Book Review: The Dreamcatcher Codes by Barbara Newman

The Dreamcatcher Codes cover image

For a long time Sophia has been the guardian of a magical horseshoe which hold the key to keeping the natural world healthy. But when the horseshoe shatters and raven steals a piece, she must gather four young adventurers to retrieve the missing piece and restore order. Dubbed the Crystal Warriors, each girl brings strength associated with the four directions and the elements of fire, air, water, and earth. Together they must work fast to preserve the land they love.

The Dreamcatcher Codes by Barbara Newman is an adventurous tale that encourages young readers to tune into the wisdom of cultures and civilizations that have long felt a connection to working in harmony with nature. The girls feel the need to act quickly, as the world and the plants and animals that live on it suffer from pollution and other ills. Dark forces gather against them, but as their confidence grows, so does their determination to do what needs to be done.

The Dreamcatcher Codes uses fantasy elements to emphasize the dangers facing the natural world, and it can serve as a call to action for young environmentalists. I recommend it for readers aged 9 to 12.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Interview With Chris Negron, Author of The Last Super Chef

Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks

Author Chris Negron’s latest book for young readers, The Last Super Chef, follows his successful debut novel, Dan Unmasked. Here he answers a few questions for readers at Mother Daughter Book Club as well as shares a recipe from his home kitchen. For more information, visit www.chrisnegron.com.

How did you get started writing books for young readers?

CN: Initially I wasn’t! I wrote mostly books for adults for several years. But then a critique partner and I started writing flash fiction together as an exercise, and when I sent her a piece featuring a group of baseball players hanging out in the outfield that was very friendship-focused, she told me I had a strong voice for that age group and type of story. That eventually led me to write Dan Unmasked, which became my debut middle grade novel and was also very baseball- and friendship-forward. The Last Super Chef is my second middle grade project with HarperCollins.

What do you think are some of the challenges writing for that group?

CN: I recently started teaching a class to young writers, and one of the frequent pieces of advice I was given was to just be myself and be honest and authentic with them, because kids detect a phony in their midst really quickly. I think the same applies to writing stories intended for young readers. It’s important to just be authentic and honest, to source what you’re writing about from your own experiences as much as possible. So far with my middle grade books, I’ve written about the things I love, like comic books and baseball and competitive cooking shows, and because of that, it’s been easy to be authentic in that way. The themes of my books are just things that I think a lot about, or maybe things that bother me or have bothered me in the past. I’m not trying to “teach” anyone anything, I’m simply interested in starting a conversation with readers along the lines of “Does this bother you, too?” or “Do you think about this, too?” I think it’s really important to ask questions with our stories, and not to try to give kids answers. Stories for young readers should simply provide them with a canvas to paint out those answers on their own.

What do you like most about it?

CN: I love doing virtual events with schools where the kids can ask whatever they want about being an author or the books. The questions are always unique, and never fail to surprise, and sometimes later I even get thank you letters from the class which always touch my heart.

In The Last Super Chef, Curtis loves to cook. How do kids benefit when they become savvy in the kitchen?

CN: I think it can be empowering for them. I know that’s part of it for Curtis. Because his mother is a single mom raising both Curtis and his younger sister Paige on her own, Curtis is often forced to cook for this sister, and it’s great that his mom can depend on him to not only do that but to do it competently. Expertly, actually, in Curtis’s case.

My two sisters and I were latchkey kids when we were young, and we had a bunch of “go-to” dinners we could make – or at least start – on our own. I still remember cooking the ground beef for the El Paso taco kit in my mother’s electric fry pan, then draining off the grease into a coffee cup (mom’s instruction), using a precarious method of tilting the entire pan in the air. Looking back now, it makes me marvel at how independent we were but also makes me realize…well, that it was a little bit dangerous, I guess? Ah, the eighties, when all the playgrounds were metal death traps and kids were cooking on their own with hot grease. I’m realizing now I probably brought a little bit of that danger aspect to Curtis’s story, even though it’s set in present day. I mean, there *may* be a blowtorch early on, and an ill-advised bonfire as well.

Do you cook much at home?

I’m really lucky to be married to an incredibly good cook who truly enjoys prepping most of our meals. Now that I think of it, maybe her motivation is keeping my meager skills out of the kitchen! Seriously, though, all through the pandemic, I kept suggesting various take-out options to give her a break, but she always insisted that she preferred to make our meals at home herself, even though it was a ton of non-stop work. So, no, I don’t do much of the cooking at home, and that often leads people to ask how I would develop the idea to write a book with so much cooking in it.

The answer is my great fandom and admiration for competitive cooking shows like Top Chef, Master Chef, Chopped, and so on. What I love about these shows is the creativity of the competitors, how they strive to practice their art at the highest level, how focused they are on producing a dish – essentially, their art – that is unique and authentic. The judges on these shows often talk about wanting to see the chefs cook in their own “voice.” This is inspiring to me, because it’s a lot like writing. As writers, we’re always trying to produce authentic and unique work in our own voices, too. Sometimes watching the creativity at work in these shows gives me ideas in my own art.

Did any real-life cooking competitions for kids inspire you to write The Last Super Chef? If so in what way?

Definitely, most of the shows I listed have “junior” editions as well. I’m a dedicated viewer of all of them, and I think I mixed little pieces of each one into various parts of this book’s plot. The kids having to work with surprise ingredients in a few of the challenges definitely comes from Chopped Junior. The focus on creativity and inventiveness I think for sure was inspired by Top Chef. And I was probably thinking of the look and feel of Master Chef Junior the most when describing the made-up Super Chef studio.

All that said, I feel like the Super Chef show is an invention completely from my own creativity, and it was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book. I got to invent challenges that I had never seen before, in a format that fit my own imagination of how that kind of show would – or maybe more appropriately, could – work. I loved coming up with the various dishes the kids cooked, along with creating the pressure they were under to excel and maximize their talent in unique and creative ways, just like I see the real life chefs and amateur cooks – kids and adults alike – do on those shows I’m so obsessed with.

As Curtis gets to know his fellow competitors as well as Chef Taylor and his staff, he discovers that things aren’t always the way they seem to be on the surface. How does that influence him?

CN: For sure. In retrospect, I think that’s one of the major things I ended up exploring with this book. One of the early reviews I read said that The Last Super Chef was a “lesson in perspective” and I was so gratified to read that. Maybe not the “lesson” part – as I said earlier, I’m not so much interested in teaching lessons or being didactic with my work – but I am glad that the book seems to ask the right questions, ones that encourage readers to think deeper about the people around them.

For Curtis in particular, he starts out making a lot of assumptions about a great many things, including himself and the town he comes from, and certain members of his family, too. As he’s hoping and yearning to earn his way into the competition, he continues that line of thinking from afar about his competitors. A lot of these thoughts are born from the jealousy he feels as he watches them get announced ahead of him.

I confess I wasn’t thinking along these lines when I was writing it, at least not exactly, but now that I look back, perhaps I was mirroring a lot of what we’ve seen in the news recently into this aspect of the book. Curtis has this perspective based mostly on assumptions at the start, and we see how it evolves as the story progresses. And I guess I think that might be an important discussion with kids because we’re in a culture these days where many of us find it difficult to have meaningful exchanges with others who don’t share our exact and precise opinions and beliefs. We tend to make a lot of assumptions, like Curtis, about people who are different from us, whether it be politically, ideologically, racially, along gender lines, whatever. If seeing how Curtis handles his own assumptions, and the ways he realizes how most of them may have been wrong, can help readers out with their own real-life experiences even a tiny bit, then I think I’d be really grateful for that.

Without giving anything away about the story, is there something you really hope young readers take away from reading The Last Super Chef?

CN: Yeah, definitely. I think another thing this book is about is the future. Readers will see why, I hope, by the end if they give Curtis and The Last Super Chef a chance. Without spoiling it, what I’d just say here is that we all have a certain view of what’s ahead – our own futures, more specifically – but as adults we know things rarely turn out the exact way we think they’re going to. Understanding that’s going to happen, developing an ability to roll with the punches when they inevitably come, being flexible enough with our goals and what we want out of life, is a big part of being happy in life, I think. So I hope readers will take away that sometimes cooking without a recipe is not only the best, but most fun way to make your most memorable meals.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers at MotherDaughterBookClub.com?

CN: If readers are interested in a signed copy of The Last Super Chef, they can order online from Foxtale Book Shoppe, my local indie bookstore here in the Atlanta area (Woodstock, GA, to be specific). Just include a comment on who it should be personalized to, and Foxtale will let me know when these orders come in, so I can head over there and sign them before they ship the book out.

I’ll be doing quite a few Super Chef-related events, so visit my “Upcoming Events” page at chrisnegron.com for a listing. Many will be virtual, so anyone can attend, or perhaps there will be a live, in-person one near you!

Thanks so much, Cindy, this was a ton of fun.

…And on the next page I have a recipe for you too!

Chris Negron’s Recipe for Cacio e Pepe

Chris Negron, author of Dan Unmasked and The Last Super Chef shares his family recipe for an Italian pasta dish favorite.

Cacio e Pepe

Cacio e Pepe is a simple pasta dish popular in Rome with just three ingredients. Like it a little more peppery or a little more cheesy? Adjust it to your taste. The secret is using the highest quality ingredients, especially the cheese!

Ingredients:

1 big hunk of Pecorino-Romano cheese for grating

A small bowl filled with about 30 turns of coarsely ground black pepper

1 pound of dry spaghetti

1 large bowl that is halfway between a flat plate and a bowl – it should have enough depth to grate a pile of cheese into but also be nice and wide for turning the pasta and cheese together

Directions:

  1. Start by boiling a large pot of water for the pasta and dropping it in
  2. While the pasta is cooking, grate a big pile of the cheese into your large bowl / plate
  3. Sprinkle a few pinches of the pepper onto the top of your cheese pile
  4. Mix the cheese and pepper together with a fork
  5. When your pasta is al dente, use tongs to scoop the spaghetti out into your cheese bowl. Continue this until you’ve moved all the pasta from the pot to the bowl containing the grated cheese and ground pepper
  6. Use two forks to turn the cheese and pepper into the pasta, blending them. Continue this until all the cheese forms a rich, creamy sauce that evenly coasts the pasta
  7. To finish this sauce and make it as creamy as possible, use a ladle to scoop just an ounce or so of the pasta water into the bowl
  8. Use both forks to turn the pasta again, blending it with the water. The water will help transform your rich sauce into heaven on a plate!
  9. To finish, grate a small amount of additional cheese onto the top of the pasta and sprinkle another pinch or two of pepper onto the top of the pasta as well
  10. Serve it while it’s still hot! The creamy, peppery sauce is enjoyed best that way!

Book Review: The Last Super Chef by Chris Negron

The Last Super Chef cover image

Curtis loves to cook. Whether it’s whipping up a cheese soufflé for his mom and younger sister or earning extra money for the family by selling gourmet cupcakes, he likes to use his culinary skills to make other people happy. He also likes a challenge. So when Lucas Taylor, the host of his favorite cooking show and the man Curtis believes is his long-absent dad, announces one last competition just for kids, Curtis knows he needs to snag a spot at the table.

The Last Super Chef by Chris Negron is heartwarming and thought provoking. In the beginning, Curtis is focused only on winning, which would solve a lot of money problems for his family, and would let him get to know his dad. But as the challenges go on it gets harder for him to hold back on the questions he has for Chef Taylor. And as he gets to know the other contestants, it becomes harder to look at them as just adversaries. Throw in a lot of pressure from live TV shows, being separated from his family, and a few other stresses, and it’s no surprise that things eventually boil over. That’s when Curtis remembers who he is and why cooking is important to him and comes up with the answers he’s been looking for.

The Last Super Chef combines the fast-paced environment of a reality TV show with mouth-watering descriptions of food in a coming-of-age tale sure to inspire kids to experiment in the kitchen. I recommend The Last Super Chef for mother-daughter book clubs and any reader aged 9 to 12.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Marie Curie by Julie Knutson

The Science and Technology of Marie Curie cover image

Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery, with her husband Pierre, of the elements polonium and radium. She worked during a time when it was difficult for female scientists to be recognized for their work or even get funded for research. Her life, highlights of her work, and more can be found in the Build It Yourself title: The Science and Technology of Marie Curie by Julie Knutson

Marie Curie helps young scientists grasp the concepts behind such terms as scientific theory, radioactivity, electromagnetic spectrum, and other words that bring the woman and her time period to life. Chock full of facts, but never dry, Marie Curie also has experiments young readers can perform that go along with each chapter. For instance, there’s a test I was inspired to try right away called, “Get Elemental With Your Breakfast Cereal,” that’s designed to show how cereal is fortified with iron. It involves cereal (I used Cheerios), a magnet, and a piece of white paper. Simple but fun and fascinating.

I recommend Marie Curie for readers aged 9 to 14.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Secondhand Dogs by Carolyn Crimi

As the alpha dog in the pack, it’s up to Gus to decide when a new dog fits in. Miss Lottie has rescued three dogs after him, and Gus has welcomed each one. They all get along pretty well. But when Decker arrives, he has no intention of getting along or fitting in. Can Gus step up to the plate and be the leader he needs to be?

Secondhand Dogs by Carolyn Crimi is a sweet tale of finding your place in life and discovering your strengths along the way. Each dog encountered setbacks and difficulties of some kind before Miss Lottie took them in, and now they are comfortable in their new home. Decker has no intention of being part of the group. He challenges Gus and works to turn the dogs against each other. When the smallest dog leaves in search of his former owner, the others rally to find him before the neighborhood coyote does.

Crimi keeps the story going in ways that keep it from being predictable, letting it unfold gently until it reaches a heartwarming conclusion. I highly recommend Secondhand Dogs for mother-daughter book clubs and all readers aged 8 to 12.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba

Temple Alley Summer cover image

“I never dreamed my house had a secret unknown to my parents or me—and believe me, when I discovered it, I had no plans to get involved. I am a scaredy-cat.” Thus begins Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a supernatural tale of adventure and mystery set in a small town in Japan.

The main character, Kuzu, is looking out his window one night when he sees a strange girl in a white kimono step out of his home. At school the next day, all his friends seem to know this girl, Akari, but Kuzu knows she hasn’t been around before. He wonders if she’s a ghost. When he finds an old map that labels his house as an old temple, he sets out to discover the truth about Akari and the past.

Temple Alley Summer is a thoughtful tale that explores the meaning of family, memories, and pursuing what’s important to you. It’s also a story within a story, as Kuzu and his friends discover and old serialized tale from a long-gone children’s magazine. Both stories unfold gently, leading the reader along through several twists and turns until reaching a satisfying conclusion.

Illustrations are by Miho Satake, and the story is translated from the Japanese by Avery Fischer Udagawa. I recommend it for readers aged 9 to 12.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst

Sisters Emma and Olivia are better known by their nicknames, Even and Odd, because their magic works only on alternating days. They live on the border of the normal world, selling items out of their family store to magical creatures who cross the border with the land of Firoth. But when they meet a young unicorn and cross the border themselves to see why magic isn’t working consistently, they get stuck on the other side. The three have to work together to figure out what’s happening and make things right again.

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst is a cute fantasy about sisters who have different points of view on their abilities. Even loves practicing her magic and Odd would rather be normal. But they discover that when they work together, they can better achieve what they each want. They also discover that their perspective, and their ability to listen and observe, hep them figure out what’s happening before anyone else can.

Even and Odd is imaginative and fun, great for kids who love adventure and fantasy. I recommend it for ages 9 to 12.

The author provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

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