Liam’s giraffe

Photo Credit: Valerie,

A real giraffe.

Our little boy Liam + his toy giraffe = TRUE LOVE.

Seriously. You should see Liam glom onto “la jirafa” in his crib at bedtime: her horns her ears go straight into his mouth; he digs his fingers into the fringe along her long neck; he turns onto his stomach, pinning her under him in a l.o.v.e. embrace.

What I want to know is this: when Liam is bigger–even more, when he is grown–what will giraffes mean to him? I 


mean, the fact that his “lovey,” his special snuggle toy, is a giraffe, will that change anything for him? Will he linger in front of the giraffe enclosure at the zoo in first grade, drawn to the long lashes, the dotted coat? Mesmerized, but not knowing quite why? Or will he skip past, oblivious? Indifferent to the creatures’ affinity for the source of one of his earliest, simplest pleasures?

Either way, I know I will never see a giraffe in quite the same way. Maybe that’s what being a mom means. Whatever our children love, we love, even if only for the fact that it has received our children’s love.

By the way: For a book’s worth of musing on the first year of a child’s life, written as a diary of her son’s first year, check out Anne Lamott’s book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year.  I loved this book. I read it when Liam was about four months old, and there were many moments I could relate to. Best thing about the book: Lamott says the things that I’m ashamed to. This book made me laugh and cry.

Review: Silvina Ocampo’s short fiction

photo by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo is a master storyteller every bit as talented and important as more widely recognized Latin American short story writers like Borges. The most commented-on feature of her stories is their “cruelty,” by which people generally mean the frequency of murders and other violent acts. But all of these are narrated as if they were unremarkable, which (I think) is one of the unsettling features of the narratives. Also, the way the narrated cruelty seems both inevitable and irrational gets under the reader’s skin–“Revenge? Fine,” I found myself thinking, “but at least let me understand why the revenge is so necessary, in terms of the character’s emotions.”

That’s when I realized: Ocampo’s refusal to satisfactorily “motivate” cruelty highlights our perverse willingness to “accept” cruelty provided that it’s rationalized in a narrative. That is, she makes us see our desire for digestible cruelty, cruelty packaged in narratives. Her stories upset our expectations and force us to see that the real cruelty, the real moral offense, perhaps, is in our own minds for desiring stories that help us swallow and move beyond misdeeds.

Folks who don’t read Spanish can find the Penguin collection of Ocampo’s stories, Leopoldina’s Dream, which is translated by Daniel Balderston.

The Zero Draft

Photo from

The zero draft is how I trick myself into writing when it seems too scary to start THE novel. It’s all the exploratory writing that I do just to feel my way into the project. While I don’t make elaborate outlines or “plan” my novels, I usually fill a couple of notebooks with ideas, scraps, character backgrounds, and the like. I don’t set any expectation that these things will–in the same form–show up in the novel, hence the title “zero draft.”

Full disclosure: this isn’t really my idea. I first came across it in my double life in the academic world via the book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. (I’m not going to lie: I first requested this title because my library catalog had truncated the title to Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes. Did it sound too good to be true? Yes. Did I want to know the secret anyway just in case? Yes.) There’s a capsule version of the zero draft idea online here.

Of course, there are a lot of differences between academic and creative writing. But since what I struggle with the most is producing and curbing my team of negative inner editors, it’s a battle I fight–and am determined to win–on both fronts.

Feeling overwhelmed? Treat yourself to a zero draft. Even if you’re halfway into a project, you can switch into zero draft mode to try to figure out where you need to go next. Zero never looked so good.

Goodies for teachers…

Robyn Lee:

What I’d love to give the teachers of the world…

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to bake and give away cookies. Teachers, if I could bake for you all, I’d be serving you a big ole stack of cookies like this one. Since I can’t, here’s my second-best: a new section on my site with resources for teaching with What Can’t Wait. Teachers, dig in! Friends, pass this on to the English teachers in your life. 

My favorite flavor, ahem, teaching resource? The Planning for the Future unit!

And guess why? While working with my students one college and scholarship essays, I wrote the first draft of what ended up being Marisa’s essay in Chapter 5 of What Can’t Wait. This is just one of the amazing things that can happen when teachers write with their students.

A lot of students’ resistance to writing breaks down when they see that every time you ask them to write, you do it, too. And it’s automatic modeling–both of effective strategies and of the fact that even teachers have to “cook” their ideas to get at something really good. Curious about how to make this kind of dynamic work? Here’s a peek at another teacher’s work at modeling and engaging in the writing process with her students (pssst! chock full of strategies!). And while you’re at it, learn more about authentic writing with students, find a National Writing Project site near you, and explore treasure troves of teaching and writing resources at the NWP website.

What Can’t Wait giveaway + interview

Jen Chan:

Like presents? Check out the giveaway below…

In the mood to win a hard-back copy of What Can’t Wait? If so, stop by the Mostly Reading YA blog and enter the giveaway contest. While you’re there, check out the interview I did with Mostly Reading YA as well as the site’s review of my book.

Good times! Winning books! What more could a person want to brighten her (or his) Monday evening?

Review: Last Night I Sang to the Monster

A couple of words before the review.

I love reviewing books, but my feelings are more complicated now that I am a “real” author with a novel. For the first time, I can’t help thinking about what it’s like to put oneself out there in print, to get naked before the world by publishing.

Don’t get me wrong: I want honest, not sugarcoated, reviews of my book. And so far reader reviews of What Can’t Wait have been pretty positive—even if it wasn’t the reviewer’s favorite, the response has been fair. Several reviewers, like this blog review and this teen review, got much of what I wanted to get across in the book.

Now, though, I don’t quite feel free to be “just another reader,” going off on what gets under my skin. Instead, my honesty needs to come with a sincere effort to understand what the author was trying to accomplish. I think this has pretty much been my MO all along, but now it feels… more urgent somehow.

So here’s my first post-publication review, which also appears on my reviews page and on my goodreads page.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

There are a lot of things I like about this book. I like that (as with Sáenz’s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, which I loved) the speaker is Mexican-American but that this isn’t an “issue” that the book is trying to work through in any intentional way. I like that the age and situation of the protagonist is unconventional—Zach’s already 18, and he interacts almost exclusively with older people at the treatment facility where he’s recovering from his alcohol addiction and learning to remember the secret that’s cutting him off from the world. I like Zach’s voice, which is distant and intimate almost at the same time, shying away from emotive language (because Zach is a pro at finding ways not to feel) in such a way that we, as readers, feel for him.

Some people were annoyed by the tics in Zach’s private language; he says “tears me up” and “wigs me out” often. But I read this as a way of noting that he’s had an emotional response while evading the need to be responsible for the specific feelings. While others might object to the (unbelievably) sunny ending, I share my friend ALISA’s conviction that part of the point of the book is that you ought to believe in this kind of ending, that nothing is more improbable yet necessary to believe in than an addict’s recovery.

The things that bothered me had to do with character and plotting. Part of this comes from Zach’s situation: there’s a muted, flattened affect in the narration because he’s determined not to feel anything and a lot of vagueness in what he narrates because he’s determined not to remember anything. But somehow, as the novel progresses, it undercuts its own drama. I come to know without knowing the source of Zach’s trauma, and even though it’s built up as THE revelation, I have trouble caring when I find out because I still know so little about the particulars of Zach’s family life.

Also, I get that Zach’s self-esteem issues keep him from seeing himself as others can see him, but I had trouble swallowing all the well-meaning interventions, not just by Zach’s therapist, but also by many of his fellow addicts. This was least convincing in one particular case, which illustrates in part my broader objection. One of Zach’s roommates, Sharkey, quits the facility, only to be replaced by Amit, who functions virtually identically to Sharkey in Zach’s life. Now, the similarity of their characters is bad enough: both are sleepwalking coke addicts with street smarts, sharp attitudes, and a passion for sunglasses and shoes. But what really gets me is that there is nothing that motivates Amit’s concern for Zach. He shows up, and suddenly he’s all caring and concerned. It’s as if (and the cynic in me wonders if Sharkey and Amit weren’t originally one character) Amit has just taken over Sharkey’s role.

Still, this is a thoughtful novel that may especially appeal to male readers and those who feel disconnected from family and peers. In terms of tone and development, Last Night I Sang to the Monster reminds me of Greg Galloway’s As Simple as Snow. I like Sáenz’s book much more, though.

The Tattoo Story


Cool sewing tattoos

Cool tattoos in the photo, right? But my tattoo’s not there. In fact, the tattoo artist cocked an eyebrow at me when he saw what I wanted. “Fifty bucks is the minimum,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how small the tattoo.” Two minutes later, my tattoo was finished.


That’s the word I had tattooed on my hip that October evening during my first year of teaching. I needed a reminder that to attain any future, I have to say yes to it in the present, to choose it one decision at a time.

The yes inked into my skin is my best defense against my internal critic’s poisonous commentary. She eyes my piles of notes skeptically, hissing, “How’s this mess going to make you a writer?” She sprays venom as I teach, “Do you see any improvement? What can they do any better than when they first came to you? What do they know?” But she’s an ignorant bitch, a naysayer, the enemy. She refuses to acknowledge that growth takes time, that it’s cumulative, that it starts in the present moment. I drown her out with the yes that gets things done, the yes that keeps me working.

Seven years later, that tattoo still answers the questions that matter: Am I going to write? Am I going to teach? Am I going to parent? Am I going to make today count?

Difficult daily decisions add up to forward progress. It’s up to me to do what it takes to write. It’s up to me, too, to pay attention to the world around me. I am no Borges, no Milan Kundera, ladling stories from a brilliant conceptual soup. I need the present—it gives me material for my writing.

When I catch myself wishing away the hour, restless in my skin, I slap my hip squarely on the tattoo. Wake up, I scold, This is it. Pay attention! I mind each moment for the detail that might lead to a story: the hand hovering over a birthmark, the suitcase chucked into a ditch, the suggestive warning label, the pancake-flat Texas vowels.

Writing offers us a way to do something radical with what we observe and experience. I know I want more than to nibble my daily square of bland bread, content with not being dead. I want to claim the writing life moment by moment, yes by yes.

What Can’t Wait gets some love…

Michael Porter:

I’m this happy.

Nothing like waking up and finding a big heap of love in your mailbox. That was me today, getting news that the fantastic YA lit website, Finding Wonderland, had posted this feature review on What Can’t Wait. Please paint me ecstatic!

(Thank you, spell check, for helping me spell “ecstatic.”)

If you have a moment, please swing by Finding Wonderland to comment on the review .

MLK, Jr.: A Life On

US Embassy, New Delhi

The motto for MLK day events for the past few years has been, “A day on, not a day off.” But how do we get from “a day on” to “a life on”? Is activism everybody’s job?

Don’t get me wrong; I love the “A day on, not a day off” motto. I think this focus makes the memorial more fully reflect Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of public service and activism. So, yes, let’s get out into our communities and do something to make today meaningful. Join in a march, volunteer, engage in dialogue, think carefully about the life circumstances of others and what your responsibility to your neighbor is. Today matters.

But there’s also tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after. And the day after.

This is what boggles my mind about a life like King’s. The sheer persistence of it, the ongoing engagement with the problems that others had merely accepted as part of the landscape of American experience. Whenever I’m tempted to hide behind phrases like, “I do what I can as a teacher/writer/mother,” I’m convicted by King’s example. He never stopped at being a pastor; he was all the time living out human obligations, obligations that went beyond his congregation, community, city, or even his race.

I’m proud of my efforts to advocate for minority students, for diversity in YA literature, for justice for young people without legal status. But these efforts, in the shadow of King’s legacy, seem very, very small.

Are certain people born with the capacity to effect broad changes, while others of us make adjustments in the margins? Or is it simply a matter of commitment? I’m still trying to understand.

Want to use MLK day to reflect on King’s legacy? For those of you with kids or just half an hour, check out this post where author Suzanne Slade discusses her recent picture book, “Climbing Lincoln’s Steps: The African American Journey.” Or if you really want to dig in, check out this review of Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years .

Fodder for Resolutions, Part 3: Books for Living Well

Susanne Koch:

Live well.

Here’s the last of my three-part resource blast for those of you looking to make (and follow through on) resolutions for the new year. Today’s post is a grab bag of rare non-fiction, self-help-y titles that have actually stuck with me. (Last week I posted on resources for becoming a more effective teacher, and the week before I posted on resources for meeting writing goals and improving your craft.)

Read the rest of this entry »

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