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.

Educated by Tara Westover


For me, as I am in the planning stages of writing a story (fiction) based on my experience in a religious, cult-like group during college, I found this book riveting.

On a craft level, Westover makes two very interesting choices. First, she structures each chapter as a short story with its own narrative arc and a strong fermata. In interviews, she describes doing this intentionally—knowing nothing about constructing narrative and having read very little fiction, she gave herself a crash course in it by reading short stories. It was a pragmatic move because she knew she could read many of them in the same time it would take to read only a few novels. But the result is rather too many fermatas that left the ending a little anticlimactic. However, that’s a minor quibble with a book I otherwise devoured.

Second, she is completely unafraid of herself and her past. To write with this level of honesty and awareness about my own past, even fictionalized, would require a lot of self-comfort. I’d have to put my hand over my heart a hundred times every day and say “You did the best you could with how you understood the world,” and I still don’t know if I’d make it through. But Westover is fearless, systematically interrogating herself, her motives, her worldview. The Atlantic review described her as “ tenaciously patient with her ignorance,” and I both agree with that assessment and am in awe of it.

Finally, as a memoirist and a professional historian, Westover chose to use her own memories as well as those of other people. Several times in the course of her book, she relates her own story and then says, “Tyler remembers it differently…” or “My brothers say it happened another way…” and includes their accounts. Time and time again, she interrogates her memories with precision, while still honoring the story she lived, a life she’s learned to understand through years of counseling.

Interestingly, it’s as if her family didn’t read the same book that I did; their reviews of this book mystify me. They say she’s made it all up. They say it’s wildly exaggerated and she’s wrong about most things. Given the narrative we do have from Westover, the denial isn’t the surprising part; the denial is more like the proof in the pudding. What is surprising is this:

(1)On the one hand, they skip over her explanations about variances in family stories and memories. The inclusion of that careful work, along with emails and diaries, all described in-depth, makes their denials sound kind of silly.

(2) But on the other hand, they also relate alternate narratives that would be easy to corroborate with other evidence, and they do not provide that evidence. For example, Westover’s assertion that her father’s burns are a major disfigurement is at odds with her mother’s online (and commercial) account of his recovery with just some normal scarring, yet there are no clear “after” pictures of the man available anywhere.

If my essential oil concoctions had worked that level of miracle, I’d plaster the internet with before and after photos. And these are not people with no media savvy! They run a business that employs nearly everyone in their family and lots of people in their community, a business worth millions of dollars with an extensive online presence.

Something does not add up, and it’s not Tara Westover’s account.

Personal footnote: The story she tells is believable to me as a former evangelical. The physical mangling of bodies isn’t something I’ve ever known—I was never that poor, never worked manual labor, and I’ve never been in a physically abusive situation. But I’ve known these people, eaten at their dining room tables, considered them a little fringe, but good people who love God.

What is recognizable to me is the way her family talks about what’s happening, how they interpret the events around them. For example, when her dad comes to confront her and call her back to the fold, he says “Remember when Luke burned his leg?…That was the Lord’s plan. It was a curriculum. For your mother. So she would be ready for what would happen to me” (303). The notion of suffering as a curriculum to prepare us for the future is painfully familiar and widespread in devout evangelical communities. Flashes of recognition like this example happen throughout the novel so that as I listened to the audio book, I thought, “I’ve heard this before” again and again.

“Genre-defying?” YA Writers–and Women– Already On It

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It’s book award season, and I’m thrilled. National Book Awards and Man Booker Prizes are good for books and so good for the world. Yay authors! For 2018, I’ve missed several of the book award nominees in the Young People’s Literature category, which surprises me. I’m usually ahead on those. I haven’t read even one on the Man Booker list (yet), but that’s not as unusual. I often wait for the shortlist before I dive into those titles.

Still. This year, I can’t help wondering if the Man Booker folks have missed something themselves. I mean, like aside from Gertrude Stein.1 Something more recent. The Times writes:

The Long Take, by the poet Robin Robertson, mixes verse, prose and even photographs to follow the story of a World War II veteran across the United States in the golden era of Hollywood.

“The Long Take offers a wholly unique literary voice and form,” the judge Jacqueline Rose, a feminist critic and writer, said at the event. “This is a genre-defying novel.”

Calling  a novel “genre-defying” for being told in a mix of prose and verse “and even photographs” suggests the committee members never read YA.

YA writers have been all up in this genre-defying business for a long time. Consider two 2011 titles: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, told in prose and photographs or Why We Broke Up, told through documents, images, and artifacts.

But this year, YA writers nailed it on genre-defying titles. Take these three for example —

1. Recently long-listed for the National Book Award, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (2018) mixes verse and prose–and even implied paintings–into a breathtaking historical novel about the life of artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

2. Lita Judge combines verse, image and meticulous nonfiction research into her historical novel, Mary’s Monster (2018).

3. And while not at all “literary” in their scope, if we’re talking about genre-defying, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff use document/image/artifact to narrate their very popular thriller series, which started with Illuminae (2015), continues with Gemina (2016) and this year added Obsidio (2018).

All three of these titles, written for young adults and written predominantly by women, do exactly what Man Booker folks describe as “wholly unique.”

I’m not saying The Long Take isn’t great fiction. I’m sure it is, and I plan to read it soon. I hope other folks do too. Like I said: awards are good for books, good for authors, good for the world.

But The Long Take is not unique. Or new. Or really “defying” anything. It’s more defining–as in defining the blind spots of a literary establishment that considers work written for children and young adults as separate–or completely beneath its notice.

1. Gertrude Stein being the mother and patron saint of genre-defying.


Yesterday, I skipped writing.

For nearly five years, I’ve been rising between 4:30 and 5 to write for two hours every workday morning.

Don’t get me wrong: I still got up that early. I still opened my computer. But I worked on syllabi and plans for the school year instead of writing.

By the end of the day, I was sobbing. When I recovered, I lay on the couch, eating jelly bellies and scrolling through Twitter like a zombie. Then I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

It’s true that things at school are bad right now.

But I think it’s also true that I needed to write. When I write in the morning before teaching, I make a declaration of who I am before anyone else gets to decide. When things go badly in the day, I have built a space, an inner space, in which I am still my own self.

Shakespeare says that love is a star “whose worth’s unknown, although his height” may be measured. It’s true. Stars have–or once had–infinite worth in navigating the ocean. Stars are how we find our way, how we remember land when we are at sea, how we wish. Writing is that star for me.

And this morning? I wrote.




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