Finding truth while being lost

51w1vnrjk9lThe Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes (2015)

Opening line: “The laughter starts as a low murmur.”

Hallelujah Calhoun has found herself back at a church youth camp, after an extended absence from all youth group activities. Although the reader isn’t clear about what happened exactly, we know that it involved the preacher’s son, Luke, and extremely disappointed parents. We know that since, Hallie has quit choir, has lost her friends, and has retreated inside herself. But now she’s back at camp, hiking through the Smokey Mountains, and every moment in the same vicinity as Luke and his cohort is excruciating.

There is a new girl at camp, however, named Rachel, who is outgoing and attempts to befriend Hallie. When she and Rachel and Jonah (Hallie’s friend prior to the Luke incident) find themselves separated from the hiking group, Rachel is insistent in hiking back to camp, and Hallie and Jonah agree to go with her. But when they reach a Y in the trail, they choose the wrong path, and soon are completely lost. Day turns to night turns to morning and night again, and days  go by without any sign of rescue. Before long, their situation turns dangerous, and they have to rely on each other entirely if they are going to have any hope for survival.

I struggled to get into this one. I found myself dreading finding out what actually happened between Hallie and Luke, while I was simultaneously somewhat bored by the tedium of their being lost in the woods. Nothing was particularly wrong with the novel, I just wasn’t immersed. But THEN, for the last 150 pages, I simply could not put it down. The intensity of their situation picks up, we finally hear the full story of “the incident” (don’t worry middle school librarians, it’s early-teen friendly, and even a healthy way for teens to explore early romantic pressures), and we are able to see some hope among their desperation.

Hallie’s story is wonderfully relateable, and I will definitely recommend it to my kiddos.

2 stars

ReadUp RunDown!

20160806_185340[1]Today I was so excited to be able to attend Greenville’s inaugural YA/middle grade lit festival, ReadUp Greenville, and I just had the best Saturday. We live about 40 minutes away from G-ville, which seems to be the perfect distance to the “big city.” (I’m a big fan of this “big city”, btdub. It’s small and lively and beautiful and friendly and there are dogs everywhere.) It was also lovely that the fest
didn’t start too early, so I still got to sleep in. Thanks, guys. 20160806_155656[1]

So this festival got together 25+ authors and put on 3 keynotes, 9 multi-author panels, bunches of book signings, AND an ice cream social. And most of the events (including the ICE CREAM) were completely free to the public. I mean, come on. Whoa.

Personally, I sat in on “First Years This Way: The Necessary Harry Potter Panel” with Cassie BeasleyTerra Elan McVoyBrendan Reichs, and Maya Van Wagenen; the Holly Goldberg Sloan 20160806_133449[1]afternoon keynote, where I learned she wrote the movie Angels in the Outfield with my heartthrob (“I called him Joey… other people call him Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I guess.” Presh.) and where she passed out fresh copies of her brand new ARC, Short; the “Magic: The Gathering(TM)” session, with three fantasy authors, Cassie 20160806_141852[1]Beasley again, Ryan Graudlin, and Maggie Stiefvater, all three of whom I want to be friends with now; and “A Whole New World,” with three authors who write in a middle eastern setting, Renee Ahdieh, Jessica Khoury, and Aisha Saeed.

There’s something magical about attending literature festivals (or conferences). I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but as author Cassie Beasley mentioned today, festivals are so great, because they are simultaneously fangirl sessions while also showing you that authors are just normal 20160806_145529[1]people. A bunch of the authors are my age, which for some reason makes me want to write again. (By write “again” I mean, for the first time since 9th grade.) It’s like, they’re doing it. I could do it.

Regardless of if this festival forces me to open up a new Word document (or really, Google doc, because who can afford Word?) and pen my first book, there’s something so rejuvenating about lit festivals. Seeing bookish t-shirts, bookish totes, and bookish pins everywhere you look and hearing people laugh and nod at all the bookish references that are casually slipped into talks, just makes me feel like I belong. Despite going to the festival solo, I never felt lonely, because I was totally among my people.

A-Plus, ReadUp Greenville. Three Stars.

 

Fostering a father

41uzrunxtklOrbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt (2015)

Opening line: “‘Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,’ Mrs. Stroud said, ‘there are one or two things you ought to understand.'”

The one or two things Jack and his parents “ought to know” about Joseph are these: Two months ago, Joseph almost killed a teacher in a bathroom, and a month before that, Joseph became a father. The last thing? Joseph’s fourteen.

I feel like right there, you know this story is going to be a heartbreaker. As someone who works with 14-year-olds on a daily basis, I cannot physically imagine any of them being fathers or mothers, despite the fact that I know it happens. As someone twice that age, I am just beginning to imagine myself in that role. 14-year-olds are supposed to be worried about basketball practice and pop quizzes and obnoxious siblings, not about caring for an infant.

However, within these first few pages of a potentially heartbreaking story, we also see a glimmer of hope. Because despite these concerning facts about Joseph, Jack and his parents are completely on board with welcoming him into their family, and do so with gusto. Jack, age 12, takes it upon himself to be there for his new foster brother, sitting by him on the bus (against the advice of his friends), walking with him to and from school when the bus isn’t an option for Joseph (despite his principal’s warnings), and having his back in fights (even though he’s two years younger). Although he doesn’t yet know the full story of Joseph’s life (Joseph is pretty clammed up about it), Jack somehow recognizes that there’s got to be more to it, and more to Joseph than what initially meets the eye. Through the patience and kindness of Jack and his parents, Joseph begins to open up. When he does, Jack learns that the thing Joseph wants most in the world is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter. It’s the only thing he cares about, the only thing he’s focused on. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

Not only did this story hook me right from the very beginning with it’s plot, but Gary Schmidt’s storytelling completely absorbed me. I loved hearing the story from Jack’s perspective, a somewhat objective viewpoint, although still deeply involved. I loved the sparse, purposeful dialogue that let the story be revealed to us, rather than the abundant “he said/she saids” that are so frequently sprinkled throughout middle grade lit. I even loved the winter setting, feeling the thick snow drifts up to my knees and burning sensation of your ears and nose when you come in from being outside (and for those of you who know my disposition to warmer climates, you understand how impressive that is).

I have to tell you, I was blown away by this book. I read it almost all in one sitting (I think I was about 15 pages in when I picked it up yesterday morning), and it gripped me the entire time. I JUST WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT. If you are familiar with the foster system, you should read this. If you are someone who works with teens and preteens, you should read this. If you are a teen or preteen, who knows that life really is more complicated despite what adults believe or want to believe, you should read this. Just, read this.

3 stars

Beauty in Imperfection

519dibqx6ql The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful, by Myquillyn Smith (2014)

Opening line: “As a child, I didn’t have huge dreams, impressive ambitions, or fancy prayers. I was a simple girl who looked forward to having a family and settling down in a little white house and growing something — you know, like a garden.”

Lately, I feel like I have been nesting. I promise I’m not pregnant. My husband says it’s probably all the folic acid from my new multi-vitamin. Maybe it’s just because it’s summer and I finally have the energy to do something more than lay down on our delicious couch the moment I walk in the door. All I know is that I just re-did our laundry room, turning it from a dark, wood-paneled scary place into a bright, happy, airy place in which I would gladly spend time. I think it’s my favorite transformation we’ve made in this home, and it’s no more than 40 square feet.

In any case, perhaps it’s my nesting tendencies that drew me toward this book, although I shelved it on GoodReads months ago. I finally put a hold on it at the library though, and have enjoyed reading through it over the past couple weeks.

Myquillyn Smith (I love the juxtaposition of that delightfully complicated first name paired with the most popular surname in America… a foreshadowing of her style, for sure) is the author of the popular Nesting Place blog, which developed into this book a couple years ago. At the publishing of this book, she and her husband moved 13 times in 18 years of being married (and I think they’ve moved again since), living in a whole assortment of different types of places, from renting to buying, from condos to mansions. Over the many disheartening moves, she came to the conclusion that if she waited for the perfect house to build her home, it was never going to come, and she’d be waiting forever. Instead, she could build her home no matter how the house was shaped. This book is a collection of what she’s learned doing just that.

For the most part, it seems that her main point (or at least, my biggest takeaway) is just to not be afraid to experiment and try things out. She was a big fan of asking for forgiveness from landlords rather than permission, and just went for it. Another thing she stresses is to make decorations useful and useful items beautiful. It’s clear she and her family live in the home. She repeats over and over that imperfection is beautiful, and very much the goal.

Repetition was in fact pretty common throughout the pages, and not just about imperfection. There’s a lot she repeats from chapter to chapter, and I wasn’t overly impressed by any of her ideas. However, that being said, I did feel generally inspired by the end. I felt ready to take on small tasks around the house (like said laundry room), and not worry so much about making our house perfect in this first year we own it. That was one major issue I had after buying our house — it felt like we had to make so many decisions right away, decisions we were going to have to live with for a long time. Smith gives me the assurance that we can change things whenever we want to, and small, subtle changes can have huge impact.

One of the appendices at the back of the book is what Smith calls The Imperfectionist Manifesto, which I loved. Some of my favorite tenets include:

  • WE BELIEVE that home should be the safest place on earth.
  • WE BELIEVE that authenticity trumps perfection.
  • WE BELIEVE in mismatched sheets and unmade beds.
  • WE BELIEVE that the things in our house are meant to serve us, not the other way around.
  • WE BELIEVE that both pretty pillows and dogs should be on sofas.
  • WE BELIEVE that toys and homework and smelly shoes and spilled milk are signs of life.
  • WE BELIEVE in using the good stuff now, not waiting for some future better purpose.
  • WE BELIEVE that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Okay, so that was 8 out of the 13 tenets. But I couldn’t pick just a few! Setting in to our second year of homeownership, in a house that is not anywhere near “complete” yet, I think these are some good words to live by…

1.5 stars

The three rancheros

91ayjzgyg0lRaymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo (2016)

Opening line: “There were three of them, three girls.”

There were once three of us, three girls. We didn’t come together quite like Raymie and her three rancheros came together, but were pushed together more due to having the same teacher and liking to play make-believe games on the playground. Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante, and Beverly Tapinski come together at in a slightly more unique situation, at the home of their baton twirling coach at their first baton twirling lesson. The lesson fails to proceed, however, after Louisiana faints at the thought of performing, and their coach declines to put up with “this nonsense.”

Raymie is learning to twirl in order to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. She has a plan. Three days ago, Raymie’s father ran off with a dental hygienist and Raymie is convinced that if she wins the competition, her father will see her picture in the paper and have to come home. Everything rests with her winning the competition. She soon finds out that Louisiana, who dons lucky bunny barrettes in her hair and flashy sequined dresses, wants to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition also, but she is more interested in the $1975 prize money in order to buy food for her and her granny and perhaps turn the electricity back on at home. Beverly, a scrappy girl with a chip on her shoulder and a bruise on her face, is just entering in order to sabotage the competition, for no reason in particular.

This is the story of the magic that can turn three strangers into best friends over the matter of a few days, at an age where empathy and compassion seem as natural as breathing. As Louisiana tells Raymie, “no matter what, you’re here and I’m here and we’re here together.” And often, that is enough to get through just about anything.

Delightfully honest and touching, 2.5 stars

Get ready to be swept up

51zohd5wlplThis is the Story of You, by Beth Kephart (2016)

Opening line: “Blue, for example. Like the color that sun makes the sea. Like the beach bucket he wore as a hat, king of the tidal parade. Like the word and the hour of nobody awake but me. I thought blue was mine, and that we were each ourselves, and that some things could not be stolen. I thought the waves would rise up, toss down, rinse clean, and that I would still be standing here, solid. I was wrong about everything.”

Okay, so, confession time… sometimes I buy books because they’re pretty. Perhaps you think this is an irresponsible use of school money, but I say, IF IT’S PRETTY, THEY’LL CHECK IT OUT. I mean, I did. (Plus, of course, it had some great reviews, so low risk). I feel like I’m just rewarding the graphic designers for doing their job well.

So, because #IJudgeBooksByTheirCovers, there was a chance this would be a dud. But GUYS, I LOVED THIS.

As someone who reads a lot of middle grade fiction, I’m sometimes wildly surprised by beautiful writing. That’s not to say that middle grade fiction doesn’t have good writing, but it has its audience. And that audience is primarily made up of 8-12-year-olds. Not 28 year old former English majors. So when I come across a book whose language and writing is as beautiful as its story, I may become obsessed. I mean, check out that opening line I included at the top. Usually, I just have an opening sentence. But I couldn’t stop at a sentence! I just couldn’t!

Mira lives with her mother and younger brother on Haven, a small island just off the Jersey Shore, where the summers are filled with tourists and the off-season is filled with racing around the 3 sq miles of island with her two best friends, Eva and Deni, on their “modes” (of transportation): a golf cart for Deni, a skateboard for Eva, and a pair of old school skates for Mira. Mira’s brother, Jasper Lee, has a crippling congenital illness that requires weekly treatments on the mainland, so on this particular Wednesday, it’s normal that her mother and brother hop in the car and head off of Haven. It’s normal when the clouds roll across the waves, because as the weather forecasters tell them, it’s headed back to sea. It’s normal.

But it’s not normal when her mom calls to tell her that Jasper Lee had a terrible reaction to one of the medications and has to stay at the hospital for several days. It’s not normal when she sees a dark shadow of a person walk up her boardwalk to her house and shuffle around for a while before walking away. It’s not normal when the wind and rain pick up and it’s clear the storm did not head back out to sea.

After a terrifying night, which Mira almost doesn’t survive, she is forced to head out to check out the damage of the island, and see how she’s going to pick up the pieces.

Like I said, the lyrical and poetic writing just swept me along with the story, and made me stay up way past my normal sleepy-girl bedtime. I hope my students will be swept along like me, rather than stuck at what may not be as straightforward as they’re used to.

2.5 stars

Middle School Drama at its Finest

Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova (2015)61yatzrvzjl

What a perfect title for this graphic novel set in middle school. Because, coming from someone who spends everyday in a middle school, it’s a word that describes anywhere from 50%-75% of any given day.

Penelope feels super awkward every time she sees Jaime in the hallways, due to a terrible interaction she had with him on her first day at a new school. After tripping over her own feet in front of everyone, Jaime stops to help her pick up her stuff. The local bullies start harassing them, calling Penelope Jaime’s “nerder girlfriend”, and in a desperate attempt to distance herself from a low social status, she pushes Jaime away and yells at him to leave her alone. Now she feels incredibly guilty for her reaction to a kid who was just trying to be nice to her.

Awkward.

I can identify with Penelope’s severe guilt complex (I still cringe when thinking of a similar moment of over-reaction in 5th grade), so I immediately felt the truth of these pages. Soon, she gets in with the art club crowd, a weird but welcoming group of friends — another thing I can identify with after spending four years in drama club. But the art club’s bitter rival is the science club, who recently stole their table at the school club fair, and the principal plans to cancel both clubs if they can’t get along. Penelope’s anxious to keep the art club running, because it’s the only place she’s felt comfortable — and the one person from the science club who might be willing to help bring the clubs together is none other than Jaime. Can she push aside the awkwardness to save the clubs?

I loved this graphic novel for it’s engaging artwork, complex and diverse characters, and simple yet relevant plot. Another good one to hand to those that love Raina T.

2 stars.