Browse Category by Book Reviews
Book Reviews, Commentary

Favorite Books of 2017

Well, 2017. You were full of allllll kinds of surprises. At the very beginning of the year, I made a promise to myself that I would write a book and read A LOT.  I did both. More on the book I wrote later, but I have read fifty books to date, and it’s still the beginning of December. Here are some of my favorites:

Fiction that blew me away:

It’s hard to love My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent. It’s quite possibly the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. But the prose was undeniably amazing.

The first chapter of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, reads like Bridget Jones’ Diary. And then it quickly, beautifully transforms into an absolutely heartbreaking book about love, friendship, and overcoming abuse. This book truly touched me, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I simply don’t have the words to express how phenomenal Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, is. Like the previous two, the subject matter in this is hard to love. But the stunning way in which the stories in this book are told is just breathtaking. (Hyperbole, much? I can’t help it. This book was that good.)

I wanted to not like A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. I tend to be that way whenever a book gets a lot of buzz. But this book was tender and beautiful and had me crying multiple times on a plane ride. I loved it.

Non-Fiction that Got me Thinking:

I, along with (more than) half the country am really struggling with the current state of things. Someone recommended Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, to me in January, before it got all the buzz it got throughout the year. I thought it was carefully crafted, very relatable, and shed some light on some serious darkness.

You guys, We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is absolutely required reading for every single human American. And that is all there is to it.

I had the pleasure of working with Bill Lunn on his book, Heart of a Ranger, as well as getting to know Ben Kopp’s mother through the book launch process. As my husband can attest– this book had me staying up way past my bedtime, sobbing tears of sadness and joy. It’s truly a beautiful tribute and a great glimpse into the life (and death) of an American soldier.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recommended Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, but when I do I always stress that the book must be listened to on audio. His reading in his (dreamy) South African accent is wonderful, and the way he tells his story is flawless.

I debated putting this book here, for obvious reasons. Despite all that has happened with Al Franken in the last 48 hours, I have to say that his book, Giant of the Senate, (again, on audio), was an absolute pleasure to read this year. He broke my heart, don’t get me wrong. But his book was great. Did I mention he also broke my heart?


I want to gift Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, to every woman I know. But they have to be over the age of 35 OR they have to have much of their girlhood defined by Sweet Valley High, 90210, and ubiquity of reality television. Funny, witty, and thought-provoking.

There were others. I really enjoyed What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, however I think she is such a polarizing figure that if you have any sort of feelings about her, good or bad, this book will only make those feelings stronger. I thought Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon, was enjoyable YA, and of course I loved The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. Reza Azlan’s God, A Human History, was fantastic (though not as good as Zealot), and Amy Schumer’s The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo was surprisingly thoughtful and definitely hilarious.

So, my fellow book nerds, what were your favorite books of 2017?

Book Reviews, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: The Hate U Give

If you are anywhere close to the YA world recently, you’ve heard of The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. “It’s about Black Lives Matter”, is the way that people usually talk about it in passing. I just finished listening to the audio recording of this, and let me tell you: it lives up to the hype. 

The premise is so important and relevant. A young black girl witnesses the shooting of her friend by a police officer. There is nothing in this story that is any more or less dramatic than what has been covered on the news several times over the last few years.

I think when authors fictionalize such a sensitive subject as police brutality and Black Lives Matter, they run the risk of being overly preachy or one-sided. Not with this book. The author very smartly creates a main character who is very involved in both “sides” of the issue, one who is going through the highs and lows (mostly lows) with the reader. She creates empathy in small and large moments, and plenty of places for debate and discussion. She also made it sweet and endearing in many parts, not the least of which being the throw-backs to old school hip hop music. That was a wonderful way to draw in an older audience (like me!).

I know kids across the country are reading this book in droves, but I don’t know that it’s being “taught” in the traditional sense of the word. If I were to bring this book into my classroom, I would love to have students create a culminating assignment that is solutions-based. How do we bridge cultural differences in our urban communities? How do we co-exist peacefully with law enforcement and anyone who doesn’t think/believe the way we do? What are some ways we can really “hear” each other’s experiences and build empathy from them?

I can’t think of a more important time for this book to come out. I hope it wins a ton of awards and makes it into the hands of young readers in every part of the country.

Book Reviews, Commentary

Book Review: The Truth About Goodbye

Disclaimer: I know and love Russell Ricard, but I promise to be as unbiased as possible in my review of his debut novel, The Truth About Goodbye!




One thing I know for sure about English majors and teachers is that they have strong opinions about books. More specifically, they have strong opinions about what makes a book “good” or “diverse” or “educational”. For me, I believe strongly that we do a disservice to books when we stringently categorize them. For example, is a book diverse because it’s written by a person of color, or is it diverse because of content, regardless of the color of the author? Separating books by genre is important, sure, but it is also limiting.

I thought about this a lot while reading The Truth About Goodbye. This story is, above anything else, a love story. A story about a man who loses his husband tragically and has to deal with the aftermath. Filled with wonderful, witty characters and hilarious dialogue, the author does a really great job of taking what could be a sentimental story and making it into something entertaining and powerful. Through Sebastian’s grief, we go on a journey with him in the year after he loses his husband– the ups, the downs, the figuring out the future by coming to terms with the past.

What I loved about this book was its quiet tenderness. Sebastian’s relationship with his friend Chloe complicated and yet the author writes their dialogue in an endearing way. When Sebastian begins to see things, namely his husband’s ghost, it is not overly dramatic. Through those moments we feel Sebastian’s grief, and maybe relate it to our own loss.

This is where The Truth About Goodbye shines for me. It is not “just” an LGBT novel simply because it has a main character who is gay. But it is also more than “just” a love story– it’s a story of hope and encouragement. I loved that you could easily switch the sexuality of the main character and still have the same touching story and sentiment. Books become very powerful when, even if the reader can’t identify with the main character in some ways, they realize that the overarching feelings of love, loss, and redemption are the same.

The Truth About Goodbye can be purchased here!

Book Reviews, Commentary, Uncategorized

Favorite Books of 2016

2016 was a tough year in many ways, but (for me) it was a great year for books. I read 39 according to Goodreads, and here are my top favorites:

I can’t begin to describe how much I loved this book. I’ve gifted it twice, and will continue to. I sobbed, I smiled, I reflected on all the ways we don’t appreciate the beauty and fragility of life. A billion stars.














As a lifelong Catholic, this book rocked my world. Literally. I have a totally new understanding of the gospels and the interpretation of the New Testament. Fascinating on every level.


Dystopia is not my genre, but this book got so many rave reviews that I couldn’t pass it up. Clever and insightful and very well done. I loved the writing style– just beautiful.


Usually when a book gets as much hype as The Girls does, I find myself disappointed. This book was just beyond fantastic for me, from the phenomenal writing to the really nuanced story that was just enough historical and just enough fiction. I loved it.


This book is not for the faint of heart. It is crushing, and deeply difficult to read. But in a year of being obsessed with the musical Hamilton, and with all the complexities of that time and the very troubled history of our nation, this book is beyond important and was a real eye-opener for me.














Base on the feedback from Goodreads, I get the sense that there are two types of people: those who find compassion for the parents/perpetrators of violence, and those who don’t. There is very little wiggle room with A Mother’s Reckoning— she puts it all out there. What she knew, what she didn’t know, what she wished she knew about her son and the Columbine tragedy. As a mother and an educator, this book will stay with me for a long time.


On my Christmas wishlist was the complete set of Harry Potter– and I got it! I have lots of reading to do, and will get started right after Grief is a Thing with Feathers, which is haunting and beautiful, too.  I’ll be recommending it to all the poets in my life!

Book Reviews, Commentary, Digital Citizenship, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: Green Card Youth Voices

Teachers are constantly– CONSTANTLY– on the lookout for how to teach inclusion, empathy, and tolerance in the classroom. THIS BOOK IS IT!




Green Card Youth Voices is just one of the books put out by Green Card Voices, a seriously incredible non-profit out of the Twin Cities. The work they do is beyond important, and this book is the youth version of a serious of stories chronicling the people who immigrate here. I cannot recommend it highly enough!

The stories stand on their own, but in case a teacher is looking for activities to go along with the book, there is a teachers guide available on their website. Amazing.

And if that isn’t enough, they have a moveable display that is making its way around Minnesota to help start conversations about inclusion and celebrating diversity.

Forget a box of chocolates for Christmas: Buy a copy for your school here!

Book Reviews, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: The Road to Character, by David Brooks

When I was teaching seniors, I always struggled to find books that would teach some “life lessons” before they went off into the real world.  I would often turn to short stories or compilations of stories to either fill in the gaps or add to a lesson for a book I was already teaching.

The Road to Character, by David Brooks, would be a perfect addition to that list.

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This book counteracts some of the “advice” our kids have been getting in recent generations: that the answers to all of life’s problems can be found within.  Brooks argues that we are missing something deeply profound when we see ourselves this way.  He introduces the book by saying there are two virtues we pursue in life: resume virtues and eulogy virtues.  Resume virtues (money, power, success) are not the virtues he focuses on in The Road to Character.  Rather, he focuses on the importance of cultivating “eulogy virtues”, or the things people will say about us and our legacy when we die.

Brooks highlights several historical figures, from Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day (my favorite chapter- fascinating) to several Civil Rights figures.  He links them all by connecting their inner struggles: to serve, to find deeper meaning in life, to humble themselves and sacrifice of themselves to contribute meaningfully to the world.

As the book is so easily broken down by chapters, I love the idea of taking the book in pieces into a classroom.  Students could read just one chapter and present it to each other for a small group project, or as a large-class (TOK) project.  The book could also be used as a springboard for debate on many levels– are the values Brooks highlights relevant today?  (I would argue yes, more than ever!)

A fascinating read and highly recommended!

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books

Favorite Books of 2015

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  The time when I list my favorite books of 2015!  Here is my very eclectic list:


1. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

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I absolutely, positively, LOVED this book, and recommend it to everyone I know who loves an intense YA drama.  I cried and cried at the end.  A beautiful, well-told, and well-constructed book.


2.  The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

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Lots of parallels are made between this book and Gone Girl, which I didn’t like at all.  The difference for me was that The Girl on the Train never crosses into the realm of ridiculous, like Gone Girl does.  I loved the somewhat unlikeable and unreliable narrator.  This was a real page-turner, for me.


3.  So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

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I’m fascinated by how people behave online, so even though I didn’t love everything about this book, I find myself referencing it often.  Reading it forces you to re-evaluate your own online relationships, how you present yourself online, and how others do as well.


4.  The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber

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I almost never read science fiction.  It just isn’t my genre.  However, I picked this one up and couldn’t put it down.  I loved how it was told– from the perspective of a religious man, far into the future, on a planet far away.  His relationship with his wife back on Earth is at the heart of how he understands life on the new planet, as well as the afterlife.


5.  Everything You Ever Wanted, by Jillian Lauren

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This is a beautiful memoir about adoption, but for me it was more than that.  This story forced me to look at parenthood as a whole, how we support mothers in our society (ahem… a post for another time), and how we support one another. I’ve thought of this book often since finishing it, especially in moments of subconscious judgement of other parents.


6.  The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

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I quite literally picked up this book because I found the cover stunning.  (Yes, we do judge books by their covers!) But what I found was a first for me– accessible magical realism for young adults, set in the United States.  I loved the use of language and the lovely story, and will recommend it for any teacher struggling to teach the concept of magical realism.

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books, Teaching

Go Set a Watchman, or How to Break a Bookworm’s Heart

I have written here about my skepticism about Go Set a Watchman, but now that I’m a couple weeks out from finishing it and have thoroughly wiped away my tears, I’m ready to write about the experience.  Full disclosure:  I know To Kill a Mockingbird better than most any other book in the world. It is the only book I’ve taught every single year in the classroom.  I have a whole lesson devoted to theories about why Harper Lee wouldn’t have published another book, and another devoted to the full analysis of the movie, beginning with why Gregory Peck is the ONE and ONLY Atticus. This is the bias I’m writing from, and I own it fully.

Okay.  Here goes.

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Go Set a Watchman was clearly a first draft of the masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird.  The characters, the dialogue, the “plot”, the EVERYTHING. It read like a first(ish) time writer, trying to figure out her voice.  I didn’t mind that about it.  In fact, it was wonderful in some ways to read more from Harper Lee’s distinctive style.  I had heard rumblings about Atticus, that’s he’s a racist in the book (habba WHA???), that the Scout we know from Mockingbird was unrecognizable.  All of that was true.

THAT is not what broke my heart.

The only thing I could think of, page after page, was Harper Lee herself.  I obviously don’t know her, but as a writer now I feel much more in tune with the ups and downs of the writing process.  How each and every book on the shelf at the library is someone’s heart and soul.  I kept thinking about the drafts of stories on my computer, angsty tomes about unrequited love and other silly nonsense.  My writing at twenty is nothing like my writing at thirty-seven, and those pieces will never see the light of day.  That is okay.  I think Harper Lee identified with this on a much larger scale, considering her super-stardom in the literary world and her shyness from the spotlight and unwillingness to publish another novel in all this time.

And yet, this work was “found” and still published.  The timing is far too convenient for HarperCollins, the publishers raking in millions and millions with this book.

So my heart didn’t break for Mockingbird, which is untouchable in my eyes.  Rather, it broke for Harper Lee, for her legacy, and for the sad reality of publishing today.

Money is what matters.  Not content.

I would never recommend this book to be taught in a classroom, but if for some reason it were, I would have my students read it in conjunction with Mockingbird.  And then I would have them write an essay exploring the following topics:

1.  What is our responsibility in preserving the legacy of great works of art?

2.  What is our responsibility toward the elderly?  

And finally, probably most importantly:

3.  In what ways does the publication of Go Set a Watchman confirm the sad state of the money-hungry world we live in?

Okay, fine.  That last one would just be for me.

Book Reviews, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

This week I finished a truly captivating book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson.

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If you use the Internet or know someone who does, read this book.  But reader be warned: this is a tough read.  I’m not talking about the prose, I’m talking about the subject matter.  Ronson tells the cautionary tales of people whose lives were ruined based on bad decisions on social media, and after every single chapter I was left with a feeling of dread.  For the person shamed, the future of online shaming, and the possibility of ever being on the receiving end of it.

I knew most of the anecdotes Ronson referred to (the AIDS joke girl on Twitter, the Facebook photo at a war memorial), but I had certainly been part of the “masses” that saw the story, rolled their eyes, and shrugged off the online crucification of these girls for their poor decisions.  What I didn’t know what the whole story behind Jonah Leher’s public shaming or the fact that– for the uber rich– there are ways of paying people to “fix” the internet so your public shaming doesn’t haunt you the rest of your life.

I read this book thinking it must— in part– be taught to high school seniors.  Before they depart into the vast “real world” they need to see what their online presence really, truly means to them, and how their actions (and inactions) online define them as a person.  My only struggle was that many of these “shamings” are so brutal and disgusting that it would be nearly impossible to assign it in the classroom. That conundrum is fascinating to me, and is something to talk about in and of itself.

I didn’t love all of this book.  There was a section where Ronson explores pornography and the “shaming” that goes on there, and I felt like it was unnecessary and didn’t serve much purpose.  There was also a section on “Radical Honesty” which, while really interesting, didn’t seem to fit.  But maybe I was reading this with the lens of a teacher, and wanted the whole book to be about how and why we are who we are on the internet, and how we can fix this public-shaming world we live in, especially online.

If you are a teacher, here are some pointers for getting this book into the classroom:

  • Consider photocopying (with permission) the first couple sections of the book.  Take a sharpie to the super-inappropriate parts, but leave the big black marks there so the kids can see just how much was “censored” due to content.
  • Integrate portions of this book into a philosophy unit- so many options here.
  • Do a PBL project about social media– have kids determine their hypothesis/thesis.  This would be an awesome book to do a social media “experiment”.
  • Watch Jon Ronson’s extended interview with Jon Stewart here.
Book Reviews

Book Review: ’89 Walls

Last night I finished a fabulous book called ’89 Walls.  I knew about the book from Katie Pierson herself, who had given me a brief overview of her book when she was in the first stages of the indie publishing process.  I’m not totally sure what I expected, but suffice to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised.  ’89 Walls is captivating and engaging from page one.

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This book is a love story for sure, but also, maybe equally, a social commentary.  The young love story that happens here transcends time: boy pines after a girl from afar, she seems out of his league, they finally get together and realize the complex nature of love.  However, ’89 Walls is set against the backdrop of (you guessed it) 1989, a time we often look at with rose-colored glasses.  The two main characters of the story, Quinn and Seth, are smart and engaged and see it as their very real responsibility to figure out who they are and how they fit in society as a whole.  I LOVED that about this book– we have plenty of novels about kids who don’t care.  These kids do.

What I admired most about this novel was how the backdrop of the 80’s was almost like a third main character of the story.  Politics, social issues, civil rights– all of those things are front and center as Seth and Quinn fall in love.  Pierson quite masterfully integrates news stories and issues at the time into the story, and I couldn’t help but think about how young kids all around the world right now are doing the same thing.  For Quinn and Seth, their love story is shadowed by the US’s role in Apartheid and the Iran-Contra Affair. Today’s young people are falling in love shadowed by the Baltimore Riots and the complexities in the Middle East.  Current events (and then, history), are part of each of our life stories.

Included in the book is an outstanding Glossary, Timeline of 1989, and suggestions for further reading.  What a great resource for a book club or school read.  ’89 Walls is provocative in many ways (as in some pretty heavy subject matter and a steamy sex scene or two), but it wasn’t gratuitous or salacious in any way.  It was real.

This book would be great for a mature high school reader and/or college age student, particularly one interested in politics.  Wishing Katie lots of success on this great accomplishment!

* I received a free promotional galley of this book for review purposes.  Review is all my own!

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books, YA/MG Book Club

A Teachable Book: Small Moments

Last week I finished a fabulous book called Small Moments, by Mary M. Barrow:

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Small Moments is a collection of the author’s memories living a privileged life in New Jersey with an African American housemaid during the Civil Rights movement.  The title of the book isn’t misleading– the book really does read like a collection of “small moments” from her life, sometimes not told chronologically. In fact, the whole time I was reading I was thinking that this could also be called a collection of short stories– that is how easily each chapter stands on its own.

Small Moments would be fabulous in a school setting in a number of ways.  The first, of course, is its relevance (particularly this week, as we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.).  It could easily be paired with To Kill a Mockingbird and even Of Mice and Men. Secondly, what I absolutely loved about this book was that each chapter (except one) started with a short paragraph describing the context of the story she was about to tell.  For example, the chapter called “Michael” began with some historical context about Emmett Till.  This is great for the student reading, but also a HUGE help for the teacher who might be trying to plan a unit around the book!

I usually talk about essential questions when I post a book review, but in this case the author has done that for you. The back of the book includes an author Q and A and discussion questions, which is a gift for any teacher or book club involving young kids.

It was a joy to read Small Moments.  The writing is wonderful and the author’s description of her beloved housemaid is both beautiful and heartbreaking.  I hope it makes its way into the classroom!

*I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.  Opinions are all my own. 

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: Without You There Is No Us

A couple weeks ago I finished Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim:

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This was not my favorite memoir, but I love it for the classroom.  LOVE.

Full disclosure:  I have a soft spot in my heart for this book.  I taught in Beijing, taught many South Korean students, and even one North Korean (whom I thought of pretty much the entire time reading this).  I can see how the subject of being a student in North Korea might not hold the fascination for other teachers that it does for me.  However this memoir has so much to it, and is particularly relevant today with the Sony hacking scandal going on.

This story essentially follows the author as she teaches at a school in Pyongyang for North Korea’s elite.  She goes under the guise of a Christian missionary, but is really documenting information for her book.  The book is fragmented in parts– she goes from her love life (which added almost nothing to the story), to her relationship with the students (which could have been developed much further, in my opinion), and her limited access to the daily lives of actual North Koreans (which was endlessly fascinating to me).  It would be fabulous to team teach this book with a history teacher, or add it in a curriculum like Global Studies.  Here are a few essential questions, ideas, and resources to consider:

  • Compare and contrast the North Korean and North American educational system.  How is it similar, how is it different?
  • How is the role of “teacher” portrayed in this book versus the role of “teacher” in a Western society?
  • Discuss the psychology of the characters:  The student body, the teachers, the author.  How do their life experiences influence how they view North Korea?
  • What is our responsibility (as US citizens) to the North Korean people, if any?  (This one is soooooo juicy… I would love to assign this as an essay topic!)
  • Discuss the film “The Interview” (I haven’t seen it, but I’m guessing it’s far too racy for a classroom.  The context of the movie would be good enough, I imagine.)
    • Should Sony have made the film?
    • Should they have pulled the film, after they’d been hacked?
    • What responsibility does the entertainment industry have toward other cultures?  (Again, this one could be an absolutely fascinating discussion/debate/essay topic.)
  • What was Suki Kim’s purpose in writing the book?  Did she achieve that purpose?

Here’s Frontline’s documentary The Secret State of North Korea

And an interesting documentary called 10 Days in North Korea

And so much more out there!

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books

My Favorite Books of 2014

Well, another year is almost over, and what do book nerds do but recap their favorite reads of the year?  Here are my top five:

1.  All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr


In fairness, I have not finished this book.  But I am loving it.  Loving it in an Invisible Bridge kind of way, and that is saying a LOT.

2.  The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

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What is there left to say about this book?  Phenomenal, in a million different ways.

3.  Stillwater, by Nicole Helget

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What a strange and wonderful book this was.  Highly recommended, especially for a proud Minnesotan.

4.  The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

download (3)Sue Monk Kidd will always have a special place in my heart after The Secret Life of Bees.  Her prose in this book is similar, which is to say beautiful and thought-provoking.

5.  Three special non-fiction books:

Malala)stiffemptymansionsFine, this is cheating.  But I totally loved all three of these books, and am just unable to pick one as my favorite.  (Without You There is No Us, by Suki Kim was also great, but needs its own blog post). Each one is fascinating in its own way and would make for great conversation in a book club or school setting.  2015 is shaping up to be quite non-fiction heavy for me, so if you have a recommendation please send it my way!



Book Reviews, Commentary, Common Core, Teachable Books

A Teachable Book: The Book of Unknown Americans

I just finished The Book Of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez. I was blown away.  Here is a wonderful review by Chicago Reader.

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It is impossible to have taught House on Mango Street and not draw comparisons between the two books.  I LOVE Mango Street, don’t get me wrong, but my biggest challenge with it is that it has always been a fairly “easy” read for 9-10th grade, and I’ve always focused on it as a more creative piece than as literary fiction.  But The Book of Unknown Americans is both a fascinating series of stories AND is appropriately challenging for high school.

Here are just a few essential questions The Book of Unknown Americans raises:

  • How important is it for Americans to understand stories of immigration?
  • What is our responsibility to those people coming to our country, legally or illegally?
  • To what extent does community shape who we are?
  • What is more important:  a strong family unit or a strong school community?

Disclaimer:  Before you give this to your child to read, read it yourself.  It is not sex/violence-free, but I think these issues are dealt with beautifully and tastefully.

Book Reviews, Commentary

Top Five Lessons to Learn from The Goldfinch

Hi, have you read The Goldfinch? READ IT.


There is so much to say about this book.  SO. VERY. MUCH.  But for me, as a book-nerd and certainly as a writer, I will be eternally grateful that I read The Goldfinch at the time that I did, with the first draft of my second book looming precariously over my head, taunting me.  (Let’s just say that book two is not coming quite as smoothly as The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High did…)

I read a whole lot, so it’s rare to find a book that stays with me for a really long time.  The Goldfinch will.  Here are five reasons why:

1.  It’s all about the main character

I’m playing with some ambiguity in book two, and it has been enormously challenging.  While reading The Goldfinch, however, I realized that I was using that ambiguity as an excuse not to fully develop my main character.  And without a main character… what do you have?

2.  Great work takes time

I read somewhere that it takes Donna Tartt ten years to write a novel.  After reading The Goldfinch, I can see why.  I have no doubt her editors are chomping at the bit for her to turn out work faster… but she knows herself well enough not to.

3.  Details, details

I’ve read some criticism about The Goldfinch regarding its length and laborious detail.  Racism, too.  There’s a difference between Dickens describing a flickering candle, however, and Tartt’s absolutely breathtaking depiction of Manhattan, Las Vegas, Amsterdam… I have savored practically every sentence of The Goldfinch, because it was so, so real.  When you want an 800+ page book to last longer, the author has done something right.

4.  Don’t be afraid of the truth

The Goldfinch is rife with dark, harrowing details about the “underground” scene in any major city. Drugs, in particular. This is often not “my kind” of book, because that subject matter is so depressing.  However, Tartt presents the truth in such a calculated, nuanced way, that you don’t necessarily feel part of the scene, but rather as a picture hanging on the wall, observing.  (Not unlike the central piece of art in the story!)  That takes serious skill.

5.  You can’t please everyone 

I recently read a piece in Vanity Fair criticizing Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize for The Goldfinch:

 “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.

Ummm…. wha???  The article goes on to cite critics who call the book “crap” and “a turkey”.  COME. ON.  Sure, I get that the story might not be perfect for everyone, but really?  “Children’s literature”?  As a writer, one who can barely comprehend how much work went into The Goldfinch, I find it almost amusing that people make their living trying to undo artists of Tartt’s caliber. Not everyone is going to like your work– that is just reality.  The trick is to keep writing, and write with integrity.
Book Reviews, Commentary, Common Core, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: I Am Malala

Last night I finished I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai.  I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it to anyone out there looking for an incredible read.


As I was reading, I couldn’t help but relate it to the classroom.  This book must– MUST– be considered as part of curriculum for American kids.  Everything from its current relevance, fascinating history, and Malala’s sweet voice make it a perfect addition to an English or History classroom (and even more perfect for a curriculum that blends the two).

I think the common mistake in teaching a book like this is to ignore some of the larger themes and instead focus on the events themselves.  Doing so is fine I suppose, but I have found that the danger is that the assignments can be more “book report” than thoughtful analysis.

If I were to be teaching this book, I would offer the following essay prompts as choices for a culminating assignment:

  • Should education be considered a basic human right?  (Or for a more advanced class, What is the role of the United States in ensuring that education is a basic human right around the world?)
  • To what extent is social media a catalyst for good? Evil?  (I would give kids the option to write about good OR evil… but suggest that to write about both would be the “challenging” choice.)
  • Is Malala’s father a good parent? (This would definitely be the “easier” choice, but still could be argued with lots of support from the text or outside sources.)
  • To what extent are political activists doomed to a life of isolation?  (The epilogue to Malala’s book is heartbreaking.)

I would love to debate in class the idea of Malala’s celebrity. (She debates it herself in the book!)  I also think there are endless discussions to be had about “mob mentality” and the danger of extremism in all forms.  A fantastic PBL project would be to have kids identity “Malalas” from all around the world and display the faces of youth activism around the school.  SO much to do with the fantastic book!

Here are some fantastic resources I found, as well:

Malala’s interview with Jon Stewart

New York Times article about Malala

“Class Dismissed” 

Discussion Questions from Little Brown

Malala’s interview on CNN (50+ minutes)

Malala’s address to the UN Youth Assembly

Book Reviews, Teachable Books, Teaching

Five Picks for National Reading and Women’s History Month

Hooray for March, hooray for National Reading Month! People who know what a bookworm I am often ask me for recommendations, so here goes.  Don’t forget, this list is completely biased and subjective… but isn’t that part of the beauty of books? And shoot, since it’s also Women’s History Month… how about some amazing female writers?

1.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith


A beautiful, timeless coming of age story.  It will always be one of my all time favorites.

2.  The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri


After reading Interpreter of Maladies, I didn’t think Jhumpa Lahiri could write a more beautiful book.  I was wrong.  This is by far her best novel.

3.  Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout


This book of short stories, all linked by the title character, is stunning.  Stunning.  One of the few books I could read again and again.

4.  The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls


As far as memoirs go, I can’t think of one that tops this.  The story is unbelievable, truly, but told perfectly.

5.  Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison


This book changed me– it was because of Toni Morrison that I felt the importance of finding my own voice as a writer.  A truly amazing book, written by a truly amazing woman.

Who are some of your favorite female writers?

Book Reviews, The Indie Journey

Book Review: Welcome to the Small World

I met Kelly McManus through our mutual publisher, Wise Ink, and since we both have books launching soon (SOON! Like, crazy soon!) we decided to do a “book review swap”.  When I first heard about Welcome to the Small World, I had no idea what to expect.  Picture books aren’t exactly my thing anymore.  But when I got my copy of the book, it was clear to me why their Kickstarter campaign was so ridiculously successful.   This book is just pure joy.



The premise is simple:  Little “people” in a much larger world.  The pictures, by Kurt Moses, are totally captivating.  A tiny figurine on a flower next to a bumble bee.  Tiny farmer toys putting “huge” corn kernals into an itty bitty wheelbarrow.  The imagery is whimsical, the captions hilarious.  This is the type of book that gets people of all ages talking.  And more importantly– smiling.

Could you “teach” this book?  No, probably not.  But what I couldn’t stop thinking about what using this type of book in an art class, to show students how art can be used to show a broader vision of life.  How, when size and scale are distorted, things can look scary or silly or suddenly in a more clear perspective.  How a photographer does so much more than point and click– they see a version of the world, and make it real.

I’ll also add that my three year old LOVED the book (except the spider on the cover– “too scary!” :).  We’re headed to the book launch party this Thursday and are excited to meet Kelly and Kurt in person!