thermos for you. Not an ordinary Thermos for you. But the extra best Thermos that you can buy, with vinyl and stripes and a cup built right in.”

Well, I’m not sure if the prize is a Thermos. But it’s gonna be somethin’. Yes, you’re guaranteed SOMETHIN’.

Head on over to Mike’s Little Bloggy Wog for more details.

And tell him Ebert sent you. Or Roeper. We haven’t quite figured out who is who. (You see why we need a new name?)

Who are Tara and Mike? Think of Ebert and Roeper–but discussing children’s books instead of movies. This week we’re giving two bookmarks up to Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino (Roaring Brook Press, May 2009).

“Muscle Man McGinty is a squirrelly runt, a lying snake, and a pitiful excuse for a ten-year old. The problem is…only I can see him for what he really is.”

Tara: So Mike, what attracted you to Neil Armstrong is My Uncle?

Mike Jung: Well, Tara, it was partly the cover (the moon, it’s a very evocative image), partly Nan being a Blueboarder and seeming like a decent sort, and partly the title, which really spoke to me somehow—I instantly felt like there was a story right there in the title. Why’d you read it?

Tara: The title especially drew me in. Even though it mentions the first man on the moon, I didn’t realize the story took place during the summer of 1969, so I was pleasantly surprised. I became immersed in the summers of my childhood, anticipating the arrival of the ice cream truck, just like the kids on Ramble Street.

Before I read it, I imagined Muscle Man McGinty was some sideshow freak at a local carnival. I’m glad he turned out to be a scrawny ten-year-old instead.

Mike: Ha! I was caught off-guard by the time period too. 1969 was the veeeeeery beginning of my time (I was born in the summer of ’69) so it didn’t trigger any memories, but I thought the setting was so vivid, and so lovingly created, that I was immersed in it right away. And I had the same thought about Muscle Man McGinty! I also loved the character he turned out to be—so much sadness, courage, generosity and patience rolled up in one runty little kid.

Tara: Uh, maybe I shouldn’t have dated myself like that. 1969 was before my time, but still, if you remove the historical backdrop—Vietnam and the lunar landing—the story has a timeless feel. It felt like 1979 in my neighborhood, but it could easily take place in 2009, although the kids would be wearing bike helmets and the adults would be talking about Afghanistan and flying cars. If we had flying cars, that is.

What about the novel hooked you?

Mike: I was hooked by more than one thing—the setting, as I mentioned, was superb—but it was the characters that really grabbed me, especially Tammy. I love the voice of Tammy. She’s an incredibly genuine, multi-faceted, fully-realized character. In my eyes, one of the ways to create a successful protagonist is to put all their flaws on glaring, unmistakable display, but still make them sympathetic and understandable. Tammy often comes across as self-involved, oblivious and sullen in all the normal 10-year-old ways—she’s not some kind of villain, but she’s also not super-cuddly and lovable. I loved her anyway.

Tara: Confession: I didn’t love Tammy all the way through the novel. But I loved that I didn’t love her. I can’t recall the last time I felt such conflicting emotion over a main character. I rooted for her, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with her actions. The narration was brilliant because it revealed Tamara’s world so slowly, making you trust her implicitly at first, but toward the end you realized she could be her own antagonist. It felt like that Oscar Wilde song by Company of Thieves: “We are all our own devil.” Tammy wants what she wants and she doesn’t see what she needs to see. I’m being very cryptic, aren’t I?

And I also have to admit, I loved liar Muscle Man more than Tammy sometimes. The way he complimented Tammy’s pitching during the Muscle-Man-against-the-whole-neighborhood kickball game was hilarious because it infuriated Tammy. She wanted to expose him as a loser and he wanted a friend. Muscle Man had a big heart and he was desperate to fill it up.

Why would you recommend this book?

Mike: YOU ARE BEING TERRIBLY CRYPTIC. No problem, though, it’ll keep your blog readers on their toes, show ’em life is real, etc. I agree about the gradual reveal of Tammy’s world—her dysfunctional family, her envy toward the neighbors, her brother and his friend—it unfolds beautifully. There are moments when Muscle Man just broke my heart—you got it exactly right, such a big heart and such desperate attempts to fill it up.

Ultimately that’s why I’d recommend the book, it has tremendous heart. The characters have so much emotional depth, there are moments of real poignancy, and the book ended with the perfect mixture of loneliness, grief, solace, reconciliation and hope. This book is a tour de force, and I’m gonna pounce on Nan’s next one.

Tara: Mike, there’s nothing left to say because you’ve said it all. All the puzzle pieces came together at the end in a very satisfying way, but I still see opportunity for a sequel. Nan, could you get on that right away, please?

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me
by Nan Marino
Roaring Brook Press
May, 2009
Want it? Sure you do!

Blog Guest

Thanks to blog guest Mike Jung for the book banter.

Mike Jung has delusions of galactic conquest–lunar death beams, interstellar armadas, alien flunkies, etc.–but he probably has better odds for achieving notoriety by elbowing his way into the realm of published middle-grade fiction writers. He therefore restricts his empire-building activities to Twitter, which is better anyway because he doesn’t have to get out of his chair. Mike lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter, who exhibit immense patience for all his weirdo tendencies.

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