Saturday, June 29, 2019

Al-Azif (the Necronomicon) (Brian Katcher)

there was something wrong from the first i think but it never would have happened if it wasn't for the book seller i remember it was another time he laughed when he sold it to me a shadow followed me that night

everyone who reads the revelations gains a shadow i know that now an eternal companion

i know that know it is a balm

i always hated dank castle but it was home

the three lobed burning eye the carven rim the proto shoggoths

i must concentrate i must concentrate

that is not dead which can eternal lie

slumber watcher till the spheres six and twenty thousand years

i must concentrate i'll teach you to faint at what my family does

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl ftagn

Friday, June 28, 2019

Literally (and Literary-ly) Changing My Mind by Dean Gloster

            From about twelve to almost sixteen, through middle school and the first two years of high school, I mostly sat in the back of class, constantly reading science fiction and spy novels, cleverly* concealed behind my textbooks.

            *They weren’t all that cleverly concealed. When I was a student, I thought I was basically invisible, just one jeans-clad skinny wildebeest amidst a great indistinguishable herd. Since then, in teaching and giving presentations, I’ve realized that audience members’ attention and distraction are completely obvious to the person in the front of the room. Oops.

            At the time, though, it was the best I could manage: My mom was drinking herself to death, my parents were getting a divorce, and the first couple of those years I was going through an undiagnosed depressive episode, with no clue why I couldn’t get the homework done. Every six weeks, I’d forge my dad’s signature on the near-failure notices sent home before the end of the grading period, then everyone would be surprised and dismayed when I came home with an ugly puddle of Ds on my report card.

            It was actually fine. I was a scary-smart boy in a family of scary-smart brothers, and reading an endless collection of novels—a couple a day—was a pretty good education, even if it did lead to a larger vocabulary than the number of words I could correctly pronounce. For example, from spy novels, I’d learned that Soviet agents, while exchanging gunfire with the hero, always shouted, “Take that, bourgeois pig!” (Yeah. They were that kind of cold war spy novels.) Until I was a freshman in college, I thought “bourgeois” was pronounced “bore-geeyoyce”, not “boorshwah.”

Take that, bore-geeyoyce pig!

Ahem. I may have said it a lot of times before learning the correct pronunciation, but most people probably thought I was trying to be funny.

This appears to be a bourgeois pig. Note the unnecessary hat and glasses, symbolizing middle-class consumerism.

But I learned a lot more from that vast four-year pile of books than just mispronounced words shouted by stock characters. I learned about astrophysics and astronomy and chemistry and geopolitics and lots of other things.

Even more important, I essentially rewired my brain. In those stories, protagonists grappled with terrible problems and emerged triumphant or with a deeper understanding, or both. I was essentially programming myself for resilience in the face of setbacks and creating a mindset of working to overcome obstacles. ‘

My life eventually got better, and I got through the hardest part of adolescence by floating past it on a raft of stories. Stories that cumulatively changed my mind. 

That’s one of the reasons I write YA—as a teen, books meant so much to me, and most YA stories end with at least some note of hope. I love stories with hope at the end.

Read enough of them and they will literally change your mind.

Happy pride month all, and fill your heads with wonderful books.

Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.

Dean is on Twitter, where he just live-blogged two days of presidential debates. He is very tired now: @deangloster

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The value of revisiting history (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

Plenty of books have changed my mind, or at least my viewpoint. One example that comes to mind is Leigh Fondakowski’s Stories from Jonestown, a book that weaves together scores of interviews from the survivors of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple.

The story I was initially told—that many of us were told—was that Jones was a charismatic cult leader who led hundreds of trusting people sheeplike into a mass suicide. It’s the event from which the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” springs, although the lethal drink at Jonestown was cyanide-spiked Flavor-Aid.

Fondakowski’s book explored how Peoples Temple started out with messages of love, equality, and brotherhood. Jones’s followers, especially early on, were not so much lured by charisma as drawn by this universal positive message. As Jones grew more powerful and paranoid, not everyone continued to believe in his leadership. There was resistance, both before and during that final fatal night, and there are strong questions about just how many of those who died were truly willing participants.

I’ve recently read Steve Olson’s Eruption, an account of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in which dozens died. One point Olson makes is that “blaming the dead misrepresents the facts,” carefully building his case to counter the persistent narrative that most of those who died had ignored official warnings or defied orders to be where they were. Olson’s account of how people came to be near the mountain on that fateful morning tells a quite different story.

I have not yet read Dave Cullen’s Columbine, but I have heard that it is also a book that questions many aspects of the stories we all think we know about the school shooting there.

One thing it surprised me to learn as I grew out of childhooed was that history isn’t one set of immutable facts. That the stories we were told in school left out a lot, and in some cases were later proven false. That the stories we are told on the news leave out a lot, and in some cases will later be proven false.

We look at events through filters; we fill in the blanks with assumptions. Not everyone gets equal access to the microphones or the megaphones. It’s good to reexamine what we think we know.

And so we uncover the past again and again, learning new things each time.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Berenstain Bears Change Their Minds (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

            I took my first formal children's literature class in my final semester of undergrad. I went on to earn an MLIS in Youth Services, to work as a children's librarian, and finally to get an MA in English at one of the few schools in the country that treats the study of children's literature like a valid academic discipline. I know that while librarians and academics would like the general public to believe that they are unshockable and never clutch their pearls, in fact they do, all the time.
            And nothing causes said pearl clutching more reliably than the mention of a (horrors) didactic book.
            Didactic is a word that is regularly spat with scorn in the halls of academia and in the secret spaces of libraries, though it must be said, less so by those who regularly work with children.
            Much of the history of children's literature to about the late 19th century can be summed up in that word: didactic. Meant to teach a lesson. Lewis Carroll references it in Alice:

It was all very well to say "drink me", "but I'll look first," said the wise little Alice, "and see whether the bottle's marked "poison" or not," for Alice had read several nice little stories about children that got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had given them, such as, that, if you get into the fire, it will burn you, and that, if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it generally bleeds, and she had never forgotten that, if you drink a bottle marked "poison", it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.

            The example of books regularly held up as didactic in every one of these programs was that classic series The Berenstain Bears. Now, I loved The Berenstain Bears as a child. I reread them in high school when I was helping my mom put together thematic units for her kindergarten class, and I still loved them then.
            But a well known risk of grad school is that it can turn you into an insufferable know-it-all. I began to sneer at didactic books, too.
            Until I became a mother and my daughter had her own opinions, very early, about the books she liked. And until I learned that I could attempt without success to teach her various concepts all day every day, wasting my time and hers, or I could just read her a book about our current issue/phase, and she would get it immediately.
            I began to feel a great deal more empathy for those mothers of the pre-child friendly past who needed to teach their children that fire will burn and knives will cut and poison will kill without actually having any of those things happen right in front of them.
            When my daughter was nearly three, we moved across the country. I was looking for books about moving and discovered The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day, which was new to me. She and I stayed with my parents for two weeks while we were between houses. I rediscovered my old copies of The Berenstain Bears. She loved them. She still does. I loved them. They were fun. We both loved visiting the tree house down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country. In fact she loved them so much that now I have to keep steering her away from the newer ones, which, whatever you think about the evangelical takeover of the series, are clunkers to read. The quality of the illustration has also gone way downhill. The originals had, dare I say it, lessons AND literary quality.
            In library services to children, we sometimes talk about putting "the right book in the hands of the right child at the right time."
            Sometimes, that book is didactic.
            *clutches pearls and faints*

A part of our collection. Are these books perfect? Nope.
Are they sometimes what this mom and kiddo need? Yep.
The other day we talked about what happened in TOO MUCH PRESSURE
when she brought up wanting to do gymnastics for no other reason
than that some of her friends do. We talked about the fact that she
already does swimming, dance, and soccer, and that's enough at one time.
She got it. Thank you, Berenstain Bears.

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