Tag Archives: books

The Quiet Books

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithHow delicious it can be to pick up a book without any expectations. No rave reviews or weeks on the bestseller list setting up high expectations. No preview for the upcoming movie playing in my head.

I knew nothing about I Capture the Castle before I read it. I don’t even know why I bought it, except that I liked the title (I’m a sucker for titles). The cover art on my edition of the book, unlike the romantic scene on this book, wasn’t the slightest bit appealing, nor did it reveal anything about the story. But I did pick it up, and within the first pages I was lost in the beautiful ruins of an old English castle with the most wonderful narrator, teenaged optimist Cassandra Mortmain.

Cassandra lives with her family in dire poverty, in the crumbling, cold remains of a castle. Yet Cassandra is far from depressed. Her romantic and rosy view on life stems from her love of her family, her love of the castle, her love of words, and her bright intellect. The book is her journal, which she keeps so that she can improve her writing, and in which she is constantly seeking to capture these fleeting moments of her life, and to set down on the page the exact ways in which they happened. She also sets down her own responses to life, which are sometimes funny or touching, and always interesting.

Cassandra’s older sister Rose does not accept their poverty so lightly and, when two wealthy American brothers move into their town, Rose is determined to marry one of them.  While Cassandra can’t stand the girls who are always talking about finding a man to marry (she mentions her annoyance with the fictional Bennett sisters, which is humorous because she and Rose remind me of Eliza and Jane Bennett), she understands that such a marriage could make her sister happy – and that it could, even, improve the situation for them all – and so she decides to help. As she is pulled deeper into her sister’s plans, Cassandra’s own feelings develop with a power and intensity that surprises even her. She tastes for the first time the sweetness of love, the bitterness of disappointment and heartache. All the while, her voice rings with honesty, and Cassandra continues to take great pleasure in the world around her, particularly in those simple childhood pleasures that are already colored by the knowledge that they are almost at an end for her. This is the start of growing up.

I loved this book, and felt drawn to pick it up anytime I didn’t have it in hand. Granted, there were no scenes of high action. There were only two kisses described throughout, and these very chaste. It was set in a quiet place, narrated by a quiet girl who mostly did quiet things. This was a quiet book, and it made a huge impression on me nonetheless.

A friend of mine wrote a manuscript that we workshopped in our critique group. It was a lovely book about a young girl whose family is broken, a girl who has very few people on whom she can rely. Yet the story is full of light and hopefulness. The main character, through her generosity, her loving acts, and her humor, pulls a makeshift family around her. Even though my friend already had one novel published, her agent wouldn’t send this book around, saying the story was “too quiet.”

We don’t live in a time of quiet books. Many of the most popular YA books take place in a time of post-apocalyptic intensity, feature superhuman heroes, and deal with questions of life and death. And I like those books. But, I also like the quiet ones. As a child, I adored Anne of Green Gables (and all the other books by L. M. Montgomery). I sobbed over Where the Red Fern Grows. I read the Little House books, the Boxcar Children books. Without these books, the landscape of my reading life would have been barren. It makes me sad to think that today’s children might be missing out on some of these quieter stories.

Quiet books whisper in our ears, touching our hearts, suggesting new ways of looking at our own very plain and quiet worlds. Let’s make room for the quiet books on our shelves, and listen closely to what they have to say.

 

Book Notes: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell“If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.” Eleanor, from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

If Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s joke about the fickle nature of love, Eleanor and Park is Rainbow Rowell’s testament to its power. From start to finish, the book is a heartbreaking, passionate song about and for love.

Eleanor and Park is an unabashed romance, and falling in love is the central plot. Eleanor and Park meet on the school bus, though they, unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, do not fall in love at first sight. Park thinks Eleanor is weird, chubby, and pathetic, and knows with certainty that associating with her would crush his carefully constructed, under-the-radar existence. Eleanor lumps Park in with the other mean kids on the bus, though she has bigger problems to deal with in her troubled family life. These two fall in love the way real teenagers often do – bit by bit, then all in a rush. They also talk and act the way real teenagers do. They tease each other, piss each other off, get jealous, and feel insecure. In the safety of their love, they explore this unfamiliar emotional territory, and, as they do, they grow into their real selves. They become stronger where they were weak, and vulnerable where they were closed off.

This novel is a great read for teens because it respects and celebrates authentic experiences and voices, not characters with airbrushed personalities. In Rowell’s book, even the minor characters are dealt with honestly. The parents, teachers, and fellow students live on these pages in all their imperfect humanity, sometimes acting so horribly that I cringed, and other times showing compassion and understanding. The story is entertaining and funny in moments, deeply romantic in moments, and also deals with real hardships. Many adult readers will also enjoy Eleanor and Park, especially since this story is set in the 1980s (though not aggressively so). Any readers for whom cellophane-wrapped Maxwell tapes, bangs arranged in high fans, or Walkmans prompt a sense of nostalgia will likely recognize some aspect of their high school experience in Rowell’s descriptions.

Rainbow Rowell writes about falling in love from deep inside our brains and bodies. The natural, flowing cadence of her descriptions and dialogue ring with the truth of the way first love awakens and changes us, right down to our nerve endings. At one point in the book, Park looks at Eleanor and tries to remember how he felt about her at first. It seems impossible to him that there was ever a time she was a stranger to him, and that he didn’t love her. What a simple statement, and so very true. It’s one of the miracles of being alive, that someone we once didn’t even know becomes the person at the very center of our universe, at the heart of our heart.

Once there was a day when I hadn’t read this book. In the span of a day, the story and its characters went from being strangers to me to being in my heart, nestled deep among my very favorite literary loves. Eleanor and Park broke my heart again and again, and I loved every minute of it. A miracle.

Show Your Work


“Show your work.” When I was a teacher, I must have said those exact words a million times. Easily. There are a few reasons I wanted my students to show their process, rather than simply writing down an answer.

By looking at a student’s work, I, as the teacher, could identify much more easily the concepts with which he or she needed extra help. I could also give a student credit for any work that was done correctly, even if the answer was not right. Showing the steps of the process can actually help a student get to an answer, because it breaks down the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks and gives the student a place to begin.

Most importantly, a person who writes and shares his or her process becomes more aware of it, and more reflective about it.

The night I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I was so jazzed to get started that I couldn’t sleep. Sure, revealing my efforts and work at all stages of the process is a terrifying prospect. By doing so, I hope to become more aware of my process, to reflect more about it, and to be a little less lazy. Nothing like announcing to all your friends and family that you’re writing a book to motivate you to write the book. We all behave better when other people are watching.

I’ve written before about how much Kleon’s work has inspired and motivated me. I’m grateful for his brief, powerful, practical books that have had such an impact on my creative journey. And perhaps that is truly the most important reason to show one’s work.

Book Notes: The Fault in Our Stars

This book came from a friend with this warning: Don’t read it in public (unless you like crying in front of strangers).

I expected a book about kids with terminal cancer to be sad. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be so irreverent, truthful, hilarious, smart, and universal.

Hazel is dying, and she knows it. Although a miraculous cancer drug (imagined by the author) keeps her cancer under control, she lives each day with the knowledge that this drug merely extends her life. The fact that her cancer is incurable informs everything that she does. Or does not do. Hazel is waiting to die, and while she does, she is trying to minimize her contact with the living.

Hazel and Augusts meet at a cancer support group. Living in the moment takes on a very literal meaning. They get through the physical and emotional pain in their lives by fiercely loving the people, books, sunshine, trees, and laughter that life also offers. Hazel and Augustus quote from their favorite book: “Pain demands to be felt.” John Green’s book shows us that love demands to be felt, too. Hazel and Augustus could deny themselves the pleasure of the other’s company, but they could no sooner turn off their feelings for each other than they could choose to make the sun set at will. Many things in this life are out of our control, and must be accepted. Green’s characters live with that vivid reality more so than most of the rest of us do.

“The world is not a wish-granting factory,” Hazel and Augustus remind each other throughout the book, a joke referring to the “cancer perks” that kids with cancer receive. No number of perks can take the sting out of the injustice in their situation. Hazel and Augustus have experienced a life’s worth of grief and disappointment in their short time, and it has made them honest in ways that I can only describe as brave, even though Hazel and Augustus would both roll their eyes at my use of the “b” word.

The title of the book comes from a Shakespearian line: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.” No, argues the fictional author Peter Van Houten in a letter to Augustus, “there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.” Our stars are flawed, our stars are beautiful, and these two qualities are very much dependent on the other. Life – whether it is a minute or a century long – demands that we experience both. And that we learn to trust in our own strength, and in the strength of those we love, to get us all through.

Through his empathy and imagination, John Green understands what it might be like to face one’s own death before having had the chance to experience so much of what the rest of the world thinks of as life. The truly genius thing about this hopeful and surprising story is that Green shows how we each have the opportunity – each day, each moment – to live. Hazel and Augustus don’t so much inspire as instruct us to start now.

This post was first published on the Girls Leadership Insitute blog.

Book Notes: Bitterblue

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore has beautiful woodblock-style illustrations, maps, and decorations throughout.

Queen Bitterblue is no ordinary girl. She is, after all, the ruler of Monsea. Yet, compared to the protagonists of Kristin Cashore’s previous novels she’s practically run-of-the-mill. Unlike Fire and Katsa, Bitterblue has no superpowers. Of course her life and her role are uniquely privileged and burdened with responsibility, but Bitterblue is a real girl, someone to whom I can truly relate.

In Bitterblue, we find ourselves eight years after the end of Graceling. Bitterblue has become the queen of Monsea, a kingdom broken and suffering from the legacy of her father Leck’s cruelty. Barely more than a girl and still suffering herself, Bitterblue struggles to understand her people’s problems while her advisors keep her out of the city and all evidence of the city out of the palace. When, finally, she decides to educate herself about the land she governs, she finds an alarming state of violence and deception. She also begins to find the strength that she needs to pull her people through this state.

Bitterblue is amazing in part because of the threads that Cashore expertly picks up from her previous two books. Somehow the characters that we revisit such as Katsa, Po, Giddon, and Fire all seem true to their original selves while at the same time we learn more about them because now we see them through Bitterblue’s perspective. For example, while she loves Katsa and Po dearly, she occasionally feels excluded when she’s around them because of the intensity of their connection. This doesn’t make me dislike Katsa and Po, it only makes them more faceted. Bitterblue is so recognizable in these moments. Like all of us, she sometimes feels self-conscious and lost in the world, sometimes longs for the bond that others have and doubts whether someone could love her that way.

Bitterblue’s story is not a romance in the way that Katsa’s and Fire’s stories are. There is a romantic element, but the relationships that matter most to Bitterblue – that ultimately support and save her – are her friendships. Bitterblue has not had much trust in her life, and we see the damage that this has done to her as clearly as we see the broken down buildings that Cashore describes throughout the city. Bitterblue could not trust her father, and even developed intricate mental exercises to protect her mind from his influence. Bitterblue learns that she can not trust the people who are supposed to be her advisers. Even the tentative friendships that she forms with a group of rebels in the city are founded on deceit. As Bitterblue begins to shape her rule in earnest, trust and friendship are the are the balms that mend her wounds, and those of her city.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says that  a writer must “spend it all.” Cashore spends it all in Bitterblue, as she does in her previous novels. Reading it, I got no sense that she held anything back – not the beauty of her language nor the twists of the plot, both of which make Bitterblue a compelling story both as an emotional journey for the characters and as an exciting adventure. All of the characters and plot turns unfold in their fullness and feel powerfully, satisfyingly complete at the book’s end. This is what I truly appreciate about Cashore’s writing. She doesn’t manipulate or tease her reader, leaving cliff hangers or unnecessary complications designed to make us hunger for a sequel (something that more and more writers are doing these days). Instead, she trusts her work to recommend itself. Which it does. Just as Bitterblue finds trust to be essential in her relationships, readers find a mutual trust with Cashore. She will continue to write heartfelt, complex, exciting stories. And we, of course, will continue to read them.

Book Notes: Animal Family

Books call us. They find their ways into our lives when we need them, like children or friends, though we might not realize until later exactly why.

Several months ago, my sister the wondrous children’s librarian gave my family The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell. I love her, love her taste in books, and loved the sweet small book. For some reason, though, I put the book on the shelf and left it there.

Then, on my way to bed a few nights ago, my eyes already at half mast, I reached for a book of poetry from the shelf. My hand veered of its own accord, traveled down a few spines, and came away with this instead.

I read it to myself over the next day, savoring the strange story of a lonely hunter who meets a mermaid. Jarrell does not writes of anything as typical as love or passion. Their mutual fascination comes through in the way that they learn bits of each other’s languages and histories, trying to understand the perceived oddities but, eventually, simply accepting them. “The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.”

The hunter begins to long for a larger family. He brings home first a baby bear, then a baby lynx. Later, the lynx and the bear find a baby human. There is little sense of a typical family hierarchy; the bear, lynx, and boy don’t belong to the hunter and mermaid, even though the hunter and mermaid do typically parental things like make sure the young animals stay safe and fed. Jarrell only uses the word “father” once, on the second to last page of the book. Rather, all the characters belong to each other, and to the family. Somehow the family achieves a sense of absolute belonging and intimacy while still allowing all the members to lead their own lives and follow their own dreams. A bear needs a very different life than a mermaid. Yet, in this family, neither gives up what is important. The bear hibernates, the mermaid goes for visits to the sea. Being loved has nothing to do with being controlled in this family, which is an idea that is both strange and fascinating to me. I’m still mulling it over.

On the same day that I read this story, Maurice Sendak, who illustrated this text, passed away. His black-and-white drawings are spare and evocative, the perfect companion to Jarrell’s simple prose. Of course that is nothing more than coincidence, but Sendak’s death at that time contributed to the feeling that the book came to me via serendipity. As I said before, books often do feel this way to me. Or, at least, the best books do, because the writer manages to both tell a wonderful story and tell a truth that the reader recognizes and relates to. Jarrell’s homage to familial love is such a gift.

I noticed later that my sentiment was echoed in the quote on the back cover: “I had not known that I was waiting for The Animal Family, but when it came it was a though I had long been expecting it.” P.L Travers, The New York Times Book Review

Thank you, universe or book gods or fate or serendipity. Thank you, sister.

Book Notes: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

Ever since I began creating lists of good books for girls like this one, people have been recommending that I read Lauren Tarshis’ book Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. I finally got around to it, and I’m so glad that I did. This book now figures among my favorites for upper grade and middle school girls. In fact, this treasure of a book makes me wish I could get in my time machine and go back to my 5th grade classroom so I could ensure that some of the girls in that room received their dose of Emma-Jean.

Alas, I can’t remember where I parked my time machine. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Emma-Jean. She’s socially clueless in all the best ways, plus has a great mix of intelligence, curiosity, caring, and precociousness. The character harkens back to Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy – which puts her in rarefied company, indeed.

In this story, Emma-Jean seems to be content with her social circle, which mostly consists of her mother, her teacher, the school janitor, and the grad student who rents out their spare room. She observes and analyzes her peers with a sense of curiosity bordering on fascination, much as a scientist might examine animals in an experiment. But, no matter how curious, she’s content not to be involved in their senseless and often confusing social customs and rituals. Emma-Jean manages to maintain this remove until the day when she encounters a girl named Colleen Pomerantz crying in the bathroom. Because she is a girl who likes to solve a problem, Emma-Jean offers to help solve Colleen’s problem, which has to do with a “mean girl” type who wields so much social power that she scares the girls who surround her into submission and obedience.

Somehow, Tarshis creates a character in Emma-Jean who is naive, but not pitiable. What she lacks in social graces she makes up for with her intellect, honesty, and what Colleen refers to (with awe) as not caring what others think. Tarshis also successfully writes a book for kids that doesn’t feel like it talks down to them. I tend to assume that books for upper grade children will be mostly predictable but, in this case, I found myself wondering how it would all turn out in the end. Would Emma-Jean learn how to have friends her own age? Would Colleen and the others learn from Emma-Jean how to think for themselves?

My only complaint about the story is the character of Emma-Jean’s mother. As a single mother (Emma-Jean’s father died some time before the start of the story), Emma-Jean’s mother never shows an ounce of impatience or frustration. She always knows exactly the right thing to say to soothe her quirky daughter’s doubts and answer her questions. Even when she demonstrates grief over losing her husband – crying just twice a year – it seems a very controlled and reasoned sort of outburst.

As a parent myself, I prefer characters like Colleen Pomerantz’s mother, who almost never knows what to say to her daughter. It’s not that I want to be a clueless parent. It’s just that I know I mostly am. And, like Colleen’s mother, I try very hard even if my efforts are mostly barking up the wrong tree. Ultimately, Colleen’s mother does help her daughter get the guidance and support that she needs, and I thought it very wise of her to know that she could not be the one to provide it.

Tarshis’ first book is an impressive mix of smarts and heart, just like Emma-Jean herself. The book’s sensitivity to the complicated relationships that young people have in middle school, plus the lovely writing and metaphors, make it an easy recommendation for upper grade readers, and it wouldn’t hurt for their parents to read it, either. Sometimes, it’s good to remember.

Book Notes: Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein Ever since my daughter Winnie was born three years ago, I’ve been struggling with princesses. Well, with princesses and with all that seems to come along with them. The emphasis on beauty, the focus on being desired/getting married, the assertion that girls can’t (or wouldn’t want to) do the same things as boys. And, the PINK. The pink, pink, pink.

I didn’t find out Winnie’s gender while I was pregnant. Those few months, I realized, would be the only time when no one would put any expectations or limitations on my child based on gender. I stocked up on gender neutral clothes and, for the first several months of her life, Winnie (and I) avoided the issue entirely. I thought I might be off the hook, at least until kindergarten.

I quickly realized, as many parents have before me, that I could not keep everything princess-related out of her life. Win’s response to princesses was instant and intense; she was smitten from her first “happily ever after.” Even if I could maintain a strict embargo with land of Disney, it might not be the wisest course. That “no” starts to lose its power when overused, and one risks actually raising the allure of the prohibited item. (I read once that Barbara Kingsolver had banned all Barbies from her home until she overheard her older daughter tell a friend, “When I grow up, I’m going to have all the Barbies I want.”) So, instead, I decided to develop a mindful and balanced approach to the princess problem. But, I wondered, what ever would that approach be? When I heard that Peggy Orenstein had written a book about this very issue, I couldn’t wait to read it. I thought, finally, I would find some answers.

I didn’t find answers in the literal sense because, as with everything in parenting, there are no hard rules. Parenting styles are as individual as parents, and we use our unique instincts and values to guide us. But what I did find was a thoughtful – and thought-provoking – exploration of princesses and of girl-focused media in general. Orenstein covers everything from princesses to pop music to Facebook. She examines most of these issues through the lens of her own parenting experience, and the discussion reminded me of ones that I’ve had many times with girlfriends. I found myself chuckling as I read, and devouring the text with much more relish than I usually can devote to non-fiction.

Beyond being entertaining, the book is informative and eye-opening, particularly to anyone currently entrenched (as I am) in the daily battle with a young girl over princes purchases. In one particularly fascinating chapter, Orenstein lays out the history of how the idea of “Disney Princesses” as a marketing concept came to be. Now, that set of smiling, coiffed gals is so ubiquitous that it almost seems as though they must always have packaged in this form. But, of course, they haven’t – seven princesses from vastly different stories plastered side-by-side on everything from bed sheets to dinner plates, with a whole line of books and movies of their own, to boot. These princesses are stripped of much of their individuality (what little there was to start with). Beyond hair color and costume, there isn’t much to differentiate them. Reading the Disney princess books, you can’t help but reach the conclusion that all of the princesses love to read, sing to small animals, ride horses, and dance ballet, all while waiting for Prince X to come along.

There are many reasons why it seemed easier, at first, just to keep the princesses out entirely. Orenstein explains one very simple reason why parents might want to re-think that strategy: parents want their young daughters to socialize, to play the games that their peers are playing. And, from where I’m sitting, she’s right. At Winnie’s preschool, playing princess is many of the girls’ choice for daily amusement. If a girl’s not down with donning the tiara, there aren’t many alternatives.

Secondly, Orenstein worries that banning the princesses outright might send her daughter the message that anything associated with being a girl is wrong or inferior. I saw this happening in my classroom when I taught third grade. Sometimes one or two girls would decide, and inform the others, that pink was forbidden. One class I taught became so caught up with the idea that not only would the girls not wear pink, they would not even touch pink. They teased by chasing each other with some found pink item, and the chased girl would shriek and run away yelling as if the slip of pink construction paper was a murder weapon. Heaven forbid any unknowing parent might actually send her child to school dressed in something of that hue.

I would never want Winnie to get the idea that activities, ideas, or preferences associated with femininity are undesirable. I want her to know that she does not have to act like anything she is not in order to be worthy or successful. Whether she chooses to wear pink ruffles or green leather or a baseball uniform, these choices are hers to make, not to delegate to her peers or, worse, to an ad exec sitting at his desk and wondering how to make a buck off her.

Which brings me to another point from Orenstein’s book that I enjoyed very much. That we, as parents, are allowed – and, in fact, that it is our jobs – to shape and mold our children’s values to the extent that we can. Too often we abdicate this tender role to corporations by allowing ourselves and our daughters to be influenced to an extreme by advertising and media pressure. During one chapter, Orenstein relates an incident in which her daughter critiques the princesses in a way that very much mimics her mother’s sentiments. I sensed Orenstein’s pride in this moment but, also, a hint of her guilt, as if she might be wondering, Who am I to put words in her mouth? But then, she reasons, “If Disney could try to brainwash my child, I supposed I could, too.” Who are we? We are parents. And it is time for us to take back control from the companies that exert immense influence on our spending habits by telling our daughters which doll/movie/cd/software to want next.

Though it seems an obvious concept, let’s not forget that we teach our children about priorities and values by setting sensible limits, which means that we get to say no. There were plenty of times when I did not get what I wanted from my parents, and I am not scarred by these experiences. Far from it, I can say with certainty that I learned lessons about how to spend money, about dealing with disappointment, and about using my imagination and available resources. When I buy my daughter a princess toy, that might be harmless enough. But, if I plunk down my money over and over for all kinds of princess paraphernalia that she demands, not only do I let her know that I think princesses are just great, but I also let her know that it’s okay to buy more and more, to consume at whim, regardless of actual need. Soon enough, we’d find ourselves on a most terrifying roller coaster of consumerism that might have no end. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein does a wonderful job of scaring the mindful parenting back into us. She shows us that, though the princess phase does end, it does its job of priming the pump for all the Moxie girls and Disney pop stars that came after.

I, for one, am inspired to engage in the kinds of open conversations that Orenstein describes having with her daughter and with her fellow parents. With these conversations, with our spending choices, and with the limits we set in our homes, we take back control from these corporations and we tell them what we do want for our daughters. Most importantly, we tell them, as my daughter might say, “You’re not the boss of us.”

Book Notes: The Rough-Face Girl

The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin

Usually I don’t post about picture books, but this is one that I’ve been reading a lot at Winnie’s request, and I’m finding it very thought-provoking.

The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin, with illustrations by David Shannon (surprisingly beautiful illustrations, I might add), is the Algonquin Indian version of Cinderella, if we’re to believe the author’s note. The bare bones of the story are similar to Cinderella. There are three sisters, the elder two mean and selfish, and the youngest one pure and good. The mean ones torture and taunt the younger and make her do all the work. They are all competing for the affections of one man, but in this case that man is not a prince but a mysterious Invisible Being.

The differences are what make this book so interesting. First of all, it’s the older sisters who are beautiful, not the youngest. Her ugliness makes her a target for taunts and jeers, not just from her sisters but from her fellow villagers, as well. The sisters demand that their father give them the finest dresses, and they march off to marry the Invisible Being, just as the ugly step-sisters do in the familiar Disney movie. But, in The Rough-Face Girl, no fairy godmother arrives to dress the left-behind sister in a beautiful gown and send her off to be admired by all. Instead, the Rough-Face Girl goes to her father to ask for a new dress, necklace, and moccasins  (another big difference: in this story, while the youngest sister does allow the sisters to take advantage of her, she also goes after what she wants). Since he has just outfitted her selfish sisters, the father says that he has nothing to give her. So, the Rough-Face Girl has to rely on her own resourcefulness, dressing herself in an odd wardrobe made of bark and broken shells.

Unlike the Cinderella character, the Rough-Face Girl does not receive universal adoration when she sets out. She, rather, meets with discouragement and insults. But she keeps going. Because the Rough-Face Girl is not simply eager to go to a party. She has a mission of sorts. She knows that she is special; she alone sees the face of the Invisible Being in the beauty of nature all around her.

When the Invisible Being and his wise sister finally meet the Rough-Face Girl, they see at once that she is beautiful. But it is clearly not her face or clothes that impresses them. It is the beauty of her heart. They admire her for who she is and what she does, not for what she looks like.

I enjoy the mystical elements of the book. The fact, for instance, that the Invisible Being seems to be everywhere, deeply connected to the wonder of the natural world. After hundreds of readings (and I’m not exaggerating), I’m still not sure whether the Invisible Being is a god, and the Rough-Face Girl is showing what true faith looks like, or whether he is a man and the Rough-Face Girl is showing the reader what true love looks like. What I found most enjoyable – and refreshing – about this book is that the main character does not rely on her face, figure, or fashion to get by. She uses creativity, determination, love, and faith, and she perseveres even when those around her show nothing but disdain. This is certainly not your typical fairy tale, when the girl at the heart of it all derives her self-worth from nothing other than her self. Not typical, but certainly worthwhile.

How to Love a Poem

  • Read it. Out loud.
  • Love the obvious parts. Underline them.
  • Read it again. Out loud.
  • Read it each evening before bed, like a meditation.
  • Lean on the obvious parts to bring out the obscured, the subtle, and the mysterious.
  • Underline those parts, too.
  • Enjoy finding something new each time you re-visit the rhythm, spaces, and text.
  • Delight in discovering the complexities within those obvious parts you loved at first.

And that is how to love a poem, or anything.

A poem by Jack Gilbert from his book The Great Fires. It means something different, and more, to me each time I read it.

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional

and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,

vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.

But the best is often when nothing is happening.

The way a mother picks up the child almost without

noticing and carries her across Waller Street

while talking with the other woman. What if she

could keep all of that? Our lives happen between

the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual

breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about

her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.