Interview with Will Mabbitt, creator of the Mabel Jones series


Over the summer, Mike and I read the first Mabel Jones book, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones. We both enjoyed it quite a bit and were excited to see the new one come out this week. Because of our interest, I wanted to bring you an interview with the creator, Will Mabbitt.

Can you give us the “elevator pitch” for both books for any readers who might not know what they are about?

In The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones Mabel is kidnapped from her bedroom by animal pirates and taken to a future without humans. In Mabel Jones and the Forbidden City Mabel’s sister is taken. Mabel has to rescue her and she starts to wonder… “What happened to all the humans?”

Were there books you read as a kid that might have influenced the character of Mabel?

I think I’ve been influenced by a whole load of books. Roald Dahl wrote some really great leads, Matilda and Sophie spring to mind, but also Danny (champion of the world). I especially like Sophie because she isn’t blessed with any special power – she’s just a regular kid. Also Jim Hawkins from RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I’m pretty sure these books have influenced thousands of over writers too.

I laughed out loud several times reading the first book. Do you ever make yourself laugh when you are writing? Can you give an example of a scene that made you laugh?

It’s an unappealing habit but I laugh all time when I’m writing Mabel Jones. It’s mainly because I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been, and that I’m getting paid to make things up. One day I think I’lll be found out and my editor Ben will phone me up and say: “Hang on! We’ve realized you’re not a proper writer. Can we have our money back?” I hope he never does though.

What have you read recently that you would recommend?

I loved The Imaginary by AF Harold and Emily Gravitt. It’s a wonderful story and beautifully illustrated too. If I wrote a book that good I think I would explode.

Both Mabel Jones books are available anywhere books are sold!

four-year-old superhero party.


When Atticus turned four, he wanted a superhero party. I never posted about it, but I have all these pictures and I feel like this is what the internet is for, to share party ideas.

For the games, we kept it pretty simple. We framed it as “superhero training.”

First we had them jump from cloud to cloud like superheroes. I drew clouds on the patio with chalk and the kids jumped around. I placed airplanes out there as well and I think we played superhero music while they did this. It was a good way to get their wiggles out.


Then we had them throw beanbags at the bad guys. We printed pictures of villains and put that on the cornhole board. The kids got to take turns throwing beanbags.


Then we played a dancing game inside where we played superhero theme songs and the kids would dance until we turned off the music and yelled freeze. Super easy and very fun.

Finally, our biggest hit was that we drew faces on a ton of balloons (it was 80 or 100 ballons – took most of the morning to get that done) and then dumped them in our living room. The kids had to find the “bad guy” faces (mostly frowny faces) and put them “in jail” behind the couch. That was so much fun that we had them “break out” so the kids could do it again.


For the food, we served pizza for everyone. We were going to have someone make cupcakes for us but she got the stomach bug. So we bought cupcakes and put superhero papers on them at the last minute.


We also had pow-corn because Atticus wanted to watch The Incredibles after the party was over.


I went ahead and labeled the cups beforehand to make it simple.


I labeled the lemonade and the water just for fun.


Every kid got a superhero training certificate, a sticker, and a bracelet.



None of the activities cost much of anything, and the kids loved being superheroes! Most of them came all dressed up. Definitely an easy and fun party, and Atticus loved it.

harry potter party for our little wizard.

We have been reading the Harry Potter books to Atticus since this summer, and he’s been extremely excited about them.


We had not planned to read them to him quite yet but we have a lot of Harry Potter stuff in our house so he got interested. He kept asking, “When can I read THE AMAZING HARRY POTTER?!” and we caved. We have stopped after Prisoner of Azkaban and don’t plan to get to Goblet of Fire for a while. We might re-read the first three while we wait.

Our very cool local nerd coffeehouse had a Yule Ball event for grownups in December, but they also had one for kids in the afternoon (it only went through book 3, so we didn’t have to worry about too many spoilers). A friend and I took our kids and they had a great time. Harry and the Potters played, the kids got sorted (Atticus was Gryffindor), they got a Patronus (Atticus got a rabbit, RIP Big Bunny), they played a “potting the mandrakes” game, there were chocolate frogs and butterbeer, and there was an owl post. It was very nice.



Not Slytherin, not Slytherin . . .





Because of the insane fun that he had, Atticus wanted a Harry Potter party for his fifth birthday. I was kind of hoping for a Star Wars party myself, but, no, he wanted Harry Potter. I did point out that most of his friends wouldn’t really know about Harry Potter (because their parents are responsible citizens of the world, unlike us who are reading them to our much too young child) but he said what he wanted was Harry, so we went with it.

I got the invitation idea here (which also has information on the fonts). One word of warning: I was just basically copying the language but there were kids who really did expect it to be a little bit more exactly what the invitation said, and the only school supply I made for them was the wands. If I had it to do over, I would maybe change the wording a bit (but when I sent the invitations I wasn’t totally sure what activities we would be doing).


At the party the kids were sorted and I ended up putting them all in Gryffindor so that they were competing together instead of competing with one another. They were all earning points for Gryffindor. We bought this sorting hat. I don’t really have good pictures of the sorting but the kids were very excited.

Then they got their wands.


I made the wands using these instructions and they were surprisingly easy. I spray painted all of ours with oil rubbed bronze so they were all the same color. I did the glue and the beads and they came out so well. Highly recommended as a very easy craft.

Then we took the kids outside for some classes (we were lucky it was a pretty mild day). Mike taught them the “swish and flick” and then we had them practice by popping bubbles. This was a huge hit.



Then Mike taught a potions lesson using some ideas he had gotten online. Atticus also got a “magic science” kit for his birthday so we used that as well.


The potions were one of the biggest hits of the day. After we finished the other activities, the kids wanted to do more potions stuff.

Then the kids came inside for a few more games. We tried a game where they put headphones on and had to throw a beanbag/mandrake in a pot. I think they had fun but it would have been better to do that one outside (I would also have been able to explain the mandrakes better to them if we had kept it outside – our living room was a little crowded). We did it inside because we were using a pot but I think it would have been a better choice to do it with our corn hole boards outside, so that’s my suggestion if you are thinking of something similar. I don’t have any pictures of that one.

Then we played two games that had to do with quidditch. One was pin the snitch on Harry Potter’s hand. That was Atticus’s big request. We printed this picture really big (just on the printer – three sheets by three sheets) and it worked great.


(Most of the kids cheated.)

Then we played a game where they had to go find a snitch to earn points for Gryffindor. I placed snitches around the house that I made.



After that it was time to eat! Mike took the projector and aimed it at the ceiling with a picture of clouds so that it looked like the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall, which I thought was very funny. I didn’t focus a ton on the food because I figured that snacks and cake were good enough.


We also had butterbeer – we kept that pretty simple and did cream soda with whipped cream. We had butterscotch sauce but only the adults used that.

The cake was made by a friend of ours. We googled ideas for Harry Potter cakes and Atticus really wanted a quidditch cake so she whipped this up for us.


At the end of the “feast” we said that Gryffindor had over 700 points and we awarded them the House Cup. Everyone got Harry Potter glasses. So the kids each got glasses, a wand, and a snitch as their party favors.

After we were done with that, the kids popped bubbles, did some more potions, and just generally ran around. This was a surprisingly inexpensive party to throw, plus the kids got to play together for most of the activities, which we prefer. I thought I would post this because I was looking for Harry Potter party ideas and some of it was pretty complicated, but ours ended up being fairly easy.

Things we bought:
-sorting hat

Things I made:
-wands (hot glue + chopsticks + beads)
-snitches (yarn + pipe cleaners + paper for wings)
-pin the snitch on Harry game

Things we had:
-bubble machine

-animal crackers (fantastic beasts)
-celery sticks (herbology bites)
-cheese puffs (cheese snitches)
-pretzel sticks (wands)
-butterbeer (cream soda + whipped cream)

Go forth and Harry Potter party, friends! If we can do this, anybody can.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

V23 new typeface tagline.inddYou could probably guess this from my age and demographic, but one of my favorite movies is You’ve Got Mail. All the wonderful Ephron dialogue, Kathleen Kelly’s adorable clothes and bookstore, the old modem sounds, New York and twinkle lights. What more does a girl need?

Today’s book is not exactly a YA version of You’ve Got Mail, but it has some similar elements. In Tell Me Three Things, Jessie has recently moved to L.A. from Chicago because of her father’s recent (surprise) marriage. As she is learning to navigate a new climate, a new school, and a new family, she begins to receive emails from someone she doesn’t know who gives her advice on how to navigate this new life. These mysterious emails from “Somebody/Nobody” (SN) begin to help her find her place, but who is sending them?

I found this book to be absolutely charming. It’s a wonderful fish-out-of-water story as well as a sweet romance. Jessie was a great character to be with and root for, and even though I was pretty sure I knew who SN was going to be, I enjoyed the ride. I thought the reveal was a little bit overly dramatic but everything else was utterly enjoyable.

Tell Me Three Things comes out in April, and you should definitely check it out then. I think it will be a big hit with fans of Stephanie Perkins or The Fug Girls.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher but my thoughts are my own.

clutter and clarity.

I got to preach this week at church and here is the text of my sermon. Our Advent series was “uncluttered” and I took the opportunity to talk about the good kind of clutter.


I have been listening to a lot of the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording over the past few months. If you aren’t familiar with Hamilton, it’s a Broadway show currently playing in New York about the life and death of founding father Alexander Hamilton told through a variety of musical styles including rap and hip hop and featuring a diverse cast. I know it doesn’t sound exciting when I say it like that, and yet it is an amazing accomplishment of storytelling, history, and music. In what Mike considers a questionable parenting decision, I have been letting Atticus listen to some of the songs (with some strategic turning down of the volume at certain words). Atticus’s favorite songs include a rap by Marquis de Lafayette and a showstopper by Aaron Burr that talks about the Compromise of 1790. Actually, Mike might object to the extreme nerdery even more than the language. He’s probably right.

Near the end of the first act, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (who the musical deems “the fool who shot him”) sing about the births of their children and how they want to create a better world for them, how they have literally helped form a new nation in an attempt to make things better for these newborns. Hamilton sings, “There is so much more inside me now,” and while his actions in the rest of the show do not always indicate that he remembers this newfound lesson, I have found that line resonates deeply with me. As a mother, I understand the idea that the love of a child can help you to discover new depths, but I also see how it can change the game dramatically.

In today’s scripture, which Sarah Ramsey sang so beautifully last week, Mary also sings because of her child. The angel has appeared to Mary and given her the astonishing news of her pregnancy. Then she travels to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, where she is called “blessed among women.” She responds by singing. In her song, she speaks prophetically of a world in which things are different than we are used to: the proud are scattered, the humble are exalted, the hungry are filled. Growing up, when we spoke about Mary, we tended to focus on Elizabeth’s words, “Blessed are you among women.” And yet here, in a surprising twist, before we even get to know Jesus, here is Mary giving us a preview of his message.

One of our family’s Advent traditions is to wrap different Christmas books for Atticus to open each night. I have noticed that in these books Mary is portrayed as meek, sitting to the side and watching the baby. But the Mary in this passage is empowered. You could say that the presence of Jesus has empowered her, and that is surely true, but I think she is also speaking here specifically in her new role as a mother. She has been a mother for just a few verses but already she is thinking about the changes that her child will bring about in the world, the deeper meaning of his existence. It is both Mary’s love for her child and her love and trust of God that allow her to see the possibilities of the kingdom of God. In her song, Mary embodies the famous quote by Cornel West: Justice is what love looks like in public.

I have reflected deeply on this passage in recent years because I personally felt a surprising shift in the way that I approached the world when I became a mother. I was less concerned with how others would see me and more concerned with setting an appropriate example for my child. His presence has led me to speak out where, in the past, I would have worried about offending or about being considered improper. I have written to my public officials about refugees and public schools, I implored friends and family to vote against Amendment One, and I have taken Atticus to Raleigh for Moral Mondays. Like Mary, I believe that motherhood has given me a voice. Like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and like Mary, all revolutionaries in their own right, I have thought about the world that our children are inheriting and what I am going to do about it.

The driving force behind these actions is not simply parenthood, but love. Opening your heart to another person is a risk, and we all know the risks that Mary took to bring Jesus into the world. Jennifer spoke last week about the physical risk of childbirth for both women and children. Mary was also at the mercy of Joseph’s good character as she risked her reputation and place in the community in order to bring Jesus into the world.

Poet Luci Shaw speaks of faith as “a certain widening of the imagination” and I would agree with her in many ways. I think that seeing life through the lens of faith and belief can cause us to see things out of the ordinary, to expand our view and to help us see with God’s vision. I would add to her quote that love can do the same. Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord, Alexander Hamilton says there is more inside of him. Love and faith can and should be expansive forces in our lives.

This Advent, we have focused on the theme of clutter. We could say that Mary had a clutter-free birth because there was no birth plan or playlist or community of women to help her. In other ways, the story appears to have a lot of clutter, what with all the animals, hay, people traipsing in and out, and that little boy who shows up and plays the drum really loudly. (Can you imagine?) I think about her often, how Jesus came to promote this upside-down kingdom and how the first step was being born to a pregnant teenager in a cave or a stable. But the story of Mary is first and foremost a story of love, both Mary’s love of God and her love of her new baby. The love she experiences complicates her life but it also gives her life new purpose and meaning that she could never have imagined.

It would be appropriate to also see Mary as an important force who shaped Jesus’ life, who fed and bathed him, who comforted him when he fell down, who rocked him to sleep, perhaps with songs like this one. Her prophetic vision for the world surely informed his message and her influence should not be discounted. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says, “No wonder Jesus was a radical. His mother sang him protest songs for lullabies.”

I am unqualified to speak on the topic of clutter. On the best of days, I am a person with a messy desk. On other days, I am the person making rules that Atticus can’t bring any more sticks and leaves and rocks into the house. Add Christmas with an almost five-year-old, sprinkle in the fact that Atticus’s birthday next week, and basically our house looks as if the toy section exploded (and also threw in some sticks for good measure). Just this morning, we had a frantic search for missing Legos!

In our house, we return almost daily to the question of how much in our lives has to change and how much should stay the same. The obvious examples since Atticus was born have to do with the physical, the train tracks that are residing in the sun room and the cars strewn about the floor of the extra bedroom. The internal examples have had to do with recognizing, as Alexander Hamilton did, that there is more inside of us now.

We do things now that I would never have anticipated, planning activities that complicate our lives but that offer our child a chance to learn and grow. We answer difficult questions about God and faith and injustice and Santa with honesty and humility and a lot of prayer because we do not want to screw it up too badly. To return to the idea of clutter, this is the kind of clutter that resonates most deeply with me now, the clutter of love. Not just the raggedy way that my house looks now, not even primarily that. It’s my heart I’m thinking of, the way that it is more full of love and concern for the world now that Atticus has come into our lives. Let me stand up for this kind of clutter in our lives: Living simply has its benefits but there is something to be said as well for the beauty of a life overflowing with compassion. My heart is more raggedy and cluttered, a little bruised at times, but with that comes a little bit of magic. Like the tents in Harry Potter, or the trunk of Mr. Weasley’s car, our hearts can hold more than it appears without being too full. I’m not a Doctor Who fan, but I believe there is something also about the TARDIS being bigger on the inside, and I thought I should add that here to see if anyone is still paying attention.

Mary’s call to embodied love and justice is for all of us, and people in this congregation have helped teach me that exact thing. Barry Shoemaker mentored Mike as he began to take steps to reinvent himself and imagine what kind of life he might be able to have, as well as teaching him how to arrange furniture. Ginny Olson has let me cry on her shoulder more times than I could really say. I have been inspired by the work of our activists and our truth-tellers and our educators (an important form of justice). I have been slow to learn this lesson, but they are still modeling for me how to open my heart, both to others and to the pain of the world. I would not have been able to show up for a friend’s cancer diagnosis or known how important it is to attend a funeral if you had not done those things for me.

Additionally, there are a lot of people here who have pitched in to help us raise Atticus who aren’t his parents, many who are not parents at all. One in particular that stands out to me was our former member, Scott Smith, who has since moved to Texas. Out of nowhere, Scott presented us with gifts for Atticus and after watching me wrangle Atticus during a particularly rowdy Christmas Eve service, Scott said, “I just love watching him at church.” I’m glad one of us does. Scott’s incredible grace and openness caused me to reconsider what it means to parent in church, and to trust in the welcome for all of God’s children, even the ones who run and play with tractors during the service. Church members have given gifts and food, have babysat and taught Sunday School classes, and have offered smiles instead of judgment to some of our child’s exuberance, none of which were particularly convenient for the people involved. These contributions give our children more than we could give them individually, and they also expand my own view of what is possible in the world.

Offering ourselves to each other, to our children, and in service to the community complicates our lives unquestionably but it also offers clarity and sense of purpose that can change us.

At the end of Hamilton, just before Alexander (spoiler alert) is killed by Aaron Burr, he reflects upon his life and says, “I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.” Mary’s song, too, is unfinished: Here in Greensboro there are hungry who are not being filled and all you have to do is turn on the news to see the proud continuing to be exalted. This should not lead us to despair, but to ask how we can answer God’s calling as sung by Mary: where are we extending mercy, showing humility, and using our status to level the playing field?

The mother love of God is embodied in these words of Mary, and whether you have children or not, as a child of God this is the work that God is calling us to. The work of justice and the work of service. The work of her son Jesus, and his upside-down kingdom. There was only one Mary, and yet all of us have the chance to catch her vision.

We see that vision carried on today throughout the world, in women like Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, who founded the Black Lives Matter movement. We see it in Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton professor who was suspended for demonstrating solidarity with her Muslim neighbors by wearing a head scarf and being “in conflict” with Wheaton’s statement of faith. We see it in young women like Malala who refuse to stop going to school. And we see it in small acts of love here in Greensboro: kind words sent to the Islamic Center and firm rebukes sent to Liberty University. Casseroles and hand-me-downs for new babies. Serving at GUM. Going with our children to camp. Each inconvenient step outside yourself is a chance to embody Mary’s prophetic words, for how does a prophecy come to be unless we ourselves make it happen? Like Mary, we have the opportunity to birth the needed change into the world.

What happened after Mary complicated her life and her heart by accepting the words of the angel? We do not hear a lot of her in the gospels after the birth of Jesus. This is her big scene, and all we can do is guess at what she was thinking and feeling as she watched Jesus grow and teach. We do know that she was present for her son’s first miracle – in fact, she was the driving force and faith behind it. She was present for his death and we see her in the book of Acts, present also at the very beginning of the church. That says to me that she continued to believe in her own prophetic words and embrace the work of love – loving her own son through difficult times and believing in the community of his followers. Her actions are not those of someone who is uncluttering her heart or forgoing the tangle of relationships, but instead they are of someone who is open to participating in the work of God.

We are here in the pause between Christmas and the New Year, a perfect time to reflect on the messy inconvenient power of love. How will you risk opening your heart this year? How will you, like Mary, take steps to see Jesus’ kingdom here on earth? How will you let the clutter of love offer you new clarity and purpose? Blessed is Mary among women. Blessed are you when you take seriously her words, when you live out her song of love and revolution.

being and belonging to the church.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber (via Blogging for Books)

I read Pastrix and I loved the second half of it. Accidental Saints is more in line with that second half, as Bolz-Weber tells stories of her life at her church. It can be difficult to see the image of God in people who are annoying or who don’t like you, and Bolz-Weber paints herself in an unflattering light at times as she talks about what she has learned through working for and worshipping with people who are very different than she is.

“The really inconvenient thing about being Christian is the fact that God is revealed in other people, and other people are annoying. I understand the impulse of not wanting to be in community. I can’t argue with that. But I think the experience of bumping up against other people has changed me in ways that I never could have been changed if I was just reading books and practicing meditation. We don’t get to be Christians on our own.”

There are no easy answers to some of these questions about loving God and loving others. My two favorite stories were about taking the time to really see other people: when a congregant named Bobbie saw Nadia, and when Nadia had a conversation with a girl on a plane who needed someone to notice her. This is a short book but it packs a lot into its size.

Lessons in Belonging From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe by Erin S. Lane (via Speakeasy)

These two books complement each other in surprising ways. Accidental Saints is about seeing and hearing God in the people around you, and Lessons in Belonging is about the search for a church and the ways that your service, your voice, your presence should be important to your congregation. As Erin S. Lane is trying to find a church in Durham, NC, she struggles with giving of herself as well as questions of theology. My favorite parts of the book were the places where she took a risk – offering to help with nametags in order to get to know the church members better, going to a discussion about Amendment One even though she didn’t know anyone. The book does not end with Erin S. Lane happily ensconced within a church but she does seem more sure of her own gifts and what she has to offer. On one hand, as Nadia Bolz-Weber points out in her book, whenever there are people around, we will not experience perfection. In this book, Erin S. Lane wants to attend a church where the theology doesn’t make her feel worthless. It was pure coincidence that I read these two together and I am so happy that I did.

The publishers provided me with copies of these books but my opinions are my own.

on (not) being Taylor Swift.

Story time! Back in the spring, I applied to (and was accepted at) a local divinity school with a plan to go part-time for a while and then try a different sort of career path. I was so excited. And then a job I had always wanted at a local Episcopal school came open and I applied and they hired me! I was also excited about that. But I couldn’t really do both of those things at the same time so I decided to defer divinity school and stick with being a librarian for now. I am a little bit sad about it because I had to choose but the good news is that I like my new job. Plus, we have chapel at my new school and I offered to help with chapel, and the priest let me give the message one day a few weeks ago. I thought I would post it here (along with a covert no-cameras-allowed-in-chapel picture) because I was happy with how it went. My school is PreK-8th grade so keep that in mind as you read my message. It was somewhat scary but I loved doing it and I hope I get to do it again!

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Raise your hand if you have ever heard of someone named Taylor Swift.

I’ve heard a lot of you saying that you will be going to see her here in Greensboro in a few weeks. I also heard a rumor that there was a discussion in at least one house about whether I am actually Taylor Swift just pretending to be your librarian. I love this idea, that Taylor is in our library reading stories to the kindergarteners, shelving books, and fixing iPads. I bet Taylor could host an amazing book fair! I have bad news, though, I am not Taylor Swift, though I am flattered by the comparison. And I feel that I should tell you that at my previous school I did dress like her for “celebrity day” and carried around a guitar and sang very badly to my students.

One reason that I am especially pleased to be compared to Taylor Swift is that she seems to be a genuinely kind person. I have seen news stories about her buying Christmas presents for her fans and donating to people who are in need. I have seen her admit when she was wrong and graciously accept even very strange apologies. She seems like a good friend to the people both in her squad and out. Those are all things I strive to do in my life and that I think we all hope for here in our lives and here at school.

There is no secret Taylor Swift library takeover, but we have already had a lot of discussions in the library about Halloween costumes. It’s one of my favorite times of year because all of us get to put on and try out a different identity. Sometimes we go for something scary or something that we might want to be when we grow up. Sometimes we go for a superhero or a villain. Even though I don’t have a secret identity as Taylor Swift, and I don’t know that there are any secret superheroes here, I have been thinking this week about the secret identity that I do have that we all share. All of us were created by God and in God’s image and even though we look like regular people at a school, we have the opportunity to carry God’s message in the world with us everywhere we go. We have the opportunity to be kind, to encourage people to be fair, and to help people in need. Every time we take that opportunity, we are using our secret identities as children of God to make the world a better place.

The scripture we heard said that every time we help someone in need we are actually helping Jesus, and that’s the other thing about our secret identity as children of God: it applies to everyone. It applies to the people we love and the people who are sitting next to us and the people who get on our nerves. Every single one of us is important to God, and so every one of us should be important to each other.

So remember that when you show kindness and help to others, you are both helping Jesus and being Jesus in the world. It might not seem as exciting as being a celebrity or a superhero, but this secret identity is one of the most important things about us all. As you move through your day, be sure to remember your real identity and let it help you guide the choices you make. It’s better even than being Spider-man or Hermione Granger or Luke Skywalker. For me, being one of God’s children is even better than secretly being Taylor Swift.



I made a very Baptist version of a pilgrimage this weekend, visiting Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class in Plains, Georgia. I had been saying for a while that I wanted to go, and then he made the announcement about his cancer and I realized that I needed to quit messing around and actually make it happen. Jimmy Carter is a particular hero of mine for the same reasons that you would probably expect: his integrity and his faith and his work for women. I felt that I needed to go and see him for myself, to pay tribute in some small way.


Actually making the trip happen, though, was quite a lot of work, with a long drive and not much sleep on Friday night just to be sure I got a ticket. They called them tickets but they were really more like vouchers. Okay, they were scraps of paper. I was number 48 (out of a possible 400).


Ticket secured, I explored Plains, texting pictures and stories to my friends, calling it a southern version of Stars Hollow. The guy at the Trading Post (which sells political memorabilia) who couldn’t stop rattling off political jokes. He was sure to offend you one way or another in two minutes or less. The woman at the antique shop who lent a stranger her car – I swear this happened – to drive a couple of blocks away and get tickets to see Mr. Jimmy in Sunday School. The lady at the visitor center who said I was “bold” to travel alone. (The woman at the antique store echoed her and said, “I like a lady who will travel by herself.”)


But I’ve had a change of heart about the kind of story I want to tell about this experience. After worshipping with them at church on Sunday, I find that I don’t want to reduce them to characters in my humorous story about visiting a small town. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed their eccentricities and I will probably never get over watching someone hand a stranger her car keys (she said, “My husband is going to think I am crazy,” and I could not disagree), but I was struck by the humanity and hard work that everyone in that town puts in to make sure that the visitors have the best possible experience.

There’s a certain authenticity to life in a small town that I am hesitant to romanticize, but I do recognize it in a place like Plains. You can’t hide who you really are when you live and work and worship together, and your sins and your shortcomings and your flaws will find you out in a different way than they would in a larger community. The flip side of that is that your warmth and kindness and welcome is less hidden as well. Bumping up against other people can clarify who you really are in a lot of ways, and I saw kindness and quick apologies and grace this weekend.


I think that is the lesson of Jimmy Carter’s church and of Plains, GA, that I will carry with me: authenticity. It is surely the message of Jimmy Carter’s life and his work as well. The main event was meant to be the Sunday School class, and it was an honor to attend and to hear a former president talk so openly and honestly about his faith and to see his gentle spirit and glowing smile. It is amazing to see him and I am unbelievably grateful I did it while I had the chance. But he and his church know a secret: the point is not just to hear the teachings of Jimmy Carter, the point is also to see him in his community with the people he loves and lives with and who share pot luck dinners with him. This is the fruit of their lives, and I had just a taste, and it was good.

When I went up for my picture with the Carters, he turned his smile on me and said, “How are you today, sweetheart?” in his smooth Georgia accent. I did not have to be reminded to smile at the camera.


I will treasure the memory of this trip for a long time and I trust that, like any good pilgrim, I did not return unchanged.

This is a news story about the class I attended (possibly the only time I will ever link to Fox News, don’t read the comments).

I love how Fred Clark characterizes Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class as “a long obedience in the same direction.”

guest post and giveaway from Gennifer Choldenko!

imageI love Gennifer Choldenko, but more importantly, my students love her books as well. Al Capone Does My Shirts is always a big hit, and I remember that right after I bought If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, all I had to do was show students the first paragraph and they were hooked (it uses the word “crap” a lot). When her publisher offered to let me do a giveaway of her new book Chasing Secrets, I could not say no. Please enjoy this post (in which she talks about Flannery O’Connor, as if I needed a reason to like her more) and then directions for the giveaway will follow.

Not every writer loves to write, and many are not fond of revising. I’m one of the lucky few because I love both writing and revising. In fact, for years my license plate was REWRYTZ because of my proclivity for the eraser side of the pencil.

Recently I was reading a series of essays about the work of Flannery O’Connor. Apparently, Ms. O’Connor revised an earlier work called The Train into her classic piece Wise Blood. Below are short passages from The Train and Wise Blood.

Sentence from The Train:

Now the train was grey flying past instances of trees and quick spaces of field and a motionless sky that sped darkening away in the opposite direction.

Haze leaned his head back on the seat and looked out the window. . . .

Same sentence revised in Wise Blood:

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. 

The first passage is a strong and evocative description of the setting, as the character, Haze, presumably perceived it. The two sentences set the scene and introduce the character. First-rate writing for certain.

But the second passage, in my view, is even better. It leaps off the page, making us immediately curious about this Hazel guy and why he’s on the train. It pushes us inside Hazel Motes, giving us a vivid, visceral sense of who he is and how he sees the world. It’s a jumpy, uncomfortable sentence that drives the narrative forward.

When I see an example like this, it brings home what a huge payoff revision can have. Even someone as great as Flannery O’Connor can up her game. This is evident in the micro here, but revision can have a far greater effect in the macro. 

When you write for kids, you don’t have the luxury of missteps or digressions. A slow spot in a novel is a minor annoyance to an adult. For a kid, it’s a game stopper. My book will be closed, not be reopened again. And so I spend an inordinate amount of time syncing character and plot.
I have to develop characters that resonate with my readers, because the world’s greatest plot inhabited by empty-headed characters is nothing but a bunch of stuff in a bag. On the other hand, intriguing characters with no story get abandoned too. Character development has to happen between the lines, and character change occurs because of the pressures of the story.
For me, achieving that kind of balance takes time. The good news is with every revision my characters come more sharply into focus and subtle unexpected plot turns suddenly appear before me.   

In my new novel, Chasing Secrets, what happened to the main character’s brother, Billy, occurred quite late in the revision process. I didn’t understand him well enough early on. And as I got more deeply into his psyche, he started behaving in ways I didn’t expect, which caused a chain of events that shocked me. I always know I’m on to something when the characters push beyond my own conception of the story.

I love these words from Gennifer because they show how kids deserve our best, and how important it is to write for our young people. If you have not read her books, I wholeheartedly recommend them to you. And if you would like to win a copy of her newest book Chasing Secrets (to find out what happened to Billy!) please comment below by midnight on Friday, September 4th, 2015. Winner will be chosen at random and notified on September 5th.

The contest is closed. Congratulations to Patty, our winner!

(some of) what I have been reading.

I am behind on my NetGalley posts so here is a big roundup. The books were provided to me for free but my opinions are my own.

The Tragic Age by Stephen Metcalfe

Billy’s family won the lottery, but his family is in a bad place after the loss of his twin sister. Some new friends plus a crime spree plus maybe Billy isn’t completely reliable equals aN unsatisfying read for me overall. This book moved incredibly fast – I wanted to know what was happening but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it.

Weightless By Sarah Bannon

This book takes a communal narrator – a group of girls who are not individually named or spelled out – to tell the story of a new girl named Carolyn moving to a small town in Alabama. The narrators both observe and gossip about the situation, and as Carolyn’s place in the community changes, it is clear that no one knows which parts of the story are exactly true. I think this is a powerful YA book about bullying. My one complaint would be that the narrators kept me at a distance from the story because there was no one person to sympathize with or to connect to. I both enjoyed the book and found it frustrating for that reason.

Every Last Word By Tamara Ireland Stone

Samantha has had a place as one of the most popular girls in school, but lately she feels less secure in her role there. As things change for her socially, she falls in with a completely different crowd, one that writes and performs poetry in a secret spot in the school. Her new friends help her open up to the world about her darkest secret – OCD. I thought this book was extremely memorable and I liked Sam quite a bit as a character, and I enjoyed her new group of friends and the poetry they wrote to help deal with the frustrations in their lives. I was less sold on her romance with Andrew and was not totally sure that the OCD was dealt with in the best way. However, a young friend of mine read and loved the book, so I would happily recommend it to smart teenagers, especially those who deal with anxiety.

Wild in the Hollow by Amber Haines

I read this faith memoir in one sitting, but the different parts of the book did not gel particularly well for me. I thought the beginning, especially the descriptions of her teenage years, suffered from being a little bit too aware of itself, as if it was trying too hard to impress. That calmed down a bit as the book went on, and I think that Amber is best when she is writing about daily life, the quotidian mysteries. I did not think the travel to Haiti and Italy added much of anything to the story – maybe you had to be there? Overall it moved quickly but did not seem to say very much.

This Raging Light by Estelle Laure

Everyone in town knows about Lucille’s dad going crazy, which is why she has to make sure that no one finds out that her mom skipped town. She gets a job so she can take care of her sister, and her best friend Eden (and Eden’s twin brother, dreamboat Digby) help out. Predictable in some ways, but I found this book about kindness and love to be charming and I liked it more than I expected to.

Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent

I enjoy a good story about breaking free from a cult or fundamentalist community, and there is some of that in this book, but I was also surprised by it. This is Leah Vincent’s testimony about what happened to her because she was not given the tools to live in the real world, specifically when it came to sex. I thought this was a great call for educating our young people about sex and consent and healthy boundaries.

The Faith of a Mockingbird by Matt Rawle

It was interesting to read this small group study based on To Kill a Mockingbird just days before Harper Lee’s “new” book came out and to think about whether any of it would change based on the new information we are given about the characters.

Good Mourning by Elizabeth Meyer

I really enjoyed this book about an event planner who began working with families in a prestigious NYC funeral home after the death of her own father. She had funny and touching stories as well as a clear call to encourage people to talk about death in a meaningful way. Great entrance to a world I know nothing about.

And this was provided to me for free by Blogging for Books:

The Paleo Chef by Pete Evans

My husband and I don’t eat Paleo but we do generally stay away from processed food and carbohydrates, so we found a lot to like in this book. It takes a while to review a cookbook, but we made a few things and tried it out. The main dishes were more complicated, but nothing took an inordinate amount of time. Our favorite section was the vegetables, sides, and snacks.

searching for sunday by rachel held evans.

My first big church transition came about 12 years ago, when Mike and I slipped out of the back row of our nondenominational church and decided to try something different. After about a month, we found ourselves somewhere in the middle of an American Baptist church here in town (the back row was already spoken for). We were grateful to find a place to land so quickly, and Mike learned to turn the pages of a hymnal while I learned the rhythms of the church calendar. We discovered that there were strands of Christianity we had never experienced. It was a relatively uncomplicated shift, mostly out of sheer dumb luck. After the change of venue, we settled in for the long haul.

Twelve years is a long time, and we have grown and been challenged, served and been served. But we have also had the normal struggles of anyone who is a part of a community, and just before Atticus was born I began to feel that I did not know where my place was in the church anymore. Last year, during a particularly low point, I took a break from church. I skipped out for about eight months, missing all of Eastertide and Pentecost and Ordinary Time. It was a whole new world for someone who has been a churchgoer from the womb. I slept in on Sunday mornings, or put on my bathing suit and beat everyone else to the pool. And I decided, in the end, that I like going to church, and that I was ready to try again. I am not going to say that everything is perfect, but time and space did their work to heal many parts of my heart, and I have done a better job of participating than I was doing before. If that first transition was about needing a different kind of place, the second one was about needing to make some changes within myself.

searching for sundayIt was with these two very different experiences in mind that I read Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. It describes her movement away from the evangelical church which I would describe as a combination of the transitions that I have experienced – she needed both a change of venue and the space to work out some changes in her heart. I am a few years older than Rachel, and her writings have mirrored a lot of my own feelings but sometimes I have wished she was speaking to where I currently am instead of where I have been. With this book, I felt companionship as she asked questions about her place in the church and the church’s place in the world she sees around her. She uses the imagery of seven sacraments to speak with maturity about her relationship with the churches in her life, from her childhood experiences to a failed church plant to the Episcopalian church she attends today. I have enjoyed her previous books, but I was particularly taken with her voice in Searching for Sunday, as her love of God and the church comes through on every page, as well as the truth that those relationships can be complicated. She speaks with confidence and peace throughout the book and reading about her journey was a great pleasure.

I read a lot of books each year, but I don’t read many books more than once. You should know that I read this one twice already, the first time just enjoying it for myself and the second time so I could do more than just ramble on about how much I liked it. The one flaw that I found was that I wished the last two sacraments (anointing the sick and marriage) had one more section each, just to flesh out those ideas a tiny bit more. Those are both big topics! This is a minor complaint though, and I recommend Searching for Sunday without reservation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I received a copy of Searching for Sunday from the publisher but my opinions are my own, and even though they sent me a digital copy I purchased a physical copy for myself. If you buy Searching for Sunday this week, there are some fun free gifts for you, so check those out.

what I have been reading (spring has sprung edition).


Play Music by Laurie Lake White (purchased a copy)

This charming novel (based on a true story) is about Viennese immigrants to America in the early 1900s. Hugo is a conductor, first for a hotel orchestra and later in a silent movie theater, and his wife designs costumes for the Metropolitan Opera. The way that the family lived and thrived through their creative work made the book stand out to me, as did the vivid setting of these operas and shows. I particularly loved how compassionate the author was with her characters. Peter, someone who makes a lot of bad choices that drive the second half of the story, was my favorite because of how kind she was to him about his failings. Recommended for: fans of historical fiction and charming things. And artists.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin (via the public library)

This won the Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School. (The Schneider Family Award honors books that present the disability experience for children and teenagers.) It’s about Rose, a girl who has Asperger’s, and her relationship with her father and her dog Rain. Rose is obsessed with homonyms and that plus her obsession with rules makes it difficult for her sometimes in school. There is no one universal experience of life on the autism spectrum, but I thought this did a good job of showing us what it was like in Rose’s head. Rose is wonderful, and this is also a great story for people who like dogs. As far as classroom use, I think it would not make for a good readaloud because of there being so many homonyms, but it would make for a good guided reading book. Sweet and heartbreaking (you know how books about animals are). I really enjoyed this one.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (via the public library)

I wrote about this one for my 28 Days of Books for Black History Month. It’s a great read about a true story.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (via NetGalley and then the public library)

I was approved for this on NetGalley after it was already archived so I had to wait for it at the public library. Do I think it will be popular with TFioS and Eleanor and Park fans? No doubt. But it also felt calculated to punch you in the gut without earning those emotions like the two aforementioned books did. I didn’t buy Finch and Violet’s relationship in a lot of ways (partially because he just seemed like quirky mental health weirdo and she seemed sad and affectless), I didn’t think they were fully realized characters that I could care about. It seemed like a YA version of Garden State (or maybe Elizabethtown) without even the saving grace of a good soundtrack. I am surprised so many people are so excited about this one because it fell flat for me. I would still tell my teenage friends about it if they had finished John Green and Rainbow Rowell and wanted another book, but it doesn’t shine like a lot of recent YA does for me.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles (via the public library)

This won the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens and features two special ed high school graduates named Quincy and Biddy. They get an apartment together in the home of Liz, an older woman who needs assistance. Biddy is the softer and sweeter of the two, while Quincy is more savvy. They have both experienced terrible things and difficult things happen to them during the course of the story, but I came away impressed by the bravery of these characters. Recommended for high schools.

The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander (via NetGalley)

You may remember Elizabeth Alexander as the inaugural poet from President Obama’s first inauguration. Now she has written a beautiful exploration of grief and love following the death of her husband in 2012. Both her story and her use of language are worth a read. You might say that the idea sounds too sad, but I find reading about grief to be healing, especially in those moments when you recognize yourself and your own pain in someone else’s story. Pairs well with The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke.

Death Row Chaplain by Earl Smith (via NetGalley)

This is a pretty traditional redemption story – Smith was involved in gangs and drugs and then became a chaplain at San Quentin. He does a good job of taking the reader somewhere that most of us are unlikely to go, and had interesting and entertaining stories about connecting with the prisoners through baseball and chess. I also thought the book had a nice balance of talking about his own faith and beliefs without being preachy. One thing to note is his opposition to the death penalty, which I share, and which he explained with emphasis on his own experiences with people on death row and families of the victims. This book would be good for fans of Same Kind of Different as Me.

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont (via NetGalley)

The inciting incident of this story is that a daughter finds a box of personal messages between her father and the woman he is having an affair with. The effects of these messages are felt by every person in the family, though I was probably least interested in the father’s story and most interested in the mother. I didn’t feel a strong connection with the characters, nor did I feel that the effect of finding this box was resolved for the daughter (or the mother). As other reviewers have said, Part Two comes chronologically at the end, and I felt it took some of the air out of Part Three to have the story already known in certain ways. This was not the book for me and I am not sure who I might recommend it to.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (via NetGalley)

3.5 stars. I am in the bag for Rebecca Stead but I was also pretty frustrated by Liar and Spy, which felt to me like a trick ending rather than an earned one. I kept waiting to find out what was “really” happening during this book, which took away from my enjoyment. Be assured that this one is a much more straightforward story about middle school students – friends who are growing apart in certain ways but who value their friendship as well as their independence. Together they struggle with things like divorce and social pressures. More specifically, a big plot point has to do with texting photos and how it can spiral out of control very quickly, and I liked how it was handled. My one problem with Goodbye Stranger (and it was a big problem for me) is that I felt that it was confusing. There are three separate narrators, and we don’t find out who one of them is or why she is doing what she is doing until right at the very end. I thought this needlessly complicated what was a very nice story. About 20% of the way through I was so frustrated that I wanted to stop, and I could imagine my students just quitting at that point. I don’t understand why that one narrator had to be kept in the shadows and I felt it could have been done differently. I am sure it would be a solid 4 stars on a re-read, but I wish I hadn’t had to fight so hard to read it the first time.

Some of these books were provided by the publishers. As always, my opinions are my own.

what I have been reading (more reading than you ever thought possible edition).

It’s been a couple of months since I wrote up my reading list. So of course it’s ridiculously long.

School Shooters: How to Recognize Schoolroom and Campus Killers Before They Attack by Peter Langman (via NetGalley)

I work in a school and I know the chances of something like a school shooting happening to me are remote, but it is still a topic that worries me. I thought that this book did a great job of showing how many of the shooters lived in difficult situations and experienced abuse and neglect as well as the results of poverty. Some of them are psychotic (as in, out of touch with reality), and some are essentially narcissists or what we might call sociopaths who don’t experience empathy. Seeing that there isn’t a clear pattern actually made me feel safer, because the training we receive at school has taught us some of the warning signs. I appreciated the brief overview of each shooter that did not emphasize the crime in detail and instead focused on their background and the possible causes of each shooting. It wasn’t light reading, but it was helpful to me.

Where You End by Anna Pellicoli (via NetGalley)

I liked Miriam and found it believable that she had been reckless (in several different ways) and then would do anything to cover up her mistakes. A couple of problems I had were that Miriam was well out of her depth when dealing with the person who was blackmailing her and she seemed to get that somewhat at the end but that is not a story that is going to be resolved very easily. Also, I loved her guy best friend but felt that his story was kind of a distraction to Miriam’s growth. The book did a great job evoking a closed-in feeling of panic but the story was overall somewhat forgettable.

The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You by Jessica N. Turner (via NetGalley)

I really like Jessica Turner. I am less comfortable with a lot of the people she hangs with over at Dayspring’s blog. But I decided to give this book a shot because of Turner herself. I love that she is a work-outside-the-home mom and that she speaks from that perspective. I thought this book was strongest when Turner talked about her own experiences and weakest when her blogging friends gave their tips. Most working moms (and many stay-at-home moms!) can’t take midday hikes or midday naps like bloggers can. Turner’s tips from her own life were much more useful and realistic. Those parts I would recommend to moms with young children, especially working moms.


God Made Light by Matthew Paul Turner (purchased from the author)

Speaking of the Turners, I got Atticus this picture book for Christmas. I enjoy most of what Matthew Paul Turner says on his blog, but I was a little worried about God Made Light because I am careful about what I want to teach Atticus about God and some of the people who blurbed the book are definitely not people whose opinions I trust or whose theology I agree with (see: Dayspring above). I reached out to MPT and asked him if there was a way to read the text before buying it, and he very kindly emailed me the text of the book saying that he understood my desire to be picky when it came to talking to my kid about God. The text and pictures are very sweet and, theologically, it’s probably a reminder that some of us might disagree pretty strongly but that there are some core beliefs about God that most Christians share and want to teach their kids. I wanted to give his kindness a shout-out as well as recommend the book. I think pretty highly of both of the Turners and you should support their work if you get a chance.

Religion in the Oval Office by Gary Scott Smith (via NetGalley)

This is a thorough look at eleven of our presidents: John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, their religious upbringing and personal beliefs and how those beliefs influenced their time in the White House. I skipped around a little bit and found the more modern presidents to be more interesting, but it was a fascinating look at all of them and how their faith affected their decisions. The two most interesting to me were probably Nixon and Bush Sr. The Clinton chapter was notable because he is so believable when he talks about Christianity and yet his actions don’t match up with what he says. This is an academic book, so it’s not a quick read, but I enjoyed the things I learned about the presidents and the ways that it humanized them for me.

When I was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds (via the public library)

I read this because I was considering it for my 28 Days of Books. I ultimately decided not to use it but I did like it quite a bit. It’s about a boy who finds himself in over his head at a party and what happens to him and his friends after that. It is one of those stories where a character breaks the rules for the first time and has something terrible happen, but it also showed how much more dangerous life can be for some people than others. Great characters and a strong sense of place (Bed Stuy in New York). The title is a reference to Ali, and the book does have some themes about boxing. A worthy addition to a high school or YA collection.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (from my own school’s library)

I wrote this up for my 28 Days of Books, and you should definitely read it if you haven’t! This year’s Newbery winner.

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley (via the public library)

This book won a TON of ALA awards this year, and I loved it. It’s set in Ireland in 1993, about a girl named Maggie who moves from Chicago to the small town of Bray in Ireland with her family and her new stepfather. Did I like it because I was also a teenager in 1993? Probably. But it’s still just a lovely book even if it doesn’t take you back to flannel and Nirvana like it did for me. It’s got a lot of references to music and culture that set the scene as well as being a story about young love and a girl coming to know who she is. Really sweet book for high school students especially.

Her Name is Rose by Christine Breen (via NetGalley)

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s about a mother, Iris, and her daughter, Rose. Rose’s father died a few years before, and he made Iris promise that she would find Rose’s birth parents so that Rose wouldn’t be alone if anything happened to Iris. When Iris had a breast cancer scare, she decided to follow through on her promise to track down Rose’s birth parents. There were very sweet moments in the book, but overall it was kind of a muddled mess. I liked that the ending was somewhat ambiguous, but I think that might put some people off. Just okay for me.

How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon

I wrote this up for my 28 Days of Books as well. Another one that I really enjoyed, and it’s timely as Ferguson continues to be in the news.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kokler (borrowed from a friend)

I enjoyed this true crime story about some young women whose bodies were found on Long Island. However, I have to admit that since there’s not much in the way of an answer about how/why this happened, the book feels a little bit too long. It should probably have been a long article rather than a book, and it definitely bogged down at the end with the discussion of which of the women’s families were and were not speaking to each other. Recommended for: true crime aficionados only.


The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson

The third in The Name of the Star series, The Shadow Cabinet went in a slightly different direction than the other two, which had me on the edge of my seat. I read it on one of our snow days and enjoyed myself very much. Also I guess I will forgive Maureen Johnson for that awful cliffhanger at the end of the second book. Can’t wait for the next one. Hurry, hurry, Maureen!

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (advanced release copy)

I got an advance copy of this one and sped through it. Definitely her best work yet – thoughtful and mature as well as a story that resonated with me pretty deeply. You’ll hear more from me about this one closer to publication date but I enjoyed it without reservation and recommend it highly.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (for my church book club)

A reread for my book club! A plucky and romantic coming-of-age story which you should read if you haven’t.

Some of these books were provided to me by the publishers but, as always, my opinions are my own.

28/28: Sons of Liberty

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageI have avoided books about slavery this month because my students don’t read a lot of them and I like to offer them (and wanted to offer you) books about the black experience that go beyond slavery as much as possible. I am making an exception for this graphic novel series, The Sons of Liberty. A few years ago I presented this to our school board as part of a celebration of school libraries and I described it as, “Django Unchained except okay for middle school.” Thankfully, I did not get fired. This book is about two escaped slaves who get super powers and use them to get revenge on their former owners. Part Django Unchained and part superhero story, these are insanely popular. If you need a graphic novel for this age, this (and the second one) are definite winners.

And that’s it! We did it! Twenty-eight days of books! Thank you for reading and I hope that I have made a resource that is helpful. Did I leave anything off that you love? There are tons that I didn’t even get to, and I am not as knowledgeable about picture books as an elementary librarian would be, so I would love some suggestions there. Happy reading!

27/28: The Port Chicago 50

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageHere is another amazing non-fiction story that needs to be more widely known. After an explosion at Port Chicago killed over 300 black sailors in July of 1944, over 200 more refused to go back to work until conditions were safer. After being threatened with a firing squad, all but 50 went back to work. Those 50 were charged with and found guilty of mutiny and have still not been exonerated today. This is non-fiction at its finest and offers a perspective on Civil Rights that goes beyond the 1960s. I am glad it was a National Book Award finalist because we need more books like this one.

26/28: Chess Rumble

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageThis is a very cool story of a young man who uses chess to stay out of trouble on the streets. Besides being an engaging graphic novel, this book is popular with the members of the chess team at my school.

Other books by G. Neri that are great:
Ghetto Cowboy (a novel based on actual urban cowboys)
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty (one of the most popular graphic novels at my school)

25/28: The Great Greene Heist

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageI wrote about The Great Greene Heist over the summer, and I highlighted its Ocean’s 11 cleverness, its diverse cast of characters, and its nerdy fun. All of that is still true, but I also wanted to say that I love it because it is a contemporary story that features black characters and isn’t set in an “urban school” environment. I love those books because my students can relate to them, but I also want there to be a diversity of black experiences on my shelves. Jackson Greene helps me broaden what I can offer.

I probably love this one a little bit more than my students because I am so familiar with Ocean’s 11, but if I can get them to watch the movie as well, then I am definitely winning.

24/28: Finding My Place

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageWe have three books by Traci L. Jones in my school library, and all of them are popular. I picked Finding My Place because I love the cover. It is set in the 1970s and features Tiphanie, whose parents move to the suburbs, causing her to be the only black girl in her school. I like that this is set in the 70s, which is a time period that my students are curious about, and it is a much more graceful portrayal of the difficulties of race relations than many (most) books for this audience.

Her other two books:
Standing Against the Wind
Silhouetted by the Blue

23/28: Drama High

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageDrama High is another crazy popular series at my school. You can pretty much tell what it is about (drama at a high school). It fills the same need for my students that Sweet Valley High filled for me (and I mean that in a good way – I loved Sweet Valley High in middle school). As students figure out who they are as readers, it is great to hook them on a series and be able to hand them the next one. Drama High really fills that need for me. I don’t always get my copies back, but I am often able to find used copies to supplement at the local used bookstore. Highly recommended for middle school girls.

Two similar series that are also popular:
Del Rio Bay
Kimani Tru
So For Real

22/28: The Bluford Series

Every day in February, I am celebrating Black History Month by posting children’s and YA books that you should know about. I am not going to claim that this is an exhaustive list of the best and the greatest, just that they are books that have resonated with my family and my students. Some of them feature historical figures, while some are contemporary fiction. For more great books check out The Brown Bookshelf and We Need Diverse Books.

imageThe Bluford Series is the number one most popular sdries in my school. It is a low-level/high-interest series that focuses on the different students at Bluford High. The stories intertwine, but the books don’t really have to be read in any particular order.

This was a series that was a little bit of a surprise to me when I moved from the public library to the school system. It’s one of those things that is well-known in schools but not as well-known outside of that environment. Townsend Press has a lot of great offers for schools, and the series is available for just $2 per paperback copy. The Bluford Series is not great literature, but it is great for your reluctant readers, both boys and girls. Did I mention it is the number one most popular series at my school?

Some of the Bluford authors also worked on the Urban Underground series, which is not as popular but which students will accept when my Bluford books are checked out.