Tag Archives: books

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.

Five Must-Read Blogs


Young Adult Fiction – YA, to those of us in the know – is all the rage right now. With Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay recently released and following in the age group-transcending footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, everyone seems to agree that it’s okay for a grown-up to read a kid’s book. Even the New York Times Book Review concedes that adults – even smart, literary adults – need have no shame about enjoying YA.

What a relief.

As someone who has been reading YA books for quite a while (I started when I was about ten and I haven’t stopped yet), I’m glad that my reading habits are finally on trend. I’m very much enjoying watching some of the most talented storytellers in the publishing business get the rockstar treatment.

Sometimes, I can’t get enough of my favorite authors between the covers of their books. Fortunately, many authors write wonderful blogs. Here are five of my favorite blogs by YA authors. These are a must-read if you are interested in YA fiction, want to learn more about how to be a fiction writer, or simply love reading the musings of interesting folks.

  1. Kristin Cashore, author of the best-sellers Graceling and Fire (Graceling), blogs about everything from the fun – trapeze lessons – to the political – gay rights – at This Is My Secret. Her blog is always thought-provoking and has, I’ll admit, sometimes even moved me to tears.
  2. Maggie Steifvater’s newest book Linger (the follow-up to the wonderful Shiver) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. Read her blog The World According to Maggie for funny, inspiring, and PRACTICAL advice on how to draft, revise, write a query letter, and, most importantly, make the time to be creative.
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is powerful and haunting – from her YA fiction like Wintergirls
    to her historical thrillers like Fever 1793. And her blog Mad Woman in the Forest is pure inspiration. It is a community of writers with Anderson herself at the helm, equal parts teacher and cheerleader. In August, Anderson encouraged her readers to join her in a month-long challenge to write for fifteen minutes each day. If you have a writing project that’s stalled or you’d like to jump start your creativity, I highly recommend partaking. The challenge can happen any time at all – just start with Day 1.
  4. You know Sarah Dessen for her best-selling books such as The Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride. But do you know Sarah Dessen? Her blog is a personal and funny account of motherhood, writing, and life. She doesn’t sugar coat or pretend that she doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s a very vocal fan of Friday Night Lights. Like I said, she’s real. And I love her for that.
  5. John Green is the author of several books including Looking for Alaska and the co-author (with David Levithan) of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson And he happens to have the funniest and smartest vlog (that’s video blog to you) in the world. John and his brother Hank – the “nerd fighters” – roam the world making stream of consciousness videos “to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck.” They also post videos to their  vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

It is important to have heroes and mentors, and the writers listed above are a few of mine. I hope you all know – or know of – people who are doing something that you aspire to do, perhaps a few steps (or, in my case, a few hundred steps) ahead of you. Seek out people who inspire you to be better at whatever you aim to do – whether it’s writing a book, running a faster race, baking a cake, or standing up for your beliefs.

Book Notes: Looking for Alaska

After finishing John Green’s book Looking for Alaska, that’s still what I’m doing. Alaska promises to be a deeply interesting character, but the reader never gets to be in her experience enough to know her. The idea of her – and of finding out her secrets and truths – kept me turning pages but, in the end, she is the mystery that can not be solved. Not by the reader, and not by the characters who are similarly intrigued by her.

In the first pages of the book, narrator Miles leaves his home for boarding school. He seeks “the great perhaps,” and is determined to leave behind the boredom of his life and re-invent himself. Then, almost as if he wishes them into existence, the first people he encounters are his roommate Chip (nicknamed the Colonel) and his friend Alaska Young. Alaska and the Colonel are both unlike any of the boring and rule-abiding kids Miles knew back home. They are brilliant, articulate, irreverent, impulsive, and borderline dangerous. They induct Miles into a life of forbidden cigarettes, drinking, and pranks. Miles holds on tight and rides along on their reckless adventures. Never the instigator, always the willing and curious participant, Miles is ever aware that he is acting a part, willing himself to be the person – confident, articulate, experienced – that he always wanted to be.

Miles’ infatuation with his new life springs, at heart, from his immediate and consuming infatuation with Alaska herself. Beautiful and articulate, mysterious and mercurial, Alaska embodies the epitome of teenage angst. She’s a storm pulling everyone into her center. Miles – and, it seems, every other boy in their acquaintance – can’t help but be obsessed by her. But, Alaska is more than just an object to be fantasized about. The bravado and recklessness are a carefully constructed facade, hiding grief, fear, guilt, and sadness. Alaska’s life is bookended by tragedies, and as the book unfolds so, too, do the details about the depth of her depression.

Well, some of the details, anyway. It’s clear that Alaska never allows even the people who love her most to know and understand her. Perhaps her secretiveness is a function of her depression or guilt, or perhaps she intuits that the mystery is what keeps them – these lovesick boys – attending to her, enabling and justifying the risks she takes with such abandon. Green’s observations seem to deal with the intrinsic nature of love – that loving is not the same as understanding – and about the complexity of a teenager’s inner world. Or, perhaps, he is simply saying that he, too, understands the allure of mystery. He certainly weaves it well, covers it with cigarette smoke and hormonal overtures, and then withholds the satisfaction of an answer. When the mystery, itself, is the object of infatuation, the answer can never bring satisfaction, anyway, just disappointment.

Trolling the book reviews, I often hear about a new book that I want to read and, sometimes, upon further investigation, I find that the author has written previous books that I also want to read. If those previous books are already in paperback, or are available at the library, or for any number of other reasons are easier to get my hands on, I read those first. And so, I often read an older work of an author’s even though the present work is the work that is getting the buzz (or acclaim, or warm fuzzies, or whatever you want to call the general book love that some books receive when they get out in the world). For example, I read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies before reading Leviathan, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 before Wintergirls. On the one hand, this means that I get to read the books in chronological order, which I enjoy for the sake of seeing the through-lines in a body of work. I also like to see how authors change and grow. The downside is that I also like to read a book as it’s hot off the press, so that I can be part of conversations about the book as they evolve. If I put off reading a new book, chances are that I won’t get to it while it’s still new. By the time I’m ready to talk about it, the rest of the book folks have moved on.

I came to Looking for Alaska along a similar route. I was – and still am – eager to read John Green’s new book Will Grayson, Will Grayson (co-written with David Levithan, of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist fame). But when my friend Sara suggested we read Looking for Alaska together, of course I agreed. (I’m a sucker for a book club, even it only has two people.) Green wrote Looking for Alaska two years ago. Now I’m even more eager to read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, though I have to admit that my eagerness has as much to do with enjoying Green’s writing as it does with my continued fascination with Alaska. I’m hoping that reading Green’s later work will help me understand what Alaska meant to say, if indeed she had anything to say at all.