The Recovery Letters

recovery letters

It’s been over seven years since my original postpartum depression diagnosis and over ten years since my general anxiety disorder diagnosis. Since that time, I’ve tried my best to be open and honest about my struggles while celebrating the victories of living with a variety of mood disorders.

I don’t always feel great about the stuff I admit online; in fact, I feel very vulnerable letting people know that I don’t always love being a mom and that there are days that I struggle to find anything joyful. However, I know what it’s like to feel alone.

Flipping through social media is a great way to stay connected, but it can also create a feeling of being left out, being alone. The images people put out there are carefully curated to look like their best life. I totally get that. I am guilty of that too. But I have also always tried to put the not-so-perfect stuff out there; because really, my life is very much not perfect.

I want people to know that they are not alone, but also that things can–and do–get better.

Two years ago I was honored to be included in an anthology of personal essays specifically about Postpartum Mood Disorders. When I first sat in my doctor’s office, I had a really false idea of what PMDs looked like, and it’s always been my goal to put a face on these disorders for others.

This summer I am honored to be included in another collection, this time of letters addressed to all sorts of people who suffer from depression.  One of the editors, James Withey, approached me because he wanted PPD represented.

recovery letters

The result is a collection of letters edited by James and his partner Olivia Sagan called The Recovery Letters: Addressed to People Experiencing Depression. Along with my letter are many, many others that are encouraging and uplifting and filled with hope. The message is loud: you are not alone.

The book will be officially released on Friday, July 21, but you can pre-order on Amazon. If you suffer from depression, this is a fantastic book to have on hand to flip through during your tough times. If you know anyone who suffers, this would make a lovely gift when you know they need a little extra hug.

Suffering from depression makes me vulnerable, but not ashamed. I am honored that I have been offered so many opportunities to put my words to good use to let others know it is a survivable disease.

Other anthologies I have been included in:

Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience (2015)
My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends (2014)
Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Love and Loss (2014)

*None of the links in this post are affiliate. I gain no monetary compensation for sharing these books with you.

A Decade of Words

Ten years ago today I opened up a new blogspot account and started Sluiter Nation. All of our closest friends had moved out of state, so I thought maybe having a “website” to post pictures would be a good way to keep everyone up-to-date.

I’ve been consistently (sometimes more consistently than others) putting my words here. They range from the mundane (updates and giveaways and some product reviews) to the deeply personal.

I believe this blog made me the writer/teacher I am today.

This little blog of mine reunited with me with a high school friend named Emily (formerly known as DesignHER Momma) who had moved to Indianapolis. She connected me with Indy bloggers like Casey (Moosh in Indy) and to Curvy Girls like Brittany Herself who made me want to write better. They also showed me BlogHer.

Emily’s honesty helped me recognize I had postpartum depression after Eddie was born.

That led me to all the Warrior Moms.

I started to write very honestly about my struggles.

I went to BlogHer. I tried to find myself as a blogger for a long time. I did product reviews occasionally, giveaways here and there, and tried to separated my writing and teaching lives.

It wasn’t until after Charlie was born that I realized that my writing and teaching actually fit better together than trying to be a mom blogger.

It was also during this time that some of my personal essays about my struggle with my mental health were published in anthologies. I started to realize that maybe I have a gift. I’m not a best-selling author–nor will I ever be–but I have the ability to put my thoughts into print.

I started to read Young Adult Literature and become passionate about my career in a way I never did before. I began writing for Education sites, (currently I write for The Educator’s Room). Friends and colleagues encouraged me to write about my teaching experiences and research for education journals.

Now I am in the process of applying to a new graduate program to get my PhD in English Education.

Wednesday I was trying to trace back how I got to this place, and I believe it comes back to this space.

I’ve made true friends because of this space. I’ve traveled across the country by myself because of this space. I have taken so many more chances on opportunities that I would have NEVER done because of this space.

On an internet where more and more bloggers are closing up shop, I plan to keep my little space open and chugging along. This is our life right now. It’s who I am right now.

Yay, Ten!

Inked

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I got another tattoo this weekend.

All tattoos have a story, don’t they? Even the ones that are “I just thought it was cute and wanted one because I was in college and being a rebel.” There is always a reason.

Ten years ago a few things happened: I found out I was pregnant, I lost that pregnancy, I started a blog, and I got a tattoo. I would say it was a busy year, but that is pretty much just how our married life has been. Highs and lows with very little in between.

When I started this blog I called it our Family Website. I was going to post photos and write little blurbs about what was going on in our life. I think in the first couple years of this blog’s life I probably only wrote a handful of things that were real and not just superficial “look at this fun day at the beach;” my tattoo post was one of them.

Contrary to what my mom probably thinks, I don’t take permanently “disfiguring” myself lightly (Cortney’s words in jest, not my mom’s). The first time, I tattooed what my students think is a V on my neck. It’s not a V. It’s two things: it’s the Aries sign and it’s also the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “woman.” You can read that post up there for more details, but basically after getting unexpectedly pregnant when I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted babies, then miscarrying that baby (and feeling like it was my fault), Cortney and I realized we wanted to be parents. Women’s bodies are strong, yo. That tattoo was for womanly strength.

Since then I have been writing.

Before I knew I had an anxiety disorder or depression or OCD or needed medication or therapy, I wrote to get it out of my head.

When I was having intrusive thoughts, I wrote them out of my head and then destroyed the evidence.

When I realized that one of my biggest fears in life was being forgotten and lost in time and space, I wrote out my stories.

When I decided to turn all of my passion for reading and writing and education into a PhD program, I wrote articles and journal pieces and conference proposals.

When I wanted my children to know me as I am in this moment, I wrote letters.

When I acted too impulsively or said things without thinking or made an ass of myself, I wrote to apologize.

When I missed or loved or thought of people, I wrote to them.

When I wanted my students to learn to write, I wrote with them.

Writing has kept me alive for the past ten years.

I’m placing my faith in writing to keep me alive forever.

Write.

It’s a command.

Write.

 

 

 

ps. My mom is not really that upset.

pps. Yes she is.

ppps. I love you, mom. Thanks for loving me despite my disfigurement.

Being a More Faithful Family

I would not say that Cortney and I have been excellent role models of what faithful families should look like. In fact, I recently joked with a few people that it seemed like we had given up church for Lent. We had a string of weekends with sick kids, other plans, or both that kept us from our regular Sunday 10am worship, and in turn kept the kids away from their Sunday morning Children in Worship centers.

We are usually regulars on Sunday, and if I am being truthful, I’ve left most of the “teaching” about our Christian faith to church: our pastors, the Children in Worship leaders, and the children’s message during church. I know that is not enough. That if we truly have this faith we say we have, it isn’t just on Sundays.

While I firmly believe our actions and how we treat the earth and who and what are in it are really the mark of our Christianity, talking about it is important too, especially with our kids so they know why we do what we do. As I do with most things, I turned to a book given to me by a close friend: Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments At Home by Traci Smith.

faithful families

The book is divided into three categories: Traditions, Ceremonies, and Spiritual Practices. I went through the entire book in two sittings and put post-it notes on everything I thought would be a good fit for our family. As you can see above, I used a LOT of post-it notes!

I marked the most practices in the Traditions section because I’m looking for ways to make our faith more a part of our every day lives. I like the way each practice is not just explained with a short narrative, but also is laid out in easy to follow steps. Then in the notes part, suggestions are given for making it more or less complex depending on the age of your children.

One thing we have always struggled with is consistently praying as a family. At dinner the boys are pretty good at leading our family prayers, but at night we tend to read books and then just go to sleep. I didn’t want to start the kids reciting memorized rhymes for prayers because I remember just flying through them as a kid and not really thinking about what they meant. I also tried it with Ed when he was little and he got hung up on the “if I die before I wake” and was freaked out for quite some time.

The first thing practice in the book suggests saying a blessing at bedtime. These can be as long as saying, “Eddie, may the peace of God, which is bigger than anything we understand, fill your heart and your mind, and may you know God’s love always. Amen.”  Or it can be as short and simple as “God Bless Alice. Amen.” It can even be part of the bedtime routine for kids to say “God Bless (family member).”

Practices in the book range from simple like a blessing, to more complex and deep ceremonies for things like pet loss, moving, and traumatic events in the news. There are small and large traditions for holidays such as Lent, Pentecost, Christmas, and even birthdays.

Another practice I want to put in place is to somehow mark the changing of the colors of the church calendar. We talk about this a lot in church and I would like to carry that into our lives as well: green for Common Time, purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas and Easter, and red for Pentecost. I could just be a small area–a shelf or table–but I think it would help us remember growing/learning, waiting, and celebrating. That there is a time and season for everything.

faithful families

I am really looking forward to putting some of these suggestions into practice to help our kids know why we give and take care of others–that it’s part of our faith to be the hands and feet of Jesus. That our number one reason for being is to love.

*************

This is not a sponsored post. The link is not an affiliate one. The book was a gift and I loved it, so I wrote about it.

What I Read in 2016

I had this lovely goal of writing something super poignant for my first post of 2017, but man. I am so busy that my brain doesn’t have a lot of space for poignant. So instead, I thought I would do my yearly “What I Read” post.

I took the GoodReads Challenge again, but I set my goal for 35 books. In 2015 I set my goal for 25, but ended up reading 35, so I figured I could do it again. I surpassed the goal handily by reading a total of 44 books! It helps that I love Young Adult Lit and some of those can be read super fast. In fact, it’s only January 6 and I’m already on my second book of the year.

What I Read

Anyway, this is the list of books I read last year in the order I read them. The ones in BOLD are the ones I recommend (although there were only a couple I was “meh” about, so go ahead and check them all out and let me know if you read them and what you think. The ones wit (YA) are young adult lit. (P) are novels that are written in verse/poetry. (N) are nonfiction.

  1. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
  2. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (YA)
  3. Rush by Jonathan Friesen (YA)
  4. Looking for Alaska by John Green (YA)
  5. Somewhere Safe with Someone Good by Jan Karon
  6. Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon
  7. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (YA) (N)
  8. Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick  (YA)
  9. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (YA)
  10. The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle (YA) (P)
  11. My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson (YA)
  12. Far From Home by Na’ima B Robert (YA)
  13. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (YA)
  14. Letters for Scarlet by Julie C. Gardner
  15. The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (N)
  16. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  17. Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez (YA)
  18. A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (YA)
  19. Send Me Down a Miracle by Han Nolan (YA)
  20. What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman (YA)
  21. The Long Season of Rain by Helen S. Kim (YA)
  22. The Viscount of Maisons-Laffitte by Jennie Goutet
  23. Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman (YA)
  24. Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want to Read and Why We Should Let Them (N)
  25. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (YA) (first in a trilogy)
  26. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  27. Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (N)
  28. Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
  29. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (YA)
  30. Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be by Teri S. Lesesne (N)
  31. Godless by Pete Hautman (YA)
  32. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA) (first in a trilogy)
  33. Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (N)
  34. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (YA)
  35. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King (YA)
  36. La Línea by Ann Jaramillo (YA)
  37. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (YA)
  38. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy (YA)
  39. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (YA) (N) (P)
  40. Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers (YA)
  41. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (YA) (P)
  42. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (YA)
  43. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  44. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (YA)

For Christmas this year, I was given a few gift certificates for books with explicit instructions to spend them on books I want to read for myself, and not necessarily something to add to my classroom library. It’s so hard for me to choose to spend my money on adult contemporary or nonfiction knowing that while I might enjoy it, it probably won’t interest my 8th graders enough to put in my classroom. But there are lots of books I want to read that fit these categories. So I did it. I went out and bought five books (and was gifted one) that are just for me. My goal is to roughly go every-other with YA books and adult or nonfiction books.

Of course there are still YA books I would LOVE to add to my classroom library, so if you are feeling generous, you can always check out my classroom library Wish List that the students and I create.

I set my 2017 GoodReads goal to 40 books. I realize maybe I should take a risk and set it at 45 since I read 44 this year, but I tend to be conservative in my risk-taking. Like I said, I’m already on book number two for the year. I have to read just over three books per month to make my goal. I think I can do it!

Tell me, what should I add to my 2017 To Read List?

The National Book Award Project: The Finalists

national book award

All the way back in June I started a project, spear-headed by Dr. Steven Bickmore, with a bunch of other educators: We read through all the National Book Award Finalists and Winners from the past twenty years. There were twenty of us–each assigned a year. I read the five books from 1996.

Each of us chose one book to move forward to the next “round”. We were then placed into brackets of five books and as a group we needed to choose which of those five would move to the final round.

The final round has four books. Our task was to read all four and vote for which one we think is the best of the best. I had already read Homeless Bird (2000 National Book Award Winner), but the next three were new to me.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers (2005 National Book Award Finalist)

As is typical of Myers, this book starts out right in the action with the funeral of a teenager who was shot in a drive-by shooting. Jesse and his friends, CJ and Rise, are forced yet again to consider how quickly life can be taken away. Rise makes the comment that he believes this is why you have to live every day as if it’s special. All three boys grapple with how to do this, but Rise seems to take it to an extreme that Jesse can’t agree with. As Jesse tries to decide to stick by Rise–his blood brother–or follow his own intuition, he sketches Rise and the rest of what they experience. It’s a very honest look at what being a teen in Harlem is probably like.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2012 National Book Award Winner)

Ten-year-old Hà, her three older brothers, and her mother are forced to leave Vietnam when the war reaches their home in Saigon in 1975. Hà has never met her father, who is MIA in the war–possibly somewhere in North Vietnam where communication has been cut off. The family journeys by ship to Alabama where they become refugees. Hà is forced to repeat the 4th grade even though she was at the top of her class in Vietnam because she doesn’t know English. What is most special about this book is that it is told in first-person verse covering a complete year: from Vietnamese New Year in 1975 to the same day in 1976.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014 National Book Award Winner)

Another book completely in verse, Jacqueline Woodson tells her autobiographical tale of growing up African American during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her life is split between two homes: one in South Carolina with her maternal grandparents and one in New York City with her mother. Her poems seamlessly weave her life story together in a way that the reader can actually feel. It’s beautiful writing.

Of the four books, I really liked Homeless Bird and Autobiography of My Dead Brother but I loved Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming. I also felt all four books would be appealing and accessible to my students (all 8th grade). They were all well-written, though I think the three I described here were a little more literaturey (yes, I just made that up) than Homeless Bird. Or maybe it’s that Homeless Bird is about a culture different than the author’s.

In the end, Woodson’s poetry did more than just tell a story; it created an experience; therefore, it got my vote as the best National Book Award Winner of all time.

National Book Awards: The Next Bracket

national book awards

In June, I posted about a project that I am doing with a group of other educators. Dr. Steven Bickmore (you should go read his YA blog, by the way) gathered a bunch of us together to read all of the National Book Award winners and runners up since the award for YA turned twenty this year. We divided up the books by year (there are five books per year); my year was 1996 and I posted about those books here.

We each chose a “winner” from our year to move on to the next round. I chose A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (a finalist in 1996; the winner that year being Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez).

From there we were put into groups of five to read each other’s picks and work together to nominate one from our group to move on. These are the next four books I read (in addition to A Girl Named Disaster):

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan (2000 National Book Award Winner)

Maybe it’s my historical fiction kick, but I really loved this book. In fact, this is tied for me with A Girl Named Disaster to move on to the next round.

So what is the book about? Koly is only thirteen years old when her parents arrange a marriage for her. While an arranged marriage is typical in India, Koly’s takes a tragic turn and she is left to fend for herself in a large city. The book is a quick read and appeals to all levels. It’s set in India and asks the reader to wonder about family structures, cultures, and traditions while also addressing the idea that the individual does not have to fit a mold to be a happy part of society.

Godless by Pete Hautman (2004 National Book Award Winner)

While Homeless Bird was my favorite of the four new books I read, this was my least favorite. I wanted it to be my favorite. I wanted to fall into it and find a bit of myself in it. The book is narrated by teenager Jason Bock whose family is very Catholic. Jason identifies as a “agnostic-going-on-atheist”. His parents try to get him into the fold of religion by sending him to a class at church for teenagers to talk about issues. The class only solidifies Jason’s apathy toward organized religion. In a moment of boredom and, according to Jason, clarity, he decides to create his own religion–one that worships the town water tower.

I really wanted this book to push the envelope and dig into the questions many teens have about religion and God. I was one of those teens and I craved books that showed others feeling and questioning as I did. This book fell short and only seemed to graze the surface. I was disappointed.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (2008 National Book Award Finalist)

This was another one that I loved. I almost put this as my vote to move on, but didn’t just because I think Homeless Bird appeals to a larger range of students than Chains does.

Chains takes place just as the Revolutionary War is about to begin. Isabel is a 13-year old slave in Rhode Island whose mistress dies. She and her sister are to be freed according to their mistresses will, but that does not happen and she is sold to a cruel New York City couple who side with the King and not with the American Revolution. Isabel finds herself befriending a slave boy who works for the Rebels and delivers messages and makes other dangerous errands that could get her beat…or worse.

This book was brilliant. It was long, and took a bit to get into, but the way Anderson wove both history and fiction together was flawless. Anderson has a follow up novel, Forge, and also a third, Ashes. I think students who love American History and have more reading stamina will fall in love with this series.

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (2012 National Book Award Finalist)

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction and what I do read is usually memoir, and I definitely don’t read books about science, war, or bombs, so I waited to read this one until the very last. Where Godless disappointed me, this one thrilled me. Bomb is written as a narrative of how the nuclear bomb was imagined, theorized, tested, and finally created. It also weaves in Russia’s attempts to steal the bomb using primary source quotes from American and Russian spies. It’s a real-life story of war and espionage. While I know what happens in the end–we make the bomb before he Germans and bomb Japan–I was still on the edge of my seat for the personal stories of the scientists who worked on the bomb…and those who leaked information to the Russians. The photos throughout were also a wonderful addition to the book. I want a separate category for books like this, but I feel like maybe this is one of a kind.

Overall I think the books I can see my 8th graders picking up and reading on their own are Homeless Bird and A Girl Named Disaster. Those are tied for me and I would be happy to move either on to the next round!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Five Summer Reads

five summer reads

So far this summer I have read quite the eclectic array of books. I had friends publish books, so I wanted to read those. I also wanted to read some more adult fiction since I spend a good deal of time reading YA lit, however I do love YA lit, so I have still be reading lots of that too. While I have read a LOT of books since school got out (around a dozen or so), these five stuck out as ones I wanted to pass along in case you needed something to read by the pool, beach, or on the couch while the Detroit Tigers are losing.

Letters for Scarlet by Julie C Gardner 

I have a confession. When my friends write a book I get very nervous to read it. I mean, what if I don’t like it? How will I tell them? Thankfully this has never actually happened to me. Letters for Scarlet is written by my long-time blogging friend, Julie. I have read her blog for years and marveled at her ability to write. To be able to hold her book in my hands made me giggle happily.

The book is one I would totally choose to read on my own. Corie Harper is a late-twenties English teacher. She and her husband, Tuck are trying to get pregnant, but can’t. One day, Corie gets a letter from herself–one she wrote senior year of high school when she was best friends with Tuck and Scarlet. Corie and Tuck had a falling out with Scarlet and hadn’t heard from her since. Until Scarlet’s mom wants Corie to find her and deliver the letter.

Scarlet, on the other hand, does not want to be found. She has a great job and finds out she is pregnant. She thinks having the baby would be a terrible idea.

Both women are running from the memories of one particular night their senior year. The book gives you bits and pieces that just keep you turning pages to find out what happened…and if Scarlet will keep the baby…and if Corie and Tuck will make their marriage work.

All The Light We Cannot See  by Anthony Doerr

I love historical fiction because I feel like I am getting a glimpse of life from a different time in a way no history class could ever teach me.  All the Light We Cannot See does this so beautifully. The story is engaging, sure, but the writing!  The writing captured me and just would not let go in the best kind of way.

The novel is really two stories that wrap around into one. Marie-Laure lives with her grandfather in Paris near the Museum of Natural History. At age six, she goes completely blind, and he builds her small models of Paris and it’s roads so she can have a 3D map of sorts to learn her way around. When the Nazis capture Paris, they are forced to run away to the walled city of Saint-Malo to live with a reclusive uncle. Marie-Laure is unaware that they have carried something extremely valuable and dangerous with them.

Werner is an orphan who lives in an orphanage in a mining town in Germany. He is brilliant at building and fixing radios. The Nazi party catches wind of this and recruits him into the Hitler Youth. Eventually Werner finds himself in the basement of a building in Saint-Malo trying to fix some equipment. His story is about to meet Marie-Laure’s…or has it already?

The Viscount of Maisons-Laffitte by Jennie Goutet

Jennie is another one of my very wonderful blogging friends. I’d already read (and loved) her memoir, but this was my first time reading her fiction. As usual, I was nervous I would not like it, especially since this one was being touted as a romance. Romance is not what I would pick up, but it’s summer and I love Jennie and I thought, “what the heck? I’ll give it a go!”

I am so glad I did! This book is not what I would think of when I think of a typical romance…or maybe I have the wrong idea of a typical romance? Chastity is a single mother and high school English teacher in France. One of her students is the son of Viscount Charles Jean Anne de Brase. Now, don’t let not knowing what a viscount is get in your way of reading this one. I know next to nothing about France, and I was able to figure it all out with context clues. Jennie’s writing is accessible to anyone who wants to read it!

Chastity is unimpressed with the Viscount’s off-putting personality when she asks to meet with him about his son’s academic performance. She has pretty much written him off as a total rude snob, when her ex-boyfriend–straight from prison for drugs–shows back up and wants to spend time with their son. An accident involving their son throws the Viscount further into Chastity’s life than she could have imagined.

Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman

This book may be my new favorite YA read. Having dual narrators is hot right now, but Schusterman takes that to a different level by having the narrator always be Caden Bosch, but from different states of mental health and awareness. Sometimes he is first-person narrating from the reality of his family and friends, other times it’s from aboard a ship with a deranged Captain and a talking parrot who both give him direction. Is he hallucinating? Is this a different world he has created for himself? Does he have another personality? Other times he falls into second person narration when he seems the most disconnected from reality. His ship world and the “real” world are connected, but you have to keep reading to find out how.

This might be the most beautifully tragic journey into and through mental illness that I have ever read.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Anything in the genres of paranormal or fantasy are a big stretch for me. In fact, I have never read Harry Potter (Don’t shoot!).  But I had A) heard this was very good and B) let myself get intrigued by the real photos that were used. I flipped to the back of the book and learned via the interview with Randsom Riggs that he found all the photos first and would write little stories to go with them. I found this a fascinating way to jump start a novel.

Jacob, a sixteen-year-old, finds himself traveling to a remote island off the coast of Wales in search of some family history. He finds, instead, and abandoned house that used to be Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. After searching some more, he finds that maybe these children were more than just strange…and maybe, somehow, they are still alive even though it is said they were all killed in a bomb attack during WWII.

Just like with Stephen King novels, I found myself drawn to how real Riggs made everything seem before introducing the paranormal/fantasy elements. I was already drawn in and invested in the characters before what would normally turn me off occurred. I was already hooked! I look forward to the next in the series (that I will have to borrow from my own classroom library!).

So what have you read so far this summer? Anything I should add to my list?

How They Read Now: The ’96 National Book Award Winners

National Book Award

Over the past month, I have been busy reading five books that I normally would not have picked up on my own. This year marks twenty years of the National Book Award and this winter I joined a group of colleagues and book lovers to go back and read those award-winning YA books. There are twenty of us participating–each taking a year of winners. Each year has five novels. Each reader is tasked with choosing the one book from their year to move on to the next bracket, with the idea that we choose ONE book from the past twenty years that we all feel is the BEST of all the National Book Award Winners.  I chose 1996 for a few reasons.

I am at that age where YA novels were sub par when I was the target audience for YA literature. My mom would make a weekly trip to the library in the summer and come home with stacks of books from their tiny section with young people as the protagonist. I read a lot of terribly written books over those summers. The YA scene didn’t vastly improve until after I had gotten my job teaching high school English. Coming of age with shoddy writing about gender stereotypes and predictable plots made me want to revisit what judges deemed exceptional back then.

The books I read:

Parrot in The Oven: Mi Vida by Victor Martinez

I read this one in grad school for an adolescent lit class circa 2004. I remember being blown away that this sort of literature existed for young people since everything we read was extremely different than the tales of summer romances and back-stabbing best friends that I had access to. Since it had been more than a decade, I re-read the book for this project. I was sure this would be my pick for the best.

Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Manny Hernandez who lives with his sisters, his brother, and his parents the barrio in California. The writing was beautiful. Martinez creates lovely vignettes for each chapter painting each scene with similes like when he describes the pepper plants he and his older brother are going to pick from to earn extra money: “…gesturing down at some limp branches leaning away from the road, as if trying to lift their roots and hustle away from the passing traffic” (10). The way he describes what the sky looks like above the pepper field, “clouds boiling like water on the horizon” not only appeal to the reader’s visual sense, but also reminds us that it is so blisteringly hot that even the clouds feel it (13).

While the writing was lovely, the plot was underwhelming. Manny’s family has issues and he is deciding whether or not to join a gang. At the time of publication, the race wars in California had tensions across the entire country running high. Not many authors had so eloquently written about the Latino experience from the eyes of a Latino youth, so it is not surprising that the plot coupled with poetic prose, won an award twenty-years ago. However if I were to hand this book to my middle school students now, I don’t think they would be as blown away after reading the works of authors like Benjamin Alire Saenz and Margarita Engle.

What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman

After reading reviews of this one, I was looking forward to something ground-breaking. What Jamie Saw read more like what I remember 90’s YA lit reading like: potential that is just not realized. The plot is that Jamie witnesses his mom’s boyfriend do something mean to his younger sister. Mom and Jamie and the baby leave. They are afraid of the ex-boyfriend. The problem is that the plot falls short. Other than mentioning something–domestic abuse–that probably wasn’t mentioned much then, it really stops there with just mentioning it. Since Jamie is just a little kid, the language is simplistic and we are left to infer what conversations his mother is having when she asks him to play outside or tend to his baby sister.

In the end, the book felt like an after school special, but with even less drama. Definitely did not seem award-winning to me.

Send Me Down a Miracle by Han Nolan

This may have been my least favorite of all five books. At least with What Jamie Saw I was interested in the plot even if it did turn out to be too simple for my taste. Send Me Down a Miracle had better writing, but the plot was pretty terrible, as was the characterization.

Charity is supposedly a 14-year old who lives with her younger sister, her dad, who is the preacher in a super small Southern town. Her mom is gone to a birdcage convention and later we find out she may or may not be coming back. A stranger–an artist from New York–comes to town one day to work on her art. She announces she will be living closed from society for a month. When she comes out she claims to have seen Jesus sitting on a chair in her house.

First of all, Charity seems way younger and naive than any 14-year old I have ever met. In fact, she is somewhat unbelievable as a 14-year old. Her father reminds me of the dad in Footloose, but less of a fully developed character. The most interesting characters to me where Adrienne (the artist) and Charity’s mom, both of whom are flat and undeveloped. In the beginning I thought Adrienne was going to be the star of the book when Charity describes her entrance: “Then in walked Adrienne into our tidy home, looking like some wild jungle woman with fat, frizzed-out hair, rings on her toes, and this long, brightly colored skirt that was practically see-through.” But no.

The entire plot of the town going crazy for a “Jesus Chair” was just poorly executed, in my opinion.

The Long Season of Rain by Helen Kim

This was the last book I had to read and it was hard to find. When it showed up to my house I took one look at the book cover and groaned. I thought for sure I would be bored to tears. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Long Season of Rain takes place in South Korea in the 1960’s. It starts during the rainy season, Changma, while school is out for recess. The story is told from 11-year-old Junehee’s point of view. She is the second of four daughters and lives with her parents and her paternal grandmother. One day her grandmother brings home a boy her age who was orphaned in a mudslide. His presence brings out family secrets and tensions between her mother and father.

I will admit that historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I hadn’t read any historical YA lit about Korea before, so even though I thought the book would bore me, I was wrong. The writing was lovely and wove Korean words easily with English in a way that was not confusing to the reader, but brought a richer sense of tradition and culture. Kim also does a good job of weaving the traditions of a conservative Korean family into the plot. They do not stand out, but rather enhance the story and push the motives of the characters.

I would classify this as a fairly typical bildungsroman because Junehee “comes of age” as she loses her innocence of her parents’ relationship and family workings. This was my runner-up pick.

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

As you may have already guessed, A Girl Named Disaster is my pick for the best of the 1996 National Book Award Winners. Like The Long Season of Rain, it falls under the historical YA fiction heading. At first, I wasn’t so sure about it since I have recently read two other YA books set in Africa, but this one blows both of those away too.

Nhamo is 11-years old living in a traditional village in Mozambique where she doesn’t fit in. Her mother was killed by a leopard when she was a baby, and her father took off before she was born. Culture places daughters with their father’s family, but Nhamo is brought up by her maternal side. After sickness plagues her village, it is decided that she should be married off to a terrible man to bring health and luck back to the village. Nhamo decides it’s time to find her father’s family who are supposedly in Zimbabwe.

Her year-long adventure is like a cross between the hero’s journey and a bildungsroman. She definitely “comes of age” during her travels, but it almost exactly follows the typical “hero’s journey” elements as well. Of all the books this is the one that not only stuck with me after I was done reading, but I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. It was a book I stayed up late to finish because I needed to know what would happen. That alone makes it the clear front-runner.

The writing was beautifully descriptive as well. One of the qualities of a truly good book–especially world literature–is when the author can make the cultures and traditions come alive and make sense and weave them into the plot of the book. Farmer does that impeccably in A Girl Named Disaster.

I look forward to reading the winners from the 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2000 groups so we can decide on one to push through to the final brackets! I’ll keep you posted!

Get Yer Groupon!

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post, but all opinions are mine.

groupon

Let me tell you a little story about a girl who enjoys shopping. In this story, the girl is me. I enjoy shopping. I mostly enjoy shopping when I feel cranky or sad or disappointed or in need of a pick-me-up.

But here is the rub: we don’t have a bunch of disposable income for me to go out shopping myself happy. (I know, I know, money doesn’t buy happiness. But you know what? It buys “cheer up”).  This means I either have to forego the shopping or I have to do it smartly.

I never saw myself as a “coupon-er.” In fact, I may be guilty of mocking those who obsessively clip coupons–those people who have a coupon for everything and plan their lives around said coupons. However, I do appreciate a good deal, and if it’s not something I have to “clip”, I am even happier.

Enter Groupon Coupons.

So admittedly, you are not exactly saving as much money shopping with a coupon as you would just not shopping. But listen: they regularly have Target and Starbucks coupons, so we all know I was going to spend that money anyway. They also have Barnes and Noble coupons which I totally JUST used five minutes ago to get a couple more books for my classroom library. It was in the name of research for this post, ok?

See my library back there? Always adding to it!

See my library back there? Always adding to it!

You want more proof? Fine. They also currently have coupons to Carter’s (where 90% of my children’s clothing comes from), Kohl’s (where I get all of Eddie’s jeans), and Shutterfly (where I make all my kids’ photo books each year).  These are places I shop anyway. That is why it’s so awesome. I get emails with the latest coupon offers and I can use or not use. If Eddie has blown out the knees in every pair of his jeans and he needs new ones anyway (which is a true story at this house), I may as well not pay full price!

So tell me…do you Groupon?

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