Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Holiday Post in Three Parts

Saturday: Excavating with Bones

I'm a little squeamish when it comes to blood and I hate hospitals, but how many people can say they've discovered remains with a real-life forensic anthropologist? Okay, so maybe it was a dead bird we found in the wall while remodeling my friend's kitchen. Her mom really is a forensic anthropologist, and I helped her clean up the mess. She then let me patch the wall.

While Ty Pennington won't be asking me to help on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition any time soon, this is where the washer/dryer is going, so it was a good spot to perform my first spackling job. However, I can rock a paint roller. My new friend McKenzie and I primed and painted the living room while the pros got to work hanging cabinets.

Did I say pros? I meant brave souls.

Sunday: Channeling Betty Crocker

And what would a holiday weekend be without a baking adventure. I tried three new cookie recipes: peanut butter (I know, I've never made peanut butter cookies before), pudding chocolate chip and oatmeal applesauce. They looked really good.

They also tasted good enough for me to give them to a few friends. In fact, they tasted good enough that I ate far too many of them to admit.

Monday: Cataloging Books

I apologize to all my GoodReads friends who opened up their emails to find 500 updates from me this weekend, but I promise it was for a good cause. I now have a record of all the books that I own, including edition and genre. My nonfiction shelves are still a little disorganized, but at least I know what's there now.

I had a little bit of a surprise when I discovered I had a first-edition copy of the first Newbery Award book, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon. While I hate the thought of a book not being regularly read, I might not be letting any more kids barrow this book. I still can't believe that I've read a first-edition copy of this book let alone that I own one for myself.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mental Health Month: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness

While metal health issues may seem frightening, more often than not, mental illness affects us in silence. We often try to deal with anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, clinical depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, eating disorders on our own so people don't think we're odd or scary or unlovable. But the truth is, almost every one of us deals with mental illness whether through ourselves or someone we love. We learn to deal with and treat these illnesses so we can lead normal, healthy lives.

A few days ago, my local library's teen blog posted some great information on mental health as well as a reading list of YA fiction that deal with mental illness. I used this to inspire my own list of YA fiction dealing with mental health issues that have touched me:

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly
Stop Pretending by Sonya Sones
Venomous by Christopher Krovatin
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier
Everything Is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis
Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams
Cryer's Cross by Lisa McMann
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
Second Star to the Right by Deborah Hautzig
You Know Where to Find Me by Rachel Cohn
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

For more information on maintaining mental health and being more accepting of those who struggle with mental illness, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Another Family Wedding

I'm not really a wedding crazy person--I didn't get up at 4 a.m. to watch that British wedding, I don't flip through bridal magazines for fun, and I don't have to take tissues with me when I attend a ceremony--but nothing makes me so content as to see my family happy. So when I got my cousin Bill's wedding announcement, I began planning a trip. And because I wasn't able to make the last family wedding, nothing was keeping me from this one.
Bill and Susie were married by Susie's childhood pastor in her home-town church in Winnebago, IL. You could tell it was just the quiet wedding Susie wanted, and if the smile on Bill's face was any indication, it was just what he wanted, too.
While everyone couldn't make it, the majority of the extended family came to lend their support. Most of us younger cousins were able to make it (my sister is the half-way point of the 21 cousins), and we never seem to be able to spend enough time with each other. A few people had to leave right after the ceremony, but the photographer managed to fit us all into the frame.
Of course with so many people snapping pictures of the big event, my uncle had to get a picture of me taking a picture. But the sunset sure was beautiful at the forest preserve where the reception was held.
So, Bill and Susie, I wish you all the best in your marriage. And remember, there are a lot of people loving and supporting you.

(Thanks to Uncle Ron for the pictures.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No, really, it's just herbs

I love living in a big city, but the thing I hate the most is not having room for a garden. At my current apartment, we don't even have a window box let alone a stoop or balcony where we can grow plants. Instead we have a big table under our living room windows where our little pot garden flourished.

We've been growing houseplants there for almost two years, but I miss the edible plants I used to be able to grow in my vegetable garden. Last year I bought a box planter with the intention of making a kitchen herb garden, but I never did anything with it. Until now.

A few months ago I did some research about what herbs grow well indoors, what can be planted in the same space and what needs its own pots. I also thought a lot about what herbs I use most often, what I'd like to use more and what would make our apartment smell good. I then plotted my little garden.
I prepped the soil and started some seeds in mini-pots. I thought about doing everything from seeds, but I don't have such a green thumb that I felt I could pull that off. So I only used seeds that I've either grown before or are hardy enough they should take off with little effort on my part.
I made a trip to a local nursery and bought the remaining seedlings I needed to fill out my garden. Although it's not quite the same as digging my hands into the damp earth of sunny plot of land, I loved the smell of damp potting soil and the black dirt that embedded itself under my fingernails.
After a week, I had lovely surprises popping up in my seed pots. Every day there were new little seedlings pushing through the soil.
This week I used my first clippings from my little garden. I don't know if an omelet has ever tasted so good.

I'm not one of those Midwest farmer's daughters the Beach Boys sing about, but I do understand the appeal of having your only piece of land to grow something that provides for yourself and your family.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Children's Books for Adults, Adult Books for Children

For almost a month now, an adult picture book has been a bestseller on Amazon, and there's still another month before its official release. While totally irreverent and not at all appropriate for children, it's the irony of Go the F**k to Sleep that has so many people talking. But really, this controversial book really isn't as controversial, unique or earth-shattering as you might think.

Many books we think of as children's classics were not intentionally written for children at all. (Okay, maybe the authors were writing them for children, but the publishers never differentiated.)

Aesop's Fables Aesop (6th centenary BC)
The Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault (1695)
Grimm's Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1812)
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss (1812)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll (1865)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

Of course there were a few exceptions, like John Newbery's (yes, that Newbery) A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) and Johanna Spyri's Heidi (1880). Otherwise, children's stories were published in magazines but not printed in volumes until long after they had proven their popularity.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (1835)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883)
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnet (1905)

It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that books started to be published specifically for children. And then it took years for the phenomenon to catch on.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1902)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie (1911)

Even today there is a stigma attached to children's books--they don't sell as well, they don't have the same literary value, they just aren't as good as books for adults. The NYT's Sunday Book Review and the New Yorker Magazine both have recently perpetuated this misplaced criticism. So many books are marketed for adults though their characters and themes tend to work better for young readers.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card(1985)
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)

Yet a lot of books that are published for children do well with an adult audience. (Twilight Moms, anyone? Or what about that billion-dollar empire created by J.K. Rowling?) And you can't forget all the picture books adults love to think they're buying for kids, but really they are written to appeal to adults' sentimentality.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch (1986)
Oh, The Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss (1990)
You Are Special by Max Lucado (1997)
It's a Book by Lane Smith (2010)

Children's books have a much bigger influence on the publishing industry than a lot of readers realize. They change the way we look at literature, literacy, publishing and sales. I still remember the time when YA books were not distinguished from children's books or adult books, and it wasn't until Harry Potter that the New York Times made a separate bestseller list for children's books. If a non-traditional book makes people pay a little more attention to the struggles of the picture book industry and reminds us that reading to our children is good for them and maybe even better for us, than I hope the publishing industry continues to produce books that challenge the market.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Try a Little Tenderness

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There comes a point when everyone needs saving. When the grief and the loneliness and the struggles become to much for you to bare. But letting someone help you--love you--is almost as hard as finding your way on your own.

When Jill MacSweeney's father died, she lost her best friend, her greatest supporter and her inspiration. She's alienated her friends, kept her boyfriend at arms-length and made sure her mother knows that nothing can ever make up for her father's absence.

Mandy Kalinowski has never had a home. Sure, her mother always had some boyfriend or another who was willing to put a roof over their heads, but she doesn't know what it feels like to belong, to have a place your heart can reside. When she finds out she's pregnant, she wants to make sure her child has all the love she needs, which is why she's depending on Robin MacSweeney to provide for her baby.

While this story is told from two perspectives, it's really the story of four women who are lost and hurting and looking for home. It might have been Mac who died in a car accident eight months ago, but it's Jill and Robin and Mandy and an unborn baby who need to be saved. And somehow, as they work to save each other, they might just save the most important life of all--their own.

Every word is beautiful and every character is real. I wanted to read this book with a highlighter so I could mark all my favorite passages, and I wanted to hug and cry for and laugh with and talk to all of these women.

No one understands losing yourself and finding home again like Zarr. She writes with such a raw emotion that you come to understand every character and see yourself within the pages of all of her books. Yet this book is different from her others in that it's a little more romantic, a little more hopeful, a little more lighthearted. It still deals with powerful and sad issues (death, abuse, adoption, unfaithfulness), but it's done in such a way that every tear you want to shed is happy. It just keeps getting better and better with Zarr.

Monday, May 9, 2011

How to Save a Life

Look what I just got in the mail!

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

So guess what I'll be doing tonight. I'll try to give you a sneak peek tomorrow, but it might take me a couple days to digest what I've read.

Click here for my review of How to Save a Life.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A New Kind of Reluctant Reader

Everything's published in threes now, especially high-concept books. If it's interesting enough for one book, than it can be sustained through a trilogy. It's understandable, really. Publishing is a tough business, and the market gets more competitive every day. So if a writer has a good idea and the talent to pull it off, a trilogy means three-times the sales and three-times the time to gain a loyal following. But in doing this, has the publishing industry created a new kind of reluctant reader?

Now you're expected to commit to an entire series--in essence a 1000-page book published over a three-year period--with no promise of a return on your investment. That's probably why so many readers are overly critical of the last book in the series. "I've spent countless hours and nearly $75 on these books, so the series darn well better end how I want it to. And if it doesn't exceed my expectations...well, then heaven help the author."

Gone are the days of the episodic series of self-contained books with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Now everything is epiphanic, where a single sentence in the second chapter becomes critical to the plot two books later. You see this a lot in modern television as well. If you miss one episode, you're completely lost. But it's also not a new story-telling device. Serial writers like Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson used to do it all the time on a much smaller scale with their magazine fiction.

I don't even think it's a bad device. If done well, it allows better character development and exciting plot twists. It heightens the suspense and makes you crave to see what happens next even if you aren't sure you'll like it. But sometimes I just want to sit down and read a good book without having to worry that it will be another two years before I can read the end.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Three Amazing Woman with Three Amazing Books

Congratulations to the 2011 SCBWI Crystal Kite Winners! While I'm sure all of the authors and books are wonderful, three have special meaning for me personally.

I first met Kathy at a writing conference last year right after she was nominated for the National Book Award. Not only do we share the same name, but we also share the same home state. Over the past year, I've had the opportunity to witness the impact this woman and her books have had on local authors.

Before I could say S-C-B-W-I without thinking about it, I felt Sydney's influence. I got to know Sydney while I was living in Salt Lake City, and she's continued to teach and encourage me from 2,000 miles away.

I have such great respect for Kate as an author, teacher, mother and friend. Kate's writing career has really taken off in the past couple of years, and I'll continue to learn from her example as more success comes her way.