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.

Commentary, Digital Citizenship, Teachable Books, Teaching

Three (Well, Four) Titles for Teaching Digital Citizenship

How great is it that schools are beginning to implement curriculum around digital citizenship?  Even the term implies the importance of it– we live in an age where we are expected to be digitally savvy, and yet comes with that the need to be a “citizen” of that space.  The same way we are citizens of our homes, our schools, our state, our country.  This work is so very important.

My new book, Edge the Bare Garden, is the story of a girl who sees the opportunity to get revenge online against the people who tormented her in grade school.  My hope is that it opens up conversations about what our responsibilities are to ourselves and each other online.  Here are three titles that I have been using to create a presentation to give to schools on this topic.

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Extreme Mean, by Paula Todd, is similar to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in that it is filled with anecdotes about how the online world can easily spin out of control.  What’s great about this book is that it’s filled with examples that are relevant to young people, including horrible instances of cyberbullying.  I will be referring to this book a lot when I talk to kids this year, particularly Chapter 19 (The Maddening Crowd: How Online Bystanders Fuel Cyberabuse).  YES.

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LOL… OMG, by Matt Ivesteris a great resource for teachers and parents.   It is short, precise, and organized in such a way that it lends itself to an excellent weeklong unit.  (Each chapter even has key takeaways!)  This book had me rethinking my own online presence, and how I need to practice what I preach about being careful online.

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Screen-Smart Parenting, by Jodi Gold, is a really interesting book about finding balance with technology in the home.  I know I find this difficult.  What I liked was that this was not a “technology is terrible” book (I strongly believe it’s not!) but more about seeing apps and devices as something that need to be monitored closely and used respectfully.

What other great reads on digital citizenship am I missing?

Commentary, The Indie Journey

Thoughts on Publishing, Worth Repeating

In my last post, I started off by saying October was going to be crazy.  WAS IT EVER.  (And we still have another week. Let the week-long sugar high begin!)  But it was crazy in a good way, and crazy in all the right ways.  All the events went well, up to and including the publication of my second book.  I admit I was terrified of shipping the book myself, but it turned out to be super easy and really fun because I was able to sign the books as they went out.

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Me at MN ITEM- a conference full of school librarians and writers.  MY PEOPLE.

Book festivals and literary conferences attract all kinds of bookworms, and this month I found myself connecting with a lot of aspiring writers. Lots of them asked the same questions, so I thought I’d recap with my responses here.

  1. What’s the difference between self-publishing and independent publishing?

For a lot of people, these words are interchangeable.  For me, they aren’t.  Blogging is self-publishing.  Putting your manuscript, hastily or cheaply edited, up on Amazon for download is self-publishing.  Financing a book yourself, without any sort of help or guidance, is self-publishing.  I don’t knock this form of publishing at all– for some people, it’s great.  For others, it’s disappointing.  But that is true of any type of artistic endeavor (more on that later).  I consider myself “independent” in that I financed the books myself, without any backing of an agent or publishing house, but with the ENORMOUS help of my publishers, Wise Ink.  What they do is take my brand, my book, and my vision, and help me bring it to life.  So I’m doing it on my own in the way that a baker might start their own business– with a ton of help from people who know the larger picture better than I.

2. Money.  Give it to me straight.

I don’t mind talking about the financial piece of indie publishing with people who are truly curious about it. Here’s what I’ll say, without mincing words:  Figure out a budget that works for you.  Then sit down with someone to see if you can make that budget happen.  Each project is different.  If you’re writing a full-color cookbook, your printing costs are going to be astronomically higher than mine.  If you design your own cover, you’ll avoid the fee I paid to have a full time artist design my cover.  If you’re PDF savvy, maybe you can format your own interior.  Maybe not.  What I’m saying is that part of the fun of doing it yourself is figuring out these pieces along the way.

3.  Fine, fine.  Give it to me more straight. I want numbers.

Okay, fine.  (Can you tell I had some candid conversations?)  But I can only say this from my experience writing novels.  I promise you’ll find plenty of other idie authors with different stories to tell.  My first book cost about $8k.  That includes a publicist, coordinating logistics, a well-known interior formatter, my incredible illustrator, and the printing of 1000 copies of The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High.  $8k seems like a lot of money.  It is.  I know people who’ve spent far more than that, and I know people who’ve spent far less.  My second book, Edge the Bare Garden, was published for a fraction of that cost, partially because I did a much smaller print run but mostly because I was much smarter the second time around, and made some smarter financial decisions (ie, maximizing my direct sales opportunities.

4. Are you profitable?

Sheesh, enough with the money talk.  The answer is no, not yet.  But soon.  Hopefully super, super soon.  Two books in two years is pretty aggressive… and it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  But I do see a finish line fast approaching.

5. Wouldn’t a big publisher give you more opportunities than you’d find independently?  (In other words, aren’t you worried about the stigma of self-publishing?)

The answer to both questions is no.  While it would be wonderful to get a huge advance from a publisher, sit back with a cup of tea, and write while my royalty checks accrue magically, that is simply not the case for writers in general, no matter how they’re published.  For every John Green or Stephanie Meyer, there are hundreds– thousands– more authors like me, who are growing their audiences one positive review at a time.  My school visits are pure joy for me, and the kids reading my book couldn’t care less who or how the book was published.  They care if it’s good.

6. Is it worth it?

This was a broad question, asked many times in many forms.  Aren’t you exhausted with all those school visits?  How do you find time with two small children to write books?  What about rejection, negative reviews, etc?  I’ll summarize by repeating what I said at an author panel at the beginning of the month:  If you’re a creative person and you aren’t creating, then what are you doing?  Yes, the money is important, the investment is huge(ish), and the risk is high.  Crazy high.  But what of it?  Life is short, and if you are motivated to create, then do it.  And if you do it smartly, you won’t be sorry.

Edge the Bare Garden, The Indie Journey, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High


October is going to be crazy. CRAZY! But exciting, too.  Did I mention I’m printing a new book?  As we speak?? AHHHH!!


Here’s a list of upcoming events.  If you’re around the Twin Cities, come and nerd out with me!

Oct 1:  The Author Next Door, Edina Community Center

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This is going to be a panel discussion hosted by my wonderful publishers at Wise Ink. If you’re a writer, know a writer, or even have a great idea you want to see made into a book, this will be lots of fun.

Oct 2:  Minnesota ITEM Conference, St. Cloud

This is a wonderful event for school media specialists across the state.  Lots of networking, lots of learning, and I will be there along with many other local authors talking about– what else– all things books and education.

Oct 15-16:  Education MN Conference, St. Paul

I can’t believe that I’ve never participated in MEA before as a teacher, and this year I’ll be participating with Wise Ink as an author.  I’m hoping to connect with more teachers and talk about internet responsibility in the classroom.

Oct. 17: Twin Cities Book Festival, St. Paul

It is going to be so exciting to participate in the Twin Cities Book Festival this year!  These events used to intimidate me horribly, but now I’m looking forward to sharing space with my fellow writers and coming home with loads of books to read and review.

Edge the Bare Garden, The Indie Journey, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High

Book 2. Gulp.

So I’m publishing another book.  My goal is to have it available for purchase by October 1.  Can you handle that? I cannot.  Here is a super sneak peek at the cover:


Over the last month or so I’ve been letting people know that this is my plan.  “WHAT?” they invariably answer, particularly those who saw the long, painstaking process I went through to publish The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High.  Everything- EVERYTHING- about this process is different from the first.  Here is a play-by-play of the how and why:

1.  I figured how how I, Roseanne Cheng, sell books best

I’ve talked to a lot of writers in the last few years who have been totally intimidated with the thought of marketing their own work. THEY SHOULD BE. Marketing your own books is about as fun as a series of root canals. But I’ve learned SO much from the process of the first, and the most important for me is that I sell the most books, and most comfortably, when I’m face-to-face with my audience. This is not to say that some authors don’t have major success with a few well-timed Facebook and Twitter posts.  That’s just not what worked for me, or what I’m willing to do.  So I’m focusing (and broadening) what did work the last time, which is getting out into the community and selling directly.

2.  I embraced the direct sale

Before publishing the first book, I saw an Amazon presence as the be-all-end-all of authorship.  For me, this was not the case.  At all.  My Amazon sales have been a fraction of my direct sales.  I’ll still have a presence on Amazon for this book, but for the most part I’m going to be pushing direct sales from my website (link on the top of the page).  That way I can keep contact information for my readers and sign books before shipping them off.

3.  I focused on (and continue to focus on) the bigger picture

I have never had the one-and-done mentality when it comes to books.  I am a writer and want to write.  As in, continuously. To that end, that means I must continue to publish books.  Even when I still have inventory on the first.  Even though I still haven’t gotten the Oprah bump.  Even when it’s really very scary and daunting.  Believe me when I say it is positively terrifying to think that as vulnerable as I made myself with the first book, I’m going to double (maybe triple) that with the second.  But hey– what’s life without risk?  Boring, if you ask me.

4.  I did it my way

The best part about publishing book 2 has been the freedom I’ve had in the creative process.  I had that same freedom with the first I suppose, but I was such a fish out of water when it came to publishing that I allowed other people to control how the publication went down. In some ways this was great, but in others it wasn’t.  So I kept the things that worked last time, and didn’t keep the things that didn’t work.  It simplified the process greatly.

***In an effort to build my email correspondence list, I’m hosting a giveaway of The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High. Please download a free copy, read, review, and enjoy!***



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.


“Why We Ink” Book Launch

I’m woefully behind on blogging and am finally getting to post about one of the highlights of June– the Why We Ink book launch.



(Photo courtesy Eye Love Photo)

Open Book in downtown Minneapolis hosted this incredible event, featuring food from Pimento Jamaican Kitchen (YUM!!!) and readings from many of the writers featured in the book.

When I first published with Wise Ink last year, I felt like I was becoming a part of something much bigger than just my book.  How right I was.  When Dara approached me about helping her make Why We Ink happen, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.  Being a part of this project has given me so much joy, and I am so honored to have been a part of it.


(Me and the incomparable Dara of Wise Ink, photo by Eye Love Photo)

If you can support this project, please purchase a book (or two) here!

Commentary, Common Core, Teaching

How to Teach Two Books at the Same Time

Awhile back, I was told I had to teach a book to my seniors, a book which will remain nameless.  Being a gigantic book snob, I was not thrilled about the book choice.  The book itself was alright, but lacked the substance I felt my kids could handle.  I also felt like it didn’t give me much in terms of “teachability”.  (Looking back, maybe this was the impetus to “TeachableLit“!) Regardless, I was disappointed, and it nagged at me for awhile.

Ultimately, I decided that even though I was “forced” to teach this book as part of my curriculum, I also had every right to present to my department an alternative text, one that kids could choose in addition to or as opposed to the first.  After much back and forth, my department came to the conclusion that I was out of my mind.  Differentiation was one thing, but teaching two books at once was quite another.

I did it and LOVED it.  Yes, it was a lot of work, but planning any unit is a lot of work. Here are some tips to make it happen:

1.  Choose complimentary texts

This is so important.  Your two (or three) books should compliment each other in theme(s). That way your lessons can be broad and students can use their own texts to support arguments.  Both of my books were fiction, but a non-fiction and fiction pairing would also work really well.

2.  Create a very cool culminating project

My culminating project was an essay, which isn’t “cool”, necessarily, but the prompts I gave allowed kids to develop their own opinions and use their own personal experiences, more so than I would normally allow.  It made for very interesting essays, with plenty of evidence to draw upon.

3.  Create your own in-class book club

Two different books means two different “groups” in class.  Sometimes this is great for small group work, but it’s also entirely possible to mix the groups up and have the kids “sell” their book to each other or debate.

4.  Wait until the end of the year

Because I did this “experiment” at the end of the year, I knew my kids well enough to know which book they would probably get the most out of.   This was really helpful for the kids who just shrugged their shoulders when I asked them to make a choice, and also helpful for the many kids in my class who could read both books with no problem– all they needed was a little teacher encouragement.

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.
Commentary, YA/MG Book Club

Books for the Reluctant Reader

I have fond memories of sitting outside on a hot summer day and reading books for hours on end.  Some of those books (Bridge to Terabithia, for example) I would finish and then begin again at page one.  I loved reading, and still do.

However, for parents who know the importance of summer reading, it can be really frustrating to not have your child have the same motivation.  Here are a few suggestions for parents of a reluctant summertime reader:

1.  Pick the right book.

There are plenty of studies out there that show that literacy is literacy, be it Harry Potter, Sunset Magazine, or War and Peace.  I’m not totally sure how I feel about that, but I would argue that summer is a great time to take your reluctant reader to the bookstore or library and have them choose whatever they want to read.  Even if it makes you cringe to think about it (Twilight, anyone?).  None of these suggestions make me cringe, but none of them are probably in your child’s curriculum, making them a perfect fit.

For the hopeless romantic (come on, you know you loved this one):

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For the silly middle schooler (this is a series):

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For the artist (both are great):

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For the kid who thinks non-fiction is boring:

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For the kid who loves satire and parody:

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For the kid who loves a great mystery:

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2.  Read with your child.

This is so powerful. Imagine sitting around the dinner table and, instead of forcing conversation, having an at-ready topic you can discuss with your child.  It’s like having a daily, no-strings-attached book club, with all the benefits.

3.  Don’t make reading seem like a chore.

I understand why parents set a “reading time” at home, but more often than not I see it backfire.  Reluctant readers will equate this time as a  a form of punishment.  Read at home, and often, but let it be organic.  The point is to get your reluctant reader to pick up a book for their own pleasure.

4.  Rent the movie

Many wonderful books are made into (sometimes not equally) wonderful movies.  But who cares, when the point is to spend quality time with your child?  If you can, rent the movie after you’re done with the book, pop gallons of popcorn, and talk loudly about how the characters do or do not match your expectations.

Creative Writing Workshop, Teachable Books, The Indie Journey

Why We Ink: Pubslush Campaign

What an honor it was to edit and write the forward for Why We Ink, Poems, Stories, and Essays from the Pens of Young Writers.  I realize I’m completely biased, but this is one awesome anthology.

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As with many independent books, Pubslush is making this and subsequent books a possibility.  If you’re able, please purchase an advanced copy!

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!

Commentary, The Indie Journey

When Writing is Hard

I’ve been all kinds of conflicted about writing lately, which is why I haven’t blogged here in awhile.  Without going into details, the writing itself is going great.  Awesome!  But I was ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of “the first year out”.  The ups have been followed by… not “downs”, not really, but disappointments.  And as much as I would love to lie and say no big deal, the little things do become big things, and when they do it can be overwhelming to the point of wanting the throw in the towel.

(Don’t worry.  I’m not throwing in the towel.)

The nice thing about the connected world we live in is that you find people who get exactly what you’re talking about.  Not friends whose job it is to tell you you’re awesome, but fellow risk-takers and book-writers who understand the despair only a writer understands.  What if… Now what… What am I DOING?  Not answered, not really.  But understood.

I gave a talk at MN ITEM recently about the changing publishing world, and how it can impact the classroom.  I kept referring to Napster (remember them?).  Back when Napster was threatening to destroy music as we know it, artists were coming out shaking their fists and demanding to know how they can make a living when all of their art is available for free online.  Napster, of course, didn’t ruin music. But it did force artists to do “more” than hide away and create music.  They had to be a “brand”, be connected with the outside world, be willing to put on a killer concert and tour the world.  They had to sell themselves, and then in turn sell the music.  This happens all the time with writers now, and in most ways, it’s awesome.  The past year of hustling from school to school, conference to conference has been totally life-changing and fulfilling.

But I’m exhausted, truly.  And I really want to write.

This week, I’m working with Wise Ink on the compilation of the Inkpossible anthology.  So much beautiful work in there, and I was honored to edit it and write the forward.  However, as I wrote, I noticed a hint of cynicism.  This is no easy path, young writers.  Be careful.  Be aware.

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This is the part where I’d normally make a list of things to pull me out of the “hardness” of this part of the journey, but that would be disingenuous.  So instead, I’ll refer to a conversation I had with a teacher yesterday during a school visit, when she told me about her dream of writing a book, and how she was scared but wanted to give it a try.

“You have to see it as a legacy,” I told her.  “If nothing else, your writing is a gift you leave your children and family.  Your authentic voice.  If you see it that way, you will succeed.”


Commentary, The Indie Journey, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High

One Year Out

I can hardly believe it’s almost been an entire year since The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High launched.  I seriously cannot.  What a long road to get there, and what a long, continuous road I’m still on.  Book #2 is back in my hands after receiving some incredible feedback from a group of seventh graders, and I’m looking at the manuscript right now thinking, “Really? Can I actually do this again?”  The answer, of course, is yes.  But I sure will be smarter this time around.  Here are a few things I’ve learned on the one year anniversary of going indie.

1.  Don’t OD on editing

Believe me, I did my research before publishing.  Much of that research stated that editing is the number one thing you can do to ensure success, and the number one thing you should focus your investment in.  I agree wholeheartedly.  However, I was so paranoid about my prose/grammar not being “perfect”, that I spent way too much time and money on the process.  I have a wonderful editor now who knows and trusts my vision and voice, and she will likely be the only person who will content edit my manuscript.  And as far as proofreading goes, once is enough.  Fine, twice.  But that’s IT.

2.  Less online, more community

So many people talk about the importance of an “online” presence in indie publishing.  They are right.  But I think I let that overwhelm me to the point that I didn’t pay enough attention to the resources right in my own zip code.  This second book will be less about getting online reviews, and more about getting into the community to talk about the book.


3.  Marathons are more rewarding than sprints

My wise publishers at Wise Ink mentioned this several times:  Publishing a book is a marathon, not a sprint.  But what they neglected to say is that the marathon is totally enjoyable.  One year out, and I’ve never had one giant “Amazon Day” when a billion of my books were sold and a check was on its way to me.  What I have had are awesome school visits, interesting conferences, and super fun book clubs.  All of those have added up to sales, of course, but they’ve also been some of the best parts of the publishing process.

4. Believe

I couldn’t talk about the one-year anniversary of the book without getting a little sentimental.  I’m not going to lie– this has been quite a journey.  Mostly ups, but a few downs.  As with anything artistic, I think there needs to be a greater purpose to what you do.  Simply “writing” isn’t enough for me– it’s the idea that what I write could possibly impact someone’s life positively.  You have to believe in that greater purpose, because if you don’t you are missing out on the greater happiness that comes from pursuing your life-long dream.


My greater purpose.

The Indie Journey

Morningside After Dark and Autobiographical Writing

Remember last year, when I read at Morningside After Dark?  Well I did it again this year.  Writing and reading this piece was an incredible learning experience for me, the first and foremost being that I AM NO WHERE NEAR READY TO WRITE A MEMOIR.  But I am so proud of this piece, proud of the organizers of the event who do so much to support local artists, and proud of myself for getting up there and reading it.  I have been Facebooked, Tweeted, and personally approached by strangers thanking me for sharing this, which has been humbling and inspiring in equal measure.  Here it is…*

*but before I start, I need and I mean NEED to get ahold of the actor Robert Hays!  First person to connect me with him gets wine, baked goods, and tears and hugs of appreciation.

Okay, here we go.  Here is me, Monday night:

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Thank you, Robert Hays

For those of you who don’t know, Robert Hays is the dashingly handsome star of the greatest movie of all time.  Airplane! (with an exclamation point!), directed by Jim Abrams and the Zucker brothers, and released in 1980, when I was two years old.  If you are not familiar with this film, I give you full permission to stop listening and download it onto your preferred technological device.  But just promise me you’ll start from the beginning—“The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only,” and stick with it until the end.  The very, very end, when the thirteenth president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, is thanked in the credits.

When Airplane! Entered my home, it was in its boxed VHS format, at least eight years after its release.  Airplane! 2 had already been made, released, and sent to VHS.  Leslie Neilson was promoting his Naked Gun series, and Kareem Abdul-Jabar was embarking on his long and totally underappreciated run in TV sitcoms.  The late eighties were a time of Phil Donohue, the First George Bush, and Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em.  I was twelve years old, an awkward Catholic school kid smack in the middle of all that awesome.

I don’t remember my very first viewing of Airplane, though it must have happened on the green shag carpet that underlined most of my childhood in California.  I loved it instantly, as did my brother and sister and dad.  We watched it daily, and for a long time.  “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!” we would roar to each other, while my mother stirred far-past al dente pasta on the stove and begged us to shut up.  This was before the academy of pediatrics was hell-bent on making parents feel terrible for “screen time”.  We grew up in front of the TV, and lived our lives through it.  Mornings: the Today show.  Afternoons:  All My Children Evenings: The NBC Nightly News while we ate dinner and begged incessantly for it to be “our turn”, which meant putting Airplane on.

 “Joey, do you like movies about Gladiators?”

Of the hundreds of jokes in that movie, we got maybe ten of them.  Ted’s drinking problem was a favorite, and none of us could get enough of Barbara Billingsly speaking jive.  I can’t tell you what it was about that movie, but we all bonded over it.  When dad laughed, we laughed. When we couldn’t find something to talk to each other about, we talked about Airplane.

 “You got a letter from headquarters this morning.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a big building where generals meet.  But that’s not important right now.”

We got the news of my father’s illness in June of 1990.  Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  Ally McBeal.  And my dad, with inoperable cancer at age 49. When you’re twelve, and your biggest worry is how much Aussie scrunch hairspray you have for your bangs, there is no preparation for such a thing.  We needed Ted and Elaine more than ever.

 There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?

Something happens to a home when it holds a sick person.  It bursts with movement and energy.  It is constantly filled with equipment and clicky prescription bottles, and the smell of other people’s casseroles. All the attention, all the noise…  I didn’t mind it. It was the only way to keep from screaming as we watched my father embark on chemo and radiation.



First time?

No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.

We as a family endured that painful summer, which is to say we survived it.  My mom fell deeper and deeper into despair as the leaves turned, and the conversations in our home were quick, as though we were all made of glass and liable to break if someone used the wrong verb.  Airplane played on what could only be described as a constant loop during those cancer days.  Every time we couldn’t take another second of sickness, we put on the scene where Ted Stryker dances to Saturday Night Fever.  Try watching that scene and crying about the state of your life.  IT CANNOT BE DONE.

Twelve is an odd time to watch someone die.  At twelve, you feel invincible.  You feel like life owes you something.  You feel things should be fair.  But nothing about what was happening to us was fair, and we all knew it.  One night in October, after my dad had been checked in to the hospital for good, I overheard him pleading with my mother.  His voice was barely intelligible from drugs and pain.  “Let me go,” he moaned to her.  “Please, just let me go.”

“Captian, how soon can you land?

“I can’t tell”.

“You can tell me, I’m a doctor.”

“No, I mean I’m not sure.”

“Well, can’t you take a guess?”

“Not for another two hours.”

“You can’t take a guess for another two hours?”

Something happens to a house when a person inside of it dies.  It hollows out and echoes, as if it’s in mourning with you.  The emptiness was torture for me, but no more so than being the kid at school that every feels sorry for.  So I watched Airplane.  I showed it to my friends so we could have something to talk about other than my sad, sad mom. We acted out scenes from the cockpit.  “We have clearance, Clarence.  Roger, Roger.  What’s our vector, Victor?” We laughed and laughed, and somehow, made it through.

In the many years that have passed now, I have continued to love slapstick.  I think of my father every time I watch Modern Family, and how much he would love love love that show.  Comedy gets us through hard times.  Airplane taught me that it’s okay to laugh when things are unlaughable.  And now, when I see clips of that movie, or think of it in passing, I see it as a way of connecting with my dad, whom I missed so much during the Dana Carvey SNL years, and miss today, but in a different way.

As a teacher and now a young adult writer, I have been asked many times about getting through hard times as a child.  “How did you do it?” People ask.  “How did you get through.” I say lots of different things, depending on my audience, because there’s no one thing that gets a person through pain.  But I would be lying if I said Robert Hays and the entire cast of Airplane didn’t have an impact on how I handle difficult times now.

I mentioned this to a grieving friend recently, the ebb and flow of life, and how I look at my challenges as pieces of a great mosaic that came together and formed me.  And I thought of Airplane, and the power of laughter, and how it makes me sad that one day when I write my autobiography it cannot be read by the late, great Robert Stack, who was the perfect host of Unsolved Mysteries, but an even more perfect Captain Rex Kramer.

“You mean to tell me that I won’t hurt like this all the time?  That I’ll be okay?  Surely you can’t be serious.

I am serious.  And don’t call me Shirley.