Cool June Morning Musings

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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.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

 

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Review – Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

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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.

A Letter to My Replacement

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Dear you,

I hope you know how lucky you are to work with these amazing kids everyday. I hope that even when you’re stressed and tired and angry that you will remember these are the best kids you’ll ever meet. Take a step back and remember that when times get tough.

I hope you know that the music room is a safe place, open to all hearts. Students come here to feel safe, regardless of their sexuality, their social status, the amount of money their parents have. Students find a safe haven regardless of their gender, their weight, the color of their skin. This is a hideaway from the world where people are just people; all special and unique and beautiful.

I hope you know that this is a place for second chances. The sins of yesterday are forgiven and grudges are dissolved. Every morning presents a new opportunity for something amazing; each day is full of promise and wonder and magic.

I hope you know that this room has been a world of new beginnings for so many. People have found passions and success and teamwork and friends in ways they never have before, within these four walls. People have found their voice and their drive and their strength in this very room, the room where you are so fortunate to teach.

I hope you know that these students do not love unconditionally, but when you have won their hearts, they love hard and with an unmatched ferocity. When they have become vulnerable enough with you to love you, they will defend you against all odds. They don’t love easy, but they love hard and they love big.

I hope you know that you are teaching more than music. You’re teaching children. You’re teaching them about the world and life and the things that very few other teachers have the privilege of teaching. You get to teach them the things they want to know, and you get to help them become the people they are to become. You get to polish away something rough and reveal the beautiful human being that the world can’t wait to meet.

I hope you know that this isn’t a job; it’s a calling. You’re about to become a teacher, parent, cheerleader, and coach. You’re going to be their support system and their guide. You’re going to teach them so much, and they learn everything. So make sure what you’re learning is worthwhile and special and something only you can offer.

And most importantly, I hope you know you’re about to become a student. These kids have the world to teach you; they’ll teach you more than you’ll ever have to teach them. You’ll learn about relationships and drama and gossip. And you’ll learn about wins and losses, victories, successes, and failures. You’re going to learn how to comfort every person in your room. You’re going to learn who needs you to be stern and who needs you to be soft. You’re going to learn what matters to each person, and you’re going to learn that it’s different. You’re going to learn more than you ever realized there was to learn. You’ll learn who they are, and you’ll learn who you are, and you’ll learn why it’s important to know both.

You have a huge task ahead of you, and I know you’ll be excellent at it. It’s not easy to say goodbye to this world that has been mine. It’s not easy to say goodbye to these students who have been mine for three years. I love them. I love this room, this safe haven that I’ve built. And I hope and pray that it becomes your safe haven, as well.

And to all the students who have touched my life in the seven years that I’ve taught music, I cannot thank you enough. I am who I am because of you. Today, the world lies before us, rife with possibilities and successes, waiting for us to take them for ourselves.

I will love you always.

Big Thoughts in a Small Town

This past weekend, I played a concert in El Dorado, Arkansas. It’s one of my favorite symphonies to perform in. The town is charming, the symphony is talented, and the coffee shop is adorable. There’s even an independent bookstore. Seriously, what more could a guy like me want in life?

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Saturday morning, I woke up early and decided to visit downtown while it was still cool and beautiful.

I had the best time! It was lovely. People were already out walking and jogging and spending time as a family. Birds were chirping. Flowers were standing proudly. It was idyllic. Seriously. The perfect start to the morning.

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It’s freeing to have a Saturday morning to do nothing, don’t you think? It’s rare for me. I tend to schedule my life minute-by-minute, and never leave free time for walking around downtown, eating a pastry from a coffee shop, and stopping to smell the flowers. And the flowers want to be smelled. Look at them! They’re beautiful!

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This dog was so happy to have his picture taken. He posed for the camera and smiled big. He was adorable. He made me miss my puppies and realize that I never take them anywhere. I think they’d like to go visit downtown or to Starbucks to drink a puppicino with me. I think I’ll schedule some time to drive one of my puppies around like the royalty they are.

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Something I love about El Dorado is they way the community appreciates the arts. In the past year, El Dorado has seen the opening of several new musical performance venues and is awaiting the opening of an art gallery.

The Murphy Arts District is gorgeous! There’s an amphitheater (where I played a concert with Smokey Robinson) situated right in the heart of downtown. There’s the Griffin Music Hall for indoor concerts (where I played this amazing Beatles tribute show). They’ve recently remodeled the municipal auditorium into a stunning concert hall where the symphony plays most of its performances.

The historic Rialto theater is also being renovated and will reopen in the future.

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Being in El Dorado reminds me of all the reasons I love a small town. Everybody is friendly. Everybody knows each other. I love that I’m always greeted with smiles when I’m out and about in El Dorado. I love that the people at the coffee shop are always willing to stop and chat. I love that time is kind of frozen in El Dorado; it’s still-fashioned.

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I know it’s a running theme in my life because I overbook myself, but taking the time to wander around El Dorado reminded me to slow down and take time for self-care. Strolling along the streets in the early morning brought me so much joy and peace. Time with myself to just reflect and refresh myself. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.

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I passed the most adorable little Farmers’ Market with six stalls. It was crowded. I was impressed at how many people came to this tiny little market. On the lawn beside the farmers’ market was a field where families were playing. Seriously, it was like something out of a TV show. It was like Stars Hollow. I was in love with it all.

After I’d walked around for a while, and worked up a good sweat, I finished the morning with a nice, cold Coke in a glass bottle. There’s nothing like it. It was the perfect morning. It was a nice way to chill out before a long day of rehearsing and performing.

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So, in the end, take time for yourself. Self care is important and necessary. Take the time to stroll around, smell the flowers, drink a Coke, and slow down.

It’s worth it. You’re worth it.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy by B.T. Gottfred

Everyone assumes that Zee is a lesbian. Her classmates, her gym buddies, even her so-called best friend. Even Zee is starting to wonder. Could they be onto something?

Everyone assumes that Art is gay. They take one look at his nice clothes and his pretty face and think: well, obviously.

But there’s more to Zee and Art than anyone realizes. What develops is a powerful connection between two people who are beautiful in all the ways they’ve been told are strange. As they explore their own complex relationships to gender, sexuality, and identity, they fall for the complexities they find in each other. With his trademark frankness, B. T. Gottfred delves inside both characters’ heads in this story about love and living authentically.

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Over the past couple of days, I had the opportunity to preview The Handsome Girl and Her Beautiful Boy by B.T. Gottfred. If you’ve read any of my book reviews to this point, then you know that the description of this book immediately grabbed my attention. And if they didn’t win me over, alone, the dedication definitely sold me on reading this book.

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dedicated to everyone who has embraced their own unique, magical mix of feminine & masculine (and olux and xulo) and then embraced everyone else’s in return.

And then the book was wonderful. I twas consuming. It swallowed me and kept me turning page after page. I was absorbed by Zee and Art. And I identified with them closely. Especially Art. He’s hilarious. He’s sensitive. He’s a good dresser. (I was not a good dresser at 17, like he is. But I am, now.)

I liked how nontraditional they are. Zee is perceived as masculine because she is strong and athletic and androgynous. She love Crossfit. She dresses in a t-shirt and cargo shorts. She’s not fussed about her appearance, and her best friend is a guy. All signs point to lesbian, right?

Conversely, Art is beautiful. He’s concerned about skincare, he dresses well, he’s sensitive. His best friend is gay and he’s artistic and not at all interested in sports. Apparently, these things equate to femininity, and thus, Art is clearly gay.

But as The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy unfolds, we learn as readers that there is more to sexuality than that. Things are more complicated. And it’s a message people should be told. Because it’s true. I am a smart dresser, I am effeminate. I am artistic. I’m a schoolteacher, for crying out loud. So the assumption made about me in school was always that I was gay.

I really identified with Art throughout this book.

But as the characters evolve, we learn about their intricacies and the complications of their life. Zee’s mother is very sick as the book opens, and dies within the first chapter. Art’s parents are awful and distant. Art’s family is awful.

Zee is in love with her best friend, Cam. Art’s best friend, Bryan, is in love with him.

It’s all very complicated.

Now’s the time I point out that one of the things you must keep in mind when you read YA is about intensity. The emotions are intense and amplified. The circumstances are unrealistic and complicated. Everything is very big. Very loud. Very fast. That’s just part of the genre.

And, so, The Handsome Girl and Her Beautiful Boy is big and intense and loud and complicated and emotional. The relationship that develops between Art and Zee is big and intense and loud and complicated and emotional. Starting out, I loved every part of this book.

It was complex. It was inspired.

And then… it wasn’t.

For 75% of the book, I was in love. I was involved. I was sold on every aspect of the book.

And then the last quarter of the book went off the tracks for me. It’s not even that it was bad. It was just not the trajectory of this book. There were extra complications. There were extra characters who just appeared solely to complicate things. There were extra plot points that weren’t necessary.

And 100% maybe this was just me. Maybe this book just didn’t jive with me, which doesn’t mean it won’t jive with someone else. It just wasn’t my style of book. Which was so disappointing, because I really, truly loved everything about this book until then.

Plucky’s rating?

1.5/5 stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

As a pick me up after this sad review, here’s the link to my May reading playlist. At least I had good music as I read.

Life Lessons from Ponies

This weekend, I drove to my parents’ house to see my family and to play with my ponies. Let me tell you; there is no stress reliever like playing with a pony. Maybe it’s just the country boy in me, but being out in the sunlight and in the green pastures is so relaxing.

My horse, Daisy.
Daisy is the most beautiful horse in the world. It’s undeniable.

My horse, Daisy, has been my buddy for thirteen years. She is beautiful, and she knows it. She’s a world-champion show horse who has filled my life with more joy than I can even begin to describe. I’ve spoken about Daisy in the past. But she deserves several fangirl posts about how amazing and beautiful she is. And she’d happily accept all praise; she knows exactly how amazing she is. Daisy helps me to remember to be proud of myself and my accomplishments. She knows exactly who she is and she is not afraid to let other horses knows how great she is.

I wish I had an ounce of her confidence. But I try everyday to be as secure in myself–if not as aggressive about it–as my beautiful baby girl.

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Daisy even grazes like a model

Life is about more than horses. And life is about more than books. But spending time with my horses and spending time with my books reminds me of this. I’m reminded every time I play with my horses just how beautiful and awe-inspiring nature is. I’m reminded that the world exists outside of my bubble of stress and rushing and racing and spinning. I’m reminded that my life doesn’t have to be consumed with woe and worry and hassle and hustle. I’m reminded how important it is to stop and smell the roses and absorb the world around me.

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The miniature horses are so cute in their field of flowers

The miniature horses remind me that the world is a big place, and that even my small part is important. My mother’s miniature horses are therapy animals. They spend almost every Friday at nursing homes providing therapy services to the patients there. They are funny and precious and serious about their work. They are curious and sweet and love to snuggle. They’re gifts. They’re full of spirit and energy and have love to share.

When I spend time with the miniatures, I can’t help but laugh. They’re goofy. Their little legs incite laughter. They work so hard to be as big and as impressive as Daisy (who is an unusually large horse). They are impressive in their own way. And they’re perfect.

Corey, the solid-brown paint horse
Corey walking the pasture

Corey reminds me that sometimes things don’t go as planned, and that’s okay. Corey’s parents are both paint horses, which means they have white on their bodies, as well as another color (for reference: Daisy is a paint horse.) Corey was expected to be a paint horse, as well. He has all the genes to be. He had perfect breeding. But, somehow he came out solid brown, save for that small spot on his forehead.

Even though Corey didn’t come out at planned, we still love him. He’s still beautiful. He’s still perfect. He’s sweet. He loves kisses. And has the softest nose of any horse I’ve ever met. When he was a baby, his nose felt like velvet. It was so soft; I had trouble stopping once I’d started petting his nose. Corey’s a lovely reminder that the best things come in unexpected packages.

Lola, the mini horse
Lola spotted me taking pictures of her and began charging me right after this picture

Lola reminds me that we are as big and important as we make ourselves to be. Lola is the smallest horse I have ever seen. She’s hardly two feet tall at the withers. She’s beautiful and she’s ferocious. She has no concept of how tiny she is and she keeps us all entertained with just how bossy she is. She runs the pasture. She is the queen and she knows it.

Yesterday, I laid on the ground to take pictures of her from a good angle, and she charged me. It was important for her that I knew I was in her domain and under her dominion. She doesn’t let anything happen in her pasture without her permission. Because she is as big as she gives herself permission to be.

Mary the donkey stands under a tree
Mary the Donkey enjoys the cool shade

Mary the Donkey reminds me that friends come in the most unlikely people, sometimes. When Mary joined the herd, she was the odd man out. Donkeys behave differently than horses. Donkeys smell differently than horses. Donkeys make different sounds than horses. In every way, she was an outcast from the pack.

But slowly, she and Teddy (who appears later in this post) bonded and are now inseparable. They’re the most unlikely of friends, but somehow have found company in each other. It’s fun to watch them play together.

(It’s even more fun when I hear stories of Mary bellowing beside my parents’ window to wake them up in the morning.)

Mary and Teddy standing at the fence
The inseparable Mary and Teddy

Even Teddy, who I’m very angry at right now, has taught me much in life. Teddy reminds me that even though I’m grown, I still have much to learn. Teddy is technically an adult, as horses go. But he’s still hard-headed and stubborn. He’s still immature in his decision-making. He’s grown, but he’s got a long way to go. He’s hard-headed and clumsy and a daily reminder that we’re never done growing and improving.

Daisy getting a kiss on the snout

There is something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man
-Winston Churchill

Churchill was onto something when he commented on the power of horses. They’re amazing creatures who have taught me more more about life than any person I’ve ever met. They’re amazing, wonderful creatures. Sometimes I’m convinced that quality time with my horses is the closest I’ll ever get to heaven on earth.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

What I’m Reading Next

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The school year is wrapping up and I’m finally reclaiming my time to read as voraciously as I want to. While most of my colleagues are planning their vacations or how they’ll spend time with family, or what shows they’re going to binge on Netflix, I’ve been working on my list of summer reads.

To be fair, I’ve planned all of those other things, as well. I’ve found a cabin to rent on a lake in the middle of nowhere where I intend to read by the water and get a tan and turn off my cell phone. I’ve already planned to watch my way through The Mary Tyler Moore Show this summer. So it just came down to books.

I have a stack of books I have on my TBR and I can’t wait to tear into them. But the books I’m most excited to tear into are ARCs I’ve received that I haven’t had time to read. I can’t wait to spend my days with debut authors and brand new characters.

My next few books on my TBR (in order of release date) are:

The Handsome Girl and her Beautiful Boy by B. T. Gottfred
Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno
Sell All the Stars by Kit Frick
Fresh Ink: An Anthology edited by Lamar Giles
Things I’d Rather Do than Die 
by Christine Deriso

This is on top of the several thousand unread books in my Kindle. (Maybe it’s not that much, but it feels that way when I remember that there are so many and new books coming out every week.)

What’s on your list? What are you excited to read? Give me more recommendations!

Love,
The Plucky Reader

Top Ten Tuesday – Books That Inspired Broadway Musicals

Top Ten Tuesday

This morning, my day started with my mom tagging me in a post on Facebook about auditioning for The Music Man. When I was in the second grade, I was cast as Winthrop in a local high school’s production. Since then, it has been something special between us. She was with me at every rehearsal and sat with me through every tear. It was a big undertaking for a little boy. Rehearsals were long and grueling. I couldn’t even go trick-or-treating on Halloween that year. It was traumatic.

But the show went off without a hitch, and to this day is one of my favorite memories. It was really a good bonding experience for me and my mom, and will always be special to us.

Because of this good memory, I thought the most appropriate way to spend Top Ten Tuesday is by talking about books that inspired Broadway musicals. (Bonus: At the end of this post, I’m attaching a Spotify playlist of my favorite numbers from each of these musicals.)


10. Porgy by DuBose Heyward

Porgy

Full disclosure: I’ve never read this book. And I don’t know anybody who has. But it inspired my favorite opera, and that’s enough for me.

Porgy & Bess the opera was composed by my favorite American composer, George Gershwin. It’s beautiful. It’s heavy. And it gave us the beautiful jazz standard, “Summertime.”


9. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a classic novel. I don’t know many people who haven’t read it at some point. It’s an example of a story with a protagonist I want to hate. I never really liked the character of Mary, but I softened toward her as the book progressed. It’s a sweet, lovely ready, and translates well into visual media.

Bonus points to the musical for casting Mandy Patinkin.


8. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Peter Pan

Peter Pan has been the inspiration to several forms of visual media. Disney animated it (kind of.) There have been stage plays. There was a lovely middle grade series that started with Peter and the Starcatchers that was then turned into its own play, Peter and the StarcatcherPeter Pan has inspired countless movies and TV shows and retellings. From Hook, the definitive re-imagining of my childhood, to Peter Pan’s appearance in ABC’s Once Upon a TimePeter Pan’s influence is far-reaching.

My favorite piece of work inspired by Peter Pan is Finding Neverland. Okay. So maybe I’m bending the rules a little bit. Because the musical is inspired by the movie which is inspired by the life of J.M. Barrie and the inspiration around Peter Pan. But this is my blog, and I can bend the rules as I like. 😜

This musical starred Matthew Morrison (of Glee fame), who is wonderful. Carolee Carmello, who played Madame du Maurier in the original cast, also happens to appear later in this list.


7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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The Color Purple is an epistle by Alice Walker. It’s heavy. There’s nothing particularly lighthearted about this book. (I know, you’re all so surprised that I would put a heavy book on this list.) But it’s a wonderful story. It’s full of heartbreak and hope and pain. It’s about family and love and so much.

And it translated well into a Broadway musical. It’s won Tony’s, most recently it won Best Revival. It’s been performed around the world. The music is amazing. The actors have been phenomenal. It presents well on stage.


6. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written as America’s great fairytale. And it’s lovely. I’ve read all 14 of the canonical books by Baum (several authors have continued the story of Oz after Baum had finished writing.)

It has, like Peter Pan, inspired tons of other works. The popular Dorothy Must Die series is directly inspired by Baum’s books, as was this fantastic SyFy miniseries called Tin Man starring Zoey Deschanel. And of course Wicked grew out of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz‘s influence (spoiler: Wicked appears later in this list.)

But seriously, nothing beats the Judy Garland adaptation, The Wizard of Oz when I’m home sick. Her singing voice has lulled me to sleep my entire life. When I was a kid, I was in love with Judy Garland, and I still feel the heartbreak I felt the day I found out she was dead.


5. Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown

Legally Blonde

Okay, so if I’m being honest, I enjoyed almost every book on this list more than I enjoyed Legally Blonde, but it’s not a bad book. However, the movie is tremendous. Reese Witherspoon is a goddess. She’s America’s sweetheart.

You know what’s even better? A musical about Elle Woods that’s rife with smartly written jokes and stars Christian Borle. It’s my go-to comfort musical. It’s my rainy day, I’m exhausted, I’ve graded too many papers kind of relaxation musical. It’s a warm blanket. And it’s so funny.


4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Didn’t I tell you once that Roald Dahl deserves to be on every top ten list, ever? I’m really trying to make that happen.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is another literary work that translates so well to a visual media. Two very successful movies have been inspired by this book. (No disrespect to Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore, but the Gene Wilder version is superior; it’s scientifically proven.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is also a stellar musical that stars Christian Borle (he’s the best. Seriously. Total heart eyes when he performs.) Give it a listen. It’s adorable. It’s so true to the heart of the book.


3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Wicked

Seriously, if you’ve not heard of this musical, you may live under a rock. “Defying Gravity” was the anthem of every high school student in 2005. (And then the film adaptation of Rent rose to popularity and knocked Wicked out of public school choir programs, everywhere.)

The musical and book are two very, very different entities. The book takes a much darker approach to the story. It’s sad. There’s a very somber tone to it. But I loved every bit of it. The musical, however, is much more lighthearted. It deals with some of the same heavy topics, but through a very Ozian lens. It’s wonderful.


2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women

Okay. So everything about this setup is perfect.

Little Women is a wonderful book–on of my wife’s favorites–that I didn’t read until I was an adult. But it’s lovely. The story is so pure and so wholesome. It deals with heavy topics, but it’s not a heavy book. It’s a perfect read for somebody who wants some drama but not to cry for three hundred pages. You will cry. Anybody who knows this book knows you will cry. But it’s still brilliant and beautiful.

The musical starred Sutton Foster (my girlfriend; don’t worry, my wife knows.) She was brilliant. She’s brilliant in everything. It had great writing. It had great music.

And it has lovely memories attached to it, for me. I played violin for a production of Little Women in college with two of my best friends. It was so much fun. We had the best time in the pit. We laughed and cried and grew emotionally attached to the actors. It’s another one of my fondest memories. It was special and maybe that’s why I love this musical, that’s not entirely much like the book. But it’s beautiful. And I love it.


1. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting holds a really special place in my heart. It’s such a lovely, wonderful book. I once wrote a 10-page paper about it (the requirement was 4 pages, but who’s counting?) I read this book like literary fiction. I read it like a marvel and like a masterpiece, because it is.

That same summer, Tuck Everlasting premiered on Broadway and we happened to be in New York. So we went. And it was a beautiful show. It was true to the spirit of the book. It had so much heart. It was adorable. It closed down two nights after I saw it, and I’m so glad I got to see it. It was unfortunate that it opened during the year of Hamiltonys, because it would have likely fared much better one year later or one year earlier.

And I’m possibly Tuck Everlasting‘s biggest fan.

BUT IT WAS SO GOOD


As promised here is my playlist of favorite songs from the musicals mentioned on this list. I love Broadway almost as much as I love books, so it’s safest for everybody if I just sign off right now.

Pablo Neruda – A Master of Love

In continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I revisited some of my favorite poems by Neruda. He was a master of the love poem. I’d have fallen in love with Neruda if he’d written these poems to me. Guaranteed.

Neruda’s poems are beautiful in translation, but they’re so much better in the original Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, anymore. I haven’t had someone to practice with in a long time. But I still read it pretty well and Neruda’s poems are so lovely.

I also have this wonderful edition of Neruda’s poems that prints the original text along with a really good translation. It really helped me to check my understanding. My favorite poem from this collection, however, is “Tu Risa.” I am posting the original text, alongside its translation.

“Tu Risa”

Quítame el pan, si quieres,
quítame el aire, pero
no me quites tu risa.

No me quites la rosa,
la lanza que desgranas,
el agua que de pronto
estalla en tu alegría,
la repentina ola
de plata que te nace.

Mi lucha es dura y vuelvo
con los ojos cansados
a veces de haber visto
la tierra que no cambia,
pero al entrar tu risa
sube al cielo buscándome
y abre para mi todas
las puertas de la vida.

Amor mío, en la hora
más oscura desgrana
tu risa, y si de pronto
ves que mi sangre mancha
las piedras de la calle,
ríe, porque tu risa
será para mis manos
como una espada fresca.

Junto al mar en otoño,
tu risa debe alzar
su cascada de espuma,
y en primavera, amor,
quiero tu risa como
la flor que yo esperaba,
la flor azul, la rosa
de mi patria sonora.

Ríete de la noche,
del día, de la luna,
ríete de las calles
torcidas de la isla,
ríete de este torpe
muchacho que te quiere,
pero cuando yo abro
los ojos y los cierro,
cuando mis pasos van,
cuando vuelven mis pasos,
niégame el pan, el aire,
la luz, la primavera,
pero tu risa nunca
porque me moriría.

“Your laughter”

Take my bread, if you want,
take my breath away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Do not take away the rose,
the spear that you shed,
the water that suddenly
explodes in your joy,
the sudden wave
of silver that is born in you.

My struggle is hard and I return
with my eyes tired
of having seen
the earth that does not change,
but when your laughter enters
it rises up to heaven looking
for me and opens for me all
the doors of life.

My love, in the
darkest hour,
your laughter, and if suddenly
you see that my blood stains
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.

By the sea in autumn,
your laughter should raise
its cascade of foam,
and in spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower that I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my sonorous homeland.

Laugh at night,
in the day, at the moon,
laugh at the
crooked streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me the bread, the air,
the light, the spring,
but never your laugh
because I would die.

Very few stanzas in poetry touch me that way this opening does. Take away my bread and my breath, but do not take away your laughter. It’s so moving. It’s so lovely. It explains what love is like. It describes an attainable love that seems so unattainable and unachievable. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.

And it seems real, at the same time.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m making no sense at all. That’s okay, too. I still love this poem so, so much.

I hope it brings you as much joy to you as it does me.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

National Poetry Month

I would be remiss to let April pass without acknowledging National Poetry Month. Poetry has had a huge impact on my development as a reader and as a writer. I love poetry. I love a writer’s ability to say so much with so few words. I love the way emotions are conveyed in poetry in ways that no other medium is able to recreate. IMG_1390.JPG

 

Yesterday, I sat in the sun and drank too much coffee and at too much pastry and read my way through this book of sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (I followed it up with The Alienist which is definitely about murder and not love poems because of the person I am.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve explored Browning’s work. I know, she’s always remembered for “How Do I Love Thee?” but she had so much more to offer. One of my personal favorites of hers is her 22nd Sonnet.

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

It’s elegant. It’s simple. There’s something so beautiful about the opening line “when our two souls stand up erect and strong.” Nobody writes like this anymore, especially in prose. This is poetry writing at its finest.

It’s enchanting. It’s kind of haunting in a way.

Her word choice is ethereal. She speaks of the heavens. She speaks of angels and of wings that turn to flame. She speaks of an eternal and enviable love.

It’s beautiful.

Happy National Poetry Month! May it be filled with verse and beauty.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader