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.