Out of the Slump & Into Summer Reading

On My Way With Some Romantic Reads

During the first few months of the pandemic, I could basically handle my job and limitless games of solitaire on my phone, and that was about it.

But then my friend Tanya recommended a book called Beach Read. It’s a enemies-to-lovers story about two writers living next door to each other, each of whom thinks the other person’s genre is “easy” until they decide to genre swap. Their banter, their romance, and even their writing projects were smart, sassy, and fun to read. Implicit in their genres, though, is the question of gender and popular fiction and what it means to write “literary” or “for profit”–and how that’s different for men and women in the industry.

But for whatever reason, the writing blocks that they dealt with helped me get over my reading blocks and jump back into the world of books. First stop, First Comes Scandal, a new romance by a favorite author, Julia Quinn. This friends-to-lovers story charmed my socks off with a very forward-thinking & emotionally intelligent hero and a heroine who is competent, well-read, and knows it. She spends a good part of their courtship (and the epilogue assures us, their marriage) asking insightful questions and thinking about complex medical issues discussed in anatomy textbooks. There is no stunning drama here—no climactic reveals or moments of massive tension—just the gradual sort of falling-in-love that doesn’t often find a place in romance novels.

Quinn tackles the trope that “men are supposed to have sexual experience but women aren’t” by challenging it directly, giving the characters permission to voice the vexing questions. But she also challenges the trope implicitly by simply […spoiler redacted].

Later in the summer, I picked up another romance from my BOTM selections, Head Over Heels.The trend of emotionally astute romantic stories continues with this novel about gymnastics coaches turned lovers. He invites her to coach floor for his star athlete, but has harbored a crush since their own competition days. She takes the job and begins to build a real adult life for the first time.

The context for their story is gymnastics, and all the terrible hits are there (Nadia’s story retold, the sex abuse scandal re-played, etc.)—but so are the new stories of health and happiness and reaching for the stars. Fans of the Olympics, or even folks who enjoyed Michael Phelps’s recent tell-all will enjoy this. But there is also a more significant #metoo context here that raises interesting questions about how someone redeems themselves and what makes a good apology.

Nonfiction That Kept Me Going

There was plenty enough going on in the BLM Movement for me to pick up two titles that have been on my TBR for a little while, Stamped, and How to Be and Antiracist. Both exceeded my expectations and challenged me in all the right ways, both as a thinker/academic and as a teacher activist.

I love the way Reynolds’ narration is conversational and focused on the through line of history–first this, then that, because those. It’s the same thing that helped me as a student. I did not learn history with this particular through line, though, and more than ever before I can see how important that is—which stories we tell, and how we tell them changes the narrative. As for Kendi’s book, there is nothing to say but READ IT. His clarity reveals his readers to themselves. He is SUPER meticulous about definitions, about intersectionality, and about activism. The result is that I walked away with a renewed commitment to antiracist work, and immediately joined a cohort of teachers in my district who are working on changing implicit racist policies to explicit antiracist policies. Thank you, Ibram Kendi.

Then I picked up Glennon Doyle’s latest book, Untamed (another BOTM pick). I didn’t go into it with high hopes. Her brand of inspiration has not really been inspiring to me personally. I haven’t trusted her brand, I guess? But this book hit me at the right time, in the right frame of mind, and whoa. In some ways, I’d say it’s a layperson’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, challenging the sort of patriarchal, authority-based religious practice and life governance that is common in evangelicalism for a more feminine and intuitive spiritual practice that’s holistically integrated into women’s lives. I really enjoyed the blog-size chapters and her excellent use of metaphor. And I felt absolutely alive while I was reading it.

…& Finally! Back to Kid Lit

That finally brought me back to kidlit  with a refreshed perspective. I read the new picture book, We Are the Water Protectors, which was a poetic and insightful tribute to water protectors, though it did raise questions for me about #OwnVoices. The author of the book is an indigenous person, but not–as far as I can tell–actually from a tribe that has participated in the movement. As a white reader from outside the communities, it made me m curious about what the author’s identity means or doesn’t mean.

I moved up to YA right away–picking up a new fantasy novel by Rin Chupeco called Wicked as You Wish. I wrote a much longer review here.  In a nutshell, though, the pace was a bit slow for me–very typical of a “book 1” in a series–and it reads more like Riordan-age readers than YA. But! Folks who love Arthurian stories, fairy tales, and hero’s quests will enjoy the story of a hidden prince returning to frozen Avalon to save his kingdom…with a side dish of high school crushes and bonfire parties.

I went back to MG to pick up Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson, which the New York Times pitched as the new Ramona Quimby. They were so right. The protagonist, Ryan Hart (yes, she’s a girl named Ryan. Don’t step in it), is winsome and kind. Her parents are lovely, realistic humans. Even her grumpy older brother is a pretty decent guy when it comes down to it. Watson does not exaggerate anyone’s negative qualities for humor the way Beverly Cleary did (or for that matter the way Barbara Park did in June B. Jones). Instead she sticks to a kind of wholesome clear-heartedness that really honors the love Ryan and her family share.

What’s more, the prose is as clean and clear as any ever written, but graced with a poet’s touch. Watson sure knows her way around a touching metaphor and a well-placed image. I can’t imagine a family I wouldn’t happily give this book to in a heartbeat.

Most recently, I picked up another newish YA, My Eyes Are Up Here. Again, a much longer review here. Suffice to say, that this “light hearted” YA read is so well done that it’s in a class by itself. Greer is 32H young woman who hides her body (and her suffering) in huge t-shirts until a new friend, a volleyball team, two kick ass teachers, an old friend, a kleptomaniac-little sister, and one really sweet boy turn hiding into something she doesn’t want to do anymore. The entire cast is lifelike and believable, the character’s interior monologue is hyper-realistic, and (spoiler) romance is NOT the thing that “saves” Greer from herself. All around a winning title that will be easy to suggest to many teens.

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