Happily Ever After

I read a lot of realistic teen fiction. That may sound pretty benign, but when it comes to teen fiction “realistic” can seem like code for “issues.” So many of the teen books I read are about abuse, poverty, trauma, risky behavior, and bad decisions that lead to terrible consequences. Tough Topics, I used  to call them when I worked in a library. I had a huge bibliography of these books divided by subject. It was, frankly, depressing. My reading list can really get a person down.

This summer, I took a break from serious stories. I spent my summer reading the fluffiest YA romance novels I could find. One after another. I couldn’t get enough happily ever afters. Even when the path to that HEA was completely cheesy, I would keep reading and select another silly book when I was through. Sometimes that’s what you need. Or, at least, sometimes that’s what I need.

For those of you looking for similar books, I offer you the three standout teen romances I read this past summer:

unexpectedeverything shufflerepeat Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.indd

  • The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson – An overachiever has her summer plans disrupted and finds herself finding happiness where she least expected it. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but I really enjoyed this story that explored family and friendships in addition to having a sweet romantic story line.
  • Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein – Reluctant friends with divergent taste in music find romance in this cute story. I have a particular weakness for books that feature indie music, so this was a fun read for me. There’s even a playlist to go along with the book.
  • The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – Yes, technically this book doesn’t even publish until November, but I read an advance reader’s copy this summer so I’m counting it. It is easily one of my favorite YA novels of 2016, and it’s a National Book Award finalist. In addition to the romantic adventure that takes place in one day, this book also takes on some serious topics like race and immigration.

An one more bonus recommendation for those of you who prefer actually-published-for-grown-ups books: Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag is a sweet, magical story about second chances. Worth reading for a bit of HEA fluff that isn’t about teenagers, if that’s your thing.

Monday Morning Music with Catbath

This past Saturday morning, I woke up with a bit of a cold, and my plans for the day looked much less enticing than they had the day before when I promised to take my  daughter to see her favorite local band play an all ages show in the middle of the day. I tried to convince her that a movie marathon of her choice was just as good for the chilly Saturday, but her disappointed eyes ate at my mom-guilt enough that I took some cold medicine and off we went to Indeed Brewing for the Hullabaloo.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned Catbath on this blog before. My husband recommended the band to me after he caught their set at Cause Spirits & Soundbar, which has been closed for a while now. “Trust me,” he said, “This is going to be your new favorite band.” He was right, of course. Though now he probably laments introducing me to them given my habit of listening to my favorite records over and over again. If it were possible to wear out a CD, we would have worn out our copy of It’s Bathtime a long time ago.

Somewhere along the way, our eight-year-old daughter started singing along with the Catbath songs I played in the car or at home while we went about our business. Then she started requesting Catbath when I let her pick the music.  Recently she talked about how Catbath is her favorite band at Sharing Time in her third grade classroom. She was genuinely surprised that none of her classmates had heard of them.  I never set out to raise a hipster child, but somehow it seems to have happened. ;)

In any case, she loved the show. It beat a movie marathon any day.

Monday Morning Music with Tacocat

How could you not love the feminist pop-punk that is Tacocat? If the “feminist pop-punk” didn’t hook you, how about these song topics: cat-calling, mansplaining, menstruation, and late public transportation? Seriously. Some of those topics might make you mad, but Tacocat will make you have fun.

Here’s a video of a song from their latest record, Lost Time, because we all love Dana Katherine Scully, right?



The Stories Behind the News

As I type, I have Minnesota Public Radio News playing in the background.  We usually have MPR News playing at home or in the car. And we often find ourselves discussing what we’ve heard throughout the day or read on other news outlets at dinner.  My husband and I make time for debates and for the recent political party conventions, and we talk about them and about the issues they raise.  A lot. In front of our eight-year-old daughter.*

Sometimes it’s easy to think that she probably isn’t paying attention to the radio or to the conversations we are having about politics or issues, but every once in a while, she’ll interject a question or a comment that brings us back into the smaller world of our dining room table and forces us to consider how to explain issues related to race and police brutality, terrorism and refugees, or other difficult topics to a privileged eight-year-old kid. Honestly, I don’t always want to explain any of these things to her. There is a part of me that wants to turn off the radio and keep our discussions fixed on sunshine and lollipops until after our daughter’s bedtime.

In reality, I know that keeping her disconnected from the world won’t do her anymore favors than overwhelming her with information will, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to find the appropriate balance. While my advice is probably just repeating what I’ve read or heard from others, here’s what has worked for me: Find out what your child already knows before you start explaining something. It turned out that my daughter already knew a great deal on the subject of refugees from classroom discussions at school last year, so when the subject was in the news again, she wanted to join our dinner time discussion with her own thoughts and opinions.

journeyFor parents or teachers who want to give age-appropriate context to words like “migrant” and “refugee,” I recommend The Journey by Francesca Sanna. This picture book is about an unnamed child and her family whose lives are disrupted by war. It is a powerful look at the refugee experience that came from author/illustrator Francesca Sanna’s desire to capture the stories of the people behind the news, which is important for helping kids understand and empathize. Sanna’s book doesn’t shy away from the darkness, but it still offers some sense of hope. It’s a book that will linger in your mind, as Julie Danielson put it in this Kirkus feature, and I think that’s true for both child and the adult readers.

When I read it with my daughter, we talked about the power of stories and imagination as it is portrayed in the book. We discussed the open-ended conclusion of the book and shared ideas about where a family might find safety if they needed it. No matter what you’ve gleaned from news stories about immigrants and refugees, The Journey will deepen what you know. I know it did for us.


*Within reason, of course. Here is a guide from PBS Parents about kids and the news that gives some good advice.

On being the new kid

catchingI started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.

Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”

“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock.  My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.”  I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”

Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”

Read more about Catching a Storyfish:

  • Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
  • School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”


In Words and Pictures


While it was Young Adult Literature that drew me to the world of children’s book initially, once I started exploring picture books, I fell in love with picture book illustration as an art. I loved the variety, the experimentation, and the visual storytelling evident in the picture books I saw. I can’t claim to be an expert on artistic styles or media, but I know what I like, and after over ten years in the kidlit world, I have a pretty good idea of what works with kids, critics, or both.

The In Words and Pictures exhibit at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design is an opportunity to see a small window into the picture book world to get a sense of what is possible when it comes to picture book illustration. The exhibit includes Debra Frasier’s cut paper collages from A Fabulous State Fair Alphabet, Betsy Bowen’s wood block prints from Antler, Bear, Canoe, and a variety of other artistic styles. But the really interesting part, for kidlit fanatics like myself or kids who are curious about the story behind the books, are the notes and sketches paired with the art that give a sense of the process.

What better way to show kids that the process is messy than to show them the way a rough sketch goes through so many iterations before it becomes the book they know and love?

winterithewarmestI must admit, I was particularly captivated by Lauren Stringer’s paintings from Winter is the Warmest Season, which has long been one of my favorite wintery picture books.  But all the artists and books in the exhibit—from veterans of the field like Nancy Carlson to some that were new to me—taken together offer a fascinating look at the different paths that these stories take from idea to publication and all the twists and turns in between.

If you can get there in the next few days, I highly recommend In Words and Pictures to families. Even those who aren’t usually drawn to art exhibits may find that the opportunity to see where your favorite books come from or discover a new favorite is the real pull here. While you’re there, have a seat in the cozy reading nook and grab a book to read. Whether you are a book lover or an art appreciator, it’s well worth the visit.

What Cats Want

hissyHaving recently read Hissy Fitz by Patrick Jennings, a book written from the point of view of a cat, my eight-year-old has taken to espousing bits of cat related wisdom as though she hasn’t heard us say basically the same thing again and again.

Most recently: “You don’t pet a cat. You let a cat pet you.”

I suppose it could be kind of annoying to have her acting as though such cat facts are new to her when they really shouldn’t be, but since she is actually remembering to feed and water our cat on her own now that she has read this book, I can’t complain too much. ;)

Read more about Hissy Fitz:

Or read more from a cat’s point of view:

  • My Pet Human by Yasmine Surovec
  • Little Cat’s Luck by Marion Dane Bauer

Reading Outside of my Usual

I am a pretty predictable person. Especially when it comes to books. I’ve read enough to know what I like, and I rarely finish a book that I’m not enjoying. There are too many books in my To Read pile to waste on something that isn’t resonating with my soul at the moment. My To Read pile is populated by realistic teen fiction with some historical novels thrown in for variety. I’ll read the books about tough teen issues and vary it up with a cute, fluffy romance. Other than a serious science fiction phase over ten years ago, I stick as close to realism in my fiction as I can get. That said, I have really enjoyed a few fantasy novels recently. This is so unusual that I can’t not share.


  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I had heard a lot of good things about this book, but I hadn’t planned on reading it until a copy fell into my hands. It’s a big book with a map of a fantasy world on the end pages. It’s probably the last book in the world I would expect to like, but I was there, it was there. So I started reading. To my surprise, I devoured the book. In a weird way, it reminded me of Ender’s Game, which I read during my science fiction phases all those years ago and still love, because of the militaristic setting and moral questions.  In any case, one the short list of fantasy novels that I highly recommend, An Ember in the Ashes is probably at the top.
  • The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead. I received a copy of the book after meeting the author, and I was intrigued by the idea that this would be the first book in a trilogy in which each book would tell the story of the same time period from different characters’ perspectives. Even more rare for me than reading a fantasy novel is me reading all the books in a trilogy. But I will probably not be able to resist the future installments of this one with its unusual concept. Lucky for me, it’s like fantasy-lite. The fantasy world is more like an alt-historical world (no magic or magical creatures), so it fits closer to my usual than I expected.
  • A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz. This book drew me in by the way it was told. It is written as a history of a war between fairies and gnomes. It begins with “Once upon a time,” but it is far from a gentle fairy tale. There are photographs, drawings, and excerpts from other books, and it all served to immerse the reader (or me, at least) in the world, brutal as it was. The unusual narration and the depictions of sex and violence probably make this book one read with caution, but I found myself absolutely unable to put it down.

Here’s to being more open minded about genre. You never know what stories you’ll connect with if you give them a chance.

The Audience

sharkgirlShark Girl by Kelly Bingham is at once My Story and Not My Story. When I first read the book back in 2007, I focused on how much the story felt like mine. It’s true that I did not lose my arm in an animal attack, that I never had to re-learn how to do tasks one-handed, and that I don’t know anything about recovering from such a life altering event. But that wasn’t all there was to the story.

There was also Jane’s desire to live her life without an audience. She doesn’t want to be a hero or an interview subject. She doesn’t want eyes on her as she figures out how to do what she needs to do. But she quickly learns what I have known for a long time: amputees cannot avoid an audience. In his memoir We Should Hang Out Sometime Josh Sundquist said, “That’s what it means to be an amputee: You’re always putting on a show.” He’s right.

The audience might be a quick double take or a curious stare. It might be unnecessary assistance or an admiring gaze. The worst, in my opinion, are the apologetic audiences. The I’m-so-sorry-I-didn’t-realizes at offering the wrong hand to shake and other awkward moments are the story of my life.

In the book Jane gets letters from people who saw her story on the news. She struggles with the idea that she isn’t herself anymore. She is Shark Girl. That’s all people will ever see. I may not have a story like hers, but I do know how it feels to think that you’ll never be able to get beyond what people see. Jane put it this way:

“Missing an arm is like wearing a coat,

a really big, hot, ugly coat

that I can’t take off.


It’s all that people see.”

Every amputee deals with the audience in their own way, I suppose. Sundquist, who had his leg amputated as a child, became a motivational speaker, exactly what Jane in the novel declares she will never be. It took me a while to figure out how I felt comfortable taking on the audience, but eventually I decided to lean in to it. As a teenager I would avoid eye contact with the starers or do something to purposely put them off guard if I thought they were being rude. Though that might have been easier or more gratifying in the moment, I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere and I didn’t feel good about it. So I started seeking eye contact, answering questions, and sharing more about what it means to be me.

Much like Jane in the novel, I don’t appreciate an audience when I’m figuring out how to one-hand-hack a task I’ve never done before, but honestly, if you want to watch me tie my shoes, I really don’t mind. I’ve tied my shoes enough times in my life that I am completely fine with an audience.

Monday Morning Music with Sleater-Kinney

“Girl Groups: Because no one can do it alone.”

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I have particular affection for YA novels that reference music that I like. So when the BFF character in We Were Never Here by Jennifer Gilmore gives the main character an “old-school” mix CD of girl bands with the words above stenciled on the case, I cheered. She’s right. We can’t do it alone, and while music can’t fix our problems, it can save us. As the protagonist notes in the book: “There are different ways to be saved.”

On that note, here is some Sleator-Kinney. Because you can’t do it alone.

Also on my girl group playlist: Bruise Violet.