Review of Journeys, edited by Catherine Gourley


Young Readers’ Letters to Authors Who Changed Their Lives

Library of Congress Center for the Book
edited by Catherine Gourley

Candlewick Press, 2017. 226 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 5, 2019, from a library book

This book is a collection of fifty-two letters written by young readers to authors about how their lives were touched by the authors’ books. Here’s an excerpt from the Foreword:

Over the years that Letters About Literature has invited young readers to share their personal responses to authors with us at Center for the Book, we have learned that children often approach reading with reluctance and that writing about what they read is often a challenge and, for some, a struggle.

This volume of letters is a showcase of young minds and hearts inspired and at times healed by the power of an author’s words. As the letters so poignantly illustrate, not all books are right for all readers. Likewise, two readers can interpret and respond to the same book quite differently. For some children, finding that right author, that right book, is in itself a bit of a journey. Once a reader finds that author and that book, something remarkable occurs. Readers discover themselves within the pages of the book. They begin to feel and to understand.

The letter-writers range in age from fourth grade to twelfth grade. Almost all of them are deeply personal. Since the editors chose from twenty-five years of letters, this isn’t a surprise. Each letter is showcased with a short description of the author and book they responded to.

I’m going to include a few random excerpts from letters. It’s not hard to find good quotations:

About Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi:

I want to be a writer that opens up doors for people. I want to set scenes and describe occupations that not everyone can become. People may not have the physical or mental capabilities to be an astronaut, race-car driver, teacher, dancer, or baseball player, but for a time, I want them to experience what each of those professions would be like.

I am a ten-year-old boy. I have mild cerebral palsy, but for one cool fall afternoon, I became Crispin, living in the Middle Ages. Thank you for that gift.

About The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak:

I used to be afraid. I used to wake up screaming and seeing a yellow star sewn onto my clothing. I have read many books about the Holocaust, but none of them struck me like The Book Thief. Instead of pain and fear, it is a book that focuses on courage, kindness, the power of words, and hope.

About the Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling, from a girl who’d been forbidden to read them:

You have given the world a gift, Ms. Rowling. You have given millions of people a friend, an adventure, and a happy ending that never ceases to amaze. So now, I thank you. Thank you for giving a little girl and her siblings someone to admire and dream about. Thank you for teaching the children of this world how magical love is, and most of all, Ms. Rowling, thank you for giving me Harry.

From a high school student about The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien:

When the soldier eventually kills himself, I was jolted awake. Why are death, war, and loss such taboo subjects? Why must we bury them down deep inside, cover our fears and uncertainties with a strained smile, and ignore a whole part of ourselves? No longer was I going to hide the past and the pain. I wouldn’t give up because people were unwilling to listen. I would spin words into poetry and attempt to define the indefinable. Circumstances had broken my heart, weighed down my shoulders, and given me a lifelong burden to carry. Yet I was unwilling to succumb to the same fate as the disillusioned soldier. I would not be shattered.

Your last story simultaneously opened fresh wounds and gave me the first real comfort since my mom’s death. I cried when Linda died. It was tragic. She was so young. I thought of my mom and it was almost unbearable. However, I realized from your book that stories could keep a person alive. Stories allow us to visit the past how it was: untainted in its beauty and unmarked by death or struggle.

And I love this one, about The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros:

“We are tired of being beautiful.” Thank you for writing those words. I was thinking them. I felt their unspoken pressure until they broke off your page and got stuck in my heart. That was your trick, I suppose. You wrote what everyone was thinking. You are so far away from me, so different, and still you spoke to me and I understood you. You knew me all along.

I am not fat anymore. I never was, I suppose, or maybe I still am. But I’ve stopped thinking about it and I am fine. “I am too strong for her to keep me here forever,” you wrote. I know that by “her,” you meant Mango Street, but I read it as “my body” and “my mind.” My heart came back together then, and I have you to thank for that. You didn’t tell me how to pull myself back together; you just showed me that I could. I was tired of trying to be somebody else’s definition of beautiful, and you told me that was okay. Beauty is not in the beholder, but in she who is beheld.

If you’ve ever wondered whether books can truly change lives, I highly recommend reading this book.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon

Steal Like an Artist

10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

by Austin Kleon

Workman Publishing Company, 2012. 152 pages.

This is a little book of excellent suggestions for young adults who want to pursue creative work. I say young adults, because as an adult who’s more set in my ways, I’ve already developed my own versions of some of these suggestions, like “Get yourself a calendar,” “Keep a log book,” and “Keep your day job.” (And those are all under the Ninth Thing: “Be Boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.”)

I do love the title Thing: “Steal like an artist.” Here are some good lines from the section explaining it:

What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.

If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.

As much as I love collecting quotations and writing book reviews, it’s not a surprise I love this idea.

Of course, this was my favorite bit:

Always be reading. Go to the library. There’s magic in being surrounded by books. Get lost in the stacks. Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.

Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away. Nothing is more important than an unread library.

Partly why I say this is for young adults is Thing Two: “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” It’s still good advice at age 53, but I have more of an idea than I did in my twenties.

The format of the book is such that it’s a great book to pull out and read a bit each morning to start your day with some inspiration. I tend to get such books read much more quickly than books that need a significant stretch of time in order to absorb them.

There are lots more good ideas for being creative for people of any age and place in their journey. I will probably give this book to my young adult children, who each have a creative side. And I’m storing away some of the advice to appropriate into my own life.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of One Day, the End, by Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Fred Koehler

one_day_the_end_largeOne Day, The End

Short, Very Short, Shorter-than-Ever Stories

by Rebecca Kai Dotlich
illustrated by Fred Koehler

Boyds Mills Press, 2015. 32 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book

Here’s another picture book about the power of imagination and writing your own stories.

The first spread sets the tone and explains what’s going on:

For every story, there is a beginning and an end, but what happens in between makes all the difference.

The rest of the book gives many short, very short, shorter-than-ever stories about one little girl. That is, it tells the beginnings and ends of stories. The pictures vividly show what happens in between. Truly, that makes all the difference!

Here are some examples of the stories in this book:

One day… I went to school. I came home. The End

One day . . . I lost my dog. I found him! The End

One day . . . I made something. I gave it to Mom. The End?

One day . . . I wanted to be a spy. I was. The End

The front flap introduces the girl character with the heading, “Meet the Storyteller.” She’s busy and imaginative. The pictures show her all over the place in a way that conveys boundless energy.

I am very curious as I write this how much direction the author gave the illustrator. Did she simply come up with these simple frameworks and let him fill in the rest? Or did she supply a few of the ideas? All of the ideas?

However they came up with it, the combination works beautifully!

With each story, the little girl makes her way across the page, full of energy, doing things, having adventures. Most of them end with a smile, but there are some interesting variations (such as when the dog jumps into the tub with her).

The final story reads, “One day . . . I wanted to write a book. So I did. The End”

The pictures for that review all the previous adventures found in this picture book, leaving the reader with a reminder that all you need for a story is a beginning and an end . . . and let your imagination run wild with the in-between.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Knitting Yarns, edited by Ann Hood

knitting_yarns_largeKnitting Yarns

Writers on Knitting

edited by Ann Hood

W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014. 287 pages.
Starred Review

I normally knit while I read nonfiction (with the help of a Book Chair), and naturally this book was a perfect choice. Twenty-six different authors here present musings about their relationships with knitting. Some are non-knitters, but they, too, have interesting stories to tell.

I love the wide range of experiences in this book. These are excellent authors who know how to make their musings interesting and entertaining. Of course, if you love knitting, that’s not a stretch.

In the Introduction, Ann Hood explains how knitting saved her after her little daughter died, and how this book came about.

This idea for an anthology of writers writing about knitting presented itself when I realized how many writers had told me their own knitting stories. To share those stories with knitters and readers seems not only exciting but necessary. I soon realized that the problem wasn’t going to be getting writers to contribute, but rather to find a way to keep so many knitting stories from flooding my inbox. What you have now is a collection of original essays written by some of the most prizewinning, bestselling, beloved writers writing today….

The impressive collection of writers here have contributed essays that celebrate knitting and knitters. They share their knitting triumphs and disasters as well as their life triumphs and disasters. Some of the essays are about the role knitting plays in the lives of these writers, or of their close family members; some essays are about the curious phenomenon of their interest in knitting but their inability to do it and what that means; some are about the importance of a knitted gift they gave or received; others illuminate the magic of knitting. These essays will break your heart. They will have you laughing out loud. But they will all leave knitters and non-knitters alike happy to have spent time in the company of these writers writing about knitting.

If you love knitting, and musing about knitting, that description will be enough.

I think most knitters tend to think of knitting as a metaphor for life in some way or other. I was surprised at how many different viewpoints, how many different ways of looking at knitting, these authors presented.

When I saw that Jane Smiley’s essay had the caption, “The writer discovers what knitting and writing novels have in common, and why she enjoys doing both,” I happily looked forward to a meditation on how both are constructed with a plan and require patient, faithful work. Instead, Jane Smiley proclaimed that in both endeavors, she thinks if you know how it’s going to look, why bother?

My conclusion: How you approach knitting is, in fact, similar to how a writer approaches writing. I approach both with a plan; Jane Smiley thinks too much planning makes them less interesting.

I went through the whole book at the rate of an essay a day and enjoyed it immensely. There’s nothing like knitting with someone – metaphorically or literally – for making friends. Now that I’m finished, I have to think about the essay I would write if I had the chance.

Would I write about my grandma, who knitted all the time? She had a padded canister with a hole in the top out of which yarn came out neatly, and she sat in her rocking chair in the corner and knitted. I loved the pink cabled sweater she knitted me when I was a little girl, followed by the purple granny square poncho when those were in style. The afghan she gave as a wedding present still graces my bed, even though my ex-husband does not. There was a time when my grandma tried to teach me how to knit, but only crocheting stuck. But all I had was dark brown practice yarn. No wonder I didn’t get inspired. I did, however practice crocheting chains and then learning other crochet stitches. But actually buying more yarn? Following a pattern? For some reason, I never thought of doing that.

I learned to knit as an adult, from a book. My son was taking piano lessons on the top floor of a shop in downtown Belleville. On the first floor, there was a craft shop. I bought a how-to-knit book, and this time it stuck! My first knitted object I wisely abandoned, but the second thing was a sweater for my son, and it actually turned out super cute! What’s more, my second son demanded to hold the books when we read books at bedtime, so my hands were free for knitting.

Before that, my main craft was cross-stitching. But when I finished, I’d never get around to framing the things. And besides, do I really want to stick more things on the wall? And besides, you have to look at the fabric when you’re cross-stitching. Knitting is perfect. Most projects, you don’t have to really look at, and all you have to do at the end is sew up the pieces (Still a problem sometimes), and the completed objects have a use – you can wear them in front of all your friends, who would hardly ever see them if you just attached them to your walls.

People tell me they don’t have enough patience for knitting, but I love knitting because it actually gives me patience! Do you know how boring elementary school assemblies can be (except for the five minutes when your kid is up front)? Well, if I bring knitting, I can quietly get something productive done while listening, and thus sit patiently. No matter how boring a meeting is – It’s a chance to knit! And even in interesting meetings, I maintain that keeping my hands busy helps keep me alert and interested. What’s more, it’s given me an excuse to sit and watch a video, or to sit and read nonfiction, for that matter. I’m not being lazy – I’m knitting!

But where my passion lies now is with mathematical knitting. My first Master’s was in Math, and I taught college-level Math for 10 years. But I didn’t particularly enjoy teaching – I’m an introvert. And I didn’t particularly enjoy teaching people who didn’t want to be there.

I do, however, love Math and think it’s beautiful. And one day I was reading a Knitting magazine and had an idea that changed my outlook.

The article told about a blanket someone had knitted that showed how numbers were factored. They took it to school events and had kids stare in fascination – even kids who thought they didn’t like math and weren’t good at it.

Since then, I’ve found a picture of the blanket posted on the internet, “Counting Pane,” created by Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer, “Mathekniticians.” (Lovely! That’s what I must call myself!)

The only problem was that the article didn’t show a picture of the complete blanket, so it wasn’t clear exactly how they were showing the different factors. But I know enough about math. I could devise my own scheme. And I wouldn’t want to do a blanket. Why not a sweater? Then I could wear it and talk with anyone I see about the beautiful patterns involved.

Figuring out how it would work was a huge part of the fun. I found a plain sweater pattern that had a big enough front to make a suitable canvas. I counted up how many colors I would need if I showed the prime factors of all the numbers from 2 to 100, with 1 as the background color. I did some swatches to figure out how to represent two factors, three factors, four factors, five factors, and six factors, with one stitch in between each color, and each number represented as a rectangle of colors. (It turned out that a 7 stitches by 8 stitches grid worked best.) I had fun charting it all out on graph paper, and then finding a yarn with enough different shades (I chose Cotton Classic), and then getting started.

The Prime Factorization Sweater took me more than a year to make, and then I went on to other things. I did create a DNA cabled scarf for my son, following a pattern in a book, and a probability scarf, also using an idea I’d read about. (You choose six yarns that go together well. You knit the scarf lengthwise. At the end of each row, you roll a die to decide which yarn to use next and flip a coin to decide whether to knit or purl. Use the ends as fringe and stop when one of the yarns runs out.)

Long after I’d finished the sweater, I wrote a blog post explaining it. Three years after that, I wore the sweater to the US Science and Engineering Festival, and showed it to Ivars Peterson at the Mathematical Association of America booth. I told him he could read all about it by googling “prime factorization sweater.” He did one tweet – and that day my website got 17,000 hits!

That got me thinking about mathematical knitting again. At last I’d found some people who agreed with me about how cool it was! The original Prime Factorization Sweater had taken so long, and had so many ends to sew in at the end. Could I think of a way to make one that used complete rows rather than a grid?

I found a sleeve-to-sleeve cardigan pattern and decided to knit the factors as stripes. But before I did that, I did the same idea in smaller form with a Prime Factorization Scarf. For the scarf, I used a reversible stitch and did two rows for each factor, with two rows of black (representing 1) in between. I was only able to go up to 50, so I decided to use something that would knit up smaller for the cardigan. Instead of two rows for each color, since the cardigan did not need to be reversible, for each number that wasn’t an exact power of a prime, I knitted all the factors into the same stripe. Powers got a row for each factor.

But while I was starting the cardigan, some babies joined the family! The cardigan had to be put aside. I used the ideas, with a stitch code (rather than a color code) to make a blanket for my little sister’s new baby with a coded blessing. But when my mathematically-minded little brother was due to become a father, I went back to the prime factorization idea. I used the same Cotton Classic yarn as for my sweater, but this time used entrelac blocks – so I didn’t need to have ten different balls of yarn in the same row, and could work with one color at a time.

I liked the Prime Factorization Blanket so much, I hated to give it away. But that got me thinking – Entrelac is an easy way to make Triangles. What if I made a Pascal’s Triangle Shawl? I loved the result – whole new patterns showed up. And after I made the first one, using the same colors as the Prime Factorization Blanket, I thought I’d make one using colors closer together in shade and using intermingled colors rather than blocks of color. (I may have to do a prime factorization blanket that way some day).

The cardigan is much bulkier, more attention-requiring knitting, so now the Pascal’s Triangle Shawl is my travel knitting and the Prime Factorization Cardigan is my at-home while-reading knitting. (I am almost done! In fact, today I ordered more black yarn and buttons for the edging. The bulk of the sweater is done.)

So, yes, when I think of knitting, I think of planning and counting and calculating. There is an aspect for me of being excited to find out what I’m creating – but as with writing, I need to have a plan.

A few people have told me I should sell my mathematical creations, but they take way too long! And besides, it makes me happy to look at them and to share them with people. (I did create a Prime Factorization T-shirt you can buy from Cafepress. And you don’t even have to worry if you spill on it.)

I was reflecting that I’m not sure if I’m going to go back to knitting-by-pattern. (Though I do use a pattern for the basic shapes of my sweaters.) There’s a huge joy in having an idea and planning it out and creating it, stitch by stitch and row by row and seeing how your creation comes out. And there’s something that delights me in seeing mathematical truths before my eyes.

And what was I doing? Reviewing a book? That’s right. For any knitters out there, I highly recommend Knitting Yarns. It will get you thinking about knitting in whole new ways and maybe inspire you to write an essay yourself.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Review of Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Good Prose

The Art of Nonfiction

Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing

by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd

Random House, New York, 2013. 195 pages.
Starred Review

Tracy Kidder writes good nonfiction. On Sonderbooks, I’ve reviewed Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains, and I read Among Schoolchildren long before I started writing Sonderbooks.

Good Prose is a book written by Tracy Kidder and his long-time editor, Richard Todd, about the writing process. It throws in the story of their collaboration and friendship along the way, but mostly it gives lots of insights about writing good prose.

It’s no surprise that the writing in this book is exceptionally good. So to review this book, I’m going to simply offer several example paragraphs.

Even the stories about their friendship are insightful. I like this bit from the Introduction:

A long association had begun. Todd knew only that he had a writer of boundless energy. For Kidder, to be allowed not just to rewrite but to rewrite ad infinitum was a privilege, preferable in every way to rejection slips. And as for Todd, it was possible to imagine that a writer willing to rewrite might turn out to be useful. Todd once remarked to a group of students, never expecting he would be quoted, “Kidder’s great strength is that he’s not afraid of writing badly.” The truth was that Kidder was afraid of writing badly in public, but not in front of Todd. Kidder would give him pieces of unfinished drafts. He would even read Todd passages of unfinished drafts, uninvited, over the phone. Very soon Todd understood when he was being asked for reassurance, not criticism, and would say, “It’s fine. Keep going.” When a draft was done, Todd would point out “some problems,” and another rewrite would begin.

That ritual established itself early on and persisted through many articles and Kidder’s first two books. A time came — midway through the writing of Among Schoolchildren, about a fifth-grade teacher — when Kidder began revising pages before Todd had a chance to read them. This was a means of delaying criticism forever. No doubt that was Kidder’s goal, and he could remain happily unaware of it as long as he kept on rewriting. Things went on that way for a while, until Todd said, in the most serious tone he could muster, “Kidder, if you rewrite this book again before I have time to read it, I’m not working on it anymore.” Kidder restrained himself, and the former routine was reestablished.

Here are some tidbits from a section on Characters:

Some general truths apply. For instance, one sure way to lose the reader is trying to get down everything you know about a person. What the imaginative reader wants is telling details. Characters can emerge in long descriptive passages, as in Tolstoy, but brevity can also work. Graham Greene rarely gives us more than a detail or two — a face “charred with a three days’ beard” or a pair of “bald pink knees” — and Jane Austen often gives us less than that, and yet the people those writers create have come alive for generations of readers.

Whether it is brief or lengthy, mere description won’t vivify a statue. What we want are essences, woven into a story in moments large and small. A character has a wart. You could describe it in detail, but the reader would probably see it more clearly if you described not the wart but how the character covers it when he’s nervous.

Here’s a paragraph from the chapter on essays:

When you write about your own ideas, you put yourself in a place that can feel less legitimate than the ground occupied by reporters or even by memoirists, who are, or ought to be, authorities on their subjects. An all-purpose term describes efforts at sharing your mind: the essay. As an essayist you can sometimes feel like a public speaker who must build his own stage and lectern. Essays are self-authorizing. This is the dilemma but also the pleasure of the form. The chances are that nobody asked for your opinion. But if your idea is fresh, it will surprise even someone, perhaps an assigning editor, who did ask.

And from the chapter on style:

We think of an author’s style as if it were some sort of fixed identity, but it is made up of an accumulation of granular decisions like this one. I remember once in those early days giving Kidder some advice about style. I said in effect, “Look, you are not always the calmest and most reasonable person in the room, and there is no need to be. But you admire such people. Why don’t you just pretend to be a reasonable man in your prose?” I think it was useful advice, actually, but it’s not as if a style is a one-time discovery. It is created and re-created sentence by sentence, choice by choice.

And finally, here’s how they sum up the book, again from the Introduction:

Good Prose is mainly a practical book, the product of years of experiment in three types of prose: writing about the world, writing about ideas, and writing about the self. To put this another way, this book is a product of our attempts to write and to edit narratives, essays, and memoirs. We presume to offer advice, even the occasional rule, remembering that our pronouncements are things we didn’t always know but learned by attempting to solve problems in prose. For us, these things learned are in themselves the story of a collaboration and a friendship.

The result is a book both instructive and entertaining.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Review of The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

Winning the Inner Creative Battle

by Steven Pressfield

Rugged Land, NY, 2002. 165 pages.

Well, I’m reviewing this book partly to figure out what I think about it. There’s a whole lot I agree with, and a whole lot I don’t agree with.

You’ll understand what he’s getting at right at the start of the book:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

Now I’ve got an automatic resistance to the whole idea that if you want to create something positive, You Will Face Resistance. I don’t like the whole mystique of the Suffering Artist or Tortured Writer. In fact, I loved Jane Yolen’s book on writing Take Joy! because it said what I believe — that if you don’t enjoy the process of writing, you probably shouldn’t do it.

But I can see that sometimes we don’t do the things we want to do if we think we should do them. Actually, I began reading a book that talked about tricking yourself around that tendency. It was called The Art of Procrastination, and I didn’t get around to reading it before it was due back at the library!

So I’m not sure if I want to see Resistance as this big bad force that you will inevitably encounter. But I have to admit that the book does have some excellent tips on getting around whatever Resistance you do encounter. So does that mean I admit I do encounter some?

And in a lot of ways, he’s saying the same thing as Jane Yolen does, just in a different way. Here’s a short chapter I just turned to:


Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.

But later he says that signing up to be an artist is signing up to be miserable, because war is hell. I don’t think I agree with that!

The second section, though, is about habits of a professional as opposed to habits of an amateur. That whole section was excellent.

I liked the chapter about how we’re all Pros already in one area: Our jobs. In our jobs, we do all these things that define us as professionals:

1. We show up every day.
2. We show up no matter what.
3. We stay on the job all day.
4. We are committed over the long haul.
5. The stakes for us are high and real.
6. We accept remuneration for our labor.
7. We do not overidentify with our jobs.
8. We master the technique of our jobs.
9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
10. We receive praise or blame in the real world.

The third and final section gets into more mystical things and is a little less practical. But one excellent concept it contains is the idea of having a territorial orientation as opposed to a hierarchal orientation. You don’t have to be above others to be good at what you do. The value of art lies in its existence, not in where it falls in some ranking.

On the last page of the book, you’ll find these words:

Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don’t do it. . . .

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Now, as I’m writing this review, I’m in the middle of reading a book called Too Good to Ignore which says the whole “Find your passion” teaching is dangerous. Reading it is making me look at The War of Art with different eyes.

But I don’t think Steven Pressfield is telling readers to find their passion and quit their jobs and go follow it. He’s talking to people who know they have creative pursuits inside them that aren’t getting out. He’s giving them tips to fool and get around their own Resistance or maybe fight it head on and win.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I write the posts for my website and blogs entirely on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Picture Book Month and NaNoWriMo

Poor November! When people decide they should use a month to honor something, to do something, or just to get ready for December, they seem to pick November.

It’s already got that fabulous holiday Thanksgiving, and Veteran’s Day as well — almost the only holiday left that hasn’t gotten pushed to Monday, and thus the one it’s common for schools not to celebrate. My son’s school doesn’t. Instead they have this coming Monday and Tuesday off (when I will have to work) for teacher work days at the end of first quarter.

Even FlyLady, who is so wonderful about teaching you are not behind; you do not need to catch up, has you already preparing for Christmas in November.

Now, one I can really support is Picture Book Month. Their website is going to feature a post by a picture book author every day of the month — definitely worth checking out! In a related story, this manifesto written by several picture book authors is positively awesome! I would love to post a picture book review every day of November, but, alas! There are so many other things going on…

Like NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is a fabulous idea that has really taken off. It’s a challenge for writers everywhere to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November. And since everyone’s doing it together, you can post your wordcount online and encourage one another.

I love the idea of NaNoWriMo. I wish someone had thought of it back before I worked full-time. I thought I’d give it a go this year. It seemed perfect, since I’m at a good place to start a new novel, and that’s one of the requirements. However, there are some problems for me.

1. I’m in this for the long haul; I want a sustainable goal.
It looks like I could get the 50,000 words written in 30 days if I were willing to spend two hours per day. I could probably spend two hours a day if I were willing to let everything else go — no blog posts, no reading, no hiking, no cleaning, no game-playing, no “fluff” whatsoever. Then when the month was over I could crash in relief and try to put my life back together. I greatly prefer the goal from the book The Weekend Novelist to write — and revise — your novel in a year. Then you’re actually done at the end of the process, not just with a big fat pile of words that needs to be pruned.

2. I’ve always preferred time goals to quantity goals.
I’ve memorized large quantities of Scripture in my life, and I fully believe that the key is that I set my goals by time not quantity. Some passages are harder to learn than others, so if you set a goal of a certain number of verses, you have no idea how long that will take, and you might have trouble meeting your goal. So with writing. The phrase “Writing is rewriting” is so old, it’s a truism. Using a word count goal doesn’t give you any credit when you cut an entire page and then write it better and shorter. I also find I write much better if I spend a little time planning — writing about my writing. But a word count goal doesn’t take that into account. For the last couple years, I’ve been semi-consistently writing at least a half-hour every day. If I don’t worry about quantity, that seems to go very well.

3. I would prefer to have the novel all done in a year than have the first draft finished in a big messy pile in a month and then be tired of it.

With these things in mind, here are my writing goals, in order of priority, for the upcoming month and onward:

1. Get enough SLEEP!

I had a stroke three months ago. And I was healing nicely when a couple of weeks ago I had a setback and was back to feeling light-headed whenever I stand or walk for more than a minute or so. The fact is, I need to get enough sleep if I’m going to function. I would really like to stop taking Sick Leave, though that may mean that some days I will have to go straight to bed after work. That has got to be my first priority, and is a big part of why I’m not going to do NaNoWriMo by the group rules.

2. Send one query per week to agents about my completed young adult novel, The Mystical Mantle.

If I get an offer for representation on this novel or any sort of request for revision, then it will be time to drop the new novel and work on getting my already-written book published. Whether it’s the middle of NaNoWriMo or not.

3. Spend at least 30 minutes per day writing the first draft of my new novel.

But this time can include planning. At this rate, I will hope to finish the first draft by February or March, but it’s fine whenever it happens. My goal will be to WRITE it. I will hope to completely finish it by the end of 2012. By that time, if I haven’t yet sold The Mystical Mantle, it will be time to market the new book.

4. Finish posting reviews of all the books I’ve read in 2011 before the end of the year.

This is one of the things I’m not willing to give up in order to blitz NaNoWriMo. I just got caught up writing the reviews, but I’m still quite a bit behind on posting them.

5. Finish posting about my vacation and other trips on my Sonderjourneys blog.

My last post was the middle of vacation, and I still haven’t blogged about the awesome wedding with ALL 12 of my brothers and sisters and me there.

So, I think I’ll still post my word count on the NaNoWriMo site, because I am starting a new first draft of a novel. But I’m not going to be daunted when November ends and I haven’t finished. Like I said, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m going to write another book. This new one will be my fourth book and my third novel, and I am determined to finish it. I am determined to cultivate a lifestyle of being a writer, not just a one-month sprinter.

Here goes! Write on!

Review of Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

Reading Like a Writer

A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them

by Francine Prose

HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006. 273 pages.

Francine Prose begins her book like this:

“Can Creative Writing be taught?

“It’s a reasonable question, but no matter how often I’ve been asked, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can’t be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.

“What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it’s being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’d spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time? Probably, I should just go ahead and admit that I’ve been committing criminal fraud.”

She goes on to admit:

“Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books….

“In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and reread the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls ‘putting every word on trial for its life’: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.

“I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.”

This book opened my eyes to things about the writing process that had gone right past me before. She talks about and gives examples of writers who chose just the right word, then goes on to talk about beautiful sentence-level writing, and then the way writers construct paragraphs. She talks about narration and dialogue, and creating characters. She talks about telling details and gestures.

I must admit this book reads a bit like a college textbook. I took it very slowly, only tackling a chapter at a time, if that. But it would be a textbook for a fascinating, enlightening college class, and I couldn’t help but be jealous of her students.

With this book, Francine Prose equips the reader to better appreciate — and therefore emulate — the fine art of writing beautiful and powerful fiction.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

And the Rest…

At the start of 2010, I had 43 books I’d read in 2009 that I wanted to review. I’ve been madly writing reviews, without posting them to my main site, waiting until I’ve caught up. I have eight books left from 2009. They were all very good, and worth mentioning, but in the interests of time, I’m only going to mention them with a short blurb in this post, and not give them a full page on my main site.

Once I finish them, I have another stack of seven books that I finished reading already in 2010. After I have caught up on writing those reviews, I hope to post all of the new reviews to So here goes!

Children’s Fiction

These first three books I read as part of my class on the Newbery Medal. They are all historical novels, set in medieval times, and all well-written though just a tad old-fashioned. As Newbery Medal winners, you will be able to find more information about them than these reviews.

The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly

Scholastic, 1990. First published in 1928. 242 pages.
1929 Newbery Medal Winner.

Here’s a tale of intrigue and danger set in old Krakow. There are some strange sections about alchemy, and you can tell if someone is bad or good based on how they look, but despite its old-fashioned feel, this book still is very interesting. It’s almost more for teens, because the language is at a high reading level, and the main character is almost grown up, but he is still treated like a child, so the book has the feel of a children’s book.

Fifteen-year-old Joseph Charnetski and his family are fleeing to Krakow. As they almost reach the city gates, someone shows interest in an especially large pumpkin, which his father is not willing to sell.

They use an assumed name and find a hiding place in the city, near an old scholar and his daughter. Joseph’s father takes a job as the city trumpeter. The trumpeter is also the watchman, tasked to raise the alarm if there is a fire in the city. They never play the last three notes of the trumpet call in honor of an old trumpeter who gave his life keeping the call going during an invasion.

Joseph learns the call as well as his father, and as danger approaches, he finds a clever way to raise the alarm.

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Adam of the Road
by Elizabeth Janet Gray

Scholastic. First published in 1942. 320 pages.
1943 Newbery Medal Winner.

Adam of the Road is the story of a minstrel’s son in medieval England. The book starts out at school, with Adam waiting for his father to pick him up after some time apart, to go to London and back on the road. Adam has gained a beloved dog, Nick, who can do tricks and help with their act.

Along the way, a sinister rival minstrel steals Nick. As Adam’s chasing after him, he loses track of his father. He ends up wandering across England on his own, trying to find his father and his dog, and having various adventures along the way.

This is a good story that has stood the test of time. Adam is awfully young to be on his own, but people are kind to him, and he cleverly makes his way, never in real danger. A light-hearted and enjoyable adventure tale for kids interested in medieval times.

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The Door in the Wall
by Marguerite de Angeli

Yearling Newbery (Bantam Doubleday Dell), 1990. First published in 1949. 121 pages.
1950 Newbery Medal Winner.

The Door in the Wall is another story of a boy on his own in medieval times. Robin’s father went off to the wars, expecting his son to go train to be a knight. His mother went to be the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, expecting John-the-Fletcher to come soon to take him to Sir Peter de Lindsay, to train as a knight.

But Robin gets sick, and when John-the-Fletcher comes, he is not able to go along. For a month he is bedridden, unable to move his legs. He is lame and will never be a knight now.

Some monks take Robin under their wing. They help him learn to swim, to strengthen his arms, and eventually to walk with a crutch. They take him on a journey to meet his father, and they have adventures along the way. By the end of the book, only Robin is able to get a message out and save an entire castle.

This book is shorter than the others. It’s a fairly simple story, but interesting with the medieval setting and inspiring as Robin overcomes his handicap, and learns that his life still has significance.

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Growing Wings
by Laurel Winter

Firebird (Penguin Putnam), 2000. 195 pages.

All her life, Linnet’s mother has touched Linnet’s shoulder blades before she tucks Linnet into bed. One day, when she’s eleven, Linnet learns why. She’s itching horribly, and she has strange bumps on her shoulders.

Linnet’s mother assures her she doesn’t have cancer. She is growing wings. Linnet’s mother also grew wings when she was Linnet’s age, but her mother cut them off. Linnet’s mother is determined not to do that to Linnet, but she doesn’t know what to do to hide them.

Linnet finds a community of others with wings, living in a house in the wilderness. Some adults who are “cutwings” are in charge. So far, none of the teens with wings have been able to fly. They are trying to learn, but also to stay hidden.

This is an intriguing story, with plenty of conflict in the community of winged children. Linnet explores her heritage and wonders what she can make of her life. Will she have to spend her whole life in hiding?

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Miss Zukas and the Island Murders
by Jo Dereske

Avon Books (HarperCollins), 1995. 258 pages.

This is the second mystery about Miss Zukas, librarian extraordinaire. In this book, Miss Zukas and her exotic friend Ruth arrange a twenty-year reunion on an island in Puget Sound for their high school class from Michigan.

While they’re preparing, she gets threatening letters that refer to the long-ago death of one of their classmates. Once they’re on the island, naturally a storm strikes, isolating them, and a murder occurs. Can they solve the murder and keep from getting killed themselves?

This is a fun mystery. Miss Zukas’s librarian nature didn’t come up as much in this book as in the first one, and I felt that she leapt to conclusions without a lot of reasons. But she’s an entertaining character to read about. Gotta love a librarian detective!

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A Way of Life

by Louise L. Hay and Friends
compiled and edited by Jill Kramer

Hay House, 1996. 312 pages.

This book is full of essays about gratitude, written by many notable people. How can you possibly go wrong? I went for quite awhile, reading one essay per day. It’s a nice way to put your day on track.

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The Bait of Satan
Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense

by John Bevere

Charisma House, 2004. First published in 1994. 255 pages.

In this book, John Bevere teaches that Satan’s biggest trap is taking offense. What’s more, you feel justified and in the right!

“Pride causes you to view yourself as a victim. Your attitude becomes, ‘I was mistreated and misjudged; therefore, I am justified in my behavior.’ Because you believe you are innocent and falsely accused, you hold back forgiveness. Though your true heart condition is hidden from you, it is not hidden from God. Just because you were mistreated, you do not have permission to hold on to an offense. Two wrongs do not make a right!”

This book looks at many different ways the devil deceives us into taking offense, and encourages you in many different ways to overcome and find forgiveness. A valuable, helpful book.

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Write Is a Verb
Sit Down. Start Writing. No Excuses.

by Bill O’Hanlon

Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. 212 pages. DVD included.

This is a book about getting it together and actually writing. I read it after I had already made and was keeping a resolution to write at least fifteen minutes per day, every day, so this book only reinforced what I had already determined to do.

If you want to write, and are having trouble motivating yourself, this book has some great ways to think through your motivation and ideas for marketing yourself. Think of this as a great pep talk, complete with a DVD so you can see and hear an additional pep talk.

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Review of Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper, by SARK

juicy_pensJuicy Pens, Thirsty Paper

Gifting the World with Your Words and Stories and Creating the Time and Energy to Actually Do It


Three Rivers Press, New York, 2008. 187 pages.
Starred review.

Here’s a lovely, inspiring, exuberant book of encouragement for writers. Handwritten in a rainbow of colors, SARK (Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy) knows exactly what to say to encourage writers to actually put pen to paper.

Here are some examples, which you must imagine in her bright and beautiful handwriting:

“Most of all, I write because of the joy it creates. Writing creates connections and magic and certain kinds of permanent bliss. I can write myself in and out of moods and experiences, and create new places to live in my mind. It’s kind of like pole vaulting with a pen.”

“Last night I ate a lot of ice cream after dinner and then didn’t get much sleep from the caffeine in the chocolate. I could blame not writing on that too.

“Who can I blame for blaming?”

“I’ve learned that literally anything can be used as a reason ‘not to write’ and that these choices are mostly habitual and fear-based and can be changed.”

“We forget that writing is fun and rewarding, or become convinced that it isn’t and load it up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t or don’t do it. We actually think so much about why we aren’t writing, that we forget how to use our energy to actually write.

“This book will remind you.”

“I think of being human as a kind of writing incubator. You are your own hatching station.”

“Reading is most often a source of great joy, which fills wells, cells and provides fuel for our imagination.”

“There is no right or good time to write. There are always days that will be easier or more perplexing than others, but really it’s all just hilarious practicing. I call it hilarious because it’s subject to what life gives and brings us, and that is just so funny and variable.

“If you take time to write every day, it will move like a river or the ocean. I appreciate but do not depend on the moments of days or even days where writing flows smoothly. Sometimes it is stagnant, then rushing, perhaps dripping for long stretches of time.”

“Now I hilariously practice writing daily, and generally like how it feels. I’ve surrendered to being a writer (one who writes) and living that way. Now it’s your turn too! Get yourself a big juicy pen and some thirsty paper.”

The book isn’t only inspiring quotations, but includes plenty of exercises and ideas to jumpstart your own writing. It would be better to purchase a copy and write in it than to do as I did and check it out from the library. Then you can add your own creativity and dip into it again and again.

Just reviewing this book changes my attitude enormously! I love SARK’s joyful and joyous spirit. It’s contagious. If your own encouragement to yourself isn’t enough to get you to write, I strongly recommend SARK’s encouragement.

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