Sunday, January 29, 2017

Just a Chair

This is a chair.

Just a chair.

Its seat is made of straw.

Straw is not a strong material.

The first Little Pig built his house out of piled-up straw. He is presented as an example of recklessness and shortsightedness. For good reason—who would build a house with something so weak?

Each piece of straw in this chair could break with one quick pinch.

But this chair is one-hundred-and-forty-three years old.

So how is it still holding itself together?

The many pieces of straw are thatched, woven together, coming to the center from all different directions. They each had to bend in order to be put together. Each piece must continually do its part to bear the load.

Together the straw can bear the stress of a whole person’s weight.

I wasn’t around one-hundred-and-forty-three years ago, but I would guess that not all the straw came from the same plant. Doesn’t matter. When they’re all bound together, the pieces do more than they ever could alone.

Just a chair.


I bought this chair today, in a remarkable stroke of luck, at an estate sale south of Pittsburgh.

Its previous owners purchased it from a little place in London, England...

Image result for st. paul's cathedral london

This chair was delivered to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1874, where it served as a pew chair with four thousand of its straw-thatched brethren for almost a hundred years. When the chairs needed to be replaced with more modern seating, they were sold as a fundraising effort for the Cathedral.

In the course of those hundred years, this chair was used for the service for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the funeral service for Winston Churchill in 1965. In less ostentatious times, it was used by thousands of regular people sitting, reading, thinking, praying, talking, and listening. People seeking and finding their purpose.

This chair was nearly destroyed multiple times in the London Blitz during World War II. Most notable among them was September 12, 1940, when a time-delayed bomb landed in St. Paul’s. The bomb was powerful enough to level the Cathedral.

A bomb disposal unit managed to destroy it safely in a remote location. Many hands came together to protect the Cathedral, the heart of the city.

And the Cathedral stayed up.

Image result for st. paul's cathedral london blitz


This is a chair.

After one-hundred-and-forty-three years, multiple bombings, and a trip across the Atlantic, this thatched-straw-on-wood probably shouldn’t still be a chair.

But it improbably is.

Many fragile pieces, coming to the center from different directions, with the shared purpose of supporting something greater and more precious.

Just a chair.

And a chair is just a place to sit.

Or a place to read.

Or think.

Or pray.

Or plan.

Or talk.

Or listen.

Or all of the above.

Because straw piled up is weak, but straw woven together is strong enough to resist time, stress, and war.

Woven together, bending towards each other, bearing with each other, we can support something greater and more precious. And that’s not just a purpose.

That’s a just purpose. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Book Review: Scavenger of Souls, by Joshua David Bellin

Hi there, net-friends!

One of the best things about being a writer is getting to know OTHER writers. In my experience they're generally lovely, passionate, fascinating people. And what's more, writing is usually a solo job, but it's a collaborative profession: Writers often support each other's work and endeavors because we have a unique appreciation for the dedication it takes to create something completely new.

With that said, I'm delighted to support a fellow writer, Joshua David Bellin, in the upcoming release of his second novel, Scavenger of Souls (Simon & Schuster, August 2016). I was lucky enough to score a spot on his advance-reviewer list, meaning I got to have the actual pre-release paperback proof in my hands to read and review! Trust me, that's a certified geek-out feeling for a book nerd!

Joshua is a highly talented writer of young adult science fiction. He's also active in the Pittsburgh area writers' community, which is how I got to know him. If you like books like the Maze Runner series, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, you'll love Joshua's debut novel Survival Colony 9 (available now) and Scavenger of Souls, its forthcoming sequel.

Here's my review of Scavenger of Souls; I hope you'll find this book as riveting as I did!


In this taut sequel to Survival Colony 9, Joshua Bellin returns us to the decimated future landscape that Querry Gen calls home. Let me say this first and foremost: I was thirsty for most of this book. From the colony survivors’ initial trek through the melted desert to discover the cave-dwellers of the Canyon, from there to the mysterious base, and everywhere in between, Bellin has created such a gripping, sensory world for the reader that I literally felt thirsty as I read about their deprivation and depth of exhaustion.

So… it’s not a light read. As with its predecessor, the youth of the main characters in Scavenger belies the gravity and desolation of their world. Querry’s core goal is the protection of those in his colony, including his mother Aleka (who is seriously injured early on), but he discovers throughout the course of the novel that he may be more threat than protector to everyone he loves. Querry leads an escape attempt from the terrifying Asunder and the cultish pseudo-mysticism of his Canyon civilization, only to be taken by the fiery and precocious Mercy to a sterile and soulless base where secrets are peeled back like the layers of an onion. Via the enigmatic and ancient Udain, Querry finally receives the answers he’s been seeking—the events that destroyed the old world, the origins of the Skaldi, his own family history—and they are more horrifying than he could have imagined. Armed with little more than those answers and his own abilities, Querry is the last hope of the exhausted world around him against the fiercest enemies they have ever known.

The book’s pacing was almost too quick for me at times, if only because the richness of the plot kept producing more story-lines and subtexts to unpack. (That might also have been because I was so engaged that I couldn’t slow down while I was reading.) Scavenger of Souls took me well out of my comfort zone, cutting somewhere between The Hunger Games and the Holocaust memoir Night with its teenaged perspective on graphic violence in a brutal and completely unforgiving world. The writing is distinctly cinematic; the imagery leaves just enough scope for the reader’s imagination, as if Bellin is providing the set-pieces so that we can put them on our own stages. This is definitely a book you’ll want to read again, for all the right reasons.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Introducing My Latest (non-fiction) Project... The New SAT Handbook!

Hi there, net-friends!

Most of you probably know me for my fiction writing, but when I'm not spinning yarns about curses and imaginary friends and re-imagined fairy tales (yes, that last one's in progress!), I can be found running my own tutoring company in Pittsburgh, PA: Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring, which I founded in 2012. My clients are primarily high school students preparing for standardized tests like the SAT.

And so, in a marvelous dovetailing of my career choices, I am proud to announce the publication of The New SAT Handbook, a brand-new SAT prep guide that I co-wrote with my fellow tutor Andrew Cole!

Fancy, right? I found Dante's final circle, guys. It's called "formatting your own textbook."

If you like the way I wrote about April and her curse in Ugly Stick, you'll LOVE the way I write about concepts like plane geometry and dangling participles! In all seriousness, though, this book took a TON of effort, research, and coordination, and I'm truly pleased with how it turned out. If you know of a high school student planning to take the SAT (or if you just want to review geometry and participles for yourself), I hope you'll pick up a copy of this book!

Here's the less silly blurb from Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring's website:

The New SAT Handbook is a compact, academically rooted supplement to your college prep studies. It's full of great things:

 - descriptions of the content and organization of the new test 
 - proven strategies for the types of questions you'll see on the test
 - detailed explanations of underlying academic concepts
 - math content review that will remain useful long after test day
 - new approaches to reading and writing that will strengthen your skills
 - and even a few dashes of humor to help you keep moving while you study!

We hope this guide will reach a whole lot of students and help them to succeed on the SAT and beyond. Please follow this link to check out this new book (Kindle e-book available here), share the information with family and friends, and pick up a copy for your favorite high school student. 

Thanks so much for reading, net-friends, and thank you as always for your support and interest in my work!

Joy :)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Living in a World with That Word

Last week my exhausted husband and I decided to have a movie night. Our two-year-old son Joshua was recovering from having his tonsils and adenoids removed, and it had been a rough few days to say the least. So we made popcorn in the microwave, settled onto the couch, and rented a free movie off our DVR.

The movie was terrible. Oh, my goodness, just dreadful. It was supposed to be a comedy, but it was one of the laziest things I’ve seen in a long time. Fat jokes, fart jokes, and f-bombs seemed to be the screenwriters’ constant fallbacks for cheap comedy. But those weren’t what stuck in my memory from this awful movie.

What stuck was when one character asked another, “What are you, [expletive] retarded?”


Here’s what I have to say about That Word, which offends me more than all the four-letter words you could cram into a sentence. It’s outdated. It’s degrading. It’s ignorant. It’s heartless. And it is certainly not funny.

As a writer and educator, I value and encourage the use of a rich variety of words in our language, as well as the right to use them freely and openly. Yes, fellow citizens, you are free to use the R-word, just like you can use the N-word or the F-word to describe someone.
But there is a difference between “can” and “should.”

The terminology used to refer to individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities has evolved over more than a century of modern medicine.  Past terms included words like "idiot," "imbecile," and "moron." Yes, those words were used in medical textbooks! 

And over time, those words in turn fell onto what's called the "euphemism treadmill," meaning that terms originally meant as medical classifications were twisted and brought into common use as insults. Eventually, some of the words lost enough of their original meaning to no longer be widely thought of as offensive or derogatory to people with disabilities.

"Mental retardation/mentally retarded" was introduced in the twentieth century to replace "idiot" and "moron" because it had no such negative connotations. However, it didn't take too long for various forms of the R-word to get tossed onto the euphemism treadmill and used as insults. 

It's not just about That Word being used to refer to someone with a disability, though that is despicable. It's also about using it as a synonym for "stupid," "annoying," or "worthless." It takes an outdated medical term for people who are often already vulnerable and marginalized and tells the world that it is an insult to be compared to one of them.

Fortunately, our society's response to the use of the R-word has evolved, alongside improvements in the American mental healthcare system and in the societal treatment of individuals with disabilities. Rather than let it settle in, campaigns such as Spread the Word to End the Word (in which my sister Julianne has been an enthusiastic, active participant) have sought to excise the R-word from our national vocabulary. 

And in 2010, President Obama signed into law S.2781, also known as Rosa's Law, which removes the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from all federal policies, replacing them with the person-first language of "individual with an intellectual disability."

Yet, in lunchrooms, chat rooms, and even boardrooms, the R-word persists.


“Well, what about this euphemism treadmill?” the more cynical among you might ask. Isn’t it only a matter of time before the R-word becomes outdated enough to be used relatively innocuously, like “moron” and “idiot,” and something else becomes the new word to be offended by? Is this obsession with political correctness just our cover for being too sensitive?

In other words, does this fight over a word really matter?

I have two answers for that.

The first is not my own. It’s a letter penned by an outstanding young man named John Franklin Stephens back in 2012; I recommend following the link to read his clear and gracious words. John (who, like my son Joshua, has Down syndrome) wrote an open letter to address a political pundit’s use of the R-word during the presidential campaign.

In his letter John explained the painful, belittling effects of That Word: “You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult…”

Whether you call someone with an actual intellectual disability by the R-word or use it to compare a person or situation to them, it makes no difference. It hurts. It hurts people who are statistically among our society’s most vulnerable, along with the people who love them.

Why on earth would you still want to use a word that does that?

That brings me to my second answer.

There are parents who say things like, “Oh, I dread the day she starts kindergarten!” or “I dread the day he gets his license.”

Want to know which day I dread?

I dread the day my son comes home from school in tears and asks me why someone called him That Word.

So yes, this fight over a word really matters.


Our house is a safe zone—my husband and I will do everything in our power to make sure our son never hears that word here. The same goes for our family gatherings, play dates, and birthday parties. But That Word is still out in the world, and deep down I know that it’s only a matter of time until Josh hears it at the grocery store, or at school, or at the park, and realizes what it means.

It’s only a matter of time until someone uses it as a weapon against my child’s ears. That Word is a ticking time-bomb strapped to a parent’s heart.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are three simple things you can do that would spare my heart and the heart of my little boy, along with the hearts of countless other parents, children, siblings, friends, and neighbors. Are you willing to do three simple things for all of us?

  1. Don’t use the R-word. There’s just no reason to do it. Our beautiful language is full of other descriptors, exclamations, and insults. Use one of them. The R-word isn’t funny, appropriate, or even medically accurate. Using it only makes you seem like a person who doesn’t care about others, and if you’ve read this far, I’m hoping that you do care.
  2. If you have children, or students, or other little ones in your care, teach them not to use the R-word. And hold them to it. If you wouldn’t let your five-year-old use the N-word, then why would you let them use the R-word? By teaching them that some words are too hurtful to use, you’re not teaching them to repress their thoughts or be afraid to share their opinions. You’re simply teaching them to care about others.
  3. If you hear the R-word, stop it in its tracks. This is the tough one—one I still struggle with, as a mild-mannered, non-confrontational person. But it’s very important. If a child on the playground uses it, if a server at a restaurant uses it, even if your drill sergeant uses it (yes, follow the link; it really happened!)—call it out. Say to that person some variant of, “Hold up. That word hurts someone I love, and it hurts me too. In the future, please don’t use it.” Hopefully you will be met with an apology and can promptly let the matter drop. If you’re met with a sneer or a snarky response, then you will at least know that you tried.

(Note: If you are in a situation where you think it would be unsafe to do this, then please just walk away. The sad truth is that you can’t win ‘em all, and I wouldn’t want you to get injured trying.)

Here’s why #3 is so important to me. On the inevitable day that my son comes home from school after hearing the R-word, his recounting to me won’t have to end in tears. I can hope that it will end with, “But my friend stuck up for me, and then I felt better.”

We live in an imperfect world. That Word will never be truly banished from our cultural lexicon. There will still be terrible movies that try to play it off as humor, rude drivers who throw it out when you take "their" parking space, and otherwise-wonderful people who use it completely unintentionally, not realizing the effect it has. 

But I can live with all of those frustrating, hurtful things if I know that we're working for something better. We can hold ourselves to a higher standard with the words we choose. We can speak with care and compassion. We can reject contempt and judgment. And if we teach our children to do that, then they will have a better world.

So please, teach those around you that the R-word is never okay. Your child could be the one that saves my child's heart. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Unexpected Unicycles (Guest Blog for Green Grandma)

Good afternoon!

Today I'm delighted to bring you a different kind of post -- I have guest blogged a post for Green Grandma, a wonderful, creative, indispensable site that promotes greener, healthier living for families. The Green Grandma herself, Hana Haatainen-Caye, and I met through the Pennwriters organization several years ago, and she invited me to write a piece about raising a child who has special needs.

The resulting composition is titled "Unexpected Unicycles," and it centers around the allegory of riding a unicycle when others around you are riding bicycles (because you know I love a good allegory!). Here's a sneak peek below -- and if you like it, please follow the link to read the complete original post!

Picture yourself, your family, and your friends together, all riding your bicycles along a sunny road. Then imagine that someone rolls up on a unicycle. How do you react? What do you say to them?

I have been the mother of an outstanding child named Joshua for about two and a half years now. There are tranquil nights when I kiss Josh’s sleeping face and thank God for the quiet, safe house that holds him, and there are days when I pull the dog’s toys out of Josh’s mouth and wipe Crayola marker off the walls...

Read the rest here!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What You Didn't Expect When You Were Expecting

Good afternoon!

The following is a slightly lengthier version of my letter-to-self that was originally published at Dear Self About Down Syndrome, a heart-filling and wonderful blog of families' stories about what they would tell their past selves when receiving their children's Down syndrome diagnoses. I hope it touches you in some way -- thanks for reading!



Dear 2012 Self,

I remember you. You were utterly, purely delighted about being pregnant. You figured out creative ways tell family and friends. You gulped your prenatal vitamins each night before bed and lay with your hand on your belly, imagining the little person you would raise. You even started a humorous Twitter account for “Little Pierogi,” as your closest friends called the baby, posting cute after-checkup updates like “My heartbeat is perfectly in time with ‘We Will Rock You.’ #NoCoincidence”

Then there was August 17.

You had just found out the day before that you were having a boy. Your husband David was already talking excitedly about Cub Scouts and soccer and camping trips. You were sitting in your office and received a call from the OBGYN’s office. An intentionally perky voice informed you that your blood screenings had indicated an “elevated risk” of Down syndrome.

“What’s elevated?” you asked.

“Well, for your age it’s typically one in 1,000. With these results it’s 1 in 48.”

You started to shake as she explained things like “soft markers,” amniocentesis, and maternal blood tests. She pointed out that 1 in 48 was barely a 2% chance… but I think even then, deep down, you knew.

You hung up the phone in a fog. You called David and your mother in tears. To say this was unexpected was an understatement. You had had the “perfect” pregnancy so far—no throwing up, no weird cravings, no diabolical mood swings—and you, like any expectant mother, were certainly not “expecting” a child with Down syndrome.

You scheduled the “Verifi” blood test for the next week, rather than an amniocentesis test; 99.8% accuracy was good enough for you. You wiped your eyes, opened your office door, and counted the minutes until the weekend.

That night was the first time you felt the baby kick.

The next week passed. Your blood was shipped off to a lab in California and tested. Results weren’t expected until after Labor Day weekend—the weekend of your family reunion, where second cousins you hadn’t seen in months would be congratulating you and asking all about the baby.

What would you say?

And then there was August 30.

It was your first night of class for the fall term, a class you had been so excited to take. You almost didn’t go. The doctor called you that afternoon—the results had come back early, confirming that your Little Pierogi had three copies of his 21st chromosome. Your “elevated risk” had gone from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 48… to 1 in 1.

Questions of nursery themes, preschools, and sports teams turned on a dime, to questions of heart defects, learning disabilities, and life expectancy. All at once you were drowning in it, clinging to the unborn child you already loved and to the pleasant, successful, “normal” life you had assumed he would have. You doubted yourself. You felt fearful, bewildered, and powerless, more deeply than you ever had in your life.

But here’s what happened next, Self.

You went to class that night. You pulled it together enough to sit in one of those molded plastic chairs, and when it was your turn to introduce yourself, you gestured to your belly and accepted congratulations with a smile. You hoped that you had fixed your tear-streaked makeup enough that your classmates wouldn’t think you were a weirdo.

That night in bed, his name came to you: “Joshua.” It wasn’t even on your list. But it was, simply, his.

The next day you and David drove to your mother’s house for the weekend. Did you still want to go to the family reunion, they gently asked? Yes. Joshua was coming, and you wanted everyone to know it.

You went to the reunion, full of hugs and congratulations and well-meaning questions. You told them his gender and his name. You didn’t mention Down syndrome yet, because you needed to wrap your head around it before you announced it to others. That was okay, Self. You knew you would get there.

And over the next few months, you did. With a humongous amount of love and support, you reclaimed the wonder and delight of expecting a baby—not just any baby, but your Joshua. The Joshua who would be your firstborn, your amazing son, your “Goosie,” your “Honeybee,” your precious child. You decorated a Peter Rabbit-themed nursery. You put up your Christmas tree. You turned in your term paper. You gulped your prenatal vitamins before bed and lay with your hand on your belly, imagining Joshua.

Through it all you were continually lifted up by your family, your friends, your church, the amazing staffs of Magee-Womens and the Down Syndrome Center… and of course, the One who made Joshua—you were pretty darn sure He knew exactly how many chromosomes to give him.

And then there was January 3, 2013.

 You delivered Joshua Lyle at 11:13am, at the same hospital where his daddy was born. He was the picture of health—a pink, squirming baby with dark hair and alert eyes. Joshua tried to put his feet down on your belly and stand up at the ripe old age of ten minutes. He was perfect. And in the years since, Joshua has amazed you at every turn with his abilities, his curious and insightful mind, his kind spirit, and his sense of humor. He’s still perfect to you, and (spoiler alert) he always will be.

I want to tell you one more thing, Self. It’s about that word you heard back on August 17, 2012: “Risk.” The first (wholly inappropriate) synonym for “risk” in my online thesaurus is “danger.”

You were never in danger of having a child with Down syndrome.

The only “risk” those tests back in August presented to you was that, unlike most parents, you got to know about one of Joshua’s chromosomes ahead of time. That knowledge led you down an unexpected journey of fear, focus, peace, and (ultimately) excitement. Thank God (no really, just stop right now and thank Him again) that you didn’t get stuck at “fear.”

Despite “risk” being a pretty standard medical term, I do not think it fits into a discussion of Down syndrome itself. Down syndrome carries increased risks of medical complications throughout one’s life, yes, but Down syndrome itself is not a danger. It is a uniqueness, a genetic mutation that represents both shared traits and endless individuality.

That’s why you should take the second synonym for “risk” in the thesaurus: “Possibility.” By that definition, Joshua’s life will be full of risks, in the best ways possible.

Help him to grow. Let him try. Lift him up. Cheer him on. Tell him he can do it. Tell him he’s smart. And never forget what you told your family when you announced that Joshua would be born with Down syndrome:

“We plan to raise Joshua with limitless expectations and limitless love.”

A life without limits is full of risks—possibilities. And you wouldn’t want anything less for Joshua. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Birds, the Bees, and the Corn

Good afternoon, net-friends!

Wow, it's been awhile, hasn't it? This summer was just crazy -- we took our toddler on road trips to Maryland, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio, I worked on more revisions to The Real Friend and had another (minor) back surgery, my mother got married -- but I can't believe it's already almost autumn Pumpkin Spice Latte* season!

(*Love it or hate it, I'm starting to think that in a hundred years, first world countries will refer to the seasons of the year as Winter, Spring, Summer, and Pumpkin Spice Latte. My local Starbucks has a simple sign on the door: "PSL: It's Here." It's attained a level of ubiquity that took Cher five decades to develop. But I digress.)

Anyway, the summer was so nuts that I neglected to post anything here! So here's a little bit of short fiction that I dreamed up during our road trips. If it sticks with me, I might develop it into something bigger, but for now it's just a fun little nugget of a story. Hope you enjoy it!



One innocent bet had led to this catastrophic afternoon.
“You’re only twelve, son,” Dad said. “There’s no rush—we just want to give you the information you’ll need later.”
“I saw you with that Jenny Strathmore two weeks ago, Greggy,” Mom added. “Your hand was up the back of her shirt. I saw it.”
            I rolled my eyes. “It was a bet, Mom.”
Jenny and I had been friends since second grade, and we’d been secretly watching her older brother Paul and his girlfriend making out. Paul had slipped his hand up the girlfriend’s shirt in one fluid motion and unfastened her bra strap.
After we’d retreated to my house two streets away—and stopped laughing—Jenny had made a bet with me. “If you can unhook my bra one-handed without looking in under… thirty seconds, I’ll give you my Turbo Soaker XL,” she had dared. “But if you can’t, I get your Indiana Jones hat.”
It was a week into summer vacation, and the XL was the best water gun we’d ever seen. I had handed Jenny my wristwatch and ordered her to keep time.
Thirty seconds later, defeat had stung. “That strap has more damn hooks than a tackle box,” I had protested. “How do girls even get dressed in the morning? Do you get up at five?”
“And that’s not even counting styling my hair,” Jenny had added. Then she had snatched up my Indiana Jones hat and perched it on her head, smirking at me as she adjusted her strap back to normal. All of a sudden the sun had gotten really hot and I’d had to run inside and take a shower. But that was beside the point.
The worst part wasn’t the information itself. I had already heard what I figured I needed to know at school. The worst part was that Mom and Dad had decided to give me the talk during our family trip to Nannie’s farm. In the middle of a cornfield. Together.
“I know at this age you are starting to have… urges,” Mom said. “Some of the girls in your class are starting to… develop.” She glanced at Dad, probably because she realized she was incapable of completing a sentence without a torturous pause.
“It’s normal, son,” Dad added. “I remember back when I was in junior high, this one girl, it was like overnight she—”
Mom’s glare stopped his words on a dime.
“Aaaand that’s why it’s important to learn about this now,” he continued, “because you always want to be respectful. And part of that is learning to control your impulses. I remember when I met your mother, she was in this red bikini—”
“Please no.”
“—pretended I had forgotten my goggles back in the locker room. If you need a moment, just pretend you’ve forgotten something somewhere else. Girls believe it because guys don’t have purses.” He nodded knowingly, like he’d just said something really profound.
“Oh, darn it all,” said Mom. “We forgot the book.”
“It’s called ‘Inside Your Changing Body,’ and it’s very helpful. Lots of diagrams. Oh, well. We did shadow puppets when you were little, Greggy. This shouldn’t be much more diffi—hey! Wait!”
That was when my survival instinct kicked in. If I sat there another minute to see Mom and Dad’s cornfield shadow puppet show, my brain would explode. I rocketed off the ground and took off running. I pulled off my bright red shirt as I ran, hoping I’d be harder to find among the tall rows of cornstalks. For once I was glad to be short for my age. If I could find my way to the highway, maybe I could hitchhike out of the state.