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.