My Me Too

I’ve been fortunate to keep the company of some truly excellent men. These are men with whom I have walked alone at night without an ounce of fear. Men who have stood by my side and comforted me when I’ve cried. Men who have offered to egg another’s man’s house for saying sexually explicit things to me. Men who have always sought to protect me, even when I told them I could do it myself. I love and trust these men.

But, unfortunately, they haven’t all been so pleasant.

So I guess this is my Me Too.

This is my sister and I at ages sixteen and fourteen, roughly. For perspective.

There are two ways to walk to my parents’ house from their local library. The first involves walking on a fairly busy main road, passing the fire station, and running the risk of being hit by a car. (The sidewalks there, last I checked, are really more of a formality.) The second takes a side street lined with houses. It’s a safe neighborhood, overall, and there’s a bus stop at the end of the street. So my sister and I, not wanting to die that day, chose the latter.

We rounded the corner and were greeted (literally) by a group of guys. I estimated they were aged eighteen to twenty, but I was short and underdeveloped–so what did I know, really. They were smoking and drinking and generally being rowdy. We didn’t know them. But they’d seen us, so it was too late to turn around.

“Hey, come over here!” they called suggestively. We could feel them leering at us through our hoodies.

My sister told me to keep my head down and walk faster. “Don’t look at them. And don’t run.” Either of these would only encourage them.

I was thirteen. She was fifteen.

I’m sixteen. My sister, her now-husband, his cousin, and I are all downtown for the annual Yankee Homecoming Festival. We manage to snag a bench on the boardwalk, despite the crowd. It’s oppressively hot out, so my sister and I are wearing sundresses. I’m enjoying the view of the water until something slams on the bench next to me.

When I look up, there’s a man looming over me, blowing cigarette smoke in my face. His bicycle is propped on the bench beside me. I smile politely before turning away; it’s a popular festival, after all. Maybe there’s something wrong with his tire.

He says something to me–something that has since faded into antiquity, alongside the many car horns and catcalls–and I pretend I haven’t heard him. His shadow gets bigger as he leans closer to me. I can feel his breath on my neck as he repeats himself. I take my sister’s hand as he snarls, “Hey, I’m talking to you!”

We are not physically affectionate, so she knows something is wrong even before turning around. She leans over to the guys and tells them, “Somebody is being not friendly, so Leah and I are going for a walk.” The guys stay behind until we’re lost in the sea of people.

I’m seventeen, and I finally have my first boyfriend. The day that we become official, he asks to touch my butt. I’m so shocked that I laugh my way through declining. A few days later, in a dark corner of our high school auditorium, he looks at me and says, “I’m sorry.” When I ask why, he gropes me. I’m too caught up in the newfound thrill of kissing to stop him.

He employs the same tactic later, to do other things to my body that I have expressly told him not to.

I spend two years torturing myself over this after we break up. I don’t categorize it as assault or molestation–partly because I don’t have the vocabulary for it yet, and partly because it wasn’t violent and, in the moment, I didn’t exactly say no. I tell myself that I should have fought him, should have stopped him, should have said something. That it’s my fault. Should have, should have, should have.

Years later, he contacts me out of the clear blue. He has a new girlfriend and wants to know how he can be better to her than he was to me. When I tell him that I wish we’d taken things slower physically, he calls me a “pretentious bitch.” We never speak again.

I’m nineteen, getting over the heartache of a relationship that I’ve finally realized is never going to come to fruition. A guy that I’ve worked with on our college literary magazine offers to text me a ringtone that I’ve been hunting for years. I give him my number, assuming that he’s just going to delete it anyways. He spends the next seven hours flirting with me via text. He’s cute and I’m vulnerable, so I’m actually enjoying the attention–until he tells me in no uncertain terms that he’s only interested in me because he’s “never been with a redhead.” I tell him to leave me alone. I feel like I’ve invited this, or at least should have seen it coming.

He graduates, and I’m relieved.

Until the next year at homecoming. He comes back to visit. I do my best to avoid him, but it’s a small campus and he hunts me down. He notices how skittish I am and gets angry, insisting that I should give him a chance. I lie and tell him that I have a date. He relents and tells me to have fun. I block his number and his Facebook.

This photo will become relevant in a moment.

This is the hardest story to tell.

I’m still nineteen.

There’s an older male professor that is widely considered brilliant and sarcastic, if a harsh grader. We’ve all noticed that he singles out certain students, often female, and gives them extra outside-class attention. It’s a topic of speculation and gossip, but this is Christian school. All the scandal here is made up. He and I develop an instant rapport–but somehow I don’t make it into his inner circle. My roommate does, and I can’t help feeling a little jealous.

I go swing dancing every Friday at a local, not-affiliated-with-the-school but still student-run, social club. By this time, I’ve gotten good enough to help teach the beginner lesson. Anyone is welcome, but professors never attend.

So you can imagine my surprise when he comes in.

I offer for him to join the lesson, but he already knows how to dance. To prove it, he pulls me flush against him and whirls me through a few sets. He smells like cigar smoke and… something–something I should recognize, but can’t seem to place.

After the lesson, we go through our usual opening spiel: “Welcome to swing club! [Blah blah blah] And ladies, if any of the gentlemen are being ungentlemanly, feel free to talk to [the male leaders of the club]–or Leah–and we’ll help you take care of it.” I can’t recall a time that this has ever happened, but we always make sure the option is there.

While I spend most of the evening dancing with the professor (the other girls seem less than inclined to), he still singles out a seventeen-year-old freshman. “She’s my favorite dance partner,” he confides in me. “She’s my favorite.”

“How’s your family?” I ask, switching us from closed position to open. “You should have brought your wife with you!”

“I’m getting a divorce,” he confesses. He goes on to reveal quite a bit of personal information, only stopping when one of my male friends cuts in.

“I thought I’d save you,” he says as we dance. “That man has had way too much to drink tonight.”

I realize now that of course that’s what the other smell was.

We’re always careful about girls walking home alone, but tonight we’re fastidious. Everyone walks in a group, and there’s one guy that I have personally vetted in each. My then-boyfriend/now-husband drives me home. He seems unconcerned when I tell him about the professor, but I’m trembling.

I call my father. He takes me seriously (thank God) and tells me to talk to the head of security or to the head of the department. Both of those prospects terrify me, so I tell a trusted female professor/advisor instead. She hears me out, wide-eyed, and starts to say something before deciding to take me to the department head. (Another woman, not that it matters.) Upon hearing what I have to say, the department head sighs.

“We’ve been watching him for a while, now,” she says. “You did the right thing in speaking up about this.This is in no way your fault.” She assured me that the college has counseling services, if I need them. “Would you be willing to tell this story to other people, if need be? The head of security, or the president of the college? We will not let your name get to the professor.”

I assure her that I’m willing to speak to whoever needs to hear. Thankfully, it never came to that.

The professor didn’t make it to the end of the semester.

One last story; I promise it’s short.

I’m twenty-one. My then-fiance and I are going out to dinner with my family at a restaurant in the city. We walk by a sizable group of people and I unconsciously take his arm. “You’re scared of them because they’re black!” he accuses me once we’re out of earshot.

“No,” I say. “I’m scared of them because they’re men.”

Twirly Tries It: International Travel

The husband and I are on our way to Scotland! One flight down, one to go! While I can’t technically claim this as my first trip out of the country, it is most definitely my first trip overseas.

When I was a child, my parents took us on multiple vacations to Canada: Middle River, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Islands, The Bay of Fundy, Niagara Falls. The trips always shared the same winning formula: something historical or educational for Dad, pretty scenery for Mom, and an opportunity to swim for my sisters and I.

While they were all fun trips and I look back on them fondly, I didn’t appreciate them as much as I could have. I spent tours around beautiful Canadian countryside in the back seat, nose in a book and Gin Blossoms in my ears.

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting, table, outdoor and nature

These are my parents in Canada, July 2007. They’re pretty cute. (Fourteen-year-old me took this photo–and, shockingly, it doesn’t completely suck! Also, THIS PHOTO IS TEN YEARS OLD. WHAT IS LIFE.)

I am not going to make that mistake again.

We have so many things planned for this trip. Since we may never have a chance to visit again (as Ryan continuously reminds me), we’re hoping to do a little bit of everything. Here’s a few things we’re most excited about:

Image result for stop saying that gif

My face when Ryan says, “This is the only time we’re ever going to Scotland.”

-Connecting with my family history on the Isle of Mull (it’s where we emigrated from in the 1800s, and it’s also part of the Hebrides–so it’s two birds with one stone, really)

-Riding the Jacobite or, as it’s also known, The Hogwarts Express

-Exploring Glasgow and Edinburgh

-Taking tea at the Colonnades at the Signet Library (!!!!)

-At least one distillery tour (I personally hate whiskey and other liquors associated with it, but it’s a Cultural Thing and Ryan will enjoy it. Ah, well. The things we do for love.)

-Hiking the Trossachs and Loch Ard, where we’ll be staying for most of the trip.

-Possibly touring Loch Ness and a nearby castle

I’ll try to update this as we go, but no promises! Wish us luck!

Gail Carson Levine

If you know anything about me, then you know that I have a long-standing love affair with the words (and works!) of Gail Carson Levine. She was my first favorite author, starting when I stole my older sister’s copy of The Fairy’s Mistake. (I’ve told that story so many times that I’m no longer sure if it’s true.) One of my earliest memories of writing is of me, a child of nine or ten, in the basement clutching a notebook, scribbling words about princesses (named for my sisters and I) and fairies. So when I say that Gail Carson Levine is the reason I became a writer, it’s not an exaggeration.

As such, I had only one childhood dream: To Meet Gail Carson Levine. Whatever else happened in my life was negotiable.

Well, friends: I finally did it.

Levine is on tour promoting her most recent title, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, a prequel to her much-loved Two Princesses of Bamarre. When I heard that this tour was bringing her to a Barnes and Noble in Rockville, Maryland, I decided that I would be there, come Hell or high water.

This happened before the event and I am completely delighted! She reminded me of my favorite professor from college.

Lost Kingdom takes place hundreds of years before Two Princesses–so, obviously, those of us who have read Two Princesses have one question: Is the story of Drualt true? According to Levine, “Nobody knows if [it’s] mythology or history… I wanted to find out.” So she turned to Rapunzel.

“I am a writer who is very interested in plot,” says Levine, “and I am very bad at plot. And that is why I turn to fairytales.” Where Lost Kingdom is concerned, Levine says that Rapunzel “kind of gave me a scaffold to hang my story on.”

That being said, Levine feels that “the Rapunzel story peters out a s soon as the prince flops off the tower.” So, what’s an author to do? “I bring in the Exodus part of Moses’ story… My elevator pitch for this book is ‘Rapunzel meets Moses.'”

This isn’t the first time that Levine has turned to the Bible for inspiration: in Ever, she lifts the framework from the story of Jephthah (found in Judges), who returns from war and promises to sacrifice the first thing he sees as an offering to God. Of course, the first thing he sees turns out to be his daughter. Kezi’s story runs much the same course.

(I would be lying if I told you that I have not been wondering about this since Ever came out.)

When asked how she encountered the Bible and its manifold inspirations, Levine said she was not raised religious. “We’re Jewish, but in a secular sort of way. My father was a Sephardic Jew… and I’ve wanted to write about that for a long time. But without any religious education, I didn’t feel like I could. I read the Bible like a savage–meaning that I read it without any religious background, and without anyone else interpreting it for me. I had only the words of the Bible itself–and I often wasn’t sure I understood them.”

“In Ever, I really thought [Kezi] was going to be sacrificed, but I temperamentally couldn’t do it.”

Now, Levine is hoping to write a children’s book about the expulsion of Jews from Spain. When she polled the audience for who would read such a thing, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “You’ll follow me wherever I go,” quipped Levine. “Good to know.”

She showed us two versions of the cover for Lost Kingdom, and read us an excerpt! Be prepared for a princess who grapples with prejudice, guys.

When asked about her favorite books from her childhood, Levine cited such titles as Peter Pan, Anne of Green Gables, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “You guys are in a golden age of children’s literature,” she said, “and I lived in a desert age of children’s literature.” That being said, her love of fairy tales began very young, with an illustrated collection of stories and verse. Nowadays, however, her favorite fairytales can be found in Andrew Lang’s color-coded series of Fairy Books. “They are the tales stripped down; they’re not interpreted,” and, according to Levine, they’re excellent for inspiration.

“While I think [Ella Enchanted] is a better book, and it didn’t need an evil uncle or a talking snake, it’s a fun movie,” says Levine. Why did the adapters feel the need to change it so much? “They said that without the evil uncle and talking snake, it was just a catfight, which I really disagreed with.”

Can we hope to see any new releases from her in the near future? Our Barnes and Noble host mentioned a forthcoming Levine-authored musical, Spacenapped–although the rest of us forgot to ask for more information. Look for the Playbill on Broadway for me?

Levine says that she’s in edits for a prequel to her most widely loved novel, Ella Enchanted. “I was trying to name Lost Kingdom, and they [the staff at HarperCollins, Levine’s publisher] wanted the title to have the word ‘enchanted’ or the word ‘princess’–and neither of those words fit this book. So I said, ‘You know what? You want a book with enchanted? I’ll give it to you!’ So it’s called Ogre Enchanted.” Levine predicts at least two years before publication–a small price to pay for a genderbent Beauty and the Beast tale.

Feel free to reach out to Levine on social media! She has a Facebook page, an Instagram, and a blog hosted on her website! “I will always respond– though not always quickly.”

Music That Made Me

They say that smell is the most powerful sense when it comes to triggering memory. This has only been true once in my life. I was sixteen. We were visiting friends in New York. A woman came to the house, probably to see my parents; they used to live there, after all. I didn’t know her–or, at least, I thought I didn’t. But when she hugged me, I knew her perfume, knew it from a time before my conscious memory begins. I was shaken. Who was this woman?

Naturally, my mother filled me in, but the feeling lingered.

That’s the only time an olfactory stimulus has transported me. The same cannot be said of music. Certain songs can wrench me to a different time and place, drop me into the mind of past Leahs–before I was Twirly, before I was… me.

“All I Want For Christmas Is You” reminds me of eighth grade. Steven jumped out the window, James hid behind a bookshelf, and we’ve stolen a prank from our older sisters. Somehow, our teacher can’t seem to figure out how to stop the CD from repeating itself, even though the same thing mysteriously happened two years ago.

“Brighter Than the Sun” tastes like Chex cereal with milk, coffee, and the occasional chocolate brownie Clif bar. It’s slathering peanut butter between rice cakes at five in the morning, waking up when the house is quiet and still. It’s the beginning of forty five minutes all to myself, during which I’ll probably take a wrong turn on the way to work. It’s a drawstring backpack and a lanyard weighing heavy around my neck with gifts from campers.

When “Tubthumping” comes on, I’m five years old again. Mom has taken me grocery shopping with her. The lady at the deli gives me a slice of American cheese–orange, not white. I take a bite out of the middle before devouring the rest. The lady at the bakery gives me a sugar cookie and asks me if I can sing her a song from Annie. I’ve never heard of that, but I tell her that my favorite song is Chumbawumba. (Not by Chumbawumba; I thought that’s what the song was actually called.) I think the lyrics are “kissing the night away.”

“When It’s Over” transports me to the backseat of our old white-van-with-gold-trim. We’re on a road trip; I don’t know where. I’m illustrating the songs that hum through the radio in my Hedwig notebook. (I got it from the Scholastic book fair and I’m very proud of it.) Daddy is driving, and my world is a bubble of peace and safety. As long as my father is in control, nothing will touch us.

“Blue (Da Ba Dee)” is the year I started public school. It’s hallway floors soaked from melted snow, struggling into and out of my silver snow suit. It’s Dunkaroos and lunch money and funky shaped erasers from the school store. It’s an elementary school shaped like a lollipop. It’s not being sure what town I live in, because I’m still learning my new address.

“Tell Him” is warm fall nights in the car with my sister. It’s driving to and from marching band my rookie year. It’s two teenaged girls singing and laughing and being silly.

“Only Time” haunted me for years. I’d hear snatches in coffeeshops and waiting rooms–never enough to identify it properly, but enough to raise my hair. It jolts me into my front-row desk in Mrs. Dow’s fourth grade class. I’m struggling with my morning math; it’s projected on the whiteboard in front of the class. I have to get my multiplication license this year, but I just can’t seem to master my twelves. I’m afraid that, if I can’t do it, they’ll hold me back.

“A’int It Fun” is freedom, my first summer with any real independence. I’m getting married in a few weeks. I’m buying a car from my father. I have a job where I sit at a desk–in the air conditioning! I drink two cups of coffee a day, eat a handful of pecans, and don’t take breaks. I feel adult and alive. The future is spread out in front of me.

“Annie Waits” is the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. It’s flying around the house in anticipation. It’s the best friend who I was madly in love with coming over after baseball practice. It’s hyperbolas, parabolas, and graphing calculators.

“Spiderwebs” is my first day as a camp counselor. It’s an older girl taking me under her wing. It’s the smell of sunscreen and bug spray, chlorine and damp earth. It’s a thousand children’s voices ricocheting off the gym walls. It’s doing constant head checks, learning how to make gimp lanyards, holding a clipboard and smiling at parents.

“Thank You” is shopping for school supplies. It’s a blue and yellow pencil sharpener. It’s folders and notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils.

NoVA Teen Book Festival 2017

It’s that time of year again! The time when I get to cherry-pick my favorite quotes from authors at NoVa Teen Book Festival!

From left: Alwyn Hamilton, Renee Ahdieh, Wendy Higgins, Peternelle van Arsdale, Mary G. Thompson

Fantasy

“I’ve always been a character-driven reader and writer.” (Alwyn Hamilton)

“I definitely start with a belief system. … What are they afraid of?” (Peternelle van Arsdale on worldbuilding)

“So much of what we’re afraid of that’s big really begins with small things.” (Peternelle van Arsdale)

“There’s not a whole lot of romance in the Grimms’ fairytales.” (Wendy Higgins)

“Good and bad is really blurred in fairytales.” (Peternelle van Arsdale)

“Fairytales are considered to be the most fantastical form of fiction, but in many ways they’re the most realistic.” (Peternelle van Arsdale)

“You realize very young that fairytales are not real when you grow up near castles.” (Alwyn Hamilton)

“I try to stay away from using other fictional source material…” (Mary G. Thompson)

“Sometimes it’s easier for people to approach the real world through fantasy.” (Mary G. Thompson)

“Since fantasy is a world where anything can happen, it’s important to root yourself and root your reader in the real world.” (Renee Ahdieh)

“In order to learn to shoot an arrow from a moving horse, you have to demonstrate proficiency in both skills.” (Renee Ahdieh)

“Other people are researching weapons and demons, and I’m researching underwear.” (Peternelle van Arsdale)

“I wish we could tell you the we know boys as hot as the ones in our books.” (Alwyn Hamilton)

From left: Katie McGarry, Tiffany D. Jackson, Brendan Kiely, Peternelle van Arsdale

One Step at a Time

“I’m a recovering control freak. I like to plot everything out… and not a single [book] has ever been written to plot.” (Katie McGarry)

“I plot a lot of my books the same way I plot screenplays.” (Tiffany D. Jackson)

“I have huge spurts of writing. For Allegedly, I wrote the first draft in a week.” (Tiffany D. Jackson)

“Part of the process is claiming that I want to do that.” (Brendan Kiely)

For Brendan Kiely, writing is about “pursuing passion”; it’s “where art meets social justice.”

“If it’s personal, it will have emotional truth.” (Brendan Kiely)

“I come from a background of sports. I’d wake up in the morning and do my drills… It’s the same thing with writing.” (Brendan Kiely)

“Editing is a craft separate from writing. I never wanted to be a writer.” (Peternelle van Arsdale)

“It was a shock to me that… I, as an editor, needed an editor.” (Peternelle van Arsdale)

“We spend a lot of time worrying about getting published, when we really need to focus on the writing.” (Peternelle van Arsdale)

“I would warn [writers] about the grief process.” (Peternelle van Arsdale, on advice that she gives as an editor)

“I am your Ghost of Christmas Future, okay?” (Katie McGarry)

“Do not live to work. Work to live. … Make sure that you have a center and keep it there.” (Katie McGarry)

“You do need to have a life outside your writing.” (Tiffany D. Jackson)

“Writing is cheaper than therapy, for me. … Everything I write has something very personal.” (Katie McGarry)

“I give myself permission, when I tackle a difficult topic, to walk away for a little bit.” (Katie McGarry)

“The bravery wasn’t there as much as the search for connection with others.” (Brendan Kiely, on writing vulnerable things)

“These girls were brave enough to tell me what had happened to them, and I wanted to be brave enough to tell the world. … It’s hard telling raw stories, but it’s worth it.” (Tiffany D. Jackson, on researching Allegedly)

“It felt like I was drinking sunshine.” (Brendan Kiely, on seeing a former student reading his book for the first time)

Natalie Anderson, Leslie Livingston, Lindsay Smith, Ibi Zoboi

Stranger in a Strange Land

“Author Tip #1: Always make one of your characters as attractive as possible. Otherwise, what’s the point?” (Leslie Livingston)

“In other cultures, when you’re sixteen, you’re twelve. When you’re eighteen, you’re fourteen.” (Ibi Zoboi)

“Here in America, people seem to have everything… but there’s no sense of community” from a Haitian perspective. (Ibi Zoboi)

“I was kind of pulling on these Cinderella-esque themes to highlight those cultural differences.” (Ibi Zoboi)

“I have not been to ancient Rome… yet.” (Leslie Livingston)

“Who bathes triumphantly?” (Leslie Livingston, on the statue that inspired her to write about female gladiators)

“Drawing on my family’s fraught relationship with our Cherokee culture.” (Lindsay Smith)

Brendan Kiely, Zoraida Cordova, Nina LaCour, Lance Rubin

(Don’t Fear) The Reaper

“I think about legacy.” (Zoraida Cordova)

“Who do you want people to say you were?” (Brendan Kiely)

“I love that reflection on legacy and how that influences what you do with your life.” (Brendan Kiely, on The Last True Love Story)

“What if we all knew when we were going to die? … If we all knew our Death Date, death would be much more matter-of-fact.” (Lance Rubin, on the question that spawned Denton Little’s Death Date)

“Really thinking about death is a nod toward life.” (Lance Rubin)

“As soon as I had a child, that sense of peace [with my own mortality] just completely left.” (Nina LaCour)

“When I was in junior high school, I was convinced that I was going to become a vampire and become immortal.” (Zoraida Cordova)

“I actually think that life is like a revolution. It’s a rebellion against the tyranny of death.” (Brendan Kiely)

“I was looking at experiences that were really transformative, where who you were is not who you are.” (Nina LaCour, on We Are Okay)

“You can be more than the things that happen to you.” (Zoraida Cordova)

“Every stage of adulthood is a coming of age.” (Zoraida Cordova)

“A lot of this book is me writing about the death of me-and-acting, in a weird way.” (Lance Rubin)

“It’s perfectly okay to have ‘yes’ be part of the dialogue in any sexual interaction. That is important to me.” (Brendan Kiely)

Mary G. Thompson, Zoraida Cordova, Julie Buxbaum, Ibi Zoboi

Paperback Writer

“It was based on a Linkin Park song, because I was that person.” (Zoraida Cordova, on her first printed poem)

“I always like to add something strange to my stories; I don’t know what to do if something strange isn’t happening.” (Ibi Zoboi)

“We’re never done asking that ‘who am I’ question.” (Zoraida Cordova)

“I would love to be able to write beautiful poetry.” (Julie Buxbaum)

“I hated being a lawyer because I didn’t get to make stuff up.” (Julie Buxbaum)

“I don’t really like writing emotions. I write around emotions.” (Zoraida Cordova)

“My spoken word pieces turned into epic poems turned into short stories, and the short stories turned into novels.” (Ibi Zoboi)

“Sometimes things are not okay, but you’ll be okay.” (Julie Buxbaum)

“The other kids are just as insecure as you.” (Ibi Zoboi, on advice for teenagers)

“”Work harder.” (Mary G. Thompson, on advice for teenagers)

Caleb Roehrig, Rafi Mittlefehldt, Julie Buxbaum, Katie McGarry

Love on the Rocks

“I write love stories, but I don’t believe in happily ever after.” (Katie McGarry)

“How do I subvert what everyone’s expecting while still having them walk away full?” (Julie Buxbaum)

“I’m a fan of happy-for-now endings.” (Caleb Roehrig)

 

“Writing it was this intensely nostalgic feeling.” (Rafi Mittlefehldt)

“I am a romcom fiend.” (Julie Buxbaum)

“I love writing swoony scenes. … You get to rescript your first kiss.” (Julie Buxbaum)

“I could write that stuff all day long!” (Katie McGarry)

“For me, writing the romantic stuff is difficult because it’s personal.” (Caleb Roehrig)

“I rarely read something romantic unless someone gets killed.” (Caleb Roehrig)

“[The Outsiders] singlehandedly kept me from being dead in a dumpster at sixteen.” (Katie McGarry)

“I’m fourteen and I’m going back and forth between Stephen King and Danielle Steele.” (Katie McGarry)

“I wrote them for my daughter.” (Katie McGarry)

“We as females want to kiss people, and we have our bodies and shouldn’t be ashamed of them.” (Katie McGarry)

“When you put more of yourself into a story, you get more out.” (Caleb Roehrig)

“My various failures have made it into my writing.” (Caleb Roehrig)

“I feel like, if I wrote all my embarrassing moments, my editor would be like, ‘That’s too much. That would never happen.'” (Julie Buxbaum)

Jaye Robin Brown, Will Walton, M-E Girard, Tiffany D. Jackson, Danielle Ellison (moderator)

Reflection

“I can’t tell you what my book’s about because I’m not quite sure.” (M-E Girard)

“I think a lot of girls that seem like insiders feel like outsiders.” (M-E Girard)

“Middle grade is a window into the world. YA is a window into the interior.” (Will Walton)

“I talk a lot about the double standards in the media [in Allegedly].” (Tiffany D. Jackson)

“I like writing the fullness of a person.” (Jaye Robin Brown)

“Your boyfriend really should be your friend at the end of the day. They’re not just boo–they’re not just bae.” (Tiffany D. Jackson)

“Friendship is important when you’re a teenager because it’s practice for dealing with an actual relationship.” (M-E Girard)

“When you write a queer story, there’s the fear that your book won’t mean the right thing to everyone.” (M-E Girard)

“When something gets flat… invite something in from the outside.” (Will Walton)

“I want girls who like girls and their faith to come away from this story with some hope that there’s a place where they can have them both.” (Jaye Robin Brown, on Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit)

Keynote speaker Nina LaCour

Keynote: Nina LaCour

“There are worse things in life than feeling like you don’t quite fit in in the town where you grew up.”

“No matter how thorough your education, it’s different to learn about racism through the eyes of a character.”

“It is a time for us to share our stories.”

“What I want for you is to be sure of your inherent worth, to be sure that You Are Okay.”

Emcees Amanda Quain and Rebecca Speas as Olive The Flying Girl from the Miss Peregrine books

Snapshot Stories

I read a lot. And, most of the time, I read very quickly. I’ve found that immediately reviewing the books that I read not only slows down my reading time, it diminishes the joy of the thing.

That said, I’ve read a ton of books ranging from cute fluff to mind-blowingly amazing, and I want to share them with everyone. A friend of mine Tweets her reviews, and this is my way of copying her–because, let’s be honest, I can’t limit all of these to 140 characters!

I picked up Even If the Sky Falls expecting a fluffy romance. What I got was the story of two complete strangers falling in love while trying to run away from themselves–with a splash of Mardi Gras magic.

I read Honor Girl, initially, in order to observe the form of a graphic memoir. (I like to challenge myself as a reader and a writer, and hearing Maggie Thrash speak at NoVA Teen last year inspired me to experiment with graphic memoir myself.) I was pleased to find that Thrash’s storytelling is honest and simple without being trite or sickening.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear was not an east read. In it, Johnston depicts the best-case scenario of a female rape victim. Equal parts stomach-turning and hopeful despite itself, this book is an important read. It will challenge you to reconsider your thoughts on justice, on abortion, on compassion. Perhaps you will come out politically unchanged (as I did), but you will never again be able to claim, “I never thought of it like that before.”

Having read Wild Swans, I truly believe that Jessica Spotswood understands my fragile human heart in a way that nobody else ever has. Between these pages, she encapsulates the longing for love and acceptance, the disappointment of feeling like you’re never enough, and the relief of knowing that you are loved. She reminds us that people of different political stripes can live and love together, and that every one of us is fighting our way through this life.

Summer Days and Summer Nights has a little something for everyone–unless you don’t like short stories. (It seems an insult that this one is so brief, but I loved it so much in so many different ways that it seems impossible to say more.)

While I took a while to really dive in to A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab did not disappoint me. She has layered three Londons that re impossible to mix up with magic, peril, and characters whose limits are constantly being questioned. (When I first wrote this, I ended it with, “I confess, I am anxious to get my hands on A Gathering of Shadows.” But, as of this revision, I’ve just started reading it! Yay!)

Despite the obvious criticisms, I found myself enchanted by Me Before You. It conveys a subtle sort of everyday magic–proof positive that relationships can be transformed, just like in Beauty and the Beast. I like to think that all humans are capable of learning to love as Will and Lou do. And, while the story has been labelled “ableist” in many circles (perhaps rightly so), I genuinely believe that Moyes has hit upon something true: Sometimes, falling in love is simply not enough.

If you like Shakespeare, Monty Python, The Princess Bride, and Tudor history with a splash of fantasy, My Lady Jane is the book for you. At nearly five hundred pages it looks like a formidable read–but, rest assured, humor and magic make it easy to fly through at kestrel speed. (You’ll get that reference once you’ve read it, I promise.)

E. K. Johnston’s voice in A Thousand Nights is spellbinding. I can feel the desert, see the qasr, hear Lo-Melkhiin. She wraps you in words and transports you to a different time and place–one where faith becomes power which becomes magic. Fans looking for a more adult companion to Gail Carson Levine’s Ever should snap up copies of this immediately.

If you liked A. G. Howard’s Splintered series, allow me to suggest Lisa Maxwell’s Unhooked. Where Howard tosses us down the darkly whimsical rabbit hole, Maxwell introduces us to a weirder, wilder Neverland, one made up of lies and memories that refuse to be realized. And let’s not forget the splash of Pirates of the Caribbean, when Barbossa tells Elizabeth, “You’d best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You’re in one.” (Plus, bonus: Sexy Captain Hook!)

Wink Poppy Midnight is lyrical and intense–although, I must confess, I had trouble understanding it at times. It was disjointed and poetic in a way that worked, but that I found difficult to follow. So, the rest of this snapshot will have to follow suit: Wink feels, at times, like Luna Lovegood and Anne Shirley with the potential of something sinister lurking just under her freckles. This story is Holly Black crossed with The Raven Cycle with splashes of romance and mystery. Who to like? Who to trust? Who’s to know?

More to come!

What We Learned From V.E. Schwab, Part Two

On February 26, Victoria “V.E.” Schwab graced the doors of One More Page Books in Arlington for the fifth time. This time, it was in celebration of the release of A Conjuring of Light, the much-anticipated conclusion to her Shades of Magic series. Schwab was joined by moderator, friend, and beta-reader Patricia Riley. Attendance was so high that the event was held in the lobby of the next-door Westlee Condominiums–and there was still barely enough room! Sad you missed it? I’ve got the highlights!

(Presented approximately in order of when they were said. All quotes are taken from Schwab unless otherwise attributed. Some minor errors are due to the fact that the tongue is faster than the hand.)

The One More Page staff, dressed up and in character.

“You are my one and only beta-reader.” (Schwab, to Riley)

“Your process is the same every time you write a book… You’re right on schedule.” (Riley, to Schwab)

“You’ve seen my process of insanity.” (Schwab, to Riley)

“I have to pace whenever I walk.”

“In the very early stages of any book, Patricia is in positivity mode.”

“I start every single book I write from the end.”

“I am the God of my world. … It’s very off-putting when [characters] defy me.”

“I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman.” (She went on to cite a quote in which Gaiman said that the only thing he wants his books to have in common is his name on the cover, saying that she is of the same mindset.)

“I write to a version of myself.” (She elaborated that her books are essentially for herself at different ages: nine, seventeen, twenty-nine.)

“Publishing is weird and it’s super fickle, and if you always write for yourself you’ll never be disappointed.”

“What revision is is you trying to close the gap between the idea in your head and the idea on paper.”

“You will always have to write it wrong first.”

“My dreams make no sense whatsoever and they will never become a book.”

“If you think of a book like a body… if the skeleton is not sound, you’re screwed.”

Schwab said she “comes from poetry,” so the lyricism and the individual words are important to her, which makes first drafts a challenge.

“I always miss what I’m not doing”–I.E. she wishes she was revising when she’s drafting, brainstorming when revising, and drafting when brainstorming.

“My absolute favorite kind of scene to write is an ensemble scene where the characters hate each other.”

Kell’s dramatic foil is… everyone: “which makes him delightful to write!”

“I really do like writing murder.”

“The hardest scenes to write are grief.”

“What’s weird is I’m not empathetic in real life,” but she is when writing/toward her characters.

“The languages in the book are built from the ground up grammatically.”

“Language tells us about insiders and outsiders…”

A Conjuring of Light is her first-ever finale, “the very first time in my life where I had to say goodbye to characters.”

“This book is longer than it looks–it’s actually 710 pages but they cut the margins down.”

“Could I take the exact same skeleton and create a different body on top of it?” (Schwab on the four Londons)

“I just wanted to play. I love world building… For me, setting is a character.” (Schwab on the four Londons)

Schwab said that, if she were to return to writing in this world, it would be with a new cast of main characters, placing the current set in secondary roles. “My favorite kinds of stories are the ones that shift perspective without eliminating perspective.”

It was seriously SO crowded. I came an hour early and this was the best picture I could get of her while she was speaking–and I was half-standing on a pool table!

“Once you add technology to magic, things get a little wonky.” (Schwab on choosing the time period for Shades of Magic)

“I’m a cinematic writer. … I treat a book like a collection of episodes. … I cannot fathom a 610 page book, but I can fathom fifteen episodes.”

“My whole goal when I’m writing is DON’T QUIT.”

“I write my sentences and my paragraphs out of order and then I sort of stitch them.”

“I have a really hard time writing bridge sections.”

“My overnight success took nine years.”

“Writing becomes harder with every book. … It gets easier to get in your own way. There are more voices and more judgement.”

“I write different books for different people. … I don’t intend for every book I write to be loved by everyone.”

“I try to make sure I’m not writing books for everyone, as long as I’m writing for someone.”

“I’m a person who lives inside of my head ninety-eight percent of the time and makes shit up.”

“I will never tell a reader they have read one of my books wrong. I can only bring up to fifty percent of the equation.”

“Nobody in my books ever eats–they just drink!”

“I go through massive periods of time where I can’t read fiction.” She went on to recommend three books–Lab GirlFuriously Happy, and Neil Gaiman’s View From the Cheap Seats, which she characterized as “like having a friend on tour with me.”

The news recently broke that the Shades of Magic series has been optioned for film. As this is her fourth project that has been optioned for film, Schwab said, “I won’t believe that there will actually be a movie until I’m in the theater with popcorn in my hands.” When asked if she who she would cast, if it were up to her, Schwab said that she actively avoids dream casting, except in the case of “Holland–I cast him as Mads Mikkelson… specifically Hannibal Mads Mikkelson.” She went on to say that she does have a seat at the creative table, so, “It will either be a good movie or no movie.”

The Sorting Hat

I’ve taken a lot of Harry Potter Sorting Hat quizzes (including the official Pottermore one) and have universally been sorted into Gryffindor. This, of course, always prompts existential self-examination. Why Gryffindor? Why not Ravenclaw, House of the Bookworms, or Hufflepuff, House of the Relationally Oriented?

It’s always about this time that I remember: I am a Gryffindor in matters of the heart.

When I was in sixth grade, I had my first serious crush. He was short like me, devastatingly adorable, and had vaguely spiky hair. (This was circa 2004; spiky hair was in.) Rather than pining away and allowing it to fade with time–like a normal preteen–I got it in my head that the “brave” and therefore “right” thing to do would be to tell him how I felt.

I gave him a Valentine–a rose made out of ribbon. He threw it away.

But that was okay, I told myself. I had delivered it so sneakily, and I didn’t sign it lest my classmates see. Clearly he didn’t understand that I was declaring my feelings for him. If I had given him candy, maybe he would have reacted differently. I would simply have to take a more direct approach.

So, naturally, I told him over AOL Instant Messenger. (I cannot stress enough that this was the early 2000s. This was how such things were done.)

He didn’t return my feelings and let me down in the gentlest way possible: By telling me that he was going to ask out a girl who was a year younger than us and shared my first name.

For a few months, I was crushed. But, little did I know, I would go on to meet my next crush while volunteering at Vacation Bible School that summer, so the tragedy didn’t last forever.

The next crush presented a new tragedy entirely.

I had three serious crushes in high school. I cycled through them repeatedly, each one distracting me from the woes of the others. I enacted numerous grand gestures and even more grand denials. But nothing was nearly as tragic as my first kiss.

I was seventeen. It was New Year’s Eve. I’d liked him on and off since seventh grade. I’d even invited him to go to my junior prom, which he rejected. I had no delusions. I knew he didn’t like me.

And, truthfully, at that moment I didn’t particularly like him. But the boy I really liked had a girlfriend, and my best friend had a boyfriend and–and–

And all of my friends were going to have someone to kiss at midnight. Except me.

My friends encouraged me to go for it, to “give him the option,” that the world wouldn’t end if I initiated my first kiss. (I was super prude, and was convinced that kissing a boy without dating him was tantamount to sex. I was insane.) I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it.

Midnight came and went. We ran around the house barefoot, whooping and hollering, to ring in the new year. He ran next to me and gave me his sweatshirt. I didn’t do it.

Later, after regaining feeling to our toes, the others turned on reruns of SNL.

“I’ve never really liked this stuff,” he told me. “Want to watch a movie? I have a bunch on my laptop.”

We watched Boondock Saints. It was profane and wildly inappropriate, gory and hilarious. We shared earbuds, which necessitated sitting close together. He put his arm around me, but it went numb about halfway through the movie. I tried to hold his hand, but he batted me away. When it was over, we made some smalltalk: “Willem Dafoe is a nut,” “Irish accents make everything ten times funnier,” stuff like that. He laid down.

Everyone else in the room was asleep. (Or so I thought: Years later, it would come to light that this was not, in fact, the case. His best friend–who happened to be dating my best friend at the time–was awake, and bore witness to what follows.) Blood pounded in my ears. If I was going to do something colossally stupid, this was my moment.

“Hey, sit up.”

“Why?”

“Trust me.”

I grabbed his face and–

Well, I don’t remember the sensations of the rest. There was a rushing in my ears as I lunged for his mouth. Everything went black, so I must have closed my eyes. My lips and mouth felt completely dry, as if I hadn’t had drop of water all night. But I barely felt anything else. It wasn’t until I heard the clock striking four (a sound that seemed to be coming to me from underwater) that I even realized what I was doing.

I dropped my hands and pulled back, trembling, mortified. Exhilarated.

He wiped his mouth off.

I said something along the lines of “holycrapIcannotbelieveIjustdidthat” and he chuckled. I sat there, breathing, processing, as he laid down. A moment passed before he propped himself up on one elbow. His demeanor was suddenly sweet, gentle–so very unlike him.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t mind the kiss, but–”

“I know,” I interrupted. If he didn’t finish, I could let my brain fizzle over his voice saying the kiss! If he did, my memory of this night would be subsumed by the second half of that sentence.

I didn’t sleep that night. I wanted to keep it a secret, to let it fade into history. A silly thing that happened at four in the morning at a New Year’s party. My best friend had other ideas–but that’s a story for another day.

Valentine Ramble

“Are you chafing as usual on this auspicious day?” he asked me. This was years ago, before Ryan, back when I was chronically single (oh, eighteen-year-old me, how much you have to learn). Before I’d ever been gifted with a daffodil or an orchid or my first kiss. Before Leslie Knope blessed us with the idea of Galentine’s Day. Before I had any reason to consider Valentine’s Day with any feeling aside from revulsion and utter loathing.

My hatred of Valentine’s Day really started in high school. When you’re a child, teachers generally have a “if you’re bringing a Valentine for one person, you’re bringing them for the whole class” policy, and people tend to be respectful of that rule. Not so in high school.

It was especially bad (or so I thought) at my high school. Because my high school sold carnations. For a few dollars, you could buy a carnation for your crush or your best friend or some random person in the hall. You could declare your feelings or make someone’s day… or, in the absence of said flower, cause someone to walk around with their heart in their shoes for the next few days.

It’s not that I never received any carnations. I had a few good friends, so I was guaranteed one or two. But I wasn’t one of the people walking around the hall with an armful of blue-and-white blossoms, feigning put-upon consternation while secretly being pleased to lord my haul over lesser beings. I hated having my relative unpopularity–and, more importantly, my lack of boyfriend–pointed out to me in this public way. (Not that anyone cared or noticed–but, when you’re sixteen, that never does occur to you.)

Was I “chafing”? Yes. Constantly. And it was utterly ridiculous.

On Politics and Friendship

I hate politics and board games for the same reason: Competition brings out the worst in people. John Green put it best when he said,aaaf32583898a48c57fa96bba55c4364-jpg

Thus far, I have kept myself out of the online political fray. There are a number of reasons for this–not least of which my feeling that being one more siren won’t be productive. But I want to tell a story–one whose moral will become clear once I’ve told it.

I had a lot of trouble making friends in school–or, at least, I always felt like I did. I transferred from Christian to public school for this reason in tenth grade. I didn’t realize that telling my new classmates this would set me apart. I was very obviously conservative, even though I didn’t mean to be, and I had a decidedly open temperament. In short, from the moment I enrolled at Triton Regional High School, I became not only the New Kid, but Different.

But I wasn’t shunned. Quite the opposite: My peers were compelled to ask me questions about what I believed. Some days it was flattering; other days it was hostile. One guy in particular would ask me questions, hoping to stump me. Once I demonstrated that he hadn’t, he would walk away, even if I was mid-sentence.

Enter Lindsay. Lindsay came from a background that was similar to mine, though she tended toward the liberal end of things. I was intimidated by her brash ways and her mouth that would make a sailor blush. But Lindsay was and is loyal and determined. Our friendship was cemented during senior year: I cut class one day because another girl was harassing me (about a boy, nothing serious), and Lindsay told her in no uncertain terms to leave me alone and keep my name out of her mouth. She never bothered me again, and Lindsay’s place in my heart became permanent.

Almost from the moment I met her, Lindsay had questions–and she wasn’t afraid to ask them. She never baited me; she genuinely wanted to hear my thoughts. We talked about everything from dinosaurs and evolution to purity and dating to whether I believed in purgatory. Usually, I had answers to her questions–but, when I didn’t, Lindsay was more than happy to allow me time for reflection and study. I’d come back a day or two later and we’d discuss my findings. Despite our manifold similarities, Lindsay and I almost always came down on opposite sides of things (remember being sixteen and seeing everything in black and white? *sigh*). While I’m sure we made a number of waitresses uncomfortable–and that one clerk in an otherwise abandoned consignment shop that one time–I never once felt threatened when Lindsay and I disagreed. I was never afraid that she would love me less if I told her what I really believed. I never worried that my religion or political views would break our relationship. And Lindsay never, ever silenced me–so I have done my best not to silence her (I don’t know if I ever have, but it’s safer not to claim perfection, right?).

It’s been almost ten years and that hasn’t changed, although we have. I’m married and straight, Lindsay is a lesbian who still waffles about whether she’s ready for a lifelong commitment (like a normal twenty-something). I’m politically moderate-leaning-conservative and she’s pretty darn liberal–although we agree that both candidates have more than a handful of issues. I’m a Christian, and Lindsay believes in the Universe and the connectivity of the human race. I love and respect her, and she affords me the same.

31781_10150209565710445_436245_n

This is us at senior prom. Look at how cute and happy we are. Also OH MY GOSH remember taking selfies with cameras?!

I once heard author Kat Spears say that she includes people of color in her books because “that’s just my reality.” Until recently, my reality has included civil discourse between opposed parties. It’s been one in which people have felt free to disagree, and to use that conversation to grow themselves as individuals. I have lived in a world where I was allowed to disagree with my more liberal friends while seeing that their views come from a place of compassion. It’s a place in which I’ve respectfully agreed to disagree with countless people–even other Christians–and we’ve all been better for it.

With John Green, I am baffled by the culture I find myself thrust into. (That being said, I am grateful–now more than ever–for those three years in public school.) I want to grow as a human being, but the idea of intentionally entering political discourse sounds like a form of ritual suicide. But how can I learn without discourse? How can I grow without being challenged? How can I understand both sides of the issues without intelligent conversation from both sides? In a world where we block people who disagree with us, where “good vibes only” translates to “identical minds only,” I’m not sure that I can.

So that’s where I’m at, internet. Maybe I’ll get back to book reviews after the election. Maybe I’ll keep devoting my whole self to my manuscript. We shall see.