Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Sweet Secrets

As an adult losing a parent is crushing.  There is a fresh feeling of emptiness, a feeling of being lost.  For a child it must be overwhelming.  Whether their death is recent or so long ago it's hard to recall anything more than glimpses of cherished memories, there's the sense of not quite being whole.

There are times when this loss is brought sharply into focus.  Smart Cookie (Scholastic Press, January 30, 2018) written by Elly Swartz (Finding Perfect) presents the current quandary of a motherless, eleven-year-old girl.  It's been seven years since her mom was killed in a car accident on a wild, stormy night.  Now she needs a mom as soon as possible.

Headquarters, the Cookies, and the Storm
Sometimes to fix your family, you need to keep a few secrets.  Even when secret keeping is not a thing that happens naturally when you live at the Greene Family B&B.

Francine, affectionately called Frankie, is headed to the basement of the Greene Family B&B for a special Code Red-Hot Chili Peppers meeting with her best buddy, an avid ghost hunter and fan of ghost hunters, Elliot.  With the Winter Family Festival Parade on the horizon, this year due to an upcoming marriage of another student's dad, Frankie will be the only one without a mom.   With a bribe of sorts, a brand new Ghost-Hunter Super-Charged Laser, from Frankie, Elliot agrees to support her in her quest.  With hope in her heart Frankie clicks submit on the profile she wrote for her dad at Connection.com

There is an off-limits shed on Frankie's property housing all of Gram's stuff when she came to live with them and take Frankie's mom's spot.  Oddly enough, walking around it with the laser, the new gadget registers a ten.  Elliot is convinced there's a ghost there.  Is it Frankie's mom, Elliot's grandfather, the ghost of an unsolved local murder victim or has the missing community member met with an untimely demise?

Mystery, tension and humor escalate when some of the townsfolk start to whisper about ghosts at the Greene Family B&B, the Possible women start to show up at the B&B looking and acting nothing like their profiles, a local man, Reggie Hogan, says the B&B should never have been Frankie's family's place and Frankie gets matched with her used-to-be best friend, Jessica, for a Shakespeare project at school.  Elliot hatches a plan, a daring, we're-toast-if-we're caught plan, for possibly solving the ghost, missing community member and the threats of Reggie Hogan dilemmas.  Frankie is trying to work with Jessica but revelations and betrayal cause their efforts to be stop and go and then stop again. 

Frankie's dad and her Gram are acting less than normal lately.  Her dad seems distracted and is spending more time away from the B&B even when guests keep cancelling.  Her grandmother has started wearing perfume and lipstick and more and more boxes, stuff, are arriving daily.  Gram's time at the senior center seems to be spent with one individual more than the others. 

A rap, Valentine roses and a winning theme contribute to a shifting of secrets.  A mystery, decades in the making, still needs to be resolved.  A person's family can be made of more than relatives.  Your herd just may appear when you need it the most.

When finishing this book for the second time moments ago, tears filled my eyes.  The last two sentences written by Elly Swartz are like the

still melty-chips warm

phrase she uses to describe one of many batches of cookies made by either Frankie or her Gram for the guests at the Greene Family B&B.  Elly's depictions of the B&B, the ten rules of The Greene Family B&B Rules and why they have those rules, and the names of the rooms after games, The Yahtzee Room, Checkers and Chess Rooms, Monopoly, Connect 4, Rubik's Cube, and Candy Land, supply readers with a real portrait of the characters of Frankie, her dad and her grandmother.  This family is full of warmth and everyday life challenges.  (Gram stays in The Game of Life room and Frankie hangs out in the Scrabble room.)

We are introduced to those family rituals which strengthens this family's love for one another.  Every year on Frankie's mother's birthday they celebrate with a picnic in the cemetery.  Every year Frankie leaves a drawing for her mother under a special rock found by her dad.  In the character of Annie Devlin, Frankie's mother's best friend and Frankie's kindergarten teacher, we are acquainted with another beautiful practice meant to continue lost love and create new love.

We can see into Frankie's huge heart in her conversations with each family member, Elliot and in how she mends her friendship with Jessica.  Frankie frequently takes cookies and breakfast to Elliot when they meet or go to school.  Frankie tries to stitch together the growing gap between her dad and grandmother, even before she understands her grandmother's problem, by writing another rule for the B&B.

One of the most touching techniques Elly Swartz does to further bind readers to Frankie and her thoughts is when we read the letters Frankie writes to her mother in her journal.  They are never shared with anyone but Lucy, Frankie's puppy, and Winston, Frankie's hedgehog.  As readers it's an honor to know Frankie's soul.  Here are some passages.

Elliot nods.  I bite my right pinkie nail.  It's always the sacrificial one.  "It's for his own good.  I mean all he does is work and fix stuff."
"If you get caught, this would be way worse than Rufus."
Rufus was my pet snake.  I flushed him down the toilet.  I thought he'd like it, and I also thought he could swim.  Turns out he couldn't, but he could clog the toilets of an entire B&B.  For two days.

Dad laughs.  I love his laugh.  It fills the space between us.

Dad's still talking.  "She was also a great rock climber."  He pauses and stares at her headstone.  "I was terrible at it."  He laughs.  "I mean, so bad."
I let the moment hang.  He seems to be reminiscing more with her than me.  I look at his face and wonder how many people one person gets in a lifetime.  I mean, is there some sort of cap on heart space?

This is part of a letter Frankie is writing to her mom.

Except the lightning.  No idea how to fix that.  I was glad it stopped long enough for Dad, Gram and me to finish our salami sandwiches, but now it's back.  It looks like shards of glass piercing my room.  I wish it would stop.  Truth is, I wish I could stop being afraid of it.  Don't get why I'm scared of it.  I don't remember that night.  Not the rain or the lightning or the smell of the shampoo Dad says you always used.  You know, Dad still keeps a bottle of it in the shower.

"The Wi-Fi in Connect 4 isn't working.  Again."
"Try connecting it."  I laugh.
Dad laughs, too, then grabs his tool box and heads upstairs.
Gram gives me a suspicious glance.
"What?" I ask in my I'm-not-hiding-anything voice.
"You tell me, Smart Cookie," she says.  Gram first called me this after I accidentally dyed all the B&B sheets and towels purple.

This book, Smart Cookie written by Elly Swartz, is one to read not once but at least once more.  And I guarantee you will be marking places with sticky notes or underlying phrases with your favorite highlighter.  You will come back to this story and characters as often as you can.  I highly recommend this as a read aloud.  Make sure you have a copy on your professional and personal bookshelves.  At the conclusion Elly Swartz includes Macbeth-The Rap by Frankie and Jess and resources consulted on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and related OC-spectrum disorders, including hoarding disorder.

To learn more about Elly Swartz and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Elly provides a curriculum guide and an activity for this title at her site.  Elly is interviewed at It's All About The Journey, Katie Reviews BooksBeth McMullen Books, and YAYOMG! about this title.  She makes a guest appearance at Elly Swartz & MG At Heart Book Club: Books Between, Episode 42 with Corrina Allen.  At Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read., Elly's cover for this title is revealed and she also writes an open letter to teachers and librarians.  Elly celebrated the release of Smart Cookie at the school where extraordinary teacher librarian Jennifer Reed champions all things reading and research in her library.  Read about it at Reederama.

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