Will you be at Midwest Writers Workshop?

Midwest Writers Workshop.Today’s post is short, since I’m busy getting ready for the 44th Annual Midwest Writers Workshop. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me sing the praises of MWW, as it’s where I met many of my critique partners and closest friends. No matter what stage you’re at in your career, if you have the time and means to attend a writing conference, I highly recommend doing so.

And if you’re going to be at MWW, please say hi!

Reflections on writing #ownvoices books

Mirror.I got into writing via Dungeons and Dragons; when my friend’s dad (our Dungeon Master) commented on my unusual multi-class character, I decided I wanted to know what led her to be the adventurer that she was. So I started writing her story.

My early books were all speculative works, even as my reading habits in the last several years have expanded to include a lot more contemporary novels. I always considered myself a writer of sci-fi and fantasy. Until one day a book demanded to be written that was basically a thriller with light sci-fi elements.

And then November happened. Seeing a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric exacerbated the feelings of “other”ness I’ve had since moving to central Indiana, working in the town that is the birth place of the Church of God. Suddenly, I wanted to tell the story of someone like me, a Jewish girl thrust into the Bible belt after growing up in a town with many more faiths represented.

The main character of that book is not me, but she shares a lot more with me than other characters I’ve written. I’ve never written someone whose views on and practice of Judaism so closely matched my own. Heck, I’d only ever written one Jewish character before, and she was a minor character who only appeared in one scene. Writing this character gave me a space to explore my relationship with my faith (I identify as an Agnostic Jew — culturally Jewish but religiously out on the whole God question) and the role it played in my relationships with family members. Like me, the main character has a Jewish mother and a Catholic father; though unlike me, she had no older sibling to emulate or younger sibling to educate (as best as any kid can answer any other kid’s questions about religion). Writing that book left me with different views on what it means to be a Jewish woman in a Christian town, and a stronger relationship to my culture.

Since I was on a contemporary kick, and I had another idea for a Jewish character with a passion for music, I started another #ownvoices book while querying my first contemporary. This character is #ownvoices not because of her faith (she’s Jewish, but that’s not central to the plot) but because of her struggles with anxiety. Writing the first draft of this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because pushing this character through anxiety attacks forced me to re-live my own. I wrote the lowest points of my life into her. But I also gave her a loving family like mine, and friends who helped her pull herself out of those low points. As I struggled alongside her, though, I gained a new perspective on my own mental health. While I’m quick to tell others that mental illness is not a weakness, I often see my own anxiety as a fault. Writing a character with anxiety made me re-evaluate that assessment, as I see how strong this girl really is in facing challenges head-on. Again, she isn’t me, but she shares more with me than past characters I’ve written.

The thing I love most about writing is seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. I love telling others’ stories, even — especially — when they make decisions I might not make, or are in situations I would never find myself in. But there’s something to be said for giving characters bigger pieces of myself, and coming to terms with those pieces of me alongside them.

Have you written an #ownvoices story? What was your experience?

Happy Fourth of July!

United States Declaration of Independence.

Photo from Flickr user Lou Gold

Happy Fourth of July! I hope all of my American readers enjoy a safe and happy holiday! (And those who don’t get the day off and/or aren’t celebrating, have a wonderful Tuesday!)

As we celebrate United States independence, I want to acknowledge the large number of people living in the United States who did not win freedom following the American Revolution, and who are still today being oppressed by mass incarceration, voter suppression, human trafficking, and other forms of slavery. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

I’ve thought a lot about what being an American citizen means to me, especially in light of the last several months. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood — I played basketball and tag with Indian-American kids, Chinese-American kids, Japanese-American kids, kids whose parents had moved north from Puerto Rico. My dogs used to get in barking contests with the dogs owned by the African-American family whose backyard connected with ours. I babysat kids whose two moms had immigrated from the Czech Republic. But I never once considered any of these people “not American,” even when some of the families’ grandparents struggled to speak English. They were my neighbors, and my friends. To see my friends and neighbors who are Muslims, or who came (or want to come) from Middle Eastern countries — particularly Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan — discriminated against reminds me daily how far we have to go still. I want to live in a neighborhood — in a country — where everyone who wants to live there and isn’t harming anyone else is free to do so. The America of my dreams welcomes and respects new people, new cultures, and new ideas — and is stronger because of it.

The America of my dreams is also one where a free press is not only welcomed but celebrated.​ In a world where facts that people don’t agree with are decried as “fake news” (I’ll save my distaste for that phrase for another time), and differences of opinion are quickly reduced to character attacks by online trolls, I think free speech and a free press are more important now than ever. Our Constitution came with these freedoms built in, because its authors remembered firsthand how forced silence and tyranny go hand in hand.

I don’t often get political here, but what better time to reflect on politics than on the anniversary of our country’s founding? I’ll leave you all with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, signed 241 years ago today:

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

If the federal government continues to rule using ignorance and fear to deny rights and oppress society’s most vulnerable, our country’s founders not only grant us permission but encourage us to find a better way forward. I want to live in a country governed by hope rather than fear, knowledge rather than ignorance, freedom of speech and thought and press rather than an oppressive state media. As a Jewish woman who has studied the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, I am deeply troubled by today’s political climate, but also profoundly encouraged by the voices of the resistance.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! As always, I welcome civil discussion in the comments.

Can you still like something that’s problematic? Reflections on Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen.I’ll start with a disclaimer: I have not seen the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I first heard of it when NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour did a review of the Tony Awards that included a clip from Ben Platt’s performance of “Waving Through a Window” that made me instantly look for the soundtrack. (For those of you whose libraries have hoopla, the original Broadway soundtrack is on there. I borrowed it within minutes of hearing that clip on PCHH.)

I then spent the next hour or so listening as I walked around my neighborhood. I absorbed the full soundtrack in one stretch. And the music really resonated with me. The songs are catchy, some of the lyrics are really poignant (as someone who struggles with anxiety, I really connected with “Waving Through a Window”), and the soundtrack genuinely moved me.

The next day I went online and looked up a plot summary. Because as much as I got from the music, I missed some key parts of the story just listening to the songs once. (If you’re not familiar with the plot, Wikipedia has a short summary here.) I had mixed feelings about the hero profiting off of a lie about his supposed friendship with a suicide victim. I don’t agree with Evan’s actions, but I can understand how he got there, fibbing to help Connor’s family cope with their grief. And since I missed so much plot just listening to the songs, I assume the show itself does a better job of showing the consequences of Evan’s actions.

Many critics seem to think so. In addition to winning six Tony Awards, the show received many glowing reviews. But others who have seen the play point out its problematic content. They argue that Evan never has to answer for his lies except to the Murphy family, who all forgive him despite the fact that he took advantage of them when they were grieving, making them his surrogate family because he was unsatisfied with his own living situation. While I heard the opening number, “Does Anybody Have a Map?” as two mothers’ frustrations at not always knowing the right thing to say (which, though I’m not a mother, I sometimes feel in my role as a teen librarian), critics have argued this presents the parents of teens struggling with mental illness as victims. While mental illness affects family members, too, focusing too much on their struggles can diminish the very real struggles of the individual who has a mental illness.

I’m ill-equipped to form a full opinion on this musical until I’ve seen the play myself. I worry that we don’t get to hear from Connor — the real Connor, not the Connor Evan invents for the Murphy family — at all. I worry that Evan may not face enough consequences for his actions, especially since nobody except his mother and the Murphy family learns he lied about his friendship with Connor. But I also genuinely like this music. I see it in the way someone (I believe it was Roxanne Gay, but please correct me if I misattribute this) described misogynistic rap music: she knows the lyrics are horrible, but it’s so catchy, so she’s going to listen to it and sing along.

I know Dear Evan Hansen has problematic aspects. As I said, I can’t form a complete opinion of the show until I’ve seen it. But I do know I still like the songs, and I’m going to let myself listen to and enjoy them, and I’m going to be critical of the play.

Have you seen Dear Evan Hansen? Have you heard the soundtrack? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A slightly off-topic rant about casual misogyny

Neutral face emoji.The other day, a regular patron came up to me at the desk.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Let me see that smile.”

I get this line from this man a lot, and sometimes I’ll laugh it off, but today I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it’s the increase in casual misogyny I’ve experienced lately, but I just did not want to do that.

“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked.

“Let me see that smile.”

This is the point where in the past I’ve smiled a little because it gets him to go away, and really, it doesn’t do me any harm, right? But not today. Today I gave him a deadpan stare for several seconds.

“Okay, or not,” he said, and walked away. Like I’d denied him something he deserved.

And for several minutes after that, my thoughts spiraled. Should I have just smiled? Would he complain to my boss about the rude customer service he received? Never mind that he (and many others, but that’s a story for another post) makes me incredibly uncomfortable throughout every exchange we have. It was only a smile…

Except, here’s what I wanted to say to him:

“Sir, my job is to help you conduct research; help you find your next great book, movie, or CD; and help you use our computers, copiers, and scanner. If you have a question about any of those things, I’m happy to help you. But my job is not to perform for you. And I’d appreciate it if you treated me with the respect of a professional whose job it is to help you in a courteous manner, not to look or act a certain way for your benefit.”

But I like my job, and I like having a job, and I can’t come up with responses like this on the spot. (It’s why I’m a writer. I’m much better when I have the time to sort my thoughts out.)

So, okay, this is just another story of casual misogyny in the workplace. Nothing new or extraordinary. And that’s the problem. This happens all. the. time. And every time we give in so he (or she, though it’s most often he) will go away, we’re telling him that he can do that. That it’s his right to demand we smile for him.

And as long as we keep smiling on cue, we’ll keep being asked to do so.

Lest you think I’m a cold-hearted jerk (or any of the stronger language Internet trolls will use to describe women who ask to be treated with basic human decency), I’d like to think I’m pretty pleasant. My managers and co-workers would tell you I provide excellent customer service. But being asked to smile (or being called “sweetheart,” “darling,” etc.) makes me want to scowl and tell them I’m not their sweetheart/darling/etc.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to this story, except to say that I’m tired of smiling on cue, and tired of worrying I’ll be viewed less favorably by my employers if I stand up to this kind of treatment.

Readers, I’m sure you have experience with this. How do you handle casual misogyny in the workplace? I welcome your thoughts, stories, and civil debate in the comments.

YA Romance with all the feels

I just finished reading Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, and I absolutely loved it. Rishi may be my new favorite book boyfriend. And Dimple is driven, fierce, unapologetic … in a word, fantastic. Seriously, if you’re looking for a great love story, read this book. For those who are curious, here’s the summary from Amazon:

When Dimple Met Rishi.Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers … right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him — wherein he’ll have to woo her — he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

And if you’re looking for another book like When Dimple Met Rishi, I recommend the following:

The Sun is Also a Star.The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

This book takes a similar look at the role of fate and the universe in bringing people together. Like Dimple and Rishi, Natasha and Daniel both have complicated relationships with their family’s culture, and how it fits with their American identity. And this book also has a practical girl who’s interested in STEM and a romantic boy who’s artistic. Here’s the summary from Amazon:

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store — for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

The Selection.The Selection by Kiera Cass

This series also features a kick-butt girl who wants to change the world and a boy who’s a hopeless romantic. Like When Dimple Met Rishi, the chemistry between America and her love interest (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it yet) gave me all the feels. And that’s not a phrase I use often. Here’s the summary from Amazon:

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape a rigid caste system, live in a palace, and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon. But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her, and competing for a crown she doesn’t want.

Then America meets Prince Maxon — and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.

Anna and the French Kiss.Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Like Dimple and Rishi, Anna and Etienne have complicated relationships with their families, and they’re navigating life without their parents (though in this case they’re at boarding school, not a summer convention). While this is more of a slow-burn romance, Etienne is just as sweet as Rishi, and the story will keep you turning pages. Here’s the summary from Amazon:

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris — until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he’s taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home.

As winter melts into spring, will a year of romantic near-misses end with the French kiss Anna — and readers — have long awaited?

Have you read any of these books? What would you add to this list? Please share in the comments!

A year as Teen Librarian

CalendarYesterday was my one-year anniversary as a teen librarian. I’ve learned a lot, and gotten to do a lot of really cool things with really cool people. It’s hard to choose a favorite program/service/interaction, but looking back, here are twelve of my favorite moments (in no particular order, because how could I choose a single favorite anything?)​ from the last year:

  1. Watching a teen who’d caused some trouble at the beginning of the school year become a leader at gaming programs, even teaching me Kendama tricks at one game night and encouraging me to keep practicing.
  2. Working with a couple members of the Teen Advisory Board to plan and run our Kendama Tournament.
  3. Watching a young woman find her dream dress at our Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway. When a staff member told her she looked like a princess, she informed her, hands on hips, “I am a princess.”
  4. Doing book talks in an English Language Learning class with an amazing, enthusiastic teacher. After I pitched Alexandra Diaz’s The Only Road, the teacher asked, “Who wants to read that book right now?” and the entire class raised their hands. When I was finished presenting, the students then raced to check out our digital copies of the book.
  5. Working with the English Language Arts Coordinator at one of the local middle schools to allow all of their students to access our digital resources with their student ID number.
  6. Having a teen share some poems he wrote with me.
  7. Geeking out with an enthusiastic reader over the last book in the Selection series.
  8. Sharing tips with a teen writer as we both made our way through NaNoWriMo together.
  9. Having a teen share the designs he made in a digital art class, which blew my mind.
  10. Meeting and chatting with so many students about everything from books to Hamilton to Pokemon Go during book talks.
  11. Having a passive reader’s advisory interaction with a teen who asked for book recommendations on the white board in the Teen Room.
  12. Watching students in friendly competition doing the Kahoot! trivia I made about our digital resources during book talks.

There have been many, many more awesome moments, and I’m looking forward to many more years of working with these amazing young people!