YA for Beginners

My classroom door is always open (quite literally because it gets really warm in there in the morning) to anyone coming in to observe me. Because of this policy, I’ve had fellow teachers stop by, but I have also had college students/teachers-in-training and student teachers come through my door as well. I welcome them all because I enjoy the wonderings and questions I get from each of them. I love to see my class and my teaching through the eyes of someone else so I can stay fresh and always keep “why do that?” in my mind.

That said, one of the biggest draws to my classroom is my library. I’ve got about a thousand titles that I’ve painstakingly collected through my own purchases and many many many donations. Everyone wants to lay eyes on this glorious wall-o-books, and the question that is always asked is, “what would you suggest to get first? If I was going to start a library, what books are good ones to start with?”

This answer changes every year as new books come out and student interest changes, but I think I can make a Top Twenty Starter Pack list for anyone wanting to either start a classroom library, or start reading YA Lit for the first time.

Here is my list in no particular order (keeping in mind that I am cheating a bit and just naming authors so I can cover more than just twenty. What? I’m addicted!).

  1. Winger by Andrew Smith (and then Standoff because it’s the sequel. And then, well, let’s just put Andrew Smith books at the top of the list. But read Winger first.)
  2. Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
  3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  4. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (ok, again, just read everything he’s written, but this is his newest and it’s incredible)
  5. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
  6. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (she is another one that you should just invest in all her books)
  7. Me, Earl, & The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (seriously inappropriately funny)
  8. Lily & Dunkin by Donna Gephart
  9. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
  10. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  11. La Linea by Ann Jaramillo
  12. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
  13. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (again…just get everything she’s written)
  14. Everything Walter Dean Myers has written, but specifically get Monster- both the novel and the graphic novel
  15. Yummy by G Neri
  16. All of Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels
  17. Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
  18. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
  19. Any (or all) of the Blueford High Books–kids LOVE them because they are accessible and high interest. I suggest starting with Brothers in Arms
  20. Wonder by RJ Palacio

Oh gosh…I really could keep going. This is really just a very small start. Other authors you should really read include Ellen Hopkins, Matt de la Pena, Ibi Zoboi, Neil Shusterman, and so SO many more.

Happy reading!

Continuing Education

Since telling people that I am applying for a PhD program I have gotten a lot of astounded looks and even more comments that sound roughly like, “GOOD FOR YOU! And with three kids and working full time? Wow!”

Let me just first say that I know that the there is real affirmation behind these comments, and that the people saying them are really impressed (or at least I am choosing to assume positivity). I smile and nod, and mutter something like, “Well, I’m going to try.”

Honestly? I am terrified.

The last time I was in a graduate program, I didn’t have any kids. Shoot, I wasn’t even married for the first half of it. Yes, I was working full time, but the rest of my time was super flexible. The only person’s obligations I had to worry about were mine (and sometimes Cortney’s, but let’s be real: it did not matter if he had a haircut or meeting while I was in class back then).

Now, we are talking about a major disruption to our already crazy schedule. I already feel like our week’s are jam-packed with soccer (done now, whew!), scouts, consistory, and bowling. Now we are going to throw in a night that I am completely gone for class too.

Then there is actually the time I will have to do my homework.

I have my Master’s degree in the same program I am hoping to get my PhD in, so I already know it’s going to be a lot of work. I know there will be a lot of reading and writing. I am sure there will be some sort of online thing attached too. I graduated 9 years ago. Lots has changed since then, so I know every day will have to have some sort of block for me to just focus on class work.

Plus I will still be working full time.

Sometimes when people give me those, “WOW!” comments, failure flashes before my eyes and I wonder why I told ANYONE what I am doing.

At the same time, I am so excited to get back to being a student. I am eager to continue my studies and learn more about writing, literature, and the teaching of both. I am actually looking forward to research and picking apart the results of that research.

I’m excited to try new things.

I’m also terrified of failure.

But I have to try.

I have to do this. For me, but also to show my kids that when you have a dream, you have to at least go for it.



I had a hard time going to church today.

I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay home in my jammies and drink my coffee all by myself.

But I went because I stayed home last week due to this stupid cold I actually still have. I tried to gear up because we had a baptism today and I love infant baptisms.

We ended up in the back of church, which I hate because I have a hard time paying attention back there. I feel so…far away. So out of it. I get distracted by every little thing.

And I was distracted. An ink pen exploded on Charlie’s fingers, then Eddie needed tissues for his runny nose, and then Charlie wanted to write our names in the “friendship register thingy” that we pass later in the service. Then it was time for the children’s message, but Charlie doesn’t go up to the front for that because then he would be in front of church and eyes might be on him. So he hung out into the aisle to get a peek at the baptism. Then it was time for him to go to Little Lambs. Then I saw Ed out of church (he said he had to use the bathroom…Ok). Then when we were finally all in our seats, I couldn’t turn my brain off other things.

I had coughing fits.

I know nobody likes to sit by the person having coughing fits.

Church was full, so people were close. I was self-conscious of my coughing fits.

After communion, Cortney headed to the back to be a Deacon. After that Eddie left for Children in Worship.

I was left alone in the pew.

Normally this is when I start to exhale because I drive separately and then go write.

Today I didn’t drive separately, so I started to sweat. I didn’t know if I could talk to anyone today because no one wants to talk to the person having coughing fits and looking all awkwardly anti-social with her piece of delicious Costco baptism cake.

But I did it while the kids were in Children in Worship and Cortney was being a Deacon and counting money.

And it totally didn’t suck.

I survived.

Then Cortney gave me a ride home where I heard about the over twenty people who were shot while in church in Texas.

Perspective, man.








When is it going to end? When can we talk about this cancer that is eating our country? Is it finally time? I would love to be optimistic, but I know better.

If killing little children doesn’t get the conversation going, why would killing people worshiping in what should be the safest place? In a sanctuary?

Come, Lord Jesus.

November Birthdays

November is an explosion of niece and nephew birthdays around here. Of our eleven, six have birthdays in November and one has his in December.

It’s my favorite kind of insanity because A) I think birthdays are the best and B) I love to pick fun presents for kids.

Gift giving/receiving is my love language, yo. I even had it tested, so that is legit. Anyway, as the gift giver in this house I get SO EXCITED TO BUY ALL THE PRESENTS and Cortney looks at the budget and just says to me, “don’t go too crazy, mmkay?”

But November is also weird for me. Both of my miscarried babies were due in November.

Today we were at a birthday party for Cortney’s sisters youngest who are turning two and four. Eddie is the oldest cousin on that side of the family by two years. He tells me that he often feels like a giant (he is tall, but also I know it’s because he’s the oldest). I fleetingly wonder “what would this scene look like with one of those other babies here? If the first pregnancy had worked out, I would have a ten year old this year! If the second had worked out, a nine-year old.

But then would we have Eddie? If we did, would he be the baby instead of the oldest? Would we not have Charlie and Alice?

I don’t know. I don’t like thinking about it, and usually I turn off my thoughts as soon as that last one enters because my heart won’t even let me imagine a world without Charlie or Alice.

We are told that God knows everything about us even as we are “knit together in [our] mother’s womb[s].”  Are each of us here on purpose? Is the opposite of that then, those who didn’t make it, not here…on purpose?

Once a friend told me that maybe Eddie just took three tries to get here. That all three were Eddie in some way. Honestly, I don’t know what to believe. Sometimes I think of them as babies in heaven so Cortney’s dad can take care of them and have grandkids. Sometimes I don’t think of them as babies at all, but just as lumps of cells that quit developing.

The first one was a blighted ovum, so it helps me to think that maybe something was  wrong and my body was like, “STOP! This isn’t right!” The second one was most definitely because my body doesn’t make enough progesterone (maybe the first one was too? Hard to tell since it ended so quickly, but my uterus didn’t get the memo). When we figured it out and my pregnancy with Eddie “stuck,” we found out when I went into labor that my body isn’t shaped right to birth babies. Not only do I have a tilted uterus, but rather than widen, my parts that are supposed to push the baby out stay narrow straight through.

Also, I apparently grow giants.

So all my babies were born via C-section.

Maybe my body knew that and tried to stop me from having babies, but I did it anyway.

I don’t know, this month brings up weird thoughts for me every year.

November is wonderful and weird all at the same time.

It makes me nostalgic for a time I never even lived.

It reminds me how sure we are in our decision to be complete, and yet brings me back to a time before we had even gotten started.

Photo by Erin Barkel Photography

A Dinner Dance

“What are we having for dinner tonight, Mom? I can smell something good!”

I do the same dance most nights of the week:

Chopping, boiling, sauteing, baking.

Pouring milk, plating entrees, adding a treat.

Dodging a toddler, breaking up bickering brothers, commiserating with my husband.

The kitchen is crowded even when I am the only person in it, and it become impossible when a small child wanders in looking for a drink or a Leggo they thought they left on the counter.

Tempers flare when fanned with hunger and exhaustion. Arguments and less-than-loving tones are routine.

The oven beeps. The microwave dings. Plates and cups and silverware and vitamins get placed on the table.

“Tell your brother dinner is ready, please.”



Tripping over each other to get to the table.

“What are we having? What’s there?”

“I don’t like this!”

“MMMM! I love this!”

“Can I have more?”

“I haven’t even sat down yet. You can wait.”

Something always spills. Someone always cries.

“Alice, take your shoes off. Why is your coat still on?”

Plates are refilled. Days are discussed.

The table is full of noise every night–sometimes happy, sometimes grumpy, almost always a crazy combination.

“I’m done!”

“Me too!”

“Take care of your plate! WITH TWO HANDS!”

Suddenly Cortney and I are the only two left at the table. My plate is clean, his still half full.

We both sigh because neither wants to get up and start the clean-up/homework/bath dances.

The dinner dance, however, is over for another evening.



Last year my good friend, the Pastor’s Wife, convinced me that I needed to attend the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in Atlanta. I had been going to our state-level conference, the Michigan Council of Teachers of English (MCTE), for a few years, and she was sure this was my next step.

I balked a little at the cost: ticket price, hotel, conference passes (If you go to NCTE, you may as well stay and spring to go to ALAN–The Assembly on Literature of the Adolescents of the NCTE–as well. It was just a lot. Plus having to take time off work, make sub plans, work out the details of Cortney being the solo parent for a long weekend right before Thanksgiving. It really seemed to be too much.

She is convincing though, my Pastor’s Wife friend. She even somehow made it not just sound ok to Cortney, but he was all on board with how great this would be for me. Then the Pastor’s Wife convinced me to submit to present. And THEN I was accepted on a round-table as a respondent AND as a panel member.

NCTE in Atlanta last year was one of the best things I have done for my career EVER.  My whole recap is here.

This year NCTE and ALAN are in St. Louis, and the Pastor’s Wife (who is a college professor, in case I didn’t mention that) and I are ROAD-TRIPPING! We are leaving Thursday, November 16 after a full day of teaching, and driving through to St. Louis where we will stay until Tuesday morning.

I am part of THREE presentations this year: I’m a round-table presenter, a round-table respondent, and a panel chair with The Educator’s Room.

I am almost exhausted just thinking about it.

But I’m also really, really excited about it.

And stressed because I only have 2/3 of my presentations set.

But it’s going to be great. I’m going to learn and grow as a teacher, and I am going to fan girl all the YA authors


Halloween 2017

It’s November!

I’m going to try to post every day!

Key word = try!

Let’s start with an easy one: Halloween.

The kids were so much fun this year for Halloween. I think it was the first year where all three really understood and were able to participate in their own, age-appropriate way.

Eddie and Charlie were very much a part of choosing their costumes this year.

Eddie, of course, chose Harry Potter. We have been reading the books together (we read through the first one and watched the movie, and now we are on the second one). He is so in love with the characters and their stories. And I have never read the books before, so I am experiencing it for the first time as well. Having his joy and reactions as we read make me love the story even more. It wasn’t even a question who he would dress up as for Halloween.

I have no idea why he is grumpy in the photo, by the way. This didn’t last. Two seconds later he was fine…and on a sugar high.

Charlie wanted to be his stuffed kitty for Halloween.  You guys, I am so not crafty. Not at all. I like to buy Halloween costumes. But he wanted to be not just any cat, but HIS cat. His brown cat with white paws. So like a good mom, I searched Amazon and used our Prime membership to buy brown sweat pants and a hoodie (at least they are actual clothes he can wear again, right?). Then I went to Michael’s Crafts and walked around like a lost idiot for 20 minutes trying to figure out ears and a tail. I could have bought black cat ears, but I knew that wouldn’t be good enough. I found brown and pink felt that I could turn into ears using some fabric glue.  For the tail, I found a 6-foot long, thick pipe cleaner! I tied it around his waist and pulled his shirt down over it and called it good!

I even hand-sewed the ears to the hood of his sweatshirt. Then Cortney donated two pairs of socks so he could cover his shoes and feet so they looked like paws. I finished the look with eyeliner whiskers and lipstick pink nose! He was so happy! It made my whole day!

And Miss Alice was a cute little bumblebee thanks to a hand-me-down costume from her cousin, Maria. It had a tutu, so she loved it.

Our tradition is to go to Granny’s house first since her birthday is the day before Halloween and Cort’s brother’s birthday is ON Halloween. It’s fun that we all go at the same time. Granny even puts out sandwiches and chips so we get some good food before heading out for all the candy! It’s probably what I like best about Halloween other than seeing my kids love their costumes.

In years past, we have taken the kids to see my parents the day before Halloween, but this year I forgot. So we headed over there. It was totally fine, but we didn’t get back to our own subdivision to trick-or-treat until 7pm and by then a lot of the houses had their lights off.

Cortney dropped the boys and me off in the subdivision and took Alice home and we trick-or-treated our way home. The boys got at least 6 or 7 houses and they were totally happy with that. It was actually sort of fun watching them run from house to house together. The proud momma moment was hearing them say “thank you! Have a great night!” to each candy giver.

Because we got back so late, live on a dead end, and had no neighbors with lights on, we only got one trick-or-treater, so now we have a bowl of like 200 pieces of candy leftover. Oops.

The kids didn’t get a ridiculous amount of candy, but they didn’t even really notice. They were so excited about what they did get, that it made me smile. Besides, we really don’t need that much candy in the house (especially with the leftover bowl of it!).

Before they drifted off to sleep, both boys said to me, “thank you for taking us trick-or-treating, mom. It was so fun.”

I don’t usually really love Halloween, but this year I maybe liked it a little.

Streaming Ourselves Smarter

Growing up, my brothers shared a room in the basement of our house. My dad made them bunk beds, and of course, the oldest had the top bunk while my baby brother had the bottom. Next to their bed was a small nightstand. On top was a vintage lamp of a clown holding big plastic balloons. Underneath, it had a shelf that had a stack of children’s books. Most were from Scholastic book orders, and I can remember reading those books to my brothers when I babysat them.

The older brother would hang over the edge of the top bunk to see the pictures, while my baby brother would lay on his side, cuddled in his bottom bunk. I would situate myself on the floor, leaning against the bottom bed. One recurring book choice was The Magic School Bus.

My brothers and I went inside the human body and all the way to outer space with Ms. Frizzle and the students. We traveled into the Earth’s center and down into the deepest oceans. They were among our most favorite books.

I was probably Eddie’s age when those books came out. I was in high school by the time the TV show came out, but my youngest brother was around Eddie’s age then. So imagine my delight when I found out that Netflix is now streaming the Magic School Bus series!

Eddie and Charlie love shows that are nonfiction and teach them things without them really realizing that they are learning. Often they will blurt out facts about things, and when I ask, “where did you learn that?” They will say from some show or other.

They area also taking right after their mom with wanting to Google more about things as we learn them. I can’t watch anything without Google in my hand (catch me watching superhero shows/movies and I am constantly trying to read more about their comic book origins), and I am starting to pass that habit down to the boys.

The problem is that I am their Google since they don’t have phones/computers at ages eight and five!

But you know what? I don’t even care! They are not just learning stuff, but finding joy in something that I loved as a kid too!

The next thing we need to do is see if Grandma still has all those old books! I bet Eddie would enjoy reading them to his little siblings as much as I did to mine!

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post. Netflix provides the streaming and a device on which to stream, but we watch what we want and provide the opinions and commentary.

The Week that Felt Like Trying to Run Through Waist-Deep Mud

Nothing horrible happened this week, but my brain felt all murky and jumbled and just not…ok.

Have you ever had those dreams where you had to do something fast–run or get something–and every attempt felt like something like mud or jello was keeping you from doing the thing you needed to at the pace it needed to be done?

That was my week.

It was like trying to run a race through waist-deep mud.

But in my brain.

That probably makes no sense at all.

Thursday I had my monthly therapy appointment. I actually planned to bring up some of the challenges we have had with Charlie at school, but the minute I walked through the door and made a comment about the fall-like weather, my therapist gave me this look that was the definition of side-eye. Then she said right out loud, “you just don’t look like you are doing ‘fine’.”

She was not wrong.

But I couldn’t put my finger on why. Nothing remarkable happened during the week; it was the same as it ever was.

Teaching is exhausting this year for a number of reasons that I can’t really go into here. I can say my students are awesome, but require a LOT of me which means my grading and planning workload gets shifted to doing a lot on my own time for the first time in a few years.

Having two kids in school with all the homework and field trips and just “stuff” to keep track of is a part-time job of it’s own.

Cub scouts and soccer has carved out yet more of our downtime (although now soccer is over so maybe we will get some of that time back).

Cortney is on consistory at church which is awesome, but with two meetings a month plus his weekly bowling league, it means he is in and then back out again often.

We have more things to do at home that we just don’t have time for including winterizing the outside stuff, organizing inside, and the regular house-cleaning stuff.

I have deadlines for grades, conference presentations, articles, and PhD application materials looming.

Parent/Teacher conferences are coming up next week for me, and then the following week for our boys.

We have family photos coming up.

It’s just…a lot to keep track of. A very carefully choreographed balancing act.

I feel like I’m going to trip over my own feet and it’s all going to come crashing down at the same time.

Forget having time for my own self-care. That has come in the form of eating horrible things at night before bed that make me feel gross and bad about myself the next day. The hour between the kids going to bed and me needing to go to bed feels like forced relaxation–a time when I play on my phone or watch TV or read a book, while all the time thinking about all the crap in my school bag that needs to get done and now it’s just another day that I put it off.

I’m going to let someone (other than myself) down soon.

All of this is VERY anxiety-inducing for me.

And I know…I KNOW…if I don’t figure something out fast, I’m going to fall into depression and all those balanced items in my week are going to crash everywhere while I dig myself into a hole. The longer I allow myself to try to run through mud, the harder the fall is at the end.


And yet…I can’t stop. I can’t find a place to set anything down.

I’m mixing metaphors for goodness sake.

Because I’m running on shitty snacks and caffeine.

I know I’m on a frenzied road to depressionville, but I don’t know what to do about it.

My therapist says to use my support system, but I don’t know how to do that right now. I don’t know how to give any of this away.  My main support–Cortney–is deep into crazy busy at work himself working at his Chromebook from the kids’ bedtime until our own bedtime.

There is no way to stop this crazy train, Ozzy.

Where Were You When…

When I was a kid, I remember asking my parents “where were you when” type questions. “Where were you when JFK got shot?” or  “where were you when MLK was shot or the protesters at Kent University were shot?” My parents didn’t have the best memories so I didn’t get actual stories about it or how they felt. They don’t really enjoy discussing troubling or controversial issues, so there was usually some sort of change of subject.

I’ll be forty in less than six months and I’ve begun realizing two things: 1. I am the age my parents were when I started asking questions like that and 2. I’ve lived through some pretty historical stuff.

The Challenger explosion in 1986 is probably the first I can remember. I was about Eddie’s age. We were not watching it live on TV like so many other students around the country, but I remember talking about it before and what a big deal it was that a teacher was going to space. Third grade was the year we had a student teacher that sparked a fascination with all things space-related, and when that horrific tragedy occurred, it was a big deal. We didn’t really talk about it in school, but I felt the magnitude through my teacher’s and student teacher’s facial expressions and avoidance of the topic.

Later in 6th grade, the Berlin Wall came down. I remember watching it on TV. I was too young to know the history of it, but the celebration and joy and parties they showed on the news did not evade me. I was able to understand that something bad had gone away.

In 7th grade came Dessert Storm. Some of my friends had parents who were suddenly gone, overseas to countries I had never heard of until we started studying them in Social Studies class: Iraq, Kuwait, Iran. I remember a good friend’s dad was in the Reserves and he was called up and had to go. I remember how scared my friend was. To us, wars were in our history books.  Our grandfathers fought those–not our own dads and moms.

In 10th grade I remember getting word that Kurt Cobain had shot himself. It was the first time a pop culture figure’s death affected me. And it was my first time dealing with suicide. Sadly, it would be the first of many: Shannon Hoon, Bradley Nowell, Layne Staley, Chris Cornell, and Chester Bennington would all follow.

The Columbine school shooting happened my junior year of college. I remember sinking to my knees in front of the TV in the house I shared with four other girls. I was weeping before I realized what I was doing. I was in the school of education only a year away from my own student teaching assignment. This was the first of many mass shootings I would consciously witness in my life time. I would watch the US public search for someone to blame: the music kids listen to, drugs, mental illness, parents, but nothing would be done to curb them because apparently our right to “bear arms” is greater than our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I was in the middle of teaching a 6th grade Spanish exploration class as a long-term sub when my principal came to the door and told me about the first plane to hit the Twin Towers. She told me not to turn the TV on. I was confused because why would I? By lunch all the teachers were crowded around one small TV in the art room in silence watching those images over and over.

I often wonder what from the present will fall away and what will endure to make it to the history books. What will my own children ask me about? What will right now look like twenty years down the road?

Will they ask “what was it like when Trump was president?” or “Where were you when you heard about xyz?”

What will I tell them?

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