Monday, June 24, 2019

The books that helped convince me (Brenda Hiatt)

I’ve read a lot of mind-changing (and even life-changing) books in my life. There’s no way I can talk about all of them in this space, so I’ll focus on the ones that eventually convinced me to try my hand at writing teen fiction, a complete change of genre for me. 

As I know I’ve mentioned before, I spent more than a decade writing historical romance novels before experiencing burnout and taking a break. During that next year-plus of not writing, I mostly read books that were nothing like those I’d written. Because I wasn’t sure what (or if) I wanted to write next, I made a point of reading a few books that had received a lot of “buzz,” in hopes of figuring out what made those books resonate with readers. I read a couple of Tom Clancy titles, a Dan Brown or two and other “blockbusters,” but none felt like my kind of thing. The only “big” books I thoroughly enjoyed while casting around were the Harry Potter books, but those were just for fun, not the sort of thing I’d ever considered writing. Still, because they were so fun, when I finished what was available in that series I started picking up other bestselling middle grade and teen books—and enjoying them all way more than I’d enjoyed the last dozen or more bestselling “grownup” books I’d read. 


For the first time, I started seriously thinking about writing in that genre, figuring that if nothing else, it was the one most likely to bring back the joy of writing that I’d lost. I began reading more analytically at that point in an attempt to pin down not only the kinds of stories that appealed most to me, but why they grabbed me—and millions of other readers. At the same time, I had the beginnings of a story idea kicking around in my brain. What finally convinced me to move that story idea from my brain to the written page was reading Twilight. Though I’d heard plenty of writers (and non-writers) disparage the writing in that book, clearly there was something about it that spoke to a huge number of readers, both teens and adults. 

I’ll admit, when I first started reading it, I could clearly see why some people made fun of it. The emotions were pretty over-the-top, along with some of the descriptions. But then, a chapter or two in, I managed to slip into the mindset of my fourteen- or fifteen-year-old self and suddenly I totally got it! This book was pushing all the buttons—the longings, the hopes and fears, the stuff every young teen dreams of. Girls (and boys) that age really are bundles of emotions, so now those descriptions didn’t seem nearly so over-the-top to me. My emotions had been just as intense at that age, when it had felt like life and death whether a cute boy looked at me or even (gasp!) smiled at me. 

When I started writing my first teen novel, Twilight became a sort of blueprint for me. Not for the actual plot—I wasn’t writing about vampires, after all. But for the emotional beats. I worked to push most of the same emotional “buttons” that book had pushed so successfully. I even wrote it while listening to Muse, the band Stephenie Meyer had mentioned in her acknowledgments. 

At the same time, I wanted to emulate the wonderful world-building of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books (among others). Even though my book wasn’t about magic or post-apocalyptic, I paid close attention to the sorts of details Rowling and Collins had used to make their worlds come alive for me (and other readers). 

Given what I was striving for, I guess it’s not surprising that I spent the better part of two years trying to get my first teen book “right.” But I’m happy to report that according to numerous reviews, emails, and conversations with readers, I succeeded—at least for them. Just as importantly (to me), that book did exactly what I’d originally hoped it would: it rekindled my love of writing. 

The 1st book of what's now a 6+ book series...and counting!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Giants in the Earth by Christine Gunderson

Giants in the Earth
By Christine Gunderson
This month we’re discussing books that changed our perspective. 
For me, that book is Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag. Giants in the Earth is to the northern plains what To Kill a Mockingbirdis to southern fiction. It’s a masterpiece.
             Giants in the Earth is the saga of a Norwegian immigrant named Per Hansa and his wife Berit. They leave Norway and emigrate to the Dakotas where they endure blizzards, crop failures and other terrible things I won’t give away because I’d like you to read this book for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.
            Giants in the Earth changed my perception of my heritage. Before I read it, I desperately wanted to be Irish, Italian or English. Especially Irish. Scarlett O’Hara was part Irish. Anne of Green Gables had intense red hair. These heroines were “spirited” and stamped their feet in adorable spunkiness when angry. They had fiery tempers. I wanted to be just like them.
If I couldn’t be Irish, I wanted to be Italian. All that opera and good food. And again, license to have a big personality. Or I wanted to be an English aristocrat, part of some ancient tradition, able to trace my ancestors backward in time for centuries.
Instead, I got stuck being Norwegian in a community where everyone else was Norwegian too. Unless they were Swedish. Or maybe Danish. 
Where I grew up, people with fiery personalities were considered cranky and little off balance. No one had red hair. We drank weak coffee. I don’t think I tasted garlic until I went to college. We were all meat and potatoes all the time, unless it was Christmas, when we ate a Norwegian delicacy called lutefisk with is essentially fish soaked in lye. It smells, well, like garbage and has the consistency of jellyfish. It’s like Norwegian haggis.
So, for a girl who desperately wanted romance and drama in her life, the worst possible scenario was to be Scandinavian on a farm in North Dakota eating lutefisk.
And then Mr. Hillier, my wonderful high school English teacher, assigned us Giants in the Earthand everything changed.
I had a few facts about my heritage before I started reading. I knew my great-grandfather had been a farmer and sheep herder in Norway and spent part of his childhood up in the mountains worried about being eaten by bears as he watched over his flock. 
I knew two of my grandparents couldn’t speak English until they started their education at a one room country school. I knew my grandfather quit school in eighth grade to help on the farm. I’d heard stories about blizzards and droughts and bad years, but the magnitude of grit and character it took to endure all this didn’t sink in until O.E. Rolvaag brought it to life for me in Giants in the Earth.
I finally understood the amazing courage and desperate poverty that drove my great-grandfather, and still drives immigrants today, to leave a country, a family, and a language behind to come to America. 
I understood how daunting it must have for those first immigrants to gaze across an endless ocean of grass and see nothing. No people or signs of civilization. Just open prairie until the earth meets the sky.
I understood how the relentless wind and isolation could drive someone to madness. I understood the Job-like anguish of breaking your back to plant a crop and then watching powers beyond your control sweep it all away. 
 Because of this book, I finally understood who I was and where I came from. And I understood that I was strong.
This knowledge has helped me in so many ways since. In publishing especially. I write a book and it gets rejected. So, I write another book. And I’ll keep writing until I write something so incredible no one can turn it down.
Per Hansa didn’t give up because it was hard. I won’t give up either. 
I want my children to know something special is embedded in their DNA. We don’t eat lutefisk at Christmas, not because it smells like garbage, but because I can’t find a place that sells it in the D.C. area where I now live.
And when my kids whine, I remind them that the descendants of people who crossed the North Sea in open boats to raid monasteries do NOT need snacks to sustain them on the drive to Target. 
Someday when life gets tough for my kids, I hope they’ll remember that their ancestors didn’t give up when the blizzards hit, and the crops failed. Or that homework is a privilege unavailable to kids who have to drop out of school to help their families, like my grandfather did.
So, I’ll take a shield maiden over Scarlett O’Hara any day. I don’t even wear green on St. Patrick’s Day anymore. The rest of the world can pretend to be Irish for a day, but I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s heritage. My descendants were giants in the earth.
Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor/reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion,or unloading the dishwasher. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Some books change your mind, others reveal Patty Blount

You may have heard me say this before but I do publish under my real name. "Blount" is alphabetically close to "Blume" and Judy Blume is a writing idol of mine.

I used to dream of someday having a book on the same shelf as hers. Then it actually happened.

You can see my own SOME BOYS right next to Deenie. Deenie was the first Judy Blume book I'd ever read and it helped prepare me to face a scary physical problem of my own when I was about 12 -- scoliosis. 

But the book that changed everything for me was Forever

This book is famous! Er, well infamous, really. In my Catholic elementary school, we'd been warned not to read this novel because it contained actual, real life/up close and personal SEX. 

*cue pearl-clutching*

When you're 12 years old, sex is something dirty and distasteful that married women must endure if they want to have children. Worse, you'd get a disease or get pregnant. Even worse than that, your life would be ruined. And even worse than that, you'd burn in hell! I always suspected the dire warnings against sex were greatly exaggerated. After all, people were still having babies. If sex was so terrible, wouldn't the birth rate drop? 

So the more my teachers said NOT to read Forever, the more everyone did, even though it was obvious that anybody actually having sex outside of marriage was *gasp* NOT a good girl. 

Despite these warnings, the book became a sort of underground best-seller. My classmates would whisper about Ralph and giggle. (Spoiler Alert: Ralph is an important character in Forever, but he's not a person. He's an....appendage.) I heard them discussing Katherine and Michael, the book's main characters, the way they discussed real people...dissecting their relationship and imagining themselves in the characters' places. 

Here's the thing...Katherine did not seem like a bad person to me. In fact, she seemed pretty cool. 

So, I read Forever. I bought my own copy with babysitting money and covered up the cover with Con-tact Paper. 

Oh my God, the guilt! It was so enormous, it practically had a pulse. Would I burn in hell for reading 'trash?' Would I be expelled? 

The book was amazing. It was the most REAL book I'd ever read. Characters talked about things like periods and bleeding, about condoms, about coming, about virginity and losing it, about sex, about love. The story not only contradicted everything I'd been taught about sex being dirty and distasteful and something to endure, it illuminated these things as the lies adults tell kids to keep them from having sex because...yes. There are risks, so many risks. Pregnancy, disease... those are covered in this book, too. 

The warnings, the outrage, the pearl-clutching over this book was, in my 12-year-old mind, completely unfounded. I learned so much from this novel and not just about the mechanics of sex, but about the responsibility. Sex is good, especially when it's shared by people in love. The book helped me decide to wait close to seven years before I tried it and yes, I was in love. 

Ever since reading it, I've been an outspoken opponent against book-banning. Books like Forever and like my own novels are best when they're read by teens and parents together, so they can spark important conversations that dispel misconceptions (like women don't feel pleasure during sex) and harmful inaccuracies (like you can't get pregnant during your period). Best of all, book talks can help parents impart their own values to teens. 

Forever didn't just change my mind; it changed my life. This is the book that made me want to write AND write YA. 

Did you learn about sex in a book? Tell me which one in the comments. 

Friday, June 21, 2019


I have no idea how many books I'd drafted--and submitted--and revised--when I started writing the YA that would eventually be my very first published book (A Blue So Dark).

I do know that I got the idea for it a whopping two months before the deadline for the Delacorte Contest for a First Young Adult Novel. Two months to write and revise an entire book and get it into shape to be submitted for a contest is the kind of thing you can pretty easily talk yourself out of.

But I did the opposite: I talked myself into it.

I made that deadline with a few days to spare.

Did I win?


But I got the manuscript back with a note: "Your book has promise!"

I had received feedback on submitted manuscripts before. I had been told I had talent. Encouraged to keep with it. My work had been complimented. So may times, it would have been easy to convince myself that this little note didn't amount to much. Just some two-second little bit of praise scrawled on the top of the manuscript before sliding it back into the return SASE and shipping it back my way (yep--I come from the era of print submissions).

But I did the opposite: I talked myself into believing that meant something. An important kind of something.

I believed that book was going to be it. My first yes.

I gave myself another two months to revise. And then I submitted. I submitted to agents and publishing houses. I submitted to some additional contests. I gave that book the ultimate priority. It got my attention first and foremost, and if there was time at the end of the day, I turned to some of the other manuscripts I was submitting as well.

But I had it in my head: that book--that Delacorte Press submission--was going to sell.

And it did. It was, in fact, my first yes.

I'm well aware that much of the publishing world is out of our hands. You can decide (especially during the holidays) that the coming year is your year: you'll get an agent. A pub deal. It's all going to happen! Just deciding that--or having a positive outlook--doesn't necessarily translate to success.

BUT: I think what made the difference for me was that I changed my mind about what kind of work could be accomplished. I was sick and tired of trying to clear the hurdle of getting into the publishing world (selling that first book) only to fall on my face.

That book convinced me to put everything I had behind one work. Every last ounce of strength.

It's the book that changed my mind about what was possible.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Who Will You Maim (Alissa Grosso)

Some weeks are longer than others. It's a proven fact. Eleven years ago, I was having a very long week. It started off with jury duty.

When we were selected, we were told in all likelihood we wouldn't be there more than an hour. But they hadn't expected the defendant to fire his attorney and represent himself. That one hour became two very long stress-filled days.

Because of jury duty, we had to rearrange our schedules in the public library where I worked to ensure that there was always someone to cover the children's reference desk. I normally worked Tuesday nights, but swapped with my coworker and covered her Wednesday night instead. She warned me that Wednesday nights could be a bit wild. I didn't see any reason they should be that different from Tuesday nights. I should have listened to her.

That Wednesday night someone stole a purse from a mom in the children's department. The police had to be called. I had to stay late to give a statement to the police and fill out a library incident report.

Unfortunately, I was no stranger to library incident reports. Not long before that I had to fill one out after some jerk decided it would be a good idea to slash my tire while my car was parked in the library's employee lot. This came not long after the incident report I had to fill out after I started receiving weird stalkerish phone calls from the sister of some mystery library patron who allegedly wanted me to be his wife. Fun times.

I think a lot of people have it in their heads that libraries are nice, peaceful, stress-free places to work. I love libraries, but like any place of employment they have their pluses and minuses.

I was still feeling pretty exhausted Thursday morning when I had to do my baby storytime, but I soldiered on and read a fun picture book and sang our songs. Part of our baby storytime was participatory where we would hand each toddler their own board book which they and their parent could read along with me. It was a fun little activity that had never been an issue before, but that had already been quite the week.

That week's board book selection was Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle, a fun and enjoyable literary classic. Well, maybe a little too enjoyable. When it came time for the kids to hand back in their board books, one little boy wasn't having any of it. He wanted to hang onto his copy. Grandma tried her best to coax it from him. Frustrated, he flung the book across the room.

The projectile flew straight at one of the other moms. The book's hard cardboard corner clipped her lip. She let out a cry of pain. There was blood. There was another incident report. My long week got a little longer.

And that's how a beloved picture book changed my life. Library jobs don't pay especially well, and when you factor in all the stress, one can get burned out pretty fast. What I wanted to do more than anything was write books not incident report statements, and so after that fateful storytime I resolved to find a way to make that my reality.

Alissa Grosso remains a regular library user, but she no longer works in them. Since leaving her library job she's written seven books, and is working on some more. Find out more about her and her books at

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Right Book at the Right Time (by Jodi Moore)

This month, we’re talking about books that have changed us in some way. Which leads to the question…hasn’t every book?

But I don’t think that’s the assignment.

Therefore, in the spirit of the “rule of 3”, I’ve chosen the following books that have impacted my life in a huge way:

1. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (Dr. Seuss) – pure joy!

This classic picture book was the first book I ever read by myself. I still remember stretching out on my parents’ bed and giggling with joy about how amazing it was – how amazing I was – to be able to read. The world had suddenly opened up in ways I’d never imagined. Oh! The places I’d go…

2. Don’t Take Teddy (Babbis Friis-Baastad) – the power of empathy and connection.

In this powerful book, young Mikkel tries to run away with his older brother Teddy (who is mentally challenged) after Teddy accidentally hurts another child while playing, and the townsfolk threaten to place him in an asylum. I checked this out of the school library in third grade and it not only broke my heart, it inspired me. It empowered and shaped me. It ignited empathy and reinforced the power of love and kindness. 

3. When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Rabbi Harold S. Kushner) – comfort and reassurance.

Although I wasn’t raised with traditional religious education, I’ve always been a spiritual person. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t talk to God each night before I fell asleep. Yes, sometimes I asked for things. But mostly, I told Her about my day. I always made sure to thank God for everything I had and end with, “I love you.” I wanted to be the person I thought God wanted me to be.

I don’t know when I started to notice things at my house were different than at my friends’. I have faint memories of wondering why my mom refilled bottles of “grownup drink” with water. Why she had a cabinet full of pills. And why she didn’t socialize like the other mothers did. But for a child, a dysfunctional home is her normal.

Then, one night when I was 15, my mom walked into her bedroom, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

I don’t think I ever prayed so hard as I did that night, begging God to let my mom live.

And she did.

I wish I could say that my prayers were answered in a happy ending way. Sadly, I cannot.

The mental illness and consequent substance abuse that overwhelmed her only tightened its grip. The bullet had ripped through both ocular nerves. Blinded, she became even more depressed. Angry. And violent.

Relatives and friends turned away.

Still, I tried my best to be “good.” To talk to God. To pray. To be thankful. Hopeful.

But sometimes I couldn’t help myself. I begged God to help us. To "fix" my mom. I didn’t understand why She didn’t. I’d accompanied some of my friends to their houses of worship. I’d heard over and over that God was in control of everything. That She made things happen. And that She could fix anything She deemed worthy.

If She wanted to.

Perhaps that was what hurt most of all. Didn’t She want to? Weren’t we worthy? The more I prayed and asked for help without results, the further I slipped down that dark hole.

I wish I had read When Bad Things Happen to Good People earlier, because it changed my perspective, and my world.

It’s hard to condense the book into a few sentences, but I’ll try. And here’s the thing: we all have our own spiritual and personal relationships with our Maker. You may read it and find it has a different meaning for you.

Basically, Rabbi Kushner compares God to a parent. He says that God loves us, Her children, unconditionally, and tries Her best to teach us, but then must step back as we venture out into the world. She allows us to make our own decisions, even if we make the wrong ones. Like every loving parent, She applauds our successes and grieves our losses. She doesn’t make bad things happen. What loving parent would? She also won’t – or perhaps can’t – stop them from occurring. Think about the Butterfly Effect that might cause!

We’re meant to learn from our mistakes, as shattering as they may be. But God is there for us, always, offering her love, comfort and support when we’re in pain.

To be clear, I do think prayer works. I still talk to God. Every night. In praying, we reach out to each other. We reconnect with our “family.” And together, we can move mountains. We can heal.

Interestingly enough, I finished the book the day the Challenger exploded. It snowed as I watched the news and wept. Only this snow looked different. It sparkled. Like fresh tears. And I knew. God hadn’t made this tragedy occur. Like a grieving parent, God cried with me.

I realized then that God had cried with me all those years ago too. I’d lost a mom. She’d lost a child.

Thinking back, perhaps God is the one who guided me to find these books when I needed them. Perhaps God, in addition to serving as a loving parent, is also a librarian.

Which would make those who work in bookstores, schools and libraries angels, right? Yep. Sounds about right to me.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How Do You Read? (By Maryanne Fantalis

When I read Mary Strand's post on high school assignments, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.

For three years, I suffered through awful English classes with dull, uninspiring teachers.  This was extraordinarily painful to me, because... well, duh, I was a humanities kid. I carried a novel with me everywhere. I was already a writer. I was a straight-A English student (except for that one assignment I will never forget).

The only thing positive thing to come out of those three years of awful high school English is that, to this very day, I can still recite the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech from Macbeth. Yes, forcing 15-year-olds to memorize a Shakespeare speech is definitely the right way to get them passionate about learning Shakespeare.

Did I mention that these were the honors (advanced) classes?

Finally, in 12th grade, I took Advanced Placement (AP) English.

The Advanced Placement program allows high school students to take a college-level class in high school and, at the end of the year, take a special exam. If they score sufficiently well, typically 3 or better out of 5, they can receive college credit. Taking AP English in high school enabled me to skip right to 200-level "Survey of..." English classes in college, a HUGE benefit.

My AP English teacher was a cheerful, quirky middle aged woman whom we had all known as Mrs. Goodman. A few weeks (as I recall) into the school year, she came in on a Monday morning and announced that she had gotten married over the weekend and we should call her Mrs. Paulson now. Surprise!
Mrs. Paulson, from my yearbook
(yes, it was all black and white)

Mrs. Paulson would lean out the window and look up at a cloudy sky to address the Roman god of rain, Jupiter Pluvius: "Jupiter Pluvius, the kids tell me there's a pep rally today. Do you think you could hold the rain off until after it's over?"

We laughed, but it didn't rain.

Mrs. Paulson taught literature like I had never been taught literature before.

The prompt this month asks about a book that changed my life, but that class changed how I read books.

We read Sophocles' "Antigone" and then Jean Anouilh's modern take on the play, written during the Nazi occupation of France. We used the two plays to examine literature's relationship to politics, and art's relationship to power. We discussed how two authors, thousands of years apart, could use the same story to respond to authoritarian forces in their society. Teenage mind blown.

We read William Faulkner and focused on the perspectives of individual characters, delving into their inner lives as though they were real people -- because they were, within the space of the work. Teenage mind blown. Again.

We read The Turn of the Screw and debated whether the ghosts were real and, in so doing, learned how an author can lead you to believe something while subverting that belief at the very same time. Could my teenage mind be blown again? Apparently, it could.

We read novels, novellas, short fiction, plays, essays, poetry, and more, so that we could uncover the richness of art. We read, thought, wrote, rewrote, talked, argued, changed our minds, convinced others. We learned.

We learned to think while we read. To pay attention not only to the story but to what the writer was doing to, and with, the story. To engage with the work, and with other readers, and with the world.

Before that class, I had been a passive reader. I loved my books, but I didn't think critically about them.

I sure do now.


Monday, June 10, 2019

Thinking About Men by Sydney Salter

For the past two decades I've been focused on learning about strong women as I've worked to raise two daughters. My bookshelves are packed with books about women: Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti, Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein. I have read dozens of books about girl issues.

I worked hard to teach my daughters how to navigate our patriarchal culture - and while neither of them emerged unscathed - I'm pleased to watch the women I raised function with strength and independence as they create productive and fulfilling lives many hundreds of miles away from me.

The boys with whom they shared all those AP classes and debate trophies are not doing so great. Too many of my daughters' brightest classmates dropped out of college. My friends' sons struggle in their college classes, too, often preferring to live at home working minimum wage jobs. Or just playing video games late into the night.

Writing being a lonely pursuit, I have substituted the time I devoted to parenting by training to be a small claims court mediator. Every week I work with men who are struggling with basic life skills, and bad situations of their own making. I want to figure out how to help them more effectively.

So my new psychology reading goal is learning about men. Yes, white male privilege exists. Yes, our culture is structured around it. But that doesn't mean that men are not struggling as the world changes. One book that has really highlighted all the issues men face is Invisible Men: Men's Inner Lives And The Consequence Of Silence by Michael Addis.

I have recognized every man in my life in the pages of this 250 page book, and it's changed the way I relate to men, allowing me to see beyond their privilege to their often painful struggles. I cannot wait to add what I've learned to my writing, too.

I am also sending each of my daughters a copy of the book. Part of raising strong women is teaching them how to understand and empathize with men. Like my late mother-in-law liked to say, "We're all in this human condition together."

Saturday, June 8, 2019

I Read to Have My Mind Changed - By Kimberly Sabatini

One of the main reasons I read is to know more. If you know more things and have more experiences, your view of the world can't help but change. 

I took a stroll through my Goodreads list and came up with some examples of how reading books has changed my mind. 

Because of these books, I changed how I think...












What book comes to mind when you think about having your perspective shifted?

Friday, June 7, 2019

Bryan Washington's LOT, Houston, and Being Unsettled by Joy Preble

I don't know if there are books that have changed my mind exactly. I'm a solidly 'grey area' girl who sometimes wonders if her opinions should be more, not less, solid. (Okay, current exceptions are our present political situation and he who I shall not name, and also eggplant, which grosses me out in any form, a reaction that's been consistent since, well, forever.)

But books open my eyes on a regular basis, present me with places and lives and situations that are far beyond my personal scope, make me think and ponder and understand more deeply. I love when a book upends me. When it disturbs me, slaps me around a bit, leaves me unsettled, leaves me aware that as much as I know, I still don't know much at all about the business of life and living.

Right now as I type this, Bryan Washington's collection of short stories LOT, set right here in Houston where I live, is doing all that to me.

The stories in LOT have been a gut punch for me. They are set in Houston, even on blocks that I drive down regularly to and from work, but still they unsettle me with their raw depiction of lives and longing that are often quite different from my own. His unflinching view of people and families on the edge -- of hustlers and kitchen workers and hurricane survivors, of those on the fringe, those abandoned, those struggling--is going to stay with me for a very long time, possibly forever. 

Here's the thing: You can live in a city as vast as Houston and still not know all of it. Certainly, when you commute from the boring, bland 'burbs as I do, from my subdivision of matching garbage cans and people who often look a whole lotta the same, you need to be shook up. You need to see what you're not seeing on a regular basis, look harder at those people panhandling on the corner of Brazos near I-45 and more. 

Let me say that there's more to see in the 'burbs, too. I write about that a lot because it's something confronting me every day. There is pain up here and grief and craziness and people hanging on by their fingernails-- there are lost people and hatred and love and fear and okay, rabid conservative-ism, and all the rest. (If you want to see my sometimes comic but hearfelt takes on all that, please read THE SWEET DEAD LIFE and THE A-WORD, both from Soho Teen)

Anyway. LOT. I highly recommend it. I hope it upends you.
Back to reading.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Shhh: Secret Nerd Girl Alert (Mary Strand)

This month, I’m supposed to blog about a book that changed my mind.

My first, mildly flippant thought, is that my law school textbook on constitutional law changed my mind about my dream of becoming an ACLU civil rights lawyer, because I decided that constitutional law was borrrrring.

Surprisingly, textbooks on tax law later changed my mind, because I realized that tax law was fascinating and complex enough to satisfy the brainiac side of me.  (A side of me mostly hidden, especially when I’m wearing basketball shorts.)  I indeed became a tax lawyer, although I mostly practiced in the area of mergers and acquisitions, which are fun, fun, fun!  Um, for a lawyer.

But I almost sense that this isn’t what I was supposed to write about. 🙂

And yet...

The truth is, books that appeal to the brainiac side of me tend to be the ones that change my mind.
In high school, I fell in love with the novels of Hermann Hesse and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  They were BRILLIANT, deep, thoughtful works that touched the very core of me.  My first taste of Hesse was Demian, an assignment for English class.  It caused me to read every novel he’d written.  With Dostoevsky, it was Crime and Punishment, another assignment for English class.  By age 15, I was already planning to go to law school geek alert! and Crime and Punishment also appealed to the future lawyer in me.  I loved the way Dostoevsky’s mind worked and read more of his books, too.

Those books didn’t change my mind in a particular way or on a particular issue, but they fed my mind and my soul in a way far beyond most other books.  They changed ME.

Perhaps oddly, I generally don’t write books like that.  I prefer to write light and funny stuff, and often read it, because light and funny books bring light to a world that is often too dark.  I need light almost as much as I need air to breathe.

But once in a while, I read something that hits harder, something that feeds my brain and my soul in a way mildly reminiscent of the novels I read in high school.  A few examples from the last few years:  The Book Thief. 13 Reasons Why.  Speak.

And sometimes I write novels that capture those deeper feelings, because they’re still within me as much as I might pretend otherwise.  I also add a little of that depth even to my light and funny novels.  Because all of it light, dark, funny, serious is inside of me.

I can only hope that my novels change some minds, too.  Or at least expand them.

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Thank you, Mr. Townsend

by Fae Rowen

My eighth grade English teacher "made" us read a book every week. Luckily we didn't have to write a book report every week, but we had to keep a log with the names of the books we read. Once a month he called us individually to his desk to look at our log.

I prided myself on being a good student. I followed the rules. Two months into the new school year, I took my paper to his desk. Eight book titles filled the lines. He looked at the titles, then looked at me. Several times. Usually he asked students about a couple of their books, to be sure they'd read them I think, but he didn't ask me any questions.

I had access to lots of books. I'd been volunteering at our city's library every Friday night for three hours since the sixth grade. It was a good way to get to go to the library every week and check out the maximum number of books (ten), then return them the next week.

I'd read just about every book in the children and junior high sections, where I shelved books, and I had started losing my interest in reading. Even though the librarian saved the new books for me, they all seemed the same.

Mr. Townsend frowned. "It's time you start reading something besides Nancy Drew and Sue Barton, Student Nurse, Fae."

If I'd wanted to be a nurse, I would have changed my mind after reading all those Sue Barton books. I had no interest in The Hardy Boys. Our list was supposed to be novels, not non-fiction books for reports in social studies or science. I had no idea what kind of books he meant. YA was not a genre in those days.

"I'm going to give your parents a call."

Oh, no! I was in trouble. A teacher had never had to call my parents before. The word mortified would be a good choice to describe how I felt.

I waited for my parents to say something at the dinner table. Nothing. I guessed Mr. Townsend would call after dinner. But he didn't.

I'm not sure when he called, but when my father took me to the library the next Friday night, he came inside with me. Usually he just dropped me off in front of the building. "Mr. Townsend called. He wants us to get you an adult library card."

Wait, what? That would mean I'd have access to the whole other half of the library. To sections that I hadn't even been allowed to shelve the returns. And to all those books.

My dad signed the paperwork, and the head librarian gave me a temporary card. When I finished my shelving duties, I spent half an hour in the adult fiction section stretching to look at all the books on the top shelves, since, in my limited experience, the best books were shelved out of reach.

I settled on one book. It had three times more pages than the longest book I'd ever read, and the letters were much smaller. There was no way I could read ten books like this in a week.

Well, I devoured Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood like it was a home-delivered pizza. It sure wasn't Sue Barton, Student Nurse, whose major problem was getting a spot on her uniform, although Captain Blood had originally been a doctor before he became a pirate.

I returned that book and checked out Ben Hur the following Friday. During the week, my dad and I watched Captain Blood and Ben Hur on TV. I started reading what my mother called "the classics." Saturday mornings my dad and I watched the movies made from the books I'd read that week. My mom joined us for Gone with the Wind.

No longer relegated to "age appropriate" books, my imagination was challenged by historical fiction, literary fiction (Catcher in the Rye—I didn't get much of it), and genre fiction. Soon I was back to checking out ten books a week again, and reading after I was supposed to be asleep.

Captain Blood changed what I read and how I read. Rafael Sabatini's words made me want to read again. They opened up new worlds (literally, with science fiction books) and ideas.

So, thank you Mr. Townsend, for taking Sue Barton out of my hands and replacing it with fantastic adventures which planted the seeds for my future writing career.

What book changed something about your life? 
Was there a character who helped you?

Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules. P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Time to Change ~ Janet Raye Stevens

Hello, YA Outside the Liners! I’m back after a brief hiatus from this blog to take care of some personal stuff that included my son getting married and taking another stab at cleaning my office. Total success on the son getting hitched thing, abysmal failure on the office cleaning front. Though, gotta admit pushing papers around and rearranging paperclips gave me plenty of time to procrastinate from tackling my contribution to this month’s YAOTL blog theme, A Book That Changed Your Mind.

That’s kind of a weighty topic, and one I had trouble narrowing down. I mean, I’ve read a lot of books in my life. Some books have been stuck inside the library in my brain for decades (like Persuasion, most anything by Dickens, and Catch-22), others were withdrawn from circulation as soon as they were read and forgotten (like uh… I can’t remember). The books I’ve read have helped me form a world view, imagine a better world, and showed me the cracks and ugly side of the world I know. I can safely say books have changed my mind every day.

But I couldn’t narrow it down to just one, so I put a different spin on the subject and decided to write not about a book that changed my mind, but how writing a book changed my mindset.

When I started writing seriously for publication, it took some time to figure out the “recipe” that became my author’s voice. The mixture was a total mess until I figured out the right ingredients: take a slab of plot, a dollop of mystery, a dose of romance, a pinch of action, a heap of snark; generously spice with cool characters of all flavors and mix the whole thing up. Mix again, three or four times until the batter is the right consistency, and voila, I had myself a book.

Or so I thought. Until I put together one particular novel, when I realized I had all the ingredients right, but was missing one crucial thing that would give it heart and extra zest—a message. Something that might possibly change minds.

Not that I set out to do that when I wrote my Young Adult Sci-Fi novel, THE NASCENT BLOOM. The story began as a dream about a school field trip gone awry. It grew into something more after I saw a politician in a debate blithely call for child labor laws to be obliterated so poor kids could work as janitors at their schools. You know, to learn “the value of work.” So, basically, push a broom, earning minimum wage (maybe?) in a place where they’re supposed to be learning the value of a whole lot of things.

It took me a while to calm down after I heard that, but when I did, I had my story—a world where there are only rich or poor, a strictly controlled society separated by race and class. You can imagine which side of the equation I chose to root for!

Here’s how it goes…

A group of privileged students from an elite school set out with their servants on a field trip to a nearby moon. They never arrive. Captured by space pirates, they’re sold into bondage on a faraway planet. I focus on Meili, a sensitive girl from the privileged class, and Kai, a firebrand full of bravado from the despised lower class. Both are determined to escape, both mistrust each other, but both realize the only way to achieve their goal is to team up.

As they meet up to plot an escape plan, they fall in love. A love that is completely illegal back home. Despite being a zillion miles away from their home planet, that’s still a huge mental roadblock to get around. It doesn’t get solved easily. I toss as many bumps into the path of true love as I do into their struggle to escape, and it’s only when they can each come to terms with breaking every law and taboo that’s been drummed into them since they were kids can they change their minds. Only then can they change. Only then do they accept their love for each other—and learn to trust one another.

Writing this book helped to change my mind too. I realized I could write a story with a message, a subtle one, mind you—I don’t like smacking the reader over the head with An Important Message any more than I enjoy being hit over the noggin with a tedious missive myself!

I guess I’ve had some success in what I’m doing. THE NASCENT BLOOM has been a finalist in a dozen writing contests, winning quite a few, and most recently has been named a finalist in the Young Adult category of the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart® Award.

I’m thrilled to be a finalist again, and initially hoped I’d win this competition, until I heard one of the other nominees is the phenomenal Christine Gunderson, one of YAOTL’s own (who also writes thought-provoking, challenging YA). Then I changed my mind!


Janet Raye Stevens writes short stories and novel-length mystery, YA, and romance. A 2019 Derringer Award nominee, three-time Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® Award finalist (winning in 2018) and Daphne du Maurier Award winner, Janet lives in Massachusetts, where she spends her days drinking copious amounts of tea (Earl Gray, hot) plotting revenge (best served cold), and creating fictional worlds populated with cool chicks and hot guys.