After reading discussions in several places about scrapbooking processes, I've been thinking a lot about mine. By "scrapbooking process" I mean the steps that I take, in general, to create a layout. It's fascinating to me to learn about different people's processes, especially the ones that are different from mine; occasionally, I'll undertake a different process to see what I can come up with and how it influences the layout I make—but I always go back to my way!
I like to think that I start with a story, although technically that isn't true. I almost always start with a picture (or a group of them) that I want to write about. So really, my first step is processing them in Photoshop and printing my pictures, but in my head that is the step that comes before making a layout (just like shopping for products isn't usually part of my process).
Once I have the photos—or, sometimes, right after I process them but before I pick them up—I write my journaling. Writing is my favorite part of scrapbooking, so doing it first is a little bit like eating chocolate cake before the lasagna. (Both delicious, of course, but...chocolate.) I spend quite a bit of time writing and revising the story, usually, because while I generally have a spark to start with, I don't always know exactly what I'm going to write or the direction I want the story to go. Sometimes I just have a feeling or an idea and I have to figure it out as I write. Sometimes the words pour out without any hesitation at all! (I love that.)
Lots of words, though, is the practical reason I write my journaling first. (It's also why I don't do a lot of handwritten journaling, much as I know it's important.) Once I've written and revised my journaling, I know about how much space I'll need.
As I was thinking about this post, that was as far as I got at first: my process is writing my journaling first. Of course, it has to go further than that or the layout would never get made! But I had to think a little bit about what comes next. I think for people who are better at design than I am, that is the first (or second) step in the process. But for me, before I figure out where I'm going to put anything, I design the title first.
In fact, on my layouts, all of the design is connected to the title. Color, pattern, embellishments, the font for the journaling—it all revolves around the title. This is precisely because I'm not very good at design, but am first and foremost a word person. After I've written my journaling, I have a place where the title grows from. I can't figure out what it will look like, though, until I choose the words themselves. Very often I'll pull words or phrases directly out of my journaling to make the title. Or the journaling has set the mood for the layout, so I can choose a title based on feeling. I like pun and bits of poetry and quotes for titles...I try to not use obvious ones like "Easter 2015." I want the title words to further the emotional tone of the layout. Once I have the title words, they have a "look" in my head, and then I start playing around with products to create that look.
(It doesn't always come out the way I think it will!)
Most of my creative energy goes into designing the title. After that I look for products to embellish, based on colors, but the title (which draws from the journaling) establishes the visual style of nearly all of my layouts.
I don't think I truly put that together for myself until I wrote this post!
Take one of the layouts I made recently:
This was the best thing that happened at Disneyland when we went in February. Kaleb and I were admiring a display of foam souvenir swords. He asked me if I would play swords with him, but just before I reached for one, Peter Pan appeared. There were no other kids around, so Kaleb just fought with swords with Peter Pan. It was awesome!
I didn't take my big camera to Disneyland; I didn't want to be encumbered by it. When this happened, in fact, part of me thought I'm not even going to bother trying to photograph this, because my cell phone won't do it justice. The photos aren't awesome but I'm so glad I didn't listen to that voice! I decided on printing one big photo rather than several smaller ones because none of them were really, really good. I thought one big image would be more powerful.
After I wrote the journaling, I wanted a title that would express how magical those minutes felt, both for Kaleb and for me. I hunted for a while for a quote about the magic of Disneyland...but nothing fit until I started thinking about the Peter Pan story, and then it was easy. I made the title with my Silhouette, and it couldn't be any other color than green, to go along with Peter Pan. I wanted it to be big, to pack a lot of visual impact, so I kept any other embellishments to a minimum.
Sometimes I look at other people's layouts and think how do they do that? Where do the ingenious ideas for design and embellishment come from? Not from a part of the creative brain that I possess. But after so many years of scrapbooking, and so many layouts, I'm comfortable with my approach. I try to mix it up so I can stretch myself and not get too comfortable, but my process is a reflection of who I am. I love my layouts because they capture the bits and pieces of our lives in stories and images, and I am happy I've figured out a process that works for me.
If you scrapbook, have you ever thought about your process? What do you start with?
When Haley was six months old, I volunteered to be laid off from my job so that I could be a stay-at-home mom. This was a terrifying choice for me because it meant relying only on Kendell’s income. I worried about being bored and lonely, but then I started imagining how it must be to be a SAHM on a street full of SAHMs. I wouldn’t be bored or lonely, I figured, because I’d be doing things with other moms. We’d go places with our kids and sometimes we’d go without them. We’d hang out in each other’s kitchens, I thought, sharing recipes and parenting tips while our kids played. I imagined going to the gym with friends, taking my kids to the library with friends, sharing news about the latest Gymboree sale (oh how I loved shopping at Gymboree when my Bigs were little!) and then going there to shop—together with friends.
It didn’t quite work out that way for me.
All of the young, married friends I’d made at work moved away when their husbands went to grad school, so my only source of friends became my neighborhood. I live on a street that has lots of kids, so my kids always have had someone to play with. (Or, as Kaleb reminds me to call it now, “hang out with.”) But somehow, those grown up friendships I imagined never happened for me. Partly this can be blamed on my personality. I have a hard time making friends, even though once I trust that someone is my friend, I think I’m a pretty good one. Partly it has to do with my husband’s unresolved OCD issues, which make inviting anyone into our house a stressful nightmare of whispered conversations about his worry that someone will spill something. Partly it’s that the things I imagined myself doing with friends weren’t things anyone in my neighborhood was interested in doing. Everyone else goes on walks together, but I’m not invited because they know I like to run. Their shopping styles are different than mine. They’re not all obsessed with books and writing or photography and scrapbooking like I am. I have friends on my street, but most of them aren’t close, and I’ve never really felt like I fit in.
It took me a while and then I started realizing that my lovely imaginings of a friend-filled life weren’t going to come to pass. I went through a few lonely years of wishing it were different. I prayed for a long time for friends (that sounds pretty pathetic) and I was blessed with a few very excellent ones, but by the time I found them, I had changed. I sealed up that well—the place where I’d imagined having a social life with lots of friends. Instead, I created a life that was happy without them. I needed solitude before I adapted, but now it is the medium I thrive in. I run alone because I wouldn’t know what to do if I had someone to run with; having to talk to a running buddy would interrupt one of my main reasons for running, which is the time by myself when all I can do is think. I shop by myself because I have my routine down, I know where I like to shop, and no one else but me has to witness any changing-room drama or despair. And when my kids are off at school and Kendell’s at work, I am happy in my solitude. I write, I scrapbook, I make quilts. I stay in my sweats and I don’t put on any make-up and my hair is a messy ponytail, but I am not lonely.
I am happy alone because I taught myself how to be happy alone.
I didn’t realize how entrenched in my isolation I’ve become, however, until someone in my family needed my company. My mom, when she came home from her back surgery, didn’t want to be by herself. She wanted me to come over and hang out with her. And I am more than a little bit ashamed of my response. In fact, I discovered that the well I thought had crusted over had really, over time, filled up with anger. I was angry that she was intruding on my solitude. I had to dig a little bit to discover why, but part of it had to do with my friendless (and, I hadn’t noticed, sort-of motherless) years. Where were you, I thought, when I needed company? When I had no one? I made my life as happy as it could be without people to keep me company, and now she wanted me to change everything to give her company?
I admit, not my most shining, empathetic, Christ-like moment.
But it’s true. I’ve grown so fond of my time alone that I resent it when anyone intrudes. It really doesn’t have much to do with my mom, but with me. I don’t want to reach out or to hope for friendships or someone to do things with. I want to keep that well capped because it’s too raw if it isn’t covered. Part of me thinks I need to write that I am too attached. That I am becoming a hermit. But I am rejecting that insight as the one I need right now. I can’t imagine, now, trying to be different. I don’t miss having someone who hangs out in my kitchen and talks because I don’t want anyone there anymore. I just want to be alone. The problem comes, of course, when other people really do need me, but I don’t want to give any time away.
I need to figure out a better balance, perhaps. I need to learn how to not feel resentful when my solitude is displaced by others’ needs. But I can’t imagine being different anymore. I can’t imagine having a whole bunch of friends.
This morning, I was waiting at the bottom of the stairs for the sculpting class at the gym to start. The two young moms in front of me, who come together every time, were talking about their daughters, and I could tell they have what I had wanted—the talks in kitchens, the sharing of children, the time spent at little tables with beverages at Barnes & Noble. There’s still a part of me that is sad I never had that, but the larger, more self-knowledgeable part of me knows I never would have. It’s not in my nature to be shallow friends with a bunch of people; I better at fewer yet deeper relationships. And not fitting in…well. That’s always how I’ve been. I don’t quite fit in on my street, but I’m not sure if I moved somewhere else I’d fit in there, either.
So instead of wishing for someone to keep me company all of the time, I’m just going to continue valuing the relationships I do have—with my small handful of friends, with my sister, and yes: with my solitude.
You know when you have those moments when you look at your kids and just think…holy cow, they are amazing? You can see it even when they’re stressing you out or making you crazy, whether they’re two or twelve or almost-twenty. I love those transcendent moments. Haley came home for Easter last weekend, and maybe it was seeing them all together that reminded me. Or maybe it’s that I am feeling stronger and happier as spring progresses.
Or maybe it’s just that they really are amazing.
I just feel like sharing this: I am so proud of my kids.
I am proud of Haley.
She is working so hard right now. She’s taking 18 credits at school, and not easy classes either—calculus and biology and Spanish. She works 30+ hours a week at two different jobs. She’s keeping her grades up and doing well at her jobs.
But even more, she is becoming emotionally intelligent. She is starting to see things from different perspectives. She’s a feminist. She makes me laugh. She is strong willed and determined and I love her so much.
I am proud of Jake.
Math and science come so easily for him, he hardly has to study. Even though he doesn’t love school, he works hard to keep up his grades while he’s holding down a job. He recently got promoted to the training manager.
But even more, he is working on the changes he needs for this time of his life. He is striving to overcome his weaknesses and learn from his choices. He makes me laugh in ways that are entirely his own and I love him so much.
I am proud of Nathan.
(Because why not dye Easter eggs without your shirt?)
Even with being on student council, the basketball team and now the track team, he makes sure he gets a 4.0 every term. He is early for church every Sunday and fulfills his responsibilities without complaining.
But even more, he is just a good kid. He is friendly and open and willing to talk to me about nearly everything. He makes me feel loved and appreciated and I love him so much.
I am proud of Kaleb.
He is getting better and better at enjoying reading. (He is working his way through all of Roald Dahl’s books.) He makes sure to get his homework done even without help and he has the best handwriting.
But even more, he is such a good friend. He tries to make sure everyone in his street posse is included when they go out to play night games. His sense of humor brings me so much happiness and I love him so much.
I am so blessed to be their mother.
A thing happened today that hasn’t since October (except for that one time in December that set me even further back): I got dressed in (my favorite) running clothes, found my sunglasses and a headband and my running shoes, put on some sunscreen, and then I went running outside.
Not that I haven’t been exercising. It’s just mostly been on the grim, tiny underground track at my rec center. (Cement walls, narrow windows that show the roots of bushes and people’s feet as they walk out, and it’s 6.2 laps per mile.) And on the ellipital at the gym. And sometimes at Kendell’s gym at work, where they have rowing machines—I don’t hate the rowing machine. (“Don’t hate” is the highest praise I can give a gym machine.)
There were those two times when Kendell and I went for a walk on the PRT and I ran for 9 lovely minutes.
But today’s running felt like the first real running I’ve done since October, when for some mysterious (but now finally diagnosed) reason, my hamstrings started to feel like someone was slicing them open with a venomous fang.
The diagnosis? I have lazy glutes. Which means that for all of my running years, my glutes have just been, you know, hanging out for a ride, but not contributing much. And finally my hamstrings had had it with the free ride and they started to complain.
When I suggested this possibility to my PT, he got a little bit uncomfortable. “Well…” he fumbled. “Generally people with lazy glutes have a, ummm, well, a fairly, well, a fairly flat bottom.”
Which totally made me laugh because I’ve had a “flat bottom” my whole life. (Jake and Nathan think it’s funny to call me “sheet cake.” Ha ha.)
It also made me think. What if my glutes have been lazy my whole life? Maybe THAT is why I wasn’t very good at vaulting. Or why I never finally mastered a double back. Just a little effort from my glutes might have made a world of difference to my entire life!
The diagnosis also gave Kendell ample joke fodder, because At Last! At long, long last, there is medical proof of what he’s always suspected: I am a lazy ass.
All I know is that knowing why my legs have continued hurting—despite 12+ PT appointments and yes, I’m totally afraid to open the PT bill that’s hidden under a pile of patterned paper—has made me feel entirely more positive about this entire hamstring experience. It feels like now there is something I can actually do to make things better. First off, I’ve been focusing on sitting less, because sitting encourages the muscle to relax and weaken. This week, I’ve added a bunch of exercises that focus on my glutes, and when I run I concentrate on…well, on squeezing my butt with each step. It is remarkably difficult, and it is, for now, making me run slower. It’s especially hard to get my left glute to get working (and my left hamstring is the one that hurts the most). Not only when I’m running, but also when I’m doing the exercises.
But (butt!) at least I know and can work on it. I’m feeling so much more optimistic. Maybe (as my deepest fears have continued to prod me) my running days really aren’t over. Maybe—I hope—I can be like the lady I saw running last week. She was old—white hair and wrinkles—but she was still running. That is what I want. In order to keep running away from getting old, I have to keep running. I am so hopeful that all of these glute exercises will help me do that!
I sort of have A Thing for books set in Ireland. It is the country I most want to visit, the one that has enthralled me since I was old enough to read. So, while I was preparing for my LTUE presentation by reading tons of book reviews, when I came across The Carnival at Bray I immediately requested that my library purchase it. Because not only is it set in Ireland, it’s also got a bit in Rome, and it’s partly about how music influences the main character. (A perfectly Amy kind of combination.)
Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch lives in Chicago with her mom, grandma, sister, and uncle Kevin, who’s also her godfather. Just before her mom uproots their lives and moves them to Ireland so they can live with her new husband, Kevin takes Maggie to see Smashing Pumpkins, and the concert utterly changes her. “The night had blasted her free of that shell, and she had merged new and raw and ready,” she thinks, after the concert. That is the self she takes to Ireland, to the small Dublin suburb of Bray. In a new place, she starts to figure out how to begin creating this new self.
The book opens with an epigraph from a book about punk music:
If you’re lucky, at the right time you come across music that is not only “great,” or interesting, or “incredible,” or fun, but actually sustaining. Your emotions shoot out to crazy extremes; you feel both ennobled and unworthy, saved and damned. You hear that this is what life is all about, that this is what it is for.
(Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music)
The music Maggie discovers is not the music that broke the world open for me—she’s living in 1993 and so is influenced by grunge. For me, it was the underbelly, alternative music of the 80s, but I had this same experience, discovering a type of music that gives you an identity. I think the “right time” of the quote has to be when you’re a teenager (or maybe your first year in college) because that is when you’re beginning to figure out all the stuff about who you are. Music that gives you a language—a sort of environment you can explore—for your identity really can change your life, and so the parts in the book where Maggie is experiencing this were my favorite. Especially when she went to Rome to see Nirvana.
What I didn’t love about this book is a thing that many young adult writers do, and I almost never like it. Her mother is presented as both selfish and stupid, clueless as to how to really interact with her daughter. Probably because I am the parent of teenagers, I am bothered by young adult novels with parents who are the antagonists. I know—teenagers and parents don’t often get along, and teenagers really do tend to see their parents’ efforts at helping them as attempts to control them. I’m always a little bit disheartened by novels that do this, too, because by now the author should know better. Parents aren't always the antagonists. Teenagers are in a strange place where they are able to start building their lives but they don’t usually have all the tools or knowledge they need to do that. Hence their parents! I think YA authors do a disservice to teenagers by always presenting parents with negative motives and teenagers as being far more wise than them. It is a motif I am tired of.
That said, Maggie did get to have some compassion for her mother. She doesn’t ever respect her, but she does realize “it must be hard to be a mother. All those years of knowing everything about your daughter, of dressing her and bathing her and being intimately acquainted with her every need and want, and then one day you wake up and realize you don’t even know what kind of dress to buy her.” Yep. That is a hard place to be in.
In the end, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this young adult novel. I liked being in Ireland and having adventures with Maggie, but most of all I enjoyed watching her figure out her life. She goes through heartache, loss, loneliness, and the results of bad choices, but manages to find a sort of happiness.
I'm eating a cookie while I write this post, which might tell you something about how my no-sugar efforts are proceeding.
For the first sixteen days of this experiment, I was so strong. Literally zero, nada, zilch—no cookies, candies, cakes, snacks, or sugary beverages passed my lips. My goal was to make it until Easter weekend, when I would give myself a reprieve to enjoy the holiday. I did have fruit, but not an excessive amount. I started to retrain my snacking tooth, so I was reaching for easy veggies (grape tomatoes, snap peas, baby carrots), almonds, and the occasional cheese stick for a snack, instead of candy. I was doing OK and absolutely on track to make it to Friday afternoon.
In actuality, I made it to the Thursday before Easter. That day, I went to the gym and then I had to go grab some things at Target that Nathan needed for his track meet. Maybe it was not eating after I worked out, or maybe it was the weather, but I got the weirdest headache. I took 4 Advil and then, two hours later, four more, but it didn't budge. What's worse was how I felt: spacey and unattached to my body. Actually, what I felt like was the same as how it feels when you're about 17 miles into a 20 mile run, and you're entirely out of energy and, what's more, motivation. You have no idea what compelled you to run that far.
My headache made me question what I was doing, pushing myself so hard not to eat sugar.
Plus, sometimes sugar does help my headaches. (Sometimes it makes them worse, though. I didn't say it wasn't a gamble.) So after everything else—a relaxing bath, a nap, and a neck massage—failed to touch it, I crumbled.
I ate some sugar.
Some lemon almonds, to be precise. They sounded the best. Of course, they didn't make the headache go away either. (I ordered pizza for dinner because I could.not.stand. the thought of cooking that night, and after I ate a slice I finally felt better.)
They did unleash the hounds of hell my previously restrained sweet tooth.
Well, sort of. I didn't eat any sugar on Friday, and I held myself back until Saturday night, when, I confess, I ate some jelly beans and caramel eggs while I arranged the Easter baskets. We had pancakes and buttermilk syrup for Easter-morning breakfast and I made my two traditional Easter desserts:
(lemon cake and berry pound cake)
I ate Reece's peanut butter bunnies, more caramel eggs and some cookies 'n cream eggs I got for Jake (who's allergic to peanut butter) and a piece of each cake and then more lemon cake just before I went to bed. Then I took a deep breath and resolved to restart my resolution. I actually was sort of looking forward to it, since I was feeling that icky, I-ate-too-much-sugar feeling, the one that makes you need to eat some buttery popcorn or salty potato chips just to balance everything out.
And I did fabulous for two and a half entire days.
But today, I just wasn't feeling it. I can't tell you why. I just felt full of the despair and anxiety that nearly begs for sugar. And I didn't even try to restrain myself. I didn't try to distract my craving with a salad or a big glass of water or cleaning the kitchen. Instead, I sat in my bed, reading Brave New World, and I ate candy. The eight little caramel eggs I had left. Then four Ghiradelli salted caramel dark chocolate squares. And a raspberry dark chocolate square.
And now I'm eating a cookie.
I'm not sure what tomorrow will bring, sugar-wise. I think part of what's making me feel listless about this project is that I haven't lost one single, solitary pound for all of my efforts. My clothes don't fit any better. I have felt a little bit more energetic...but not a whole bunch.
Yep. It's probably discouragement, plain and simple.
Hence the cookie. Since today is already shot to hell, why not finish strong? (And by "strong" I mean "maybe I'll eat another cookie. Or that last raspberry dark chocolate square.") Maybe I'll feel better about this tomorrow.
Both last February and this one, I had the opportunity to present at the Life, The Universe, and Everything writer's conference. This is a symposium held in Provo, Utah, with a focus on all aspects of speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, and horror—such as writing, art, film, gaming, etc. It's a conference I've wanted to attend for a long time, but never imagined I'd present at. One of our long-term librarians has been presenting there for quite a while, though, and last year she needed a new partner for her "Best SF Books" presentation, and she asked me! In our hour of presenting, we discuss the best science fiction, horror, and fantasy books for young readers. She does the children's and junior books, and I take the young adult. To narrow it down—SF is the genre right now—we categorize "best" as those books that have received two or more starred reviews from the major reviewing sources.
Last year, I also had to work on the Saturday I was presenting, so Kendell drove me down (so I wouldn't have to park for just an hour) and dropped me off ten minutes before I presented. When he came to pick me up, I'm certain I had light emanating from my pores, I was so happy. I loved presenting. It was like all of the best parts of teaching—talking about books to people who like them—with none of the hard parts (no grading, no students who hate reading, no politics). The only thing that dimmed my happiness was knowing that I hadn't really earned my spot as a presenter, but lucked into it.
This year, when I was standing in line to get my presenter's badge, I started talking with the woman in front of me in line. She was a writer (I'm ashamed that I can't remember her name), and when I told her my name she said, "Oh yes! I've heard of you!" and I wasn't sure how to respond because I'm one thousand percent sure she hasn't heard of me. "I'm not a real writer yet," I finally said. "I'm presenting as a librarian." (Perhaps gushing about other writers' seeming notoriety is just a thing one does in these situations?) Which of course reinforced last year's feeling that I wasn't there in the way I really want to be—as a writer—but still: I was there, presenting.
I enjoyed it just as much this year as last.
I do still have that burning ambition to be the kind of writer who also goes to writing conferences, but going as a librarian is also pretty awesome. It means that throughout January and February, literally all I read is YA speculative fiction. What's funny about this, for me, is that I am growing more and more picky about the speculative fiction I'm actually willing to read. I don't want anything that's derivative of something else. I've read the classic fantasy tropes and I want something new. I love the dystopian genre but I am highly selective of what I find to be actually good. (I think you have to be a genius to write a really, really good dystopia.) And horror—it's pretty hard to truly scare me. So if I read a speculative fiction novel and I actually, really enjoy it, I think it probably is an actually, really good book.
There were about 55 books I could've read and talked about for my presentation, which of course is too many to read in the six weeks of prep time I had (not to mention, too many to talk about in a half hour). Some of the books I discussed I only "read"—that is, I read the first chapter, skimmed the middle, and read the last chapter. Here are the books I actually read all the way through and found good enough to recommend as some of the best YA speculative fiction from 2014:
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, Telt By Himself
by David Almond
Billy Dean—secret son of the local Blinkbonny priest—was born the day the bombs that started World War III were dropped. Kept hidden in a single room with his mother (to hide the priest’s indiscretion) until he is thirteen, he finally enters a bewildering, crumbling world. He also begins to discover mysterious talents, such as the ability to make contact with the dead, heal the sick, and bring comfort to troubled hearts. He becomes known as the “Angyl Child,” and people from all over England visit him for help, but as adult expectations attempt to shape his future, he must figure out what he believes his role in the damaged world will be.
Trial by Fire
by Josephine Angelini
Lily Proctor lives in Salem, Massachusetts, a normal teenage girl with abnormal allergies—everything from weeds to peanut butter makes her react. She is transported to an alternate version of Salem, one where science is regarded with suspicion, giant insect-like creatures called Woven terrorize the open area around the city, the ruling class is made up of powerful witches, and her allergies actually give her extra powers. The version of herself in this world, however, is despotic and cruel, and Lily must learn to use her powers quickly, to help save humanity.
The Girl from the Well
by Rin Chupeco
“I am where dead children go.” So begins the haunting ghost story, The Girl from the Well. Okiku was murdered 300 years ago, drowned at the bottom of a well, where her body still remains. Since then, she has had no peace, but instead wanders the world, freeing the prisoned souls of other murdered children by killing their murderers. In the same city, a living boy named Tark is trying to deal with his mentally ill mother and to understand the strange tattoos she gave him when he was five. When Okiku sees him, she is drawn to him for something he doesn’t understand about himself yet: his tattoos restrain a demon. A spooky and spine-chilling retelling of the Japanese fable “Okiku and the Nine Plates,” this novel casts the ghost in the role of a protagonist with unforgettable results.
by Sally Green
In modern-day England, witches live alongside regular humans. Nathan’s mother is a white witch and his father is the most powerful of the black witches, a situation which has landed him a life in a cage, subject to beatings, torture, and loneliness as the white witch community continues to hate his father Marcus. Both communities have plans for Nathan, who himself only wants one thing: to escape and live a normal life. A book that grapples with the concepts of good and evil and where we draw the line between the two, this is an intriguing start to a new trilogy.
The Queen of the Tearling
by Erika Johansen
Centuries ago, following an unexplained cataclysmic event, the followers of William Tearling sailed to a newly-formed landmass to restart society without any of the foibles (religion, gender bias) or scientific advancements of our time. Three hundred years later, people are divided into countries that are mostly medieval, but with some lingering advanced technology. And magic, for a few people. Kelsea is the Rightful Queen of the country of Tearling, but she has been hidden since her 18th birthday. When she returns to claim her throne, she must learn to manage political intrigue, the poverty of her people, and the machinations of the Red Queen. Described as a Game of Thrones for YA readers, this is definitely one for older teens.
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future
by A. S. King
Glory O’Brien is a high school senior, about to graduate but with no other plans except for continuing to pursue and develop her interest in photography, just like her mom, who died when Glory was four. Across the street is the hippie commune where her best friend lives. One day, they make a spur-of-the-moment (and very strange) plan: they decided to grind up and drink the desiccated remains of a bat. This leads to an unexpected result: they both become clairvoyant. Glory’s special skill lies in seeing visions of a person, both their past (sometimes very far back in time) and their future. As the visions of what America will look like in the very near future start become more and more disturbing, Glory realizes that something terrifying is about to happen.
by Garth Nix
Ten years ago, Garth Nix finished his Old Kingdom trilogy, a fantasy about a place where death is always near, especially for the Abhorsen, who is a necromancer. His role as mage is to settle and put to peace the dead who will not rest. When he vanishes, his daughter Sabriel sets out to find him—or his body. Clariel is a prequel to Sabriel’s adventures. Set 600 years before those events, this book tells the story of Clariel, whose grandfather is also an Abhorsen. When she feels trapped into an arranged marriage with the son of the unusually cruel governor, she seeks a new future by trying to use magic to find a free magic creature roaming the city of Belisaere. Though a prequel, this book still captures the atmosphere of the previous books: a desperate quest to overcome evil, right on the edge of an apocalypse.
After the End—this was my favorite book I read for the conference
by Amy Plum
Eighteen-year-old Juneau (named for the city in Alaska, not the Greek goddess) has grown up in a remote settlement near Mount Denali, a place that was preserved from the ravages of World War III. But when she returns from a hunting trip to find her village empty, she has to venture into the post-war world...only to discover there wasn’t a war. Why her tribe would lie to her and who the men are that are hunting her form a mystery that pulls this adventure/fantasy story along at a rapid pace. The tribe’s structure is dependent upon their connection with the “Yara,” the primeval spirit of Gaia, and Juneau had been trained to be the next spiritual leader, so despite her confusion about why her elders lied to her, she still feels a sense of duty to rescue them. The adventuresome plot travels from Alaska to Los Angeles, with stops in Seattle, Idaho, and the downtown Salt Lake City library. (Note: the sequel to this book, Until the Beginning, is being released May 5, 2015. I can hardly wait! Also, it's a duology, which is perfect for me.)
Grasshopper Jungle: A History
by Andrew Smith
Austin Szerba’s girlfriend Shann tells him “I love how, whenever you tell a story, you go backwards and forwards and tell me everything else that could possibly be happening in every direction, like an explosion.” That’s sort of how this novel unfolds, moving back and forth between Austin’s Polish ancestors, his current very-teenage-boy obsessions (skate boarding and sex and avoiding homework and sex and kissing his girlfriend and sex and his friendship with Robby), and the end of the world. Because he and his friends accidentally unleashed a plague of life-sized praying mantises with insatiable appetites. Funny, a little bawdy, but thoroughly teenage-life authentic, Grasshopper Jungle is a Printz Honor winner that will leave you thinking about life and love and friendship while maybe having nightmares about those bugs.
There are plenty of books that continued a series this year, but I included almost none of them in this list. Blue Lily, Lily Blue is a rare exception, especially as it’s not the end of the series, even though it is the third book. This series is set in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia, home of Aglionby Academy and the Raven Boys—the wealthy students who attend the prestigious prep boarding school. Also home to Blue Sargent, daughter, niece, and friend to a group of women psychics but with very limited psychic powers of her own; she can only amplify the powers of others around her. Blue has lived her whole life with the prediction every psychic makes about her: she will kill her true love by kissing him. Which makes it pretty easy to avoid the Raven Boys, even if they weren’t cocky and rude. Then she meets Gansey, a student at Aglionby who her aunt’s psychic powers say will die within one year. Gansey is intent on finding the Raven King, a mythical Welsh king who might be buried in the mountains near Henrietta. Blue and Gansey start hunting for the Raven King together, uncovering mysteries, wonders, and dangers as they go. In this, the third book in a projected four-book arc, they get even closer to the Raven King, while simultaneously losing people who are important to them and getting even closer to the end of what will likely be Gansey’s last year on earth. This edgy, contemporary fantasy includes an untraditional romance, unusual story line, and a mix of history, supernatural, and something entirely new.
Dreams of Gods and Monsters
by Laini Taylor
This book finished up one of my very favorite contemporary fantasy series. Karou isn’t ever a truly normal high school student. She has blue hair, for one thing, and is in art school. But here is her most intriguing anomaly: she gathers teeth. In her spare time, she gathers teeth, for her guardian Brimstone. Who is a chimera. When she’s out gathering teeth, she moves through the world using doors that are really portals, but when a black handprint starts appearing on them, her errands grow more difficult, and she begins to learn who she really is. The first book begins with an idea that shapes the trilogy: “Once, a demon and an angel fell in love. It did not end well.” Because Kaou really isn’t an average teenage girl, but part of an ancient feud carried out in Elsewhere, and the universe is bigger than even she imagined. This series is full of adventure, heartache, romance, difficulties, and cruelty. There is war and damage and death. But it’s also incomparable: like nothing else you’ve read before.
by Scott Westerfeld
Darcey Patel might just be the luckiest high-school graduate ever: after writing for less than a month in a furious rush of words, her first novel has been accepted for publication. Instead of college, she moves to New York City to revise her book before its publication, where she learns about the publishing world, falls in love, and experiences the adventures of a big city. Woven into Darcey’s story is Darcey’s novel about Lizzie, who manages to escape a terrorist attack by slipping into the “Afterworld,” a place between life and death where she is saved—but then given responsibilities: she is now required to help spirits make their way to the afterlife.
Do you have a favorite YA speculative fiction title from last year that I missed?
One of the common misconceptions about librarians is that we are always working with people who love books. With devoted readers. Of course, I do get to do this pretty often. It is the highlight of any shift to have someone ask me for a recommendation. But quite often it seems like the majority of my work time is spent telling people how to find the Internet area, where they will commence to veg out in front of Facebook or Youtube or video games.
And my work is sort of a microcosm of the entire world. I value specific things: intelligence, honesty, creativity, compassion, hard work, nature and efforts to keep the world clean. And reading, of course. Good writing, be it "good" in the form of beautiful, moving, innovative, insightful, or true. But the world in general doesn't seem to value those things. The world values the Kardashians. (I still can't figure out why they are famous. Money? Large asses? I just don't get it.) It values wealth and power. It values convenience over rightness. It values cruelty and war. And, more and more, it values almost everything else above books.
I know it's whiny of me, but sometimes I get discouraged. Because I love books and because my life has been made better by them, I want the whole world to know that, too. Sure, books are harder to engage with than, say, video games. But I also want the world to value difficulty. To value effort and to know the reward that comes from reading.
Due to a Sunday-night family dinner, wherein they all made jokes about the lameness of reading and I was nearly in tears with frustration, I was feeling this particular brand of discouragement pretty severely when I went to the Tanner Lecture at the University of Utah last month. I have been looking forward to this since November, when one of my library friends, who knows of my affection and adoration, told me that Margaret Atwood was coming to speak.
I've met her once before, when she did a reading in 2003. But these were the pre-digital-camera, pre-smart-phone days and I didn't think to bring my camera. I didn't even know you could bring more than one book to be signed. So that day, I listened to my literary idol speak about creativity and her novel Oryx and Crake. I wasn't brave enough, but during the Q&A period I wanted to raise my hand and ask her about the character Jimmy, and if he is (as I still think) representative of the way the world will continue to look at the Humanities. (Recent focus on STEM does little to dissuade me.) When Becky and I (because even though Becky is not as rabidly obsessed with Atwood as I am, she is always willing to go with me) got to the front of the line for the book signing, I told her that she was the reason I became an English teacher. She joked that it sounded like an accusation, not a compliment, and I wished I had more than five seconds to talk to her about why.
About how her writing was one of the things that saved me when my life was turning on a riptide.
This time, she was presenting not a book discussion, but a lecture about human values. When I got to Kingsbury Hall, I quickly grabbed our tickets and then stood at the top of the stairs, waiting for Becky. (See? Always willing to come with me, although I would've gone alone without question.) I texted Becky to tell her where I was, and when I looked up from my phone, there was Margaret Atwood, walking up the stairs. She was flanked by Very Fabulous People (I could tell they were Fabulous by their tights and their hyphenated names) and I wanted to have something pithy or witty to say, because she stopped on the same step I was standing on, just twenty or so feet away, to be introduced to other Fabulous People. I didn't say anything because in my head I was turning myself into a character in one of her books, someone minor but easily caricatured, what with my geeky fandom and all that weight of thinking her writing saved me somehow. There are probably a billion others with the same affection, and how many minor characters need to tell her the same thing?
So I just stood on the step, watching, and wished I were a Fabulous Person, too.
The topic of the lecture was the importance of human values in a changing world. She said something beautiful and true right at the beginning, but before I could dig my pen out of my purse, its exact wording had vanished from my memory. But the feel of it was: every value we have as humans has both a dark and a light side. She then went on to talk about the value of story, and how even though the format we receive it through might change, the value of story never changes. She discussed how language and story are perhaps the oldest human technology. At our core, we need story. It helps us remember, it helps us learn, it helps us connect.
Part way through her lecture, I started thinking about what I would ask her if I really did have more than five seconds to talk to her. At first I thought about all of the recent conversations that have gone back and forth between her and Ursula K. Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro, not all of it nice, focused on what makes literature literature, and if genre disconnects the writing from the possibility of being literature. Maybe if I had a half hour to talk to Margaret Atwood, this is what I would discuss, my own little literary pet peeve: the difference between the dystopia genre and the post-apocalyptic, and the fact that it drives me nuts that people use the terms interchangeably when they are not interchangeable. I would ask her if she sees a difference, but I would also want to talk about why that makes me nuts. (It has something to do with people pandering to what is trendy, hooking the word “dystopia” onto anything vaguely science fictional not because it really applies but because it’s the current buzzword. It’s not even really about my affection for the genre as much as it is further proof of what the world seems to value.)
But maybe I wouldn’t.
Maybe, if I had time alone to talk to Margaret Atwood, I would still have the same question. The one about Jimmy, and how we can get the world to continue valuing stories. Valuing the intangible wealth we gather from all of the humanities, from art and language and writing and music and sculpture. My question is the same, but it is edged with a decade’s worth of knowledge and it is more deeply uncertain, now, that the world will ever value it. I didn’t have to ask the question, though. She answered it, in the end, by talking about the Future Library, and how it is deeply enmeshed with hope. Hope that the world will still know how to read in 100 years. That it will exist. That the trees will grow.
I want to believe. I want to feel like the world does still value stories. I want to let go of the feeling that working on my stories—that writing—would be a fruitless endeavor partly because of how often the world seems to tell me we don’t value this thing you value. Maybe the dark side of story-as-technology is this sadness in me at watching the world disconnect. But maybe there still is another side—maybe there is still hope, because it has to be true, doesn’t it? That we need stories? I hope it is, and that hope is the only thing that keeps the discouragement from overwhelming me.
One of the most common complaints I hear as a librarian is "why don't books have a rating system?" While I always manage to nod politely at the patron's distress over sex/swearing/violence (SSV) in books, my inner state is far more agitated. This question tends to irritate my inner adolescent ire—that is, it makes me want to push back in an irrational manner (including eye rolling) because the idea of a book rating system is ridiculous to me.
People like to draw a connection between movies and books. "If movies can be rated," the argument goes, "then books can be, too." The connection isn't entirely relevant, however. There is a huge difference between reviewing and rating the roughly 500 movies released per year and the 50,000 or so books. Plus, movies make tons of money. Books, not so much. Sure, there are bestsellers, but the film industry ($479.2 billion) generates significantly more revenue than the publishing industry ($29 billion). Who is going to pay for all this book rating?
Then there is the impact between reading something and looking at something. Likely this is an individual response that is influenced by both life experience and brain chemistry, but for me, if I watch a sex scene or something violent in a movie, it stays with me far longer than if I read one in a book. Plus, there's the fact that if you don't like to read sex scenes, there is always skimming, or just flipping the page until you get past the part you don't like. It's much harder to "skim" a movie.
To me, though, the biggest difference between an offending movie and an offending book is the ease with which you can stop interacting with it. If you're at a movie theater and you don't like something, you have to physically leave the building. If you're reading a book and you don't like something, you just have to put the book down.
But books being rated because movies are rated is really not the point. Movies are rated so that parents can know what is appropriate for their families to watch, not to protect adults from adult content. In essence, where a book is shelved and how it is marketed (which is sort of the same thing) is already a rating system of a sort: novels in the adult section were written with an adult audience in mind; novels in the teen section were written for young adults (which is roughly 14-18, but sometimes 12-17). If you are an adult person browsing in the adult section, you are likely to come across many books that contain violence, sexuality, or swearing, because adult lives contain these things.
Of course, there is an enormous debate right now, as YA literature becomes more and more popular, over what makes a book one that is "good" for teenagers to read. This is based on the difference between reading level (word difficulty and word count, sentence structure, writing style) and content (who and what the story is about). You can have entirely filthy or violent novels written at a teenage reading level, but the content might keep them in the adult section. The argument centers on one's interpretation of the word "good," and there are so many levels or meanings of goodness that it is impossible to decide for an entire group. You (the parent) need to be involved in helping your teenager (the individual) with this choice. Do you really want to hand that responsibility over to someone else?
But let's put aside the YA lit discussion (as it could be an entire post itself!) and just focus on adults. (It is always adults who ask me about a book rating system anyway.) What is considered offensive varies widely between readers. The level of SSV one is sensitive to is individual. For me, the line falls between whether the SSV is included just to have some SSV in the story, or because it is inherently necessary to the plot, character development, or major themes. Let's take sex as a starting point. There are bajillions of novels written every year with a plot that is engineered to get the characters in bed so that the author can write the sex scenes. Choose any bodice-ripper novel and that will be your reading experience. There are also plenty of novels that include sex scenes, but with the purpose of exploring how it changes the character—what he or she might learn, how she might change, what was right and what was not. It's not the point of the story. It's just part of the story. (Like, you know: real life. Where people have sex, among doing other things.) The novel Atonement is one I would put in this category. Yes, it's got a fairly explicit sex scene, but it's also got explorations of war, choice, love, creativity, maturing, and regret. The sex scene is just part of it. I read it more than a decade ago and I am still thinking about it (the book, not the sex scene).
I don't read bodice rippers because I think they are emotionally lazy and entirely unrealistic. They are written with the goal of titillation, and that isn't an experience I want from reading. I do read books like Atonement because they are written with the goal of enlightenment or understanding or the sharing of a human experience I couldn't experience otherwise, and that is what I want from reading.
I can hear many of my smart, thoughtful friends objecting and saying "but you can still experience those things in books that don't have SSV." That is true, you can. But (for me), the presence of SSV doesn't negate the wisdom or truth that is also there. It entirely depends upon the author's intent. The key is knowing what level of SSV you are comfortable with—and then putting the book down if it is too much for you.
But that is the wonderful thing about books: there is a book for everyone. There are dozens and dozens of books for everyone. If you like bodice rippers, read them! If you like mystery series with 37 books about a detective, read every single one. If you like books without any SSV, there are dozens to be found. Maybe that is why there are 100 times more new books than movies every year: because reading is a myriad experience involving individual choice.
And that is why I will always be against books being rated.
Reading, even though it's usually done sitting still, is not a passive activity. It's highly active, involving thought and choice. You arrive at your reading delivery system, be it the library or Amazon or a book store, and you have to look. You have to pick up a book and read the summary. You have to look at the cover and think what can I learn about this book from those images? You have to flip through and maybe read a few sentences to get an idea of the writer's voice. Even better, you can arrive there already informed. Read the New York Times Book Review, the "Best Books of the Month" series on Amazon, or a few book blogs. Ask your friends what they read, or your mother or your sister or your neighbor. Or a librarian. Keep a list of books you want to read.
Maybe most importantly: don't be afraid. To try something new. Or to question yourself—why do books with swearing bother you? Or even to challenge yourself: can you read something with an SSV level you might not be comfortable with by looking around that to the story? On the other hand, never be afraid to say this book isn't for me. If you try something with an SSV level that makes you uncomfortable, instead of getting annoyed that a panel of book raters didn't warn you beforehand, just move on. Take the book back to the library. Take it back to the book store where you bought it and see if they'll let you do an exchange. Leave it for a stranger to find in a train station. Then move on to the next one.
Lazy readers need a rating system. Readers who want only their version of the world confirmed in books need a rating system. Readers who don't want to be actively engaged, just passively, in reading. Fearful readers. I know—that might sound harsh. But it is also true. Wanting someone else to decide what book is right for me is a fear-based decision.
I don't want someone I don't know to tell me what is "good" to read. I don't want to be responsible for telling anyone else what is "good." (Except, of course, my kids.) I do want to choose, basing my reading choices on the reading experience I enjoy best, not an arbitrary count of F words. I can say what is good only for me, and I am the only one responsible for what I put in my brain. Luckily, my brain also has the ability to choose. To consider and savor, to reject and move on.
We adult readers don't need a rating system because we ourselves are the raters of what we read, and we rate a book by whether or not we keep reading it.