Thursday, December 29, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Where has the year gone? It seems like I haven't had a chance to breathe in the past four months, so thinking about everything that's happened this year makes me want to have a bit of a panic attack. Among moving and conferences and natural disasters and turning 30, I can't believe all the adventures and experiences I was able to fit in.

It's strange to think that a year ago I was still dealing with a lot of sadness from the deaths of both Ashley and Prince, and struggling to find time to read and write. At the time, I set five goals for myself:
  1. Find joy, even in the sadness.
  2. Live a more active lifestyle.
  3. Visit my brother in Hawaii.
  4. Find balance in reading.
  5. Make writing a priority again.
I'm happy to report that I made great strides in fulfilling these goals.

Life is truly beautiful, and even through tragedy, happiness is found. Earlier this month I attended a memorial service for the family and friends of people killed in Washington, DC. After a program presented by the DC police homicide family services, we went to visit Prince's grave. While it was an incredibly sad day, we were also able to share memories of Prince, sing hymns, and give lots and lots of hugs. That day I realized I could even think of Ashley without also thinking of the terrible grief her death left behind--I could pick up her favorite books without wanting to cry and look at pictures of her without getting lost in memories.

As I've recently discovered, lifestyle changes are not easy to make, but they are well worth the effort. I was first diagnosed with IBS when I was 17, and it's been getting progressively worse since. In June, I finally decided enough was enough. Unfortunately, this meant cutting out lactose, corn, beans (including soy) and brassica (broccoli, mustard, cabbage). Fortunately, it also meant getting control of my health by heading to the gym almost every day and visiting my doctor regularly to balance medications and monitor progress. While I've lost a significant amount of weight throughout this process, the best benefit is waking up every morning feeling better than I have in almost 15 years.

A dead computer and other travel obligations prevented me from getting to Hawaii this year, but I don't regret it. I was able to attend my first national SCBWI conference in New York, be at my cousin's wedding, visit the Alamo, enjoy my first snowfall of the year from the Berkshires in Massachusetts, show my best friend around my hometown, visit my friends in North Carolina, and take part in so many YA lit events it's hard to count.

My last post broke down the books I've read this year, and while I'm still 17 books short of my goal of 150, I can't really complain about all the reading I got done. It's been a lot of years since I've explored picture books so thoroughly, and I checked off a lot of classics I've been meaning to read for years. But the most fun I had was becoming more educated about audiobooks, an education that has the opportunity to expand now that I have a longer commute and can take public transportation to work.

Probably the best thing that marked 2011 for me was my decision to attend graduate school for a degree in creative writing for children. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I said I'd never go back to school. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that life never goes as planned. I've also made decent (though not wonderful) progress on a few of my manuscripts, and I have the most amazing writers' group that keeps me improving and thinking and reading critically.

If it's even half as amazing as this year was, 2012 is going to be a good year. How lucky am I?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Best Books I Read in 2011

This list gets harder and harder to compile every year, but I love going back and looking at the books I've read in the past year--what books have stayed with me, which ones I've passed on or recommended to friends, what new authors I've discovers, and which characters have become my new best friends. Usually I only choose five books to share, but this time I wanted to share the five new authors I discovered this year. That doesn't mean these authors debuted this year--a couple of them stopped publishing years ago--but all of them are new to me.

Stephanie Perkins

My year was bookended by Perkins—I read Anna in January and Lola in December. Perkins' books leave me completely contented and totally mushy though I don't usually get all warm and fuzzy from a good romance. So why I love these books so much is a bit of a mystery. Maybe it's because they're all at once funny and meaningful, totally real and a little magical, typically romantic and full of longing. They capture what it's like to be a teenager in love while possessing a depth of character that leaves you knowing not only that the characters have become something better but also gives you hope that you can be something more in the end as well.

Il Sung Na

Na is my favorite new illustrator; his books are just beautiful. The plots are so simple yet clever, which makes them the perfect board books, though Rabbit hasn't yet been released as a board book. I'm always looking for illustrators who can create something innovative yet familiar, and that's what Na has done to perfection.

Jennifer Donnelly

I first heard of Donnelly years ago when her novel A Northern Light received a Printz Honor, but I never got around to reading it. With my goal to become more versed in audiobooks and being familiar with Emily Card's work, I made it a point to listen to this one. And the audiobook blew my mind. Really. I couldn't wait to listen to Card and Bering give a new outlook on a fascinating historical period with beautiful accents, perfect rhythm and infallible timing. Their skills should make every recording artist green with envy. (It probably also helped that Donnelly referenced some of my all-time favorite bands in the same sentences as my most beloved classical composers.)

Adam Gidwitz

I'm a sucker for a good re-imagining of the Brothers Grimm. This book has perfect comedic timing (who know that was even possible in print), and the elements of the macabre that defines the Grimm tradition are well balanced with morality and tenderness. I laughed out loud and even found myself reading aloud to an empty room just so I could enjoy my favorite passages all over again.

Norton Juster

I still can't believe I had never read this book before. For years people told me I'd love it, but there were always so many other good books I wanted to read. So for the 50th anniversary of its publication, I thought I'd take a spin through the Tollbooth. And oh what a ride it was. This is a fantastic (and fantastical) novel about word-play and numbers and adventure, which equals the perfect book for me.

Five Old Favorites Made New
The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan: Eleven months after finishing this novel, I'm still thinking about it.
The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima: And I thought I was over high fantasy.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr: No one understands losing yourself and finding home again like Zarr.
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick: Sight and sound take on new meaning in yet another amazing novel in words and pictures by Selznick.
Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems: A bitter-sweet ending to my favorite stuffed bunny.

Reading List Analytics
Out of the 132 books I read this year, about one-third were picture books (48), another third were audiobooks (44), and the final third were novels (40). I gave 38 books five stars, 53 books four stars, 29 three stars, 10 books two stars and only two books received one star.

Best Books of 2010
Best Books of 2009

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Sick Day for Bookworm

'Tis the season for cold and flu! This past week, I've had a lovely ear, nose and throat infection, so in honor of my sick days, here are a couple of my favorite picture books about being sick:
Llama Llama Home with Mama by Anna Dewdney

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and Erin Stead

A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer

And here are a couple bonus books for older readers:
An American Plague by Jim Murphy
Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith and Gioia Fiammenghi

P.S. I'm feeling much better now—practically back to normal, whatever that is.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ambitious Goals: Falling Short of 150

This year I signed up for the Goodreads 2011 Reading Challenge for 150 books. It started out that I set a goal for 60 books, but within four months I knew I would surpass that. Then I changed my goal to 100 books, and by July, I knew I'd pass that. So I took a look back over my 4-year membership with Goodreads and realized that I could probably read more books in 2011 than I have ever recorded reading: 150 books.

What was I thinking?

Apparently I wasn't thinking about grad school applications, or the writing conference I was helping plan, or that work always gets busiest at the end of the year, or my travel plans for the fall, or that I'd need to find a new apartment for the week before Christmas.

So now I look back at those 125 books that I've read this year. 125 books. And I think, "Wow, that's pretty impressive that I've read 125 books." And I still have three weeks to get some reading done. Maybe I won't make my goal, but the thing about ambitious goals is that the journey is often more rewarding than the destination.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Imagine a Winter Wonderland: Celebrate the Season with Picture Books

I had a few people over for dinner last night, including the 3-year-old daughter of my good friend. M loves coming to my house and exploring all of my picture books—it fascinates her to no end that I have so many and no kids. To make up for my lack of reading audience, M makes me read book after book to her in between spinning circles to her favorite Christmas songs.

Last night, her favorites included any book featuring snow. So in honor of M, here are my favorite winter picture books to share with the little elves in your life.

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
This is my favorite winter book that came out this year. While it's sweet and a little sentimental, which tends to appeal to parents, it's also creative and adventurous, which makes it appeal to kids. Even the author notes about the animals' hibernation patterns makes for a fascinating read.

I think I've mentioned my love affair with Il Sung Na's work a couple times. It's just so beautifully illustrated using digital technology that you can't help but wonder, "How'd he do that?" On yeah, and kids love its color and simplicity as well.

Snowmen at Night by Caralyn and Mark Buehner
This is my stand-by favorite for the holiday season. The illustrations are vivid and bright, and the text is rhythmic and funny. I get a kick out of this book every time I pick it up.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
No other book quite captures the magic of a walk in the snow like Yolen's tale, beautifully illustrated by John Schoenherr.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This book has been the winter-read of choice for more than 50 years. You really can't go wrong with a classic--and the cultural significance of this book makes it a truly historic picture book for any season.

Another classic, the Grinch will never get old. And if you can get your hands on the 1966 movie version of the story, you'll enjoy an evening of great music and a faithful recreation of the story.

The Night Before Christmas Pop-up by Clement Clarke Moore and Robert Sabuda
A few years ago I wrote about how much I loved the pop-up version of this story I had as a kid, and I admit that I love this new version just as much even if it doesn't hold the same kind of memories.

Cajun Night Before Christmas by "Trosclair" and James Rice
And of course Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a little bayou adventure. If you can find a really Cajun to read it to you (or even someone who can fake it well enough), all the better.