Banned Books Week – Looking for Alaska

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

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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.

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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!

Yours,
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.

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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.

Yours,
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.

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

Yours,
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.

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

 

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.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Top Ten Tuesday – Books Set in New York City

Top Ten Tuesday

Another Tuesday, another Top Ten. Today, I am dreaming (as I often do) about New York City and my imaginary life there. Years ago, before I settled into teaching in small-town Louisiana and longed for something more exciting that a mid-afternoon nap, I dreamt of moving to New York City and making my mark. I was a musician, it seemed natural to want to pack my bags up and try to make it big in the land of Broadway. Sometimes I think I could have made it, but then I remember how much I love stability and security. I like health insurance benefits and a regular paycheck.

So instead, I’ve been reduced to dreaming about what my life would be like in NYC. In my current imagining, I’m a novelist living in a brownstone in Brooklyn. I write in the mornings on my terrace, and then I wander down to The Strand bookstore and get inspired by the thousands of great books there. I write in the Jefferson Market branch of the NYPL. I attend book events. It’s a lovely dream, really.

I went to NYC in January to perform, so I won’t be returning any time, soon. Instead, I’ll have to stick to reading about New York and experiencing it through book characters’ eyes.


10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a true American classic. It’s a coming of age tale that’s heart wrenching and soul shattering. You know, that light stuff I like to read on a Sunday afternoon. It’s semi-autobiographical and that makes it even heavier, to me. Any time a book is based on a true story, I’m much more emotional about it.

I also love this book because it’s New York in a very different landscape. The face of The City has evolved a lot since it was published in the 1940s. It’s nice to have this piece of history conserving the past.

9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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I read Invisible Man at the behest of a student. She did her senior project over Invisible Man and had too many feels to not share them with somebody else.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book whenever I started reading it, but I powered through for Mary. It was heavy. It was dark. It said important things about race and the social climate of the 30s and 40s. It isn’t completely set in New York, but a good portion of the book takes place there. In the end, I enjoyed it and was glad I read it. It’s not a reading experience that caused me to feel inspired, as many reading experiences do. It just made me feel calm and reflective.

I love books about New York because they reveal so many faces about The City. I also apparently have a thing for New York pre-1950, because three other books on this list also fall in this category.

8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

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Honestly, this book didn’t make it on the list. Not because it’s bad, but because I really, really wanted to represent J.D. Salinger on this list because I love him so much. I prefer his short stories to Catcher in the Rye, though, so I went with Capote’s novella instead.

If you’ve not read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, go get it now. It’s a novella; it’s a short, very lovely reading experience. Holly Golightly is such a charming beast of a human being. She’s so raw and not at all the typical woman in literature, and it’s so refreshing. She’s crude and unrefined and has a complex and complicated story. And there’s something so masterful about the way Capote has written a story in which the narrator and protagonist is not actually the main character of the story.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s also has the distinct honor of having my favorite literary quote, ever.

“They’ve had the old clapyo‘-hands so many times it amounts to applause.”

7. Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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Surely, at this point, you’ve read this book. Or seen the movie. Or been exposed to it at some point. If not, you should go read it. It’s lovely. It’s complex. It’s a sweet little book about a sweet little boy.

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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You can’t talk about books set in New York without talking about The Great Gatsby. It’s iconic. It’s quintessential. And it’s perfect. Everything matters. Every color. Look. I know this book is overtaught in public schools. But I don’t care. I love it. It’s perfect and precious and I have the fondest memories of reading it in high school.

If you want a really nice reading experience, the audiobook is performed by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s excellent.

5. The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

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Holly Chase is a delightful read. I’ve reviewed it here, already. It was my first review for Plucky.

Holly Chase starts off in LA, but quickly transitions to NYC, where the bulk of the story takes place. And, for those of you keeping track, this book is set in modern-day New York City, so that’ll definitely have an effect on your mental picture of New York. (Will it? Maybe? It does for me, but maybe I’m alone.)

Holly Chase is a sweet read at Christmastime and makes a good Christmas Carol substitute.

4. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

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Okay, seriously? Did Roald Dahl every do anything poorly? I loved James and the Giant Peach. I loved the Tim Burton film adaptation.

Let’s face it. I kind of love all things Roald Dahl. (Except for whoever made beer from his swabbed writing chair. I’ll pass on that.)

While James and the Giant Peach goes through several settings, the eventual goal and endpoint is New York City. I love this adventure. I lost this story. I love the hope and the magic and the sparkle that Roald Dahl writes with. It’s wonderful. It’s enviable.

3. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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This book has been raved about by podcasters and book reviewers and Oprah. And they’re all right. It’s exactly as good as they all say it is. Everything about this book is beautiful. Everything about this book is real.

Behold the Dreamers is set in 2007 just before the stock market crash. It seems crazy to me that we are far enough out from that event that there is fiction about it. I was a freshman in college; it doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been that long ago. Jende is a Cameroonian immigrant to America living in Harlem. He works hard to provide a better life for his wife, Neni, and son. As the book opens, he is hired to be a personal driver for a very wealthy and powerful executive at an invest firm. Jende is a hard worker and very proud of his work. He takes pride in supporting his family and helping Neni through school.

Just as they’re finding comfort in their lives in Harlem, the stock market crashes and their world is throw into turmoil. It’s such a wonderful story about the immigrant experience in America. Imbolo Mbue is an immigrant from Cameroon, and it’s wonderful to have a firsthand view of the American dream from an immigrant. It’s an important and timely book. And it’s lovely.

2. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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The Sun is Also a Star is also a story about immigration and the American Dream. Using two narrators in alternating chapters, The Sun is Also a Star tells the story of Natasha and Daniel. Natasha is a science-minded, no nonsense kind of girl whose family is on the brink of deportation. When the book opens, she is working to make sure that she doesn’t get deported along with her family.

Daniel, on the other hand, is the son (or maybe grandson) or immigrants. Their family owns a business and he is expected to live up to his parents’ high expectations. He’s a dreamer with an insatiable love of poetry. He’s essentially me, if I were a hot book character and not a 30-year-old nerd.

Their paths cross and for one day, Natasha and Daniel fall have the most beautiful day together. But it’s only for one day.

love compressed timeline. I love books that take place in the span of a few hours or a few days. (Don’t look to my writing for that. I need an entire school year and 180,000 words to tell a story.) I was charmed immediately by the characters and their stories. And I was charmed by the way Yoon spun together not just Natasha and Daniel’s lives, but so many other characters. It’s a subtle reminder that our actions pull strings we’ll never see. We effect people in ways we’ll never know.

1. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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So, Rules of Civility is my Swiss Army book recommendation. I recommend it to any reader for any situation for any time in their lives.

In classic Plucky fashion, it is set in New York City in the 30s and 40s. The book opens in 1937 and focus on my a young girl with my favorite book name, ever, Katey Kontent. Katey is a Russian immigrant (seriously, I didn’t plan this, it just happened) who finds herself falling in with the social elite of Manhattan after meeting Tinker Grey. This chance meeting propels Katey and her best friend through a year of amazing opportunities and events.

The thing about this book is Katey Kontent is the most true-to-herself character I’ve ever read. She is virtuous and honest and good. She knows exactly who she is and she doesn’t allow herself to be swayed by the money or the glamor that she finds herself surrounded by. Katey discovers that almost nobody is who they seem to be in this new world. She finds that there are skeletons in everybody’s closet, but she doesn’t allow that to shake her. She is unflappable and honorable.

I’ve never loved a character as much as I love Katey Kontent. She’s a literary breath of fresh air.


Have I missed your favorite book set in the land where dreams come true? Tell me about it. I want to know everything about it. Maybe I haven’t read it, yet.

Happy reading!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

A Very Restless Plucky

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It’s testing week! It’s testing week! And you know what that means! Actually, if you’re not a teacher, you probably have no idea. So I’ll break it down for you in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like complaining.

It means a week of getting to school earlier than usual to sit in a room with kids you don’t teach and watch them take tests on a computer. And when I say watch them take a test, I mean that’s literally all we’re allowed to do. You may not grade papers. You may not read a book. You may not be distracted by that piece of dust that is fluttering just above that little girl’s head. You’re not allowed to daydream about sitting on the beach with something ice-cold and alcoholic in the hollowed out hull of a pineapple or coconut. I definitely didn’t do that. Definitely not. (And there was absolutely not a tiny little umbrella in my drink that I didn’t imagine. And there was definitely not a stack of books beside me that were dying to be read. That would be too much like heaven.)

It’s intense. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever endured as a teacher. But it’s intense. The hardest part is telling yourself not to the about the things you’re thinking about. You’ve all been there, right?

Testing is over for the day, but I still have a windowless classroom to teach in. All I can think about is sunlight, and birds singing, and the smell of fresh-cut grass, and all the books I want to be reading right now.

I’m not necessarily an escapist reader; I often read very heavy books that don’t make for a good escape from life. But sometimes, all I can think about is fresh air and lighthearted books.

Do you get this way? Is this my own cabin fever? I’ve been cooped inside testing for so long that I’ve forgotten what the light looks like. (And by that I mean, I posted this week’s Top Ten Tuesday from a Starbucks patio.)

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When I go home tonight, I intend to curl up with my puppies, open the windows to let the fresh air in, and read to my little heart’s content. And that’s precisely how I intend to spend the weekend, as well.

I hope a good book finds you all, and I hope you have the opportunity to escape.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader