Tag Archives: girls

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.

Book Notes: Chains

There are historical fiction books that feel like glorified textbooks, with the story functioning as the carrot to get you to learn your history. And then there are engrossing stories with historical settings that always feel like the backdrop; they never quite become three-dimensional.

And, then, there are stories like this.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Chains is a page-turner of a story. The main character Isabel and her sister Ruth are slaves, sold to wealthy Loyalists in New York City just as the American Revolution is starting to generate heat. Having experienced the death of both her parents, Isabel has already shed any semblance of a childhood. She plays the role of mother and protector to Ruth, and tries to shield her from the critical glare of Mrs. Lockton, who is always looking for an excuse to insult or abuse the two girls.

Other characters – both Patriots and Loyalists – show some kindnesses to Isabel and Ruth, in particular Mr. Lockton’s aunt Lady Seymour, who tells Isabel that she’d wanted to buy her from her nephew’s household. Through Isabel’s eyes these clumsy kindnesses are disappointing. “I tried to be grateful but could not,” she says. “A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind.” The only friend that Isabel has is Curzon, a slave who is convinced that fighting side by side with the Patriots will secure his own freedom. Isabel is less wiling to tie her chances for freedom or survival to anyone else.

The characters are rich and compelling, and the story is fast-paced. But, Halse Anderson does not skimp on historical details. She creates a richly detailed and fascinating world, and brings its nuances alive through the politics, geography, events, and people of the time. Even the cadences of the characters’ speech rang true in my mind’s ear. The historical setting and characteristics have a rich interplay with Isabel and her story, with the events of the war and the city affecting Isabel’s prospects deeply. For example, the fire that ravages much of the city gives Isabel the chance to save Lady Seymour’s life, a fact which prompts the woman to protect the slave later in the story. However, it also forces Isabel back into the Lockton’s home, where she is again subjected to Mrs. Lockton’s cruelty. When the British take Fort Washington and force the rebel prisoners into a downtown prison, it brings Curzon back into the city, desperately in need of help. Isabel’s decision to come to his aid not only strengthens their bond, but also brings out Isabel’s boldness. She learns how to break the rules, a skill that comes in handy for her much later.

As the Americans fight to liberate themselves, so does Isabel. Her battle mirrors theirs in many ways, with its urgency, its low odds of success, and its grave setbacks.  After reading her story, I felt more intrigued by this time in our country’s history than ever before. Halse Anderson’s beautiful writing and Isabel’s urgent story are a compelling combination.

Her follow-up to this book Forge will be on sale next month, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

I finished reading Common Sense the night before the ball. The bookseller was right; the words were dangerous, every one of them. I ought throw it in the fire but could not bring myself to do it. Mr. Paine knew how to stir up the pot; he went right after the King and attacked the crown on his head…

‘Twas a wonder the book did not explode into flames in my hands.

-Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

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.

GLI: New Community, New Opinions

So, here’s a new project I’m working on: The Girls Leadership Institute Community Site. You’ll find articles by and for girls and women, plus photos and videos of GLI-ers doing their thing and lists of our fun finds. Check it out often, as it will be changing frequently.

My most recent article on that page “Join Team Kristen” explains my growing – and surprising – fondness for a certain actress who portrays a certain vampire lover in a certain teen phenom movie that I just might have seen on a certain opening night.

But that’s all I’ll say about that. At least, for the moment.

Book Notes: The Forest of Hands and Teeth


I was so ready to love this book. Has a plot ever been written more tailor-made for my personal enjoyment? A village with mysterious history is operated by a group of strictly religious women called Sisters, who make the rules for everything from marriages and births to punishments and deaths. Only one girl thinks to question their authority, daring to love her heart’s desire and aching to see what lies beyond the fences that surround the village. Of course, one thing for certain exists beyond the fences: zombies, people who contracted an infection that killed them, then brought them back to a hellish sort of shadow-existence. These zombies stink of death and moan with their need to consume the flesh of the living.

Yes, yes, and yes!! I got my hands on this book and cleared my reading agenda for a couple of days. I was ready to be gripped and pulled in to the story. But, I wasn’t. I kept waiting for the story to step it up. Plenty of things happened: the village is breached by the undead, the main character Mary escapes down a mysterious path with a few survivors. But, I kept having the feeling that the real story had more to do with what had happened before. How did the Sisters establish control of the village? Why did they tell the villagers that they were alone in the world? Why did they mercilessly destroy evidence of human life outside the fences?

Ryan hints at these questions, and more. The hints got tiresome, as did Mary’s constant warring with herself and wondering what to do. The writing felt redundant, almost like its sole purpose was to introduce the concepts and hook the reader for the sequel. In fact, it read like a too-long preview for the second book.

I was struggling to articulate my feelings about this to my sister. I kept saying, “She has a story to tell, but she’s saving it… She just needs to put it out there and write THE story.” Then, I read an article by NY Times film critic A.O. Scott  about movie sequels.  Scott writes, “…such forestalling and foreshadowing was annoying, as if we were being conned into future ticket purchases rather than given our money’s worth.” I realized that this was precisely the issue. I’ve been feeling this way about books – yes, and movies and tv shows, too – that I just want my money’s worth. I don’t mean that I want to put an actual dollar amount on my experience, but I want the creators to honor the contract between writer and reader (or viewer). I settle in for the story; I’m ready to be entertained. To then be given a story that is basically nothing more than hints and questions is like the ultimate, most aggravating, bait-and-switch.

It reminds me of  a quote from Annie Dillard that I used to have on my classroom wall when I was teaching writing to fifth graders. Dillard says:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.

It’s a lesson for any writer to keep in mind. Don’t squirrel away the good stuff, saving it for later or holding it like a carrot so your audience will follow along. They won’t (or, I won’t, anyway). But, tell me a good story and, sister, I’m yours for life. Or, should I say, I’m yours for undead.

Book Notes: Next to Mexico

About a decade ago, my friend Tara took me to see a one-woman play called Lylice, written and performed by Jen Nails at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. I couldn’t get enough of Lylice. I saw the show four more times over the course of the next year. And it never, ever got old. Jen nailed – ha! – her performance of this precocious middle-schooler. Did I mention that the play has a musical number? If Jen didn’t charm me with the cupcakes Lylice served, she completely won me over with her song “Susan B. Anthony/Freud,” in which she sings, “Dear Mr. Freud, I know your name / I heard you are a genius / But Mr. Freud, I’ll tell you something / I don’t want a penis / I don’t want to hear / any more about puberty and phalluses / and you know where you can shove / your psychoanalysis.” (Go to the bottom of the post to hear the whole hilarious song.)

Through a happy coincidence, I recently re-met Jen at my friend Randi’s daughter’s birthday party (thank goodness my friends know such awesome people). Jen told me that she’d written a book featuring Lylice, and she kindly offered to send it to me when I told her about my passion for children’s and young adult literature. I eagerly awaited the book, as much for the thrill of reading a book written by someone I actually knew as for the chance to hear more from Lylice, who I’d come to think of as a friend of mine.

At the beginning of Jen’s book Next to Mexico, Lylice has just found out that she will skip fifth grade and go straight to the 6th grade, which means leaving her beloved elementary school and going on to middle school. Lylice’s intellect and uniqueness (it’s not often you find an eleven-year-old who is as comfortable with political demonstrations as Lylice is) label her an oddity among her peers, and she’s a lonely kid despite her many interests. Then, she meets a new student named Mexico. The two girls form a bond as Lylice helps Mexico with her homework, Mexico introduces Lylice to home-cooked mexican food, and together they plot to save the arts program at school. The joy that the two girls find in their friendship speaks movingly to the mooring and healing that friendship can give us. I especially love the fact that none of the characters in the book is simple. The mean, popular girl turns out to be deeply sympathetic. The boy who Lylice has a crush on might not be worth all the trouble. And, even Lylice is not as simple or as good as she at first seems to be. When she thinks that something she wants is within her grasp, she finds that she is able to hurt her friend to get it. But true friends don’t just share laughter and good times. They make mistakes, and they forgive.

Lylice has shades of other beloved literary characters. She’s a little Anne of Green Gables, with her extraordinary intellect and her stubborn refusal to conform to society’s expectations of what girls should be or want. She’s a little bit Ramona B., with her tendency to talk too much when she’s nervous or excited. She also reminds me of Jenny Han’s Shug, with her honesty and emotional vulnerability. In the end, though, Lylice’s humor and voice are all her own.

I adored this book. Nails has portrayed her characters – both children and adults – in a funny, realistic way and written a beautiful story about the power of friendship. It would make a great addition to my Books for Strong Girls in Middle School list over at Flashlight Worthy. And, when I write the second installment of the list, I’ll make sure it’s there.

Check out Lylice’s awesome song!

01 Susan B. Anthony_Freud

Sarah Dessen: Writing the Real Girl

The Truth About Forever by Sarah DessenIf you’ve spent any time among the Young Adult fiction shelves at your local library or bookstore, you’ve most likely heard of Sarah Dessen. It’s hard to miss the work of this prolific writer. Two of her books – Someone Like You and That Summer – were turned into the movie How to Deal starring Mandy Moore. By most anyone’s measure, she’s developed a very successful writing career for herself.

I’ve only read a few of her books so far, but I can already see why she’s got such a good thing going. For one thing (and in my mind, this is the Most Important Thing), Dessen writes well-developed characters who hum with life. In The Truth About Forever, the hairs on my arm stood up when Dessen describes the character of Macy’s fierce, loving, controlling mother. The anger! I had to put the book down for a minute because I was having flashbacks. (Note to Sarah: When did you meet my mother?)

Dessen also has a knack for locating her stories in the exact, most heart-rending crux of a character’s struggle. The moment just before something big, something life-altering, happens. Whether they are grieving, confused, withdrawn, or anxious, her main characters are also smart, funny, and kind. And they have at least one other thing in common: they’re trying to be real. This struggle to go from perfect girl to real girl was especially apparent in The Truth About Forever. Macy continually subverts her own desires, avoids confrontation, hides her true feelings, and even tries to grieve for her father in a way that pleases those around her. Turns out, those aren’t easy habits to break. There’s something appealing about doing what someone tells you to do; when things go awry, the risk is not your own. Ultimately, though, if Macy wants to own her life – surprises, joys, complications, failures, and all – she has to learn how to look inside and figure out what she needs. Then, she has to ask for it.

Three cheers for an author who writes about smart girls who deal with realistic problems. One more cheer for an author who can make a darn entertaining book out of it. Okay, and one more for stories in which the smart, real girl gets her romance on! (Hmm… number one best thing about being a writer = the ability to make the world work exactly as you think it should.) Sarah Dessen’s books are like awesome beach reads for the thinking girl. As they say in her native North Carolina, that dog’ll hunt.

Book Notes: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
The Newbery Awards were announced just a couple of weeks ago, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly was named as a Newbery Honor book. I’d already intended to read it, despite the fact that there is nary a mention of vampires, secret anarchist districts, or, even, romance.  However, it is a Young Adult book, it’s historical fiction (set in one of my favorite time periods – just on the cusp of the 20th century), and the protagonist is a girl.  So, it had a lot going for it in terms of my ARE (Anticipated Reading Enjoyment and – yes! – I just made up that silly acronym).

Turns out there was a bit of romance, just not the kind of romance I’d grown accustomed to reading about in YA novels.  Eleven-year-old Calpurnia – Callie – falls in love plenty in this book.  She falls in love with micro-organisms.  She falls in love with grasshoppers.  With a plant called hairy vetch.  With the whole natural world, in fact.  And Callie falls in love with her grandfather.

It’s this romance, between granddaughter and grandfather, that is so moving, and reminds me that we find what we need in unexpected places, but we do find it.  In her grandfather, an eccentric, intimidating recluse, Callie finds a much-needed teacher.  He opens her eyes to the scientific method and to the wonders around her.  He gives her the controversial book The Origin of Species by a scientist named Charles Darwin.  Callie’s grandfather has lived enough of his own life to see her for who she is, without needing her to fulfill his expectations of her.

Even though she is only eleven, Callie chafes against the constraints placed on girls of her time and, particularly, in her socially important family.  Why should she, and not her brothers, have to spend precious hours learning to cook and knit and sew, when there are discoveries to be made with microscope and net?  Why should she face the prospect of “coming out,” being shopped around to potential husbands just so she can have a life like her mother has, when she has a mind that longs to puzzle over scientific questions at the University?  And, while she has plenty of cause to revolt against the constraints, she feels conflicted because she also loves the instruments of her constraint – loves her mother, loves her home.

In the end, the book seems to me to be about discoveries.  Callie lives in a time in which the many important discoveries were an exciting indication of progress and industry.  She and her Grandaddy make plenty of discoveries of their own, some scientific and some personal.  And Callie’s family – in particular, her mother – is on the verge of discovering Callie, just as I did.  Discovering the smart, confused, frustrated, angry, and jubilant girl that she is was a joy for me.  Callie is about as “real girl” as it gets.

If I were still teaching 5th grade, I’d read this book to my class.  Since I’m not, I’ll simply recommend it for girls in 5th grade or older.  Plus, it’d be a really nice addition to my recommendations for mother-daughter book clubs on Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations.

This post also appears on the Girls Leadership Institute Blog.