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

Book Tour – I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

Today is an exciting day as I get to be part of Anne Bogel’s release tour for her new book, Reading People: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, which will be released September 4, 2018.

Last year, I was chosen to be part of Anne’s launch team for her first book, Reading People, and that experience is what prompted me to launch The Plucky Reader. Having the opportunity to support her second book–after having been so inspired her in the past–is an incredible opportunity. But being chosen as part of her Book Tour is an even greater honor.

I’d Rather Be Reading could very well be the title of my autobiography. I say this phrase at least six times a day. I think it probably several hundred times more. And if you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve had this thought a time or two.

I’d Rather Be Reading is an essay collection, and to be honest, it’s the first essay collection I’ve read. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve developed a love of nonfiction, memoir, and essays. Reading once had been my escape from this world, but it has slowly evolved into a way for me to view different facets of the world, instead.

Reading isn’t just a way to pass time–it’s a lifestyle. Books shape, define, and enchant us. They are part of who we are and we can’t imagine life without them. In this collection of charming and relatable reflections, beloved book blogger and author Anne Bogel leads you to remember the book that first hooked you, the place where you first fell in love with reading, and all the books and moments afterward that helped make you the reader you are today.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you can see how this book would resonate with me. I have written about the book that made me fall in love with reading, and I remember all the places I’ve read my favorite book. The marks books leave are indelible, and I can remember every one I’ve read, all of them like the memories of old friends.

Old books, like old friends, are good for the soul.

In Bogel’s essay, “Again, for the first time,” she discusses the power of rereading a great book. As a notorious rereader, it’s refreshing to hear of the power of rereading through someone else’s eyes. She points out the magic of knowing the ending, the power of knowing a character’s true intentions. The first time you read a story, you’re discovering something brand new. But the second time, third time, fourth time, you’re seeing the small things, the nuances that lead to the story, the motivation of the characters, the arc of the storyline well before it’s revealed itself. It’s a beautiful experience.

Bogel’s essays speak the hearts of readers. From “Confess Your Literary Sins” to “Bookworm Problems” to “How to Organize Your Bookshelves” they are real and beautifully written and relevant to the heart of every reader. Her writing is conversational and familiar. It’s like having a conversation with a friend. It’s easy to connect with.

I often relate reading to food (my other great passion in this world), and in this case, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life is dessert. But not something light, not a fruit salad to be gobbled up all at once. No. It’s something rich and buttery, something heavy with ganache. It’s something to be savored, not devoured all at once. It’s a small book, the essays read quickly, but I can’t imagine blowing through this book in one sitting, it needs time and attention.

Pick this book up! It’s beautifully written and beautifully designed. The perfect little book to keep beside your bed and read an essay before sleep.

Order it before September 4th for some amazing pre-order bonuses, including:

  • FREE digital download of the audio version of the book, read by the author
  • Access to Anne Bogel’s class “7 Ways to Get More Out of your Reading Life,” a live class recorded on August 2. The recording is available for all preorders.
  • Beautiful digital artwork of the book

You can access these preorder bonuses on the I’d Rather Be Reading website.

Plucky’s Rating?

5/5 Stars

The Plucky Reader

Full disclosure: As a member of the I’d Rather Be Reading launch team, I received a copy of this beautiful book (now I’m talking design-wise, the cover is beautiful), along with some other beautiful promotional items. I’d like to thank Anne Bogel and the I’d Rather Be Reading team for including me in her launch and her book tour.

Anne Bogel is the creator of the popular blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast What Should I Read Next? Her book lists and reading guides have established Bogel as a tastemaker among readers, authors, and publishers. The author of Reading People, she lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Why We Do It

We have just finished our first full week of school.

Any teacher can tell you, the first week is a harrowing experience. You get a room full of energetic kids, made up of equal parts excited and resentful. Excited to see their friends after summer, resentful that summer is now used in a past tense context.

Exhausting as it is, I love the first week of school. It’s rife with opportunities. It sparkles with magic. It’s filled with hope and promise and beauty. The first week means I have new lives to touch and new teachers to learn from. I love that my students have things to teach me, and worlds to introduce me to, and personalities and opinions and experiences that will help me see the world in a more complete, more focused way. I love that I am still filled with wonder when I meet a new kid, and I hope that I will never think that I always have kids figured out.

The first week of school also means a lot of work. It means more work in one week than most people complete in a month. Seriously. It means running copies, writing letters, planning lessons, team building, seat assigning, pencil sharpening, board writing, and everything else it takes to make your room perfect and ready for your new babies. Personally, I spent ~40 hours just painting my classroom and setting the tables up the way I want them. That’s not even to mention the amount of money I’ve spent on my classroom thus far.

It’s no secret that teachers don’t make a lot of money. And anyone who’s ever met a teacher knows that we spend a lot of time at school. In the eyes of many, teaching is a thankless job. So why do we do it? Why do we spend countless hours grading papers and staying after school to tutor and calling parents and checking in on our students? Why do we spend countless dollars buying pencils and markers and paper and food and clothing for our kiddos?

Sometimes it seems we spend more time at school than at our houses, even in the summer.


Because we love kids. We love what we do.

I love nothing more than helping students, offering them the chance to do something amazing, to be whatever they want to be. I love being the person they share victories with. I love being able to watch them mature and grow and change. I love watching their faces light up the first time they understand a difficult concept. I love watching their smiles as they find their tribe, find where they belong.

Teaching’s not a thankless job. People just don’t know how to look for thanks. Kids don’t always speak their appreciation, but they always show it.

I have a student in my English class, for instance, who has a history of being a handful for other teachers. For whatever reason, though, this student loves me. She’s never been an issue for me; in fact, she helps her classmates. This girl who is known for her negativity in other classrooms is a leader and a nurturer in my classroom. It’s her way of saying thanks.

And stories like this line the paths that teachers walk on. This story with this student is not unique. Every day we are making differences in kid’s lives. And watching them change is thanks in itself. Watching them listen to and apply the things they learn is the best way to witness gratitude.

So much about what I do is misunderstood by people. Outsiders think we have loads of free time, with free nights and weekends and holidays and summers (it sounds like we’re an early 2000’s cell phone plan.) None of that is accurate, for the record. I worked all summer long, and I wasn’t alone. I am usually grading papers or reading or lesson planning into the late hours of the night. We spend holidays worried about our kids, hoping they’re safe with their families, hoping they’re taken care of when they’re not in our sight.

And I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.

So, sure. My feet hurt. I don’t get the opportunity to use the bathroom from 8:00-3:00. My lunch is 22 and is, every Wednesday, eaten while I walk around and make sure kids don’t get into fights. I pull long hours and I’ve got bags under my eyes that would make Coach envious. But it’s worth it.

Every minute is worth it.

The Plucky Reader

Review – Scream All Night by Derek Milman

Last month, I received an email asking me to consider reading and reviewing a new book, Scream All Night by Derek Milman. I love getting these emails, I’m not ashamed to admit. I love them so much, that I almost always say yes without even reading about the book or doing any research or even checking my schedule to see if I actually have time to read these books.

So, like the accept-first-think-later person I am, I said yes. And then I read the jacket copy.


DARIO HEYWARD KNOWS ONE THING: He’s never going back to Moldavia Studios,the iconic castle that served as the set, studio,and home to the cast and crew of dozens of cult classic B-horror movies. It’s been three years since Dario’s even seen the place, after getting legally emancipated from his father,the infamous director of Moldavia’s creature features.

But then Dario’s estranged brother invites him home to a mysterious, shocking ceremony involving his father and a tribute to his first film — The Curse of the Mummy’s Tongue.

Dario swears his homecoming will be a onetime visit. A way for him to get closure on his past — and reunite with Hayley, his first love and the costar of Zombie Children of the HarvestSun, a Moldavia production fraught with real-life tragedy — and then say good-bye for good.

But then the unthinkable happens — Dario gets sucked back into the twisted world of Moldavia and the horrors, both real and imagined, he’s left there.

With only months to rescue the sinking studio, and everyone who has built their lives there, Dario must confront the demons of his past — and the uncertainties of his future. But can he escape the place that’s haunted him his whole life?

Honestly, if I’d read this in a bookstore, I’m not sure this book would have made it into my shopping cart. Not that it sounds like a bad book, just not typically my style of book. It sounds dramatic and a little on the horror side of things and just not really my kind of book.

Lucky for me, though, I didn’t do any research and I blindly said I would be happy to read and review Scream All Night. And I’m so, so glad I did.

Scream All Night is well written with characters you want to love and want to understand. I fell in love with Dario and my heart ached for him from the very beginning.

When the story opens, we find Dario living in a halfway house/orphan home. Interestingly, though, he gets a phone call from his brother to return for a tribute to his father, things get very blurred. Soon we learn that Dario has been emancipated from his family, and with that, the complications of the story start to unfold.

That’s when I first learned that with beauty comes a little bit of terror.

Dario grew up in a beautiful castle with sprawling fields, Moldavia. But within the beauty of Moldavia were terrible, dark secrets. For readers with triggers, this book should come attached with a trigger warning for child abuse. Dario’s relationship with his father is strained and at times very hard to read. There’s a lot of anger and hatred and pain.

But this book isn’t just sad and painful. Scream All Night is about a broken family trying to become whole again. It’s about people finding their places in the world. It’s about redemption and renewal.

In a house full of broken people, the things you keep close to your heart better be broken too.

Honestly, this book started out slow for me. The dialogue was a bit stilted in the beginning. But by the third chapter, I was hooked and couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know more about Hayley and her parents, Aida and Hugo. I wanted to know why things were so strained between Dario and his brother, what happened to Dario’s mother. I wanted to know everything.

Something unique and fresh to Scream All Night was the whole monster movie feel. References to monster movies are sprinkled throughout this book, and with each one, I can see the movie playing out in my head. Milman, the author, is an accomplished actor. His knowledge of filming and acting makes the writing authentic and natural. The fact that they’re B-horror movies adds to the charm. There are references that bring to mind Elvira, Mistress of the Night. For me, it evokes images of my favorite cartoons from my childhood. I was reminded of shows like A Pup Named Scooby Doo and Tiny Toons. Both of these shows made their own jabs at B-horror movies, werewolf films, monster movies.

Though this book was totally unique and fresh, there was a sense of nostalgia about it that kept me wanting more.

When that moment comes, you’ll know you’ve made it through all the darkness God drew for you, and come out into the light.

So much of this book is about healing and redemption and renewal. This is one of the rare books that didn’t make me cry, but that I still loved. I love when a book makes me cry, but not crying in this book did not mean that I wasn’t emotionally connected to it. It was just much more subtle. And considering the subject matter, I’m glad it was more subtle. It was a bearable ache that I could endure all in one sitting.

The bad stuff leaves the scars

Scream All Night is a family story, more than anything else. It teaches us that families are more than just the people you’re related to. Families reach far and encompass so many people. Families are drawn together and need each other to survive.

Some people are pulled into orbit with one another–a planet and its moon.

Families are like that. Entwined with each other and pulled into each other’s orbit.

I am absolutely delighted that I was asked to read and review Scream All Night by Derek Milman. It was a wonderful read and one that will find its home on my shelf when it comes out.

Scream All Night will be released on July 24, 2018 and will be available where all great books can book found.

Plucky’s rating? 4.5/5 stars

A Plucky Vacation


Last week, my wife and I took a much-needed vacation to Hot Springs, Arkansas. We stayed at a beautiful cabin on the lake, spent some time in the water, wandered the streets of downtown Hot Springs, and disconnected from technology and the world for a few days.

I cannot tell you how amazing that was. I cannot even begin to describe what it was like to not be concerned with social media, with phone calls, with text messages. I didn’t ignore everybody; I was just choosey about whom I communicated with.


I sat on the dock of the lake house and read as much as I possibly could (review coming soon for A Place For Us.) I basked in the warmth and the comfort of summer.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m happier in the sunlight. Even when it’s roughly three billion degrees outside, I enjoy the sunlight. I, in fact, really love to smell like sunscreen because it means I’ve been in the sun. (Now if I could just figure out how to enjoy sweating.)


I encourage you, dear reader, to sit back and unplug sometime. Take a day to turn off your phone and turn your attention to a book or to your partner or to your best friend or to your dog. Take a few hours without the hassle of notifications and popups and emails. There was a time before social media and cell phones and even blogs. There was a time when we weren’t accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Treating myself to that kind of day has only made me crave me. I know it’s not realistic in today’s society of fast-paced immediacy to disconnect for more than a couple of days at a time. But wouldn’t it be nice? Imagine how much more reading you’d get done.


Take time to explore. Smell the roses. Read the historical plaques. See the world as it is. Today is the only day this world will look as it does. Tomorrow it will be different and we’ll have missed what today held for us.

I’m as guilty as everybody else. But at least for a few glorious days, I saw the water and the wind and the breath of the world as it was meant to be seen. And for those few days of wonder, I will always be grateful.

(Channeling that feeling of wonder now as I deal with a broken air conditioner in Louisiana. Send help. Or ice!)

The Plucky Reader

A Much-Needed Vacation

I apologize for my absence, as of late. I have been taking a much-needed break.


I am currently on vacation, enjoying some creative time on a dock on a lake with a cold drink in my hand and fully-loaded Kindle. I will be back to posting on a regular schedule next week.

I hope you are all living your best reading lives!

The Plucky Reader

Cool June Morning Musings


It’s a cool and breezy morning as I sit to write this post. The temperature has been in the low- to mid-90’s this week, so sitting outside has not been on the top of my to-do list. But for whatever blessed reason, today it’s in the mid-80’s and breezy And I’ll take that any day.

I’m enjoying the weather and I’ve brought with me my colored pencils (teachers love fun school supplies) and my highlighters to work on the first novel I’m teaching next school year. I’ve brought my Kindle to read some ARCs to review here. I’ve brought my headphones and my smile. It’s the perfect morning.

Now that this school year is over and I’ve had time to reflect and look back at my blog, I see that I am happiest when I am outside in the beautiful weather with a book in my hand. The problem is I’ve been working basically two full-time jobs since 2011. There hasn’t been nearly enough time for my to sit outside in the sunshine and read books.

That’s my goal for next school year. To dial it back. Read more books. Work fewer hours. I’m dropping out of some of the symphonies in which I play. As nice as the money is at Christmastime, I’m turning down some Christmas gigs. It will take some budgetary adjustments, but sometimes caring for your family is about more than just making money.

Money is the thing I struggle with the most. I will always feel I don’t have enough money. I will always fight with the fact that I became a teacher, when there are other jobs that make loads more money. (I wouldn’t happy at a single one of them, but that won’t stop me from being hard on myself about it.)

Realistically, I know I have nothing to worry about.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

Matthew 6:25-27

This verse has been quoted to me more often than I’d care to admit. But it’s only through recent prayer, reflection, and study that it’s become a message to me. I’m a slow learner sometimes, especially when it comes to self-reflection. I spend so much of my life concerned with others that I forget that I have to focus on myself from time to time

It feels selfish, doesn’t it? To take a step away from everybody and look at yourself. There’s so much pain in the world. There’s so much need and hurt and ache. And I want to fix it all. Every once in a while, though, I need that not-so-subtle reminder that if I don’t take care of myself a little bit, then I won’t be able to care for anybody else. And showing people love is one of my favorite things.

So I’m shifting my focus. Not entirely to myself, but to rediscovering the things that are most important. Taking time for my family. Taking time for myself. Spending time in The Bible and listening to the songs of nature. Returning to my roots. And focusing on being the best teacher I can possibly be. Not because success in my career is the most important thing, but because I’ve been given the amazing opportunity to teach amazing kids.

Sometimes–okay, almost always–change is good. It just doesn’t always look that way at first. Change is scary. We’re control freaks by nature. (Or maybe that’s just me?) Change means giving up some of that control to unknown factors. Things such as changing jobs give you the opportunity to reflect and react and reshape and rebuild. And today, in this cool breeze, at this shady table–sitting next to the big cardinal who just landed nearby–I’m grateful for change and for the opportunity to grow and recreate myself.

Who knew the first day of June could mean the first day of something new and exciting for me? I can’t wait to see what comes next. I’ve got great books to read, I’m 13 books ahead on my reading challenge for the year, and I’ve got two months of freedom before the next school year. That’s a recipe for opportunity if I’ve ever seen one!

Here’s what I read in May:

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mulally Hunt
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Persall
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy by B. T. Gottfried (review here)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (a re-read for book club)
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno (review here)

How was your May? Was it as productive? What did you read that you loved? Send me yout book recommendations! I want them all.

Also attached is my June reading playlist. This is what I’m listening to as a I read and blog.

The Plucky Reader


Review – Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno


This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading a soon-to-be-released book. One of my favorite things about book blogging is getting to read amazing books before they come out, and Sarno’s Just Under the Clouds is exactly that.

Always think in threes and you’ll never fall, Cora’s father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.

But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, and Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who’s just different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can’t help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?

After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora’s mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she has been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.

Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.

Just Under the Clouds is middle-grade fiction, which I don’t usually read, but as I’m switching out of the music room and into the English classroom, I’m making a concerted effort to fix that. And something I’ve realized as I’m making that effort? A good book is a good book–regardless of its intended audience–is a good book.

Just Under the Clouds intrigued me from the start. Cora’s voice is authentic. It feels real and it feels like the voice of a young teenager/preteen.  So often in fiction, children speak too much like adults. I’m guilty of this in my own writing, as well. But as someone who spends several hours a day with teenagers, I know how teens should talk. I know the thoughts that young teens have every day. I know how they function. And it’s clear that Sarno does, as well. (Or she has a really good editor. But I’m going to give Sarno the credit here.)

Cora’s story is sad. From the opening of the book it’s sad and heavy and there is little hope. Cora finds the beautiful things in life and in nature, but at the end of the day, it’s apparent that Cora and her family are returning home to a shelter, to temporary housing. Cora is still mourning the death of her father. Cora isn’t doing well in school. And she is forced to play surrogate parent to her younger sister with an unstated mental exceptionality. (I assume she is on the autism spectrum, but it’s never explicitly stated.) It was tough to read, even as an adult. But it was important.

Something I really love about Just Under the Clouds is that it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s important to be told. Sarno has given a voice to people who don’t typically have a voice in fiction. And she’s done it masterfully. She’s done it artfully. And she’s done it in such a way that the readers are able to put themselves in Cora’s shoes. The reader is able to feel empathy—not pity—for Cora and her family.

“Home is more than a place. It is a feeling. Of warmth and security. Of love and stability. That no matter what we face out there, in here, we will always be looked after.”

The opening letter of this book—written by Julia Maguire, an editor at Knopf—tells the reader from the beginning that this book is about finding home. And that home is about a lot more than just having somewhere to sleep at night. This, alone, is an important lesson for anybody to learn. As a teacher, I know many, many students who do not feel at home in their own houses. Safety, security, and stability are just as important as having a roof over your head.

Just Under the Clouds opens in the middle of Cora’s story, which is something I really love. I love when the book opens and the reader is thrown into the fray of day-to-day life. I don’t like exposition. I don’t like back story. Eventually I want it, but not at once. I want to love the characters before I learn why they’re the people that they are.

Cora starts the book in a tree, watching her little sister, Adare. When her mother calls, she quickly descends and prepares to meet her mom, with Adare in tow. Except Adare is holding her breath and refuses to let it out. From Cora’s commentary, it appears that this is a regular occurrence. And this is a theme that runs throughout the book. The breath holding is important and it matters.

Another thing I love about Sarno’s writing is how everything matters. Everything in this story is important and returns later. She’s very much like J.K. Rowling that way. She’s a very smart storyteller.

As the story unfolds, we see Cora fail math. This is not uncommon in students—even brilliant students—whose needs aren’t being met. Maslow theorized that students had to have their needs of food and security and stability met before any learning could take place. And after seven years in the classroom, I believe he was onto something.

We also see Cora make her first true friend, a drifter of a very different nature named Sabina. Sabina grew up on a houseboat, floating from port to port, existing in her family unit and never attending public school. Her life is very unlike Cora’s. Her life is very like Cora’s.

Just Under the Clouds is peppered with little hints of the issues that come with homelessness, issues that don’t occur to most people. In the middle of the story, Adare and Cora are enjoying an after-school snack. When Adare doesn’t finish her peanut better, Cora feels obligated to eat it, merely so it won’t go to waste. This very subtle detail hit me hard. This is real life. And this is real life every day for students I come into contact with daily.

This is daily life for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. It’s heartbreaking.

But stories like this offer hope.

I’m excited to stock this book in my classroom library. Many of my students have never considered what life is like on “the other side.” Most of the students I teach have never been homeless or had want for anything. They’ve never missed a meal or spent a night in temporary housing. And that’s okay. But because they’ve never had these experiences, chances are they’ve never reflected on experiences like this. It’s their privilege.

Before anybody gets their feathers ruffled: yes, I believe in privilege. I believe I’m privileged. I believe that everybody has varying degrees of privilege. And I think it’s important to understand and identify our innate privilege. Everybody’s is different. Everybody’s brings something unique and special to our society.

But it’s there. It’s real. It’s a thing that has to be acknowledged. It’s so well-written; it will make a great read for any middle grade reader, or a fantastic read aloud to younger readers. Take this opportunity to educate yourself and your children about the issues that others face.

I’m excited to share this book with you and with my students. I think Sarno has told a story that’s important.

Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno will be available June 5, 2018 at all major book retailers. Pick yourself up a copy ASAP.

Plucky’s rating?

4 out of 5 stars.