Readers' Guides

If you're like me, you love to think and talk about the books you've read. To that end, I've written a little background about the books, some questions to ponder, and a few ways to enhance a book club discussion (BTW, I love attending book clubs, either in-person or via Skype). Though all of the Ivy Meadow books are great fodder for book clubs, below you'll find readers' guides for Oliver Twisted (Book #3), Ivy Get Your Gun (Book #4), and The Phantom of Oz (Book #5.)  Discussion questions for Macdeath (Book #1) and The Sound of Murder (Book #2) coming soon!

P.S. There are some spoilers below, so you might want to finish each book before reading the questions.

OLIVER TWISTED Readers' Guide 

THE PHANTOM OF OZ Readers' Guide

  • Introduction



I love Dickens: his characters, language ,and slightly over-the-top style of storytelling (I suspect you're not surprised by this). I chose Oliver Twist as the inspiration behind this book for several reasons. It's probably the most well-known of Dickens' work; it has crime and murder and innocent victims; and I love the musical Oliver! (though it is awfully cheery given all the crime and murder, etc.) The story also lends itself to an exploration of some themes I wanted to explore, like the gray areas between who is good and who is bad, and especially the question of what makes up a family. I hope you find yourself thinking about those questions, too, but most of all, I hope you enjoy this tale of murder on the high seas! Cindy Brown

  • Topics & Questions for Discussion


Would you like to take a literature-themed cruise? What book or author would you choose to cruise with? What details would you like to see included—which characters, what types of food, what types of activities?


Why do you think the book was set on a cruise ship? What other settings might reflect the world Dickens wrote about? 


Jonas uses a Dickens quote to explain his feelings for Val: “Family not only need to consist of merely those whom we share blood, but also for those whom we’d give blood.” Are there people not related to you whom you consider family? Who are they? Why do you feel so close to them?

Ivy thinks she’ll never be able to perform aerial dance in such a short time, but she manages to do it. Have you ever accomplished something you once felt impossible?


Ivy is conflicted because she likes the two criminals (Madalina and Val) better than the victim (Theo). Did you feel the same way? Why? How might sympathy for a criminal influence a jury’s decisions?


In the original Oliver Twist, Oliver’s half-brother Monks is a greedy, sinister man who has seizures. How do you think our view of epilepsy has changed since Dickens’s time?


If you attended the costume ball onboard the S.S. David Copperfield, which Dickens character would you want to dress as? Why?


What do you think of Theo’s “Positively Powerful” philosophy? Has positive thinking influenced your life? What are its benefits? Its downsides?


There are several famous Dickens lines parodied throughout the book. Can you find them?


Dickens had famously evocative names for his characters. Can you think of any names in Oliver Twisted that pay homage to this trait? If you could choose a Dickensian name for yourself, what would it be?


Did you catch the Dickens reference in the opening line of the book?


Some of the screwball antics in Ivy’s books have been inspired by true stories (like the scene where Ivy’s trapped in the shower). Do you have any wacky true-life experiences that might fit into Ivy Meadows’s madcap world? (If so, I would love to hear about them)


  • Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion


Read Dickens’s Oliver Twist, or watch the miniseries and/or the musical Oliver!


Create your own Dickens-themed meal. You can have a simple ploughman’s lunch (Ivy eats a version on pgs. 119-120), enjoy traditional tea and scones, or create a Victorian feast with recipes from What Shall We Have For Dinner?, a cookbook by Charles Dickens’s wife, Catherine.  


Catch an aerial dance performance, or even take a class. If you can’t find an aerial dance troupe in in your town, watch the “Maiden Light” performance online.


See if you can fit inside a restroom stall while wearing a hoopskirt (just kidding).








  • Introduction & Background


As you may have suspected, there’s a little bit of me in Ivy, and maybe a little more than usual in Ivy Get Your Gun. The idea for the plot came from a newspaper clipping (thanks, Mom!) about a real-life shooting during a staged gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona. It was an accident, and no one died, but it got my wheels turning. I’d acted in a melodrama at Pioneer Living History Museum, and so decided to use that as Ivy’s undercover gig. But I also wanted to include a show that would be familiar to readers: Annie Get Your Gun seemed to fit perfectly. That’s where this book and real life merged more than I’d planned: Like Ivy, I had a difficult time getting hold of the script and the video, so I began by researching Annie Oakley. I’d always been a fan, but I had no idea what a truly amazing woman she was. Then I received the script in the mail (and yes, I had to get it on eBay from New Zealand) and was able to get the movie from the library. I was stunned. All I had remembered was the wonderful music and some cowboy-type shenanigans. I certainly didn’t know they changed the real-life ending of Annie’s shooting match with Frank Butler. It ticked me off royally, and so I decided to have Ivy tell the real story of Annie Oakley. I hope it inspires you to “aim for the high mark.” Cindy Brown


“Aim for the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you'll hit the bull's-eye of success.” Annie Oakley


  • Topics & Questions for Discussion


If you could erect a statue of a hero more people should know about, who would it be?


Have you ever been stopped (by someone else or yourself) from doing something because of your gender?


How do you think women’s roles have changed in the last 100 years? In the last 50, 25, or 10?


Who are some good role models for young girls?


Ivy finds she’s a natural with a rifle. Have you ever found yourself surprisingly good at something right away?


Frank believes that the end justifies the means.  Do you think this can ever be true? In what circumstances?


Why do you think America’s Old West has such a hold on our imagination?


Did you know there was quicksand in the desert? Any other fun facts you learned?


There are several famous cowboy names parodied throughout the book. Can you find them?



  • Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion


Watch Annie Get Your Gun (great music), and PBS’s The American Experience: Annie Oakley (true history).


Listen to cowboy music! Try songs by Riders in the Sky, Slim Whitman, or Gene Autry.


Read Annie Oakley by Shirl Kasper.


Google  “Sonoran desert animals” to see many of the critters mentioned in this book.


Check out some cowboy poetry. YouTube has a bunch of options, as does the Facebook page for the Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry/


Extra credit: Erect a bat house! Bats consume their weight in insects every night, plus they help spread seeds and pollinate plants—and unfortunately, many of them are endangered. You can learn more at  





  • Introduction & Background


This book was tough to write. At first I thought it was because I was sick for several months while writing it (that’s one reason why Ivy is sick, too—why not use real life as fodder?). I also thought it might be due to the fact that I began writing Phantom soon after we adopted a little rescue terrier who did not like me sitting at the computer for more than a half hour at a time (he’s calmed down. A bit). But I think it may have been difficult because I was writing about themes that feel really personal. I get majorly ticked off at scam artists and their betrayal of people who can least afford it. I strongly believe we should appreciate our amazing bodies, but while I wish I could unconditionally accept and exult in my own body, I’m not quite there yet (at least not every day). But I think what hit me hardest were Ivy’s struggles with her friendship with Candy. I suspect many of us have felt the pain of losing (or almost losing) a friend.


But this book is also about the joy of friendship, especially with those people who unexpectedly enhance your life. It’s about the wonder of theater, and the people who make the magic behind the scenes. And of course, it’s about ghosts—I had a great time writing the spooky stuff, incorporating ghost stories I’ve heard from friends and a few things I experienced myself. I hope you have a great time reading it too. Cindy Brown



  • Topics & Questions for Discussion


Have you gone through a tough time with a friend? How did you get through it?


Ivy says, “Friendships are funny animals. There were some people I liked from the start—like Candy—people I hoped would become my friends. Other friends sort of snuck up on me, like Eden, and now, Logan.” Have you had similar experiences? 


Do you think the media/entertainment industry’s idea of beauty has changed over the last ten years? Over the last twenty? The last fifty? How so?


Do you think social media is a positive or negative factor in body acceptance?


Are you comfortable with your body? If so, how did you get there? If not, can you take Eden’s advice to “change what you see, not how you look?” What might help you?


Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever experienced any inexplicable phenomena?



  • Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion


Watch the films! There’s a 2004 adaptation of the musical The Phantom of the Opera, plus myriad earlier versions of the non-musical story (including a very cool 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney, available at your local library or via YouTube). And of course, you can never watch The Wizard of Oz too many times.


The organ intro from The Phantom of the Opera’s title song plays a role in this book. Listen to it on YouTube 


Read the original Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. You can find it at your local library or download a free version (it’s in the public domain) from Project Gutenberg. Extra credit: See if you recognize any of the text: the chapter titles in The Phantom of Oz are all taken from Leroux’s Phantom, as are several character’s names (a few names come from The Wizard of Oz, too).

Read the original Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum, also in the public domain and available at Project Gutenberg. You might also enjoy Wicked, both the novel by Gregory Maguire and the musical adaptation (music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman).


Take a tour of a historic theater—you’d be surprised how many places offer them. Ask the tour guide about ghosts.


Take a haunted tour of your hometown (just Google it.)


Embrace your beautiful body. Get inspiration online at, watch the 2016 documentary Embrace, or follow some body positive hash tags like #embraceyourself, #bodylove, and #iamenough.

IVY GET YOUR GUN Readers' Guide


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