Who’s That Girl, by Blair Thornburgh

WHO’S THAT GIRL, by Blair Thornburgh

Who’s That Girl is a young adult romantic comedy that will appeal to many. The main character is Natalie McCullough-Schwartz, who flies under the radar in her prep school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She is smart (great at Latin,) and surrounds herself with other smart and quirky people. Her parents are delightful on the page, and her friends are interesting and well-drawn. She’s part of the Acronymphomaniacs—a group that enjoys acronyms—and it’s a good thing they do, because the acronym for their gay-straight alliance is OWPALGBTQIA. The principal members of the group are Nattie, Tess Kozlowski, Tall Zach, and Zach the Anarchist (who, of course, isn’t an anarchist at all.)

What’s refreshing about this book is that the main character, though a junior, has only had two almost-kisses in her life. The cast of characters is sweet and somewhat naive and they do well in school, and I’d love to see more books with characters like this. Of course, Nattie’s world changes when Sebastian Delacroix, an attractive and cool graduate who Nattie almost kissed, writes a song called Natalie that begins to get a bunch of airplay.

Nattie doesn’t know what to make of it. He texts her at times, but is always mysterious. She pushes herself out of her comfort zone by going to rock shows in an attempt to figure out what Sebastian actually wants from her, while at the same time trying to maintain her commitments to OWPALGBTQIA and her friends.

Signed copy. I’m kind of a big deal.

The book is full of insider language and great moments of humor, and puts the reader right there with Nattie. While intended for high school aged readers and young adults, it’s safe enough for sophisticated middle schoolers to read, I’d wager.

There’s also a yurt.

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Thief’s Cunning, by Sarah Ahiers

Thief’s Cunning, by Sarah Ahiers

Thief’s Cunning is a Young Adult fantasy companion novel to Assassin’s Heart. The protagonist of this story is Allegra Saldana, the niece of Lea from Assassin’s Heart (if you read the first book, you know who she is.) Allegra feels caged by her overprotective family, and she never feels as if she truly fits in. When she finally gets her chance to go to Lovero, where her parents died, she’s excited to get answers about who she is.

When she arrives, she meets a love interest, Nev, and discovers the shocking truth about her origins (not a spoiler if you read the first book, but I’m going to let you discover it yourself.) Convinced she knows what she’s doing, Allegra vows to leave the only family she’s ever known.

But then…something else happens! I can’t really spoil it here, but it’s a doozy. Let’s just say a giant monkey wrench is thrown in Allegra’s plan, as events that are way beyond her control seem to be deciding her fate. She ruefully reflects that she’s trading one cage for another. Will Allegra ever call the shots in her own life?

Thief’s Cunning winds up being a page-turner, and even though I am friends with the author I was surprised at the resolution of the novel. It was very satisfying.

Craft-wise, I offer a real tip of the hat to the Sarah Ahiers for writing companion novels in first person in which the main characters are clearly different people. Lea’s robotic pragmatism and laser focus in Assassin’s Heart give way to Allegra’s emotionally expressive narrative. Allegra is rash, and in some ways petulant, a product of living a life of safety and protection. Yvain is the backwater town she longs to leave, Born to Run style. And when Allegra interacts with Lea, the characterization of her older and wiser aunt is spot on. Readers of the first book will agree, “Yep, that’s Lea Saldana alright.”

Setting also plays a big role in both novels. I loved the pomp and circumstance of Lovero, but found Yvain’s canal system especially compelling. Loved the Dead Plains, where the ghosts can get you. These places come back in Thief’s Cunning, but we also get the rich description of Mornia, with their underground dwellings – and the Mornians who have their own strategy for handling the ghosts.

I enjoyed both books immensely, but in some ways I enjoyed the ride with Allegra more – she’s more of a moody teenager compared to the cold and calculation Lea. Additionally, the EPIC plot

Signed copy. I’m kind of a big deal.

really raised the stakes in a surprising and satisfying way.

If you recall from my review of Assassin’s Heart, I belong to the Zarella Family according to this quiz. Unfortunately for me, they are only the 7th ranked Family in Allegra’s time. Bummer. At any rate, I think it would be a pretty good idea to read Thief’s Cunning.

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Writing Assignment from the Wife

Bromleigh asked me to write a reflection for church last week as they reflect on their core values. My assignment was to consider the statement, “We love children and youthand we help them grow with personal, curious, generous, and socially engaged Christian faith.”

Here is what I wrote (and read to the congregation:)


Hello. I am a middle school math teacher. As a teacher, I’ve heard my share of inspirational teaching stories. And perhaps you, too, have heard some yourself. If you are a Facebook user, then you’ve undoubtedly encountered the apocryphal tale of Teddy Stoddard. For those of you who haven’t, I’ll give you a brief summary.

Teddy Stoddard was a 5th grader in Mrs. Thompson’s class. And he was hard to love. He slept in class and didn’t play well with other children. He was messy and in need of a bath. His grades were bad and he could be unpleasant.

Mrs. Thompson, so the story goes, began to delight in marking big red F’s on his papers until she reviewed his records. His 1st grade teacher said he was a joy to be around. His 2nd grade teacher noted that while he was an excellent student, he was troubled by his mother’s terminal illness. Do you see where this is going?

His 3rd grade teacher commented that his mother’s death was hard on him, but he was still doing his best despite having an uninterested father at home.

In fourth grade he was withdrawn and had no friends.

Now he was in the charge of Mrs. Thompson. On Christmas, he gave her a clumsily wrapped present. There was a rhinestone bracelet with missing stones and a half empty bottle of perfume. It was then and there she decided to take an interest in Teddy.

When she wore the perfume and bracelet, Teddy told her she smelled just like his mother used to.

Mrs. Thompson worked with him, and the more she worked, the more he responded, until he was the best student in her class.

Each year after 5th grade, he would leave her a note telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had. He graduated high school third in his class. He graduated college with honors.

He went further, and his name became Theodore F. Stoddard, MD. He invited Mrs. Thompson to his wedding and she sat in the place normally reserved for the mother of the groom. She wore the bracelet and perfume.

This story is often shared as though it were true, but in fact it is a work of fiction that was written in 1974 by Elizabeth Silance Ballard titled Three Letters from Teddy. In her writing, the boy’s name was Teddy Stallard.

But just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not true. What is it about this story that touches so many of us, touches us enough to share it on Facebook millions of times?

I think it speaks to something that is true – that we adults can have a profound influence on the lives of children. There have certainly been teachers who have changed the trajectory of a child’s life. Perhaps we have had one ourselves.

But there are certain things about this story that bother me. Teddy Stoddard doesn’t exist, and I don’t think Teddy Stoddard should exist. No child should be lacking in food, clothing, or access to hygiene. No child should lack for love.

And yet, when I worked in Chicago Public Schools at 6543 S. Champlain Avenue, I encountered many, many Teddy Stoddards. One girl smelled like urine every day because she had to sleep with her bed-wetter sibling. One boy yowled in pain when another student gave him a friendly pat on the back, because he was often beaten by his mother. And a great deal of my students were hungry.

It’s heartbreaking. It’s systemic. No matter how many gains you make with a child, he will be replaced by a new, somehow needier kid.

The story of Teddy Stoddard, this story that brings tears to our eyes, is predicated on the dumb luck that Teddy happened to encounter a teacher that cared enough to see him through his difficult times. Is that really the system we have in place for our neediest children? Good luck with poverty and hunger. Hopefully you’ll get an inspirational teacher who will help you turn your life around.

I couldn’t remember the exact address of my CPS school, so I went to their website. The first thing I saw in the “Upcoming Events” section was an announcement for no school, thanks to a furlough day.

Do you know what that means? That means many children won’t eat that day.

Children won’t eat. In America. In a “liberal” northern city.

How do we permit this?

After my first couple of years teaching on the south side, I came to be seen as reliable. I didn’t get as much pushback from students when I asked them to think, to try, to learn. They knew I would be there the next day. And the day after that. Many teachers in the system struggled to make it past Thanksgiving. I don’t necessarily blame them. The anti-teacher sentiment that emerged during the Great Recession is even more virulent in urban school districts – teachers are fired at will because they didn’t discover a cure for poverty.

I began teaching classes on Saturday mornings to help students prepare for standardized testing. In suburban districts we have the luxury of saying that standardized tests are meaningless because we don’t need state funding. If too many students fail in CPS the school gets closed.

I had nearly 100 percent attendance for my Saturday classes. Do you know how I achieved this?

I fed them.

If you came to school on Saturday, you got breakfast. Totally worth it for a two-hour review session.

We love children and youthand we help them grow with personal, curious, generous, and socially engaged Christian faith.

Sadly, children literally cannot grow if we don’t feed them. A child isn’t usually that curious about the quadratic formula if he’s afraid his father is going to be deported. How do we help them? There are so many of them in need. It is overwhelming.

We can start by taking a lesson from Mrs. Thompson, the fictional hero of Teddy Stoddard’s tale. We can remember that our actions can and do make a profound difference in the lives of children. Maybe we can’t solve poverty today. But we can try not to raise our voices to our own children. We can volunteer. We can teach Sunday School! We can vote for representatives that have policy proposals to combat childhood poverty.

And we can build from there, until a child’s opportunities are not determined by her zip code. Until we have excellent schools for all children. Until no child in America goes to bed hungry.

Women’s March (Chicago)

“Love trumps hate! Love trumps hate!”

This was one of many chants that my wife, daughters and I heard and participated in as we marched in the Women’s March in Chicago. The event was inspiring, the weather incredibly accommodating. Remarkably, the sun came out for the first time in a few weeks, and the temperature almost reached sixty degrees.  It was if Shakespeare had penned the weather, the blue skies characterized the ebullient marchers.

It did not feel as though we were protesting something. It felt as though we were affirming our American values: equal rights and protections for all, love – for neighbor, for country, for stranger – and the power of collective action for the greater good. We reminded ourselves that women’s rights are human rights, that we don’t need to be afraid of refugees, and that we can love and respect Americans from all walks of life; diversity is strength.

Hate has no home here.

I walked with my daughters, and it was the 9-year old who had the most questions. As much as I felt like trashing Trump for being all the things we know he is (this has been covered, and if at this point you don’t think it’s a big deal that he’s a narcissistic bully that advocates sexual assault, then I’m sure you’re not going to be convinced that maybe the president should have some kind of moral compass,) I used to opportunity to reaffirm our beliefs. Every human has value. People make poor choices when they are afraid. And yes, love trumps hate.

And being a part of that crowd – I believed it.

Since Election Day I have been working my way through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. I listened to Trump’s god-awful inaugural address and felt all of stage 4 (depression.) I found some solace in the fact that nobody went to the inauguration and that a Nazi got rocked in the face. (I think I’m supposed to feel guilty about that, but I just can’t when I read garbage like this. There’s no such thing as “peaceful” ethnic cleansing, but I digress.) But the depression was real. It just cannot be that this unqualified piece of human garbage is actually our president. There are so many RED flags. How can we let this proceed?

The broken ideology of the GOP created the conditions for the rise of Trump – perhaps it was inevitable. But I find comfort in the fact that this clearly isn’t what the people want. It took Russian interference, racist gerrymandering, the abolition of the Voting Rights Act, and incredibly unethical behavior (probably criminal!) from the FBI to put this disgrace into office.  There’s plenty of blame to go around and the media surely gets some of it (“Clinton seemed over-prepared at times.” “Real Americans feel overlooked.“) But despite all of that, more Americans voted for an inclusive vision of our nation.

I’ve always been wary of people who drape themselves in American exceptionalism – it’s a convenient way to ignore the very real problems that we have – problems of race and class that are structural and go back to our founding. I’ve often wondered why people were so confident that our country could not be seduced into fascism the way that European nations have in the past. Today has given me hope, however. I saw the crowd in Chicago (a quarter million the last time I checked!) and I’ve been watching the pictures come in from friends in other cities attending their own marches. There are a ton of Americans standing up for each other. I am reveling in the knowledge that it’s getting under Trump’s paper-thin skin.

After we marched, we took the girls to Maggie Daley park. While they played I heard several different languages spoken. I saw Americans of all stripes, of all backgrounds, sharing in a vision of an inclusive nation. Americans with hilarious protest signs, Americans watching their children play, Americans enjoying an unlikely sunny day in January.

I do not live in a bubble. Chicago is America. People live and work together and share the same hopes and fears. Walking through downtown, I began to think that

This presidency is not consensual.

maybe America is exceptional. Not because we can bomb other countries into oblivion. America is exceptional because of our diversity. While a good deal of white people think we need to give Mango Mussolini a chance, people from marginalized groups are not having it. They have the most to lose, and they are on the front lines, and they are brave. The rest of us need to get on board and join them. We need to send the message that our progress won’t be reversed without a fight.

America is watching. We cannot despair. If the Congress wants to abdicate their responsibility to provide checks and balances to Putin’s puppet, then regular American people must stand up. We must stand up to the powerful and stand up for each other. Let’s remind this administration that they have no legitimacy (especially since it seems to bother them so much when people say that.) Let’s remind them that no matter how many times they say they’re setting records, that this presidency is historic (or historical,) or that people love them, we are not falling for their bullshit. You like crowds? Take a look at the crowds today.

It’s fair to assume that Trump is having a bad day today. May every day of his short presidency be just as miserable.

No Parking at the End Times, by Bryan Bliss

NOTE: This is the same review I posted on Goodreads.com.

noparkingWhen I like a book, I try to post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and my own site. Sometimes it’s hard to think of three ways to say the same thing. So here’s what I think:

I stayed up to finish reading No Parking at the End Times  in one sitting. Abigail is learning to deal with living in a van after her parents are duped into selling their house and following “Brother John,” who predicts the end of the world. When it doesn’t happen, Abigail’s parents still believe, and continue to give what little they have to the charlatan pastor. She must decide to run away with her twin brother or try to keep her family intact.

What’s really great about this novel is that Bliss does a wonderful job with character motivation. The reader might be tempted to say, “Well, yeah, her parents are crazy, she’s got to go,” but Bliss writes so elegantly that you can understand her motivation for staying. Not only that, but the parents are not cutout villains. You can even understand their motivation for following some crazy “World is Ending” pastor.

Though Abigail begins to question her faith in God, this book handles religion with care. It’s not snarky, like some books can be, when discussing the topic with teenagers. Abigail does have the opportunity to examine faith through a critical lens – does God really want them to be suffering and homeless? Should they really put their faith (and resources) into one religious leader? Bliss leaves room for complexity in tackling these questions.

Overall, a great read, and like I said, I was unable to put it down.

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Signed copy. I'm kind of a big deal.

Signed copy. I’m kind of a big deal.

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Website | @brainbliss