Friday, December 31, 2010

A Book-Ended Year

As the New Year approaches, I've been thinking a lot about the past twelve months: the goals I set, the things I have (or haven't) accomplished, and my hopes for things to come.

1. In a lot of ways, I feel like this year has been book-ended by tragedy. With Ashley's death at the beginning and Prince's death at the end, I've been dealing with a lot of emotions. While Ashley's death was prolonged yet expected, Prince's death was shocking and terrifying. Seeing two children die in such different ways has made me... Well, I'm not sure what it's made me. In some ways a better, stronger person, in other ways more fragile and pensive.

2. Along with the sadness, there have been some incredible highs this year. Between all the traveling I was able to do and the writing conferences I attended, an entire world of ideas and experiences opened for me. I also launched a new look for my website, attended my first live Shakespearean play and saw the beginning of the end of Harry Potter.

3. The weather has been a force to be reckoned with. Early in the year I was trapped at home by Snowmageddon, and just this week I was trapped in Pittsburgh thanks to the unruly weather. Yet I managed to survive--the first time because of a great roommate who kept me from going stir-crazy and the second time because of a wonderful gate agent determined to get me home. And now I have several pairs of warm boots and a heavy-duty shovel I hope never to use again.

4. My reading patterns are constantly changing. This year I stopped doing a lot of book reviews because I wanted to experience some of the great books I missed in my obsession to read the newest releases. Instead I migrated towards creating reading lists to help readers establish good habits rather than forming an attachment to one book/series.

5. And now, my writing. I feel as though my writer self somehow got lost this year in all the tumult in my personal and work life. Plot flaws prevented me from finishing my novel, I wasn't able to apply for the SCBWI WIP grant because of a funeral, I never submitted the magazine article I was working on after realizing it wasn't fitting the submission request, and NaNoWriMo didn't happen because I was working on some big projects at work. I feel like a bit of a failure in this respect, but I also realize I need to move on and do better.

Goals for the coming year:

1. Find joy, even in the sadness. Yes, bad thing happen. To everyone. No one is exempt from tragedy, and we cannot always protect those we love the most. But the thing we have control over is how we react. We can spend out lives being sad or worried or angry. Or we can spend our lives hoping for more, looking for good and living life to the fullest. So this year, I'm going to focus more on the better choice.

2. Live a more active lifestyle. This is not a resolution to lose weight or an exercise plan, but it's a goal to do little things to get me out of the house and interact more with the people around me. I tend to get caught up in my schedule and rarely make time to swim at the pool, take a walk on the Mt. Vernon Trail or go rafting in the Shenandoahs.

3. Visit my brother in Hawaii. Who doesn't want this to be a goal? But it might be harder than it sounds. I need to stop running off to NYC or Chicago and using all my vacation time with out-of-town guests. I have never wanted to go to Hawaii before my brother moved out there, and I kind of wish he'd move back to New England so getting together wouldn't be such a hassle. But spending a week during the fall in Hawaii will make the coming winter bearable.

4. Find balance in reading. I'd like to read more nonfiction this year. I've accumulated a lot of writing-craft books I have yet to open, and I love reading histories, biographies and analytical books. It's also been a long time since I've sat down and read a classic novel. Reading new children's/YA fiction is great and I don't plan on stopping, but I need a well-balanced reading diet, which I'm not currently getting.

5. Make writing a priority again. I've done it before, and I'll do it again. I need to set aside a specific time for writing and writing development. I want to have at least one magazine article (or newspaper feature story) published this year as well as finish my current WIP and get a solid start on something new.

So another year passes. Chapters open and close. Change comes, yet somehow, things stay the same. Time is a fickle thing, and I hope, if anything, this year has taught me to cherish the moments that come my way and hold dear the moments I leave behind.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best Books I Read in 2010

For me, what separates the good books from the great ones is the amount of time I think about them long after I close the covers. They stick with me and change me. They might not be the best-sellers (in fact, they rarely are), but they reach out to people of all backgrounds and ages, and I know that I'll be able to pick them up in five years or fifty and still see their beauty and want to share them with others.

I had a really difficult time narrowing this down to five because I read so many fabulous books this year. Although there were several adult books I loved and many nonfiction books I thought were fantastic and the fantasy books I read could have generated a list of their own, I listed these five books because they transcend their own genera and made themselves more than their labels.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I love the sardonic humor of Alexie's short stories for adults, so I've been wanting to read this book since its release. Why it's been sitting on my shelf for three years, I'll never know. Junior's story was funny and sad, powerful and simple, ironic and predictable all at once. Books--and this book in particular--have this way of making us want to do more and be better, to improve not only ourselves but also help those around us. After nearly a year-long lull, this book got me excited to read again.


Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games series is showing up on everyone's lists this year, but there's a reason for that. Dystopian books make us look at our own lives and see where the decisions we make as a society are leading us. This book takes it to another level and made me examine what makes us love, fight, survive. Kitniss Everdeen is a hero by chance, not by choice, which makes her unique. But even more, she exemplifies that no choices are easy to make, nor are they without their consequences.

Middle Grade/Illustration

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

This book is beautify in every way. It is both a literary and literal work of art. The prose are magical and meaningful, and the art is simply astounding. I loved that it felt both timeless and contemporary, and it worked on a level enjoyable for both children and adults. This is the perfect read-aloud. Each night I didn't want to put it down, yet I wanted to draw out the reading process for as long as possible. I will come back to this book again and again in the years to come.


Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales by Nelson Mandela

While I love the illustrated version of this book, it's the audio production that puts it on this list. Though it's read by some of the words best actors to raise money for an important cause, the folklore is what shines. It gave me a flavor of Africa, yet the stories are truly universal. And the music...I listened to the music for days after finishing the stories.


Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Maybe it's because I heard Aronson speak at a conference or maybe it's because I love the Creole stories I learned while living in Louisiana, but the history in this book spoke to me. The researcher within me also loved the primary sources that allow readers to follow along or even recreate the authors' journey of discovery. It's the perfect balance of words and pictures, history and folklore, data and conclusion. After the first few pages, you forget you're reading a history book.

As in years past, I feel as though I need to make a list titled "The Best Books I Didn't Read in 2010" because there were so many books I wasn't able to get to that I know I'll love when I finally do read them. I always welcome recommendations. Maybe next year your favorites will become my favorites as well.

Best Books of 2009
Best Books of 2008

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Five: Christmas Time Is Here

There is nothing in this world I love more than my family, and Christmas is the perfect holiday for family. With me in D.C. and my little brother in Hawaii, it's not easy getting us all together, so this is the first time in four years we've all been home for the holidays. This Friday Five is dedicated to the five members of my family and what I love about them loving Christmas:
My dad is like a little kid when it comes to bubble lights. I don't understand why he gets so excited about them (probably some childhood attachment, the same reason I love colored lights instead of plain white ones), but every year when he puts those strands on the tree and watches as they start bubbling for the first time all year, his face lights up with glee.
Like my dad and bubble lights, my mom can't get enough Nativity scenes. She loves collecting them and displaying them, and finding something unique about each one she gets. She has plush ones for little hands to play with, hand painted ones older than me, and special ones brought to her from all around the world. I think she likes being surrounded by reminders of why we celebrate this holiday season.
Music has always been a big part of our lives, with early exposure to everything from Wager to the Beatles and an abundance of music lessons and concerts and stereo systems. But it's my little brother who fills our home with the sounds of the season. The way he can play anything he picks up leaves me in awe (a talent my sister shares), and I can't think of a better sound in the world then him tuning up a guitar.
Holidays and food go hand in hand, but Christmas at home means a little something more when my sister bakes the pies. I don't have a picture of it, but she makes the most amazing egg nog pie that I look forward to every Christmas and desperately miss when I'm away. And the way she laughs with these little hiccups and quotes While You Were Sleeping at just the right moment makes her the best dinner companion in the world.
Tom may be a relatively new addition to our family, but he's certainly become an irreplaceable addition to the holiday season. He shares my love for games, so we've started our own little tradition of driving my sister crazy with our friendly competition. Whether I win or lose, I can't even tell you how much fun it is to play with him.

I hope all of you will be able to spend the holidays with those you love most. And if not, may you be able to be with them soon. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I hate winter...most of the time

For all the complaining I do about the cold and wet and general depressiveness of the winter season, I guess it's not all bad. It's views like this--moments like this--that make me happy.

I went to Mt. Vernon with a couple friends this weekend to enjoy their holiday activities. We got to see the third floor of the house (which is only open between Dec. 1 and Jan. 6), we learned a Colonial dance that would have impressed General Washington himself, and we watched them make hot chocolate from coco beans.

And who doesn't love an overly ornate gingerbread house? The little jelly pigs sitting beside the guest servant quarters made me smile (I wish I had taken a close-up picture of them for you to enjoy as well).

While I often wish I lived in the Caribbean during the winder months, the traditions of the holiday season make me glad to be right where I am. And knowing I will be with my family in just a few days makes the cold and wet and darkness worth it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Back to the Big Apple

I was finally about to register for the SCBWI Winter Conference, and I can't wait to hear Sara Zarr and Lois Lowry and Linda Sue Park speak. And knowing the great Mo Willems and Jane Yolen will be participating in panel discussions is just icing on the cake. It also doesn't hurt that I'm spending an extra day in NYC to go by The Strand and Books of Wonder.

A year ago, I had never been to a writing conference, but there's something magical that happens when a bunch of writers get in the same space like this. It inspires you. It encourages you. It makes you realize how much work you have to do.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some books I just can't read

There isn't enough time in the day to read all of the books I want to read, and the situation gets worse every passing year. So instead I try to read books by authors I already like, books that come highly recommended or books by debut authors. But no matter how much I love an author, there are just some subjects I can't read about any more:
  • The Holocaust: In recent years, this has expanded to be WWII books in general. Reading Summer of My German Soldier this past year was harder than I expected.
  • Eating Disorders: Sorry fans for Wintergirls, after reading Second Star to the Right for a YA Lit class I took in college, I just can't do it any more. Body image books are still okay, but as soon as anorexia or bulimia are mentioned, I remove the book from my to-read list.
  • Dying Narrators: As the newest addition to the list, the last book narrated by a dying teen I read was Going Bovine. Now I'm done with this topic.
It's not that I don't think there are fantastic books on these subjects out there or that no other books written could possible match the excellence of the books I've already read. And saying I don't think these topics are important to read about is like saying it's not important to vote.

So why don't I read books about anorexia/WWII/death? Because I can't take the emotional turmoil they put me through.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ring out wild bells

I took some pretty horrible pictures of the bell choir with my new phone. I really wish I had known how to adjust the white balance before I tried taking pictures. Luckily, we sounded a lot better than my poor photography skills made us look.
We played for more than a thousand people Friday night. Yes, that many people love the hand bells, especially little kids. It's not really Christmas until you've heard a bell choir.
 Our accompanist is totally amazing. I wish I could play the piano like him.
Check out that ringing action. That form, that determination, that skill.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

More time to waste saving time

I'm really not sure how I feel about my new smartphone. Sometimes I think if I were smarter, I would have gotten a dumb phone that just does things like save phone numbers and make calls from remote locations like the traffic jam one mile from home or the church parking lot. Instead I had to get the phone that connects to the internet, takes pictures, finds me no matter where I am, makes Julienne fries and creates world peace.

But I can also do great things on this phone like accidently dial my dad at 1 a.m. while trying to figure out how to sync his contact information in both my phone and my email address book. I can also figure out that I've double booked myself every Saturday between now and the New Year because I can never seem to keep just one calendar that I faithfully update and check. And of course there's Tetris. And Angry Birds. And endless trivia games.

So while my new phone is supposed to save me time and make me look more intelligent by keeping all the information I need right at my fingertips, all it has succeeded in doing thus far is making me spend time trying to figure out how to work it so I don't look so stupid.

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Update

The DCPD is offering a $25,000 reward for information concerning Prince Okorie's shooting. While it's too late to prevent Prince's death and nothing will ever change that, it's not too late to help figure out why this happened and maybe, just maybe, we can prevent something like this from happening again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More than a statistic

"A 16-year-old was fatally shot in the head Tuesday afternoon on a street corner in the Petworth area of Northwest Washington, D.C. police said.

"Police responded for the sounds of gunshots at 8th Street and Delafield Place about 4:30 p.m., and found Prince Okorie, of Northwest Washington, suffering from gunshot wounds, said Officer Hugh Carew, a spokesman. Okorie was taken to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead."

What this article fails to mention is that Prince was known and loved by many people. Not only did I work with him in a tutoring program, but I attended the same church congregation, I know his family, and I see how this tragedy is leaving those who cared about Prince in shock.

According to the D.C. police department statistics, there have been 120 homicides so far this year, which continues a downward trend that has been occurring for the past two years. And compared to the 232 murders that happened in 2001, we are making great strides to improve the safety of the city. Unfortunately, 40% of these crimes are still unsolved, and about 30% of them will become "cold cases" that are no longer actively investigated.

I can't help thinking about the numbers when I think about Prince. How I don't like those numbers. How I don't find any comfort in knowing homicide rates are down. How those numbers don't represent Prince.

Prince was your average teenager. He fought with his sister and talked back to his mother and tried pushing the boundaries. But he was also quiet and sweet and smart. He could have been anything, done anything with his life. All that potential lost.

Too many children are eaten alive by the violence of the inner city. And sometimes, no matter how much people love them or how hard people try to help them, the statistics don't play in their favor. So the next time you read about the statistics, see Prince there. Those numbers are important because there are people behind them. And every one of them matters.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Journey of 500 Years

What a great Thanksgiving! After all, there's a lot to love about the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

It's warm(ish) enough for shell hunting and dolphin watching. Of course I hurt my foot on my one and only walk along the beach and spent the weekend hobbling along and downing Ibuprofen. But it was worth every step.

There are beautiful lighthouses and wild horses. I'd never been to a lighthouse before, but I can see why people like them so much. And I still haven't seen a wild horse, but I hope to catch a glimpse of one in the future.

I couldn't wait to visit Kitty Hawk and see where the Wright Brothers first took to the sky. We walked the path were they first flew and ate lunch at the foot of the sand dune (now covered with scraggly grass to prevent erosion) where they launched their hang-gliders that would become the first motorized flying machines.

Thanks to some great historical re-enactors, I learned what life was like for the first English Colony in the New World. I don't blame them for abandoning their settlement to seek friendlier neighbors. They lived in constant fear of the Spanish finding them, they didn't have enough supplies to build proper shelter, and they never found the gold they were looking for. I hope The Lost Colony found safe harbor and didn't just disappear into nothing.

Probably my favorite part of the trip was learning about 16th century English sailing. My little brother got me interested in maritime history, so I loved boarding the Elizabeth II. I've visited a lot of Revolutionary Era and modern ships, but this was the first pre-colonial ship I've ever been on. Did you know the British didn't use hammocks until just before the Napoleonic Wars? And while the steering wheel wouldn't be invented for another 200 years, the whipstaff was only a marginal improvement over manually moving the rudder as had been done before the Middle Ages.

And what's a trip to the Atlantic Coast without clams and salt-water taffy? I've never baked clams before, but Andrew and I managed to figure it out.

I'm so glad I went on this trip. I can't wait to go back next Thanksgiving and see all the things I didn't get a chance to see this past week.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Is Here Again

It's still a few days before the big day, but I probably won't have a change to post again as I'll be having too much fun in the Outer Banks. So here are the things about Thanksgiving I'm most thankful for.
  • I love getting together with friends and hanging out. Because it's difficult to get home to Chicago for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I often spend Thanksgiving with friends. Over the years I've adopted a lot of families and made some great friends.
  • Food, glorious food. I try making something new for every Thanksgiving dinner, and someone always introduces me to something delicious from their holiday cookbook. I love all the fall flavors with cinnamon, gourds and cranberries. I can't wait to see what I get to try this year.
  • Every year I get a few days off work to enjoy exploring whatever city I'm in. I can't wait to see Kitty Hawk, especially since I've never seen the "birthplace of aviation" before.
  • I love all the family-friendly movies that come out around the holidays, and I also get to return to some of my favorite holiday classics as well. I'm so excited to see HP7.1! And with my roommates nephews along for the ride, I'm sure we'll have a great discussion about the perks of being a Harry Potter fan.
  • Breaking out the Christmas tunes is probably the best part part of Thanksgiving. Although it's a controversial move, I often pull out the holiday music around Halloween, but Thanksgiving is when I can come out of the closet and jam with everyone else.
  • Of course, holidays also mean extra time to delve into a few good books. If only I could decide which ones to take with me and which ones will have to stay at home.
P.S. Today is my dad's birthday, so wish him a happy birthday and give him a big hug for me if you see him before I do. As for all of you who have never met my dad, you don't know what you're missing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Five: Not Everything's about Harry

1. I wore my Muggle t-shirt under my sweater today to show my supporting HP7.1 even if I had to look business casual. Also, my sweater is maroon and I'm wearing gold accessories, if you know what I mean.

2. I won't be able to see the movie tonight because of an un-birthday party my roommate and I are having as it's the only weekend night we'll both be home between our birthdays. Just a few friends, some good food and fun games. This is the only acceptable reason for me to wait a week to see HP7.1.

3. Thanksgiving is less than a week away. We'll be on the beach, which will be a lot of fun even if it will be too cold to swim. I won't be cooking as much this year as I did last year, but my homemade mac & cheese will be back by popular request. Oh yes, I'm also planning on stealing my roommate's nephews to take them to a certain movie while everyone else is cooking.

4. My reading list is getting shorter rather than longer for the first time in years. It's nice to be able to catch up on some reading even if it was because I was too sick last weekend to do anything else. Apparently meeting the word count for NaNoWriMo and running a fever don't go well together.

5. Our schedules are coordinated for Christmas for once. My brother and I will both be home at the same time for the first time in four years and only the second time in eight years. Think we'll be able to make Mom cry again? All signs point to "Yes."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Ode to Harry Potter

Midnight marks the beginning of the end of the Harry Potter dynasty, and it's leaving me rather nostalgic. I read my first HP book back in 1999, which means HP has been a part of my life longer than just about anything else.

A few years ago I designed this layout for a class I was taking and had more fun doing it than with any other assignment I have ever been given.
(It was a layout and design class, so it's just filler text.)

And if you ever happen to be searching through the fall 2000 archives of the SVU school newspaper, you might notice that HP is hidden somewhere in every issue.

(I looked through my old portfolio, but all of these clippings have been lost to time.)

One of the best nights of my life was the Midnight Muggle Madness event at the Salt Lake City Public library.

And my friend and I had a blast a few nights later when Harry and the Potters came to perform.

We broke dorm curfew the night HP4 was released in theaters.

And I experienced HP in IMAX for the first time with the release of HP3 while I was in New Orleans.
(Sorry about the poor quality of this one, but it was a printed picture and I don't have a scanner. And in case you're wondering, that is indeed a "SEEKER" t-shirt.)

Here are some great posts about saying good-bye to our favorite boy wizard.

Hank Green signs his love for HP:

The teen librarians over at the Arlington Virginia Public Library have been honoring HP all week:
Fan sites are all going crazy:
And just for kicks and giggles, watch the HP cast speak American:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How long do first impressions last?

Dash & Lily's Book of DaresDash & Lily's Book of Dares
by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Luckily for Dash and Lily, first impressions are rewritable. In an adventure full of missed opportunities and misunderstandings, Dash and Lily break all the rules about friendship and love and acceptance.

This book is an example of the whole being greater than its parts. When I first met Dash, I was disappointed by his bah-humbugness, and Lily was so lovable, she was, well, quite annoying. Dash was just a little too metrosexual and Lily was just a little too childish for me to ever believe them as real people let alone romantic leads. But I kept reading because a book beginning in The Strand with a Moleskine Notebook has to be a good, right? And somewhere between an ugly Beatles Muppet and a missing majorette boot, I was introduced to this secondary cast of characters I began to love, so I had to love Dash and Lily because Aunt Ida and Mark and Sofia and Boomer love them. Through them, I began to see that Lily's perpetual positivity hides her fear of loneliness and Dash's snarl is only temporary until he can find fanciful.

As it turns out, this novel is the anti-fairy tale. It's an exploration of a slow-burning love that grows by choice instead of lust. The characters have this wholesome innocence (a description I never expected to use about a Cohn/Levithan novel) overshadowed only by their desire to live life. While I still don't like the melodramatic baby-catching scene (it reminded me a little too much of Will Grayson, Will Grayson), and I felt this book digressed from the rawness of Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and the fullness of characters in Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List (in part because the Dasha and Lily are younger characters), the romance and truthfulness of this novel stole my heart. Unlike most romantic comedies, I found myself wondering if they would ever come together in the end and if this mismatched pair would ever realize that together, they are greater than their parts.

Teen Television Dramas

Call it inspiration from watching nothing but Veronica Mars while I was sick this weekend, but I've been thinking about the shows from my high school must-watch list. I never got into Gilmore Girls or Dawson's Creek, but I sure did love my teenage melodramas. And with that wonderfully little station The CW, formerly known as The WB, formerly known as WGN, gaining popularity, there were some great shows to pick from.

7th Heaven
(1996, Freshman Year)
I think my mom liked this show more than I did, but I loved that even the kids had a major role in what happened in the house and in their lives. And because my family was religiously active, I connected to the moral dilemmas and challenges the family faced.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
(1997, Sophomore Year)
In every way 7th Heaven reflected normal life, Buffy was an escape. It was a show about a bunch of misfits living a secret life as superheros. Who wouldn't love Buffy?

(1998, Junior Year)
During a year full of ACTs and college tours, this show made me want to apply to NYU and get a job as a barista. That is until I found out what kind of debt I'd have to go into to live in NYC and I can't make coffee worth crap. So instead I lived vicariously through Kari Russell.

(1999, Senior Year)
I'm not sure if I should hate the show that first introduced us to Katherine Heigl and killed off Colin Hanks. (Sorry, should I have said ***Spoiler Alert!***?) But ultimately, I loved the sci-fi series about growing up and moving on.

I guess that's why I still read and write books for teens. There's something about writing the things I wish I'd said in high school that makes me reflect more positively on those four years I couldn't wait to end. Now I wish I had taken a little more time to enjoy them. But that still doesn't mean you'll ever get me to watch Gossip Girl or The Vampire Diaries.