Tag Archives: reading

DIY MFA: Text #5, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War came out in 1974, but its violent themes and multiple perspective structure feel modern and relevant. As I read it, I was torn between my reader’s zeal for the story and my writer’s mind learning from the masterful turns of suspense and symbolism on each page. I’ll lay out my thoughts about the lessons I take from this book to apply to my work.

Cormier creates suspense from the first page – indeed, from the first line – to the last. Up to the very end, I was not sure what would happen or how things would turn out for the main character Renault. In fact, the subtly ambiguous ending leaves me still not quite knowing what to think. For days afterward, questions about Renault haunted my thoughts and, if that’s not a testament to incredible writing, I don’t know what is.

The first line of the book both draws the reader in and tells the whole story in three words: “They murdered him.” The him, Jerry Renault, is a freshman at an all boy’s Catholic high school, getting beaten to a pulp at the football team tryouts. The paragraphs that follow this powerful first line brim with violent imagery; the nameless players on the field are explosions and sharp edges, tearing Renault apart. He’s “a toy boat caught in a whirlpool.”

Yet, even as Renault feels defenseless, beaten, and abandoned, he is aware that the most important thing is to survive. To go on, after being knocked down. So, he does get up, and is rewarded with a spot on the team. His inner strength results in triumph.

His actions at the try-out attract attention from more than just the coach. Archie, an older student at Trinity, and the brains behind a gang called the Vigils, notices Renault’s strength and decides to put him to the test. And this is where the chocolate comes in.

Throughout the book, chocolate is a symbol for power. The annual chocolate sale, run by the manipulative and creepy Brother Leon, raises money for the school. Cormier suggests, though not explicitly, that Leon has made a deal for his own benefit and needs the boys to raise additional funds to cover up his unlawful expenditures. Leon’s grab for power relies on his ability to conscript the students, especially the Vigils, into selling enormous amounts of chocolate for him. In return, the Vigils receive their own bit of power. All goes well, everyone buying into this game of power handed up the chain, except for Jerry Renault. He’s a thoughtful loner, missing his recently deceased mother and isolated from his grieving father. Renault’s objection to the chocolate sale throws the whole established system into jeopardy and makes him a target for Leon and the Vigils. In an echo of the football tryout in the first chapter, these characters organize ruthless physical and emotional attacks on Renault. This, then, is the chocolate war. The power war.

We readers desperately want Renault to have victory at the end. But, does he? He’s beaten, but still alive. Is survival enough? There is no coach to offer him a reward to make his efforts worthwhile. In the world, is there a reward for moral behavior? Does taking a moral stand pay off? Is it its own reward? If Renault could go back to the start, would he put his head down and sell his portion of chocolate compliantly? These are some of the questions that linger in my mind at the end.

In addition to suspense and symbolism, Cormier effectively creates a microcosm by populating it with believable and purposeful characters. Although the central conflict is between Renault and Archie, the peripheral characters fill out the edges. A few members of the student body briefly participate in the conflict, but the boys largely act as a wave, swelling in a single direction. At first, there are glimmers of admiration and respect for Renault’s bravery, then when the Vigils go on the attack, the boys are eager to see blood spilled. Their preference for violence over morality chills me.

As a writer of young adult fiction, I often wonder how to deal with the adults in kids’ lives. Many writers choose to keep adults out of the story altogether in order to empower their main characters. More difficult is to include adult characters in a way that supports the story, as Cormier does. The adults in the pages of The Chocolate War, aside from Brother Leon, are mostly silent and ineffectual, but their presence in the story serves a purpose. They largely do not see what is happening; even Renault’s father ignores his son’s situation. Though they are supposed to protect and guide their children, the parents and teachers are ignorant and useless.  One mother nags at her son about his manners, but her worries are so far from his own, and so insignificant, that he completely ignores her, “like shutting the sound of the television.” Cormier is pointing out here that the corrupt system of power relies on blindness as much as it does on the primary offenders, a message that is as relevant now as it was forty years ago.

The Chocolate War comes up often among writers, especially those whose stories feature teens, and I can see why. Cormier’s book is exciting, and does not shy away from the real challenges of teens’ lives, which, it turns out, aren’t so very different from the challenges in any one’s life. How many of us can say that we have figured out how to deal with corruption, that we always speak up when we see something wrong?

For more discussion of this book, listen to Jo Knowles speaking with Sara Zarr on the wonderful “This Creative Life” podcast, in which Knowles discusses Cormier’s impact on her work. Incidentally, Zarr’s podcast is always wonderful and worth a listen. The way she and her guests generously share their experiences and wisdom truly warms my heart and makes me happy to call myself a writer.

Also check out Junot Diaz’s related story in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which he also refers to Robert Cormier’s books.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

Book Notes: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer“The first few moments up there were terrifying.

I felt stupid, actually.

Vulnerable. Silly.

It was lucky that I was covered in white face paint – my face burned bright red beneath it for the first ten minutes, I could feel it.

The sheer absurdity of what I was doing was not lost on me.”

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

Before Amanda Palmer was part of punk-cabaret group The Dresden Dolls, before she was a Kickstarter phenomenon, she painted herself white from head to toe, dressed as a bride, and stood on a crate in Harvard Square, performing as a human statue. When someone dropped money into her hat, Palmer offered a flower and a moment of meaningful eye contact.

Palmer’s new book The Art of Asking is part memoir, part manifesto. With her life stories, collected anecdotes, ideas from other artists, and a dash of scientific data, Palmer talks about her journey to becoming a master of asking people to help her.

There are several reasons why people feel uncomfortable asking for and accepting help. For one, our society prizes self-sufficiency and disapproves of anyone who appears to be asking for a handout. Those who do ask for help are often criticized as unworthy poseurs. Palmer calls these critics the Fraud Police.

She points to the example of Henry David Thoreau. He has been criticized because, while he was writing his treatise on self-reliance, he accepted the generosity of friends and family, who gave him the land and food that sustained him throughout his work. Palmer writes that “every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought him a basket of freshly baked goods for him, including donuts.”

Thoreau’s donuts become symbolic in Palmer’s discussion of support for artists. She points out that no one would criticize Einstein or Florence Nightingale for accepting donuts. But artists “just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.” She urges all of us to “take the donuts,” to see what we do as deserving of help, whether that help comes from fans, patrons, or family.

Palmer writes that she’s frequently asked how she “gets” people to support her work. Her response: she doesn’t get them to, she lets them. These aren’t strangers; these are her fans, her tribe. These are people who have shared stories with her, opened themselves up to her, allowed themselves to be moved by her. Palmer understands that her community wants to express their love and appreciation for her. As she writes, “Accepting the gift IS the gift.”

The book is beautifully written, with humor and, at times, raw honesty. The idea of asking for help ties me up in knots of anxiety. I don’t like imposing on people. But, as I read this book, I realized my inability to ask is really stinginess wrapped in a disguise of selflessness. There’s a generosity to asking, to letting people see your vulnerability and need. When we let people do for us, there is a ripple effect. Giving to each other strengthens bonds and gives others permission to ask for help in their times of need. Palmer call this “tightening the net.”

Palmer’s way of looking at life makes a lot of sense, not just for artists, but for everyone. In her world, giving and receiving are equally necessary. Both keep the ecosystem strong, breathing out just as critical as breathing in. They’re so equal that the lines become blurred; it’s hard to tell who’s giving, and who’s receiving.

Give the flower, take the flower. Give the love, take the love. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, as Palmer says, the gift keeps moving.

DYI MFA: Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, Post #2

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I’m continuing my DIY MFA by writing about Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice and, though I’ve already discussed each book’s central relationship in a previous postmy thoughts are still on romance. I think there are two types of book romances. First, there’s the type of romance in which the author tells the reader that the characters are in love, usually from the first scene in which the characters lay eyes on each other, and the stated fact of that love is supposed to be enough to get the reader interested and invested in their love story.

The other kind of romance, the kind I prefer, is the Pride and Prejudice, Eleanor and Park variety, in which the characters develop deep love and understanding over time. By showing us how the relationship develops, the author earns our investment in that love working out in the end. I’ve noticed that this kind of romance frequently begins with the two characters actively disliking each other. Is the dislike a necessarily component of the romance? Do the characters ever feel ho-hum, just okay about each other, then fall in love?

The characters beginning with active dislike is an incredibly effective narrative device. First, it gives the characters’ feelings more runway, so they get to change more over the course of the book. It’s more satisfying for a character’s feelings to travel the long distance from dislike to love, than if they were to change from ambivalence or mild like to love.

Secondly, the initial dislike shows an attraction, and is itself the kernel of the connection that will later develop. My mother used to always say, “Hate is not the opposite of love,” which was a way of saying that a person who inspires us to love him or her can more easily inspire other strong feelings, like hate. For instance, Elizabeth’s dislike for Mr. Darcy is still a connection; he occupies her thoughts because he aggravates her. But she is thinking of him, much more so than she would be if she’d hardly noticed him, or thought nothing of him one way or another.

It might seem odd to think of dislike as an attraction, but in our own lives this is very true. Just think about when you’re mad at someone. You might tell all your friends about the unbelievable thing that person said, the way he or she betrayed you, or the way you plan to get back at the object of your anger. The person you’re mad at occupies your thoughts and energy, just as a person you’re falling in love with does.

The more books I think consider, the more I find this to be true, that two characters dislike each other upon first meeting. Furthermore, the initial dislike or distrust is often most strong on the female protagonist’s side. My hunch is that a story in which the boy’s affection is constant while the girl’s affection must be earned appeals heavily to girl readers, who are probably the intended audience in romance-heavy Young Adult novels.

Other examples of this pattern:

  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – In this book (well, really, in the series) Anne and Gilbert start out as competitive and argumentative with each other.
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – In this series, Gansey is rich and entitled, and embodies all that Blue dislikes.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss dislikes Peeta because at first he appears to be playing along with the games, and because he doesn’t seem to have any skills that will help him survive. She questions his motives when he befriends some of the other competitors.

I still have lots to say about the narrative voice of Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, so there will be a future post about that. It’s just that right now I still have romance on the brain. I’m going to be paying a lot more attention as I read to see which stories fit into or break this “hate first, love second” mold.

DIY MFA: Text #1, Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would pursue a DIY MFA degree, awarded to me by me, a quilt of texts that I want to read (or re-read), specifically in order to grow in my work as a writer, or at the very least to keep me warm this winter. The books that I chose were either recommended to me as exemplary examples of fiction writing, or they are well-regarded examples of the genres of fiction that I am currently writing (young adult fiction and short stories for adults).

The first text I read is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It was an unusual choice for me, as the book is not like anything that I’m attempting to write, or even like anything that I would normally read, but it came with high praise. However, while still reading the first couple of pages, I regretted picking up the book and was grateful that it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer for too long.

My feelings about this books are very different now.

The text soon grabbed me, immersed me in the peculiar mind of an author in pursuit of a singular subject: the color blue. Although Maggie Nelson does not write much about herself, each word she writes, each section she chooses, points vividly to the person herself, to the writer, and to the act of writing.

Which leads me to the first question about this book: What is it? I’ve tried to describe it and struggled. For lack of a better word, I call each piece a “section,” but only because it sounds more literary than “chunk.” There are 240 of them. It’s hard to say whether they are poems, vignettes, research items, or simply ephemera. They are a mix of all of these, I suppose, collected with a blue thread stitched throughout, though the blue is more or less visible in these sections, and some feel more or less connected to the sections around them.

Each individual section is beautiful, yet it is the collection of them that is important. The book, though slim, feels like a work many years in the making. To sift through books, movies, life, and the world in search of meaningful tidbits and stories is hard enough, but to search for stories that relate to or evoke the color blue is another thing entirely. The nature of this collection suggests the writer as an obsessive person. And, it also suggests that there is something about the nature of writing that fosters (or requires) obsessiveness.

One type of section that appears throughout the book are sentiments addressed to a “you,” a former lover. In one of my favorite sections, she writes:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Nelson writes several sections that acknowledge the difficulty of pursuing such a project. She refers to failed attempts to gain interest for her work among scholars and grant committees. And then, at the end, rather than feeling satisfied with her final product, she says she feels surprised about how small the finished project is, “an anemia,” she writes, “that seems to stand in direct proportion to my zeal.”

Nelson’s choice, the specific choice to write about the world through the color blue, reminds me that there is an immense power in the particular. It’s a great paradox in literature, that the more the writer succeeds in expressing the specific, unique details of her experience, of her story, the more universal and affecting her story will be to the reader. That is the true beauty of this text, that Maggie Nelson has managed to depict all the world, not in a grain of sand, but in a color.

Other thoughts and resources:

 

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

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.