Author Event Highlights: Veronica Roth & Phoebe North

Earlier this week, I took my eldest daughter to hear Veronica Roth (Divergent trilogy) & Phoebe North (Starglass) in conversation at one of our favorite independent bookstores – Schuler Books (@SchulerBooks). Here are some highlights:

It was amazing to see this many people in a small space (500 tickets all sold out!) because of excitement about books, reading, and authors. We talked with some people who had driven for more than 5 hours from Cincinnati, Ohio and heard of someone else who had come from Kentucky.

Seated tickets sold out in 14 minutes. This is standing room only crew...

Seated tickets sold out in 14 minutes. This is standing room only crew…

On their own characters:

Phoebe: I loved Tris. I loved that she is complicated and seemed like a real teenager. She was challenging sometimes to read but that’s what I liked about her.

Veronica (re. the relationship between Tris & Four): It was a rule for me that neither character would derive strength from the other

On “strong female characters”:

Veronica: Male characters get to be all of these different adjectives, and we think women characters should be the same thing.

Phoebe: I think it’s important to think about what we mean by strong. We can have physically strong, like Tris. But we can also have complex and real – that is strong too.

On anxiety and writing

Veronica: I find it problematic that in general if something is wrong with you “below the neck” that it’s acceptable to get help and go a doctor. But if something is “above the neck” like anxiety or depression, people are just supposed to suck it up. That’s wrong. These are things that can be about brain chemicals and it’s important to get help, from a doctor or counselor or therapist.

Phoebe: Therapy is like ‘leveling up’ in life instead of a video game.

On writing:

Veronica: It’s important to have people to work with that think differently than you do when sharing writing. It means that you have disagreements, but it also means it helps you think more deeply.

Phoebe: At the beginning I was I used to fly by the seat of my pants. I thought I should try to be more of a planner/plotter. Then I tried it, wrote 500 pages, and it was awful. Now I just do it the way that works for me.

Veronica: I have a different process for each book. I don’t know if I’ll ever have one process that works for every book. Sometimes you don’t have a process. Anything that helps you write is what you should do to write.

Thanks to Schuler Books for hosting. Whitney and the entire staff was amazing as always.
Thanks to Harper Collins – for every ticket sold at each of the events, they donated a new book to First Books.
Thanks to Veronica & Phoebe for coming to Lansing and sharing your time and selves with us. 

Schuler Books
twitter: @SchulerBooks

Phoebe North
twitter: @phoebenorth

Veronica Roth
twitter: @VeronicaRoth


Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

NOTE: Contains some spoilers.    I’ve been doing book-talks for the students in my children’s literature course this semester. Book-talks serve 2 purposes in my class: 1) as a modeling strategy and 2) students are welcome to borrow any books from me to read for their independent reading project or for pleasure. Two weeks ago I book talked Grasshopper Jungle – more accurately, I tried book talking GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. Granted I hadn’t finished reading it yet, but one of the reasons that I think I stumbled was because of how this book defies easy definition or description – which is one of the things I love about it. At the MRA conference, Cheryl Mizerney (@CherylTeaches) referred to it as “Kurt Vonnegut meets Stephen King.” Now that I’ve finished the book and talked about it, I think I can articulate my thoughts more clearly.

Character is almost always my favorite part of anything I read – this book is no different. The main character Austin is a clear and unapologetic narrator. There are aspects of his life that he is clear about (his love for his dog and his friends, his loathing for the bullies from the public school) but he also is confused about other parts of life. This felt so authentically “teenage” to me – perhaps because there is a teenager living in my house. 

Austin spends most of his time (while not in school at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy) hanging out with his best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shann. It sounds like a “typical young-adult” book (whatever that is) when I say it like that. But add in bullies from the public school that beat up Austin & his friend, breaking into the local consignment store, and a plague strain; and you have a book that defies typical anything. Not to mention family history vignettes, a brother stationed in Afghanistan, the Tipsy Cricket Liquor Store, a house with doors leading nowhere, and an underground bunker frozen in time.  I could go on… 

Ultimately, for me one of the themes of this book is about wrestling* with labels. For example, Austin wrestles with his own emotions and feelings. He is in love with Shann, he wonders if he is in love with Robby. Although he rarely (if ever) uses these terms – he is wrestling with wondering if he is gay, straight, or bisexual. We don’t know the extent of Austin & Robby’s physical relationship – other than a kiss on the roof of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store. But do we need to know it? Does physical intimacy define if Austin is gay or straight? I think that the vagueness is part of the point – that sometimes labels are more limiting than helpful. 

I also think that the book itself defies labels. In terms of genre, it is part contemporary realistic fiction, part historical fiction, part science fiction. Taking away any of these genres changes the story, it is all three at the same time – and also something completely different. There are gay characters and straight characters. There are family dynamics and a town struggling financially. There are enormous bug that eat humans. But none of these make it a “gay book” or a “friend book” or a “contemporary issue book”. It is all of these things, with enormous, human-eating insects. It defies a genre label – much like Austin does. So maybe this isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, I’m still wrestling with my thinking about the book – which I love. Ultimately, Smith has written characters and a story that is intriguing, thought-provoking, hysterically funny, poignant, and engaging.

Andrew Smith’s website
Follow Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

*I prefer the term wrestling to struggling. Struggling implies a negativity and need for resolution. Wrestling implies something that is more fluid and doesn’t require being “solved”. 

The Raven Boys

I just finished The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. It was quite an enjoyable read. Earlier this year I took Eldest daughter to hear Maggie speak at our local Schuler Bookstore. I hadn’t actually read anything of hers, but my daughter wants to be an author and so I take to her as many author talks as I can. I had started reading The Scorpio Races prior to the event so I would have some sense of Stiefvater’s writing style.

I loved The Scorpio Races, particularly the way that Stiefvater incorporates elements of mythology into her fantasy story. This is the same thing that I love about the amazing series The Immortal Secrets of Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott. She has done it again with The Raven Boys, bringing in psychics, ley lines, and ghosts – Stiefvater has created characters that are trying to make sense of themselves in their own world as well as intangible dimensions. And this woman does her research – she talked about going to Scotland and getting lost looking for a ley line in the foggy mist with her mother and sister.

I also love that she wrote female characters that aren’t weak or dependent on men. They interact with them, yes – and there is a bit of romantic tension for those they like it. But Blue, her mother, and her “aunts” aren’t reliant on men for either their income or their identifies  They are not treated badly, and are not looking outside themselves to define themselves. For this an other reasons – I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. I’m also looking forward to sharing it with my preteen daughter.

Book Choice: Talking the talk with my own kids – pt. 1

When my eldest daughter was in fourth grade, she wanted to read The Hunger Games. It was relatively new, my students were reading it, and she heard me recommending it to friends. I described to general plot to her, including the fact that there are kids that kill and kids that die. I had her read the front flap and a few reviews, we talked about why she wanted to read it and she decided to wait. When she did read it towards the end of fifth grade she loved it, but also told me she was glad she had waited. I was quite proud of both of us. I hadn’t said, “No you can’t read it you are too young” and she made the decision that worked for her. And in the interest of full disclosure – she made the decision I wanted her to make.

Students, friends, teachers, and parents have all asked me, “What age is this book for?”, “Do you think this would be good for a third grader?”, “Is my child ready to read Twilight?”. I was even asked that question as part of an interview for the local news channel about the book The Hunger Games.

My answer is always, “It depends.”

It depends on the reader, their interests and development. It depends on if they are reading alone or with someone. It depends on why they want to read it, and a host of other possible factors. Each semester when I teach children’s literature, we discuss censorship and selection. I am a huge proponent of knowing the reader, knowing the book, and allowing the child/reader make their own decision about when to read something.

This belief has been tested by my own children in the past few weeks. My firm belief in trusting readers, in not censoring, and in choice has been tested by both daughters, they both wanted to read books that I was not sure they are ready to read right now. Now ultimately I know that I am the parent, and there are occasions that I would say “no you cannot read that”, but I also want them to learn to make informed choices for themselves.

Eldest daughter is now 12 years old and in the 7th grade. (The next post will be about the younger, 8 years old and 3rd grade). While I don’t typically write much about my children on this blog, I wanted to use these experiences to reflect on my beliefs about book choice and how those beliefs are enacted when I need to “talk the talk”. Not only because it is something I am passionate about as a children’s literature scholar and teacher, but also because it comes up so often with friends who are teachers and parents.

Fast forward to last week; eldest wanted to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. She had seen a preview for the movie, and because in our family we read the books first, she asked to download the book to her Nook (it’s password protected because of the credit card information). I told her I had not read it and suggested we read it at the same time. Now, I knew that there was sex, abuse, drugs, and a variety of other “mature themes” in the book – but as I said I had not read it. She was reading on her Nook, me on my iPad – she started the day before me. I’m not going to lie. When I got to page three, I wanted to tell her to stop reading. But I didn’t. I kept on reading, then I went and talked to her. I asked her if she read anything that was confusing or she had questions about. She looked me straight in the face and said, “YES!”. Together we decided to keep reading but that we would debrief together at the end of each day. I told her the deal was we had to talk about the choices the characters were making and the things they were doing. We had some conversations about things like sex & drugs that I had been nervous about having with her, but I realized that the book was helping. It gave her a place to start asking questions that didn’t have to be specifically about her. If I had just said, “NO you can not read that”, I would have missed a huge opportunity ( and she probably would have checked it out of the library and read it in secret).

Ultimately, she decided not to finish the book. She said that the intensity was more than she was ready for right now. She has it and can finish it at any time. Much like when she chose to not to read The Hunger Games, I was relieved. I’m grateful for the conversations that came from her choice to read it, but I’m also grateful that she realized and acknowledged her own limits . She said, “Mom, one thing that is good and bad about realistic fiction is that you know it’s real, it can happen. I don’t think I’m ready for all that real right now.”

That’s what matters to me the most. That in the end she was able to decide for herself, and articulate why she chose to stop reading. It wasn’t random or uninformed. It wasn’t punitive or from an adult.  It came from her. The choice that she made came because I first said, “I trust you to know yourself as a reader and a human. Let me help you learn how to use that trust and knowledge to make a choice that is best for you.”

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading (Nov. 5 edition)

I’m back! Be sure to visit teachmentortexts to see what others have been reading!

Over the past few weeks I’ve read:

Bear Has a Story to Tell – written by Philip C. Stead & illustrated by Erin Stead
Another lovely story by the team that brought us Amos McGee. 

Boot and Shoe – written & illustrated by Marla Frazee
Frazee’s writing and artistic style make her storytelling an absolute delight. I especially love the ways that she blends colors to show depth and movement.  

This is Not My Hat – written & illustrated by Jon Klassen
Another fantastic story by Jon Klassen. My 8-year-old and I read this together standing in our local independent bookstore. She kept flipping back and forth between pages and pointing out how much the eye on the “big fish” was telling her. 

One Crazy Summer – written by Rita Williams Garcia
This was a reread for me in preparation for a discussion in my children’s literature courses. I was again blown away by Williams’ writing, particularly her character development. This book is a must read example of historical fiction. 

Blackout -written & illustrated by John Rocco
I read this aloud to my students last week as we talked about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the role that children’s literature could play. 

This week I’ll be reading…

Graceling – written by Kristin Cashore
Another reread for me, I’ve been listening to the audio and reading depending on my location (car or home). This will be the first time I’ve used this book in my children’s literature courses and I’m anxious to hear what my students think when we discuss it next week. I love it as an example of fantasy – creating a consistant and believable world, and also as a book to talk about female characters. 

The Invention of Hugo Cabret – written & illustrated by Brian Selznick
My 8-year-old is reading this to me. While I’ve read it before (and even used it in class), having her read it to me is making it an entirely new experience as she shares her thinking and questions while she reads. 

Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom – written by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm & Bruce Novak
I’m working on my dissertation right now, and this book is both inspiration and a source of knowledge for me. 

It’s Monday, June 11 – What Are You Reading?

Be sure to check out the host of “It’s Monday…” TeachMentorTexts to see what others are reading! 

This week I had a VERY productive reading week and am feeling energized by it!

I finally finished Graceling by Kristin Cashore and absolutely loved it, particularly the rich, multidimensional characters of Katsa and Po. I think something that I appreciate about this as an example of YA fantasy is that while there is a romance element to the story, it is not what defines the characters – particularly the female characters Katsa. I can’t wait to read Fire and Bitterblue.

I also read Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. This is a lovely story about 2 young girls who think that they have nothing in common, but come to find out that they do in more ways than they imagined possible.

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Australia, I’m reading as much children’s and YA lit by Australian authors and illustrators as I can get my hands on. I read the following picture books:

Sun Mother Wakes the World adapted by Diane Wolkstein and illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft is an absoultely stunning creation story based on beliefs of the indigenous peoples of Australia. The illustrations are stunning and a thorough author’s note at the end explains known origins of the story.

Ready to Dream by Donna Jo Napoli and Elena Furrow with illustrations by Bronwyn Bancroft tells the story of Ally and her mother’s trip to Australia. Ally’s dreams of becoming an artist are enlightened and encouraged by her new friend Pauline, who is an aboriginal artist. Bancroft’s illustrations (which remind me a bit of Faith Ringold’s paintings) are beautiful and add a depth to the connection between the child and her new artist friend.

W is for Wombat: My First Australian Wombat by Bronwyn Bancroft is an ABC board book full of Bancroft’s delightful illustrations that a first glance may seem like a simple text. After multiple readings, it made me think about assumptions that I hold as well as similarities between the U.S. and Australia (hawk, island, river) and differences (dingo, joey, platypus, and quokka).

Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks is a truly unique story that begs to be read and discussed multiple times. I could say much more, but need to reread it a few times first. The complexity is incredible – I love the way it pushes me to think about how picture books and children’s literature can be defined.

Half a World Away by Libby Gleeson with illustrations by Freya Blackwood
Clancy & Millie and the Very Fine House by Libby Gleeson with illustrations by Freya Blackwood

Molly and her Dad by Jan Ormerod & Carold Thompson

Where the Forest Meets the Sea by Jeannie Baker – I was familiar with both Window and Mirror by Baker but had never read this title. Like her other stories, Baker asks readers to reflect on their place in the world and their role in the environment.

I read all of the following Mem Fox titles (which by no means represent all she has written!):

Hello Baby illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Goblin and the Empty Chair illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

The Magic Hat illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Possum Magic illustrated by Julie Vivas

Koala Lou illustrated by Pamela Lofts

I’ll be writing more about some of these titles during July and August when I am in Australia.

This coming week I’ll be reading…

… more titles by Australian authors and illustrators.

And though not children’s literature, I’m also reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers – inspired by Paul Hankin’s post over at Nerdy Book Club. Anyone interested in teaching and/or reading should read it!

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

This week I (finally) read:

Divergent by Veronica Roth – highly recommended by my 6th grade daughter as well as numerous other friends who know that I love dystopias. A definite thumbs up and yes, I am jealous of my friends who got their hands on the coveted ARC of Insurgent.

This coming week I will be reading:

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper – the last of our common reads for book discussion in the children’s literature course that I teach. I read it when it first came out but I need to get myself back into the character and feelings of the book before class on Thursday. I listened to the first half during an unplanned 3 hour road trip — enjoying the audio but going to finish the text because it is faster for me. I’m just as struck by the charactes in this story as I was the first time – and not just Meloday but her parents (particularly her mother) and teachers as well. Can’t wait to hear what my students think!

Eyewitness Travel: Sydney – I just bought this because I’m going to be traveling to Australia this summer with a group of students from Michigan State University. We’ll be spending the bulk of our time in Sydney and I want to start to acclimate myself. I know this isn’t children’s lit, but is related for me because soon you’ll be seeing my reading list full of children’s and YA titles by Australian authors as I prepare to teach and learn about Australian Children’s Literature (recommendations welcome, especially those out of the mainstream!)

Lastly, I’ll still be reading papers and lesson plans to provide feedback for my students as we wrap up the semester together.