A Pandemic Twitter Thread, Unrolled

[tl;dr — What started as musing about what on earth we’ve done with all this pandemic-time ended up leading me to a startling conclusion about universal basic income–something I’ve sort of poo-poohed before, not because I didn’t think it was great, but because I didn’t think it was possible.]


Photo credit David Borger Germann

After watching THE BIG YEAR, my family & I started birding. This is a “small sort of accomplishment,” but then, this strange, suspended time has been full of exactly those kinds of things.


Photo Credit David Borger Germann

We are no experts. The migrations are happening and we are missing most of the “exciting” birds because we know next to nothing. But we don’t mind because we saw some orioles and a bluebird.


Photo credit David Borger Germann

We know where our goldfinches’ favorite trees are, we have a set of house finches and some dozen house sparrows & white-crowned sparrows and robins, a downy woodpecker, two blue-winged teals, and a zillion blackbirds of all varieties living in our neighborhood.

We have even discovered an enormous turtle who lives in the pond at the bottom of our creek, and we can spot his shadow when the wind is still.

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The bird feeder outside my studio draws and nourishes our winged friends every day, and while they are a terrible “distraction,” they are also teaching me to question if it isn’t my life indoors that is the distraction.

We have planted vegetables and flowers, nurtured the soil around our home with good things, and noticed the baby Aspens growing from the one a buck killed last fall.

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We watched our trees—ones we planted years ago—go from bare to bud to blossom to leaf, and we’ve planted twelve more into a tree circle that will hold magic some day.

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We have listened to frogs in the creek at night, and learned the two-tone call of the black-capped chickadee. We’ve sat and laughed at barn swallow antics: they alight on the pond and tumble back up into the sky like acrobats.

We have baked so many good things to nourish ourselves—vegetable pot pie and cakes, soda bread and quiche, cinnamon rolls and lasagna.

41014903. sy475     18263725    DeAndre Hopkins, May 2020 Sports Illustrated Cover Photograph by Sports Illustrated


We have read aloud with our “struggling reader” every day for nearly an hour—A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, a short story by Sarah Prineas, New Kid by Jerry Craft, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, and a long article about DeAndre Hopkins from Sports Illustrated. We’re now reading The Giver by Lois Lowry. Meanwhile, our avid reader has devoured the Warcross series by Marie Lu.

We have made music and danced, doodled and written letters, drunk tea and prayed.

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There has been a lot of laughing. They’re small, but we’ve accomplished so many pleasures of living life at a very slow pace, in a very small place.

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Admittedly, we have jobs that transferred to home. Our kids are safe & fed. Our “accomplishments” are the result of those privileges. But they don’t have to be. This thing has me thinking: With universal basic income, we could ALL have the time to know our neighbor birds & feel soil in our fingers.

UBI would mean we could all have the basic standard of living that permits us to be more productive at home—growing food and flowers, making meals, baking bread, sewing, or even just mixing our own martinis.

We could all have the time to know our neighborhood birds and to feel soil in our fingers and to listen to the life around us. To have “such singing inside us:



From Mary Oliver’s Owls and Other Fantasies, (c) 2003



On Caucusing in Iowa: A Short Essay that Ends with a Poop Joke

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I’m an Iowan. Every 4 years, we talk about how the caucus disenfranchises people—for hundreds of reasons. And it does. The caucus is designed for an era —one that likely never existed—in which every shop on main street shut at 5, and there were no factories running overtime in Iowa’s small towns. Kids could play in the gym with a few local teens babysitting while the adult community managed the necessaries of citizenship.

If that ever did exist, it doesn’t anymore. We need a better solution. A primary. A caucus run on a rotating time schedule. Preference cards for people who can’t or don’t want to stay for conversation and alignment. Whatever.


That does not mean this caucus is irrelevant or meaningless or that it doesn’t offer useful insight for the political parties who run it.

A candidate who does well in Iowa has a shot at doing well in NH and beyond. A candidate who can survive the months and months of conversations, canvassing, and meet-and-greets here has a finger on the pulse of a part of American life that is both rural and urban, educated and not, farmers and business people, teachers and stay-at-home moms, domestic workers and salespeople. And surprise! We come from a myriad of races and cultures. Are we as diverse as a LA or Chicago? No. But we are smaller than they are by a long shot.

Bottom line, this is a place where candidates must meet and answer serious minded people who take caucus politics seriously.

Case in point: 12-15 junior and senior students, calling themselves “Caucus Club,” have met in my classroom once a week for the last five months. They’ve been grilling campaign staffers, registering their classmates, canvassing for their chosen candidates, and planning a mock caucus to train other students on what to do. I have personally heard them ask tough questions about Kamala’s history with trans folks, Bernie and Biden’s sexism, Yang’s viability, Steyer’s stance on student debt, and more.

Students and precinct captains, members and leaders of the respective parties, staffers, and even the candidates themselves toil endlessly, engaging everyone in a conversation that matters deeply.

We serve our country by being a first testing ground for candidates.

So when caucus time comes around, I show up. I am privileged enough to go, so I go. While there, I try to be a good citizen. I help the visibly disabled folks around me (those who’ve made it) to manage the difficult parts of the caucus (including keeping your left hand raised for sometimes as long as 10 minutes). I giggle with the kids in the crowd who are bored and drawing or reading on blankets on the gym floor. I cheer on my high school students who are there for their first time, thanking them for being involved in a strange and demanding version of the political process. (Honestly, I also play solitaire on my phone because some of it IS boring.)

Every time I caucus, I feel glad that even if no one pays much attention to this small part of the world most of the time, we do get an opportunity to participate in it—in a big way—every few years.

That said, I’d give up even this privilege for a more equitable system, and I think most Iowans would.

So, instead pooping all over us in newspapers or Facebook feeds and treating us like a joke, I think “thank you” would be more appropriate.

We have plenty enough poop here after all.

Oh, Insidious Whiteness: A Story of Growing Up in Glen Ellyn, IL

Lake Ellyn on a sunny day, the small, brown boathouse across the water (photo via Wikipedia)

My kids are going indoor ice skating today with their day camp. I told them about skating on Lake Ellyn as a girl. We’d wait for the safety light on the boathouse to turn from red to green, and then we’d lace up to skate all night, freezing and happy.

For just a second, telling them that story reminded me of lines from George Draper’s famous Sestina:

…Before these days of fury,

When indoor rinks were just a gleam in Hockey

Fanatics’ eyes there was no greater pleasure

Than winter mornings…

…but my kids were suddenly interested in “Who is Glen Ellyn, anyhow? Was it a person?”

I explained that a “glen” is a type of place, and “Ellyn” was the wife of someone important in Glen Ellyn’s history. Then I told them about all seven of Glen Ellyn’s historical names–I could remember only parts of five of them.

That led to me explaining how every third grader in Glen Ellyn was required to learn Glen Ellyn history. We had to pass a test to pass third grade.

My sixth and seventh grade children are agog. “You had to pass a test to finish THIRD GRADE?”

“Yup.” I laughed.

“That’s harsh,” my 10yo said.

But the realization of what that test meant crashed down on me, right there at the breakfast table. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I’m a Midwesterner. Shouldn’t that have insulated me from the worst excesses of whiteness?

Nope. Sorry. And here is proof: I had to pass a test about the “history” of my town in the third grade.

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White people posing in front of the historical hotel (photo via the Glen Ellyn Historical Society home page)

  • That history began in 1833.
  • That history included lots of white folks “settling,” and “staking claim” and building things. It also included those same white folks fighting for the Union in the Civil War.
  • That history was an “idyllic” one with vacationers in suits and bustled dresses punting  on the lake.
  • That history included a hotel fire and a train station and Stacey’s Tavern.

But here’s what that history didn’t include. It contained no references to any people of color whatsoever.

No queer folks, either.

And what did the indigenous people call that place before the white folks showed up? No one taught us those names.*

My own children did not exist in the “history” of the place I grew up. And neither did I (likely part of why it took me so dang long to imagine that, as a bi woman, I exist at all). More importantly for the time, what did the (very) few children of color in my school learn from that unit? How did this vision of history impact them?

So here’s my reminder for today (as if I could forget) that George Draper was wrong. There is no “before” the “days of fury.” We just put ourselves in places where we didn’t have to look real fury in the face and then we taught our children that fury never existed at all.

Then we tested them on it.

We had to make sure they kept our stories straight, our alibis tight.



*I have made a number of phone calls and am searching through archives to try and learn those names as soon as possible.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

36595887My 5th and 6th grade boys voluntarily gave up screen time in order to keep reading this book. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.

Hernandez has created a snappy plot that clips right along with a clever protagonist who’s emotionally intelligent and genuinely loves the people in his life in a way that doesn’t usually show up in middle grade. He buys the believability of that protagonist (Sal) with two key pieces of backstory:

1. Sal’s Mami died several years prior to the opening of the novel, and that loss functions as a sort of moral and emotional compass for him.

2. Sal has Type 1 Diabetes, which means he’s seen his share of emergency rooms–and what they do to his family–experiences that have given him a profoundly compassionate streak.

The magic in the book, science-y though it is, doesn’t get introduced right away, something that might throw some readers. From a craft perspective, I suspect that move was a nod to magical realism, a tradition that the Cuban-American author is both invoking and subverting.

And, for what it’s worth, this cast is as authentically Cuban-American as I have ever seen on the page. Hernandez introduces some elements of culture for non-Cuban readers, but also just lets some of it exist and expects his audience to get on board–a move that works because he’s earned our trust and admiration so profoundly.

…and I haven’t even mentioned Gabi, who is every inch HERSELF in this remarkable story, a Hermione-ish character who gets full credit both from the author and from everyone else in the story, including Sal.

…or the remarkably fine handling of details around blended families, Yasmany’s family, schools/teachers, and the arts. It is SUCH a world. A wonderful world. I cannot wait to go back to it.

If this is the kind of book that the new Rick Riordan imprint is going to produce, then I say it’s about time we get more of them. Bravo.


Post Script: Those boys who gave up screen time to read this book? They hadn’t been reading for a few months. One of them had told me he figured he had “already read all the good books that were out there.” But when they finished reading Sal and Gabi, they immediately dug out the Harry Potter series and started re-reading it. This book reminded them of what a good book can be. Thank you, Carlos Hernandez.

2018 Gift Ideas


Friends often ask me for book recommendations for kids and gifts, especially at this time of year. It’s maybe my favorite thing to be asked, honestly. But I want to have a place to send folks for ideas, so this is it. If you have readers on your list, here are my Gift Idea Lists for 2018

Best of the Lists (tl;dr version)

In short form, the top TWO from each of my “major” age ranges; just title, author and target audience.

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (MG)
  • Skellig by David Almond (MG)
  • A Heart In a Body in the World by Deb Caletti (YA)
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)
  • Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly (Adult)
  • Exit West by Moshin Hamid (Adult)

Gift Idea Lists

The lists consist of books I’ve read this year (for the most part), though not all of them were written this year (not even most of them, really). Each entry includes the title of the book or series with a one sentence “review.” For more in-depth reviews, you can click on the title on my Goodreads “Read” Page.

Picture Books & Early Readers

  • Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo -Best friends roller skating and eating pancakes
  • The Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke – Captivating, Ramona-ish character, lives in Nigeria
  • What Do They Do With All That Poo? by Jane Kurtz – Nonfiction guaranteed to fascinate kids
  •  Kate, Who Tamed the Wind by Liz Garton Scanlon – Heartwarming friendship between a young girl and her older neighbor 

Middle Grade (8-12 years old)

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill – Simply magic. Fans of Rene Girard pay special attention.
  • Skellig by David Almond – Roald Dahl meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – The one and only animal voice you’ll ever need.
  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson – Middle school kids solve a compelling mystery while exhuming the history of race in the US.

Between MG and YA (13)

A friend asked me for some recommendations for her daughter, who is on the cusp of YA, but maybe not ready for as much maturity as she thinks she is. Here’s my take on what might work, though I’m skipping reviews here for books mentioned elsewhere in the Lists.

  • When  You Reach Me or Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead – Puzzles and friendship and the seeds of adolescence.
  • Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
  • Spinning by Tillie Walden or That One Summer by Jillian Tamaki (graphic novels)
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • One by Sarah Crossan or Love and Leftovers by Sarah Tregay – Teens facing challenging issues and not being entirely lovable in the process (novels-in-verse)

Young Adult (14+)

  • A Heart In a Body in the World by Deb Caletti – “I have to do something,” Annabelle says. Then she runs from Seattle to Washington D.C.
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – Simply the best coming of age story, ever.
  • Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert – Grief, art, intersectionality, and family secrets.
  • Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour – A set designer discovers she can’t design people’s lives, especially not for the girl she’s falling in love with.
  • What If It’s Us? by Becky Albertelli and Adam Silvera – The fluffy, sweet M/M romance we’ve all been waiting for.
  • Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan – Surprise! The author really played you. And you TOTALLY fell for it. Now you have heart eyes.

Children’s Literature Classics

  • Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume – The Judy Blume you skipped when you were a kid because it didn’t have any sex  (YA, but appropriate for MG readers).
  • The Twenty One Balloons by William Pene Du Bois (upper elementary) – A 1948 Newbery award-winner that might have inspired the movie Up.

Graphic Novels

  • The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang – A girl with ambition and a genderqueer prince in a book with big heart (grade school/middle school).
  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale – Will make you remember exactly what social life in elementary school was actually like, or will help kids navigate it themselves (grade school).
  • The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui – An intergenerational Vietnamese family memoir (high school & adult).
  • Spinning by Tillie Walden – Coming of age and coming out in competitive ice skating (MG-YA).
  • That One Summer by Jillian Tamaki – Coming of age on summer vacation (MG-YA/adult).

Surviving Evangelicalism

  • Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein – The title says it all (adult, nonfiction).
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson – Torturous youth group romances, revisited (YA/adult graphic novel).
  • As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman – Woke kids forced to go camping with unsophisticated adults who frame their way of thinking as “faith” (YA graphic novel).
  • Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens – Youth group friendships rendered sweetly, with an undercurrent of tension around gender identity (YA).


  • Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly – Quick reads, flawless writing, and complete hilarity
  • An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green – A speculative, page-turning romp.
  • Educated by Tara Westover – The most fascinating misery lit of the year.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – You won’t like her much in the beginning but then you’ll love her fiercely and miss her when she’s gone. Fans of therapy and A Man Called Ove, pay special attention.
  • Exit West by Moshin Hamid – Hamid has a gift for making his characters us, and this book is as important as it gets.


  • How the Dukes Stole Christmas by Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, Sophie Jordan and Joanna Shupe – Four “dukes,” an intergenerational biscuit recipe and some really great romance writers.
  • Born to be Wilde by Eloisa James – The best romance of 2018, hands down, a heroine so alive and real she’ll make you cry.
  • Because of Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn – Second book in the new Rokesby series–the prequel to our beloved Bridgertons


  • I Crawl Through It by A.S. King*
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

*Note I Crawl Through It is the most important book I’ve read in my graduate program, and I listened to it. It is NOT for everyone. It’s surreal. And I mean that literally: It’s about being a girl and school and self and grief and loss and invisible helicopters and assault and places with no departures. You can read my extended review here.

Happy Birthday to Me: How Writing a Book Helped Me Find Myself

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Happy birthday to…me. I’m bi. I’m coming out publicly today as an opportunity to fundraise for The Trevor Project a group that focuses on crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth.

Every $1 we give funds 1 minute of time to phone and chat lines. I’m starting my day with a donation and this post.

For those who are cautious about where giving dollars go, the Trevor Project has earned 4 stars from Charity Navigator every year since 2011.

But wait a minute. Did you just say you are bi? 

Yes. Yes I did. You can read more about that, if you like…

The TL;DR Version

  • I’m new to naming myself this way, and how I got here is complicated. It includes religious experiences, a high school love, and writing a book. The longer version is below.
  • I’m not interested in claiming space that doesn’t belong to me (I’m married! And monogamous! I look cis het!), but I also know that quietness about this isn’t neutral or unobtrusive. It promotes bi invisibility.
  • I have spent the last several years making apologies and reparations for my participation in InterVarsity so that today could be a celebration.


I come from an Irish Catholic family. I “converted” to Protestantism in seventh grade and was part of an active evangelical youth group of one kind or another for most of my young adulthood. In college, I was a part of a Christian campus ministry, and when I graduated, I worked as a staff person for that organization for several years. It never occurred to me in that time to interrogate my sexuality—it simply wasn’t on my radar. I dismissed every feeling or experience I had that didn’t fit into the heterosexual box–I didn’t deny it, understand. I dismissed it. It didn’t exist. I was attracted to guys. Full stop.

And I knew the party line. In campus ministry, both as a student and as a staff, and later as a member of a solidly “evangelical” church, I was part of coding and enforcing it. Not only did we exclude LGBTQIA narratives from the story of faith, we actively rewrote those narratives as “mislead” by our culture. We believed same sex attraction was a disease or a disturbance in need of “healing” [this is the stuff I’ve been apologizing and making reparations for].

Then my husband and I got an infertility diagnosis.

In the evangelical world, one of the arguments about marriage equality is that marriage between people of the same sex is wrong because it cannot be “fruitful,” meaning they cannot biologically reproduce.

Neither could we.

Suddenly, I was the marginalized one in church. I was the one who needed to pray enough or believe enough or jump through enough hoops to be “cured.” Suddenly, I was the one people wanted to fix, since everyone else who had struggled with infertility had babies—see?

Then, almost twelve years ago, we adopted our eldest son. Holding him in the first few days of his life was the kind of miracle that nothing in my life had prepared me for. I turned to my husband and said, “If he’s gay, and if I have to choose between him and Jesus, I’m going to choose him.”

Luckily, that’s not the choice. Not at all. With therapy and love and other friends who’ve survived that particular brand of evangelicalism, I have slowly started to reclaim myself and my place in the world.

An Editor & My High School Crush

Then, several years ago, someone I love deeply came out as trans. She had her gender reassigned legally, and has since become an all-around smash-the-patriarchy badass (love to you, sister).

If she had been any other person in my life, her announcement and her transition would have been just another coming out story to celebrate. But she was the person I’d spent the better part of ten years in love with–in love-love-love-love-love with.

And she was a woman.

I wanted to understand her journey, so I took to the page. I wrote an entire novel about a character being in love with a person who transitions, and I ended it with the two of them as friends. Tidy. Tropey. Heteronormative.


An editor asked me to revise the novel. She said the stakes weren’t high enough, the emotional center was out of whack. She wanted the protagonist out of her head in love with the character in transition.

I took the book apart and saw that I’d spent the entire novel protecting myself—through that protagonist—and as a result, the emotional center of the book was exactly what the editor had claimed: Out. Of. Whack.

I went back and revised. I wrote instead the story of a girl who figures out that she’s bi when the person she loves begins a gender transition. I wrote a kissing scene between the two of them that was so hot I still fan myself when I read it.

That gave me pause.

As I began more and more to put myself in my protagonist’s shoes, I started to realize that I’d been in love with a person in transition, too. Of course, I’d loved her when she was living as a guy [that’s her preferred way of describing it].

But just as much as I’d been in love with that him, I knew I’d also been in love with her. It was mystical. It made no sense. But I was sure of it.

The Earthquake Storyquake

Through the gift of “narrative transportation,” I got a new look at my own life. To myself, I posed the question, “Does that mean I’m bi?”

I felt this earth-shaking yes trembling out of me, one I immediately followed it with an intellectual no. How could I be? I’m married to a man. I’ve been attracted to the male of the species for a very long time.

But the yes was hard to ignore.

The longer I sat with it, the more I recognized I’ve been attracted to the female of the species for a very long time too.

I did all the secret things a person can do to figure myself out: I wrote in my journal. I went to the internet for shitty quizzes and a lot of self-doubt. I revisited my life, starting from childhood—all the confusing experiences and intense feelings. The physical longings. The “weird” relationships. The names people called me. The women I’d crushed on or fallen for or just plain wanted. I remembered “practice” kisses and “friendly” snuggling and hand holding and kissing.

I remembered the distaste and suspicion on my mother’s face whenever I got “too close” to a particular “kind” of girl. When I cut my hair. When I double-pierced my ears. She was always poking around, trying to find out what it “meant,” clearly believing it meant something, while my evangelicalism had made me oblivious to even the idea that it could mean anything.

On this side of my own story, it all seems hopelessly naïve. Willfully stupid. Maybe even deeply, darkly terrified. My friends tell me it’s “internalized homophobia,” and I’m coming around to seeing it that way. But on the other side—back before all of this happened—it simply never occurred to me. I needed my character’s story to unlock my own.

Now What?

After I sat with these feelings for a few months, I took my thoughts out into the open. I wasn’t calling myself bi—I was just saying, “Hey, you know, I’ve been attracted to both men and women for a long time.” It was no surprise to my husband. He started taking it for granted before I did. It was no surprise to my sister, either. She said I should “start flying the flag” ASAP.

But…what flag? Do I have a flag? I am happily married to the best person in the galaxy. Universe. Whatever. Monogamy and fidelity are the paths I’ve chosen, and they’re  fruitful paths for me. My life isn’t going to change in any meaningful way, no matter what I say about myself.

A few years ago, I talked with one straight friend and one gay friend about these questions. I started by saying I couldn’t be bi because I’d never had sex with a woman.

Right, they said.

Plus, everyone’s earliest kissing experiences are with the same sex, I said, right?

Wait, they said. What?

And everyone gets called “lesbo” at sleepovers, I said. Right?


But surely everyone has those desperate crushes on slightly older girls in middle school and high school, I said. Right?

Um, No.

So not everyone has those weirdly exclusive female friendships, then? I said. The kind full of hand holding and snuggling and kissing?

No. They don’t.  

It was in sharing some of those experiences with my friends that I figured out they weren’t “everyone” experiences. They were my experiences. They were bisexual experiences. The longer I sat with my own story, the more memories and images came to the surface.

I continue to experience them unfurling.


In the last five years or so, I’ve made a LOT of apologies–both formal and informal. I cannot undo the damage I did when I was part of the evangelical enforcements. But I can make sure I do good now.  I’ve begun annually donating to the LGBTQIA organization at my alma mater. I’ve become an outspoken ally to my LGBTQIA students.

Now I’m coming out. Becoming visible as a bi woman is for me, of course. But it’s also for the other girls like me out there, who can’t imagine themselves as who they are because they’ve never seen anyone like them. Girls who think that the alternative to being themselves is lying or death.

I’m keeping on with the therapy and the love and the sticking close to friends who get it.

…and meanwhile, I continue to write stories. Fiction, not memoir—no matter how much one particular plot point may (now) sound like my life. But in my stories, I’m centering girls. I’m centering bi and questioning narrators. I’m centering first loves and uncertainty and seeing the world with empathy and joy.

At this point in my life, it’s the best I can do; it’s the story I have to tell.



[NB] “Narrative Transportation” is a term I learned from colleague and classmate Sherrie Lorance (@sherrielorance) in her lecture, “I’ll Take You There: Crafting Stories That Move Readers to a Place of Real-World Change” given at Vermont College of Fine Arts, January 2018.


In Which a Book Enmagicks Me


Every year the citizens of the protectorate sacrifice their youngest baby to the “witch,” who they believe lives in the forest. The problem is they’ve got the wrong witch. Every year, the witch who does live in the forest, Xan, travels to the sycamore grove to rescue a baby she believes has been abandoned. She places that baby with a new family in the free cities. This goes on and on until one year, Xan falls in love with the baby she rescues, accidentally “enmagicks” her, and then decides to raise her as her granddaughter. She names the baby Luna. Glerk the swamp monster and Fyrian the tiny dragon welcome Luna to their chosen family, and they all build a life together in their treehouse-swamp-forest home.

But the girl’s magic is too much for Xan to manage, so she binds it until Luna turns 13 years old. By the time that magic starts to emerge, however, the people of the protectorate have begun to rise up against the sacrificial system, Luna’s mother–who has never stopped searching for her–has found her, the local volcano is threatening to erupt, and everyone’s favorite woodcarver is on a quest to kill the witch.

But then Which witch? becomes a terribly important question.

In the opening few chapters of the book, I was intrigued enough to keep going, but I had NO IDEA what the book was about. In part, this was the rotating third-person close POV. Which character mattered seemed to shift quite a bit depending on point of view–and even though I was trying to follow the girl who drank the moon (Luna), the author often took us away from her to her hometown, the Protectorate. In addition, like the early chapters in many of the Harry Potter books, the adult points-of-view seemed as plentiful as the child points-of-view. The enormous cast, the seemingly endless voices, the four or five distinct storylines in and out of the early chapters — all of it tested my resolve to keep going.

It’s a Newbery! I’d tell myself.

But I don’t know what’s going on! I’d answer myself.

She wrote that kick ass essay on revision, I’d remind myself.

Oh, okay, I’d say. And read some more.

Then, on page 125, [spoiler in white ink; select to reveal –>] Antain is at the Tower when Ethyne is leaving the sisterhood, and the entire book clicked into place. I knew exactly what would happen and why we had been wandering from person to person for over a hundred pages. Suddenly, I was just as enmagicked as Luna. I wouldn’t have stopped reading the book if you had paid me to do it.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read it, now, and I’ve been meditating on it and thinking about it extensively. Some thoughts in no particular order:

1. The author, Kelly Barnhill, is intimately familiar with the work of René Girard, or I’ll eat my hat. The novel is basically a textbook for Girard’s scapegoating theory. Except ten times better than a textbook, obviously.

2. As an adoptive mother, I think that the story says a lot about adoption–I don’t know if this is intentional. But it is built in a way that honors all the sides of the adoptive triad: first families, new families, and adoptees. There is a fierceness in a mother’s search for her child, there are dreams woven into her grief, there are often threads of magic in which child lands with which family, and children get to create their own narrative no matter how any of the parents feel about it.

3. The message about adults not always telling the truth, or not telling the whole truth–and the children who see through their lies–resonates with the best and most classic of children’s literature. What I love about how Barnhill handled this element is that there are evil people who hide the truth because they want to hold on to power (like Elder Gherland), but there are also mostly-good people who hide the truth out of love and fear (like Xan). In classic books, the latter is often missing or replaced by adults who hide the truth because they doubt children’s capacity for understanding. To portray both the adult and the child with sovereignty, love, and dignity gives everyone complexity in all the right ways. None of the lying is exonerated–not for power or for love–but in this book, Luna knows the difference.

4. The power of women across generations–and particularly their political power against lies once they unite–is a powerful element to the story that surprised and delighted me.  But there is also an image of what happens when that power is turned inward and feasts on the suffering of other women or is used to elevate oneself at the expense of ones sisters. As a result, the stronger together theme is reinforced on both sides.

5. The parallels between Luna’s magic/power emerging and adolescence is both intentional (I suspect) and quite evocative. In Luna’s story, to come of age is not just to come into responsibility and difficulty and grief, but to come into power. She reflects multiple times on the changes she’s experiencing, on the way she feels like a different person, a new girl, a stranger to herself and and yet not-a-stranger to herself. Dang.

6. On craft, the prose is crystal clear and perfect. It reads aloud beautifully. The magical system passes all of the Holly Black tests. The characters are finely and intricately drawn, with the kind of signal details that give them away (Fyrian’s singing, the madwoman’s paper birds, Gherland’s robes, etc.), and tiny gestures to the net of relationships that extend beyond what we see on the page. Plus, every character has their own recognizable voice; they never blur into one another. And the setting–it is imaginative and reflects the realities of Barnhill’s invented world with astonishing clarity.

This book is a masterpiece.

Trail Maintenance

In her excellent essay “On Wildness, Cracked Worlds, Monsters, and the Odd Nature of the Short Story,” Newbery medalist Kelly Barnhill discusses the advice given to her by one of her mentors in the Park Service, Vic Stanculescu. She writes:

I haven’t seen Vic in years, but I think of him often. He was a good teacher. “Here’s my theory on trail maintenance,” he said to us over and over again. “You take the worst stretch of trail, and you turn it into the best.”

She reminds us near the end of the essay that what’s good for trail maintenance is also good for revision.

When I encountered this stretch of trail yesterday afternoon on a hike with my family, I thought of  that advice.


I’ve been revising lately, and this is an apt metaphor for too many of those revisions. Too often, I haven’t made the worst bits of the manuscript into the best, I’ve just repaired that little section and kept the bad bits further apart.

It’s time to do some real trail maintenance.

What If It’s Us


Sweet, charming love story between city mouse and country mouse, featuring souped up nerd life—heavy on the Hamilton and Harry and Wattpad allusions.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. A spoiler free version here.

I never felt like EVERYTHING was at stake, which is unusual for a YA romance, but reflects the emotional maturity I see in my students realistically. Even the moments of tension, like when they miss their Hamilton tix because Ben is late, don’t have the eternal woe vibe.

Part of this savvy comes (ironically) from Arthur’s character. He’s so earnest and wonderful and loyal that no matter how much Ben messes up, he is willing to make it better. The other reason for the relative calm is that Ben starts to actively manage some of Arthur’s wide-eyed enthusiasm (i.e. he wants this love experience to be a good one for Arthur). That paternalism only felt natural some of the time. Other times it felt—well— paternalistic.

But the planned breakup that preserves their friendship and the epilogue at the end hit all the right notes and landed the book with the most perfect “happily for now” I’ve ever read in a YA novel.

Some other thoughts in no particular order:

1. Like DEAR RACHEL MADDOW from earlier this year, the book features one teen who isn’t great at school, and treats him realistically—that is, as an intelligent person with wide-ranging interests. This move is so important. So. Important.

2. The physical intimacy is managed really well until near the end when it becomes “fade to sheets.” This is a disappointing move in a genre which could really use its heavy hitters (like Albertelli and Silvera) to go there.

3. Those six boxes of condoms are so freighted with symbolic meaning and so utterly true to Arthur’s personality that I giggled and then thought “Awwww,” every time they were mentioned.

In sum: a strong duet that will please fans and new readers alike. As a teacher, I’m also thrilled to have another book to recommend in the “happy gay YA romance” category, of which there are lamentably few.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing


This book is incredibly compelling, and I gobbled it up in a day –reading through my lunch hour and well into my evening.

I read EW’s review calling it a “disappointment,” and I can’t help thinking I read a different book than they did. This book is “good, old-fashioned novel of ideas,” as Hank’s brother once described Fahrenheit 451. It’s about fame, shame, and the internet. The characters aren’t fully developed characters, EW. Of course they’re not. Neither are the kids who visit Narnia or the pigs in Animal Farm.

Plus, Hank has been thinking and talking about these issues for so long that the philosophical underpinnings of the novel have a lot of weight–or at least the power of long thought underneath them. In fact, for a while as I read, I kept exclaiming “This is so Hank!” every few chapters. But then I remembered that the “Hank” I know is just as carefully constructed as the “April May” that April and Andy construct in their hotel room. ‘S all right. I still like him. And I liked April May too, no matter how other reviewers might consider her “unlikeable.”

However, the writing isn’t great. The first chapter basically consists of the narrator saying, “Hi, I’m April. This is what I’m like. This is my friend Andy. This is what he is like.” While it does get better after that [never fear], it never becomes gorgeous prose. Once I got past that first chapter, though, I didn’t actually mind the writing all that much. The story was page-turning-great, exciting without being scary, high stakes without grinding down my heart.

…and I just HAD to know what was going to happen next.

Lucky for me, the ending left me with just a little bit of that feeling. As someone who actually had to wait for the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Harry Potter books to come out, that’s a feeling I kind of like.

Do yourself a favor and read this rollicking romp of a book. It’s worth it just for the wonderful feeling of sinking into a story where you just want to keep going.

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