Last Sunday, my three oldest daughters and two of their cousins sat around their grandfather’s kitchen table, snacking on chips and salsa while my oldest, Lucy, read aloud from a story she’s been writing. It’s straight-up fan-ficton; a blend of Keeper of the Lost Cities, the Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, The Lunar Chronicles—and at least a few more, but I can’t keep them straight. All the cousins and a few friends have been working on this saga for months, along with their own, original, works. But this is their special project that fills their fandom-loving hearts with joy. It’s a lovely thing to see.
While Lucy read her work, she was stopped frequently by bursts of laughter and exclamations. “Oh no! Lucy, how could you!” “Yes, yes, yes!” “Ha, this is so good.”
Mark and I were a room over, just listening. This moment, clearly, was the highlight of these girls’ day. It was also certainly the highlight of ours. What would most artists and writers give to be gathered around a table, chips and salsa at the ready, with a team of people just ready to appreciate you?
I used to wonder that so many artists and creators of the past seemed to know each other. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were friends?! John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosseti and Christina Rosseti all hung out together? Amazing. What a coincidence.
Except... clearly it’s not. Clearly when creative people come together and encourage one another selflessly and generously, amazing things happen. Perhaps if C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien weren’t friends, The Lord of the Rings would never have happened. Perhaps In the Bleak Mid-winter wouldn’t exist if the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood hadn’t let Dante Gabriel’s sister hang around.
In my own life, I’ve certainly seen this dynamic at play. I might never have buckled down to writing if my sister-in-law hadn’t asked one day, “Why do we all keep talking about writing and never actually write anything?” The family critique group that we formed with me, my husband, his sister, and his mother was exactly the encouragement I needed to write a new chapter every week on what seemed then like the impossible task of writing my first novel. Attending my first SCBWI critique group meeting (and many after), the encouragement and solid critiques of professional writers helped me believe that maybe I could succeed as well. Participating in smaller sub-groups of determined writers helped me stick to the task when success wasn’t coming as quickly as I’d hoped. I honed my skill, and hopefully helped my friends hone theirs as well (many of them are published or award-winners now, so I’d like to think my encouragement made a difference to them!). My groups of “cheerleaders” have changed throughout the years, as we all had different needs and schedules and responsibilities. But they’ve always remained there for me in different ways, and that support has buoyed me up through difficult rejections and first drafts that just didn’t work and the months of teething or colicky babies when nothing got written at all.
If you don’t have your group of cheerleaders yet, consider this your invitation to GO FIND THEM. Join a writers’ group (check SCBWI if you write for children, or ask at your local library). Find friends on the internet who could form a virtual group. Leave a comment here, and maybe just the right person will see it! Just find them.
Do you already have a group of friends who encourage you through thick and thin? Let us know how you came together, or share your experience of times they’ve helped you out the most!
Anyone who's been reading my reviews long knows that I lean old-fashioned in my reading. Give me the historicals, the old-fashioned fantasies, the "timeless" contemporary stories, and I'm in book heaven. Today I'm reviewing something totally different from my usual taste in books—but I have to mention all that because it speaks to how dang good this book is.
What Happened to Rachel Riley? is thoroughly, decidedly contemporary. The story is told through transcripts of a podcast recording, emails, and texts. Any reader who has ever complained, "Why don't the kids have cell phones? Everyone has cell phones now!" will find herself totally satisfied here. As you might guess from the previous paragraph, I am not one of those readers. But Claire Swinarski pulled me into her story so masterfully that I didn't care. I enjoyed the novelty of the unique style without ever finding it gimmicky. I felt I knew each and every character, and the sense of place was clear and vivid—and considering the style, I found this particularly impressive.
Before I go on, here's the publisher's description:
In this engrossing and inventive contemporary middle grade novel that's Where'd You Go Bernadette? with a #MeToo message, an eighth grader uses social media posts, passed notes, and other clues to find out why a formerly popular girl is now the pariah of her new school.
Anna Hunt may be the new girl at East Middle School, but she can already tell there’s something off about her eighth-grade class. Rachel Riley, who just last year was one of the most popular girls in school, has become a social outcast. But no one, including Rachel Riley herself, will tell Anna why.
As a die-hard podcast enthusiast, Anna knows there’s always more to a story than meets the eye. So she decides to put her fact-seeking skills to the test and create her own podcast around the question that won’t stop running through her head: What happened to Rachel Riley?
With the entire eighth grade working against her, Anna dives headfirst into the evidence. Clue after clue, the mystery widens, painting an even more complex story than Anna could have anticipated. But there’s one thing she’s certain of: If you’re going to ask a complicated question, you better be prepared for the fallout that may come with the answer.
Here's another thing about me: I'm generally unenthusiastic about "issue" books. I find that poorly developed plots often hide behind the issue being discussed, weakening both the story and the message itself. Again, I'm saying this because that's not the case here. What Happened to Rachel Riley? is a story about sexual harassment—but first and foremost it's a story. If you think about it, lots of great books are issue books, but we forget about that because they're just telling the character's story. In this case, Anna's journey as a character and her drive to solve the mystery will keep you totally engrossed throughout.
I'd like to note that while this book is advertised for ages 8 and up, I think I'd generally wait until readers are the age of the protagonist or so (12-13). I was very comfortable handing it to my young teens, but parents will know best what is appropriate for their child—it's worth a pre-read because 1) you'll love it, and 2) it's such a perfect book for creating meaningful and important conversations that you might as well make a parent-child book club out of it, like I did with my daughters.
What Happened to Rachel Riley? comes out early in the new year, but you can pre-order it now! Thanks to the author for providing me a review copy.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
Here's my read-before-Advent book stack for November!
Three re-reads, two non-fiction, and one I've been meaning to read forever.
The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found, by Karina Yan Glaser, was the one I've been meaning to read—somehow I'd fallen behind on the series without realizing it until the latest book came out and my children scolded for me for beginning it without catching up. This was lovely, as expected! My favorite, favorite part (and skip ahead if you don't want spoilers) was when the children sat at the bedside of an elderly friend who was dying. Death is so, so hard but its hardness seems to make many people overlook the beauty of a happy death. I'm very blessed that my children have been able to be present at wakes and funerals and one death bed, and I'm happy to report that they cherish these memories and were not traumatized (that's not to say they aren't still grieving, but that is a very different thing). But children are very often sheltered from both the hardness and the beauty of death—I was so glad to see it handled sensitively but honestly here. Brava.
Online Marketing for Busy Authors, by Fauzia Burke. Oof. All the things I really need to learn before I get a book published, because we can all admit I've been flying by the seat of my pants for a bit. This book is well-structured and encouraging, as well as full of good sense.
I've just begin Tranquility by Tuesday, by Laura Vanderkam, and I already am gleaning so much wisdom. Her 168 Hours was life-changing for me in terms of time-management and mindset. This follows along the same vein, but with the focus being on contentment and calm rather than productivity alone.
When choosing books for my November reads, I had to go with comfort over everything else, and that's why I pulled from my three favorite authors for re-reads (I don't usually re-read this much in a month). Heaven to Betsy is the first Betsy-Tacy high school book, and Jane of Lantern Hill is one of L. M. Montgomery's most overlooked titles (also the rare story not set on Prince Edward Island). Pure comfort-y goodness. And besides being my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice is on my curriculum for my high school daughters, so we've been reading through it together (it's been a blend of read-aloud, read alone, and audiobook). I LOVE sharing favorite books with my teenagers. This is such a fun stage in our homeschooling journey. I've been loving it so much that I'm planning a post on read-aloud with teenagers, so stay tuned.
Okay, now I need your help: I need recommendations for good December reads! We read lots of picture books as a family during Advent (lots of Jan Brett this year as part of Read Aloud Revival's Christmas school), and I'll be reading the devotional Waiting for the Light. I'd love to add a new-to-me novel to the stack—do you have any you really love? Classic, contemporary, mystery, history—I'm pretty open! Please share your favorites!
Do you remember the first time you read The Secret Garden? I was about nine, I believe, and I can still recall the spine-tingling spookiness of Misselthwaite Manor, the delight in meeting Martha and Dickon and the wonderfully irascible Ben Weatherstaff, the wonder at Mary's discovery of the garden and passion for growing beautiful things. Even though Mary was quite horrid by all accounts, I was rooting for her from the start--perhaps because when I was nine, I was rather horrid by all accounts, too.
I knew then that I loved the book. Re-reading it as an adult, I realized just how much it had impacted me. Is it really Mrs. Sowerby's advice that my children hear whenever I tell them to go outside if they're sick or grumpy? Did Mary and Colin's encounter with "The Magic" influence the way I'm always on the lookout for the wonder in God's creation? Did Mary's transformation from sour and unlikable to strong and comforting impact my ability to think I could change, too?
I'll never really know all these answers. Obviously I was formed by many things in life, and even if I was just counting books you'd definitely have to throw several L. M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott titles onto the pile. I do know, however, that The Secret Garden changes me for the better every time I read it, and brings me closer to God as well.
This last re-read of Burnett's classic was made even more meaningful by the addition of guided meditations by Rachel Dodge, in her lovely The Secret Garden Devotional. She breaks the book down chapter by chapter and explores the various themes raised by the author, connecting them with our own lives and relationship with God. She points out so many details I would have missed otherwise, using quotations from the story and selections from scripture to guide your experience of The Secret Garden and turn it from mere pleasure reading to a further encounter with the Divine.
And I can't forget to add that the illustrations by Anastasia Nesterova are absolutely adorable. I want an edition of The Secret Garden itself illustrated by her!
This would make a lovely gift for an older middle grade reader, a teen, or any adult who loves this beautiful story. Until tomorrow, you can get an extra 20% off if you pre-order it through this link (provided to me by the author), so it's a perfect time to order it as a Christmas gift.
Thanks so much to Rachel Dodge and the publisher for providing me an e-arc in exchange for this review.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
This bit of narrative non-fiction was originally published on my old blog five years ago. Recently I've been pondering my strange propensity to adore mice in fictional works and yet be utterly terrified of them in real life. This true story pretty much explains my fear of them… The adoration of their fictional counterparts may have to remain a mystery!
I opened my eyes, blearily taking in the “12:37” on the alarm clock. “What was that?” I whispered, squeezing Mark’s limp shoulder.
“That sound! Was that...a mouse in the wall?”
“Probably.” Mark rolled over, draping his arm over me and instantly returning to sleep. Our house is three centuries old. Mice have lived in our walls so long, the current generation probably has a chest in there full of their ancestors’ powdered wigs and tricorn hats.
Skitter, skitter, skitter.
I squirmed out from under the arm. “That was not in the walls. That’s right out there in the room!”
Mark sat up. Straining his eyes, he stared out into the room. “I can’t see it,” he said, “but you’re probably right. I can set a trap tomorrow.”
What is it about mice? Tiny creatures, so far below us on the food chain, they don’t even fit on the same chart. Have you ever looked at one closely? Their little pink noses twitch adorably beneath their sparkling eyes; their fur is silky-soft and smooth. And yet at the thought of one in my room, I sat up in bed, taut as a tug-of-war rope. I swiveled my head at every sound, real or imagined. The heater turning on made my heart pound. Finally, after the clock had scanned through the next two hours and my neck had developed a crick that would last for weeks, I slipped down, rolled my face into my pillow, and fell asleep.
Something moved on the backs of my calves: the most gentle, delicate massage you could imagine, as a minuscule creature crept toward my knees.
Thump. Skitter-like-crazy-scratch. Silence.
I screamed again as realization hit me. Mark bolted upright.
My words came out slowly, perhaps in an effort to calm my Tour de France level heart rate. “There. Was. A. Mouse. On. My. Legs.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t just my foot or something?”
“It was a mouse.”
Mark reached for his flashlight and shone it out over the room. “Oh! There it is. Wow.”
“It’s really big.”
“Oh, great, thanks.”
I wouldn’t give my enemy the pleasure of knowing I’d bothered to look at it. Instead I shoved my head into my pillow and tried not to listen as Mark wandered the room looking for entrance holes, setting traps against the walls (safely where neither of our toddlers would accidentally grab them), and scanning side to side with his flashlight.
“It’s just so weird,” he said. “I mean, why would they come into the one area of the room where they’re most likely to be sighted by a predator? It’s not like people are eating in here and leaving crumbs.”
I cleared my throat, hopefully not too suspiciously. First trimester nausea had resulted in a few or five or a dozen “toast and tea in bed” breakfasts served by my doting nine-year-old. I flicked a crumb onto the floor as Mark came back to bed with a sigh. “I just don’t see what I can do about it, other than wait,” he said.
I reached for my tablet and clicked into the audiobook app.
“It won’t climb the bed if it hears voices, right?”
“Good. I’m putting on the Bible.”
As a side note, I’m pretty sure God’s voice sounds exactly like David Suchet’s. Suchet’s audio version of the Bible, while not my favorite translation (it’s NIV), is so perfectly narrated that you can easily imagine God is standing in the room next to you, covered in glory. Which was exactly the reality I needed a reminder of.
I listened to the entire Pentateuch over the next four nights. I mean, it wasn’t like I was actually going to sleep or anything. I’m not that crazy. Instead I listened to Exodus two or three times, and once through parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy that I confess I’d never managed to thoroughly read before.
There is a lot of smiting going on in those books. This was oddly satisfying, as I did my best to tune out the skittering around the walls (of course the traps didn’t fool anyone) and the biting odor of the peppermint oil with which I’d doused the edges of bed and blankets, remembering an old tip that mice hate peppermint. I muttered prayers like, “Please, God, smite that stupid mouse.” I hesitated, worried that Saint Francis would be ashamed of me. “Okay, I know it isn’t stupid. It’s your creation and everything, but it doesn’t have a very long lifespan anyway, and if you could please let it just die tonight that would be great.” Then I’d hear a skitter again, and my prayers would return to Old Testament fury: “Harden your heart against it, Lord! Smite that darn, darn abomination of a rodent!”
On Friday, after four nights of wailing and gnashing of teeth on my part while the mouse apparently played hopscotch under my dresser, I did what any sane, mature adult would do: I called my mom and cried. “Can I please come sleep at your house tonight so Mark can set out a million traps and wreak destruction upon the wicked?” (Not an exact quote, but close.)
Everyone should live within a half hour of their mothers, for just such a situation as this. My five children were tucked into grandparents’ beds and cuddled down after bedtime stories and tart cherry juice (it’s even better than warm milk, for the record). The sheets on my little sister’s loaned bed were clean and soft and smelled nothing like peppermint. Between hours of blessed, blessed sleep (though I kind of missed David Suchet’s soothing rendition of the smitings), I would call Mark and ask for updates.
Mark is the rare, wonderful kind of husband who does not judge one’s irrational and obsessive fears, but instead calmly goes to work eliminating the need for them. After he dropped me off at my parents’, he drove to the store and armed himself with a bag of coffee, an arsenal of foam insulation tubes, and thirty-two sticky traps (I do not exaggerate). By my first phone call, he had laid out an intricate web of sticky trays around our room, pulled every piece of furniture we own away from the walls, fired insulation into any random crack and cranny in the entire house, and started watching Great Expectations on Netflix to help him stay awake. Like I said, rare and wonderful.
Somewhere around three in the morning, the mouse died. That’s one of many ways to say it... He met his maker. He came to a sticky end. If you want the poetic version, imagine David Suchet’s rich timbre announcing, “And the Lord did set his sticky traps before him, and the mouse avoided them not.”
I can’t tell you whether the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob showed any mercy to the little beast that had plagued my life for the past week. To be honest, I wasn’t really concerned about that. I was too busy murmuring, “Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power; your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy... You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.”
There’s a second ending to this story.
We got a cat.
In fact, we got two cats. Their names are Merry and Pippin, but secretly I call them “Biter” and “Smiter.” If I ever again need to call upon God to harden His heart against my foes, He’ll be able to act through two fluffy, purring felines who can stare down the sleek, pink-nosed adorableness that is mus musculus with the cold impartiality that I entirely lack... “and terror and dread will fall upon them.”
Today’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday read is the spectacular Miraculous, by Caroline Starr Rose. It’s a good, old-fashioned adventure story: gripping plot, vibrant historical setting, wonderful characters. For sheer enjoyment, it was definitely in my top three reads of the year!
From the publisher:
A traveling medicine show promises to cure all, but two kids learn it takes more than faith in the miraculous to fix things that are broken.
Thirteen-year-old Jack knows what cured his baby sister when his family thought she might never get well—Dr. Kingsbury’s “Miraculous Tonic.” Guaranteed to relieve maladies known to man or beast, Dr. Kingsbury’s potion can cure everything from pimples to hearing loss to a broken heart, and Jack himself is a witness to the miraculous results and the doctor’s kindness. When he had no money, the doctor didn’t turn him away but gave him the tonic for free along with a job—to travel with him from city to city selling his cure-all elixir.
When Dr. Kingsbury and Jack arrive in Oakdale, the town at first feels like any other they’ve been to. But it’s clear Oakdale is a town with secrets, and its citizens are slow to trust strangers.
Then Jack meets Cora, and a friendship neither expected starts to bloom. Together they uncover something else they didn’t expect—not only secrets about the town but also Dr. Kingsbury. As they race to discover the truth, they’ll have to decide who and what to believe before it’s too late.
Besides being a fun read, Miraculous felt particularly timely, in a day and age where so many people seem to get caught up by what “everyone” is saying, by the “miracle cures” and the “science.” (And I’ll happily apply this to folks on both sides of recent arguments; no matter how outrageous the claims, everyone seemed to have science AND personal anecdotes on their side.) I’ve never been so focused on teaching my children logic, because I’ve never noticed such a lack of it before. Miraculous was a great way to show them the consequences when logic is abandoned and a sweeping, emotional idea is given free reign.
Hand this one off to any readers who love a good adventure story—I’m putting it on my list for “hard to please boy readers” in particular! You can purchase it from your local bookstore through this link.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, visit Always in the Middle.
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!