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I don’t usually do book reviews…

I don’t really do book reviews. I love reading enormously and I am passionate about the books that I love and about the books that I don’t love. There are many great writers who craft brilliant analytical and thoughtful book reviews, so my voice isn’t really needed in that realm. I’ve always found recommending books a sticky proposition, too. I’ve received enough honest,”This book is amazing!” reviews of books that I ended up not enjoying or that I never finished to know that books are intensely personal. For example, I’m the only person on Earth who really didn’t like All the Light We Cannot See. I appreciated it, but I just didn’t enjoy it.

Having said all that, there are books that just take my breath away. They may not be for everyone, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t shout their virtues from the rooftops.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing – Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson is one of those books.

I can’t even remember what drew me to read it in the first place. I checked it out of the library at Lake Braddock Secondary School where I worked and it transported and changed me.

Here’s the summary from the book jacket:

“Raised by a mysterious group of rational philosophers, young Octavian is dressed in silks and given the finest of classical educations. His regal mother entertains the scholars with her beauty and wit, but Octavian questions the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. As the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston grows around him, Octavian dares to open a forbidden door, only to discover the hideous nature of the experiments – and his own chilling role in them.”

It’s an incredible book. You really should read it. It should be required reading for all high school students. I don’t usually say these kinds of things, but really Octavian is that important to me.

The reason that I am thinking about it again is that I am going to cover a high school class for a friend where I will get to lead a discussion about Octavian. To prepare, I have been rereading the section that we’ll be discussing. Just reading the 50-ish pages has me transported again. I can’t wait to hear what the high schoolers think. The story has so much to say of rebellion, obedience, the power and danger of learning and the importance of the arts. The history it contains and the myriad ways that Africans were manipulated and physically and emotionally abused is so vibrantly rendered as to wake up any modern reader to the vast and limitless evil of slavery. Octavian is an African in Revolutionary America who is given the finest classical education in the arts, languages and sciences. His place in the world is so confusing and so rapidly altered that he must simply work to decipher how he must behave to avoid brutality.

Here’s one of my favorite passages.

“I missed my studies with Dr. Trefusis inveterately, for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family, and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues, while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness, and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways, immobile and thus unfettered.”

The whole book is that beautiful and powerful.

Go read it.

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The NoVa Teen Book Fest is coming!

Last year I attended the NoVa Teen Book Fest for the first time and wrote about it here.  I had attended several festivals and readings of Young Adult fiction and what always frustrated and annoyed me was, there were hardly any actual teens or young adults in attendance.  While I love that adults read YA books, I know that the authors of the books prefer to speak to teens and get their perspectives on the stories they tell and so do I.

When I arrived about halfway through the day to the NoVa Teen Book Fest, the first thing I noticed was that there were teenagers – everywhere and only a handful of weird adults like me in attendance. It was fantastic. I still have clear memories of talking to some girls in line to get their books signed. I asked them how the book was and they made a series of squeaks and groans and finally told me that it was the most amazing book ever.  I then asked them what made it so great and their analysis and joy poured out of them as fast as they could speak!  I couldn’t wait to read the book and was honored that they’d given me their unfiltered review of a story that was so precious to them.

This year’s festival is going to be amazing again. I am counting the days.

The details are at the NoVa Teen Book Fest website. You can get your free tickets here.

The author line up this year is terrific. Jason Reynolds will be there again this year. He writes the most amazing and moving books and is a fantastic human. I hope to see him on some panels because his manner and way of expressing himself is so compelling. I always come away with a new perspective when I hear him speak or read his books. You should really stop reading this and go get any/all of his books and read them. They’re all fantastic.  Julie Murphy will be there, too. I loved Dumplin’ and I hope that teens at the festival have read it or will buy it and read it. Willow Dean is such a fantastic character and her friendship with Ellen is one of the most genuine female friendships I’ve ever encountered in fiction.  I saw Julie in the lobby of the hotel I stayed in during the ALAN workshop and felt compelled to tell her how much I loved Dumplin’. She was nursing a badly hurt foot and invited me to share her cab to the workshop and we talked while we rode. It’s always reassuring when someone whom you admire turns out to be a spectacularly kind, personable and funny human in real life. I am looking forward to seeing her again.

So what I am trying to say is that you should absolutely come to the NoVa Teen Book Fest. I will be there. I will be volunteering. I will be fawning over authors and listening to conversations among teens about books that they love and watching them realize that they’re in a place where everyone gushes about books and characters as if they are actual stories they’ve lived and people they’ve known.

Pro-tip – Pre-order books for the festival. I will be doing this as soon as I finish this blog post. You can order all the books you want by the authors who will be there and then get them signed without having to shlep them all to the festival with you! Pre-order books here.

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A Revolution for At Risk Teens – Never Counted Out

charlton_trujillo on tour copy

e. E. Charlton-Trujillo is a visionary filmmaker, writer and revolutionary. She has dedicated herself to reaching out to teens and making sure that they are both seen and heard. Her latest effort is both an organization and a film that are truly essential to teens. Her organization is called Never Counted Out and here is the description of their mission from their website: Never Counted Out

Never Counted Out is a movement in the making dedicated to empowering at-risk youth through writing and the arts.

We believe art saves, and youth on the fringe are forever changed by engaging with professional artists.

Inspired by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s unconventional Fat Angie book tour (documented in the film At-Risk Summer), NCO continues her mission by bridging the gap between artists and at-risk youth in their community or communities they travel to.
We are emerging —with a fire—to inspire the kids who are often counted out!

Here is an artist and educator who realizes that acknowledging teens as full participants in our world. She sees how essential it is for teens to participate in the arts and in crafting their own stories. These are teens whose stories are glossed over by parents, community members, teachers and many other adults who overlook them or write them off as not fully formed people every day.

Her passion led her to a radical project. She packed up her life into storage and hit the road to speak to “At Risk Youth” across the nation at no cost to their schools or programs, and she filmed the whole process without knowing what would happen along the way. The trip took a personal toll physically and emotionally on her. The impact of the trip on her and the students that she workshopped with was amazing and truly visible in the film.

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The reactions of the students in the film are amazing. They’re confronted with an unassuming, casual, relatable adult who is also a published author. Her approach is to focus on the students and their stories. She tells them that we need to hear their stories and that they need to tell them. “Writing is freedom,” is her simple and powerful message. Many young adult writers are interviewed in the film and their message that teens matter is vital as well. The real stars are the teens who take the risk to be vulnerable and tell their stories. Watch the trailer here:

Acknowledging teens as full people with stories to tell is an act of revolution. Teens are not a separate species, but are people whose stories have been ignored for too long in favor of education, social and law enforcement systems which simply want them to be compliant and quiet. Instead, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo has asked these students to tell their stories because they matter to her. Because she’s not a teacher or a parent or a social worker or anyone else who “has” to tell teenagers that they need to get their acts together and start doing the right things, the teens respond to her in amazing ways. They trust her and her straightforward approach. She’s not selling a book or an easy path to success. She just wants to hear from them and wants them to share and craft their stories on their own terms.

The film has been screened at festivals and at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Minneapolis last year, but it needs to be seen by more people. It’s a powerful story of what can happen when you invite teens to take power over their own stories through art. “Art saves,” she tells them, and then through their writing and sharing of their stories and struggles, they prove her right.

The Never Counted Out website offers many ways for you to get involved in e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s efforts to help at-risk teens. You can donate books to be given to schools that need them, artists can contact them to donate an hour of their time to workshop with at risk youth in their area, educators can request to become a Never Counted Out program to have an artist partner with their school, and you can book a screening of the film as well.

The film needs to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s a critical message for all teens and people who work with them. There is hope in art and in telling your story.
For teens, Never Counted Out is publishing a book of writing and art inspired by the prompt, “If someone only knew…” The submissions from teens 13-18 will be considered for publication on the website and in an anthology to be published in 2017.
If Someone Only Knew – Guidelines and Submissions

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From the website:

“Kids, we’ve got a creative revolution brewing here at Never Counted Out. This is your space to have a voice, be heard and show the world who you are.
This organization is here because of you and for you. The way you can be involved at this moment is to visit the If Someone Only Knew tab. Submit your essays, photography, graphic mini-novel and drawings. Your truth through art is the creative revolution.”

Join the revolution.

Comment below with your stories, ideas, and reactions to the trailer.

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Which YA Book Should I (or You) Read Next?

I grew up reading. Throughout my elementary and middle school uears, I read and read like crazy. In high school I loved reading books from “the canon” written by all the great dead white men Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare, and Flaubert. I was a full on “lit nerd.” It was a lonely existence, because I often had no one to talk to about these books. The only “talking” I could do was in my English classes where I talked through writing papers and “analyzing” literary features of the story. There was almost no “just talking” about love of books – just analyzing for grades and to impress my teachers.

There were no YA books in the mid-eighties. There were a few awful teen magazines, and some of my friends and I wrote complaint poetry and tried out other writing forms very timidly. It was a very different literary landscape from today.  There were no contemporary books written for teenagers then.

Today, I am an avid Young Adult book reader. In some ways I am an adult who is reaching back to see and feel those overwhelming emotions of my teen life and finding a whole tribe of writers and characters who actually get it and understand what I went through. I think that many of us adult YA readers are like a survivors group who find validation and healing through the acknowledgement of the feelings and experiences of our teen lives. Encountering a novelist who says “I see you and I get it” is so powerful and healing.

So, now that books like that are out there, how do you find one to read? How do you recommend them once you’ve found them? I have learned from the teenagers I’ve taught and those who have spent time with me discussing books that you do it the way that teens do a lot of things: with great passion and in stark positive or negative language. Here are some examples:

“Oh my God! You haven’t read this book? What are you doing with your life? Why are you sitting there NOT reading it right now?”

“This book is LIFE CHANGING! It’s just so… ugh! And the character is the most perfect and amazing person I’ve ever met and I can’t believe that this book even exists because it’s that good.”

“I love this book so much that I have read it eight times. It is my life and my reason for getting up in the morning. Read it now. Why are you still sitting there NOT reading it?”

This is how I like my book recommendations.  The fact that I like to communicate with teens this way and hope that they’ll “talk books” with me the same way they might talk to peers is sometimes jarring to the teens I encounter.  If I see a teenager carrying a book, I am most likely going to ask them about the book they’re reading.

I have attended a few book festivals, have approached teens in lunch lines or other places where they’re carrying books, and I like to read tweets and Good Reads reviews. If I hear a recommendation any less passionate or definitive than the above examples, I don’t read the book. If I see a teenager reading a book with a beautiful girl in a flowy dress on the cover, I ask if they like the book. My next question is: “Does the girl in the book DO anything or does she just sit around waiting to fall in love?” This question sometimes startles the teen I’m talking to, but I’m not interested in a book where the girl takes no other action aside from falling in love.

Once a teen reader realizes that I’m actually interested in their opinion, I usually get the full force of their passion (for good or for bad) and can decide whether or not to read the book.  As I said before I get anything less than fully passionate endorsement, I don’t even bother with reading it.  There are too many great YA books out there to spend time reading books that are deemed only “OK.”

I find myself speaking about the books that matter to me in the same terms. I don’t make any literary judgments or definitive style comments. I’m not writing a literary analysis. I just want you to know which books I love. They affect me deeply and stick with me for long after I’ve read them. Yes, I have favorite authors. Yes, I have favorite books. I can’t always explain why I love them, but I do.

Next weekend I am heading out to the ALAN – Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE (National Council on Teaching of English) Conference. I will be seeing many of my favorite authors – Jason Reynolds, A.S. King, Andrew Smith, Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan, Kwame Alexander, Jandy Nelson, Matt de la Peña, Sharon Draper and Gene Luen Yang. I will be star-struck. I will be speaking in the terms above. “The book was so… ugh… amazing and beautiful.” “I love how the character was so… and ….” My inner teen will be on full display.

Please leave a comment about the books that you recommend with such passion and definitive endorsement. My ‘to read’ list is never long enough.

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Life’s Questions Aren’t Multiple Choice

Earlier this month, I took my fifteen year old son, his best friend and his friend’s mother to the wonderful Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC to hear Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely speak about their important new book All American Boys. The book is a fictional account of a racially motivated police brutality incident told by two narrators, one written by each author. Their talk was emotional, compelling and charming. The two authors have been traveling the country to speak to students in their schools about racism, police brutality, and hope. The audience at the bookstore was made up of nearly all adults. There were four actual young adults in the Young Adult book event. I wished there had been more teens at the event, but I was happy that I had brought half of those in attendance.

After the readings by each author set the scene, the discussion got really interesting. All the adults were intensely interested in how the visits to schools had been going and asked the authors to tell us about how the teens they’d spoken to have been reacting to the news of police brutality and racial tension. It was heartening to hear that Jason and Brendan had visited both posh private schools and inner city schools in their book tour. They are doing such important work by just showing up to these schools and even more so by talking to and listening to the students whom they encounter. Their report was that most students remain hopeful and engaged. They want to grapple with race and violence and are eager for adults to help them untangle these issues with them.

Then, Jason Reynolds said something that stopped me. He said that he always tells students that they are a part of the most extraordinary and important generation to ever live. They typically are skeptical of this pronouncement. He then went on to explain to us that he tells them honestly that if someone had come to him and his friends and asked them, “If I asked you to answer any question, could you find the answer?” People in Jason’s generation (and mine) would have said, “Maybe.” However, if you ask teens today the same question, their answer would be, “Of course!” That is a dramatic difference. It’s something that I had never thought of in precisely those terms.

So, we have a generation of teenagers with the amazing knowledge that they are able to answer any question that is put to them. They can satisfy their own curiosity. What have we asked them to do with this kind of power? When it comes to vital issues that confront young people like police brutality, we haven’t asked them to sit at the table and discuss things. We haven’t given them the practice to talk to each other or to discuss things civilly. We’ve thrown up examples of screaming “debates” and uncivil discourse. Their only “jobs” in the eyes of the schools “system”, their communities and often their families are to get the best grades they can, pursue impressive looking extracurricular activities, and try to graduate high school with as little psychological or physical damage as possible. It’s not a blueprint for an active, engaged and passionate citizenry.

The problem is that teenagers have opinions. They have passionate and sometimes ill-informed opinions. They like to see how their opinions feel and sound by loudly declaring them in their speech, on t-shirts, and in the groups that they pledge allegiance to. In a time where high school grades and test scores are widely considered to be the only measure of a teenaged person that matter, it takes something extraordinary like authors visiting a school to ask what they really think to make teens willing to risk stating their thoughts when they’re not sure they can come up with the right answer. In classrooms around the country, teachers lament every day that they don’t have the time to allow their students to look for the answers that make the most sense to them. Teachers know that students can’t know what they really think or how to figure out the world without the opportunity to wander through answers that may not be right, to make mistakes and readjust, and to consult other people, sources, and experts that will allow them to refine the answers that make the most sense to them. There’s no time for that in the era of testing and data.

The danger is that the world outside of the school buildings where students spend their whole day is full of problems for which there is no multiple choice answer. The stakes out there are as high as life or death. Where can teens exercise their incredible power of finding answers to help them to decipher a world in which the answer is never as simple as A, B, C or D?

Of course, there are books. Books allow students to consider and spend time in worlds where they can consider how other people feel and see how conflict can play out in a safe way. This is why I believe that Young Adult fiction can save teens. There are also still sports teams, clubs, arts, community, religious and other outlets that teens can find to support and accept them while they work together to achieve a common goal. Though some of these programs have their drawbacks, they provide a place for teens to see complexity and nuance.

There are also adults who want to listen and find a way to help. Trusted teachers, parents, mentors, book authors, and other leaders can make a huge difference even one teen at a time.  I know that you’re out there.  I know that grades, extracurricular resumes are important.  Please, listen to a teen and let them make mistakes. Let them say outrageous things and express their thoughts.  Engage them in conversations instead of shutting them down.

Barring that, teens, look for people who understand you.  Find them and let them listen.  Listen to them.  Stay curious and know that as I have said before, school is not real life.

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A Letter to Teachers: Stop telling teens that you don’t like them!

Excerpt from a text message conversation I had with a 17 year old friend:

There are so many things wrong with this. The biggest problem is that it’s all too familiar. I’ve heard teachers, administrators, counselors and others say things like this. Basically dismissing things that teens like. I don’t know what prompted the teacher to make this idiotic declaration, but I don’t think it matters.

YA isn’t a genre. It’s a category. YA can be science fiction like Ender’s Game, historical fiction like The Book Theif  and Code Name Verity, realistic fiction like Catcher in the Rye, fantasy like Harry Potter or (my husband argues that Frodo was an adolescent Hobbit so The Lord of the Rings qualifies in his mind)  or any other kind of story. Like the classics that English teachers have deemed “acceptable” or worthy of reading and of study. If you’re an English teacher, I have to think that you enjoy at least one genre of literature or you wouldn’t be teaching English. YA can be literary like A.S King and Jason Reynolds, it can be hilarious like Jesse Andrews and E. Lockhart, it can be touching and important like Jaqueline Woodson and Matt de la Peña, romantic like Gayle Forman and John Green, or anything else that “adult” books can be. There is great literary YA and there is silly, goofy, popcorn YA that’s just fun to read. The best of it makes teens, or the teen selves inside of adults, feel understood, heard and less alone.

What is YA? YA is a subset of books written about teenage characters and deals with the issues, problems, thrills and triumphs of teenhood. So, these are the books that speak most clearly and directly to a high school teacher’s students.  These are the books that your students want to read, choose to read and in which they find there are people who understand what they’re going through and in reading them, your teen students feel less alone.

So, what are you saying to your high school students when you say you don’t like YA? You might as well stand in front of a group of teens and say, “I don’t like you people, and I don’t care about what’s important to you. I am certainly not going to spend my time learning about what’s important to you or remembering what used to be important to me.” What a betrayal!

The last text is the most disappointing. “She seemed so promising,” meaning that up until that point, this teacher had the potential to be trusted and respected – maybe even liked.  She squandered it all on that one self indulgent statement, “I don’t like YA.”  The student who may have heard her the loudest and who sent me this text is one of the all time great people in the world. She’s curious, a voracious reader, has a wicked sense of humor, and is terrifically smart.  She’s just the kind of student this teacher and all of us wish we could clone and put into every one of our classes, but she’s been turned off by a teacher who dismisses the very books, writers, characters and worlds that mean the most to her.  I doubt that her teacher realizes just what she’s done.

There are plenty of middle and high school teachers who genuinely don’t like teenagers. Here’s a news flash – those teenagers know you don’t like them. Apparently, this teacher went on to say that she spends all day long “dealing with teenagers” and has no interest in thinking about them outside of her job. Even if she feels that way, WHY WOULD YOU TELL THEM THAT? What, you’ll talk to them when they finally grow up? Guess what, they won’t speak to you by then. They’ll realize that you’re one less person who is willing to help them, listen to them and take them seriously and they won’t forget.

Nobody forgets how it felt when an adult cast them aside and made them feel unimportant. Think for a minute. You can probably remember every adult who cast you aside and told you literally or effectively to “grow up” or to “get over it” or some other dismissive and damaging message.

Now, think about the adults who actually cared about you and listened to you when you were struggling.  I remember mine.  I am still close to a few of them: Mr. Wilson, the greatest US History teacher in the history of teaching, who let us eat lunch in his classroom every day and talk about whatever we wanted and just be with our friends in a safe and comfortable place.  It was a great physical and emotional place that he held for us and that we cherished.  He would never dismiss whole vast swaths of books, music, or anything else that we loved.  He remembered being young.  He was curious.  He was always too busy talking about all of his own passions for plants, and music and old films.  He saw us – really saw us.  We trusted and loved him.

I don’t know why some teachers, administrators, counselors and others like to be dismissive of the things that teenagers love.  It’s mean-spirited and counterproductive.  Meet teens where they are and find out what they love.

It’s the only way that we’ll ever be able to speak to the teens – not at them and that is the only way that they will ever trust us enough to tell us what’s important.

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A new look for Hippodilly Circus

Since starting this blog, the user photo I have had is one of me because I didn’t have anything else to use and I am not an artist.

But now… I introduce the new image for Hippodilly Circus!!!

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This fantastic image is compliments of one of my favorite human beings and teenage artist, Emma.  Emma has been a close friend of my daughter Georgia Mae for years and she has become a part of our family.  My sons call her sister.  She has made several visits to my in-laws’ house to go on vacations with my kids.  We have a long history of choosing family members in our house, and Emma is definitely one person we’ve chosen to be a part of our family.

When I asked Emma if she could draw a picture for Hippodilly Circus, she agreed graciously.  We spoke about what we thought would work best and then she went on to create this fantastic hippo ringmaster.  I love it because it’s gorgeous and because Emma created it.

Emma will start college in a few weeks as an art student and will no doubt continue to create great art in the world.  I’m so honored that she created a lovely avatar for this blog!

Should we name the hippo?  All suggestions are welcome!