November 🦃: On Tough Topics
and being a good Literary Citizen
Next week is my second favorite holiday: one with mashed potatoes, corny New York City parades, and babies in matching plaid pajamas. We’re going to be headed up north to my family’s Northwoods cabin (think Moose Junction!) and I can’t wait to curl up in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine and a good book, ignoring the shrieks of my children doing God knows what.
Most of November has been spent watching British television (The Crown’s recent season was…lacking) and daydreaming about evergreens coated with snow. But I’ve also been charging forward with a new middle grade project (that I get to tell you about so soon! I promise!) and planning out 2023. What do I want it to look like? What should I be most focused on? This is the first year in a long time that I skipped my yearly Powersheets and instead opted for a more DIY version of goal setting with Tsh’s Rule of Life system and lots of scripture reading and many nights spent sitting with a velvet journal I snagged for five bucks at Target.
One thing I keep coming back to, over and over: I want to be a Real Life Author.
I want to do less Zoom’s and more bookstore events. Less virtual school visits and more in-person ones, where I get to sign bookmarks and take photos with kids. Less digital presentations and more book festivals. And not just where I’m the author—I want to be a better literary citizen in general. When I attended the Central Wisconsin Book Festival as a presenter last fall, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t check out the itinerary until the day before my presentation. They had such amazing events offered! It inspired me to look at my own library’s schedule of events, particularly for my kids, and plan to be more involved in the offline writing world this year.
2022 was an absolute red letter year for my career, but a difficult one personally. I’m honestly ready to wave it goodbye; I’d like to dive into 2023 headfirst and skip over the next two tidings-of-comfort-and-joy-months altogether. But as wise counsel recently told me, skipping over the painful seasons is going to prevent future ones from bearing fruit. We don’t get to skip right to the flowering, first we need to do the planting. The digging in the mud. The unearthing of seeds. The dirt under our fingernails, the sweaty dragging of mulch, the careful wait.
So it’s good practice for me to take the time to reflect and plan. I can’t wait to share all that 2023 will have in store, while toasting 2022 with Christmas cookies and champagne as it gently winds down.
An excerpt from another newsletter I run for Catholic women:
But the other day as I perused my local bookstore, I found a copy of Crank by Ellen Hopkins*. That book is on many a banned book list. It’s fairly graphic. It deals with extremely heavy topics. And I can still see my 13-year-old self, wide eyed, reading it backstage of a musical I was in using a flashlight to see the chapter headings. It exposed me to the dark underbelly of addiction and grief, and it showed me despair in a way I hadn’t seen it written on a page. It was, to be honest, a formative reading experience.
Do I want my kids reading it? Yes. And no. It terrifies me, and yet—I want them to have that backstage experience. I want them to see the frightening parts of the world in a safe place—a book—and be able to ask me about it. I want them to walk tenderly into the world alongside an author, not hear the word “crack” and think “huh? What’s that? Sure, I’d love some!”
I’ve been thinking of this idea more + more lately.
Which books have tough topics (I can’t say that phrase without thinking of American Girl books) and are still appropriate for our kids to read? Which make us feel more squirmy? Which do we want our kids to avoid because we truly think they’re sending an inappropriate message, and which do we want our kids to avoid because we don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations?
When my first book came out, a Christian book reviewer lambasted it for, among other things: the main character saying “Oh my God”, her sneaking out of her house, and her sister being sassy to her mom. I wondered, for half a minute, if this person had ever met a 12-year-old. I also wondered if her kids only read Pollyanna.
Because not to knock Pollyanna, which I’ve heard is a perfectly wonderful book, but if so: they’re missing out on a rich world of literature.
They’re missing out on adventure and escape, on spies and quests and epic journeys. They’re missing out on having a safe, imaginary world in which to think through their thoughts on heavy topics and to explore what they would do when faced with difficult situations. They’re missing out on a slice of comfort in an often-hopeless-feeling world, on a refuge from the real, sometimes-disastrous consequences of our decisions.
My next book, What Happened to Rachel Riley?, features sexual harassment in middle school. This is something I experienced. This is something modern-day 13-year-olds I’ve spoken to have experienced. This is something the majority of kids, according to the data, will at least witness.
We avoid the topic at our peril.
Would I hand What Happened to Rachel Riley? to my 4-year-old? Absolutely not. In fact, there are 12-year-olds who probably aren’t ready to handle reading it without a guide or group. I do think that much of the time, parents know best what their kids are ready for. I’m not at all telling you to walk blindly into a library and let your kids check out whatever they happen to grab off the shelf.
I just caution parents with this: let your kids take risks with their books. They may be braver and wiser than you think. Books that handle tough topics can be brilliant conversation starters, and can become moments where your kids learned in a safe, secure environment.
That being said: You still have a few weeks left to preorder What Happened to Rachel Riley—thank you so much for considering doing so. If you want more books that walk the delicate line between tough topics + tattered hope, the best way to ensure more get published is to preorder the ones that exist.
Some reviews that have meant the world to me:
“What Happened to Rachel Riley has every single thing a middle grade reader could want: a twisty mystery; relatable, authentic teen characters; and the kind of demonstrated courage that seeps into our souls and leaves us feeling brave. This book is going to change lives." — Carrie Firestone, author of Dress Coded
“This is just super clever and nuanced. I also think the author really, really captures how hard it is to be in middle school.” - Camryn, a GoodReads reviewer
“I wish I could give this book 10 stars. Even more! Every single middle school student, teacher, volunteer, and parent should be required to read this book.” - Deena, a GoodReads reviewer
“Each of your books gets better, but you need to use more metaphors.” - my mother
And lastly, a book I’ve loved lately for…
Kids: Milly and the Macy’s Day Parade by Shana Corey is one of my absolute favorites for this time of year. A very sweet tale about the creation of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the viewing of which is one of my family’s favorite traditions. It talks about immigration, being homesick, and celebrating all kinds of cultures. The illustrations are so whimsical, and it’s just a fun holiday tale.
Middle graders: Golden Ticket by Kate Egan is a sweet story about an academic overachiever learning her true worth. I’m bad at book descriptions—it’s not corny at all but actually really sweet and realistic. It’s the exact type of book I loved as an 11-year-old. Snag it for the middle grader in your life!
Adults: Travel memoirs are one of my favorite genres, and We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn was delightful. It made me want to travel the world with my kids even more than I already do. Also, the chapter where she accidentally gets baked in Amsterdam is hilarious. If throwing your kids on an airplane isn’t your thing, a bit of armchair travel may be just right for you this season!
Thanks for reading along!