Thursday, April 24, 2014

Throwback Thursday: What were you reading in 1997?

Happy Throwback Thursday!

The year was 1997. A lot of other important stuff happened that year, sure, but for me 1997 was basically THIS:

"Ah, music. A magic beyond all we do here!"
(Ten points to Gryffindor if you name the speaker in the comments)

Here's my own throwback picture, courtesy of the Hastings Middle School spelling bee. (Now that I think of it, this picture was actually early 1998, but let's just roll with it.)

"All true grammar ninjas start out as spelling ninjas." ~Jet Li

Here's what I was reading in 1997!

This is a great adventure mystery -- imaginative, dark, and extremely well-written. Set in the year 2194 in Zimbabwe (exotic in both time and place to my suburban Ohio self), The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm is the story of the three children of a powerful Zimbabwean general who run away out of boredom, but are immediately kidnapped. They begin a journey from the bottom of the city all the way to the top (literally: the climax of the story occurs in a swaying, mile-high skyscraper), and they are pursued by three detectives with semi-superpowers: the Ear (with extraordinary hearing), the Eye (with extraordinary sight), and the Arm (with empathic/psychic powers). I must have re-read it eight times, because there were so many layers to connect, so many sub-stories among the numerous characters, and so much rich detail of different cultures and places. I recommend it for any middle grade reader, and since it's set in 2194, it won't be out of date for another 180 years!

For some reason, it never bothered me that there was a corpse on the cover of this book. Go figure. But this is a murder mystery made accessible to younger readers without losing any of the puzzling intrigue and esoteric clues of a classic whodunit. Paper products magnate Samuel Westing is found dead, and his last will and testament, read to his "heirs" -- a seemingly random group of people invited to live in an exclusive apartment building -- insists that he was murdered by one of them. I remember taking notes on this book, trying to piece together all the clues and solve the mystery, so maybe that's why I remember it so well. Or maybe it's just a REEEEALLLY good book.

Sure, I read more "scholarly" things in 1997, but I couldn't leave out this classic series. Part of me wished I lived in Stoneybrook, Connecticut, just so I could be a member of the BSC. Not only did this series inspire me as a budding babysitter, but also it showed me the value of writing from multiple points of view. I hadn't previously thought about how stories could be told by multiple characters, and the multi-narrator structure of these books gave me new insight as both a reader and a writer.

Plus, Mary-Anne-plus-Logan was the first fictional romance for which I was an official 'shipper (should we call them Loganne?). Twilight's Bella and Edward, be darned...



Now tell me, what were YOU reading in 1997? And who were your first fictional romance characters?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday: What were you reading in 1996?

Happy Throwback Thursday!

The year was 1996. It was the year of the Atlanta Olympics: the year that I discovered the awesomeness that is Women's Gymnastics. Every four years since then (like many of my fellow Americans), I rediscover it and am full-on obsessed for about a month. It's like the Brigadoon of sports. Anyway...

Headbands and overalls? #GottaBeThe90s

Following my introduction to "RESEARCH" the previous year, I still wasn't back on the fiction writing track. I was getting big into being in plays and musicals, though, which kept my interest in storytelling alive and kicking. Occasionally high-kicking.

Here's what I was reading in 1996!




As you might be able to tell from these covers, I was kind of going through a phase. A lone-kid-versus-wilderness-and-the-big-bad-world phase. It was kind of the forerunner to about seven years later, when I went through a phase of teenage angst -- which, mind you, consisted of listening to Good Charlotte and wearing heavy eye makeup and lasted about twenty minutes.

I don't know if 1996 was when I hit the point of existential crisis that every tween must face or if I just picked off the Newbery award winners list that year, but this point in my reading life was marked by stories about young people who had to face danger, hunger, loneliness, grief, and even death. The writing of each of these stories made them real to me, and I was drawn into the struggles of these characters. Even now, years and years later, tidbits stick with me:

-Brian from Hatchet throwing up and feeling like he was going to die alone after eating the wrong kind of berries, and trying to find supplies in the wrecked plane without looking at the dead pilot.

-Philip from The Cay burying Timothy, his guide and only friend on the island, after a hurricane.

-Sal from Walk Two Moons trying to finish her journey to find her mother by driving her grandparents' car alone (at age 13) along the treacherous mountain highways of the western United States.

-Karana stepping up as a hunter after her brother's death leaves her alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins.

-Mafatu sharpening his spear point to face the shark he fears, and to no longer be considered the coward of his village in Call it Courage.

-Rifka's anger at the rough treatment of her family by border officials as they attempt to immigrate to the United States, and her realization that she must fend for herself after she is left behind, in Letters from Rifka.

Each of these children (for they were children by age, if not by life experience) confronted so much more in the span of a few chapters than I could imagine facing in my life. Parents and siblings were killed, disease and natural disasters struck, authorities were corrupt, and the basic needs of life were almost impossible to find. But the characters, each in his or her own way, found ways to survive and bring themselves to the last page of the books -- leaving as stronger, wiser, braver, and more capable children than when they began. Their endings were not neat and tidy happily-ever-afters... but you closed the covers of these books knowing that the characters you had come to care for would be all right. If you ask me, that's good writing.


Now tell me, what were YOU reading in 1996? And did you have a survivalist phase in your literary choices (at least, prior to The Hunger Games)?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Throwback Thursday: What were you reading in 1995?

Happy Throwback Thursday!

So today we're throwing back to literary preferences of 1995, but first let's make a pit stop in 2013.

One year ago today, my debut novel Ugly Stick was released!

(This is at my signing event at the delicious Goodie Shop bakery in Upper Arlington, Ohio. The Goodie Shop ended up serving as my setting inspiration for "In Her Sweet Time," one of the short stories in April's Roots!)

In honor of this "bookiversary," Ugly Stick is free for e-book download today only (April 10, 2014) at Stop by and check it out -- and if you've already read it, please consider leaving a review to help others find my work!

All right, then (wipes tear of nostalgia), pit stop concluded. Are you ready to jump in the Way-Back Machine and head to 1995?

The year was 1995., Windows 95, and my younger sister Julianne were all born. The Unabomber's manifesto was published by the New York Times, though it was decidedly not among my choice reading materials. Also, the Backstreet Boys released their debut single, "We've Got It Goin' On." (Yes, they did do.)


I wasn't writing much in the way of fiction in 1995, because my suburban elementary school had just introduced a whole new conception of writing to us: RESEARCH. We learned how to formulate and test a hypothesis -- though, granted, most of our fourth-grade hypotheses were along the lines of "I think I can fit more Peeps in my mouth than you can... THUS PROVED!" -- and I began to realize that writing could be much more than just making things up. Even now I still prefer "just making things up" almost two decades later, but it wasn't long after 1995 that I realized the value of research skills in fiction writing.

Here's what I was reading in 1995!

This isn't a very high-profile book, but it's stuck with me for nineteen years. It's a fictional account of life during the pre-Civil War unrest on the Missouri-Kansas border. Teenage Elijah (Lije) and his family begin the story as Kansan "Jayhawkers," helping escaped slaves towards freedom, until Lije's father is killed by Missouri "Bushwhackers" during a raid. To avenge his father's death and the destruction of their family home, Lije agrees to go "undercover" as a young worker-for-hire among the Bushwhackers, in order to gather information for the Union.

The book is historically accurate and gripping throughout -- what stuck with me the most was the frank concept of children and teenagers, not much older than me, participating in war. As an elementary school student in a first-world country, I was blessed to have absolutely no context for this. War was something far away, something long ago, something adults did. The closest I ever got to war was looking at my grandfather's World War II photos and relics. Jayhawker was one of the first books that opened my eyes to the fact that my childhood experience was a fortunate one, but not at all a universal one.

This is a classic. If you haven't read it, please stop reading this blog, get up from your desk or put away your mobile device, and hoof it to your nearest library. I'll wait.

Truly, though, The Secret Garden is a beautiful, timeless book. I dread the arrival of the generation of children that will be too screen-centric to appreciate this book and many others like it. It's not a swashbuckling adventure, or a terrifying page-turner. It's a story: one with deep, flawed characters, intricate descriptions of nature, and redemption that only comes with forgiveness and patience. The lovely, mysterious setting of The Secret Garden inspired my own first novel over a decade later. Maybe I'll take a couple hours outside this weekend to revisit my battered old copy. I enthusiastically suggest you do the same.

This book was the first book to change me. It took the new awareness that began with Jayhawker and smashed it into a new hemisphere. Unlike the former, The Giver is not a historical novel -- it's classified as science fiction -- but it presents humanity in a completely new context for young readers. The explorations of self-determination in an authoritarian regime, willing relinquishment of freedom in exchange for escape from pain, finding and protecting love in a place where love is essentially a crime... all put into a story that can be digested by a fourth-grader. It's a masterpiece. I could go on, but I won't. You should read The Secret Garden if you haven't yet, but you need to read The Giver.


So tell me, what books have changed you? And what were you reading in 1995?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Throwback Thursday: What were you reading in 1994?

Happy Throwback Thursday!

The year was 1994. It was a dramatic year, the year of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, the year that O.J. Simpson led the LAPD on the Ford Bronco chase, the year when prolific, award-winning actress Dakota Fanning was born.

(Let's take a minute to feel old and wrinkly while we let that last one sink in.)

In my family, it was also the year of the personalized sweatshirt... But if we're being honest, that was everyone's family, and it was more of a decade than a year. #The90sCalled

(This family photo is worthy of Look closely.)

I wasn't just reading up a storm in 1994 -- I was writing up one, too. This was the year I fell in love with the composition book, with its black-and-white Magic Eye-like cover, and its dozens of ruled pages just waiting to be filled with dramatic third-grade narratives. My most memorable story was a contemporary (illustrated!) epic of friendship, about three kittens named Goosy, Moosy, and Missy, who wanted to travel to Paris. I'd say that gives you a good representation of my oeuvre at that point in my writing career.

Here's what I was reading in 1994!

Not only did I read this charming book about insecurities and girls who trick boys, but also a classmate and I made Freckle Juice for a project! I went over to Sarah's house and we mixed in everything from ketchup to olive oil to grape juice, right down to the speck of onion. It was disgusting and fun, perfect for our third-grade selves.

I wonder if the Freckle Juice recipe was the inspiration for all these seven-day cleanses floating around...

Okay, I didn't exactly read this by choice. But my brother was reading the Goosebumps books, and I was addicted to books, so I couldn't resist trying out these scary books when he wasn't reading them, and OH MY GOSH WAS I TERRIFIED!!! I was much more into comic misadventures with happy endings. These books, with their suspenseful plots, their gross-outs, and their twist endings, shook my third-grade self to the core. The first one I read, Monster Blood, gave me nightmares. Oh, who am I kidding. They all gave me nightmares.

I guess I've always had a connection to spunky, strong-willed, klutzy female protagonists (See 1993), and Ramona Quimby is no exception. Ramona is a pest, a questioner, an adventurer, a doer. She also has a big mouth and a big sister who rarely gets her. She's curious and fearless, exemplified by when she decided she was "The Baddest Witch in the World," or when she squeezed out an entire tube of toothpaste into the bathroom sink. I mean, come on, who hasn't wanted to do that?

If I were to draw a parallel between Ramona and any other literary little girl, it would be with Laura Ingalls in the Little House series. Yes, Ramona is fictional, but in her Beverly Clearly shows what Laura Ingalls Wilder showed of herself in writing about her 1800s childhood: honest depictions of an "ordinary" child's everyday life, in which "little" things, like toothpaste and going to school, become memorable adventures with victories and consequences.

They're the kind of characters who show children that they don't have to be lightning thieves or dragon hunters to lead lives worth writing about. They show children that their lives are significant, and when you get down to it, I think that's the most important mission of children's literature.


Throwback Thursday is always more fun with friends! Please feel free to leave comments with what YOU were reading/writing during the year in question. If you'd like to be more involved by "guest posting" a complete reader/writer Throwback Thursday here, please email me at joy.eilene (at) I want to see your throwbacks!

So tell me, what were YOUR literary choices in 1994 (or whenever you were nine)?