What’s Coming Up in 2017

Hello all! I had a very busy semester in the fall (SO glad it’s over) and I’m in the midst of grad school apps, honors thesis work and other fun but stressful things, but I would really like to get back to blogging. The idea of setting a page view or post number resolution for 2017 stresses me out. My goal for 2017 is just to do more and do some good by recommending diverse books. Check out my blog in the coming weeks for reviews of diverse books, new Top Ten Tuesday posts and other book blogging memes, personal posts about writing and more!

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Posted in Personal Post

Blogging Hiatus and Reading Slump (Hopefully Both Over)

Hello faithful followers!

As some of you may know, I am a senior in college and it has been a very busy semester so far. I am working on an Honors Thesis too, which doesn’t help. I haven’t posted in a while and I haven’t been able to finish many books, but I want to make a more conscious effort to post more in the weeks and months to come.

Here’s to great things to come!

Posted in Personal Post

Thoughts on Diversity: Tips on Writing in the Ace Lane

I received very encouraging and thoughtful feedback for my last post, so I decided to write a second one about some approaches to writing diversely.

I’m just going to put this out there that if you want to write characters who are outside your lane for ANY reason, you should at least make a fair attempt at getting it as right as possible. You won’t get it perfect and that’s not even the point, but you should at least try to instill as much empathy and compassion into your character as possible. I want to try and outline an approach to this using the case study of an asexual (ace) main character, but I’m hoping this can be used for other types of characters too.

So you’re not ace…but you want to write an ace main character…Great! But how do you craft your character so they read as a living, breathing person on the page and not a one-dimensional, problematic stereotype?

  1. Learn the Stereotypes and Try Your Best to Avoid Them

One of the first things you should do is take an inventory of your own personal biases and think about all the stereotypes you might know about aces. Just a few: all aces are prudes, all aces are overly logical, all aces are cold and unloving and all aces can’t be in love in love. Okay, so those are character traits that you’re not going to want to throw into a character with little to no explanation, backstory or development. Think about it this way: how would you feel if you read a character that was just a re-hashing of every stereotype about a part of your identity? Pretty crappy, right?

  1. Do Your Research

That brings me to this step. Research the actual community and the people in it, no matter what diverse identity you’re trying to portray in a character. This seems to be common sense, or should be, but I think a lot of people get hung up on where to do the research and how to do research. After all, you’re researching people so you can fictionalize them and bring them to life in a story. This ain’t a tenth grade history paper.

So…where do you go for research?

A. Your First Stop is Google

This should be your starting point. Get some history. Get some information. But keep in mind that Google isn’t the most reliable source in the world and there’s some wrong and downright hateful material that you can stumble upon. Still, it’s a good place to start and get some educated questions ready for when you get to the next step.

 

B. Talk to Real People from the Community

If you have friends in the ace community, great! Talk to them! Be warned-not everyone in a community is super willing to be a fountain of information and you’ll find that out very quickly. That’s okay. It’s hard to constantly churn out information about your identity, insecurities and vulnerabilities. But don’t lose heart. There are always a few people who’ll be willing to help you out. Just remember: be polite, be courteous and be wary of asking over-personal questions. Respect peoples’ boundaries.

 

C. Scope out Online Communities

For the ace community, this is HUGE. Some great resources for you to check out are the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), The Asexuality Blog on tumblr and Fuck Yeah Asexual on tumblr. There are also some Twitter accounts that tweet about asexual issues and interests like @asexualpride, @FYeahAsexual and @asexualnews.

Also…keep in mind that the ace community is hugely diverse in itself.

Make sure you also educate yourself on aro spec identities, romantic spec diversities and all the different nuanced ways aces can identify themselves if they choose to do so. 

D. Tune in.

What are some of the issues they discuss? What challenges do aces face? What is being ace like emotionally? Just a disclaimer: do NOT go into an ace chatroom or community space and proclaim yourself to be an “Observer of the Asexuals.” You will be mocked and you will deserve it (This has happened!!!!). If you want to approach someone and talk to them about their experiences, be kind and be empathetic. Remember: you’re basically ringing someone’s personal doorbell. Don’t attack them when they open the door.

  1. Read!

See how other people are doing it and writing about aces so you can get a sense of what works for you, your character and your story and what doesn’t. Read to learn, read to write. If you don’t even know where to start with finding a book with ace characters, check out this list.

 

  1. Write!

Write your story. You’re going to make mistakes, but these can always be fixed later. You’re not perfect and no one expects you to be.

 

  1. Edit, edit, edit, edit! Edit again!

When you have a good, solid manuscript done, try and find some sensitivity readers from the community. They’ll be able to give you some solid feedback. You can’t 100% satisfy everyone, but you’ll be able to iron out any glaring, problematic issues.

 

Learning to incorporate diversity into your writing is a process. It takes time and it takes effort. No one is going to teach you everything you need to know about the community and spoon-feed you, but if you show an interest and an open ear, I think you’ll be surprised by how open and willing to help people. So get out there! I want to see more ace characters, well written and well researched of course.

I’ve seen a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of emotional damage being done on Twitter these past few days. To reiterate, people are inherently diverse and diversity isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s here to stay. And whether you decide to write in or out of your lane, everyone needs to be compassionate, empathetic, kind, patient and respectful. It’s easy to take these issues personally, it’s easy to assume that one misstep comment makes someone a shitty person and it’s easy for these arguments to get out of hand, but remember: everyone has feelings.

So again, let’s work together. Let’s fill the bookstores and the libraries with so many well written diverse stories so that future readers won’t know any different.

Posted in Personal Post

Thoughts on Diversity: Reflecting on Hostility in the Twitter Book Community

I’ve been having some thoughts about recent stirrings and incidents in the YA book community on Twitter, and I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t try to put how I was feeling about all of this into words.

Let me start off by saying that I 100% support diversity in YA. Whether it’s race, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability, neurodiversity, sexual orientation or gender identity, I want to see more diversity of it in YA. As a Russian Orthodox Christian and an ace, I don’t see a lot of those parts of myself in books at all. And I would love that to change. Trust me, I have some 2017 releases I am very excited about for these reasons, but that’s not why I’m writing these posts.

Diversity is incredibly important and discussing it among readers, writers and bloggers is incredibly important, but not at the cost of compassion, empathy and kindness. Something happened on Twitter today that disheartened me so much that for a few moments I questioned the viability of this kind of intercommunity discourse. I won’t mention names or discuss the events in detail as to protect those involved. All I will say is that I saw older YA authors and authors that I respect participating in the dragging of a younger blogger who perhaps doesn’t fully realize the nuanced layers of hurt and sense of separate intercommunity that exists in the larger LGBTQPIA+ community.

For someone not in that in-group, that’s a lot to conceptualize and understand, especially in the fast paced environment of Twitter. What resulted was a spiral of silence where people who believed she was attacking the LGBTQPIA+ community and the way queers tend to largely group themselves off away from straight people as a form of protecting themselves and forming bonds with people who understand their experiences responded to her in a way that can only be described as hostile.

Hostility is not a way to breed understanding. It only fosters separation, suspicions and silence. Twitter is a place where everyone is entitled to one’s own opinions and can speak in whatever way they choose. I’m not suggesting that it’s not. But we should think long and hard about what kind of community we want to provide for up-and-coming readers and book bloggers. What kind of space do we want to give them when they join-somewhere where they can voice their opinion and be compassionately corrected if they misstep or somewhere where anyone who makes a single mistake will be ripped to shreds?

And if we truly want a wider breadth of diversity in stories, then we need to be better about paving the way for aspiring writers and authors to research diverse experiences for books. If we want good, well-researched diversity in stories, I truly believe we need to work together, correct others in an empathetic way when needed and ultimately change the tide of the attitude towards diversity in the community.

It’s hard to know where to start when researching a character whom might be different from you. I’ll save specific tips for another post, but avoid stereotypes, have conversations with people from the groups you’re representing and be open to criticism.

And for the rest of you—the authors, the readers, the writers and the book bloggers—on Twitter: united we stand, divided we fall. Take a moment to consider how kind you are to people whose intentions you don’t entirely know, apologize when you make a mistake and be patient with one another. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated if the roles were reversed and let’s fill YA with as many well-written diverse novels and productive conversations as possible.

Posted in Book Review, Personal Post

Almost 15 Years After 9/11: Thoughts & Review of Towers Falling

Thoughts

I was six-years old-when the Twin Towers fell. It was the first Tuesday of the school year, the first day of art class. I was the first kid to get picked up, before the teachers even heard what happened. Before the pick-up line stretched around the parking lot and into the street.

It’s always felt weird to be on the cusp of memory for such a horrific tragedy. Kids a few years younger than me don’t remember it. Kids a few years older than me understood what was happening in a way that my six-year-old brain just couldn’t do yet. Many of my memories from that day are crisp and vivid. Sitting down in my grandpa’s chair in our back room with my clear, plastic dinosaur lunchbox from the Museum of Natural History. Eating a fruit roll-up while watching CNN news coverage of the attacks. My mom picking me up and putting me in my car seat. The adults gathered around the television in the kitchen around our wooden kitchen table.

And then I look at kids now like my mom’s friends’ kids or my little cousin, all of whom were born after the attacks. I’ve wondered from time to time if they know. If they know how much violence has seemed to be on the news lately. I wonder how they will handle the realization that the world is a messy place, if they have had it already.

When it comes to tough issues like this, I often turn to books. For me, reading has always been a tool for building empathy and compassion as it is for entertainment or the thrill of a well told, well written story. My favorite young adult novel about 9/11 is David Levithan’s Love is the Higher Law.

Recently, I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time. Because of where I live in New Jersey, I know plenty of people whose relatives were in some way connected to the attack and knew people who knew people involved. I’ve passed by the plaques in my library for the two people from my town who were lost and seen countless local memorials. I didn’t know anyone personally who was there, but I still felt overwhelmed being at the Memorial, seeing the two gaping voids where the towers once stood. It’s impossible not to feel some

More recently I read the middle grade novel Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which gave me the answers to the questions I’ve been having about 9/11 and answers to questions I didn’t even know I was asking myself. A novel like Towers Falling reaffirmed my belief in the power of books to develop empathy. This book is not just for eight to twelve year olds. It is a book that everyone should read. It’s the kind of book that will make you a better human and bring you closer to understanding the incomprehensible.

 

Review

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Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Little, Brown BFYR, 240 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Writing about tragedy is hard. Writing about tragedy well is even more difficult. And writing about tragedy for an audience just entering double-digits seems to be a Herculean task. However, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ newest middle grade novel Towers Falling tackles topics like 9/11, diversity, Islamophobia and homelessness in a way that is fresh, funny at times and heartbreaking, with a sense of honesty that jumps off the page.

Towers Falling doesn’t feel like an “issue book.” Instead, it’s a testament to the power of kids to the be the mediators of issues and restored my faith in the ability of children to handle these issues and only see a path forward instead of backward. Set fifteen years after 9/11, this is the story of how kids born after the attacks navigate learning about what happened.

The kid characters were one of the brightest highlights of this book. Narrator Dèja’s voice-from her confusion to her anger to her intense feelings of alienation-felt so real as I was reading that she often came across as a real person-more so than most other books I’ve read. Her words and emotions drew me into the story, and each change to herself is so felt, so tangible, that readers will feel themselves pulled into each plot point.

Her friends’ characterization was handled with equal care. Ben, who moved from Arizona to NYC, is the generous friend Dèja didn’t realize she needed and often the bearer of harsh realities when Dèja encounters a new, puzzling situation. Her other friend, Sabeen, whose struggles because of her devout Muslim faith was characterized so brilliantly and compassionately well, was another bright point in this book.

Books like Towers Falling, which include diversity in a non-didactic, intriguing way and present it as a normal part of growing up are so valuable, not only for their middle grade audience, but for their young adult and adult audiences as well. Parents of middle graders will learn just as much-about their children and themselves-from reading this book.

Dèja’s family-and her homelessness-is another aspect of this book that was handled well. While I longed for more scenes showing Dèja interacting with her family, her situation is depicted in a sensitive albeit heart-breaking way. It was also poignant to see how Dèja, with the help of her classes and friends, was ultimately able to help her father overcome his demons and help the family ultimately move forward. If you’re looking for a heartbreaking and heartwarming story about family, and about fathers and daughters in particular, then this is the book for you.

Dèja’s teacher, Miss Garcia, and the attitude of her school’s curriculum in general was another high point of this novel. While the complete lack of any mention about core standards and standardized testing felt a tad unrealistic, the message that Parker provides about the power and importance of education is key. This book shows that knowledge is power.

While singular elements and characters of this novel were particularly well done, overall the book delivered a beautiful, eloquent message about self-discovery and the interconnections of personal and cultural histories across generations. It also delivers a good story, one of growth and loss, tragedy and small victories. Accompanied by a writing style that felt immediate and intimately close, there’s really not much about this novel that wasn’t a complete home run. When I got this book, I was told that it was said to be spectacular. And while I was skeptical at first, I now know why and you should go find out, too.

 

 

Posted in Personal Post

Re-reading the Book That Saved My Life

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It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, Hyperion, 444 pp. Source

There are people who re-read books and people who stubbornly oppose it. In eighth grade, my teacher told me that while the words of books may stay the same, our experiences, moods and thoughts change so that we never read the same story the same way twice. This notion was certainly mind-blowing as a thirteen-year-old and obviously impactful (since I still remember it). However, I’m the kind of person that rarely re-reads books. There are, of course, a few of my favorites that I can read over and over. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Looking for Alaska by John Green are the first two that come to mind.

Recently, I took on a particularly difficult re-reading challenge. For the first time in nine years, I revisited Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story. The book follows Craig Gilner, a fifteen-year-old New York City teen, as he begins his recovery from depression following a near suicide attempt and nearly weeklong stay in an adult psychiatric unit. The book is a perfect mix of light, innocent comedy and the darkness of mental illness. To this day, it is one of the most distinct, deep and well-written voices I have found in YA.

The girl I was when I first read the book at 12 and the near-woman I am now at 21 are almost different people. When I first read the book, I was vulnerable and depressed. I found Vizzini’s novel in the young adult room of my public library thanks to the teen librarian, Kate, who never shied away from filling the shelves with edgy and painfully honest teen voices.

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Me at age 12, when I first read It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.
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Me today, at 21, having just finished re-reading it.

I remember being intrigued by the cover and curling up in the corner of the room by the windows to read the first two pages. At fifteen, the narrator Craig seemed so old to me. He was in high school, he was brutally honest and I could relate to his feelings of depression and anxiety. I was experiencing them too at the time and found solace in his words. I brought the book home and, at a point in my life when everything felt like it was spiraling downward, It’s Kind of a Funny Story allowed me to breath and see that things could be okay.

Books have that kind of power. This is the book that saved my life. This is the book that got me hooked on YA, that led me to seek out books by Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan and John Green.

I’ve tried to re-read It’s Kind of a Funny Story in the past, most recently last fall. However, I was never able to get past the first few dozen pages or so. I just wasn’t in the right place emotionally to re-read the story, until recently when I made it through the whole book. Re-reading this book nearly a decade later gave me a new appreciation for the story, its characters and its themes.

From the opening pages, I re-fell in love with Craig’s voice and found myself immersed again in his voice and journey. I was again amused by Humble, Jimmy, Bobby, Noelle and all of the other patients and staff of Six North. I was again amazed at how Craig used art, creativity he never realized he had, to fuel his recovery. I expected to cry when I dove into this re-reading, but all I could do was slip into the story, unable to put the book down, with a stupid grin on my face.

Re-reading Vizzini’s novel at 21 instead of 12 also gave me new perspective on the story. When I read it at 12, I was looking for help. I needed a relatable voice and I found it in Craig. I clung to the story, but raced through it.

At 21, I read through the book more slowly, took in the rich description and voice of the narrator. I was able to understand the story more completely, but at the expense of that intense emotional need for the voice that I had at 12.

There’s a give and take with re-reading. One can never read the same book for the first time more than once, but reading the same book at different points can offer new insights. At 21, I still found Noelle’s (a girl Craig meets while in the psychiatric hospital) storyline to be as relatable and impactful as I did at 12, but with fresh eyes and broader experiences. As a writer and artist, I found the storyline of Craig’s brain map artwork as a step towards his recovery inspiring during my re-read, but didn’t really remember that part of the story from when I read it at 12.

Another thread I noticed at 21 that I missed before was the way in which Craig reacts to his friends’ responses to his mental illness. His friends Aaron and Nia claim to understand on some level, but mock him in other ways for his mental illness. At first, they don’t recognize its severity and apply what they perceive to be Craig’s feelings to themselves. The capturing of this nuanced reaction, and Craig’s discomfort with it, is a feeling I’ve had but haven’t seen captured as well anywhere else in YA or any other book. It’s missed details like this that make a book one I want to revisit again and again. I might have read the same story, but I picked out and appreciated different parts of it so that it felt familiar in some ways and new in others.

This might be true for many other readers of this book, but It’s Kind of a Funny Story will always have a special place in the process of recovering and managing my own mental health. Perhaps the most poignant thing I learned from re-reading it is that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to slow down and it’s okay to reach out to other people for help.