Review – The Burn Zone: a Memoir by Renee Linnell

If you’re anything like me, you find the psychology of cults very interesting. I cannot tell you the amount of hours I have devoted to reading about Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, Children of God, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Growing up, I had friends who were in a cult and I think that probably sparked the fascination I have with them today.

One thing I’ve never really considered, though, is how somebody gets lured into a cult. I mean, I’ve never really thought about it. And I’ve never really thought about the types of people who find themselves in cults.

I had to stop and evaluate these things before I read The Burn Zone: a Memoir by Renee Linnell. I had to figure out my own preconceptions about cult life before I read this memoir. I felt it would help me focus my reading. What I realized is if you were to ask me what kind of person falls into a cult, I’d tell you somebody who was weak, stupid, or both.

But ten seconds with Linnell’s memoir taught me otherwise.

After seven years of faithfully following her spiritual teacher, Renee Linnell finally realized she was in a cult and had been severely brainwashed. But how did that happen to someone like her? She had graduated magna cum laude with a double degree. She had traveled to nearly fifty countries alone before she turned thirty-five. She was a surf model and a professional Argentine tango dancer. She had started five different companies and had an MBA from NYU. How could someone like her end up brainwashed and in a cult?

The Burn Zone is an exploration of how we give up our power―how what started out as a need to heal from the loss of her parents and to understand the big questions in life could leave a young woman fighting for her sanity and her sense of self. In the years following her departure from the cult, Linnell struggled to reclaim herself, to stand in her truth, and to rebuild her life. And eventually, after battling depression and isolation, she found a way to come out the other side stronger than ever. Part inspirational story, part cautionary tale, this is a memoir for spiritual seekers and those who feel lost in a world that makes them feel less than perfect.

When I was contacted about reading and reviewing this book, I jumped at the opportunity. This rang all of my bells. I was so ready for this book. I waited in anticipation for its arrival to my mailbox.

When I opened it and began reading, I realized I was not ready at all. I was not ready for how real and raw Linnell was going to be. I was not ready for the amount of heartache that was going to be in this book. I was not prepared for Linnell’s skill as a writer, either. What I’m telling you is there was no way to prepare me for what was in this book.

Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

If Dr. Angelou is any judge (and she is) then I cannot imagine Linnell’s agony as she wrote this story. Recently the hosts of my favorite podcast announced they were writing a memoir. They mentioned how painful it was to dig up old wounds and to explore them again. My main takeaway from this book and Linnell as a writer is how incredibly strong and brilliant she is.

In most book reviews, I tell you about the plot of the book. I tell you about characters and plot devices. But The Burn Zone is a memoir, and therefore not my story to tell. Instead, I will talk about the journey this book took me on. And what a journey it was.

The Burn Zone spoke directly to my heart. Linnell is open about the pain and struggles of her past that are so familiar to me, they could very well have been my own problems. From the preface through the entire book, Linnell comments on the human condition and our overwhelming need to be accepted and to have a purpose.

She opens with a Chinese folktale that was so beautiful, I stopped reading to share it with my friends. I had never heard this tale before and I had to share it immediately. It was all about finding acceptance. This little tale set the tone for the entire book. Her preface ends with a call to action, just to make sure she drives her point home.

Embrace your skeletons in the closet. Pull them out and paint them pink. Celebrate them. Your skeletons are probably the most interesting part about you. Your difference is your destiny.

As a narrative, The Burn Zone is presented in a very interesting way. The story is woven in a broken timeline. It alternates between telling the story of how Linnell was lured into the cult, and stories from the time before. I love this style of narrative in fiction and nonfiction. I’m attracted to a non-linear timeline. Every time one of the vignettes ended, I wanted to know more about what I’d just read, but I was also intrigued by the new story that came next. It kept me turning page after page to read everything she had written.

The writing of this book is fantastic. It’s so visual and descriptive; I really felt as if I were there, experiencing everything through my own eyes. From descriptions of beautiful, blue, dolphin-filled waters to pink-purple deserts, I was transported across the world with Linnell. I found myself–on more than one occasion–envious of Linnell’s life. I was never able to travel like she had. I was never afforded the same amazing opportunities of surfing and dancing and life. If she were to write a travel memoir of just the places she’d visited, I’d swallow it whole.

Reading her experiences in the cult, however, was a much different experience. I felt my heart ache. I more than once told her to stop what she was doing. I wrote in the margins notes about the ways that brain washers function. It was all too real. It was a slow fade and, as a third-party observer easy to track. But I spent my time in this book, trying to put myself in her shoes. I tried to understand how this could happen to somebody so brilliant and strong. Not because I thought I was different, but because I know I’m exactly the same.

All anybody wants in this life is to belong. All anybody wants is to be accepted and valued. And in times when I hurt the most, and I can think of a few, it would have been just as easy for my to slip away and lose myself to somebody else’s identity, just to feel accepted and welcome. I wonder if my narrative would have been much different if I were in her shoes.

I began to realize my story had worth.

This truly is–as the jacket copy states–a story of empowerment and a cautionary tale. This is an important story. This is a strong story. This is a story of how easy it is to lose yourself entirely in an attempt to find yourself. But more importantly, this is Renee Linnell’s story. This is the story of one woman who lived through hell and came out on the other side, broken down and rebuilt by flames.

The Burn Zone: a Memoir is an incredible, heavy, wonderful book. It is as much commentary on the human condition as it is a personal, heartbreaking story. I highly recommend it to anybody interested in psychology, survivor stories, and stories of strong, empowered women. It goes on sale everywhere October 9. Pre-order your copy now!

Plucky’s rating?
5/5 stars

The Plucky Reader

About the Author:
Renee Linnell is a serial entrepreneur who has founded and cofounded five companies and has an Executive Masters in Business Administration from New York University. Currently she is working on starting a publishing company to give people from diverse walks of life an opportunity to tell their stories. She divides her time between Colorado and Southern California.


We Are All New York

I’m sitting here in an apartment overlooking Midtown and listening to the sounds of New York City. I’m at a white desk, typing on my laptop and I wonder: is this what Carrie Bradshaw felt like? Did she sit, narrate in her head, and write with awe and wonder at the city around her? Or does New York City lose its magic once you’ve lived here?

Does living in a place make you love it less?

I visited New York in 2006 for the first time. Then I came back in 2014, 2016, and now twice in 2018. Of course, this year’s trips were work-related: I’ve gotten the chance to perform in Carnegie Hall twice this year (seriously, I’m freaking out, but I’m trying to channel my inner Carrie Bradshaw and say this all cool and matter-of-fact.)

The first time I came to the city, I didn’t even know what to expect. I got off the plane naive and starry-eyed, filled with wonder and amazement and a little shock. I was not prepared for the amalgamation of cultures that New York City has. Or the many lifestyles. I grew up sheltered in a small town. The most diverse we got was when a family had a blonde kid and a brunette kid.

Walking into New York City the first time was magical. It was like entering a portal into this world where I was free to be the person I had always dreamt of being. I could sing show tunes in the middle of the street and nobody would look at me, unless it was to join in with a chorus. I could stay out after 9 pm and there was stuff to do. Places were still open. In fact, it seemed, a second wave of the world was just beginning to rustle from their slumber and begin their trendily-dressed, power-walking nighttime activities.

I couldn’t imagine a world that had so much to offer after the sun went down. My hometown rolled up the sidewalks at 8:45.

When I left New York at the end of that trip, I felt as though a hole had been ripped in my heart. Seriously. I had true separation anxiety from this amazing place I had quickly grown to love. I mourned its absence in my life. But I knew there would be no way I could return anytime soon. I was about to be a college student and cash was not going to be plentiful for at least four years.

So I waited it out. I waited until the next chance I got to visit.

The chance finally arose eight years later, when my wife and I took a trip with my best friend and her husband. I had some fears that The City was going to somehow be different. I worried that maybe the magic I’d experienced at 18 years old would have disappeared. Or that maybe I’d made more of it than I was. I worried that my imagination had transformed my memories into something unrealistic, filled with childlike wonder and not at all accurate.

But I stepped off that plane with my eyes still filled with stars, and my dreams still full to the brim. I saw the city with older eyes, but it was still magical, still wonderful. It was still the amazing place I’d been longing to return to for eight years.

We went to shows and ate the best food I’ve ever had and stayed out after our bedtimes. We brunched with The Ladies Who Brunch and we drank mimosas and we trekked out the The Village. We did touristy things–went to the Empire State Building and cruised past the Statue of Liberty–but we tried very hard not to behave as tourists. I wanted the true New York experience. I wanted to get a feel for the actual charm of the city, not just Time Square. Not just the tourist attractions. We saw museums and shows and lived our best New York lives.

My next opportunity to visit New York came two years later. My wife and I went to celebrate our anniversary. This time, we felt confident in ourselves to be able to really fit in like New Yorkers. We navigated the subways with very little issue. We went out to The Village and ate good food and browsed The Strand bookstore. We went to the ballet and to see Fun Home. And New York was still just as magical. It was still the world where my dreams of publishing and music converged. It was still a world I pictured myself in. It was still the place I wanted to be.

New York’s Siren call haunted me every day for another two years before I could return to this city I love. Only this time, I returned in an unusual and amazing way. I was returning to live out my lifelong dream of performing in Carnegie Hall. This trip to New York was a very different experience for me than ever before. I was working. I spent every day in rehearsal, several hours a day. My wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and good friend had all come to watch me perform and got to spend their time visiting the city, my city, while I rehearsed and prepared for this momentous occasion in my own life.

What that meant, though, was in the free time I did have, I got to experience New York in a different way. I popped in my headphones and navigated the city without issue. I rode the subway and ate alone and did the New York thing in a different way than I had before. This was the first time I had really felt like a local. I was working. I was here, making music in New York City, living life with those around me. It felt–for a brief moment in time–like I was here and part of the fabric of the city.

It was hard to leave New York that time. I could really see myself living there and thriving. I just thought: I’m an artist and a musician and a writer. I have a masters degree in education. I could survive in New York. I could find work and be close to the things I love the most.

But alas, all good things have to come to an end.

Soon enough, something amazing happened, and I was invited back to Carnegie Hall with the same orchestra I had joined last time. And this time was different; I only had one rehearsal, not four days’ worth. I was going to get to see the city and work like a performer.

And see the city I did. I ate delicious food. I walked everywhere. I dressed like a New Yorker. I stayed in an AirBnB and not a hotel. I tried to entrench myself in New York. I tried to become New York.

I know it’s silly, this love I have of this city that I’ve never lived in, that I’ll probably never live in. But it’s the place I love. I love the noise and bustle and the people. I love the culture and the food and the sights and the smells. I love the scaffolding. I love that New York is always under construction, always changing, always becoming something new.

I jokingly made this metaphor with my best friend on this trip: we are all New York. I went on to say that it all makes sense. We are all always changing, growing becoming different today than we were yesterday. We are always putting up scaffolding and changing ourselves everyday. Much like New York, we are always under construction. We’re always seeking something different.

We really are all New York.

Again, I must say goodbye to this beautiful place that I love so much. But now I leave with the understanding that anytime the Siren’s Call is too much for me to stand, New York will always be there, waiting for me to discover more of its secrets and weave myself into its fabric a little more. Maybe I’ll never live there, but it will always feel like home to me.

I am New York.

We are all New York.

The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – Of Mice and Men

Did you know that 56% of book challenges take place at public libraries? Libraries which are supposed to represent the communities which they serve. Libraries which are supposed to be places of acceptance and information.

It doesn’t make sense to me that people ask libraries–the public forum for books and information–to ban books. But maybe I’m the backwards one. It’s highly likely. This wouldn’t be the first time.

Here’s the thing. Libraries are magical places. They hold all the books I’ve ever wanted. And if my library doesn’t hold the book I want, there’s a high chance that they have digital access to it. That’s why they’re so amazing. They hold all the stories I could want to read. And they hold information. They hold the secrets to watercolor and acrylic art. To knitting and crocheting. To the lives of great opera composers and presidents and inventors.

To limit libraries’ choice in what books they stock is to take away their power to represent and educate the community they represent.

Of Mice and Men is one of the most-frequently challenged books in history. It has been banned from libraries around the world for various reasons. The most common reasons for Of Mice and Men’s challenges are profanity and taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I’ve already said my peace on taking God’s name in vain, but I will address the issue of profanity. In pretty much the same level-headed, calm manner I’ve used all week in my defense of not banning books. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ A BOOK WITH CURSING IN IT, THEN JUST DON’T READ IT. Okay? Okay.

Good, now that we’ve cleared that up.

I love Steinbeck. He was brilliant. His writing was emotional and heavy and hard. I’ve never met a Steinbeck I didn’t like. I will admit that when I first read The Pearl when I was in high school, I didn’t enjoy it. But once I got a feel from Steinbeck and his writing, I fell in love with it.

Steinbeck has always just spoken to me in ways that few authors have.

Once, a challenge against Steinbeck listed he was “known to have an anti-business attitude” and he was “very questionable as to his patriotism,” which sounds pretty timely to me. Right? Like right now “questionable patriotism” and business practices seem to be big topics in news media today. Maybe Steinbeck was just a forward thinker. (He was.) Maybe he was just planning ahead for the 2010’s (he wasn’t.)

Steinbeck will always hold a special place in my heart. He was the first serious author I read. He was the first serious author I fell in love with. The Pearl was really the first time I’d read a classic author and thought “I could really get into this.”

And then I met Of Mice and Men and I thought “Oh my God (instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain redacted so as not to offend blog banners), this is the most incredible book I’ve ever read.” I read it all in one weekend. And I cried my eyes out. And I got really frustrated. And it was one of the first books I connected with on an emotional level in a long time (that wasn’t Harry Potter.)

Of Mice and Men was the first book that helped me realize my love of historical fiction (even though it was contemporary at the time it was written.) It also was the first book to help me realize how much I love a book that makes me cry. It’s the book that really shaped who I am as a reader, I think. It revealed to me the experience I hoped to share with books. And for that I will always be grateful.

So, Mr. Steinbeck. Curse all you want, take the Lord’s name in vain, be anti-business and have questionable patriotism. I don’t mind. I just want to thank you for the books that changed my life and shaped me as a reader.

You will always have a spot on my shelf, even if everybody in the world bans you.

The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – A Separate Peace

Do you want to know the quickest way to get me to read a book? Call it a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” And in 1980, somebody did just that with today’s challenged book.

You’ll notice from the graphic above (provided by that one of the biggest reasons books are challenged is sexual content. Because, you know, books should not at all reflect real life. Because instead of parents taking the initiative and teaching their children about sex (how taboo), they need to ban any instances of sex in the world. Because people just don’t do that. Right?

It’s ridiculous. Just do your job as parents and stop patrolling what the rest of the world is doing.

Sorry. I’m getting ranty. This is a major point of contention with me in the world, in general.

Clearly, I feel very heated about banning a book for sexual content. If you don’t want to read a book with sex in it, then just don’t. If you don’t want your kids to read a book with sex in it, then just don’t let them. But don’t limit 16-year-old me, trying to claw my way into great literature, because you disagree with the book. That seems simple, right?

Maybe it’s just me.

In any case, I’ve now made this way more about me than about the challenged book.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is one of my favorite wartime novels.

Set in a fictionalized version of Exeter Academy, A Separate Peace is one man’s reflections on his childhood and the time he spent at boarding school. Gene, the character’s protagonist reflects on his friendship with his childhood best friend, Finny, and the time they spent together. It’s a tearjerker. Like a serious 10-tissue kind of book.

I’m going to be honest with you now. I kind of misled you with my opening argument here. The reason I chose this novel is not because of the large amounts of sex in this book. Because there aren’t large amounts of sex in this book.

Because there isn’t any sex in this book.

I mean. None. Seriously. There aren’t even any prominent female characters in this book.

And I know, I know. I’ve devoted much of this blog to talking about books with gay protagonists, so that should be a consideration of mine, right? Except they’re not gay.

When I was 16 years old and reading this book for the first time, I never picked up on any sexual or homoerotic overtones. And when I reread this two summers ago, I still didn’t pick up on any of those overtones.

There was nothing in this book to make 16-year-old me (or modern-day me) consider this book to be a “filthy, trashy sex book.” If 16-year-old me had heard this book were a “filthy, trashy sex book” he would have been SO disappointed when he got to the end.

Thankfully, I didn’t know those things then. And I don’t understand those things now.

The other times A Separate Peace was challenged are far less heinous, if I’m being honest. Mostly, people disagree with the explicit language in A Separate Peace, but if we’re not banning human beings (myself included) for their potty mouths, then I can hardly see the argument behind getting rid of this beautiful coming-of-age tale that Knowles wrote.

It’s the age-old tale of a boy discovering himself through friendships and experiences. It’s about Gene and Finny and the things they help each other discover about themselves. It’s about high school boys navigating life, the same way Looking for Alaska is. The same way Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda is. The same way any teenage coming-of-age book is.

So, book banners, you can keep you “filthy, trashy, sex books” off your bookshelves if you’d like. But that should not include A Separate Peace.

The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – To Kill a Mockingbird

You’d think that in this forward-thinking society, books would stand a chance, right?


Books are being banned and challenged today. And I don’t mean just new releases. It’s not like people are standing in line picketing the latest Stephen King novel. I don’t mean to say that modern releases aren’t being challenged. I just mean that I’m less surprised when they are. It makes sense for something new to be protested.

What does surprise me is that books–classics that have withstood the test of time–are being challenged. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which I mentioned yesterday, was challenged more than 80 years after its initial publication. It’s like people don’t even know how to move on and hate something else. They’re just inheriting the hate of their parents.

That’s just no way to live. If I hate something, I want to hate it on my own. Not just because everybody else hates it. And trust me, I’ve had plenty of practice hating brand new things all on my own.

The weird new flavors of Diet Coke? That’s something to get worked up about. My students saying things like “lit” and “bet” in connotations that definitely don’t make sense? HATE IT.

Books older than any of my living relatives? Sit down and move on. They’re clearly not going anywhere.

Yet the challenges still persists.

In 2017, for instance, the Biloxi, MS school board voted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum because (and I really wish I were joking) it “makes people uncomfortable.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Now we’re just banning things because they make us uncomfortable? If that’s the case, I’m beginning a petition to ban (in no particular order): socks with sandals, crawfish, airplane chairs, the weird side of Tumblr, competitive cheerleading, every treadmill in the United States, faculty meetings, cold park benches, that sounds my water bottle makes when I open it, dress pants, and the word gouache. Feel free to add to this list as you please. I’m banning everything.

I’m the Oprah Winfrey of bans.

Of course, this 2017 ban is not the first challenge To Kill a Mockingbird has faced. Scout Finch’s story has been contested and challenged basically since its original publication.

Let’s face it. It’s a heavy book. It does make you uncomfortable. It does make you evaluate your privilege and your predispositions and your prejudices. It exists to make you think beyond and outside of yourself. To Kill a Mockingbird is art, and in the words of Rainbow Rowell, “art is supposed to make you feel something.”

I first met Scout Finch when I was in the eleventh grade. I was sitting in the back of my English class, cutting up as I always did, when this lavender book fell into my lap. I was really opposed to reading this book. For no particular reason. I just didn’t want to do what the teacher told me. (Remember that lifelong issue with authority I mentioned the other day?)

Clearly, you can tell by the cover that I hated this book and I hardly read it all. I mean, it was just atrocious. I couldn’t even stand it. I mean, I practically never cracked the spine. You can tell, right?

When I first opened To Kill a Mockingbird, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. I was 16 years old. The protagonist was a girl and was too young for my to connect with. Maycomb was not a place I could picture. And I definitely couldn’t connect with having an attorney for a father.

But then I read a little more and I realized that Scout and I weren’t very different. And Maycomb and the tiny town I grew up in weren’t so different. And things started to fall into place for me that To Kill a Mockingbird could just as easily be told in 2004, when I first discovered it. With a few minor tweaks, the backdrop of The Great Depression could fit today’s society. To Kill a Mockingbird was somehow timeless in its storytelling, even with its very distinct setting. I think part of its success is its translatability to modern times.

It was brilliant. And I read it so many times. It quickly became one of my all time favorite books.

Maybe it didn’t make me uncomfortable enough.

Or maybe I’m just not a bigot.

I guess we’ll never know.

The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – The Wizard of Oz

Banned Books Week always makes me think about my favorite books. It seems many of my favorite books are ones that have been challenged in some way. Whether this is coincidental or some Pavlovian response to outcries against well-written stories, I can’t tell.

Banned books week also makes me laugh, thinking about the books people have taken issue with over the years. Children’s books about talking animals? Get out of here. Young adult fiction with a gay protagonist? Peace out. Adult books with a hint of magic? Begone!

Books seem to get challenged and banned for sillier and sillier reasons. One of my favorite books since childhood is one of those books challenged for beyond silly reasons.

Harriet the Spy, for instance, was banned because Harriet–wait for it–spies. As in, she does what the title says she’ll do. As in someone saw this book, thought “hmmm, I wonder what happens in this book,” read it, and then got angry because the titular spy spies on people.

Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends was banned for telling children to break plates instead of drying them. I’m sure you’re all aware that this book is actually chock full of real life advice. You know, “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too” they went for joyrides in flying shoes. Watch out kids, it’s a slow fade. One day you’re breaking plates and the next you’re breaking the speed limit on the I-10 in a New Balance. It’s a gateway poem.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was published in 1900. Since its publication it has been met with dissension. Though it was received well enough to inspire a musical movie and a broadway production, many people found it to be unwholesome and of no value to children. The Detroit Public Library went so far as to ban it entirely for 15 year from 1957-1972.

In 1987, it was challenged by a group of fundamentalist Christians in Tennessee for its portrayal of good witches. Because witches can’t be good. (I’m not going to be the one to point out to said fundamentalist Christians that the Witch of Endor mentioned in The Bible is a necromancer and not a wish-granting, slipper-giving magician…)

“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”

-L. Frank Baum

The most bizarre instance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being challenged, however, has to do with the series’ protagonist, Dorothy. Dorothy, the precocious, wise-beyond-her-years heroine of Oz. What could she possibly do that was so wrong she may be banned from the public view?

Dorothy made the grave, sad mistake of being a leader. I mean, seriously. Nothing offends me more than women in leadership roles. I am personally offended at strong-willed women. I take issue with books that feature young women thinking for themselves, solving their own problems, and not waiting for men to save them. It’s detestable and deplorable.

How dare L. Frank Baum create such a role modern of feminism at the turn of the century? I hope he was ashamed of himself for the amazing character that he crafted in Dorothy.

Seriously? How can anybody take issue with Dorothy? She truly is a strong, respectable heroine in literature. In literature, I place her alongside respectable female characters like Anne Shirley and Caddie Woodlawn. They’re definitely characters I would not be opposed to my students and my future children reading. So, clearly, they deserve to be banned. Right?

I have so many feelings about this, I think I’ll just sign off now.

Have a beautiful banned book day!

The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – Looking for Alaska

It’s my favorite literary week of the year! Happy Banned Books Week, reader!


For those of you who are unfamiliar with Banned Books week I’ve provided some information, before I begin talking about my favorite banned books.

What is Banned Books Week?

Banned Books Week is the annual celebration of the freedom to read. Every year, books are challenged in public schools and libraries around the world for their content or their ideals. Banned Books Week is a chance to raise awareness of these challenged books and the silencing of stories that results.

Why celebrate Banned Books Week?

Every year people try to take away readers’ power to decide what is right for them and their children to read by bringing challenges to remove books from school and public libraries. This ultimately takes away the freedom of choice and the important stories told through books. Banned Books Weeks is an opportunity to celebrate and educate people in the importance of diverse stories.

What kinds of books are being challenged?

All kinds of books are being challenged: historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, religious fiction, narrative nonfiction, self-help books. You name it, there has been a book in that genre that has been questioned. (Okay, to be fair, I’m not sure about cookbooks, but I wouldn’t doubt it.)

It’s important that we don’t allow our right to choose what we read be taken by somebody else. And it’s important we continue to fight for the freedom for authors to publish the stories they need to tell. Books are important. The stories they tell are important. Lives are changed by books daily, The limiting of stories limits voices, and diversity, and freedoms in ways that are unacceptable.

The first time challenged books became a real issue to me was in 2008. John Green posted a video on the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel about his book, Looking for Alaskabeing challenged by parents at a high school in New York. I had not read Looking for Alaska, yet, but I was appalled that people were trying to limit students’ access to a book at all.

After watching this video, I fell down the research rabbit hole of challenged and banned books. And what I found was disconcerting to say the least. People were banning and challenging books for the stupidest reasons! Winnine the Pooh was banned because the anthropomorphic stuffed bear didn’t wear pants? Of Mice and Men was banned because it took God’s name in vain? This is ridiculous. I know entire human beings who use God’s name in vain and we haven’t petitioned to ban them, yet.

I grew a deep affinity for banned books. There was something magical about a book that upset somebody so badly, they had to seek to have it removed. Do you know what I noticed about these books? They’re good books. They’re well written and they hold great stories (mostly; there are always exceptions). And it makes sense, I guess. Books that are poorly written are ignored, right? They have their own slew of other issues, like–I don’t know–being bad books.

I have an issue with authority; it runs deep. It’s been a lifelong problem. It is probably this lifelong issue that causes me to really love the books that somebody else tells me not to read. And I know I’m not alone in that. It makes me wonder how many banned books have been read by my fellow rebels-without-causes just to “stick it to the man.”

This week, I’m going to write each day about a different banned/challenged book that I’ve loved.


Looking for Alaska is a Young Adult fiction novel by John Green (one of my top favorite authors.) Though it came onto my radar in 2008, when it was challenged, I didn’t wind up reading it for the first time until 2010. College was an interesting time in my reading life. I had decided that college meant a more mature me, a me who didn’t read kids’ or YA fiction. I read serious books and thought serious thoughts.

Not reading Looking for Alaska didn’t stop me from being offended over its challenge, however. It made me angry to think that there were parents who believed they were entitled to limit not just the freedoms of their own children but the freedoms of every child in the school. And while I know that many students had access to public libraries and bookstores at the time, I also know that many students–myself included–did not have access to a public library or ready access to a bookstore. I lived in the middle of nowhere and if my school didn’t have the book, there was a large chance I wouldn’t get to read it.

It brought me pure rage.

What really enraged me was the reason it was being challenged. It was challenged because of a scene of a sexual nature.

Now, I’ll be honest, as a teacher of middle school and high school, I don’t always want my students reading about teenage sexual relations. But it has nothing to do with the content and everything to do with the emotional maturity of the student in question. I wouldn’t just blanket dismiss a book because of sexual content.

And if parents were so up in arms about kids reading a book with sexual content, why weren’t they going after television? Why weren’t they angry that shows like Sex in the City were allowed to exist at all? Why weren’t they mad that the cast of Friends freely and openly talked about their sexual relationships? Why weren’t parents angry that prime time was filled with innuendo?

Why weren’t people coming after the radio? Since the music of The Beatlesmusic has been getting increasingly more sexual in nature. Were these parents running with their flames and pitchforks to their local “Mix of the 80’s, 90’s, and today” stations to demand they only play wholesome music about patty-cake and yellow ribbons? Why was it acceptable for these forms of media to have content of sexual nature but not the books their children read? Especially when the content in the book was minimal, compared to the content in other forms of media.

The only conclusion I could come to at the time is that parents didn’t actually want to limit all media. If Friends-in-syndication were taken off the air for its sexual content, they wouldn’t get to watch it. If all media had been regulated this way, they wouldn’t get to listen to Boyz II Men or Marvin Gaye. It’s much easier to regulate media you never intend to consume.

“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
–  François Rabelais

Looking for Alaska is a wonderful book about a boy seeking is own Great Perhaps. It’s a coming of age tale and deals very seriously with heavy topics important to today’s teenagers. It was a book that captivated me and held my attention. Anything I can say about Looking for Alaska, John Green has already said in the video I linked earlier in this post.

What I know about banned books, I owe to Looking for Alaska. It is the book that inspired me to learn more, to fight harder, and the treasure the diverse and wonderful stories that captivate people so strongly, they feel the need to end their existence completely.

What are you favorite banned books? Leave a comment and let me know!

The Plucky Reader

Review – The Storm Runner by J. C. Cervantes

Watermark_ByTailorBrandsSome time ago, I read that Rick Riordan was opening his own publishing imprint. As an avid reader of Riordan’s work, I was pumped. The more I read, the more excited I got. Not only was he starting an imprint, he was going to use this imprint and his influence to publish original middle-grade works by authors of color.

His goal, as he has stated on his own website, is to publish authors of various cultural backgrounds to retell the stories of their mythologies, the way he has with Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology.

I love few things the way I love a modern retelling of an ancient culture or mythology. I gobbled up the Percy Jackson books like they were candy. I swallowed up The Kane Chronicles whole. The Heroes of Olympus books held me captivated. And I’m not typically a serial reader. But these series were all so entrancing and wonderfully, brilliant delivered.

So to find out that Riordan was searching for storytellers who were able to pen the stories of their individual cultures made me giddier than I’d care to admit.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of reading the second book from Rick Riordan’s new imprint, The Storm Runner by J. C. Cervantes.


Zane Obispo spends every day exploring the sleeping volcano in his backyard. “The Beast,” as he calls it, is the one place where he can escape other kids, who make fun of him because he has a limp and walks with a cane.

After a twin-engine plane crashes into The Beast, a mysterious girl named Brooks shows up at Zane’s doorstep, insisting that they meet at the volcano, where she will reveal a terrible secret. Zane agrees, mostly because beautiful girls like her don’t usually talk to him. Brooks tells him that the volcano is actually a centuries-old prison for the Maya god of death, whose destiny is directly tied to Zane’s. No way, Zane thinks.He’s just a thirteen-year old nobody, and destiny or no destiny,he wants nothing to do with any of it, especially some god of death.

But Brooks opens his eyes to the truth: magic, monsters, and gods are real, and Zane is at the center of an ancient prophecy that could mean the destruction of the world.Suddenly finding himself entangled in a web of dangerous secrets, Zane embarks on a quest that will take him far from home and test him to the very core.

Feisty heroes, tricky gods, murderous demons, and spirited giants are just some of the pleasures that await in this fresh and funny take on Maya mythology, as rich and delicious as a mug of authentic hot chocolate.

There is hardly a more likable character than Zane Obispo. He’s so endearing. And injured. And I don’t mean his limp. He’s injured by the world. He’s jaded from the problems that face a young boy who has a limp in a world where children are cruel. His affinity for his old neighbors is adorable. I mean. Seriously, I was sold on this kid from the very beginning.

Not only is Zane basically the most lovable character in all of fiction (beat out only by Wilbur because, let’s face it, pigs are better than anything) he’s surrounded by a lovable cast of characters. From the old people he loves, to his quirky uncle, to his Mom, and his new friend Brooks, this ensemble cast of characters captured my heart.

After Zane witnesses a plane crash into the volcano near his house, Zane’s world is turned upside down. He is thrust into a world full of terrifying monsters and action and adventure. And Zane learns that he must save all of humankind, alongside his shape-shifting friend, Brooks, and his Uncle Hondo.

This book is packed with action and adventure. I literally gasped on more than one occasion while reading. Unlike my last two reviews, I am not sad that I read this book quickly, at all. I am sad that I could not read it quickly enough. I didn’t want to put it down, and I couldn’t get Zane out of my head whenever I wasn’t reading.

This book may be classified as a middle grade novel, but it explores big concepts. It explores the true power and strength of a boy seen by society as broken and injured. It explores what it really takes for a young boy to realize his true potential.

The writing is wonderful. The characters are lovely. The story is enchanting. And for me, personally, the source material of Mayan mythology is so interesting. I have always loved reading about Mayan culture, for as far back as I can remember.

If you’re looking for a good read for the entire family, I highly, highly recommend The Storm Runner by J. C. Cervantes.

Plucky’s rating?

4 /5 stars.

The Plucky Reader

Note: I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine and were not influenced in any way by the publisher or author.

Review – Fresh Ink edited by Lamar Giles

Several months ago, I received an ARC for this anthology, Fresh Ink. It’s been sitting in my Kindle for far longer than I’d care to admit. I remember reading the description and thinking it sounded so interesting and, well, fresh. And then, I guess I just forgot about it.

Recently I was roaming the shelves of Barnes & Noble (because, you know, I don’t have enough books to read at my house, sitting on a shelf, unread and gleaming for my attention), when I saw Fresh Ink sitting on the shelves.

I always feel so happy when I see the ARCs I’ve receive come to fruition as books on the shelf. It’s not a pride–it’s not like I discovered them or anything. But it’s so nice to seem them out and published and able to be in people’s hands. Usually, though, I also finish the ARC before it’s on the shelves. So, to make sure my joy was appropriately placed, I dusted off my Kindle and read my way through this anthology of short stories.

I was pleasantly surprised when I started this collection. I expected a typical collection of short stories. This was no typical collection of short stories. As the information clearly states (I’m just not a very thorough reader sometimes) this collection is told in nontraditional ways. There are short stories by new, diverse authors. But there’s also a one-act play. And a graphic story.


I, personally, love graphic novels. I’ve added a ton of them to my classroom collection lately, and I totally support my students reading them. It was a nice change of pace when this one appeared.

From the first story, the tone of this collection is set. Fresh Ink opens with “Eraser Tattoo,” the story of first love and lost love. Two teenagers must say goodbye to their first loves. The story takes the reader through a series of flashbacks, as well as the present, to tell the story of unequal love. Something in the way Jason Reynolds tells this story is so real about the way teenagers love.

Other authors include Melissa de la Cruz (of Descendants and Witches of East End fame) and Nicola Yoon (author of The Sun is Also a Star and Everything, Everything). Sadly, I am not familiar with the writing of most of these authors. Which is exactly the purpose of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement co-founded by the editor of this collection, Lamar Giles.

All in all, I enjoyed my time with Fresh Ink. I wish, much as I said about I’d Rather Be Reading that I’d savored this book a little more. It’s a wonderful book rife with unique voices and diverse points of view. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Fresh Ink. My only disappointment was that it ended too quickly and had far too few stories.


Plucky’s rating? 4 stars.

It is definitely worth the read.

The Plucky Reader

Living Life with Regret

black pen on white book page

I know you are supposed to live life without regrets. I know that we are supposed to treat everyday like it’s our last and make sure the things we do are worthwhile. I know that we are expected to be intentional in the things we do and the things we say so that we never look back on our lives and wish for something different.

But I have a confession.

I have a very large, extremely massive regret. And–shy of getting a lobotomy–there’s nothing I can do to fix it.

I regret that I will never be able to re-read Harry Potter for the first time.

Look, I get it. Harry Potter has been around for 20 years now. I should not now be lamenting over something quite this old, right? Wrong.

So here’s the deal about Harry Potter. When I was eleven years old, I didn’t know what I had in my hand was absolute, pure magic. When I was eleven years old, I didn’t realize that I was standing on the cusp of the biggest literary phenomenon of my entire life.

When I was eleven years old, I read the first three Harry Potter books back-to-back-to-back. Without sleeping. Or eating. Or blinking. And in the most hipster way I can possibly say this, I read them before they were a thing. That’s not to say they were hot-off-the-presses when I discovered them. I didn’t read them until Prisoner of Azkaban had come out,

My school library had hardly finished wrapping the cellophane around them before they were in my hands. My greedy little grubby eyes soaked in those pages like they were my life source. I read them faster than any other books I’d read in my entire life. I was so enraptured by Sorcerer’s Stone, I can remember sitting on the floor of my school library and reading the first five chapters before I could even force myself to stand to go check it out.

I swallowed the first three books whole. I engulfed them and chewed them up, covers and all, and absorbed them into part of me. After I’d read the first three books from the library, I begged my parents to buy them for me so I could read them over and over and over and over. And I did. I read them so many times. So. Many. Times.

And then came the awful, dreaded wait for Goblet of Fire. And I can remember the magic of reading Goblet of Fire. It was the summer after seventh grade and I worked all summer with my mom to be able to buy that book. (In retrospect, what a horrible trade-off. I’m talking I worked 8-hour shifts all summer for one hardback book.)

But that wait was nothing like Order of the Phoenix which came three years later. Three. Long. Years. Three years of me reading and re-reading and reading again the first four books. And then Order of the Phoenix brought with it the magic of a midnight release. I got to be out late. I was with one of my oldest and dearest friends (we’re still old and dear friends and I have the gray hairs to prove it) out WAY past my bedtime. More importantly, we were our WAY past our bedtimes at A BOOKSTORE. I was in a bookstore after hours. Cramped in a line. With a golden ticket in my hand which entitled me to a shiny, beautiful new book.

Order of the Phoenix had my favorite cover. And when the cashier put it in my hand, I felt magic crackle through my palms. My friend dropped me off back at my house and I stayed up all night–again without blinking or eating or doing anything–until I had swallowed every word whole. And I had the migraine as retribution for my choice.

Half-Blood Prince was spent in yet another incredibly long line, my friends around me, chattering excitedly about what they hoped would happen and what they predicted would happen. I was in the same bookstore, the line snaking all the way through the building, surrounded by my people who loved reading and loved Harry Potter. The next day, I went to a horse show where a very unhappy woman proceeded to tell my mother and me how I was going to hell for reading Harry Potter. To which I shrugged, opened the book, and informed her that if Satan was taking me, at least I was going to read a very good book before he did so.

Deathly Hallows brought a very different experience. This time, I was the man behind the register. I helped promote sales for Deathly Hallows and plan the party the store I worked at was throwing. I stepped on a girl’s hand and hit a boy in the face. Purely accidental. Seriously. And I had to make sure everybody else in the entire city got their copies of Deathly Hallows before I did. But I did get to keep the boxes the books were shipped to us in. I moved into two apartments and my first house with my wife in those boxes. Fond memories were attached to those boxes.

I read Deathly Hallows much more slowly than the other books. I knew it was the end. I knew that I would never again experience the world of Harry Potter the way I was right then, reading that last book. I savored it. I salivated over it. I almost lost my job over reading it. (Okay, but in my defense you can’t just STOP reading in the middle of the battle at Hogwarts. That’s sacrilege.)

And at 19 years old, I had to face the realities of a world in which there were no more midnight releases of Harry Potter books. I would never again read a Harry Potter book for the first time.

I squandered away those beautiful, golden years that were filled with new books of the biggest obsession I’ve ever had. I wasted those amazing nights of reading books that would never be new to me again. I lost the opportunity to savor the only first time I’d ever have.

My only regret in this life is that I will never be able to re-read the Harry Potter books for the first time.

Live your life without regrets (and savor every bookish moment you get!)

The Plucky Reader