Monday, December 30, 2013

My Holiday Newsletter

I hope that everyone had as wonderful a Christmas as I did. Chicago was snowy and freezing, but to spend time with my family and childhood friends, I'll put up with the miserable weather. If you follow me on twitter or Facebook, you've seen most of these pictures, but I think they're worth sharing again.

My friend and I discovered coconut nog this year. Yes, dairy-free eggnog! My excitement over this is probably completely disproportionate to how good it actually is, but I miss eggnog.

I'm sure you are aware, but my immediate family is just about as nerdy as you can get. My brother decided to nerdify the Christmas tree as well. So we had the TARDIS from Doctor Who as the topper, and Star Wars snowflakes as ornaments. Next year I'm planning on getting him some more nerdy ornaments for his collection.

My cousin is teaching in Thailand for the next year, and she's incredibly homesick. So a bunch of us crammed onto my aunt's stairs to say hello to Emily. You'd think that with so many people, one person wouldn't be missed, but we always miss those who can't be with us on Christmas.

We had two little miracles born into the family this fall. I'm holding Zackary, who gave us quite the scare by coming two months early. My aunt weighted him on her kitchen scale on Christmas morning, and he had finally hit eight pounds exactly. My other cousin's baby wasn't able to join us as he was just diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy and had only been released from the hospital a few days before Christmas. Instead of exchanging gifts, my extended family all made donations to the Children's Cardiomyopathy Foundation on Ryaln's behalf. (Yes, I did include the link there so you can donate as well if you feel so inclined. In fact, I encourage you to keep the Spirit of the Season past the New Year and find a charity to support throughout the year.)

As part of our Christmas tradition, we pass around a fiber optic poinsettia to be displayed in the recipient's home until the next Christmas. On the tenth anniversary of the poinsettia, my cousin Tim handed it off to my brother Michael. As my brother and sister just moved in together, Tim got double the laughs--my sister had it five years ago.

Just in case you were worried that I didn't treat myself to anything, I had fun putting together this "Leopard Gecko Palace" for Harper. I've actually been working on it for about six months--growing the plants and finding the terrarium decor that I wanted. I'm happy to report that Harper LOVES his new digs. It used to be that he'd fight me every time I'd try to put him back in his tank, and now he tries to crawl back in whenever I take him out.

Last year was a...difficult year for me, and this year has been filled with trials for a lot of people I hold dear. My family has gone though some incredible challenges, but we are all making the best of our situation. The worry and heartache have made us express our love and emotions in a way we've never had to before, and we find ourselves relying on each other a lot more. A good friend of mine was in critical condition after a hit-and-run driver, and I often found myself praying for the well-being of many friends serving in the military or living in volatile places overseas. Far too many friends and family members have been too close to tragedy for comfort--including friends attending the Boston Marathon, others who work at the Navy Yard, and still others in the path of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and tsunamis. In many ways, 2013 was an anxiety-filled year, but my family and friends have been lucky. And to the many individuals who have not been so lucky this year, I grieve with you.

Someone at my hometown church asked me how my year was, and I told him it couldn't be better. And reflecting back on that answer, I have to say my response was totally sincere. My life is incredibly fulfilling, and I feel the love and support of a lot of people every single day. I might complain about school wearing me down and work stressing me out, but I love what I do, which far outweighs all of the negatives. I'm probably happier now than I have been at any other point in my life. And don't think I'm unaware of just how special that is. I am grateful every day for all of my many blessings.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Best Books I Read in 2013

This year was kind of the year of re-reads. I went back and read some of my old favorites, and found that time either made me love them more or see more flaws. It's kind of funny how that happened. But this list is about books that I discovered this year, and while some of them were also published this year, many of them were merely new to me.


Edgy and fractured, compassionate and harsh, this book exemplifies everything that is good in YA fiction today. I have never read a book with such a distinct voice that tells a story so different from my own yet manages to make me feel every emotion of the characters so honestly.

An honorable mention goes to The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr.


This book shocked me, and not necessarily in a good way. I'm usually not a fan of horror stories, but this one was somehow moving in its grotesqueness. And Heyborne was a well-deserved recipient of many audiobook awards for his work on this one.

An honorable mention goes to Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, narrated by Justine Eyre, Cassandra Campbell and Kirby Heyborne.

Historical Fiction

This is a book that every single person should read. It talks about a lot of big issues that affect millions of people around the world but that tends to get swept under the carpet. It might be about Sudan, but there are refugees and people without clean water all across the globe.

An honorable mention goes to Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick.


I love poetry: the emotion, the imagery, the beauty of words. But I don't think that I have ever connected with a book of poetry as clearly and personally as I did with this one. It's like Szymborska got inside of my head and wrote down everything I didn't have the words for.

An honorable mention goes to Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey.


This book blew my mind. I've always been obsessed with time in literature, but this makes the most intellectual conversation I've even had on the subject sound like playground chatter.

An honorable mention goes to The Beowulf Poet edited by Donald Fry.

Reading List Analytics
Out of the 110 books I read this year, there were 41 picture books, 33 novels, 14 audiobooks, 15 nonfiction and 7 poetry collections. I gave 37 books five stars, 38 books four stars, 23 three stars, 11 books two stars and 1 book one star.

Best Books of 2012
Best Books of 2011
Best Books of 2010

Monday, December 16, 2013

Dynamic Laguage

I gave a webinar on writing for the media last month where I tried to condense all of my years of education and hands-on experience into 60 minutes. That's no small feat. In the Q&A at the end—pretty much like every Q&A I have with every one of the continuing education classes I teach—I got an overwhelming number of questions about exceptions to the rules. This was my advice to them: Learn the mechanics of writing so you can learn when and how to break the rules to your advantage.

I don't care how long you have been writing or what grades you got in your high school advanced grammar class, your writing can always improve. And English is a living language, in part because of people who are brave enough to break the rules. (Thank you, writers like William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien and Dr. Seuss for being brave enough to give us words like "swagger," "chortle," "tween" and "nerd.")

It doesn't matter how experienced you are, grammatical rules are constantly changing—may/can no longer have such distinct roles in our language, and words like nine-eleven and ginormous didn't exist ten years ago. Despite how much your grandmother might fight it, social media is changing language faster than ever: short-hand, comma usage, capitalization, word mash-ups. If you can't learn to evolve, words will leave you behind.

If you haven't taken an English class for 15 years, maybe it's time for you to enroll in a continuing education composition class. If you've never written historical fiction, take a library research or genealogy class. Or if you've only ever written science fiction, take an intro to journalism class. A history class will expose you to new ideas, a philosophy class will teach you how to support a claim or a literature class will help you understand good writing.

Each style of writing requires something different, and to learn those different elements, you have to be exposed to them and learn how to apply them. Even though I took more than a dozen composition classes in college, I still participate in writing conferences, lectures, courses and workshops. And every time I pick up a grammar book or style guide, I learn something new about usage.

I am far from the perfect example of a good grammarian (seriously, please don't read my twitter feed too closely), but a love for words and learning can compensate for a litany of mistakes.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fifth Grad School Reading List of Third Semester

And now we come to the bitter-sweet end of the semester. It's been a wild ride, and I've learned a lot. I will admit that I'm dreading next semester a bit, and not just because I'm expected to have a publication-ready manuscript by the end. I don't remember being this sad about graduating from high school or my undergrad program, and my master's graduation is still more than six months away. But there's something magical about belonging to a place like VCFA, and it's hard to imagine being without it.

Now on to the list.

For this packet, I looked at a lot of board books and fantasy novels. (I didn't realize until now that three of the four novels I read in the past month were fantasy.) I'm not planning on ever writing fantasy, but you learn a lot from reading both inside and outside the genre you write. For example, I learn a lot about plotting from action/adventure novels, and picture books are great examples of writing tightly.

Little Master Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes in the Hound of the Baskervilles by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver: I don’t know why I keep coming back to this series—perhaps with the hope that it will get better. Unfortunately, there’s no story in this story. I know that concept picture books don’t necessarily need a plot, but there should be a story (see Color Zoo by Lois Ehlert and Gallop! by Rufus Butler Seder). This book uses fun sounds and have beautiful coloration; I also really liked the use of text as graphics. But I still need a reason for the story.

I love my mommy by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Emma Dodd: I sat down and read a stack of board books of authors and illustrator teams, as well as taking another look at some of my favorite classic picture books. With this book, I struggled with the POV. It’s a first person toddler narrator (which I don’t particularly care for), and the sentence structure and word choice don’t fit the voice. What toddle refers to his "grubby nose" or can form the sentence "She even helps me learn to pee!" This book made me long for David Shannon’s No, David!

How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? by Varsh Bajaj, illustrated by Ivan Bates: If I read one more board book with bad rhyme, I might cry. Bajaj messes with syntax to make rhymes fit: "'How many kisses do you want, young fellow?' Mommy Duck asks, fluffing Little Duck yellow." And at other points loses the pentametric rhythm to make a sentence work: "'I want FIVE,' she says with a neigh, settling down in her warm bed of hey."

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd: This was a re-read, but I read it to my friend’s one-year-old daughter to see if she would sit through the entire thing before her nap. Despite having the attention span of a fruit fly, she did pay attention and insisted on turning all the pages. Although I’m not a huge fan of the rather van Gogh-esque illustrations, I think this is perhaps the best example ever of a rhyming bedtime book.

This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers: I found this book funny but also kind of message-y. I don’t mind a lesson revealed on the final page or two, but this one takes more pages to reveal. It makes me wonder if the writing could have been tighter.

Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, illustrated by Mary Anne Knab: While the customs and traditions take a bit of an idealized view of what life was like for families in the poor farm villages of Poland, there are a lot of good tidbits here about holiday customs, birth and death rituals, and children’s games. In a way, reading this made me kind of sad knowing that a people with such a rich cultural heritage weren’t able to observe most of these customs and traditions because of war, poverty and disease that plagued Poland and followed those who fled the country in the early 20th century. Within two generations of coming to United States, most of these traditions and games were forgotten and replaced by more Western European activities.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats: It has been years since I’ve read this book, and I totally thought it was a wordless picture book. I was shocked when I opened it and found all those words! And frankly, the illustrations are so amazing, the words seem kind of pointless.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire by Derek Landy, narrated by Rupert Degas: I seriously love the dialogue during action sequences in this series. It’s probably because Landy has a background as a playwright that he does dialogue so well. Or perhaps he was a playwright because he does dialogue do well? I’m still terrible at speaker tags, but I think I’m decent at finding the balance among action, exposition and dialogue.

Dare You To by Kaie McGarry: The beginning was a bit rough with some really cliché descriptions and romantic troupes, but the characters were engaging, the issues felt authentic, and even the premise of a guy who can't say no to a dare was kind of fun. Plus, there's baseball. 'Nough said.

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty: This book reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust with its alternate fantastical reality. While I love reading books like this (Stardust is an absolute favorite of mine), my mind doesn't works this way as a writer, which makes it all the more impressive to me.

A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na: This was a re-read that I asked my friend who had never before seen this book to read it aloud to his three kids—eight months, three years and six years—to watch how they (both reader and audience) reacted to the book. This is a rather "quite" book with very few words, giving it a rather lulling quality. All three kids focused the illustrations, which even I find mesmerizing, as their father read to them. It might be a bedtime book, but it had the same calming affect even in the middle of the day.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry: There’s an overuse of fragments and loses rhythm in places: "I’ve got His Honor the mayor inside. I’m important! Move aside!" It’s an interesting perspective in the illustrations. Told in close third person narration from the Little Blue Truck’s POV, but not visually seen through his eyes nor on his "street level." Not sure how I feel about this.

Zayde Comes to Live by Sheri Sinykin, illustrated by Kristina Swarner: The illustrations for this book are perfectly ethereal—love the focus on the sky and heavens—but the resolution didn’t leave me satisfied. However, I love the concept of this book and that Sinykin addresses death from a religious perspective so beautifully.

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, narrated by Steve West: I usually love Mark Twain—when all the kids in my class complained about reading Huck Finn, I gobbled it up for the third time, and I think his short stories are absolutely brilliant—but this book was...bad. Seriously. I hate morally driven books, and I hate poorly researched historical fiction almost as much.

The Napping House by Audrey Wood, illustration by Don Wood: This was another re-read that I asked me friend who had never before seen this book to read it aloud to his three kids. The pacing of this book is so perfect, and it showed with the ever-increasing speed my friend read this book. The kids giggled at their father’s silly voices and the three-year-old tapped his hand against his father’s arm.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fourth Grad School Reading List of Third Semester

Only six more packets until I graduate...

Only six more packets until I graduate...

Only six more packets until I graduate...

United We Spy by Ally Carter: I'll be honest, the writing just wasn't up to par on this one. It seemed to fall flat when compared to the previous two books, which makes for a rather disappointing end to a fun and beloved series. Instead of building on Cammie's emotional arc, her motivations and decisions seem to fall into old habits. In turn, that makes her feel like a 15-year-old kid rather than an 18-year-old super spy. But the girls are still kick ass, the guys are still hot, and the action will still keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Enchanter Heir by Cinda Williams Chima: Really wanted to give this five stars, but I HATE cliffhanger endings to books. It's really a personal style thing, but I firmly believe each book in a series should have its own complete story arc, even if some elements are left open-ended for the next book. I'm a total supporter of episodic rather than epiphanic plots.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly: I was kind of shocked by reading what some people call the “first young adult book.” I think this is far from the first young adult book—Jane Eyre is more likely deserving of that title, or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But putting that issue aside, it really is amazing, the marked jump in formatting and style between this book and the ones that came before. It’s told in first person with an incredible conversational style, and it addresses some interesting issues what are kind of unique to the YA market.

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama, narrated by Katherine Kellgren: This book very much reminded me of Impossible by Nancy Werlin, and I’m not sure that’s really a good thing. I’m fascinated by urban fantasy, especially those that use folklore as a foundation for the fantasy, but I’ve found very few that do it well. They tend to be unnecessarily dark—with a bit of a gothic quality—with overly inflated stakes. I can’t exactly pinpoint what I’m looking for in this type of book, but I know it when I find it. It tends to work really well in middle grade (e.g. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin and A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz), but it’s harder to find in YA (e.g. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen). This book also has horrible chapter breaks. Like, seriously, just horrible.

Making Faces by Amy Harmon: The premise of this book is wonderful, and the story is pretty moving as well. While a duel third-person close POV is fairly standard for a romance novel, this one adds a third POV, which I thought was a great choice as Bailey's voice (the only non-romantic lead) kind of makes the story. But the author chose an incredibly difficult narrative perspective. She shifts between childhood, adolescence and adulthood in a nonlinear plot, and she gets mired in the character development somewhere in the teenage years. I didn't buy Fern as an overly innocent teenage ugly duckling. The time shifting got confusing as the date-stamps weren't consistently used. I also had issues with the four friends seemingly instantaneous decision to join the military, blindly following Ambrose into a hell hole.

The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter: If there is a book I wish I had written, it would be Porter’s I’ll Be Watching. This book I didn’t love so much, mostly because the language of the poetry was lacking in comparison to her other book. However, Porter is brilliant at caring a plot from one poem to the next. I’ve always thought of poems in a novel in verse as being both episodic and epiphanic, but there are also poems that seem to be completely removed from the timeline but still move the arc forward.

The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans by Mary Quattlebaum, illustrated by Patricia Castelao: I had a couple of issues with this book, mostly because I lived in Louisiana for a few years, so when the culture is used as a trope and the heritage plays into stereotypes, I notice. Calling beignets cream puffs and having a piano-playing restaurant owner who’s haunted by a’s not exactly a unique or accurate story. Luckily, Mary is a poetic wordsmith with a sweet, easy style that makes her books wonderful for read alouds.

Monologue of a Dog by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak: I specifically looked at beginnings and endings of poems, especially as one of the poems was reported to have “no last line.” It’s interesting how the poems often start with a specific image that seems almost abstract—a picture with no context. But by the end you know exactly what Szymborska is talking about, even if the concept is totally abstract.

Nothing by Janne Teller, translated by Martin Aitken: Nihilism at its best. I’ve kind of gotten over the political commentary books, probably because I had to read so many of them in middle school and high school. I know this book was supposed to leave me empty, but I came away resenting the book for that reason. Books like this are manipulative, but they are purposefully manipulative, so you have to respect an author that accomplishes exactly what she set out to do.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Social Media Round-Up of 2013 SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference

This was our biggest and most extensive conference yet, and I've put together a social media round-up for those of you who missed the meeting or want to relieve some of your favorite moments. If you have highlights, pictures or comments about the 2013 SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference, but sure to link to them in the comments or tag them with #SCBWIMidAtlantic on twitter.


Conference Co-Chair Erin Teagan created a funny and fabulous list of Ten Things about the 2013 MidAtlantic SCBWI Fall Conference. Erin and Val Patterson did an amazing job coordinating this event, and Regional Advisor Ellen Braaf is just about the most welcoming host anyone could ask for.

*As a wonderful new addition to out chapter, Elizabeth Metz gave an illustrator's perspective on the meeting. This was also her first time attending an SCBWI conference, and her "notebook doodles" are both insightful and beautiful.


You can still read all the tweets about the conference even if you didn't have the change to attend the meeting yourself. People shared words of wisdom, encouragement and networking opportunities.


Follow SCBWI Mid-Atlantic on Facebook! While the page administrator Anne Marie Pace wasn't able to attend this year's conference (she was speaking at her alma mater's homecoming), there are a lot of comments and highlights and questions about the conference going around. It's also a great place to find out about events and book releases for local SCBWI members throughout the year.


I wasn't great about taking pictures or notes this year, but I do have a couple to share.

My friend Judy Egan makes her wish on Cynthia Lord's Newbery Honor plaque for her book Rules.
VCFA represents with Anne Westrick, author of Brotherhood, and Hannah Baranby, author of Wonder Show. Gigi Amateau, not a VCFA grad but still a wonderful and prolific author, also joined the panel.

*Added 10/29/13

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Third Grad School Reading List of Third Semester

I will admit it, I'm in a reading funk. After more than a year of detailed reading for school, it has lost some of its appeal. Which makes my reading of Danalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer more than a little ironic. The thing is, I read a lot of really good books for this unit that at any other point in my life would have become instant favorites. Hell, I even found a classic British book that was right up my alley (hope you didn't fall off your chair hearing that). So while I was probably overly critical of some of these books, know that they were are pretty good reads. Unfortunately, I'm just not a good reader at the moment.

Amazing, isn't it? That a self-professed bibliophile and YA lit fanatic can suddenly stop enjoying reading. Actually, it's not that amazing nor surprising as it's a pattern well establish with kid readers. They go from loving books to hating books to loving them again over a course of days or years or decades. I don't believe in reluctant readers—I only believe in readers who need to find the right book at the right time. (I'm paraphrasing Anita Silvey there.)

So I'll keep reading and analyzing and looking for good books, and hopefully I'll find that passion again. And find it soon! I have grad school to finish.

“Dead to Me” by Cinda Williams Chima: I am all for short stories. I love the way that they compress a timeline and get to the heart of both character and plot in so few words. But I HATE teasers disguised as short stories. And no matter how much I love Cinda and her writing, this “short story” had a critical lack of “story.”

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, narrated by Ralph Cosham: Now these are short stories done right. I was surprisingly delighted by this book as my disdain of classic Brit Lit is well documented, and I was expecting to completely dislike Holmes as he is often portrayed as egotistical and pretentious, belittling others to more fully highlight his own intelligence. However, these short stories highlight his intelligence through his compassion for those who have been wronged as well as those who have made poor decisions in their lives. But even more impressive is Doyle’s plotting ability—though the crimes/actions are relayed in rather long monologues given to Holmes by clients, it is the adventure in solving the mystery that makes these stories fun and engaging.

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka: I’m usually not a fan of the first-person past narrator with an abstract timeline in picture books, but this one worked for me, even if the topic was a bit overly sentimental. Maybe it was because the illustrations were crayon and watercolor collages that provided authentic childlike images to ground the voice.

Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull, illustated by David Diaz: I remember learning about Wilma Rudolph back in middle school, and I remember a lot of the instances in this book from the character actor who came to my school—she even brought one of Rudolph’s gold medals and a pair of her Olympic running shoes that were displayed in our trophy case for the week. This author picked the best moments of Rudolph’s life to share.

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Danalyn Miller: While I found some of the information repetitive and self-congratulatory, there was a lot of good content about talking about books with kids7mdash;how to connect them with books, help them increase reading ability and confidence, and set a good reading example. It might be geared towards educators, but the topic is just as important for parents and writers to be aware of and strive to implement in the learning environments they create. It reminded me of Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children or Jim Trelease’s The Read-Alound Handbook.

All in a day by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Nikki McClure: It was the illustrations that made this book work for me as well. Rhyming picture books with idyllic themes tend to wear thin on me because they are overly sentimental. But if anyone can get away with being sentimental, it’s Rylant (i.e. When I Was Young in the Mountains). She picks her imagery well and doesn’t get carried away/lost in the poetry.

Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurliff: This is a very telling book filled with generalized descriptions that don’t make any details stand out: “King Barf wore a gold crown on his head, gold chains around his neck, gold armor on his chest, gold rings on all his fingers. His saddle was gilded gold. His boots had gold buckles” (68). The action passages use simple—often passive—structure that is incredibly narrator centric: “I stood frozen for a minute and I almost ran back just as fast as I had come” (82). The concept is intriguing, as most fractured fairy tales are, but it offered nothing truly special. The author missed so many great opportunities to bring this magical world to life.

Here by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak: I picked up this poetry hoping to find something to connect with by reading a Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet; what I didn’t expect to find was a kindred spirit. I am terribly saddened that Szymborska passed away a year and a half before I discovered her poetry, but I am so glad that she left such an amazing body of work that I can explore for years to come. I loved looking at her line and stanza breaks. It’s amazing how her cheekiness and self-deprecating humor can be so evident in such few, well-chosen words.

Hora de dormir del conejo: Rabbit’s Bedtime by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace, translated by Annie Garcia Kaplan: I’ve been thinking a lot about bilingual books—and by that I don’t just mean books that are either translated or use dialogue that’s a hybrid of English and another language—I mean books that feature two languages. Here had the Polish on one page and the English translation on the facing page, and this rhyming picture book had the Spanish text with the English translation below. While I don’t know more than the basics of Spanish and a few words in Polish, I found it interesting to see the choices in translation. Sometimes rhythm and rhyme were sacrificed for clarity, and other times the poetry of both languages fit so perfectly, it was hard to tell which was the original language.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley: I love that because of Linda Aronson's The 21st Century Screenplay I have a name for this storytelling form—fractured tandem. I love that it’s mysterious without being a mystery, fantastical without being a fantasy and melancholy without being depressing. But the best part is watching all of the threads come together in the end. Someday I’ll be brave enough to write a story in this form, too.

Monday, October 7, 2013

SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Annual Fall Conference: Children's Publishing in 2013

I'm usually much better about posting information about the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic activities, but once again, I'm going to plead grad school. This is an amazing event for local children's writers and illustrators. Not only do you learn about writing for children and young adults, but it also connects you with an entire community of writers. This year, the event returns to the Holiday Inn Dulles on October 25-26. Registration is still open, though only one of the intensives on the 25th is still available.

The keynote speaker will be Cynthia Lord, author of the Newbery Honor book Rules. Featured speakers include picture book master (and VCFA faculty member) Mary Quattlebaum and Frances Gilbert, Associate Publishing Director of Random House, Golden Books, Doubleday Books for Young Readers. You can check out the full faculty list as well as the agenda on the conference website.

Click here for more information and to register for the event.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Five FREE Place to Visit in DC during Government Shutdown

If you happened to plan a family vacation to Washington, DC, over the next few days, you're probably incredibly frustrated at the moment. After all, what on earth are you going to do? Maybe you wanted to teach your kids about American history or wanted to see our government in action for yourself. Though you can't tour the Capitol, monuments, or the Smithsonian museums, here are five FREE things you can do.

Arlington Cemetery
Though the tour tram won't be operating, you can still walk through the cemetery. I recommend starting at President John F. Kennedy's grave site with a visit to Robert F. Kennedy's site as well. From there, the walk through the trees to the Tomb of the Unknowns is both beautiful and moving, especially as we head into fall. After paying your respects during the Changing of the Guard, head around Memorial Amphitheater to see the Mast of the U.S.S. Maine, the Canadian Cross, Columbia Memorial, Challenger Memorial, Iran Rescue Monument and the Third Infantry Division, all within a few feet of each other. Arlington House is closed, but you can still end your visit with a stroll through the newly refurbished gardens and enjoy the spectacular view of the National Mall from the top of the hill. Keep in mind that there are still several funerals planned at the cemetery, so be respectful to mourners.

Washington National Cathedral
This beautiful homage to American faith is well worth the visit. While there is a suggested $10 donation (and I encourage you to leave more if you can as they are still trying to fund repairs for the damage caused by the same 2009 earthquake that shut down the Washington Monument), you are still welcome to visit without leaving a monetary donation. The architecture, art and grounds are simply breathtaking--my favorites are the moonstone displayed in a stained glass window and the Darth Vader gargoyle. There are half-hour tours offered most days between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., but be sure to check their website for conflicts. The Sunday services held between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. in both the main chapel and the smaller chapels are also worth attending. There are many churches in the DC area worth visiting, including St. Johns Church Lafayette Square, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Calvary Baptist Church, National City Church, Christ Church in Georgetown, the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, VA, and the Mormon Temple in Kensington, MD.

Rock Creek Park
The largest of DC's many parks, Rock Creek is a beautiful spot for hiking, biking and driving. Okay, so technically the park is closed (along with the National Zoo which is housed in the park and run by the Smithsonian Institute), but there is little enforcement of the closure. While the main road remains open to automobile traffic--for the moment--Beach Drive is closed to cars, and many bikers and joggers are enjoying the winding, shaded road. The C&O Canal and the Mount Vernon Trail are also "closed" with little to no enforcement.

The Big Chair in Anacostia
Yes, seriously, this is one thing you don't want to miss. While DC is full of beautiful architecture and rich American history, it is also a community with a quirky culture. This is no longer the biggest chair in the world, but in my book, it is certainly the most impressive. And while you're out looking an funky sculptures, why not check out the massive Einstein Memorial on Constitution Avenue, the Friendship Archway in Chinatown and the Kahlil Gibran Memorial Garden on Massachusetts Avenue.

Old Post Office Pavilion
You might not be able to go up the Washington Monument or tour the dome of the Capital, but you can take a free ride up to the clock tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion. They give a really great tour and talk about a lot of American history that you might otherwise miss out on because the museums are closed.

And So Much More
Learn about modern art at The Pillips Collection (free every Tuesday through Friday), see local artist at Eastern Market, play in the HUGE playground at Turtle Park, or sit in the lobby of Willard InterContinental Washington where Julia Ward Howe wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Martin Luther King wrote his "I Have a Dream" speech.

If you're willing and able to spend some money, I'd recommend visiting the International Spy Museum ($20.95/adult, $15.95/senior, $14.95/under 12 and free/under 6) and the Newseum ($21.95/adult, $17.95/senior, $12.95/under 19 and free/under 6). For an amazing art museum, stop by the National Museum of Women in the Arts ($10/adult, $8/senior, and free/under 19) or the Corcoran Gallery of Art ($10/adult, $8/senior, and free/under 12). If you're looking for a presidential experience, try President Lincoln's Cottage ($15/adult, $5/under 13 and free/under 6) or George Washington's Mount Vernon ($17/adult, $16/senior, $8/under 12 and free/under 6). Be sure to ask about student and active-duty military discounts to see if you qualify--and be sure to bring your ID! These are all either privately owned and operated or funded through generous financial grants and trusts, so they have not been affected by the government shutdown

Washington, DC, is so much more than a city shut down by politicians who can't seem to get along. There's no reason for you to miss anything this city has to offer.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Second Grad School Reading List of Third Semester

The first draft of my critical thesis is officially done! We'll have to see what my advisor has to say in the next few days. So I might either spend the next month revising it or the next few months totally rewriting it. Let's hope for the former. I'm almost going to miss reading all these writing theory and theoretical cosmology books, but I'm also looking forward to catching up on more fiction.

For now, I'm off to stalk* Katherine Applegate and Richard Peck at the National Book Festival. There could possibly be tears again this year when I meet them. But I also can't wait to listen to Grace Lin, Tamora Pierce and Natasha Trethewey. It will also be nice to see Lisa McMann again--I haven't seen her since a book event in New York more than four years ago. It's also been almost a year since I've seen the amazing, funny, talented Kathy Erskine. It's a good thing this thing is two days long!

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll: A very enjoyable read for someone obsessed with time and knows just enough about scientific theories not to get lost in the vocabulary but not so knowledgeable that you spend the entire book disagreeing or seeing what was left out or wishing that he had gone into more depth about... Yeah, so perfect for someone like me. It was a little "preachy" in places, even though he stats at the beginning that he wants to give you enough information to make a decision of your own, which I found a little annoying. Also, the "writerly" aspect of the book does kind of fall apart at points.

Happy by Mies Hout: I find myself rather underwhelmed by a lot of concept picture books, and this one left me feeling blah. I love the idea behind it, and the illustrations are amazing, but even the great chalk illustrations of fish can’t pull off the complicated emotions of humans.

Rotters by Daniel Kraus, narrated by Kirby Heyborne: Now this is how you do a horror story. Kraus manages to make the terrifying into something both creepy and compassionate. I’m still trying to figure out how he made me cry for a teenaged gravedigger—multiple times. Reminds me of reading Lolita.

In Medias Res: A Primer of Experience in Approximate Alphabetical Order by Karen An-hwei Lee: I’m usually all for experimental poetry, but I couldn’t connect with this one. Maybe it was the format or all the found poetry or the vocabulary or the topics, but it just tries too hard. It tries too hard to be clever and intellectual and emotional, which makes the poetic voice become lost in the effort instead of flowing free to be felt by the reader.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: Wow. Another book where every word counts and the plot really makes you work for it. This novel has both powerful emotion and intense action, which is a more difficult balance to achieve than many people realize.

Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover by Anne Marie Pace, illustrated by LeUyen Pham: The Vampirina books are so delightful. I had the pleasure of hearing the author reading this book, and the way she juxtaposes light and darkness in such a sweet book is kind of amazing.

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park: I first heard Linda talk about this book at a conference nearly four years ago, and then she spoke about it again at VCFA last summer. It is a very moving book about a horrible political, ethnic and environmental issues in Sudan, but Linda manages to explain then in a very clear way kids can understand and still reserves judgment of any of the parties involved. I almost hate labeling this as historical fiction because it addresses ongoing struggles that are not really fiction at all.

Moonday by Adam Rex: I’m always impressed with Adam Rex’s ability to understand how imagination works and then translate it into a follow-able plot. Seriously, I’ve been trying to figure out how he does that for years, and I was happy to read a picture book so I could study it on a smaller scale.

Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames by Brian Richardson: There’s nothing wrong with enjoying and learning from craft books. Everyone responds differently to different approaches, which is why writing reference books keep getting published and read. This is not a craft book but a writing theory textbook, and I tend to get more for theory books than craft books. I focused mainly on the time section (obviously), and it really got me thinking more in-depth about a lot of the theories I’ve been forming since starting my thesis.

The Spelling Bee Before Recess by Devorah L. Rose, illustrated by Carey Armstrong-Ellis: Forced rhyme makes me shutter, and this one made me shutter harder than most. I just didn’t understand why Rose opened with echoes of The Night Before Christmas and then didn’t follow through with it. And then there was the “lesson” aspect that you need to read to understand the meaning of words rather than just being able to spell them. Err...

Perry’s Killer Playlist by Joe Schreiber: Action/adventures novels like this tend to become repetitive and the characters tend to revert back to old ways when there are multiple books in a series. Schreiber managed to avoid some of the pitfalls by introducing more character complications and not just throwing plot complications at his protagonists by giving his characters—and not just the action scenes—more depth. Plus, I loved the frame of having a playlist that is pretty much my music library in brief, so I’m a little more in love with this series.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheu by Mary Shelley, narrated by Jim Weiss: I really need to face the fact that I don’t like classic gothic literature. Why I keep trying to force myself to like it, I’ll never know. I honestly thought I’d never get through this one. If I hadn’t spent so much time waiting for it to get better, I would have put it down as soon as I realized all of the action takes place in backstory and that the narrative is so slow that you could read one in every 20 pages and still know exactly what’s going on.

*In case some government body is monitoring this website, that was a joke, although I understand that stalking is no joking matter. I mean it in a respectful fan-girl who might giggle and cry when I speak with them type of way, not a criminally insane fan-girl who will show up at their hotel if they run out of time to sign my book type of way. Don't stalk authors--it's not cool and it makes them not want to do events.

Monday, August 26, 2013

First Grad School Reading List of Third Semester

Last month I officially began my critical thesis semester. And while all of my reading doesn't relate directly to my topic, the majority of it does. There's also a lot of craft, academic and scientific reading included in this list because I needed information to support the topic of my thesis. So here's the first bibliography for my paper, tentatively titled "Holes in Space."

Jane Eyre: A Counting Primer by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver: I’ve wanted to look at this series for a while because it sounded like a creative retelling. Also, I’m always interested in books that lead children readers over the gap into adult books, and while it might take about fifteen years to go from this book to the literary classic, it seemed like a fun concept. Unfortunately, this it’s really a “kid” book—it’s more to entertain parents obsessed with gothic literature.

Wuthering Heights: A Weather Primer by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver: Picked this one up too because it was a fast, easy read and sitting right there. Again, it’s for moms who love the classic and not really for kids.

The 21st Century Screenplay: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Tomorrow's Films by Linda Aronson: I’ve never read a craft book on film writing before, and it was fascinating in a lot of ways. Aronson kept talking about “truncating” actions for keep the film short, which you don’t have to worry so much about in a novel but I wish more novels would do. She gave a lot of practical advice that was actually very helpful, but I had to wade through a lot of movie examples that weren’t very helpful because I haven’t seen them, and her analysis was often repetitive.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly: I listened to the audio version of this book when it first came out and was incredibly moved by it, but reading it as a writer was a completely different experience. I was surprised to find a lot of writing clichés in it (the MC describing herself while looking in the mirror, a lot of crying scenes, dialogue opening and closing chapters), but I also found myself not minding it so much because it’s a rich novel with an engaging story and fascinating premise. Plus, it fits my thesis so perfectly with the many different ways it approaches nonlinear storytelling that I kept getting excited by passage after passage.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King: This is a great example of in medias res, and Amy uses time clues and builds tension very well, especially outside of the three-act structure. My copy of this book is covered with sticky notes.

A Literary Analysis of Young Adult Novels with Multiple Narrative Perspectives Using a Sociocultural Lens by Melanie Debra Koss: This was a really interesting read—kind of the analytical version of my craft thesis, at least in part. While Koss was dealing mostly with multi-perspective narration rather than nonlinear storytelling, there was a lot of crossover in how modern science affects how we tell stories for young adults.

Stop the Clocks! Time and Narrative in Cinema by Helen Powell: I don’t know why more craft books on time in literature don’t exist, but I’ve found several helpful script-writing craft books. This one was a lot more interesting than I expected. I loved the concept that watching a movie is a form of time travel because you are literally watching history unfold, and that a historical piece is another way to step into the past. It got me thinking about a René Magritte surrealist painting called Time Transfixed I used to stare at for hours when I was a kid (click on the image to see a larger version). It’s amazing how all forms of art create these still-shots of time, and their meaning and perspective changes depending on what audience is receiving it and when and what’s happening in their life and the world to give it meaning. But that’s rather metaphysical for my essay, so I’ll just have to contemplate that for another time.

A Question of Time: The Ultimate Paradox edited by Scientific American: I haven’t read a physics book in years, so the learn curve is a little steeper than I expected. Luckily, this was a collection of articles, so it was fairly digestible. Reading this reaffirmed my original proposition that Einstein’s theory of relativity was really the initiating event in changing the way we look at time, and one of the articles inspired the framework I’m thinking of using for my thesis.

Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Gérard Dubois: This is an absolutely beautiful book with spot-on illustrations and text that’s the perfect balance of history and plot. My one gripe is that it switches tense after the first few pages and then again in the middle. The adult me knows that this is a purposeful use of literary present to describe the story Marceau creates on the stage. But the child-reader me finds it an awkward and confusing shift when past tense would have worked just fine. But this was such a fascinating and well-told story that I love it anyway.

Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber: I read an ARC of this book a few years ago and loved it, so when my essay topic gave me an excuse to read it again, I was totally game. This is a fantastic example of the effectiveness of in medias res in increasing tension and drawing the reader in to the action without having to slog through the set-up and backstory first. Schreiber picked the perfect spot for his flash-forward and then gives the reader a solid falling action and plenty of breathing room with denouement to leave you completely satisfied.

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick: The more I think about this book, the more I like it, and a big part of that is because I'm totally impressed it’s intricate yet complex plot. Every word counts in this novel. Seriously, everything at the beginning comes into play in a major way at the end, and I found myself rereading entire chapters to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Of course the title kind of implies it, but this takes Chekhov’s gun principle to an entirely new level.

The Thousand and One Nights translated by Edward Williams Lanes: I found it interesting to take a fresh look at how nonlinear storytelling was used, but I would also say that it is obviously a very primitive use in it’s simplistic timeline. Although I try to suspend my modern viewpoints and not judge the morality in classic books, the way men justify and excuse the killing of an innocent woman is quite disturbing.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak: This book means so much to me on so many different levels, so being able to use it in my thesis is an honor. It’s all about putting enough faith in someone that they can be more than they believe they’ll ever amount to, and that is one powerful message. And it’s about having enough faith in yourself to live up to your potential. I love how it uses foreshadowing on such a literal level, and the sparse writing is simply perfect. This is the book I wish I had written.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Verbs on the Go

I put a whole lot of miles on my car this summer. I drove through the Piedmont, Pocono, Catskill, Adirondack, Green, Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountain ranges. This trip was a much needed vacation from work and school and life in general. I camped for five days and four nights, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, swam in lakes and rivers and waterfalls, and met up with friends for hiking and catching up and some more swimming. And the views were breathtaking. You certainly don't see this in the city.

Peeked vs. Peaked

The view at the top of Sterling Mountain
Imagine your two eyes peeking around a corner, and every "A" you've written has peAked like a mountain on the page. Got to love mnemonic devices that are both auditory and visual.

Speeded vs. Sped

Driving across Lake Champlain Bridge
Speeded means to accelerate, sped means to hasten to. If you want to get technical, speeded is used with a direct object and sped is used with a preposition. Slightly different meanings used for slightly difference constructs. Someone might have speeded the process, while another might have sped towards a conclusion. (I've talked about a similar definition-based verb usage in my Lighted vs. Lit post.)

Sneaked vs. Snuck

Sunrise in Smuggler's Notch
Sneaked is the past participial of to sneak, snuck is, well, utter nonsense. In fact, why we think it's more natural to say snuck instead of sneaked, I will never know as this form of irregular conjugation occurs with very few verbs (clung, dug, drunk, hung, rung, run, shrunk, sprung, stuck, struck, sung, sunk, swum, swung, thrust, trod, won, wrung). You don't say rusk but risked. Struck might be past tense for strike, but streaked is past tense for streak. Even hung has an exception when referencing a person being hanged. However, I concede that language is constantly developing, and snuck is kind of a new linguistic evolution. Even if I don't like it.

And now I need to get back to working on my critical thesis. Until next summer.

Friday, August 2, 2013

It's been awhile...

I know, but I've been busy. You know with:

being a baseball fangirl.

camping in the wilds of New England.

taking a dip in nature.

getting my cosplay on.

And I believe there was some school crammed in there somewhere. Did I mention that I'm working on my thesis this semester? Yeah, that's fun.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fifth Grad School Reading List of Second Semester

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: After all that I had heard about this book, I was sure I wasn’t going to like it. Why I felt compelled to read it anyway, I’ll never know, but I’m glad that I did. While I won’t call it my "favorite" book, there are a lot of things to learn from it, mostly because it felt like an experiment on narration. Fitzgerald played a lot with style, often losing himself in seemingly inconsequential backstories and repetitive dialogue, but then it would come together in these moments of clarity of character and plot that would absolutely amaze me.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott: No, I've never read this book before. Stop judging me!

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Illustrated by Brian Selznick: I have read several books on various reading levels about Marian Anderson, and I think that this one is my favorite. Maybe it’s because of Brian Selznick’s illustrations or the simplicity of the details, but this book manages to convey more of the heart of what Anderson did in 36 pages than some 300-page biographies.

When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant, Illustrated by Diane Goods: A sweet poetic book about growing up in Appalachia. I loved that Rylant didn’t shy away from taboo topics like religious experiences and slaughtering animals as these are very much a part of the southern-mountain experience. She presented an honest portrayal of the events and memories that make us who we are. And the soft illustrations also give the book a nostalgic feel of a cool summer evening.

The Life of Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare: Yes, another Shakespearean play. I was looking at a specific kind of narration, and this one had exactly what I was looking for. Plus, I love Shakespeare, so any excuse I have to read one of his plays is a good excuse for me.

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz: There is a real beauty to how Shulevitz found color and magic during a childhood spent moving from place to place as a refugee. You can literally see why he became an illustrator.

Sandy's Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder by Tanya Lee Stone, Illustrated by Boris Kulikov: This was such a great book. I had never heard of Sandy Calder before, so kudos to Stone for exploring such a unique subject. I loved the whimsical illustrations that really fit the circus style while still being contemporary and creative. I also loved how Stone really connected Calder's childhood experiences to the direction his life took as an adult--it's one of the elements of picture-book biographies that make them so powerful for children.

Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson, Illustrated by Hilary Knight: I can’t believe I’ve gone this many years without reading an Eloise book! I was laughing so hard I had tears streaming down my face. While it’s totally ridiculous to think that one little girl could cause so much trouble, I couldn’t help but love this troublemaker of international proportions. Some modern critics might take issue with how people of different nationalities are portrayed, but that just makes me wonder what in our vocabulary will seem outdated in 100 years. Kay Thompson manages to capture what it would be like if our every childish whim were granted. This is also a great look at early picture books and how they have changed. The word- and page-count are very high, and I realized that my attention span for picture books is relatively short.

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, Narrated by Justine Eyre, Cassandra Campbell and Kirby Heyborne: Wow, this book was amazing. Layered and moving and filled with hope. I probably felt an extra connection to this story as it parallels my own family’s story of immigrating to America and the effects of Spanish Influenza on their lives and community. But it’s the complexity of the plot, interweaving duel-plots set during WWI and the Great Depression, that brought this story to life. I loved the story within a story narration, which reminded me a little of Holes. And the sassy, adventurous threesome of friends are just so…well, perfect for a middle-grade audience. In reading Abilene's story, I discovered a little piece of my own.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff: I have decided that I'm not a big fan of Wolff, though I think her subject matter is fascinating and I can understand why some teens really connect with her work. Her style of writing just doesn't suit my style of reading.

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr: We all know I’m a sucker for Zarr’s books, but there’s a reason for that. It doesn’t matter what kind of character she’s writing—a girl with a bad reputation, a hidden secret, a sick mother, a baby on the way or a musical genius—I can relate to them on a deeply personal level. There’s a quality of realness that you can’t help but connect with. I think a lot of that stems for the plot-forwarding dialogue and the backstory that’s slow to be revealed. Zarr always has such interesting moments for her initiating actions, and she’s a master at interweaving what came before and how it affects what comes after.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Fathers Day!

There have been a lot of people who have taught me a lot of things in my life, but no one has taught me more than my father. Sorry, Mom, but you know I'm a daddy's girl.

P.S. This has always been one of my favorite pictures of my dad because you can see the joy of being a father on his face. And the way my mom (taking the picture) and dad are making my sister laugh is priceless.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Fourth Grad School Reading List of Second Semester

Well, it hasn't quite been a month since I finished this reading list, so I'm counting getting this posted as a success. Only a few more weeks until the end of the semester, so I really should get back to homework.

Double Crossed by Ally Carter: If you want to write a contemporary YA romance, Carter is one of those must-read authors. She just gets the teenage voice.

Dirt on My Shirt by Jeff Foxworthy, illustrated by Steve Björkman: While some of it was entertaining end even at times endearing, Foxworthy makes a much better stand-up comic than poet for children. While "unsophisticated" isn’t necessarily a bad way to describe children’s humor, it’s not a great term to use in conjunction with poetry for children.

Music Over Manhattan by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Jack E. Davis: It's the little details of this book that make it special. Lines like "the laundry was dancing in time" and that Bernie practiced "even in the bathtub" reminds me of what music was like as a kid. I also like the very real family relations intermixed with the fantastical imagery of music flying.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwon, narrated by Grayce Wey: I wanted to like this book, I really did. But it lacked focus, and the timeline cast such a wide net that I got board. Plus, the epilogue at the end seems so contrived that even if that kind of success has come to some people, it's totally unbelievable in the context of the story. (I also had a MAJOR ethical issue with the information Kimberly keeps hidden even after becoming an adult.) I felt kind of manipulated by the entire thing, which is sad, because more immigration stories—especially modern ones—really do need to exist, and young people could really benefit from knowing that this kind of struggle didn't end after WWII. But my biggest issue was the use of dialect. The main narrative was told in plain English, but even after getting into Yale, Kimberly still speaks in stilted English in all of the dialogue. So much potential—and even a decent narrative voice—wasted on an unfocused plot.

Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr: There are some great treasures in this book, especially the chapter on the personal nature of modern poetry. But it was all a little too...pseudo-intellectual for my taste. Don't get me wrong, Orr really knows what he's talking about—it would be difficult to get to his level of prestige if he were just blowing hot air—but his sarcasm and (at times) insulting humor gets old fast. If he's trying to make poetry loves out of the common man, he missed his mark.

Best Friends Forever: A World War II Scrapbook by Beverly Patt, illustrated by Shula Klinger: I enjoyed this book, as I do many books of mixed medium. The scrapbook concept was fun, even if I have been seeing a lot of it recently, and the topic was interesting, even if I've read better books (both fiction and nonfiction) about the topic. Although I will admit, it did make me a little more excited to see George Takei's new play, Allegiance.

The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck, narrated by Dylan Baker: What's not to love about Richard Peck? His books are witty, fun and fast-paced, and I don't care how old he is or what time period his books are set in, he always manages to capture childhood so perfectly.

Skippyjon Jones Cirque de Olé by Judith B. Schachner: These books are always fun to read aloud, although this one wasn't my favorite of the Skippyjon Jones books. They're always worth picking up for a quick read.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, from The Riverside Shakespeare: Shakespeare is also the perfect source material when studying the place of poetry in storytelling, and he always has the most fascinating young adult characters. I know some people are highly critical of this play. It has been called a failed psychological drama and a formulaic pastoral play. It's not quiet a romance and though it's been cataloged with the comedies, there's nothing funny about it (unless you think the "Exit, pursued by a bear" stage direction is humerus rather than a Greek-style fulfillment of Antigonus' failure to carry out his promise to the king). While it has veiled elements of the fantastical, it's not really a fantasy. In fact, entire passages and themes in this play are cast-offs form earlier plays. But to me, it is truly "a sad tale best for winter." I get angry at Leontes, my heart break for Hermione, and I grieve at the death of Mamillius. But I also admire the intelligence of Paulina, cheer for the goodness of the Shepard and stand in awe of the strength of Perdita. And every time I read the final scene where Leontes stands a humbled man before the image of the wife he has wronged, I weep with Hermione. Is this play as beautiful as The Tempest, as magical as A Midsummer Night's Dream, as lovely as Romeo and Juliet or as moving as Hamlet? No. But it is a beautiful example of the power of time to heal and the enduring love that binds a family. This is a play that fills you with hope by the master of all storytellers. So I love it for what it is—flaws and all—and I will continue to count it as my favorite of the Bard's plays.

Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping by Mélanie Watt: As with Skippyjon Jones, this wasn't my favorite of the Scaredy Squirrel books, but it did come at a fun time. I'm getting ready for a big camping trip, and I've afraid I'm a little more like Scaredy than I care to admit. Unfortunately, I don't think all of those electronics and safety supplies will fit into my hiking pack.

That Is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems: Another great picture book with a fun twist. (But I have such a major author-crush on Willems that I'd probably love it if he based a picture book on the phone book, so maybe I'm not the best judge of this one.) One part melodrama, one part Mystery Science Theater, and one part Brothers Grimm, these chicks will really cook your goose.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mothers Day!

I usually write a sappy post about my mom and how much she's taught me and how much I love her. Well, my brain is fried from school and work and the usual stresses of life, and the only thing that I can think of is how much I wished I lived closer to me mom. I miss her cookies and her hugs, sitting in the garden and talking about books. If there's one thing I've learned from living far away from my mom, it's that I'll never stop needing her.

This might be a short post, but it's filled with love. Happy Mothers Day, Mom. I'm so glad you're mine.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Welcome to the Family

I've been fairly busy this past year. Between going to graduate school and working and attempting to still have a social life, my days have been pretty full. So what possessed me to get a pet, I have no idea. But I'm now the proud owner of a leopard gecko. And because I've managed to keep him alive for an entire month—even going through a shad, which can be fairly traumatic for a young gecko—I thought it was about time to introduce Harper to the world.

He's so tiny in this picture it's unreal. He's now almost two inches bigger.

Harper is fairly young (he hatched sometime in January, although I don't know the exact date) and feisty. He's only recently stopped biting me every time I put my hand in his terrarium, and despite the fact that leo geckos are not known for their climbing skills, he loves to scale to the top of his cave and hang on for dear life. Because of his temper and sporting skills, I named him after home-run phenom and Nationals left-fielder Bryce Harper. Or perhaps I named her after the literary legend Harper Lee. The truth is, I won't know if Harper is male or female for awhile, so s/he is kind of named after both.

He's warming himself on the nightlight to digest all the food he scarfs down.

The best part about having a leo gecko is that they're so easy to take care of. I spend about five minutes in the morning adjusting humidity levels, changing water and cleaning up waste, and about five minutes in the evening feeding and gut-loading food for the next evening, with an extra five minutes every Saturday on a deeper cleaning and a quick run to the pet store once a week for food. My roommates aren't exactly excited to have a constant supply of live mealworms in the refrigerator and chirping crickets on the shelf, but they've been good sports about it.

So Harper is becoming more adventurous and getting a nice fat tail. He eats half a dozen crickets and about ten mealworms every evening and now walks up and licks my fingers, although he's still not too keen about being picked up. We're progressing in baby steps. Maybe next month he won't glare at me when I change his moss after he sheds. Then again, we have between 15 and 20 years left together, so we still have time to become friends.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Third Grad School Reading List of Second Semester

At least this list is only half a month last. Maybe the next one will even be posted on time.

Perfect Scoundrels by Ally Carter: I absolutely love Ally Carter. Her dialogue is amazing, and her plots are so freakin' entertaining. And then there's the characters--smart, funny and sexy. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko: I loved Choldenko’s use of historical facts intermixed with artistic license. While she kept the book grounded in facts, she didn’t let the details get in the way of telling the story. I liked that Choldenko didn’t feel the need to give the detail of every movement of a character, nor did she feel the need to justify a break in a chapter or a large time span.

The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak: I don't know why I insist on reading animal books when I don't really care for them. But if you like animal books and poetry, you'll probably like this one.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen: Ah, yet another children's book by Klassen that was written for adults. It's cute and amusing, but I still don't understand why it won the Caldecott.

Viva Jacquelina!: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Over the Hills and Far Away by L.A. Meyer, narrated by Katherine Kellgren: While I love these books and find them highly entertaining, it’s also an example of when an author superimposes modern views on history. Meyer jokes about Jacky’s virtue in a tong-and-cheek game with the male characters, but in reality, she would have been viewed as the worst kind of whore and tramp. While it’s humorous when viewed with modern eyes, there would have been nothing funny about Jack’s situation if she had truly lived during the Napoleonic Wars. On the positive side, I found the author’s lack of dialogue tags a very interesting choice, and there’s a really interesting flow of time with the narrator often reflecting on the immediate past but the majority of the story being told in first-person present.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: I think I need to step away from poetry craft books for now because they're all starting to sound the same. I'm sure I would have liked this one a lot better if I hadn't read three others in the past three months.

Poetry Speaks to Children edited by Elise Paschen: This anthology is AMAZING. Reading it along with listing to the authors read their poems brought the experience to a whole new level. Robert Frost, Billy Collins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Roald Dahl, J.R.R. Tolkien, Langston Hughes, X.J. Kennedy, Rita Dove—and that's just my favorites who read their own poems. But if I had to choose one favorite, it would be Sonia Sanchez's reading of “to P.J.” There were also a lot of poems only included in writing and not on the CD. Plus, the illustrations were just delightful. Yeah, I'm a fan.

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya L. Stone, narrated by Susan Erickson: What an empowering book for young women who want to do great things. I'm kind of ashamed to say that I've never heard a lot of stories before, especially since I've spent a fairly significant time reading books about the history of space exploration. I was totally impressed with how Stone attempted to put the gender roles in a historical context rather than viewing it with modern eyes. Unfortunately, that only made the treatment of these women seem that much more barbaric and unfortunate. I also loved the poems at the end (which I found in print online) about the “Mercury 13.”

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey: This is one of those books that you stare at the last page and can't believe you just finished something so amazing. Yes, it's moving and beautiful, but the history it reflects upon made me deeply uncomfortable—in a good, growing-pains sort of why. It will made me question what I thought I knew about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and walked away wondering what kind of self-view we’re leaving with the next generation. As for the poetry itself, I thought I understood poetic repetition until I read this collection. Trethewey ties in the historical poems with the biographical poems with the use of a single word: phalanx. In the title poem, she moves you forward through time and place by repeating a line from the last stanza of one battle in the first stanza of the next battle. And she uses a “reverso poem” in “MYTH” as a visual reminder of internal reflection—a literal usage of this form that I have never seen before. The simplistic language is almost necessary to let the imagery that drives then narrative shine as it does in “AGAIN, THE FIELDS.” I loved the use of color and the transition in narrative from distant third to first-person as in “MISCEGENATION.” She gives new meaning to found poetry with her use of historical documents and classic literature as with “Scenes From A Documentary History of Mississippi.” I could gush about this collection all day.

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Garth Williams: I haven’t read this book since I was about 12 years old, and before that, my mom must have read it to me half a dozen times. For years I insisted as dressing up as Laura for Halloween. As an adult, there are some passages that made me a little uncomfortable—the almost hateful references to Indians and how Laura is afraid everything will kill her, including a train and a pony. It’s also fascinating to see how writing styles have changed so drastically in the past 75 years. The opening of the book starts after the major drama—when half the family lies on their deathbed and Mary goes blind—and instead focuses on Laura dealing with the death of her dog. And any agent or editor today would have called Wilder out on her use of passive voice. Without a doubt, this would have been written in first person if it was being published today. Despite all that, I still love this book, and I hope that little girls will continue to enjoy it for generations to come.

Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff: A book about a girl's softball game? You'd think I'd be all over that. But I'm not a fan of multi-perspective point of view first person narration (of which there is an abundance in this book), and I have a hard time reading dialect (again, an abundance in this novel). Otherwise, it is a good book about the unifying power of baseball.