Characters Who Read

Note: This is a book review I wrote on Goodreads that I thought I’d like to share here. It’s for the ever-popular YA novel and, more recent ish, film The Perks of Being a Wallflower🙂


When I was young, I LOVED Sara Crewe.

She’s the protagonist in A Little Princess.

Mostly, what I loved about her was that she was different from her peers, kind, and imaginative.

Sara Crewe, was a character who shaped my character.

Then, there was Dorothy Jane on a little-known TV show called The Torkelsons.

And Anne with an ‘e’.

All young girls who are different, kind, and imaginative…

I’ve finally read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it occurred to me that my different, kind, and imaginative characters are changing. They aren’t what they used to be… Charlie is different, kind, and imaginative, but in a messier way than my fictional role models were. Sara, Dorothy Jane, and Anne all faced moral dilemmas, and chose to be “good kids.” Charlie’s drug abuse and physical violence against a bully were almost non-events… insignificant in a story of depression and moral depravity.

And yet, he’s the role-model our different, kind, and imaginative kids turn to. He epitomizes what it means to be outside of the “teenage wasteland” because he is self-aware, thoughtful, intelligent… and I wonder if our attempts to see the world more completely, with depth and empathy, have caused us to over-complicate morality. Charlie is a “good person” who does naughty things. He even does them sometimes with a “good heart,” which pisses me off. Although morality is certainly complex, I’m disappointed that my students are offered such an anti-hero role model.

Where is the Sara Crewe, who, starving and exhausted, offered her last piece of bread to a stranger who needed it?

While I understand that the world has changed, and current YA literature reflects the times, I also wish we had a few true heroes, who struggle, but ultimately stand up for what is right – who would struggle with decisions that Charlie hardly even notices, because he’s too busy getting high and kicking ass.

I want more than The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the kids, with whom I spend most of my life. I want better than Charlie. 😦


Romance with the Dead

I often fall in love with men who are dead.

I know; it’s Valentine’s Day, and I ought to offer up something pink and sugary. Instead, I leave you with the phrases with which Dickens wooed me – posthumously. 🙂

I offer them up in the order in which they appear in A Tale of Two Cities, though I’ve only read half of the book.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was that age of foolishness, it was the epoch of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of the noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

*We do those words an injustice when we only recall the first twelve of them. They are all lovely.

“…every human creature is constituted to be that profound mystery and secret to every other… every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

“…perhaps second-hand cares, like second-hand clothes, come easily off and on.”

“…the triumphant perfection of inconvenience.”

*Sounds like the process of buying a house!

“…there is nothing in it [the world] better than the faithful service of the heart…”

“…the pain of being monotonously haunted by one sad idea…”

“If the Day of Judgment had only been ascertained to be a dress day, everybody there would have been eternally correct.”

“It was one of those dark nights that hold their breath by the hour together, and then heave a long, low sigh, and hold their breath again.”

“Detestation of the high is involuntary homage of the low.”
“…handsomely diabolic… he moved like a refined tiger… impenitently wicked…”
“…Crowded in a purposeless way, that was highly fraught with nothing.”
“I am like one who died young. All my life might have been.”

“If you will hear me through a very little more, all you can ever do for me is done. I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.”

“…stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me… I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices, impelling me upward, that I thought were silent forever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned light…”

The Ways we Learn

In the midst of a heartbreaking dehumanization in public schools, I’ve discovered policymakers’ expectations that students become uniformly rather than uniquely skilled. They mandate reform that requires robotic students whose skills are assessed in a stony arrogance that neglects the human element inherent in the classroom. This quote reminded me of the weight tiny shoulders carry when they aren’t allowed to take the world in and grow organically in knowledge, wisdom, character, critical thinking – when they aren’t allowed to be human learners rather than android ones.

“Some things may be learned by words on a page, but some skills are first learned by a man’s hands and heart, and later by his head,” (Hobb’s Royal Assassin, p. 172)

Book Review: The Assassin’s Apprentice

I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway, and for that, I am eternally indebted. 🙂

Dear Ashly,

I woke up this morning and finished a book.

As you well-know, I have quite the difficulty in trusting folks, but I didn’t realize until this morning how frustratingly daft I can be in that same capacity with authors.

I began reading The Assassin’s Apprentice mostly so that I could fulfill my book review duties after having won it, and also, I was eager to add another mediocre read to my classroom shelf for the kiddos. One of my greatest joys in reading books that aren’t quite brilliant is that they fill a material teacher need for the great classroom library and simultaneously make me feel selfless, although true selflessness would obviously be more along the lines of giving away books I’ve loved unequivocally, as I’ve loved The Assassin’s Apprentice, and yet I can’t bring myself to put such a pearl before a population that so rarely notes the elegance in carefully-imagined lies.

I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this, but I suspect you can relate: there is a great distinction for me between books that ought to be kept and books that ought to be discarded. The ones that ought to be kept are few and nearly always too long in the coming… for the keeping of a book to be re-read is a great distinction which loses its weight if anything other than the best are retained. It’s much like the keeping of people. Most are worth a conversation or two – an hour or two. A few are worth a short season of life, but rare is the one that merits a lifetime.

With that in mind, I intended to read Hobb’s book, then shelve it at work and let some undeserving student run off with it. I sometimes imagine students coming across books they ought to have returned to me a decade ago. They’re unpacking boxes as they move into their first cheap apartments, and they come across some mass market paperback bearing the harsh mark of “MS. JAMES” driven into permanence by black Sharpie. Of course, they eventually give up on that slim belief that they might eventually return what they borrowed, and they throw the thing away. Which is why they can’t be trusted with the best books.

As I started into The Assassin’s Apprentice, I liked some of the allegorical elements Hobb created – characters named Chivalry, Patience, Regal, etc… I also liked that the main character is the bastard son of a noble, for I know a little of what it is not to live up to the family’s standards. I liked that he could communicate telepathically with beasts, because whose heart doesn’t grow two sizes every time she sees a puppy trotting through town, eyes intent on his boy?

But, somehow, I wasn’t quite sold.

I admit that I’m often lazy as a reader. If I’m not working with Dickens or Dumas, my expectation is that the reading of a book will be “easy, light, smooth, and fast” as Caballo Blanco said running should be. The Assassin’s Apprentice wasn’t exactly difficult reading, but it did require more attention than I’m used to offering an obligation book. Undesired requirements on my brain are often the stumbling block that keeps me from epic fantasy – it’s a little too brain-intensive for me to understand the inner-workings of a brand-new world. Urban Fantasy strikes the consumer chord in my heart, because the players are the most complex element to which I must acclimate myself, rather than having to submit to new laws of physics, geography, systems of government, languages, etc…

So I was slow.

Really slow.

However, as the end of this year loomed over me, it started seeming pretty prudent to actually finish books rather than starting new ones, if only for the sake of this year’s Goodreads Reading Challenge.

So… I decided to have a real sitting with Robin Hobb, rather than just quickly checking in with a page or two.

And I enjoyed it. I still wasn’t sold, because I had a failure of trust, in which I wasn’t quite convinced Robin Hobb is both competent and worthy of my time. I wasn’t sure all of the work my brain was doing would lead to an adequate pay-off. I basically felt intrigued by Hobb’s world and even her person, but I wasn’t ready to entrust myself fully to her – I wasn’t ready to believe she was leading me on a quest worth undertaking, or to trust her with a love of characters she is empowered to kill, or to believe she’ll bring together all of the pieces and tie them off elegantly, as the author is charged with doing.

Then, it happened! Mid-book, Hobb put me in tears.

And it blew my mind because they weren’t PMS tears, or ones that I could restrain, or even wanted to restrain. They were the tears of Dobby taking a knife for Harry Potter – which is saying something. It was a mind-boggling experience because I hadn’t even fully entrusted my heart to Hobb. Thus, I stood a bit baffled that she’d captivated me enough to earn those tears.

That should have been enough, but I honestly fought Hobb right up until the last twenty pages or so, when the elements of a world, its inhabitants, and a murderous quest merged in a way that might only be achieved by a top-rate writer who is also a brilliant and kind human being.

I doubt anyone but you can understand how much I mean by that, because you are the only kindred spirit to whom I can so enthusiastically recommend events, people, and places that are not real. I’ve never met another to whom I might repeatedly marvel about the crafting of that one story without also feeling I’ve worn you down with my tedious awe and revelry in elaborate lies. I’ve never had another friend to whom I might shamelessly confess my tears and the many times I’ve blown-off real-life friends to sit quietly, eating a Trader Joe’s frozen dinner, feeling more fulfilled by an evening spent in the presence of fake people than I ever would have felt with real ones.

I believe you are the perfect reader for this book, even more so than I am, and it is to you that I recommend Hobb and The Assassin’s Apprentice without reservation. Others might accept my recommendation, then falter at the effort and empathy Hobb’s fictional world requires. They would tell me Fitz’s tale is okay, but that they’ve realized they aren’t “readers” and couldn’t quite finish. You, however, are without doubt, the best reader I know, and that is why I believe you will understand.

I hope you will see in Hobb’s writing, a kindred spirit, a Blue Sword, an Ordinary Princess, and a house elf whose love and loyalty don’t blink to intervene when true evil pursues those we love. The Assassin’s Apprentice is the best book I’ve read in years.

Your friend in fiction and reality,

On Reading YA and Eating Carrots

“Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”


This quote comes from a controversial article written by Ruth Graham that has stirred up all sorts of debate on the interwebs. Having read a response or two and the initial article aptly titled “Against YA,” I now feel knowledgeable enough to comment.


In the article, Graham is unapologetically bold in her diction. Though not mean-spirited, she doesn’t just imply or hint or beat around the bush; she calls some of pop-culture’s current faves, “transparently trashy.” She accuses adults of abandoning “the mature insights into that perspective [the perspective of youth] that they supposedly have acquired as adults.” In short, she implies that grown-ups read grown-up books and teens read teen books… thus, adults who read teen books are not adults.


Now, okay, as an avid reader, with interests that range from graphic novels all the way to dry texts written by dead theologians, I feel at least a little qualified to voice an opinion here. In addition to my personal reading choices, I also spend 5 days a week with kiddos, guiding them through the world of Young Adult books and the world of classics.


Here’s the deal: there isn’t an easy answer here.


Do I agree with NY Times writer A. O. Scott, who asserts that adulthood is dead in American Culture? Yes. (Especially in regards to patriarchy and manhood).


Do I lament the unashamedly immature behavior of seniors in high school, who are legally adults? Yes.


Do I believe adults should read more complex texts than children should read? Yes.


Along that train of thought, do I believe we have a literacy problem in America? Yes.


The truth is that I don’t particularly disagree with what Graham wrote, but I do take offense at what she didn’t write. There’s far more to this debate than what a person should or shouldn’t read.


So, here are my thoughts:


There is a spectrum of literacy and I think people of all ages must consider their identities as readers and human beings, making choices that move them closer to the more literate side of things. That being said, I believe people should address their work lives, family, fitness levels, etc… in the same way. The goal should always be to go from being what we are now to something more, greater, fuller…


Think of it like this: when I was a teenager, I remember taking great offense at my mother for poo-pooing my carrot-eating. I was very proud of myself for eating carrots drenched in ranch, because that was far better than my norm of hot cheetos. She said that carrots have more sugar than spinach has… which is true. But a person who doesn’t eat any vegetables should certainly be encouraged to eat carrots.


Readers are the same.


No one really needs to encourage me to read more difficult texts because I’m on the far end of the literacy spectrum. I read something like 20 books at a time, usually including one graphic novel, one YA novel (or other easy read), one classic, and one book on theology. Of course, there’re almost always a ton of other books I’ve got going at any given time, but the point is, you are reading the thoughts of a reader. Still, even with confidence in my literacy level, I read such a wide range of books because I believe I ought to continually grow.


Now, we have to address the fact that everyone is not me. Reading is one of my strengths. It is something around which I build my life. I am not the norm, nor should I be. It is good and right for other folks to have other strengths, and I’d hate to think that others look down on me because I’m not particularly musical.


I teach students who have literally never finished a book before. Of course they should read about Percy Jackson and Bella. I don’t give a damn that Bella is an insult to femininity/contains a lot of sugar. A person who is on the extreme low end of the literacy spectrum should read Twilight.


Problem: I don’t believe that Graham is frustrated with folks at the extreme low end. I think she’s frustrated with the folks in the middle. She didn’t address low literacy at all in her article, which bothers me. She lumped everyone into the same category and judged strong and weak readers by the same criteria. That’s not cool. People should read books that are appropriate and engaging for them… not for someone who has more or less reading experience than they have. Books appropriate for them.

That caveat aside, I think Graham’s point does have validity. I think it’s even biblical. Adults who should be eating solid food haven’t gotten past the milk stage of life. I think she’s annoyed that adults in our culture have decided not to move up on the spectrum, which is a shame and worthy of admonishment.


YA novels are simple. They are emotional. Their pacing and diction cater to the kid.


They do.


This is unarguable. By definition, Young Adult novels are written with the inexperienced in mind. The folks the author thinks about when writing a YA novel are the type of folks you would NEVER go to for advice, because they are children. They are the fools who plagiarize from SparkNotes, believing that I won’t catch them, because they are either incapable or unwilling to read the complex texts assigned to them. They are pimply, hormonal, and emotionally-stunted.


And yet, I read books written for them. Intentionally.


And I don’t give a damn if Ruth Graham or Mr. Scott want to judge me for it, because I’m confident that I’m as literate as they are.


The thing is, right now, I’m working on both Catch-22 and A Tale of Two Cities. So it’s really different for someone like me to sit down and read The Perks of Being a Wallflower than it is for my not-so-literate peers to read it. If that’s all an adult is reading, I think there probably is something wrong. Probably Graham is right in suggesting that, “we are better than this.” However, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that a person only reads one type of book. If I read Looking for Alaska on a plane ride, it’s not because I can’t or even don’t want to read Jane Austen. It’s because I’m on a plane and want the flight to seem faster, and reading YA allows me to finish a book in a matter of hours.


Adults should read. They should read books that are more complex than the ones they give to their children, in addition to reading the ones they give to their children. They should read fiction and non-fiction. They should read books that they understand and ones they don’t, because the only way to move up on the spectrum is to get used to eating carrots, then move on to peas, then spinach, then even kale.


There should be a difference between what adults read and what children read, and there should be a difference between how adults read and how children read.


Mark Twain once said that, “the man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”


I just quoted that from memory, and yet my favorite series of all-time involves an orphan boy, magic, and the surpassing power in being marked from infancy by love. I can reference Mark Twain and J.K. Rowling with equal consistency. I do not believe I have to love one more than the other or even should love one more than the other. They are both equally valuable to my life. However, my knowledge and skill with literature does mean that I am more literate than many of those who forsake the patriarchs of literacy for John Green.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle claimed that our brains are like rooms, and we are to fill them with furniture as seems best.


I think that’s what reading is about. A person should consider the furniture with which she decorates her brain. She should always be improving upon pieces she possesses, because she doesn’t want her room to fall into disrepair. However, a brand-new homeowner cannot be expected to match the stylings of those who’ve been working on their houses for decades, and a person should not be shamed for finally attempting to make something of a space after decades of neglecting it.


Am I against adults reading YA? Absolutely not.


I am for everyone, young and old, moving closer to literacy. I am against blanket statements and judgments. And I am certainly against literary snobbery.


No adult should feel embarrassed for reading literature written for children. They should feel embarrassed for neglecting their brains, which is maybe closer to what Graham meant to critique. However, she should feel embarrassed for shaming whole groups of people at once, as if reading weren’t personal and intimate. As if one person’s experience reading a book can be equated to another person’s reading of the same book. As if she is qualified and justified in prioritizing  challenging reading over enjoyable reading in my life. As if books and story can be quantified. As if…


Fiction and Agenda Aren’t Compatible

I have a finished draft!

New Year’s resolution: complete a draft before I turn thirty.

Done – like four months early!

I will probably take these four months to revise the thing, and then I’ll get to the sending it out to agents sometime around my bday (end of November). In addition to a draft of the actual manuscript, I’ve also got one of my query letter done. I’ll need to do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis soon ish, but I’m pretty close to making a real go at trying to get published!


As I was nearing the end, I felt a little more confident talking to people about what I was writing because it didn’t feel as much like their opinions would impact my ability to finish.

You see, sometimes people say things that make me think I should change everything or they say things that make me feel like I’m far more finished then I am, so I get complacent and don’t work at it.

Aside from how people’s words impact the writing, it’s funny what people think.

The most common thing I got in talking to people was, “What’s your agenda?” They knew I was writing about a minority character and the church, so I kind of get it, but it’s actually a hilarious question to me, because I tried incredibly hard not to have an agenda. In On Writing, Stephen King explained that his process in getting a story started and drafted was taking a few characters and putting them into a situation that’s riddled with conflict. Ex: Intelligent guy who is innocent ends up in prison for life. Right? And then Stephen King lets the character work through that conflict.

I’m not quite so relaxed about it as Mr. King is; I definitely do some plotting, but it has little to do with an agenda. I hold a strong belief that agenda actually has NO PLACE in fiction. My plotting has more to do with what would happen or what would be cool or terrible or fill-in-the-blank if it happened. Or how can I make ________ that happens in a few chapters even plausible? Can I embed something in chapter 3 to bring it all together? Also, I consider which parts of the story haven’t I told that would fill out the corners of the picture a little bit or unlurr-ify certain characters.

Then, I write and research. I do both at the same time because I find they inspire each other.

In researching, I often found that what a character would do isn’t anything like what I planned for him to do. Sadly, my characters initially tend to be passive, like luggage being carried through a plot-driven story, so the research helps me figure out what sort of proactive things my characters would do, and the outline morphs a little bit.

Because fiction, to me, isn’t primarily about what the author wants to communicate. It isn’t about theme. It isn’t about agenda.

It’s about empathy.

It’s about people.

It’s about emotions.

I don’t believe in deciding what the reader should get from a story before I’ve written it. In fact, I don’t believe the author actually has much say in what readers take away from any given story. I’ve learned that from the blog, here. People see what they see, and it is often incredibly different from what I thought I communicated.

Takeaway From Readers Seeing What They See: Readers push their own agendas onto authors just as often as authors push agendas on readers.

Empathy should always trump agenda in fiction. Empathy for the reader. Empathy for the characters.

And empathy for the writer.

Empathy should probably trump agenda in life too.

The Tactile in Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS and in My Life

It’s taken me three weeks to finish reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, but it was well-worth the time and work I put into it.

The Night Circus is the tale of Celia and Marco, star-crossed lover-magicians who understand how important it is to bring magic into people’s lives and to protect it from destruction.

Although I found the book difficult to follow at first, because the POV shifts between characters I couldn’t fully remember, it ended up being a delightful read. According to Tsukiko, “The finest of pleasures are the unexpected ones,” and that was most definitely the case with The Night Circus.

Although the story was a good one, I believe the supreme value of this particular tale lies in the sensations of which it reminded me. In a recent sermon, my pastor was speaking about the sort of people our new little church plant might be able to reach, and though he listed and described any number of characters, it stuck in my head when he addressed the way certain people care much more than others do about the way their senses are engaged during a church service. I’ve never thought much about it, but I probably am one of those people who wants to smell and taste and touch, because God is more than an abstraction to me. Although I think rather a lot, I don’t like thinking for the sake of thinking, so in a search for relevance in the Almighty, I sometimes need to see paintings, hear the music, taste the wine and the bread.

I might be criticized for thinking about the church this way, because it seems very Catholic and incense-y. However, I believe God approves of at least some of this particular craving of the senses. After all, He instituted that beautiful dinner of his body, broken for us and his blood poured out for us. He called “Bezalel the son of Uri… filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, cutting stones for setting and in carving wood, to work in every craft,” (Exodus 31:2-5). He set men out to build a beautiful temple in His name.

I confess, one of the draws of my current church is how we settle into the music. It isn’t a show that I’m supposed to observe; it is my life, and I’m meant to sing and participate. Also, the building we’re in is gorgeous and engaging. It has enormous windows that let the desert in and help me to feel that I’m a part of something bigger than a 60-minute service or one room with the same people in it each week. Just outside the windows, there is a towering cross that’s a sight to behold.

I know it seems like I’m off-topic right now, but The Night Circus is an imagery-dense book. It is black and white with splotches of red. It is fancy dresses and bowler hats, sitting down to Midnight dinners of brandy-soaked cherries and other unidentifiable pleasures. It is mysterious clocks that tick away hours of revelry and wandering; it is ice gardens and wishing trees, bonfires and hand-written notebooks. It is what I experience when I sit with my closest friends, sipping wine or the perfect latte and talking about our most secret dreams. It is a book of childish wonder, which every life should probably be reminded of and saturated in every-so-often.

I leave you with a few of my favorite passages:

Why haven’t you asked me how I do my tricks?

Because I do not wish to know… I prefer to remain unenlightened, to better appreciate the dark.


The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now.


The silence that falls between them is a comfortable one. He longs to reach over and touch her, but he resists, fearful of destroying the delicate camaraderie they are building.

Stop behaving as though you love that boy… You are above such mundane things. 

It bothers him most at times like this, in the bottom of the brandy bottle and the quiet of the night.


I mean only that I hope they find darkness or paradise without fear of it, if they can.


I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a dreamer… There is not. But dreams have ways of turning into nightmares.


Wine is bottled poetry.