Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Public Library Association Conference -- I'll be there!



I put in a proposal to present at next spring's Public Library Association Conference with three of my closest professional colleagues (who are obviously also good friends): Drea, Katie, and Angie. You may remember that the three of us presented together at the YA Lit Symposium last fall in St. Louis, so we know we work well together and when we get talking about library-related stuff, we love to talk about it out loud and with others.

We waited patiently -- and maybe impatiently -- to hear back. And today we heard that our proposal was accepted.

So you'll be able to hear us talk in Indianapolis on a panel we called "Beyond Duct Tape Wallets: Offering Dynamic, Effective, and Community-centered Teen Programs." It's not specifically about books or reader's advisory, though I certainly plan on talking about both in terms of programming and reaching your community's teens.

And maybe best of all is that I plan on talking a lot about this summer and what I learned about teen programming. Sure, I've been doing some form of teen programming now for four years, but I still learn something new. This year I learned how much failure you can have trying new things and when you go back to super basic stuff, sometimes you can have great success. 

Also, expect some passive programming talk.

What maybe excites me most about this is not that I get to talk and share with these three librarians who constantly inspire and motivate and cheerlead me, but I get to listen to two other very close librarian friends and colleagues as they talk about tween programming at the library. No, I won't tell you who just yet because they get to make that announcement themselves.

I haven't talked much on STACKED about what a challenging summer this has been professionally for me, but it has been. Today, though, between this and working some things out with myself mentally with the ending of our summer library club, I'm feeling almost refreshed and excited again about what I do (I always like it a lot -- I love it, in fact -- but it is easy to wear yourself out on the things you love).

I hope I get to see some of you next spring in Indianapolis!




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Fat is not a disability: It's a book deal breaker

I just wrapped up another day of doing the Shred.
It's been a year since I started putting conscious effort into working out, and I've stuck to it.

There have been some months where I've gone more days not doing it than days I have done it. There've been weeks that have passed without doing a single workout.

But then there are days like today, and the day before, and the day before, where I get into the workout, find that groove, hit flow, and walk away not just sweaty and gross, but feeling higher than anything and super pleased with the workout.

In the past year, I've lost nearly 40 inches total.
And maybe 10 pounds or so.

I get down on myself about my weight periodically, but I've always been fat. I've always had it on my body, and it's just a part of who I am. In the last year of working out, I've gained a much stronger sense of confidence in my own body and in the physical state in which I exist and inhabit. I won't lie and say that losing double-digit inches in my hips and my waist hasn't boosted my confidence and made me really happy -- especially when it comes to trying on clothes or being able to not think twice about whether something I want to try on will or won't fit.

But more of my confidence comes from being fat and being able to push myself through an intense, ass-kicking workout and seeing it through until the end. My fat body is able to move and to sweat and to endure for 30 minutes without collapsing, without falling in on itself, without my heart stopping in the middle.

My fat body is awesome for this, and I am grateful every damn day I can do it. My fat body is so awesome for being able to do this that I reward my fat body with doing it again. And again. And again.

I will never be thin, and this is a fact I accepted at nearly 300 pounds a few years ago, and it's a fact I accept now, weighing significantly less than that.

My fat isn't something I am regularly conscious of. It's just a part of who I am, and I accept it as a reality of my existence. I'm okay with it. My body does and feels good things.

I like my body even though it's fat. I like my body even if you or anyone else does not.

This is on my mind again after reading Becky's great post over at Book Riot on Book Deal breakers. What are those things in a book which turn the book off to you completely? I agree with nearly every single thing on Becky's list, and I add one more: books which are about the fat body and that play into fat tropes. More specifically, books about fat girls that play into the fat girl tropes.

Almost all of the time, these books use their fat characters as the story. It is the fat on their body which drives the entire narrative. The character usually hates herself for her fat body because there is nothing worse than being a fat teenaged girl. You don't get dates. You don't have friends. You don't fit into clothes. Furniture and stairs creak and groan under the pressure your body exerts upon it. Trying on clothes in the dressing room is a joke. Sometimes, fat people themselves are the joke -- the ones around you or with you, even.

These books center on the issue of fat -- being fat means something bad here, and the way to happiness, to friendship, to sexual enjoyment, to being able to move and dance and exist is through getting rid of the fat. Be it through a "healthy new dieting routine," through gastric bypass surgery, through working out and "putting a little effort into your look." Miraculously, those changes add up to a character better understanding herself and her place in the world and when her body finally fits the acceptable mode, she is accepted.

It makes me feel ashamed that the message of most YA books featuring fat characters is that your body is wrong, it's going to kill you, it's going to hold you back, and it's not worth the space it takes up on this planet. Because this is a message we already send teenagers and if you don't believe it, I point you to a recent story about how the Boy Scouts of America won't let obese scouts go to the annual Jamboree (which is an event centered all about being active and having fun but fat bodies aren't allowed that privilege because fat bodies aren't real bodies).

Being fat isn't a disability. Being fat is a physical state of being.

Why is it that fat people only have books featuring characters like them when the plot of the book centers around the most obvious thing -- their being fat? Why is the character's entire being and existence wrapped up in this one element of who they are? And why is it that losing weight is the end goal? You can be perfectly happy and healthy and active and confident and love for yourself at any size or shape or weight. It is not about the state of the body; it's about the state of the mind. Fat is a thing you have, not a thing you are.

The more we continue to believe that it is about the state of the body, rather than the state of the mind, the more we continue to tell fat people their state of existence isn't okay.

We tell them their stories -- as they are -- do not matter. That their stories will not matter until they reach a certain, socially-constructed, mythical ideal shape. Many times that won't matter, either, because then their stories are about how they did it. How they "beat" fat.

I want to see more books that feature fat characters -- fat girls especially -- because I wish that body-positive, empowering books like Susan Vaught's My Big Fat Manifesto and Simmone Howell's Everything Beautiful had been around when I was a fat teenager and everywhere I looked, I was made to feel like I did not matter. Because the thing these books do that so many fat character-centered YA books don't do is they show that fat characters wear their bodies as they do and still have rich, fulfilling, exciting, dynamic, and interesting lives beyond their shape. That they have dreams and goals and their bodies are going to help them get there, rather than hold them hostage or disable them completely.

What I want is for a teen to pick up a book that features a fat character who isn't a silly sidekick or a laughing stock. Who isn't seeking a way to better herself by losing weight. There are some authors doing this, but we need more (just like we need more who are writing about diversity or sexuality). I give kudos to authors like Rainbow Rowell, who has written a fat girl in Eleanor in Eleanor & Park -- but I must install this caveat to my statement of what we need.

We need more books featuring fat characters that are done with enough conviction -- given enough of a life and story and narrative and richness of their own -- that they stand alone and stand up to the intolerance that some readers might bestow upon them. In other words, I think that having to explain why your character is fat or talk about that choice and what it may or may not mean in a blog post assumes a lot about your readers, and it also maybe suggests that your character doesn't have enough to her to stand on her own and be what she is without elaboration. I don't think it's necessary to consider the "how fat" question at all.

It stings me to read representations of fat hate, even if it's meant to be "subtle" or throwaway, as I suspect is the case in David Levithan's Every Day, where A is essentially a klutzy, worthless monster at 300 pounds and disgusted and repulsed by it.

This is already what we see and experience.

For so many years, I believed that my being fat would hold me back. And it has in some ways -- but never because of my body. It's held me back because of other people's perceptions of what a fat person can or should be doing.

I was shamed for my body once, by a colleague -- a boss -- at a program, in front of a group of teenagers. To this day, I remember standing there as she made a fat joke to this group of teenagers who were having a really good time at a program we were running. After she told it, she turned to me, covered her mouth with her hand, and said "no offense, I'm sorry Kelly." I felt two things: first, tiny and insignificant as a person for being reduced to just a fat body in the eyes of a professional and second, dread that my teens had to see that whatever they may experience in their lives now may actually never "get better" when they become adults.

We can do better than this.




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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reviews, "Non-Fantasy Readers," and Finnikin of the Rock

I read Melina Marchetta's lovely Finnikin of the Rock this past weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed it - it's exciting, plotted well, and full of thorny, complex characters. It has magic and adventure and love and revenge and kingdoms and threats of war and all that other good stuff I look for in a rousing high fantasy read.

As I always do, I read a lot of reviews of the book. I'm a review-reader. I read reviews before I read the book, while I'm reading the book, and after I'm done reading it. I noticed that many readers had come to Finnikin of the Rock and its sequels via Marchetta's other titles, which are acclaimed and award-winning and, most importantly, realistic novels.

Most of these readers who came to her fantasy books via her non-fantasy ones really enjoyed Finnikin. I love to see this. I love that fantasy can gain new fans this way, even if those readers are reluctant to pick up other fantasy titles. It's how I come to read a lot of non-genre (out of my own comfort zone) works, too.

The problem arises when I see a review that claims that a book like Finnikin is "not really a fantasy novel." I see this sort of thing in a lot of reviews of acclaimed genre titles, particularly if those titles are by authors who don't usually write genre fiction. With Finnikin, I see it in almost every single one of the reviews where the reviewer states they don't normally read fantasy. It's a strange statement to make for a book like Finnikin - that it's "not really fantasy" - since Finnikin is high fantasy and therefore the most obvious kind of fantasy - set in a completely different world, with strange names and magic to boot.

When I read the reviews further, though, it became apparent that the reason these readers don't feel that Finnikin is truly fantasy is because it is "really" about things that humans in the Real World can relate to: identity, loss, family. That it's about the characters and how they cope with these things, how they relate to each other, how they explore their situation and rise above it (or don't).

But Finnikin is not at all unusual in this regard, because these things are what all good fantasy books are about. I promise. That's what makes them good books. If they're not about these things, they're just bad books - and you can find bad books in any genre. There are plenty of realistic books that place plot (or setting) on a pedestal and sacrifice character (or theme) at its altar. To say that fantasy does this more than other genres is just wrong - and insulting.

I was raised on fantasy novels. They're what I've read since I knew how to read. They're layered with meaning, full of substance. They've taught me more about myself and the people around me than I can explain. I love how creative they can be, how empowering, how beautiful their language, how intricate their plots. I love that they can create people and things so fantastical, so completely strange, but also make me feel like I know those unbelievable things and people like I do my own self. When a person claims that a great fantasy book isn't "really" fantasy because it has depth, because it has meaning, because it says true things about life, I object strongly. I know it to be false, and it seems like an unwarranted slight against a genre that still endures critical ridicule despite its current popularity.

Here are just a few examples of some high fantasy YA novels I've read recently that all incorporate very human themes (read: that are all good books). Sarah Beth Durst's Vessel is about a girl whose family had tremendous expectations for her, and she disappointed them completely. Now she's lost, abandoned by the ones she loves, desperately seeking a new home and an identity in a world that has rejected her. Jennifer Nielsen's The False Prince features a boy without a family who is also trying to find a place for himself, trying to regain the honor he felt he lost by a decision that was forced upon him years ago. Anything written by Shannon Hale - check out The Goose Girl for a prime example - is sure to include lovely, evocative writing and well-meaning but flawed characters.

If you read the descriptions above, without the titles, you wouldn't know they belonged to fantasy books. At their hearts, all good books are about how people (or other sentient beings) grow and change. They're always about us.

I think a lot of this sort of misconception springs from ignorance. If someone has only read one kind of fantasy book before - and let's be honest, it's probably The Lord of the Rings - she or he may have assumed other fantasy novels are just like it. But equating one fantasy novel with another is just like equating one realistic book with another. It would be ridiculous if someone said "Oh, I didn't like To Kill a Mockingbird, so I don't think realistic books are for me. If I like another realistic book, it must be because it's not really realistic."

As I thought about this more, I tried to get to the heart of what the critics were saying. They love Finnikin, but don't care for fantasy usually. Why, then, does Finnikin speak to them so strongly while other fantasy novels don't? If this were any other book, I'd assume that the fantasy elements were light and easily overlooked, but that's not the case here. Finnikin is steeped in traditional high fantasy tropes. Its religion, cultures, quests, kingdoms, magic, and themes - particularly the search for identity and a lost homeland - are all trademarks of high fantasy. In fact, I'd say that Finnikin treads no new ground at all in any of these areas. For all its excellent writing, it's not a very creative book.

Which leads me to my conclusion - Marchetta is a fantastic writer, and that's why people love this book. It's perfectly legitimate to not enjoy fantasy elements. I get that completely. Magic isn't for everyone. But when the writing is just so darn good, sometimes it's hard not to like a book in spite of the magic. That's what happened to me with A. S. King. I'll read everything she writes - which is almost always realistic - simply because her writing is just that good.

There may be other reasons, of course. The world-building is pretty standard, and not incredibly detailed or varied, so it's easier for people who don't normally read fantasy to follow it, I think. For many readers, elements like that are a distraction (whereas for mega fantasy fans, they're enhancements). You get a lot of readers who can't stand The Lord of the Rings because of this. But to claim that the fantasy elements somehow prevent real, deep meaning or substance from existing in all but a treasured few is disingenuous. (And for all its endless detail and pointless digressions, Lord of the Rings has an incredible amount of substance.)

I'd like to encourage readers who don't normally read fantasy to think more broadly about the genre. Most fantasy has magic, yes, but the magic isn't the entirety of the book. In any good fantasy, the magic (you can insert whatever traditional fantasy element you like instead of "magic") will be a vehicle for the characters and their growth, in much the same way that the plot elements of a realistic novel are the vehicle for its characters.

Finnikin of the Rock is a fantasy. If you liked it, you like fantasy. Maybe not all of it, maybe not even most of it, but you do like some of it. Rather than denying it by saying you don't normally read fantasy, be proud of it. This is a great book. It's worthy of your love - and it's worthy because it's a fantasy, not because it's not.




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Monday, July 29, 2013

So You Want to Read YA?: Guest Post by Heidi Zweifel (Middle School Librarian & blogger at YA Bibliophile)


This week's guest post comes from the blogger/librarian who actually inspired the first incarnation of this series, Heidi Zweifel. She's a local-to-me middle school librarian who asked me simply where to tell teachers they should begin if they wanted to give reading YA a shot. 

Of course, I had to ask her to weigh in and round out the second batch of posts on this very topic. 


Heidi is a middle school library media specialist. She gets to spend her day with seventh and eighth graders so she never knows what to expect. The best part? Getting to talk about books with teens at least once a day! Heidi is passionate about reading and young adult literature. Her goal is to show her students that even if they don’t love reading they can find books that are interesting to them. Her passion of young adult literature is expressed on her blog YA Bibliophile. Follow her on twitter for ramblings on YA lit, pictures of her adorable nieces and nephew, and far, far too many tweets about nothing in particular.

When I think of how I fell in love with young adult literature it’s not individual books that come to mind. It’s authors. I’m the kind of obsessive reader who finds an author they love and must read everything that author has ever written right now. This was especially true when I first started reading YA. Below you’ll find a few of the authors that showed me YA lit can be smart and clever and not “speak down” to it’s readers. They showed me that books can tackle the real issues that teens deal with and not have an “after school special” feel They showed me that YA books can be fun and light or dark and twisted or some combination of the two and still be authentic. If you’re looking at trying out young adult literature I highly suggest you start with any thing by any of these authors.

John Green: If you’ve been to my blog or you follow me on twitter you probably know that I am a total John Green fangirl. He is my favorite author. Ever. I stumbled across An Abundance of Katherines at my local public library. It was on display in the teen section and I passed it up a couple times. The whole math aspect threw me. I am so not a math girl. After seeing it a few times I added it to my pile. Best. Decision. Ever. It was funny and clever and there were footnotes! Basically it was everything I wanted from a book. I eagerly snapped up Looking for Alaska and have impatiently waited for every new book from John Green since.

Holly Black:
My first introduction to her writing was her Modern Faerie Tale series. I didn’t think I liked Faery books. Then I read Tithe.  I don’t think I have the words to express how Holly Black’s writing captured me. She is so incredibly talented. The storytelling and world building blew me away. Her books were also some of the first I read that were considered “edgy.” Let’s just say the faeries aren’t of the Tinkerbell variety!

Chris Crutcher: This man published his first YA book in 1983. His books have been being challenged ever since. Crutcher is a child psychologist and doesn’t shy away from addressing issues like abuse and racism. Because of this, censors find his books to be “too mature” for teens. I find them amazing. They typically feature sports in some way but I would not call them “sports books.” There is so much more going on. Deadline is a great place to start. Another favorite of mine is Whale Talk. But really, they’re all good!

Tamora Pierce: I randomly picked up Alanna: The First Adventure when I got my job as a middle school librarian. The cover was pretty unappealing and I wanted to read it to decide if I should order an updated copy or just get rid of the book. Over the next couple months I read every book ever written by Tamora Pierce. The worlds that she creates are fascinating and her characters are authentic and diverse. I recommend starting where I did with the Song of the Lioness quartet.

Sarah Dessen: Sarah is my go-to author for contemporary romance with a bit “more.” The public library is to thank for my introduction to her as well. The Truth About Forever was on display and the cover appealed to me. I couldn’t put it down. I loved the characters and the story. It just seemed like the people and places could be anyone, anywhere. I  love accessibility in a book! I also love that many of her books are set in the same fictional locations so we get glimpses of characters we’ve met before. Just Listen is my all time favorite of hers.

Other authors I read when new to YA lit: Lisa McMann, Melissa Marr, Robin McKinley, Scott Westerfeld, Maureen Johnson, and Meg Cabot.




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Friday, July 26, 2013

July YA Debut Novels



If you're keeping tabs on the YA releases from first-time authors, here's this month's installment. All descriptions come from Worldcat, unless otherwise noted, and you can check out prior monthly installments on June's post

I've tried to get them all, but if there are any traditionally-published, first-time novels for young adults out in July that I've missed, let us know in the comments. We've linked to relevant reviews, and we'll update as we review novels throughout the year, as well. 




45 Pounds (More or Less) by K. A. Barson: When Ann decides that she is going to lose 45 pounds in time for her aunt's wedding, she discovers that what she looks like is not all that matters.

After Eden by Helen Douglas: Eden, sixteen, must choose between helping Ryan, a time-traveler, and her best friend Connor who, according to Ryan, is about to become famous through a significant scientific discovery that will, ultimately ruin the world.

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry: In the Pacific Northwest, the bond between two best friends is challenged when a mysterious and gifted musician comes between them and awakens an ancient evil. Kelly talked a little about this book in her post on empowering female sexuality





Contaminated by Em Garner: Velvet fights for her family's survival after a widespread contamination turns a segment of the population, including her mother, into ultra-violent zombie-like creatures

OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu: In an instant, Bea felt almost normal with Beck, and as if she could fall in love again, but things change when the psychotherapist who has been helping her deal with past romantic relationships puts her in a group with Beck--a group for teens with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Prep School Confidential by Kara Taylor: When Anne's misbehavior sends her from her Upper East Side prep school to a prestigious boarding school outside of Boston, her only goal is to get back home until her roommate, Isabella, is murdered and Anne decides to find out what happened, whatever the cost.




Since You Asked by Maureen Goo: Fifteen-year-old Holly Kim, the copyeditor for her San Diego high school's newspaper, accidentally submits a piece ripping everyone to shreds and suddenly finds herself the center of unwanted attention--but when the teacher in charge of the paper asks her to write a regular column her troubles really start.

Some Quiet Place by Kelsey Sutton: Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Caldwell sees, rather than feels, emotions; they're beings who walk among us. The only emotion who engages with her now is Fear, and he's as desperate as Elizabeth is to figure out how she became this way. 

Starglass by Pheobe North: For all of her sixteen years, Terra has lived on a city within a spaceship that left Earth five hundred years ago seeking refuge, but as they finally approach the chosen planet, she is drawn into a secret rebellion that could change the fate of her people.



The Theory of Everything by Kari Luna: When fourteen-year-old Sophie Sophia journeys to New York with a scientific boy genius, a Kerouac-loving bookworm, and a giant shaman panda guide, she discovers more about her visions, string theory, and a father who could be the key to an extraordinary life.

Vigilante Nights by Erin Richards: His beloved twin dead, his future destroyed, Lucas forms a vigilante posse to take revenge on the gang members responsible. Can his new love, and his sister's voice from beyond death, stop Lucas from self-destruction?




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Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Theory of Everything by Kari Luna

Fourteen-year-old Sophie Sophia and her mother just moved from San Francisco to the small town of Havencrest, Illinois (roughly 50 miles north of Chicago) after spending the bulk of their lives in Brooklyn, New York. Sophie is obsessed with eighties music, with dressing however the heck she feels like, and with figuring out what happened to her father.

Sophie's super-smart, passionate, and strange physicist dad disappeared just a few years ago, and that's what set her and her mother off on this series of cross-country moves. It was less about getting away and more about finding. Finding themselves. Finding a way through the grief. Finding a way to build something new.

It doesn't take long before Sophie's made herself a new friend in her physics class named Finny. But it also doesn't take long before she starts being visited by her shaman Panda named Walt. Is Sophie crazy or can these trips to a parallel world full of spiritually-guiding pandas be the way to find and connect with her long-long father?

The Theory of Everything is an enjoyable read, but it won't be one of my favorites. I certainly see how it's been compared to books like Going Bovine or even The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I think it falls short of being a strong read alike to either of those titles. In many ways, Luna's debut novel fails to fully form Sophie as a memorable character in and of herself, which both Bray's novel and Chbosky's do. Much of what makes Sophie a character are the things surrounding her, rather than who she is in and of herself. More than that, she's hard to buy as a 14-year-old with the sort of knowledge and wisdom she has in consideration of the larger story, and secondary characters throughout the novel don't blossom beyond certain tropes.

The bulk of Luna's novel is realistic -- it's about Sophie learning to cope with big changes in her life. She's recently moved, and now she has to learn to fit into a small town where she is, of course, under the belief she'll be the only eccentric girl there who loves 80s music and funky clothes because no one in a small town has any culture to them. While I buy that belief wholeheartedly, especially given that Sophie is from Brooklyn and spent time in San Francisco, I took issue with her obsession with 80s music. I know I've blogged before, but in many ways, the trend of having characters who love anything 80s or setting a book in the 80s for the music/pop culture rings false to me. It reads more like authorial nostalgia than it does character development or authenticity. Do teens today like 80s music? Maybe some do. But as someone who was born in the mid-80s myself and who tries to stay moderately up-to-date in pop culture, a lot of the references or significance of this stuff is completely lost on me. I think we aren't quite yet removed enough from this era to see it or appreciate it for what it is in that historical context. I think in the case of Sophie, it wasn't so much about her character being a fan of the music. It felt more like a way for her character to be unique, which I didn't like. She had plenty of other qualities inherent to her character to do that for her.

Almost immediately in the story, Sophie befriends Finny in her physics class. Both geek out about string theory and the notion of parallel worlds, among other things. They're best pals quickly, and Sophie opens up to him about the real things going on in her life, including why she's living in Havencrest. Finny, on the other hand, gives almost nothing to Sophie -- maybe because Sophie is a little self-absorbed she misses it, but I think that in many respects, Finny just isn't a full character. What we know about him is that he's gay and he's easily convinced to skip school and hop a train with Sophie for a whirlwind adventure in Brooklyn to look for her father. We learn later on he's the type of person who can establish relationships quickly, period, as he does just that with the new woman in Sophie's father's life. I wish he'd been a lot more developed because he was interesting. I wondered about his own life in small town Illinois, about what it was like for him to be gay in that situation, and I wondered, too, if he had any friends besides Sophie. In many ways, Finny felt like simply the gay sidekick in the story.

The Theory of Everything isn't entirely realistic though -- at least, it might not be. What makes Sophie truly unique is that she often falls into a parallel world, where she's greeted by a shaman panda named Walt. He is friendly with her and he assures her many times that things are going to be okay.

The thing about these episodes Sophie experiences, though, is that they're the same episodes her own father used to experience. They're the same kinds of episodes that would happen and cause him to disappear for days at a time and to raise worries with her mother and his other loved ones. These moments of disconnecting with the real world and falling deeply into this made up one were the real reason he disappeared and never came back, as well as why Sophie and her mother left Brooklyn.

What makes Luna's book go the magical realism direction, though, is that it's possible these episodes aren't a method of coping nor a mental illness. They could all be explained by physics in some capacity. Are there parallel worlds we can fall into? If so, how can we do that? If parallel worlds exist, are Sophie and her father both capable of entering and exiting them in as much a physical way as they are able to enter them in a mental way. Sophie can bring objects back with her from her episodes, only making these questions tougher to answer.

There is a lot of suspension of disbelief necessary for the story beyond the episodes. Sophie and Finny run off to Brooklyn together without either of their parents becoming too concerned -- and remember, they're 14. There's also a really underdeveloped and somewhat random romantic interest given to Sophie mere days after her move, and the guy stays patient and understanding with her, despite the fact she flakes out on him more than once. So there is a "love story" here in terms of a romance, but it's shallow and secondary; the real "love story" might instead be to family.

The ending is a bit unsatisfying, as I'm not sure it draws any conclusions or further considerations for Sophie beyond giving her closure in the understanding that sometimes, there simply is not closure (which is a fair takeaway for her and for the reader, even if I don't necessarily like it).

Writing-wise, there's nothing particularly memorable here. It suits the story, and it doesn't get bogged down. My only qualm might be that it felt like there was too much trying to be crammed in in an attempt to give Sophie a quirkiness that she didn't need to have because it already existed within her -- starting with her name.

Despite the fact this wasn't one of my favorite reads in recent memory, those looking for something different and fun, despite the heavier themes of grief and mental illness, will likely appreciate The Theory of Everything. I can see readers who like Natalie Standiford's brand of quirk in How to Say Goodbye in Robot or Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters finding this a satisfying read, as would those readers who want their stories with a little bit of science-fantasy. Likewise, readers who like A. S. King's magical realism, particularly Everybody Sees the Ants, will likely find this a great read alike. There's probably a lot to be discussed among the two when it comes to mental illness and coping mechanisms.


Review copy received from the author. The Theory of Everything is available now. 




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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Twitterview: Phoebe North

This month's twitterview guest is Phoebe North, debut author of Starglass, which had its book birthday yesterday! She's here to discuss her inspiration for the story, world-building, tired SF tropes, and more. You can read more about North and Starglass at her website, and enter to win a copy of the book at the end of the interview.

Pitch Starglass in 140 characters or fewer.
One girl's coming-of-age on a spaceship where, to survive their 500 year journey, the inhabitants have lived dramatically constrained lives.

What inspired you to write the book?
It started as a grad school assignment, an SF retelling of James Joyce's "Eveline." Revisited it years later and it ballooned from there!

You describe the ship’s society as “casually Jewish” (vs. casually Christian). How much did your own background influence this decision?
Quite a bit! My mother (a Fineberg herself) was raised Orthodox Jewish. I am fascinated by the line between religion and culture in Judaism.

How would you describe Terra?
Terra Fineberg can't get a break. Her mom's dead, her dad's a mess, and she's terribly lonely. But she's got a secret strength inside her.

The world the Asherah is traveling toward is called Zehava. What’s the meaning behind this name?
Hebrew for "gold." It's a Goldilocks planet: not too hot, not too cold. Just right for a human colony--or so they hope!

What about Asherah?
Semitic sky goddess who may have been the consort of god and the Queen of Heaven to the pre-exile Hebrew people.

What was the most fun part of writing the book?
Kissing scenes! And anything involving Mara Stone. I love that little grumpy botanist with all my heart.

Starglass is your debut novel. How long was its journey from idea to publication?
Long! I started the draft in 2010, but the first seed was in a short story written in 2008, and there were four failed novels between.

I loved reading the extra world-building info on your website. What other YA books would you recommend to teens for their world-building?
A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix! SO GOOD. Also the Earthseed novels by Pamela Sargent and John Christopher's Tripod books.

What about other books about generation ships?
Beth Revis, of course! But Amy Kathleen Ryan's Skychaser books deserve a shout-out, too.

What draws you to writing SF?
I am a big, big nerd who loves robots and spaceships and aliens. Seriously, that is the long & short of it.

What is the most over-used trope in YA SF right now?
Aliens who look just like us (or have no physical bodies) and have no appreciable culture of their own. Also bland human cultures.

What would you like to see more of in YA SF?
Alien and human diversity! More weird, surprising stuff that really pushes philosophical boundaries. Scientists as heroes.

Who do you think is breaking ground in YA right now?
I'm kinda digging this sci-fi revival that's going on!

What did you like to read as a teenager?
Mercedes Lackey (oh, the angst!) and Anne McCaffrey (oh, the dragons!). Their books are written on my heart.

Describe your writing process.
Write all the words (by any means necessary). Sort out the details when you revise.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
"Finish the book."

What’s your best writing advice to give?
My process is not your process. Figure out what works for you. Finish the book!

Outside of writing, what do you do with your free time?
Read, walk, garden, snuggle with my cat. I really am a boring introvert, despite what my wacky hair and tattoos might suggest.

You’ve got the conclusion to the Starglass duology coming out next. What other writing projects are you working on?
Some various projects: space school, Cernunnos hunters, magical transhumanism, a girl and her robot. We'll see what happens.

Is there anything more you can tell us about Zehava, or will we just need to wait until the sequel arrives?
One word: ALIENS.




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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Starglass by Phoebe North

Terra is about to come of age on the Asherah, a generation ship that's been in space for five hundred years. It's approaching its destination, the planet they call Zehava, and hers will be the last generation to grow to adulthood on the ship. Despite this very exciting fact, Terra can't muster much happiness. She's been assigned to work a job that she hates, and her father is a drunk and consumed by his grief for her mother, who died some time ago. The boy she likes seems to only be interested in her prettier friend.

And then, naturally, things get worse. Terra witnesses a terrible act of violence by a soldier on the ship, someone who is supposed to protect them. She's forced to keep it a secret, knowing if she revealed it, her life would be forfeit. She begins to realize that the ruling class of the ship may not have everyone's best interests at heart, that they've overstepped their bounds and may be intending to extend their control of the people of the Asherah beyond the ship, to the planet below. Unsurprisingly for a story like this, Terra finds herself involved in an underground rebellion. Soon, she's asked to do something terrible, but - so they say - necessary, too.

There's a lot of creativity at work in Starglass. In particular, the ship's culture, which is very overtly Jewish, stands out. It's a nice change from the "casually Christian" cultures of so many other SF stories, as North describes on her website. And it fits nicely into the frame story, which adds an interesting and unexpected layer.

The ending, too, is unexpected, but believable as well. In a way, it subverts the expectations many seasoned SF readers will have. I can't begin to count the number of SF books I've read that have telegraphed their endings. It was nice to be surprised. (I'm being cryptic, but I don't want to spoil anything.)

That's not to say all aspects of the story are difficult to guess. Even casual readers will know how Terra's two "romances" (and I use that word loosely here) will play out. But the writing is solid and the story is well-rounded, with a main plot that drives steadily forward while being buoyed by interesting, purposeful subplots. Starglass is not a thrill ride. In many ways it's a cultural study of the Asherah's people, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl.

I've decided I have an affection for stories about generation ships. The possibilities are so huge (read: aliens and new planets) that it's hard not to get excited about what the author will do. At the same time, it's hard not to be disappointed if and when the author only scratches the surface of what's possible. In Starglass, Terra does not leave the ship. Luckily for us, there's a sequel in the works, and the ending to Starglass leaves no doubt that these possibilities that interest me so will be explored there. It reminds me a lot of the anticipation I felt after finishing Beth Revis' A Million Suns, where the characters were poised to explore the new planet - and North has given us some hints of what her characters will find on Zehava.

This is a natural readalike for Revis' trilogy, though readers should expect a more leisurely story than Revis provides. I'm sure it will be classified as a dystopia by many, but this is just good old-fashioned science fiction, and it should please readers looking for just that.

If this review has piqued your interest, check back tomorrow - we've got a twitterview with the author, plus a giveaway of a finished copy of Starglass.

Review copy via Edelweiss




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Monday, July 22, 2013

So You Want to Read YA? Guest Post from Brandy Colbert (author of the forthcoming Pointe)


This week's So You Want to Read YA? post comes to us from author Brandy Colbert.

Brandy Colbert grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism, and has worked as an editor for several national magazines. She lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her first novel, Pointe, is forthcoming from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers/Penguin in April 2014. You can find her at brandycolbert.wordpress.com or hanging out on Twitter @brandycolbert.



I love recommending books to people, whether they’re avid readers or haven’t picked up a novel in months. And even better when I’m introducing someone to YA. Young adult novels have changed a lot since I was a teenager, and for the better. They’re much more prevalent, and YA covers such a wide range of topics that there’s truly something out there for everyone. Yup. Even for the snobbiest of book snobs. My list of favorite YA novels is constantly growing, but here are some of my top picks to get you started:



Nothing Like You by Lauren Strasnick is a book I think about often. The protagonist, Holly, starts out making incredibly poor choices from the first page, and yet I found her a multi-layered, sympathetic character from beginning to end. Strasnick’s writing is quietly edgy, and she’s a master of providing depth and emotion in her lovely, oh-so-spare prose.

I was irrationally nervous about This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers before I’d even picked it up. I’m a huge fan of Summers’ books, but zombies? No. And then this book made me care. The situation is bleak: The zombie apocalypse has arrived and we’re thrown into the story of six teens trapped in their high school while the undead rage and tear apart their town. But this is one of the most remarkable character studies I’ve ever read—which made me completely forget I wasn’t interested in zombies after the first chapter.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott is majorly tough to get through, despite the fact that it’s less than 200 pages. Scott went there. She wrote a novel from the perspective of an abducted child that leaves no questions about the horrors of such a life. It’s stark and disturbing and the kind of book that will make you set it down mid-scene to get a grip. Alice’s story is impossible to shake, but I think that’s what is so brilliant about this book. Through Alice, Scott deftly reminds us to watch, to care, to never look away from a situation that doesn’t seem right just because it’s easier to ignore.




In Hold Still by Nina LaCour, Caitlin’s pain is palpable as she tries to make sense of why her best friend committed suicide. But this book is also hopeful and rewarding, as we see Caitlin heal and learn to trust again. This is a quiet novel that deeply explores grief, love, and forgiveness with beautifully nuanced writing.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson uses lyrical, unconventional prose to tell a story that’s unlike any other book I’ve read about anorexia. What I find most engaging is that Anderson truly digs into Lia’s soul, and we’re drawn into her mental illness with no reprieve—which is exactly the type of terrifying, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking experience I love as a reader.

I haven’t stopped talking about Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King since I put it down two years ago. It’s everything I look for in a story: Vera has a fantastic voice, and her world is serious and funny and painful and weird (there’s a talking pagoda—which somehow works?). This book is real and raw and uncomfortable and so very special.


***




Brandy Colbert's POINTE will be available in April 2014. 




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Sunday, July 21, 2013

When they say don't read the comments . . .

. . . you should totally listen and not read the comments.

Or maybe you need to be a bit of a less sensitive person than I am in order to do so and not walk away feeling a little bit beat up.

I thought the comments over at Book Riot were pretty great. Even though the person causing a bit of a ruckus there was putting on a show, it didn't necessarily turn personal for a couple of days. That's when the community manager stepped in and put a stop to it (and despite what another commenter noted there, the good Dr. did lay out some hate speech, directed at a number of groups. The action for him to be banned and those comments to be deleted were absolutely the right steps to take).

But then the piece went up at The Huffington Post and the comments there were quite a bit different. Many were personal -- I don't suggest clicking through because it's not as interesting or enlightening as those over at Book Riot. There were comments suggesting that YA fiction is crap, that librarians don't know how to do anything but shelve books, and other gems that you can check off your bingo card.

And man, did they hurt.

I don't get worked up about blog posts and people disagreeing with what I have to say. Healthy debate is just that: healthy debate. Attacks that feel more personal, though. They're different.

Nothing was that bad. Nothing was that unexpected.

But when you write for the internet regularly and regularly write for a space that is decidedly welcoming, friendly, and intelligent -- even in the midst of healthy debate -- you can forget other corners of the internet exist.

I've mentioned it once or twice or regularly, but it bears repeating: blogging and sharing any of your work on the web is not easy. It might seem like it is, but it's not. And it's certainly not something I take lightly. This particular post is one I've been working variations of for three weeks or so, and getting it just right meant a hell of a lot to me. So knowing it was well-received at Book Riot, then picked up by the Huffington Post, was a huge honor (it was also tweeted out by NPR Books and shared over at The Dish). Like. I had a piece of my writing run at the Huffington Post. It was on their main page. It was the lead piece in their Books section. 

It's really damn cool.

It's also really damn scary because your words are all that are standing. It is a real feeling of being alone and in the spot light (remember when you blog you don't have editors or publishers or an agent or anyone, really, to back you up or remind you you're not crazy). So it really is you there and that's it. Even being as proud and honored and excited as I was, though, those damn comments sucked, even though they were the minority. It's part of our psyche, attaching to the negative much more than attaching to the positive things (and despite what one commenter said, my background includes adolescent developmental psychology).

I'm not sure what I'm going with here, if I'm going anywhere. Maybe it's this: thanks for being the awesome, kind, supportive readers and community that you are. Every person who shared my piece and offered me a nice word -- be it publicly or privately -- I so appreciated it.

Yes, I cried this weekend. Then I watched this awesome video of Lindy West talking about her own work on the internet and how she spent a lot of time crying over comments, too (it was sent to me by a friend).

And then I felt less bad.  Also felt less alone or weirdly fixated on a few small nasty things.

I'll never stop writing what I know needs to be said. And I'll never stop sharing those things other people write that need to be said, too. It might take a little while to get full steam again, but I'll find that space again.

This morning, edits for my book popped up in my inbox, and I couldn't help smiling a little bit. The people who thought I was promoting rape or child porn or pushing things into the hands of fragile teen minds who should be protected by people like me, rather than protected from them -- they're going to hate this entire book. I've got a whole chapter about talking with teens about rape, a whole chapter about talking with teens about bullying, as well as bits about the importance of talking about these things openly and honestly with teenagers. And you know? That hate almost feels a little more empowering. 




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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Quick roundup of worthwhile reads

First, my post from Book Riot this week is up at the Huffington Post now, too. 

If you didn't go over to the original post at Book Riot, I suggest doing so and spending some time in the comments. One of the original book banners I talked about in the piece has been making his case over and over again. And this morning, he suggests he needs to in order to save the children from people like myself (using my name as an example of who parents need to protect their kids from -- it is weird, strange, bizarre or any other similar-word to see your name being connected to an idea like that). 

But despite the show he's caused and still causing there, the ardent and impassioned responses from other people in the comments are great. 

My favorite, though, is this. From a 13-year-old:

Dear Dr. Swier, I read the book 'Speak' at age 10...possibly 11, I can't really remember now. I'm thirteen now and have read countless books with much longer and detailed sex scenes than the 7 or 8 lines of "he hurts me he hurts me he zips up his jeans" in Speak. I like to think I make responsible decisions in my reading material as well as my (let's be honest here, nonexistent) sex life. My reading material isn't monitored by my parents or librarians; to be honest, most adults I know are pretty stoked that I read whatever I can get my hands on and think critically about each book.
Reading books with sex scenes has never felt "scandalous" to me, or "turned me on" at all. ("By golly, that was some good porn. Man, that girl got raped by someone she didn't know and lived her life in a depressed haze for the next year, too paralyzed to tell anyone what had happened! I think I'll go round up some of my teenage buddies now and see who'll have sex with me!") Some teenagers have sex sometimes. It's a fact. We know it, I know it, and you know it. Sometimes it's an issue, yes; I would like to argue that sometime's it's a non-issue as well, but that's beside the point. Ignoring the fact of teenage sexuality doesn't cause it to cease to exist. Instead, "squeaky-clean" YA lit and abstinence-only sex ed programs just create a bubble of ignorance around young adults. Trying to blind them to a true fact is ineffective; in fact, once they're eventually (and inevitably) introduced to sex, undereducation may be their downfall as they are more prone to partake in risky behaviors without knowing the consequences. LIKE RAPE.
Dear Dr.Swier, it's rather blatantly obvious that you haven't actually READ "Speak". The entire book is told through a fog of depression in the aftermath of the protagonist's rape at a party. It's clear that the event was utterly traumatic and life-altering and depression-inducing and AWFUL and just bad, bad, bad. If anything, I consider it an eye-opener to much of the YA population on the aftereffects of rape. I'll say this for teenagers: there's some stupid among us who don't think about their actions, and those are the type of people who can/will mature into sexual predators. I really don't think Ms. Anderson wrote Speak as a "don't do this kids" book, but LET'S GIVE SPEAK A CHANCE TO KNOCK SOME SENSE INTO THE AFOREMENTIONED DUNDERHEADS, allright?
And in response to your "rape in the Bible" comment further down this thread: I've read the Holy Christian Bible cover-to-cover as well. I have to say it's more graphic than anything in Speak. THE "SEX SCENE" IN SPEAK READS THUSLY:
"No." No I did not like this. I was on the ground and he was on top of me. My lips mumble something about leaving, about a friend who needs me, about my parents worrying. I can hear myself -- I'm mumbling like a deranged drunk. His lips lock on mine and I can't say anything. I twist my head away. He is so heavy. There is a boulder on me. I open my mouth to breath, to scream, and his hand covers it. In my head, my voice is clear as a bell: "NO I DON’T WANT TO!" But I can't spit it out. I'm trying to remember how we got on the ground and where the moon went and wham! shirt up, shorts down, and the ground smells wet and dark and NO! -- I'm not really here, I'm definitely back at Rachel's crimping my hair and gluing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up
and zips his jeans
and smiles.
---------
I don't know how you can call that graphic. It doesn't use the word "penis" or "vagina" (ooh, scary, I know)--nor does it even use the word "sex"! (Or the dreaded f-bomb.) It's to the point and intelligible without being overly descriptive or salacious. (Actually, it's not salacious in the SLIGHTEST. Rape isn't sexy! Rape isn't a turn-on! Reading about rape doesn't make me want to go rape/get raped/have sex!) By your arguments (anything ABOUT rape is PROMOTING rape) this entire comment has promoted rape, which is preposterous. In case you're getting the wrong message here, let me disclose this: Rape is when someone partakes in sexual acts with someone else without that person's consent. (That was about rape.) Rape is awful and shouldn't happen, ever. (Also about rape. Promoting rape..?)

If that doesn't give you shivers, I don't know what will. What a well-spoken, incredibly-reasoned 13-year-old. If nothing else, that is a reminder why I do what it is I do and why I love doing it. 

I wanted to share a few other things, too. 


  • Tanita Davis wrote a wonderful post yesterday about Speaking and Not Speaking and how to tell big stories and little stories, if there's such a thing as one or the other. 
This has been a strange week. But if I can make one suggested take away, aside from reading these posts and the comments and yes, sharing my article, it's this: get these books into the hands of those readers who need them. If you haven't read Speak or you haven't read any of the other books listed in my post or in the post I've linked above about discussing topics like rape, please do




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Friday, July 19, 2013

A Trio of Adult Romance Reviews

Here at STACKED, we mostly stick to YA. But as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I enjoy reading adult romances, though I hadn't done so in quite some time. After finding all of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton books for sale at my local library, I impulse-bought them (not hard to do when they're only 25 cents each) and then spent the next several days reading almost every single one.

Then, naturally, I did some reading online and picked up a few other romances by authors I hadn't read before (all historical Regency-era). Reading these books has broken me out of a reading rut like magic; the three below are some of those I've enjoyed most.


When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn
You guys. This book. This may be the perfect romance novel. It features Francesca Bridgerton, the sixth Bridgerton sibling, and she's actually already married at the beginning of the book. Her husband is John Stirling, the Earl of Kilmartin, and they love each other very much. And then he dies, after a mere two years of marriage. John's cousin, Michael, is now the Earl, and he's wracked with all sorts of uncomfortable emotions. He's loved Francesca all along, you see, but he also loved his cousin, whom he regarded as more of a brother.

You know what's going to eventually happen, but seeing the two leads work their way through their grief for a man they both loved very much is gratifying and incredibly moving. Francesca's attraction and eventual love for Michael develops gradually and believably. I loved reading a book where the hero loved the heroine from afar for years, rather than the opposite, which seems to happen much more frequently. All of Julia Quinn's trademarks are here: funny repartee between the two leads, crackling wit from ancillary characters, families who love and support each other and embrace their differences.

Personal copy

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean
I don't think there's any author I like as much as Julia Quinn when it comes to romances, but Sarah MacLean is a good alternative. Lady Calpurnia Hartwell is 28 and has given up on finding a husband. Her younger sister (by 10 years) has just become engaged, and while listening in on her sister's conversation with her new fiance, Callie learns that she's perceived as passive by most of society. She's always made sure to keep her reputation spotless, but now that she's sure she won't ever marry, she doesn't see much point. So she makes herself a list. Nine things - nine non-passive things - she'll do to have a little fun and start living, the way she's been afraid to for a decade. Things like smoking a cheroot, and gambling at a men's club, and drinking whiskey at a bar. And, of course, being kissed. That tops her list, and she knows just who she wants to help her cross that particular item off.

Gabriel St. John is the Marquess of Ralston, and Callie has loved him afar for ten years, ever since her first season when he spoke to her briefly and made her feel better about her horrid dress, which made her look ridiculous. He had forgotten the conversation long ago, but Callie never did. And when Callie shows up at his home, daring to make him the person who bestows upon her that first kiss...well, you know where this is heading.

Honestly, I was hoping that Callie would be a bit more proactive when it came to her list. She resolves to do something rather extraordinary, and then when it comes down to it, she holds back. It's understandable, but I wanted to see her fully commit to at least one item without prodding from Ralston. Ralston remains a bit of an enigma throughout the book, as well, and there's a bit at the end (that's a bit of spoiler) that was quite off-putting and dropped this to a 3-star read for me (plus some questionable remarks about Ralston's absent, now-deceased, mother). All that aside, this was a thoroughly engaging story with an interesting subplot featuring Ralston's half-sister. I liked seeing Callie come into her own, and her pursuit of the items on her list created wonderful comedic moments.

Borrowed from the library

What the Duke Desires by Sabrina Jeffries
Lisette Bonnaud is the illegitimate daughter of a viscount and his French mistress. When her father died without ever marrying her mother, her half-brother, the legitimate son, cut her and her brother Tristan off completely. Luckily for Lisette and Tristan, their other half-brother, the younger legitimate son named Dom, took them in so they could survive, to his detriment; as a result, his older brother cut him off too. They make money to survive by running a private investigation agency, and Lisette longs to take a more active role in it.

Maximilian Cale is the Duke of Lyons, and he inherited the title after his older brother Peter was kidnapped and eventually declared dead. But then he receives a note from Tristan Bonnaud, claiming he has proof that Peter is still alive. Tristan misses the arranged meeting with Max, and Max is so put out by it that he tracks down the Bonnaud residence in England, where he meets Lisette. Long story short, they team up as a faux married couple and travel to France to investigate Tristan's disappearance. Lisette hopes to prove to Max that Tristan is not a con man, and Max hopes to figure out what happened to Peter once and for all - or make Tristan pay for the lie.

I rather like romances that include a mystery, and this is a fun one. It gets a bit convoluted at the end, but it's never uninteresting. What's really important is the chemistry between the two leads, which is great. I love good repartee, and they have it. Lisette is the most assertive of the three heroines I discuss in this post. She has almost no qualms about haring off to France with Max in tow, and her actions are motivated by love of family. She knows what she wants and she knows she's smart enough to get it. Max is...not my favorite hero. Alas. Nothing beats a Bridgerton book.

Review copy received from publisher




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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Post on Adults Fearing YA at Book Riot



Over at Book Riot today, I wrote about what it is that grown-ups fear about YA books. I wrote and rewrote and rerewrote this post many times over the last few weeks, so I am thrilled by the response. Even the crazy troll response hit the nail on the head.





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