On Teaching in a Global Pandemic, Part II

Photo on 8-30-20 at 9.27 AM

August 30, 2020 – Just before speaking

Community Spotlight – Delivered at Sanctuary Community Church in Iowa City, IA – August 30, 2020

A little later than usual, Back to School time has finally arrived. In an ordinary year, many of us would be part of the big mob in that back section at Target, buying notebooks and binders and mechanical pencils. Yellow busses would practice their winding routes through our neighborhoods. Cross Country runners would fly across First Avenue in their lithe groups, and the sound of football players smacking into one another’s pads would echo across Bates field.

Parents would breathe a sigh of relief while also getting ready for bittersweet photos on front stoops. Kids would be dressed up for the first day, and even the schools would be polished & extra fancy with waxed floors and fresh paint, empty lockers and clean desks.

But this year, there’s no mob at Target. The Cross-Country runners don’t flock. And in Iowa City, we learned yesterday that our district will begin with two weeks of all-online learning. There will be no sigh of relief—and none on the horizon for many parents and students who actually need (or just could really use) that sigh.

For teachers—or at least for me—this moment feels like cancelling Christmas. Sure, I knew it wouldn’t be the same this year. Definitely not as social. Six feet apart, everyone in masks. I wouldn’t actually see many of my students’ faces until spring, if even then. It would be face-to-face without faces.

But still.

Can do!

I mean, this is my season! We start the magic! We have the first discussions and solve the first problems, act out the first scenes, and set up the comforting routines.

Instead, it’s a time of chaos. In fact, this summer has been so chaotic and uncertain on the teacher side that I didn’t find out WHAT I was teaching, WHERE I was teaching, or even HOW I was teaching it until the day before yesterday. My schedule for first trimester is a wonky, color-coded nightmare, and just this morning I realized even the color coding is wrong.

Meanwhile, our state “leadership” has determined “metrics” that will send us all back to in-person school well before the World Health Organization or the CDC recommends. And the funny thing about that is—as much as I want to be back in my familiar classroom, back with my beloved students, back to any kind of normal—that was never actually possible this fall. My teaching friends who have gone back say its unnerving and terrible to see chairs filled with masked teenagers who aren’t allowed to talk much to each other for fear of spreading illness. Their students prefer online days—just for the chance to see one another’s expressions.

Pretending that any of this is normal creates another kind of chaos: fear.

While I know statistically most of my students will be okay–they’re highly unlikely to become severely ill–losing even one of them fills me with unshakeable dread.

But I’m also afraid for myself and my colleagues. We are the adults, those most at risk, who will be spending our days with large groups of humans in poorly ventilated buildings using common bathrooms and eating spaces, while having little access to handwashing.

So I’m doing back to school — differently. I’m buying scrubs and shirts that can be washed in hot water. Face shields and masks and ear protectors and headbands. I’m still debating about a voice amplifier, since I don’t think students at the back of the room will be able to hear me through all the PPE.

I’ve also done some other, more personal, things to prepare for the eventuality of face-to-face school. I updated the file with all of my passwords and logins, compiled detailed instructions for how to take care of our parakeets, and wrote a final letter to my family.

I know that’s a little gloomy and macabre. But so is sending students and teachers back to in-person school in the middle of a global pandemic.

Still, if I pause…

…if I stop and think about just this moment, just this day—it’s good-ish. Here in Iowa City, we have two weeks of online learning guaranteed, and it’s possible that the worst of this terrible wave in our county and state will be over by the time we are face to face—or mask-to-mask—with our students.

I’ve got exciting plans to make online learning dynamic. I know lots of teachers do. Many of us spent our summers anticipating online learning, studying tech tips, and figuring out how to mobilize our imaginations for a different kind of school.

But what it really comes down to–at least this morning–is this: part of me is utterly delighted that (at least for these two weeks), I’m going to see all my students’ faces, even though it’s just on camera.



On Teaching In a Global Pandemic: Before the Storm

Hi. I’m Ali. My students call me Mrs. BG.

This is what I look like today–August 22, 2020. In a little while, I’m headed out the door to be a soccer mom for my own kids at a socially-distant & masked outdoor game. 

I’m a teacher in a large Iowa high school, and I’ve been teaching for 17+ years. I love students–especially teenagers. I love my job. I really enjoy planning for students and thinking with them. The conversations we have? They regularly astonish and delight me. True, I’m not a fan of the paper load that comes with my job or the lack of boundaries the work invites.

…and yes, it’s true that I only get paid for 10 months of the year. 

But everything else about my job is just wonderful. I’m lucky to do meaningful work in a cutting edge district with a democratically-elected school board. Our leaders really believe in students and teachers doing the work of education and they do everything in their power to make that work possible.


First, and most importantly, we’ve lost several students this summer: an sweet eighth grader, a recent alum I was close with, and a beloved rising senior superstar. These losses are grievous to our community–especially after losing three other students earlier in this school year (another much-adored recent alum and two bright and beautiful members of the class of 2020 (here and here).

To be frank, facing another year in which we may see as many–or many more–losses among students, faculty, and staff is nearly unbearable.

But as for the school end of things: while we initially hoped to begin the year in a fully online model, our governor made that impossible (see “Background” below, if interested). So, we moved our start date back several weeks to September 8 to buy some time. Then, this week, we found out that 40-60% of our students and families have elected the optional 100% online academy for first trimester. The remaining 60-40% will be using an A/B day model for hybrid learning. Our master schedule was trashed and our administrators are scrambling to create a new one that takes all these numbers into consideration.

At this point, I’m mostly at home still, just occasionally dropping off loads of supplies to my classroom. I’ve done some things I would have done in a regular summer: I developed easily accessible “apps” for classes I’m likely to teach. I updated my Canvas pages, and began planning opening units. I made my teacher calendar and grade book for the year. I’ve purchased sanitizer, Kleenex, sticky notes and index cards and flare pens and scotch tape in bulk. #CostCo, am I right?

But I’m also doing things I have never done before:

  • Buying PPE – silicone mask spacers, masks, ear-savers, face shields, glasses de-fogger, etc. Thank goodness for Etsy!
  • Shopping for Scrubs & other clothes that can be rewashed in hot water every day.
  • Researching online & hybrid teaching methods. My district even purchased access for us to a course on the topic (yes, I KNOW I’m lucky).
  • Thinking a LOT about how to build social/emotional connections in an unpredictable learning space.
  • Looking for voice amplifiers and air purifiers (too expensive, but on my wishlist).
  • Crying.
  • Trying to figure out how to rearrange 38 seats so that students have six feet of distance between them–and what to do with the other 18 desks in the meantime.
  • Looking into mini-fridges for our basement in case I have to move downstairs to live separately from my family during quarantine or illness.
  • Writing final letters to my family, sorting through old photographs, and updating my will/trust & password logs. I wrote out specific instructions for how to take care of our budgies in case I’m not around to do it for long. I also helped my brother, a respiratory therapist, write his will this summer (Rocket Lawyer’s $5 offer is unbeatable).

None of these things have ever been part of preparing for a school year before, and it seems like maybe… they shouldn’t be?


In July, our board voted unanimously to begin the school year online until the pandemic got under control, but three days later, our Governor proclaimed that all school districts were required to offer at least 50% of their instruction in-person (face to face), but that parents should be able to choose a 100% online option.

[FWIW: This is the same state government that has refused to issue a mask mandate because “individual Iowans can make their own choices based on where they live,” but has also said my city is not allowed to institute a higher minimum wage in our own city than anywhere else in the state.]

When we suggested the governor was claiming state control over an issue that should be decided locally, she told us she would not give us credit for instructional days that used an online-only model — unless her office had approved it. This is particularly nuts when you consider that if PARENTS choose an online model, the days count. But if the school chooses it, they don’t.

Then her office released these crazy metrics:

For comparison, The WHO recommends schools be closed for face-to-face learning when the 14-day average positivity is at a 5% or more, most scientists put it at 3-7%, and even the politically revised CDC guidelines formerly considered 10% problematic (they no longer assign numerical value to “substantial community spread” on any of their easily accessible documents).

As a result, together with several other large districts and ISEA lawyers, our district crafted a statement of legal defense for going online, and our school board read that statement at an early August meeting.

Then our Governor said “Defy me, and you’re defying the law. I will take away the licensure of your District administrators.” When questioned about the impact on students, faculty, staff, and maintenance crews–including sickness, long-term illness, and death–she said that those things are just “scare tactics.”

At that point, things started to actually become dangerous to our community! We are talking about people’s lives, after all. Plus, the licensure threat was quite personal and retaliatory. Our district, together with several others (and the ISEA) is now pursuing legal action against the governor’s interpretation of law in order to return local control to local school districts and our elected, local, representative school board officials.

She says she’s “disappointed” that we are pursuing “legal action” instead of working “cooperatively” with her on “return to learn” plans that “prioritize students.”

Well, we’re disappointed in HER. We’d like our students to live. We think THAT is what it means to prioritize them. She’s the one asking us to kill them, their parents, their grandparents, and our community with rampant spread of a virus other places have controlled reasonably well is the solution.


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.

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

Caucus 2020.png

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 people who don’t share my gender — for most of my life.

But the yes was hard to ignore.

The longer I sat with it, the more I recognized I’ve been attracted to people who do share my gender for a 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 different- and same-gender folks 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.

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