Are you a pantser or a plotter? Can you share a little about your writing process?
I, honestly, did not even know of those terms till this past year, so I'll do my best to answer. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. When I set out to write the book, I know how it will begin and usually know how I want it to end. It's the middle that I improvise along the way. I often write scenes as they come to me, as though I am watching them on a movie screen. I write them and then I figure out where they go in sequence and polish them up in editing later. Some things do get scrapped, but not a lot, and those are saved, because you never know if that scene could work in another book.
I really enjoyed the different pop culture references in Squeak. Did you grow up in the 80’s and was it a blast from the past to write in this decade or did it take some research?
Yes, I was an '80's kid!
I like to say I had the best of three worlds as in my childhood. I was born right in the mid 1970's-1974--so a small part of my childhood was the '70's, the majority of it being the '80's, and the last three years(16-19)was early '90's.
The only thing I DID have to research was the actual release dates of the movies and songs I cited because I wanted to be sure those things were already in existence at the time this story was set. I knew they were, but couldn't remember specific dates. Also, little things like whether or not the boys would still be drinking Coke out of glass bottles, in that slingshot demo chapter.
You mention other books about talking mice in Squeak. Were some of those titles your favorites and, if so, why? Did you draw any inspiration from them?
I loved Beverly Cleary's Mouse and the Motorcycle series! I think that was way ahead of its time in a lot of ways. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia. Oddly, I hadn't read Miss Bianca, but saw the movie on which it was based, The Rescuers, but I knew it was about a mouse who rescued a little girl. So I got this idea that Celeste was now a member of this strange, secret society of people like these authors who, for whatever reason, can speak to animals, particularly mice. So I thought "What a fun idea. Why not? If a sci-fi author can claim Michael Phelps is half- merman, then I can surely write that thing with Celeste is real."
What inspired you to include illustrations? For other authors who are thinking of working with an illustrator, can you discuss that process a bit and any advice?
Growing up reading books, I always loved the ones that had illustrations. My Wizard of Oz books that were lent to me by my mother, had gorgeous illustrations, and I always loved the ones in Alice in Wonderland.
As for my illustrator, I found her purely because of association. Sydni Levi-Nasada was a student of my husband, who taught middle school and high school band many years ago. We've known her since she was in sixth-grade, but even then she was always drawing and painting, and we knew she was going places with her art. Though young, she was very ambitious and focused on what she wanted to do. Which at the time, I didn't know she wanted to illustrate children's books. So flash forward many years later, I mused to my husband that I needed to find an illustrator, and he gave me this "Duh" look and reminded me of her. I must admit, I didn't think she'd accept, but she surprised me. She even read the book front to back and loved it, which I think it's important. Just my opinion, but I'd advise when looking for an illustrator: Find one who also likes to read and will read your book. Believe me, it helps, and I think this is one of the things that helped her in her interpretations of my characters.
Another thing I did: Even though she had read the book, she asked me for a detailed description of each character, physical as well as any personality traits, to capture. So, I did that.
I, also, knew that I wanted the cover to be eye-catching and beautiful, but entice the reader and draw the eyes, making them ask questions, which I think we succeeded. The cover art you see was my conception, but she literally gave life to it.
Celeste, the main character, lives with a medical condition that sometimes makes playing with her peers difficult. Why is representation like this, as well as other representation you have, important?
To a child, especially, it's anything that makes you different from your peers. In Celeste's case, it's that she can't play normally like her peers. I have that same problem and it still can be a pain in the behind. And I know that there are probably others with that, but it's never talked about.
So, I hope the things I describe that she goes through, someone-- young or old-- that has this also, will point at the book and say "Oh my god! This is me! She gets it"
I think it would have been odd and unrealistic if there were only white kids in the whole class. A lot of the characters, you may be interested to know, are loosely based on real kids I knew. I changed last names and made them more fictional than not.
Can you share a little about what you’re currently working on? What’s next for you?
I am currently working on book 2 of this series. The title is "Cowboys & Queens." I have finished the first draft and am currently editing and revising. My illustrator is set to read it as soon as I am done with the final draft and then we will begin the collaboration for that.
I will be releasing the synopsis for it on March 17th this year!
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10 year-old Celeste is as shy, quirky, and awkward as they come. After her mother remarries and moves her away from her few friends, she finds herself alone, and targeted by the local bullies. If that wasn't bad enough, her new stepfather happens to be her 5th grade teacher!
One day, at the Lincoln Elementary School playground, using courage she didn't know she had, Celeste saves a mouse from the same bullies that torment her. Her bravery is the spark that shows her fellow 5th graders that she deserves a second look. Her weirdness is multiplied by an unusual new friend she has no choice but to keep to herself.
The story takes place in Baxter Springs, a small Southeast Kansas town. It's a place where events become increasingly odd and bizarre in this first installment of D.A. Power's The Asher Chronicles.
As I explore in my Acorn Tops Blog, The Universal Toy, dolls, within a historical context, were a source of companionship. They were discovered in graves across countries, a sign that they were thought of as precious. They can be seen as an aspect of innocence and childhood, as they were dedicated to goddesses when outgrown. Dolls were used to display clothes, such as the Bartholomew Babies in England. They were used to promote and prepare for socially acceptable roles and expectations.
There’s a lot of meaning one could derive from just the historical context of this toy. What I find in writing, though, is it is not just the research of the outside world that contributes to play of symbols in stories. It is our personal connection and experience.
Dolls remain an ever-popular toy of choice today. Plenty of children have had or played with dolls growing up, from brands such as Barbie to American Girl to Cabbage Patch. My favorite doll growing up was a hard plastic Molly doll from the children’s show, The Comfy Couch, and she’s been so well loved that my mother had to use nail polish to fix the red of her nose and sharpie to fix the black of her shoes.
Another hugely influential doll in my own life is named Edna. She is one of the few possessions my great grandfather was allowed to keep of his mother, for who I am named, after she passed away. She’s been this incredible touch stone of connection and family history that has survived house fires and multiple moves, including one across the country.
Perhaps then, given these personal ties, it is no surprise that dolls and character’s relationships to the toy become an ongoing symbol throughout my Be book series. This was something, I, as the author, did not fully realize until @DailywriterQ on twitter asked about symbolism in author’s stories.
It starts in Be with Ari and Peter’s niece, Rosy, and a cloth doll with yarn hair named Emily…
He forced himself to smile, fist curling tight. “I still believe in fairy tales, even after everything.” He hesitantly whispered, but a breath of hope left within him. “I know you don’t. I know you think it’s foolish.”
Childhood is often denied to children where Ari, Peter, and Rosy are from. It was something denied to Ari, who makes it a point to ensure others receive what she never had. For Rosy when she receives Emily, it is hope and wishes coming true. It would be her equivalent of Santa Claus. As my mother always said, it was something to believe in that was bigger than ourselves. It is something magical in a world that does not offer children like Rosy much magic. For Peter, who was doing everything he could to try to get Rosy a doll, it is connection and community.
Which carries over to when Rosy lends Emily back to Ari in a moment where Ari is feeling very isolated and alone. It then transforms for Ari into a type of companionship, comfort, and touch stone of that same hope she gave to Rosy.
I would not say there is a larger cast of characters in An Impossible Dream than in Be, but where Ari feels very isolated as a young woman surrounded by men, as I explore in my interview with Jenn Romano in The AjennDa Blog, Sare in An Impossible Dream is surrounded by other young women, allowing for more of a comparing and contrasting of circumstance and symbolic meaning.
“Every lil’ girl needs a dolly.” Gilly said like it was a simple matter of fact.
For Sare, who has been a servant her whole life, the very notion of a doll confounds her. She associates it with pretend work, rather than play. As her conversation with, one of “the ladies,” Gilly progresses and she tries to riddle out this popular toy, dolls become a look into the divide of haves vs. have-nots, as she “would argue only certain little girls ever had a doll,” and even then, what those dolls come to mean within those varied circumstance.
Sare does not know if her friend, Gracelynn, had a doll growing up, but imagines, knowing what she knows of her home life, that it would have been treated the way Gracelynn was treated: “to sit on a shelf out of… reach, as a means to have something else to brag about.”
In that same vein, both Be and An Impossible Dream, discuss the row of unblemished porcelain perfection sitting in the princess, Rochelle’s, windowsill. In Be, Henry compares it to his mother’s books which he calls “well loved” and looked it. In comparison to the cloth doll like Emily or Elsbie’s unnamed rag doll, Rochelle’s dolls, too would have been expensive and rarely played with. She is another girl who is seen as little more than an object by those in her life, a comparison Sally, another of “the ladies,” later makes about how Elsbie was treated by one who should have loved her most.
Even as Sare comes to recognize a more positive benefit of the doll, beginning to see what her friend, Elsbie, saw in her doll specifically, companionship, it acts as another layer of a metaphor for Elsbie and a bit of foreshadowing when thinking about why Elsbie never took such a precious thing back with her when given the chance: “It was safer where it was.”
Ultimately, for Sare, the doll comes to represent the ever foreign and elusive “before” she alone among her peers does not have, the love, family, and memories of a time before she donned an apron and scrubbed chamber pots, as this unnamed rag doll was made specifically for Elsbie by Sally and Gilly keeps it and the rest of Elsbie’s childhood treasure safe.
What do dolls symbolize for you? Did you have a favorite doll growing up? If you are a storyteller, do dolls make an appearance in your story?
rIn my Be Series, there's some overlap when and where the books take place, due to the shape of the series versus the timeline. The second book, An Impossible Dream, is a prequel and takes place over the course of six years, overlapping in terms of the timeline for the very last year with the first book, Be. The places the characters visit, also have some overlap, such as with the town surrounding the castle.
Here are two excerpts side by side, to compare, of the town surrounding the castle from seventeen-year-old Ari's perspective in Be and sixteen-year- old Sare's perspective five years earlier in An Impossible Dream.
Meet the Characters of Be
Meet the characters from my novel, Be! Alongside my digital art character sketches are quotes directly from the book about each of them!
My novel is available on Amazon, signed copies are available in my Etsy Shop and my upcoming events, and can also be ordered through your favorite indie bookstore or your local library!
Henry forged together remnants of himself, small glimpses that were allowed or stolen, and despite never seeing his own reflection, there were still mosaic glasses he wore when he looked upon anything but himself.
“There’s a price to pay for freedom. It’s not like in all the books and fairy tales.” It wasn’t always loud and glorious. And, even then, the story was so often reframed, never mind being hers. “There’s a price to pay, and I’ve paid it. I’m willing to pay it now, so someone else might not have to.”
He wore the story of his life in his eyes. The rags of clothes and calloused hands. The way he held himself. One arm extended in greeting, while the other held tight to the knife behind his back.
But, even then, he’d grown accustomed to Fra calling his name, rushing in. There wasn’t always a grand rescue, and it was a rarity either would escape the King’s clutches unscathed, but he was there.
A year without him had yet to break the habit.
Though, she supposed that was more Nick’s doing. That was one thing in her oldest brother’s favor, she supposed. There wasn’t much on that list and each time she saw him it only seemed to shrink more.
He was angry because he wasn’t capable of feeling much else. He was scared and worried about Pine, which meant he was going to be angry and all of that would be directed at her. Because he was already angry at her… Because she was always the easiest target for him.
The twins, Pine and Rowan:
Where Pine was vivacious, Rowan was quiet. Where Pine rushed to never miss a thing, Rowan took his time to take everything in. They were an odd pair for as much as they shared the same features.
The old woman sat on a stump with a tattered shawl wrapped tight around her hunched shoulders. Her hands on the walking stick were as knotted and twisted as the wood itself.
A man, as big as he was loud, snatched Henry up, engulfing him in a sea of red beard.
Henry's Grandfather/ The old man:
Despite the way age bowed his limbs, his very presence was daunting.
“And, even then, try being a girl in the castle.” Her voice was cold and hard. “I have survived. I get no applause. No declarations of bravery. No mention in history. I will be vilified and demeaned and threatened. And, as unspectacular as it is, as every woman before me has done, I will continue to survive.” Henry wondered if he might.
As far as princes went, Briggs was exactly what she expected. Just having been in his presence once was enough to make her shudder at the mere mention of his name. Henry and Fra’s stories were bad enough, but the rumors Auntie Patchet dug up made her blood run cold. Six feet under the ground was too good for him.
“And here I thought Zane was the brainless one.” She rolled her eyes.
His whole world was that little girl. But, his life was that tavern he built from the ground up with nothing but dust and sheer determination.
Interview with John St. Clair about his debut novel, Stalin's Door!
John St. Clair started his career as a novelist after spending 25 years battling fraud and abuse in the cyber realm.
John St. Clair lives with his wife in the northern Virginia suburbs. Stalin's Door is his debut novel.
Tea enthusiast. | Cautiously pessimistic. | He/Him. | Pro em dash and pro Oxford comma!
***Spoilers will be marked in red with a clear warning!***
You mentioned in previous interviews that you consider yourself both a pantser and
plotter. How much of genre do you feel affects that?
JS: Just to level set for the readers of this interview: a “pantser” will typically not know in
advance how a story is going to play out—they will just write and see where it leads them. A
“plotter” on the other hand likes to have all the details in their story worked out before putting
pen on paper. To be honest, I don't assess the genre I'm writing in before making the decision
on how to go about writing it. I find that my approach of thinking of the overall story arcs first,
often for an extended period of time, will give me the greatest chance at nailing down what I
like to call “the 50,000 foot view” of the story. From there, it's just fun to fill in the gaps with a
little pantsing. I will admit that in the moment of writing, I am often surprised at where I end
Was the construction of the novel, the organization of the different sections and
corresponding perspectives, planned? What was your process?
JS: For the technical construction of Stalin's Door, and considering its complexity, I did
absolutely plan out the sections beforehand. Eagle eyed readers will have no doubt picked up
on a few things. In the first section, “Zhenya's Tale,” there's a progression from Spring to
Summer to Fall to Winter, over consecutive years, with each season becoming progressively
darker in tone. Also, you'll notice that the ages of the protagonists increase with each section;
Zhenya as young girl, then Sava as an early middle-aged man, then Lera as an older middle-
aged woman, and finally Zhenya as an old woman. I wanted to show the passage of time and
in the same way offer different perspectives from each of the main characters' points of view.
Were your characters “walk-ons,” just coming to you, or were they carefully
JS: The three main characters in Stalin's Door; Zhenya, Sava, and Lera were all absolutely
carefully constructed, and fleshed out before I started writing. Each of the minor charactersless so.
You write three different perspectives that include age and socioeconomic
backgrounds. You mentioned in a previous interview that Lera was a favorite between the
three. Was there a character and perspective that you found most difficult to write?
JS: An excellent question! While every author certainly “loves” all of his or her characters, I
do admit a certain first amongst equals when it comes to Lera. That said, I did find that the
writing of the character of Admiral Krayevsky to be, shall I say, challenging. You'll recall that
the age of the admiral and that of Sava, are equal, with their birthdays only 2 days apart. And
their careers within the Soviet Navy were wildly divergent. I wanted the admiral to be like a
foil to the character of Sava, so I took great care in writing his story too.
Was there a part of your own writing that surprised you or did you know everything
that was going to happen?
JS: Stalin's Door, the novel, had an interesting birth, so to speak. The first part, “Zhenya's
Tale” was written as a short story first, and was known simply as Stalin's Door. I sent it out to
some beta readers and received some excellent feedback. Later, I added what would become
“Sava's Tragedy” and entitled it Behind Stalin's Door. Both the first and second parts were
now the size of a novella and I again sought out feedback from my beta readers. Once I
finished the novella, I knew I had a great shot of turning it into a full fledged novel with the
additions of “Lera's Yarn” (Beyond Stalin's Door) and “Zhenya's Allegory” (Return to Stalin's
Door) the third and fourth parts to the story. All along the way I was still doing all that
arduous historical research to ensure my story was as authentic as possible.
Getting into the nitty-gritty details definitely surprised me. Some scenes that turned out even better than I
could have hoped for were: the reception-party where Stalin makes an appearance, the scene
with Zhenya, Lera, and the hooligan guards at the train depot on the way to the Gulag, and
scene with Zhenya and Lera in the cemetery at the end of the novel.
How much of your story is “research-based” versus character driven?
JS: In any historical fiction piece, unless it's outright historical fantasy, I feel that the
author should strive to make it as genuine as they can. This is the reason it took me 5 years of
research to try and make Stalin's Door as authentic as I could. Details—even down to the most
minute ones—matter. Now that said, my characters have to live within that world that is well
documented. I'm trying to tell a story within a framework: a world and a time that my readers
haven't been to or lived in. My characters faced challenges and ordeals that fit within the
known facts of where and when I placed them into. My job as a writer was to make that as
interesting and compelling to read as I possibly could!
I’ve heard historical fiction authors discuss that sometimes history or the story itself is
sacrificed for the other. Did you find this to be the case in writing Stalin’s Door? Do you agree
with this belief?
JS: I think it's perfectly fine to tell whatever kind of story you want to—and make
whichever sacrifices you need to. However, to be clear, if the author deviates a great deal from
the established facts of history, then the work should be either labeled fiction, or historical
fantasy. My goal was always to write my story within the genre definition of Russian historical
fiction, so my “goalposts,” so to speak, are very well defined and known. I tried extremely hard
to stay within these goalposts, for the sake of accuracy and authenticity.
Through Lera and Sava’s sections, you explore events before, and that led to, Stalin.
With so many individual events occurring within a single period of time, how do you decide
what to include?
JS: This is a terrific question! The period of time that's central to my novel, known as the
“Great Terror” may only be a couple of years, however there was so much to tell! I really had a
tough time deciding. That said, when writing from the first person, past tense point-of-view,
my decision on what to include event-wise became a lot more clear. Only knowledge known to
the narrator, or events experienced by the narrator are going to be passed on to the reader. If I
as the author wanted to “pass on” something important history-wise to the reader, then I had
to make sure the characters in my novel actually experienced them. This is exactly why Sava
goes to work for the NKVD, and why Lera is exiled to the Gulags. They experienced these
things, and could tell their stories first hand. I felt this was a stronger and more genuine way
to tell my story!
What didn’t make it into the finished book, research-wise and otherwise? What was cut
in the editing process and how did you decide what to cut?
JS: Believe it or not, I don't have a lot of “bonus scenes” that got left on the cutting room
floor. For the most part, what is in the book is exactly what needed to be in there. Of course
the time periods I explored in my story could have been even bigger if I wanted, however I felt
that the way I structured it, with three very different characters, in three distinct points of
time in their lives, and three distinct locations—made my story riveting.
When reading Stalin’s Door, I couldn’t help but draw connections to other events in
history that shared similarities. How conscious are you of the similarities between other
events of different times and places to the ones you wrote about?
JS: To be honest, when writing historical fiction, I always want to ensure I'm as accurate as possible for the time period I'm writing about. So, to answer this question, if there are
similarities between what is happening in Stalin's Door, and what is happening elsewhere in
history, it's likely because history tends to repeat itself.
George Santayma had said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it.” Do you agree? Do you hope Stalin’s Door can help us remember?
JS: I absolutely agree with this terrific quote, and am distraught to say that autocratic and
dictatorial rule are still very much rampant in today's world. My novel, I hope, can paint a dire
picture of what can happen when that autocratic and dictatorial rule are left unchecked. So in
a way, I do hope it can serve as a warning and a deterrent.
Have you ever visited Russia or the museum at The House on the Embankment? If not,
do you ever wish to visit?
JS: I have not yet visited Russia. I definitely would like to, one day. Certainly the trip would
include going to the wonderful House on the Embankment, in the heart of Moscow, and its
on-site museum. I fear that the current geopolitical situation and world events will prevent
this trip for many years to come, unfortunately.
Another author had described your writing style in Stalin’s Door as “memoir.” After
reading the book, it feels like the perfect description. Was this intentional? Do you feel this is
reflective of your style in general, or was it unique to Stalin’s Door?
JS: Writing Stalin's Door and giving it that memoir “look and feel” was definitely
intentional, as I have an affinity for the first person, past tense perspective. I don't know if it's
reflective of my style, however it was the very best choice I could make for telling this story.
All the events are witnessed, or recounted, by the narrators. If something isn't known to the
narrator, it won't be known to the reader. In this way, more than any other I can think of, one
truly is living inside the head of the protagonist. This is more intimate, and much more
rewarding, I feel.
You have a bit of a fantastical element to your story. As a writer, did you always intend
to mix genres? What inspired this aspect of your story?
JS: I do admit I felt it was taking a bit of a risk when I added in these fantastical elements.
Thankfully they are tiny, in my opinion, and don't distract from the more pure historical
fiction elements. That said, in one very obvious case, when Zhenya is reunited with Lera, it
was necessary to bring in a little fantasy. I always knew they would meet each other at the end
of the novel, and quite frankly, I'm not sure there was any other way to go about it!
In my opinion, a good historical fiction entices the reader to want to learn more and
there is always more to learn. What questions do you hope the readers walk away with? Where
are you hoping they go next? What are you hoping to spark in them?
JS: A fabulous question! In so much of my feedback, I've been told that I've inspired my
readers to go and investigate the time period I refer to a lot, that of the “Great Terror” that
overwhelmed Moscow, and all of Russia, in the mid to late 1930s. Readers have also looked up
and researched the Gulags, the specific Russian naval ships I mentioned, and even the House
on the Embankment, not to mention the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Joseph Stalin
himself! I hope they can come away with a greater understanding of this specific time period,
that echos even today within Russia itself.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with current or future readers?
JS: I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to write and I am truly thankful for all
the readers my book has found—and will find! I am always working on something new; micro-
fiction and short story contests, anthology submissions, and my second novel which I hope to
have out soon: Lucky Dainéil McElheney! I appreciate the time you took to interview me, Ellie!
Read more about John St. Clair and Stalin's Door on The Red Head Notes blog, including a review, interview, and guest post!
In the dangerous time of Russia’s Great Terror, a knock on the door late at night could mean only one thing!
Stalin’s Door is the unforgettable story of three extraordinary individuals who lived during the time of Russia’s Great Terror. They share a terrible fate which will forever intertwine their lives. Zhenya is the strong young daughter of an important government official, who is growing up fast in a privileged government enclave. Sava is a devoted husband, unceremoniously dismissed from the Soviet Navy, who considers a new opportunity. Lera is a wise grandmother who bears a crucial responsibility, while forced into exile in the outland of Siberia.
It’s been a bit since I’ve done a blog, but when I saw The Picky Bookworm’s blog, 10 Books That Changed My Life, I was inspired and thought it might be fun. It wound up being longer than I anticipated and apparently I'm even a rebel or indecisive (depending on how you look at it) when it comes to this, so there's also three-five honorable mentions. So, here we go…
1. My Mama Had A Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray
This has remained my all-time favorite children’s book. My Mama Had A Dancing Heart meant the world to me as someone who loved ballet and dancing from a very young age. When I was in dance class (about five years, I think), I loved that my mother took dance when she was that same age. My mother was in a wheelchair for about eight years, but that never stopped her dancing with me. This is something we wrote about in our upcoming children’s book (also co-written with my brother). I have many fond memories of sitting on her lap as she spun us in her wheelchair or dancing in the pool as we loudly and off-key belted out “Ten Minutes Ago” from the 1960’s Cinderella.
When she began walking again (a journey you can read about in her book, The Unchained Spirit), I have fond memories of blasting music with her and wiggling around the room. My brother and I still joke around about the earthquake she would make stomping her feet on the wooden floors in the house of our teenage years as she rocked out to the opening of “Rolling in the Deep.”
The connection doesn’t just end there, though. My mother always tends to make things magical and a celebration. The joy and wonder of the seasons and the various aspect of those seasons from the lemonade to the seashells to the falling leaves really matched all my mother offered me and continues to offer me in my day to day. Just like in the book, too, this influence is something I have taken with me in my adult life. The two of us often joke we are more Gilmore girls than the Gilmore Girls, but in a lot of ways this book is a reflection of what our relationship has always been.
I have such a thing for word play and the flow of words when reading and writing. Looking back, this is probably one of the origins. The lyrical prose of the book still excites me and I can see its influence in my own writing when I get really into it.
2. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
Perhaps not a great shock, my connection between books and people doesn’t just end with my mom and My Mama Had A Dancing Heart. Her love of reading and the freedom of exploration with books that she gave my brother and I was handed down by her own parents.
My grandmother’s all-time favorite book was Anne of Green Gables. I’m pretty sure she owned every book L.M. Montgomery ever wrote. I still have most of her Anne books that still have her name written in them. I also have her Anne doll and figurine, too. She had hats and visited Prince Edward Island so many times. So much of these books and the first two of the Megan Follows movies are a huge part of my lexicon and references that even my boyfriend will occasionally reference them. My best friend and I call each other kindred spirits and bosom buddies.
Of course, it’s not just this connection. Though as Emma Marsden in To Miss the Stars says, “Somehow the story of the book enhances the story within it.” Anne Shirley was my literary kindred spirit and mirror-friend. She is so beautifully human. From her passion and her stubbornness to her creativity, intelligence, and hope, she made me feel a little less alone in a world that is not always kind to little girls who don’t always fit in.
3. Treasure of Ravenwood by Barbara Lieberman
I have written multiple times before about The Treasure of Ravenwood and what it means to me, between my small business blog and on Vocal (free to read there, too). My mother says I learned to write so I could write down my stories. My Pop-Pop used to tell my mom that when I was alone in the car with him, I would start talking when the key went into the ignition until the car was in park. For me, though, I always felt like I became a writer at my mother’s keyboard.
It was part of my nightly routine. I even was permitted to stay up passed my bedtime to listen to whatever more she wrote so long as I brushed her hair. I often was disappointed when we reached the end and I had to wait until the next night to find out what happened next. She is a pantser, so often she herself did not know, either. I always looked forward to those evening, just the two of us, smiles illuminated by the glow of her computer screen, heart beating to the pulsing of the cursor.
To see the evolution of the story and the process was pure magic. I had a front row seat at watching inspiration turn to ideas and watch my mom weave words into a story. I think there’s a disconnect between books and storytelling. There’s an almost fantastical, other-worldly feel. An unobtainable dream that gets laughed off, the way an adult placatingly pats the head of a child who declares they want to be “a superhero” or “mermaid” when they grow up. My mom, who of course is a magical superhero in her own right, wrote this book from beginning to end because I asked. But, my mom was someone tangible. She wasn’t some black and white photo on a back cover or a name in a textbook. She was real in a way other authors never felt before. And, in seeing her do it, it made me feel like I could, too.
It was the same way when she published Treasure of Ravenwood in 2014 (my first publish book was a year later). It took the writing journey to the next level for me and I sat back and thought, “Maybe I can, too.”
4. Number the Star by Lois Lowry
Number the Stars was a book my class read in third or fourth grade. I believe I was the only Jewish kid in class. I am half Jewish. The holocaust was something that I just sort of always knew about. I, also, knew my family was affected by it but the story my brother and I were told was a sort of fuzzy jumble. It’s only been recently, the past year or two, that I learned the exact details. This book, however, was the first time pretty much all of my classmates heard about the Holocaust. (By the way, if anyone is looking for a book to introduce their kids to this part of history, I highly recommend this one!)
This book will always hold a special place in my heart. It plucked those ancestral strings for me. It was the first time that part of my identity was represented in a place like the classroom. It was the first time that part of me felt seen. It was also the first time this fuzzy jumble that cut so deep had words, had a reason for being, could air out. It was like realizing I was bleeding for the first time and finally getting some Neosporin.
I wish I had more words, better words to explain it.
5. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Fast forward to eighth grade. This was during the height of the Twilight phenomenon. I will not bash a book that others love, but I will say that it was not a book for me. Somewhere across space and time, at least ten people are randomly feeling the need to shout “THAT’S AN UNDERSTATEMENT!” I wanted something heavier, something deeper, something more meaningful, something more challenging.
About a year before, we had moved across country from a fairly progressive suburban community and schools to a rural middle-of-nowhere, minds were as small as the town itself kind of community and schools. There were thirteen kids in the graduating class of the entire school to give a little more perspective. Everyone was reading and lauding Twilight as though it was the finest literature had to offer.
I grew up with Les Miserables musical, the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast VHS to be exact. My brother and I would make our living room couches into the barricades and we were so young my brother pronounced it “ang-grah-gen” when doing a rendition of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” It would be about two-three years later that my mother would take my brother and I to see it live on a special trip to celebrate our high school graduation (a story for another time).
This book remains one of my all-time favorites. It took some perseverance to finish, as well. There are parts I struggled with (really Hugo, I can’t say I care about the history of a piece of furniture that has nothing to do with the rest of the story). I also struggled with the book because of school. Reading in terms of school was always horrible for me for a number of reasons. This time, though, there were moments where it often felt like the teachers also were punishing me for my reading choices. At one point, there was a Read Across America activity that involved making a reading chain based on the number of books everyone in class finished. There’s a huge difference between a 200-400 page book and Les Miserables. Fortunately, I had the support of my mother and the love of the story I already knew.
As for the book itself, it was amazing to see what the writers of the musical kept, left out, and changed and why. I was excited to learn that they even kept some of the direct quotes. It was also interesting to see how the newer version of the musical and even new movie added elements to stay even more true to the original work. I was also fascinated to learn the history behind the book and the author. It was exciting to get lost in the rabbit hole for a while and I still remember a great deal of that history itself.
One of the things that always struck with me about the story itself was that for a book called “The Miserables,” the amount of hope and beauty and love within the darkness. It’s something I’ve taken with me in my own life and, once more, see a huge influence in my own writing, as well. It’s a common theme I can’t help but explore.
6. I Am An Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler
One more a book from eighth grade and I’m beginning to see a pattern that I never realized before. Eighth grade sucked. There’s no other way to put it. It just royally sucked. I hated my teacher and I hated school (funny enough I wanted to be a teacher because of that). See above for some reference on this year of my life in particular.
On top of this, I have been a feminist since before I could properly pronounce the word “feminist.” I was the youngest member of the New Jersey NOW chapter when I was eight and even did a presentation on Title IV. I’ve done deep dives into women’s rights and women’s history since about that time, too. So it was yet another way I struggled with this backward town and the people in it and the isolation among my peers.
Probably not a shock by now, but my mother introduced me to Eve Ensler around this time. We watched The Vagina Monologues (Netflix was a life-saver even back then) and she handed me I Am An Emotional Creature. I swear my mother and this book of poetry was the only thing that got me through this year.
Her poem, My Short Skirt, became my saving grace as I battled outrageous dress codes at school, rape culture and the sexism of everyday society that I was keenly aware of. The entire book returned to me that feeling of power I used to get in NOW meetings and it is a book that I will never part with.
7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My bosom buddy and kindred spirit, sometime after eighth grade, recommended this book to me. She said it was a book about characters who had cancer and fall in love. I remember thinking, absolutely no way. To make matters worse, it was a contemporary YA, which after the Twilight phenomenon, felt over-saturated with superficial drama and love triangles. This was a genre I tended to steer clear of. She said it made readers cry, but it also was really funny and intelligent. It was my best friend, who recommended books I loved before like Alosha, and her recommendations have never steered me wrong before, so despite my initial misgivings, I thought I’d try it.
Boy, am I glad I did! Once more, my friend proved to be the best EVER. I fell in love with the works of John Green. It was real. It was moving. It was deep. It was raw. It was honest. I credit this book with making me fall in love with Young Adult books once more. I went on to read a number of his other books and still highly recommend them to any readers. There is nothing superficial about these stories.
It is through TFIOS that I learned about Esther Earl, who the book is dedicated to, and the This Star Won’t Go Out organization. This incredible organization supports children with cancer and their families in a number of really amazing and practical ways. It’s an organization that appreciates any support given but deserves so much more recognition and support than it receives. I work with them through my handmade business, Acorn Tops, and part of the proceeds of any of my TFIOS inspired creations goes to support them. I highly recommend checking them out and following them across social media and supporting them anyway you can (they’re also a charity on Amazon Smiles). I also highly recommend the book This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl.
8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
One of my favorite types of books is banned or challenged books. I have a mild obsession with these books and their history. Around 2014-2015, I got really into Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. I picked up On the Road and didn’t just love it, but I devoured it. I enjoyed the style of writing greatly and so many quotes felt like it spoke to my soul. Like I’ve said before, I have a thing for words, word play, and turns of phrase.
Just one of the ways it changed my life was in the area of writing. I came across the quote “One day I will find the words and they will be simple” and suddenly everything just sort of clicked. It’s sort of like what my mother always said, “Just write.” There’s so much noise, obnoxious noise, about how to write and the rules and other bull shit. That one quote, coupled with my mother’s advice, allowed me space to take all the unhelpful advice with a grain of salt.
To take what works and leave what doesn’t, a philosophy I’ve had for a while now in all aspects of my life. Writing simply or simply writing took off the pressure and helped me to tap into the flow and make me the writer that I am.
9. Society’s Foundlings
Around this same time, I wrote my first published book, Society’s Foundlings. I’ve discussed the beginning of Society’s Foudlings on podcasts with Over Coffee Podcast. I’ve written a couple different blogs about it here, too.
To sum up, I was eighteen when I wrote this and published it when I was nineteen. It was a dark year for me. I was, once more, struggling with a lot and it didn’t help to have the society around me discount the hardships I was facing with mental health and trying to figure out my future, not someone else’s definition of what that should look like. Life was hard enough without having someone else tell me this was the best it was ever going to be. Writing has always been a sort of therapy. It’s like breathing. But, this book was like taking a deep breath after drowning. Once more, a book and people in my life like my mother, got me through.
Perhaps most life changing for me, though, was that this was the book that started it all for my writing career. I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, but my mother published her first book a year previously, as did my fairy godmother, and both I had the immense honor of not only being there through the entire publishing process, but also was a beta-reader. It inspired me to do the same and I have been writing and publishing ever since.
10. The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow
I wrote a book review of The Once and Future Witches which you can find here. That review pretty sums up my absolute love of this book. Hands down it is one of my all-time top favorites!
By no means am I quick reader. Even just a 300 page book can take me months at a time. It doesn’t help that I tend to keep my plate very full and since leaving college reading has fallen to the wayside between writing, illustrating, and my handmade small business, Acorn Tops. This book, however, grabbed me the moment I first heard about it. Witchcraft and women’s suffrage… I felt like it was written for me just from the blurb alone.
Then, I read it. And, I devoured it faster than I ever devoured any other book. I’m talking a weekend and staying up until very late to finish just one more chapter. By the end, I was licking my fingers in satisfaction and shoved it into my mother’s hands demanding she read it right then and there so we could discuss it. Since, I’ve read Alix Harrow’s newest novella, A Spindle Splintered, and this same new, strange phenomenon occurred once more. It’s re-sparked that love of reading.
It also helped put into perspective other books I had been struggling to read. This was beyond a five star and I loved it. Other books were a bit of a frustrating drudge to get through and it reinforced the idea that it was okay to not finish a book I wasn’t madly in love with. That if books like this exist, you don’t have to dig through the rocks to find the ones that are diamonds for you.
The story itself, as discussed in my review, made my own righteous anger feel seen and justified in a way it rarely does in the world at large. It talked about what it meant to be a woman in a way that left me feeling powerful and my tongue and fingertips tingle as though I was reading a spell. It excited the reader in me, the writer in me, and the woman in me.
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
To fully explain this book, we have to go back in time a little bit. My mother blames my Pop-Pop for this and, somewhere beyond the pearly gates, he gladly takes the blame. When my mother was in fifth grade, my grandfather was on the school board and the school wanted to ban the book from the library. Around the dinning room table, he asked who in the house had read it. My aunt said she did. My uncle said he did. And my mother, the youngest of the bunch, said she did. He asked what they all thought and unanimously they agreed that it scared them and made them never want to touch drugs. He listened and went back to the school board and said “Absolutely not” to banning it.
Fast forward. I’m in fifth grade. My mom hands me the book and I go to town reading it. I read it at home. I read it on the bus. And, I read it in the classroom. Where the teacher stops by my desk, takes a look at the book, takes a look at me, and promptly says in a very disapproving tone, “Does your mother know you’re reading this?”
Now, I come from a household that firmly believes in reading anything and everything. No books were off limits, because my Pop-pop always said that. We’ve dealt with the school questioning this somewhat before. My mom often had to write letters to our teachers stating that she demanded we be allowed to go into sections of the scholastic book fair that were intended for older grades and reading levels. She believed in raising the bar, especially if we showed an interest and when it came to reading. Never had content been a question for me, though.
“My mother was the one who gave it to me,” I replied, confused but also annoyed at the implication that something like a book should be considered off limits, especially after the library had already questioned me checking it out.
Looking back, this was probably where my love of banned and challenged books come from.
Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and The Crucible by Arthur Miller…
That’s right a two in one and on opposite sides of the spectrum for me. That is to say, one I loathed and the other I adored. Once more, we have a bad reading experience with school and my mother who saved the day.
Picture it. Eighth grade. Height of Twilight. Les Miserables in my backpack. And, the teacher decides that the class is going to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Since this experience, I have heard nothing but amazing and wonderful things about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I will admit, the fact that I was being forced to read this book and that it was the eighth-grade teacher who was enforcing this probably colored a lot of my opinions about it. Needless to say, this was another one I hated.
You might be asking, why then bother to even include it? Well, school life and home life was a bit of night and day at this time for me. My mother once more makes an appearance. This was required reading and was necessary to pass a class. Instead of fighting me each night to do what felt like ridiculous tasks I couldn’t care less about for a book I despised with all the passions of Anne Shirley, she decided, instead], to teach me a few tricks to get through it. “Read the first and last sentences of each chapter” was one of them. These were very similar tricks that she taught her GED students for how to study and tricks that got me through a lot of my college courses.
She didn’t just stop there, though. I was interested in history and the Salem Witch trials intrigued me, but was something I hadn’t explored much of before. Seeing me bored out of my mind with Witch of Blackbird Pond and frustrated that classroom “discussions” were all right-or-wrong answers one would find on a test that was designed purely to prove someone read the book, she handed me The Crucible.
I devoured it. I adored it. I was hooked.
She went a step further. She began discussing allegory with me and the connection the play had to McCarthyism. She went on to show me a movie version (back when Netflix was borrowed DVDs in the mail), the making of the movie, at least one documentary for the Witch Trials and one for McCarthy era, a nonfiction book about the witch trials, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Waggles by Evangeline Duran Fuentes and Why Does The Moon Follow Me by Barbara Lieberman
These two books were the first ones I ever illustrated. These were the start of my illustrating career and since I’ve illustrated books for a few other authors, as well as my own. Both these authors were a pleasure to work with and I couldn't have asked for a more positive beginning in the world of illustrating.
I received this book from my mom as a Christmas present, specifically because of the issues with JK Rowling and she thought I would appreciate someone taking this on.
The book started off at five stars with the concept alone. I like that the book knows what it is and doesn't try to be anything else. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but there's sweetness within the humor, too.
The parody moments made me laugh out loud, but there were moments outside those elements that also made me laugh out loud. There are really profound moments I enjoyed, too, such as "characters are separate, a soul vs. a body."
Tingle is a fun and good storyteller. It's not just the concept that deserve 5 stars.
This book is pure magic... To put it simply, I have loved many a book before, but never have I fallen for a book this hard!
Let me start by saying there are no words to describe just how much I love this book. I really struggled to write a review, because everything I write pales in comparison to what is worthy enough for a book of this caliber (it only took me like a month to sit with it before actually attempting, and like two hours to come up with this).
This book is pure magic! The writing is like a spell in and of itself. The way Harrow describes magic is the exact way it feels to read the book. I had goosebumps.
This was only the second book I read this year and I can already tell it is THE book of 2021 for me. I’m looking forward to the paperback so I don’t drain my entire bank account when I buy copies to give to everyone I know. It has become THE favorite book for me. And EVERYONE needs to read it.
I do not read books quickly, let alone books of this size, but I devoured this masterpiece. I probably would have been able to in a single sitting if not for those pesky responsibilities. Even then, I found this book occupying my thoughts when not reading (it really sticks with you) and certain responsibilities fell by the wayside (when I could get away with it)!
The Once and Future witches is like nothing I have ever read before. They say that there’s only truly a finite amount of stories out there. Well, this one breaks the mold. Not only is it a “just one more chapter, oh look it’s now four in the morning” and an “oh the dishes and work and life in general can wait because I MUST know what happens next” and a “I just can’t get it out of my head” book, but it’s also sooooo much more.
I have a small obsession with “everyday” magic. There is nothing I love more than the intersection of the mundane and the sacred and never had I met a book that so perfectly captures it.
One phrase that comes to mind for the book is “divine feminine,” but that word is so fraught and this book is more inclusive and diverse and open than that word sometimes means. The unique takes on popular fairy tales and concepts like “mother, maiden, and crone” felt more right to me than anything else I’ve ever read. I connected with it more.
“Soul deep” might be the closest I can come to a phrase that fits. I found myself wondering how this author I never heard of before could know me so well, and on such a personal level. My anger and my passion and my fire and my wanting and my hopes, my muchness felt justified. All of me felt justified. I was seen, all of me, in a way that is so rare.
You don’t consume this book. It consumes you whole, body and soul. It speaks to the depths of your entire being and the entire being of the world. I’d go on, but I have a nasty habit of spoilers and to spoil even a fraction of this book would be too great a crime that no one should commit.
To put it simply, I have loved many a book before, but never have I fallen for a book this hard.
My all time favorite blog is Noelophile, all about Christmas and the magic of the holidays! I am ecstatic to be interviewed by the talented and magical Dot about my Christmas short story, The Memory Tree!
Check it out here!
Special thanks to Evangeline Duran Fuentes for this review of my zombie dystopian book, Solving for X!
5 Stars for sure. This intriguing story has a little bit of everything. Fear, horror, suspense, love both romantic and familial. At one point it brought a tightness to my chest and tears to my eyes. It shows a teenager become a man. Once again I loved the way the author intertwined all the emotions and made me, the reader, feel like I was a character in the story and my part was to observe every interaction.
Gathering dust in the depths of my mind, random thoughts dusted off and put out there for the world to see...