Why I’m Not Giving Up Sugar For Lent

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Lent crossYesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the church calendar. It has been customary since the days of the early church to observe this season culminating in Holy Week by focusing on repentance, prayer, and fasting. Certainly, by the Council of Nicea in the year 325, Lent was an established tradition. In our day and age, Lent has also become a time for discussion of what fasting means. The term “fasting” normally refers either to going a while without any food, or to reducing the amount or variety of food for a longer period of time. Either way, fasting is usually done specifically for spiritual reasons. In Christianity, fasting is most commonly associated with Roman Catholicism, largely because the Roman Catholic church has codified what, when, and how much someone should eat in order to officially be fasting. (Essentially, Catholics who are fasting can eat one regular-sized meal and two small meals a day, but no snacks and on Fridays, no meat other than fish) However, fasting is also observed by other Christians, although it is generally phrased as “giving up {fill in the blank} for Lent”, where the thing being given up can be pretty much anything. The purpose is not only to exercise self-control, but to draw the focus towards Christ.

As it is generally practiced, giving things up for Lent seems to me to be pretty similar to a New Year’s resolution, except with a specified end date. Some people participate in this tradition by focusing on “giving up” a certain vice, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because it seems to imply that it’s okay to pick up that bad habit again after Easter. Other people decide to give up certain types of food. I get the impression that giving up processed sugars is one of the most common forms of Lenten fasting in twenty-first century America. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel like a lot of people are motivated by the health benefits or the possible weight loss, rather than spiritual reasons.

For a couple years when I was in college, I gave up certain specific types of foods for Lent. The past few years, I’ve considered it. In fact, this year, I had briefly been planning on fasting in a fairly traditional sense by giving up several different types of food and essentially limiting my intake to a few specific staples. The reason I decided against that fast is pretty personal, but I decided to blog about it anyway because it’s helpful for me to put my thought process into words and because there’s a chance that someone out there might find this helpful to read.

Once or twice previously on this blog, I’ve alluded to the fact that I have struggled with eating disordered tendencies. I’m not going to go into the details and tell the whole story, but the relevant detail is that I’m very prone to going through phases where I essentially take a break from normal eating. I’ve never been severely underweight or dangerously malnourished, but I definitely have engaged in eating habits that count as fasting. But for me, it’s not a religious thing at all. On the contrary, it’s a distraction from God.

various types of sugarThat may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain. In our culture, there is a trend of self-righteous attitudes about foods. Vegans and vegetarians often make it sound as if they view themselves as being morally superior to meat-eaters, which makes some degree of sense, since most people choose veganism or vegetarianism because they’re ethically opposed to eating animals. But people who eat low-carb diets or low-sugar diets or gluten-free diets often act the same way. Overeating and being overweight are associated with a lack of self-control and a lack of priorities, whereas a rigidly defined diet is associated with good self-control and balanced priorities. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not morally wrong to have junk food every now and then. In fact, I don’t think it would be taking Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15 out of context to mention those verses here. Jesus was referring to the Pharisee’s dietary rules when he said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but rigid dietary rules defined by health guidelines are comparable to rigid dietary rules defined by Jewish law.

Of course, eating disorders are very different from—and in many ways, contrary to—a focus on healthy living and a clean diet. Even the attitude is opposite, since people with eating disorders are almost always highly self-critical rather than self-righteous. But most people with eating disorders have been influenced by that cultural idea that eating the wrong things is disgusting, unclean, and perhaps morally wrong. Eating disorders that are characterized by undereating are often (if not always) just an extreme of that concept, in which eating is seen as unclean in and of itself. Compulsive undereating tends to be driven by perfectionism and low self-esteem that is so extreme that it’s just as self-focused as arrogance and self-righteousness. For someone with a history of a restrictive eating disorder, even one as minor as mine, fasting doesn’t make room for Christ-centered thoughts, it makes room for more eating-disordered thoughts.

My decision not to give up unhealthy foods for Lent was based partly on the fact that it might lead to long-term unhealthy habits, but it was mostly because it would serve no spiritual purpose for me. I don’t want to sound preachy here, but I think that even people without eating disorders might sometimes be fasting for the wrong reason. Giving up processed sugar or cutting back on carbs or consuming fewer calories are all things that people often do for themselves, either to benefit their health or to make themselves look better. If your Lenten fast is making you focus on your health, then it isn’t really a fast, it’s a diet. Even if you are giving up something that isn’t food and isn’t health-related, it isn’t really a fast if you’re focused on yourself.

The important thing to remember in Lent is that we are all sinners, (no matter how much or how little sugar we eat) and that sin is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that nothing we do, not even willing self-deprivation, can get rid of that sin or fix the problems it causes in the world. The only thing that can solve the problem of sin is Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the time of year for us to remember how sad that is, but when Easter comes, it will be time for us to again focus on the joy we have in our salvation. And that joy and that salvation have nothing to do with what you eat during Lent.

There’s This Book I’m Reading, episode 9

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Star Wars bookWhile killing time in a bookstore with my sister and brother about three weeks ago, I came across a book with an intriguing title: Star Wars Psychology. (edited by Travis Langley, PhD, 2015.) Upon taking it off the shelf and looking at it, I found that it is a series of short essays by various Star Wars fans who also happen to have knowledge (and, in most cases, advanced degrees) in psychology or related fields. As a side note, I later looked at the contributor bios in the back and was fascinated by just how cool and nerdy most of those people are. One of them, Star Wars fan by the name of Jay Scarlet, is even a librarian like me, except cooler because he has a master’s degree in psychology as well. Anyway, as you have probably guessed, I purchased the book.

I haven’t finished reading it, but I probably will yet this evening or perhaps tomorrow. I recommend it for anyone who has interest in both Star Wars and psychology. It is slightly less academic than I had initially expected, making it a relatively light read, especially given the brevity of most of the essays. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the very least, the book is an analysis of the motivations of certain Star Wars characters. Just for fun, here are my comments on a few of the chapters that particularly caught my attention.

The second chapter in the book, written by Jenna Busch and Janina Scarlet, PhD,  is “So You Want to be a Jedi? Learning the Ways of the Force through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” I don’t know a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but I was already aware that it focuses largely on the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness, which is similar to but not synonymous with meditation, has received a lot of positive attention in the media and mental health world. I have mixed feelings about the very concept, because so many people praise it as a cure to mental illness or a way of solving everyday life problems, neither of which is scientifically feasible. However, I am given to understand that research does show that practicing mindfulness is helpful in reducing stress and handling emotions without shutting them down. Contrary to how some people describe it, mindfulness is not a mystical experience or a secret technique. Busch and Scarlet define it as “paying attention to the present moment on purpose, without judgment or distraction,” which is really the same as what the word means in vernacular usage. The writers of this essay assert that mindfulness is a core aspect of Jedi training. It may sound a little funny, but seeing mindfulness framed as a Jedi-related concept helps me to understand it as a beneficial and legitimate concept.

Another psychological idea that this book clarified a little for me is self-actualization, as described by the famous humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. It’s a phrase that I’ve heard quite a lot, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what exactly it meant. Apparently, it just has to do with feeling content with who you are and/or where you are in life. In this book, the concept was described using the example of Darth Maul, in chapter four, by Travis Langley and Jenna Busch. (Apparently I like her writing, since I’ve mentioned both the parts she wrote) Darth Maul doesn’t get much screen time, really, and his movie is my least favorite of the six, but he is a pretty cool villain. Busch, Langley, and Sam Witwer (who voices Darth Maul in the animated Clone Wars series) describe Darth Maul as being self-absorbed, but highly insecure, in contrast to being self-actualized. It’s interesting seeing self-actualization described as an antonym for self-absorption. But it makes sense that extreme insecurity is just as self-centered as over-confidence.

Although I find psychology fascinating in general, I don’t often gravitate towards topics relating to gender psychology; however, the aspects of this book that touch upon those topics interested me very much. (Not to mention the fact that this book took a very balanced approach to gender psychology, which I appreciated.) The chapter on “Grief and Masculinity: Anakin the Man” by Billy San Juan, PsyD, describes the emotional journey that led Anakin to the dark side. While no one who has watched Episodes II and III will be unfamiliar with that journey, it’s fascinating and even somewhat eye-opening to observe the way that parallels some people’s real-world experiences. And a later chapter, (“A Distressing Damsel: Leia’s Heroic Journey” by Mara Wood) describes Princess Leia’s character development throughout the original trilogy by drawing from the research and writings of a therapist named Maureen Murdock, whose works I am now interested in reading myself.

There are a number of other particularly interesting parts of this book, such as the short passages on personality traits that come at the end of each of the five parts. But in the interest of relative brevity, I will conclude here. If you want to hear more, read it yourself. (And don’t worry about spoilers; it was written before The Force Awakens came into being.)

Twins

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Harry Potter

*insert Harry Potter reference just because I can*

Growing up in a family of seven children, I was used to people making a big deal out of the size of my family. I didn’t mind that. I didn’t really even mind when people were shocked to discover that there were two sets of identical twins in the family. What did bother me was when people assumed that the fact that I had a twin sister was a core part of my identity. It’s true that my twin sister and I have a lot in common, and that, since we’re the same age, we did a lot of things together that didn’t involve our younger siblings. But both of us are individual people, and neither one of us appreciated the way we were always linked together, whether we liked it or not. We could never get away from it and people would never let us ignore it.

Now that I’m older, the fact that I’m a twin doesn’t play as large a role in my day-to-day interactions. Most of the people that I meet don’t know that I have a twin, and I don’t go out of my way to volunteer that information unless I’m specifically talking about my family to someone I know relatively well. But I still have to put up with the fact that, once someone knows I have a twin, they assume that my twin and I are essentially the same person, or at the very least, that our relationship is almost supernaturally close. It’s somewhat deliberate that I virtually always say “my sister” instead of “my twin sister” or “my twin”.

Especially when I was a child, but even now, my sisters and I frequently get asked what being twins is like. That’s a hard question to answer, since we’ve been twins from the beginning and I don’t know exactly what it’s like to not have a twin. But I imagine that it’s actually pretty similar to not having a twin. This blog post touches on some of the misconceptions I’ve heard most frequently and why they’re not true.

Just for the record, I want to make clear that I am speaking for myself and not for my twin sister, or my younger sisters who are also twins, or for any other twins. I do intend to send my sisters a copy of this post before I actually put it online, and I will change anything that they vehemently disagree with, but this post is not meant to speak on anyone else’s behalf. Which brings me to point number one…

Twins are not interchangeable

twinsIf I say something, that doesn’t mean that my twin sister agrees with it. If she is upset about something or excited about something, that doesn’t mean that I feel the same way. If one of us has a skill or specialized knowledge, especially if it’s something that we worked hard to acquire, that doesn’t mean that the other one has it. I think everyone technically understands this, but it’s amazing how often people react to something one of us has said as if we said it together, or how often people joke about one of us taking the other’s place.

Aside from being untrue, it’s very hurtful. There are times when we were children that my sister and I both got in trouble for something that just one of us said. When we were in our teens and finally got to split ways by taking different kinds of dance, people could never remember which of us was an Irish dancer and which of us was a ballet dancer, which upset us both because our own respective dance forms were very important to us both. And all throughout my life, I have had to put up with people occasionally making comments that my sister could fill in for me if I had to take time off from school or dance or work. Even if such remarks are made humorously, it undermines my identity as a human being and the work I’ve put into establishing my own identity and skills to suggest that another person, even my twin, could successfully “be” me.

Even identical twins don’t have everything in common

Sweet Valley Kids

Not gonna lie, I did love this series as a kid.

Not only are my sister and I not interchangeable, we aren’t really identical, either. The term “identical twins” refers to twins who developed out of the same fertilized egg, and yes, that means that at one time very, very early in our existence, we shared the same tiny little undeveloped body before we split into two separate bodies. Therefore, we have identical or nearly-identical DNA, (fun fact: identical twins don’t necessarily have the exact same DNA) but not everything is genetic. Scientists and doctors may debate about the respective roles of nature and nurture, but everyone agrees that at least some aspects of personality, opinions and preferences, and even physical appearance, are not genetic. Even very young twins will have some differences, and by the time they’re teens or adults, identical twins will have each developed their own identities in a large number of ways.

My twin sister and I do not have exactly the same personality. We do not dress the same way or do our makeup the same way. Last I knew, we do wear our hair in similar ways, but she has dyed her hair and I haven’t, with the result that we don’t actually look the same in terms of hair. We have slightly different tastes in books, music, movies, and TV shows. There are some differences between our political opinions. We have never liked the same foods, not since we first started eating solid food, which is something that often took people by surprise when we were kids. In college, we studied different things. Although we have some shared hobbies and interests, there are also a lot of differences in the things we like to do, and now that we’re adults, even our day-to-day lives are completely different.

On the flip side, some people like to pick up on the differences between twins and act as if they’re exact opposite. For example, twins often find themselves labelled “the quiet twin” and “the loud twin” or “the nice twin” and “the mean twin” or “the silly twin” and “the serious twin.” My twin sister and I don’t get this as often as our younger sisters who are twins, but it’s annoying to hear even on occasion. And it’s always hurtful to get stuck with an unflattering label.

Lots of twins don’t like being twins

Double Act

I remember this book just well enough to recall that it’s about a rocky relationship between twin sisters.

I don’t have statistics available for this one, but most of the twins I’ve known, including me and my twin sister, really didn’t like it. Just like any other sibling, a twin sibling will sometimes be your worst enemy and sometimes be your best friend and rarely be anywhere in between, at least not as long as you live under the same roof. My twin sister and I had lots of good times together, but we hated having to share everything, even our friends and our reputations. We fought with each other even more than with our younger siblings, which was probably because we shared a room for our entire childhood. But what really made it rough was other people’s reactions. People assumed so many stereotypes, asked so many questions, made so many jokes, and couldn’t tell us apart even when we helpfully pointed out differences between us. I remember one time when we still took dance together when our teacher addressed us as “Twin X and Twin O,” as if we didn’t even have real names. Our parents thought they were being helpful by not referring to us as “the twins”, but we got called “the girls” all the time at home, which was almost as bad and even more confusing, since there are six girls in my family. So, long story short, in case you’re wondering, no, being twins isn’t fun.

Granted, there are some twins out there who do like it, usually because they get along better overall with their twins than I did with mine. I had roommates in college who were twins, and they did everything together by choice and never gave me any reason to believe that they wanted anything different. I haven’t really stayed in touch with them, but they frequently post highly affectionate things about each other on Facebook. That’s great for them and for other pairs of twins who feel the same way, but I’d like the record to show that it doesn’t always work that way.

Twins do not have ESP

Twins shining

If twins really had the kind of telepathic communication that some people imagine, I would completely understand why twins can be seen as creepy.

I think most people are aware that twins don’t actually have some sort of supernatural means of communication, but it’s amazing how many people still assume that one twin is supposed to know everything that happens to the other twin. It’s been a while since people have asked me if I can feel my sister’s pain or sense when something happens to her, but I used to hear those kinds of questions a lot. Sometimes, people will ask me what she thinks about something, which is something that I obviously only know if she tells me. And sometimes, even family members think they can check in on one of us by asking the other, as if we somehow have closer communication with each other than with other family members. By the way, in our case, that’s not true. We do keep in contact through social media and occasional texts and emails, but we don’t communicate with each other any more than with our other siblings.

Some twins do develop their own forms of communication, more often as babies or toddlers than later in life. Researchers say that about forty percent of pairs of twins have their own language, called autonomous language because they make them up by themselves. The term cryptophasia has also been used. That is actually significantly higher than I would have guessed, but the important things to note is that it’s a lot less than one hundred percent and that it’s a phenomenon not limited to twins. It can occur between any two very young children who spend enough time together to use each other as a model for learning language, and there is nothing extrasensory about it.

All those stories you’ve heard about amazing coincidences involving twins are just that: coincidences. Even if you believe in some sort of supernatural link between twins, I can tell you from personal experience that it certainly doesn’t always work that way. I have never instinctively known what’s going on in my sister’s life, or in her mind, unless you count situations in which I had enough background information to make an informed guess. I can’t think of any instances where we have had the exact same experience, unless we had that experience together or there was some other perfectly normal link between the two events or situations. And yes, twins do sometimes finish each other’s sentences, but so do non-twin siblings and friends who spend a lot of time together.

Twin jokes can be hurtful

Yes, it’s true that some people have a hard time telling us apart. No, that’s not funny. It’s actually kind of sad, and downright insulting if it’s someone who knows us well. Yes, if we tried hard enough, we could probably do a reasonable job of pretending to be each other for a short period of time, as long as we weren’t trying to fool people who know either of us very well. No, we don’t switch places all the time just to play a joke on people. And no, we couldn’t successfully switch places just for one of us to get out of doing things, and if we did, that wouldn’t be very funny, either. It would be immoral and unfair and kind of creepy. Yes, we sometimes argue, and we sometimes say things that sound mean even when we aren’t actually fighting. No, it’s not hilarious that it’s even possible for twins to fight or disagree. Yes, having an identical twin is essentially the same thing as having a clone. No, that’s not particularly funny. Maybe it’s an interesting science fact, but it’s not actually humorous. Yes, we’re twins, and maybe that is fascinating, but there’s nothing intrinsically funny about it and I have always found it confusing that other people, even family members, are so quick to poke fun at the situation.

The rule of thumb is really the same as it is for any other situation. If you make a joke about another person and they are upset, or inform you that they find it hurtful, then don’t make that joke again. The person who bears the brunt of the joke is the person who gets to decide whether that joke is hurtful, not the person who makes the joke about other people. If you hurt someone’s feelings by joking about something that makes them different than you, the correct thing to do is to be apologetic and avoid hurting their feelings again, not to insist that they’re being overly sensitive.

 

In the spirit of internet articles, I probably ought to finish this post by writing a paragraph about how having a twin is actually amazing after all because of all the wonderful things about my relationship with my twin sister. And it is true that there are some positive things about our relationship. It’s true that when we were little, we were built-in playmates, and that we still have a lot of shared memories, inside jokes, and similar experiences. But all that would be the case even if we were a year or two apart. In fact, those are all things that are true to a large extent of my relationship with my younger sisters, too, and they’re nearly five years younger than me. (Not to mention my brother who is in between the two sets of twins in age.) So in the grand scheme of things, being a twin hasn’t made my life better than it would have been otherwise. It’s just the way things are, and it’s not any more of a defining trait of mine than my relationship with any of my other family members.

A Few Star Wars Fan Theories

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Star Wars 1Warning: spoilers ahead. Now that Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens has been out for nearly a month, I would imagine that the majority of Star Wars fans have seen it, but if you happen to be part of the small minority of people who haven’t yet seen the movie and don’t want to encounter spoilers, turn back now. I have seen it twice and want to discuss some of my favorite fan theories. I perhaps owe the internet an apology for not citing sources, but most of these ideas are actually pretty mainstream and easy to find in multiple places if you pay any attention to fan theories at all. There’s nothing here that’s directly lifted from one specific source.

Is Rey Luke’s daughter?

The biggest question raised by the new Star Wars movie is Rey’s identity. All we know for sure about Rey’s backstory is that she was left on the planet Jakku and is awaiting someone’s return. Maz tells her that she knows that the person she’s waiting for will never return, but that someone else might. The flashback that Rey has when she touches Luke’s lightsaber shows her as a young girl, tearfully protesting as someone leaves. Someone else is holding her by the arm, and a voice that resembles Kylo Ren can be heard. That’s enough information to inspire debate, but not enough to give a definite answer. Rey’s other visions could be flashbacks, but they could be insight about the future or about other people.

The most popular theory seems to be that Rey is Luke Skywalker’s daughter, and after much back and forth, that’s my guess. My main objection to it is actually that it seems too obvious, and I suspect the moviemakers want to spring a surprise on us. But Rey clearly has some kind of connection to Luke’s lightsaber, and the final scene, in which she returns Luke’s lightsaber to him, certainly looks like we’re supposed to view it as a father/daughter moment. The Star Wars franchise is quite fond of dramatic father/son moments, after all.

Star Wars 2 ReyNumerous fans have found hints to support this theory, such as the way Rey’s theme music sounds together with Luke’s, or the fact that she has a fighter helmet with her on Jakku. Then there’s her natural piloting ability, and, of course, the fact that the Force is strong with her, which seems to indicate that at least half of her parentage is Jedi. Considering that she has no Jedi training, it is a surprise that she’s a match for Kylo Ren, who has been trained by both Luke and, presumably, Supreme Leader Snoke, and is consequently well on his way to being a powerful Sith. And her connection with Luke’s lightsaber seems like a dead giveaway. Not to mention the fact that the entire Star Wars movie series is about the Skywalker family, so it only makes sense that the main heroine of the new movie is descended from Luke.

There aren’t many good arguments against it, but I think it still leaves some questions to be answered. For example, who is Rey’s mother? Certain books name Mara Jade as Luke’s wife, and some fans have guessed that the movies are going to go along with that idea, even though Mara Jade doesn’t show up in this movie.  My brother suggested the theory that Rey’s mother is the female Stormtrooper leader who Finn so intensely dislikes, who either turned to the dark side later, or who is acting as an undercover Resistance agent the entire time. I will have to watch the movie a third time in order to determine whether I think that makes sense.

Another question is why Rey doesn’t know she’s Luke’s daughter, and in fact, questions whether Luke and the Jedi are anything more than mythology. In her flashback, she appears old enough to know those kinds of things. So if she is Luke’s daughter, she was evidently separated from him even earlier than that, and it was someone different who left her on Jakku. And that makes me wonder, 1) who was her adoptive/foster family, and 2) why didn’t Luke and her mother raise her themselves?

Is Rey related to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

I thought that this theory was pretty fascinating, and in fact, when I first read it, I was pretty sold on it. The idea was that, while Obi-Wan was on Tatooine for all those years between Episode III and Episode IV, he had a wife and child that we never knew about, and Rey is either is daughter or granddaughter. Some people say that Rey’s father is Luke and her mother is a secret daughter of Obi-Wan. I’ve also seen mentioned the possibility that she is his niece or grand-niece, which I prefer because it doesn’t require Obi-Wan having a wife, which seems unlikely given that he was a hermit and that he never mentioned having family in the original movie. The best argument for this theory that I’ve seen is that Rey’s manner of holding the lightsaber is similar to Obi-Wan’s, although I admit that that’s hardly conclusive, as lightsaber-wielding surely is more influenced by one’s training than by one’s heritage. If Rey fights differently than other Jedi, it’s because she has no formal training, not because of who her father or grandfather is. Probably.

Is Rey Han and Leia’s daughter?

Star Wars 3 Rey and HanThe first time I saw this movie, this was my initial assumption, right up to the moment when Rey met Han Solo and acted as if she’d never met him before and viewed him as a celebrity. Even then, I was trying to piece together some way that it could be possible that she somehow didn’t recognize her own family members. To be honest, the best thing this theory has going for it is that it would be cool, but in my defense, I’m not the only one to have discussed it. Evidently, it does fit nicely with some of the non-canonical Star Wars novels that I haven’t read.

Did Rey have her memory wiped?

This opens up any of the above possibilities for her parentage, and it also opens up the possibility that Rey wasn’t a relative of anyone we’d recognize, but she was one of Luke’s students who survived the attack. Really, you can guess anything you want about Rey’s past if you assume she doesn’t remember anything. But I’m pretty sure Rey does remember who left her on Jakku; after all, she is waiting for someone and she evidently knows who. When Moz tells her that the person she’s waiting for isn’t coming back, but someone else might, that’s a pretty big hint. I just don’t know what that hint is telling us, exactly.

Who is the man in the opening scene?

It seems likely to me that the old man who had the map segment at the beginning of the movie was filling the same role for Rey that Obi-Wan was filling for Luke in the beginning of the original movie. That is, he was posing as a random hermit in order to keep an eye on her from a distance without interacting in her upbringing until she was ready to contribute to the Resistance. That would explain why he would have the map in the first place, especially if Rey is in fact Luke’s daughter. The plan was probably that, once Rey was old enough and skillful enough, he would bring her or send her to Luke, who would then train her as a Jedi. (This idea works even if Luke isn’t her father, as long as he is aware of her existence and the fact that the force is strong with her.) But that doesn’t answer the question of who he is in the first place. The best answer I’ve heard is that he is a rebel pilot from the original trilogy. They aren’t major characters, but they are important to the rebel cause and they are people that Luke would definitely trust.

Who is Finn?

Star Wars FinnAll right, he’s a Stormtrooper who doesn’t have the ruthlessness necessary to carry out the Stormtrooper agenda, I get that. But doesn’t that seem a little odd that there’s exactly one non-conformist Stormtrooper? If that’s even possible for a Stormtrooper to reject his training, wouldn’t it happen at least a few times? Some have wondered whether Finn might be related to Mace Windu from the prequels or Lando Calrissian  from episodes five and six. I don’t think it’s necessary to assume that all black characters in the Star Wars universe have to be linked, but I’m not rejected those possibilities, either. The Lando one seems pretty far-fetched, but the Mace Windu theory would explain why Finn is perfectly capable of wielding a lightsaber, despite having no Jedi training and being (evidently) less strong with the Force than Rey.

Who is Maz Kanata and how did she get Luke’s lightsaber?

Star Wars MazMaybe I missed something, but the only background information I remember getting about Maz is that she’s someone Han Solo knows and that she has connections with the Jedi and the force, even though she isn’t a Jedi herself. J.J. Abrams has been quoted as saying that Maz and Yoda had “at one point crossed paths”, and I had a sense all along that there was something Yoda-like about Maz. But that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The biggest one for me is how Maz ended up with Luke’s lightsaber.

Is Supreme Leader Snoke Darth Vader?

Fan theories include the possibility that the Supreme Leader is Darth Plagueis, a Sith Lord who is mentioned but not shown in earlier movies, or the Emperor, who supposedly died at the end of Return of the Jedi. An idea that I find particularly interesting is that he could be Darth Vader. After all, the scars on his head match those of Darth Vader. Of course, Darth Vader was also supposed to have died, and he became a good guy immediately before dying. I’m actually not a fan of any of the three aforementioned theories, but I don’t have a good alternate idea to suggest. I did read one theory that suggested that he’s actually smaller than human size, since we only see him as a hologram. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t tell us who he is. And one thing is relatively sure: Supreme Leader Snoke is going to turn out to be someone we’ve met before.

What’s the deal with Kylo Ren and Han Solo?

Star Wars 5 Kylo RenWe know that Kylo Ren, originally Ben Solo, is the son of Han and Leia. We know that he was in training under Luke, and that he turned from the dark side and slaughtered all of the other students at Luke’s Jedi academy. And we see him trying to live up to Sith standards and drawing inspiration from his grandfather Darth Vader. (Some have criticized the acting and Kylo Ren’s coolness as a bad guy, but I’m fine with it because he’s clearly a wannabe Darth Vader who hasn’t reached that level of Sith-ness yet. He’s more like Anakin in the end of Episode III than Darth Vader in the original trilogy.) But we don’t know how or why he turned to the dark side in the first place, and I personally have a lot of questions about his relationship with Han Solo. It has even been suggested that Kylo Ren started out as a sort of double agent, joining the dark side in the hopes of getting rid of the Supreme Leader, but quickly becoming completely won over. (I will cite this one back to Reddit user vrso3g, since I have that information available to me and it sounds like this one was an original theory.)

My biggest question is what the deal was in the scene where Kylo Ren kills his father. The first time I saw the movie, I assumed that Han Solo made himself vulnerable with the assumption that Kylo Ren wouldn’t hurt him and the hope that he could convince him to turn back to the light side. But upon discussion with my brother and a second viewing of the movie, I now see Han’s actions as self-sacrificial. In fact, maybe the parallel to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original movie was not just something the moviemakers threw in there; maybe Han Solo himself believed that he was doing for his son (or perhaps Rey and Finn) what Obi-Wan did for Luke.

Who’s alive and who’s dead?

Star Wars 4 PoeWe all know that Kylo Ren survived just because the movie didn’t conclusively eliminate that possibility. I personally think Han Solo is really and truly dead. Really, the only reason I can see to doubt that is because it’s so sad for him to be dead. But the Star Wars franchise has never cared about our feelings before. I love Star Wars, but it’s true. Which brings me to my next point. It was just really weird for Poe Dameron to come back the way he did. It seemed pretty clear that he was dead and pretty unnecessary, in terms of plot, for him to come back. Some fans have suggested the idea that he really is dead, and that the person we think is Poe later is actually a spy disguised as Poe. I’m cool with that theory.

Star Wars droidsThere is, of course, a lot more to be said about all of these theories. This is by no means supposed to be a comprehensive list or a detailed exploration. Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments, especially if they’re new and original. I’d love to hear them!

Particularly Awesome Books of 2015

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I have been looking forward to writing this blog post for a whole year. After my list of the best books of 2014, I decided that I wanted to do this every year. All of 2015, I have kept a running list of new books I’ve read that were really, really good. (I’m a children’s librarian, and as it so happens, all of the new books I read were children’s or YA books.) I’ve sorted them into seven categories and picked two to seven favorites from each one. For the picture books and the middle-grade novels, I had such a long list of favorites that I included ten additional titles that I particularly liked, mostly ones that I think have a shot at the ALA youth media awards to be announced later in January 2016. Before I go ahead and get started on the list, I want to reiterate some of my disclaimers from last year. Although I have read quite a lot of great books this year, including most of the children’s books that have gotten good reviews, I obviously have not read everything worthy of attention, so if your personal favorite is on this list, that might just mean I haven’t read it. Although I like to consider this “The Kaleidoscope49 Book Awards”, it is in no way official and is really just a list of my individual personal opinions. And the little annotations I’m writing are in no way intended to be formal book reviews, although you are encouraged to use them as book recommendations.

 

Picture Books

McToad Mows Tiny Island by Tom Angleberger

McToad Mows Tiny IslandThe author of the popular Origami Yoda series has now come out with a charming picture book about a toad with a lawn mower. Thursday is McToad’s favorite day of the week. Instead of mowing the grass on Big Island, on Thursday, McToad mows Tiny Island. The book enumerates the various forms of transportation, each listed in a different font, that are used to take the lawn mower from Big Island to Tiny Island, which will fascinate children who like to read about trains and airplanes and the like. But what really makes this book special is John Hendrix’s gorgeous, warm-toned artwork. This is a fantastic read-aloud for preschoolers.

Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley

Unlike the majority of books on my list, I haven’t noticed this one getting much hype in the world of children’s literature. But I think it deserves some attention because it’s funny, the penguin is adorable, and it’s just the sort of book that’s sure to entertain preschool-aged kids. It gets bonus storytime points for being interactive; the kids get to yell BOO to scare Penguin’s hiccups away.

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman

Zachariah Ohora’s two-dimensional acrylic artwork has a sentimental, old-fashioned feel to it that will appeal to readers of a variety of ages, but the humor is perfectly geared towards preschoolers. When the Bunny family finds and adopts a baby wolf, Dot is concerned that Wolfie is going to eat them all. This book will leave readers guessing about who is going to eat whom right up until the end, (spoiler: nobody gets eaten except the carrots) and Dot and Wolfie’s adoptive-sibling relationship gives the story a bit of depth beyond the humor.

Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast by Josh Funk

Lady Pancake and Sir French ToastIf you’re ready for a break from cute anthropomorphic animals, try this book about cute anthropomorphic breakfast foods. The rhyming text tells a story about a race through the refrigerator, with the syrup as the finish line. The slapstick humor and the feel-good message about friendship round out the list of appealing factors of this book. Because of the amount of text, it isn’t ideal for a storytime book, but it could be enjoyed as a read-aloud at home for children of a variety of ages.

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall

The red crayon has a problem. His drawings never look quite right. Everyone has suggestions, but no matter what he does, he just can’t draw red. When his new friend purple asks him to draw an ocean, the red crayon realizes that he is, in fact, blue. If the message about acceptance goes a little over the heads of the target audience, (about age three to four, in my opinion) that’s fine because the color mix-up will strike them as funny. There’s plenty of opportunity for interaction when this book is read aloud, because readers will know that the crayon is blue much sooner than the other crayons come to that conclusion.

A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins

A Fine DessertIn this book, the same dessert is made by four families living in four different American time periods. The idea is sweet (pun not intended) and the artwork is picturesque. For me, the most interesting thing about this book is the contrast in cooking utensils over the different time periods. A Fine Dessert has generated quite a bit of controversy due to its depiction of slavery. The eighteenth-century portion shows a slave mother and daughter cooking for the master’s family, and the slaves are smiling and happy. When I first saw this book, it didn’t strike me as being politically incorrect because it seems clear that it’s the relationship between the mother and daughter that makes them smile. In retrospect, I can understand the concern, and I considered not calling this one of my favorite picture books of 2015. But I feel that the author’s note at the end rectifies the problem by acknowledging the reality of slavery and gives a bit of a disclaimer saying that this book doesn’t intend to “explore the topic of slavery fully”. For its artwork and the concept, I decided to include the book on this list. I would recommend it for a slightly older audience than most picture books, specifically kindergarten through second grade, although older children and even adults could appreciate it as well.

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

If You Plant a SeedMoving back into the realm of animal stories—although they’re less anthropomorphized because they don’t talk—we have this book about gardening, not planting seeds of selfishness, and instead planting seeds of kindness. This book makes the list entirely because of the gorgeous oil painting artwork. The sky is vivid blue, the vegetables are colorful and so realistic that they genuinely look edible, (that tomato actually makes my mouth water) and the birds are the best part of all. If You Plant a Seed is a book that will appeal to a wide variety of ages; the text is brief and simple enough for even babies and toddlers, and the artwork is good enough to merit the appreciation of adults. In my opinion, this would make a good Caldecott winner, since the Caldecott award is specifically for artwork. In fact, at the school where I got my MLIS last year, this won the mock Caldecott award.

More Picture Books

Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett

Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert

Waiting by Kevin Henkes

The Snow Beast by Chris Judge

Grasshopper & the Ants by Jerry Pinkney

Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats by Alicia Potter

Where’s Walrus? And Penguin? By Stephen Savage

Lenny & Lucy by Philip C. Stead

Little Puppy Lost by Holly Webb

Early Readers

Pig is Big on Books by Douglas Florian

This is a great book for beginning readers who have just barely reached the stage where they’re ready to read full sentences. With its short sentences, controlled vocabulary, and large font, Pig is Big on Books is manageable for a preschooler or kindergartener to read, but it still tells a complete story. Pig loves to read, but one day, he can’t find any books, so he makes his own. The artwork is colorful enough to appeal to younger children, too. It’s a combination of watercolor, pencil, and collage, although in my opinion, the overall effect is similar to a child’s crayon artwork. That fits with the concept that Pig himself created the book. Incidentally, that’s another thing I like about it; not often do you find meta-narrative in an early reader.

That’s (Not) Mine by Anna Kang

The characters from last year’s Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner You Are (Not) Small are back, and this time, they’re arguing over a chair. Their tactics include adding a spinning chair to the deal, tickling one another with a feather, and yelling, before they finally apologize and abandon the chair to go play, and someone else gets the coveted seat. All of this is done with short sentences and mostly monosyllable words, making it age-appropriate for a kindergartener and perhaps some even younger readers.

Crow Made a Friend by Margaret Peot

Crow Made a FriendI’m not kidding when I say that this is one of the best romance stories I’ve ever read. First, Crow makes a friend out of sticks and autumn leaves, but they blow away. Then, crow builds a friend out of winter snow, but it melts. Then, Crow meets another crow and they build a nest together and have three baby crows and it’s adorable. The artwork is beautiful, too, although it’s not realistic because the crows are brightly multicolored instead of black, which might bother some children who are particularly literal. In terms of the reading level, I would primarily recommend this book for kindergarteners, but the storyline and artwork will appeal to a wide range of ages.

I Really Like Slop! By Mo Willems

Of the two new Elephant and Piggie books from this year, I like this one better. In fact, it’s one of my top two favorite books in the whole series. Pig really likes slop, but Elephant thinks it’s disgusting. Out of friendship for Piggie, Elephant tries some. He doesn’t like it, but he says he is glad he tried it. The best thing about this book, aside from the dialogue format that makes it so much more approachable for young readers than most books of this length, is Piggie and Elephant’s faces when they eat the slop. Any child who has ever had to try a food that they don’t like at all will relate to Elephant’s conundrum and will find it hilarious. Like the rest of the series, this book is great either as a read-aloud to preschoolers or for slightly older readers to read themselves.

­Chapter Books

The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett

The Terrible TwoI had originally intended to put this under the Children’s Novels heading, but it’s not very difficult and it has a lot of pictures, so it’s a pretty quick and easy read considering that it’s over two hundred pages. Also, it has less literary merit than laugh-out-loud merit. Miles isn’t happy about moving to Yawnee Valley, an “idyllic” but boring town characterized by its cows. In fact, he’s dreading starting his new school. After years of being an established prankster at his old school, he now has to start all over. And what makes it even worse is that his new school already has a prankster, and that prankster is very, very good.  I would recommend The Terrible Two for kids in third or fourth grade who love humorous books, as well as advanced second grade readers or older reluctant readers.

The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party by Shannon Hale

This is the second book in a new series that is perfect for the demographic group that loves princess stories, especially if those princesses are more adventurous than the stereotypical princess. Princess Magnolia essentially has a secret identity as a monster-fighting ninja, although the terms “secret identity” and “ninja” are never used. In this book, it’s her birthday, but her party is repeatedly interrupted as she must find excuses to change into her black clothes and go defeat a monster. Princess Magnolia’s story is hilarious, full of colorful pictures, and simple enough for most first-graders to easily read on their own.

Danger in the Darkest Hour by Mary Pope Osborne

Danger in the Darkest HourThis book from the highly popular Magic Tree House series is a super edition, and as such, is significantly longer and a bit more advanced than most of the series. In my opinion, it also has an especially good plot. Jack and Annie’s friend Kathleen is on a secret time-traveling mission and hasn’t returned. Now, Jack and Annie must go to Normandy, France in June 1944 to find and rescue her. Guided only by Kathleen’s cryptic message, they travel through WWII Normandy on an adventure even more exciting and historically informative than their others. Although the bulk of the series is written at about a second-grade reading level, I would consider this more of a third-grade book, and it certainly has appeal for older readers as well.

Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve

It’s hard to find good science fiction for younger readers, but Cakes in Space fills that niche. Picture a version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with a ten-year-old female protagonist, written at about a third-grade reading level, with lots of pictures, and you should have a pretty good idea of at least the tone of this book. Astra’s family is moving to a new planet, and since the voyage will take 199 years, they will spend it in sleeping pods. Astra wants the ship’s Nom-O-Tron machine to make her a bedtime snack, but it isn’t ready on time. When she wakes up early, she discovers that the Nom-O-Tron did eventually produce a cake, and that the ship is now being taken over by cake-based life forms.

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems

The Story of Diva and FleaDiva is a very small white dog living as a pampered pet in a fancy apartment building in Paris. Flea is an alley cat who wanders the streets of Paris. The two become friends, and the result is something halfway between the plot of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse and the 1970 animated Disney movie The Aristocats. As Mo Willem’s fans have come to expect, this story is playful and humorous, but both the word choice and Tony DiTerlizzi’s artwork have a sophistication that shows a great respect for the intelligence of the reader. (In terms of reading level, I would recommend The Story of Diva and Flea primarily to second and third graders.)

Novels in Verse

Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton

Full Cicada MoonAt the beginning of 1969, twelve-year-old Mimi Oliver moves from California to Vermont. In her new home, she faces prejudice because she is half black and half Japanese, but that is only part of the story told in this book. It also includes anecdotes about good times with her new friends, her successes and challenges in school, her fascination with the Apollo 11 mission, her dreams of becoming an astronaut, and her struggle to take Shop class instead of Home Economics. Critics have compared this book to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming from last year, and I agree with that assessment. Although Mimi and the target audience are in middle school, older elementary-school-aged readers could certainly handle this book; the verse format makes it a relatively easy read even though it is long and has a good deal of emotional depth.

Believearexic by J.J. Johnson

I admit it, I’m a bit biased about this one because I relate to it so much. Believearexic is an autobiographical story about treatment for an eating disorder, and although my own eating disordered tendencies were never nearly as severe and my treatment was nowhere near as intense, Jennifer’s experiences were very familiar to me, and, I thought, very well-articulated. The book is very emotional; parts of it are even somewhat triggering for people with eating disordered tendencies, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, I would just warn sensitive readers to be prepared for the fact that it deals very honestly and openly with difficult topics. I loved the way the format subtly shifted. The book started out in verse with short lines and an abstract, vague tone. Then it morphed into prose-like language even though the format still looked like verse. About halfway through, it fully turned into prose. I wondered if that was done to reflect the changes in Jennifer’s state of mind, but regardless of the reasoning behind it, it was interesting. Jennifer is fifteen years old in this book, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to readers much younger than that. In fact, I kept on forgetting that this story was geared towards teens rather than readers my age. I’m going to say that I suggest it for ages fourteen and up, including adults.

Children’s Novels

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this book much, since I’m not a big fan of the talking-animal genre, and the imaginary-friend trope feels to me like it’s been slightly overdone lately. But Crenshaw really is a good book, and the talking/imaginary animal/friend isn’t even a particularly major part of the plot. It has more to do with the hardships of poverty, the fear of homelessness, and the comforts of friendship and family. It’s very sentimental, but not in a cheesy way. Crenshaw is not a particularly challenging book, so children as young as third grade could handle it, but it also will hold some appeal for readers as old as middle school.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about JellyfishIf I had to make a Newbery prediction, this is one of the two books I’d be torn between. (Scroll down just a little to read about the other, which is Echo) After Suzy’s ex-best-friend Franny dies unexpectedly, Suzy stops talking and then becomes obsessed with jellyfish. She believes that Franny actually died of a jellyfish sting. This train of thought eventually leads her to run away from home in an effort to visit an expert on jellyfish on the other side of the world. Although this book is sad and emotional, it also is something that a nerdy science-lover like Suzy will find fascinating for its fun facts. Suzy is in seventh grade, and I would recommend this book for readers in fourth through eighth grade, but especially the middle of that range.

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Anyone who loved Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein will enjoy Book Scavenger, too, and will probably notice similarities between the two. Twelve-year-old Emily has just moved to San Francisco when she finds herself working on solving a mystery that she thinks is a puzzle set up by Garrison Griswold, creator of an internet-based scavenger hunt. But what she doesn’t realize is that Griswold has been attacked, and that this mystery is more important than a scavenger hunt. Perfect for middle schoolers who love mysteries, especially but not only those who read widely enough to be familiar with some of the literary references in the book. (Edgar Allen Poe is pretty significant to the plot.)

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold

This one is ineligible for ALA awards, not only because it’s not an American book, but because it was originally published last year. But it’s eligible for my list because I say so and because it’s very good. Its main asset is the humor. Amanda, who (spoiler!) dies pretty early on in the book, has some pretty entertaining one-liners. But for such a silly book, it has a pretty scary antagonist, (Mr. Bunting, who eats imaginaries) not to mention that Amanda’s death is sad and very surprising. After the first few chapters, the humor sort of takes a backseat to the action, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the action is good, too. The illustrations add a lot to the story, even though most books at this reading level don’t have pictures. (It’s best suited for fourth- and fifth-graders) I know I said earlier that the whole deal with imaginary friends has been overdone lately, but this is a book where it was done very well.

All The Answers by Kate Messner

All the AnswersI think that my favorite genre is what could be called low fantasy. That is, it has magic or supernatural elements, but it’s set in the real world and has some plot points that are consistent with realistic fiction. If we’re going by that definition, All The Answers is very low fantasy, and as such, I love it. It’s essentially realistic fiction, but with one magical element: Ava’s pencil. When she gets stuck on a math quiz, Ava writes “What is the formula to find the circumference of a circle?” in the margin of her test, and the pencil answers her question via a voice in her head. After that discovery, Ava and her friend Sophie use the magic pencil to answer trivial questions just for fun and to figure out how to do favors for other people. But Ava can’t resist using the pencil to set some of her worries at rest, and she ends up finding out a horrible secret she can’t do anything to fix. Recommended for fourth through eighth graders.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

This historical fiction (and sort of fantasy) book follows the story of a harmonica as it is owned by three different characters in the general time frame of World War II. (There is also a brief introductory section with a fourth character, and a brief concluding section that ties the characters together.) First, there’s Friedrich, whose sister horrifies the family by embracing the ideals of the Nazi party. Then, the harmonica finds its way to America, into the hands of an orphan named Mike. Later, it belongs to Ivy, a girl in California whose family is caring for the property of a Japanese family who have been put in an internment camp. This is not a quick or an easy read; I would suggest it for middle schoolers, but I definitely would expect them to take a while with it. It has a lot of merit as a work of historical fiction, and it would especially appeal to readers who have an aptitude for music themselves, as that is a thread that links all of the main characters.

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas MarsdenOf all the books on my list, this is perhaps the one that has received the least attention. Maybe that’s because it’s written for a fairly niched audience. It’s supernatural and dark, yet it has fairies. The plot is fairly complex and the language is old-fashioned, yet it’s geared towards kids in the fourth-to-sixth-grade age range. It’s set in a very specific historical setting, yet it’s more fantasy than historical fiction. On the night before his twelfth birthday, gravedigger Thomas Marsden finds his own body. As is later explained to him, the body he found was actually a fairy named Thistle. Fairy mothers have the power to split a newborn child into two beings—one completely non-magical and one extra-magical—and this is what happened in Thomas and Thistle’s case. Fairies also have the power to communicate with the dead, which is why a famous medium has captured a group of fairies. Thistle was supposed to be able to rescue them, but he failed and died trying, so now, they want Thomas’s help.

Other Middle Grade Novels

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

George by Alex Gino

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord

Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

Graphic Novels

The Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke

Grunhilda comes from a long line of successful witches, but her career isn’t going so well. Neither selling potions nor giving tours as a fake witch work out, so she becomes a school lunch lady. A student named Madison needs help boosting her intelligence and demands help from Grunhilda, but Grunhilda accidentally turns her into a toad. This graphic novel for elementary-school-aged readers is dark, disgusting, and very, very clever.

Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola

Baba Yaga's AssistantNot to be repetitive, but this one also involves a witch. Baba Yaga is a character from Russian folklore, and this graphic novel begins with a girl named Masha finding an advertisement asking for an assistant for Baba Yaga. Masha misses her deceased mother and grandmother and dislikes her soon-to-be stepmother and stepsister, so she’s all too glad to apply for the position. The story is emotional and slightly creepy, and Emily Carroll’s artwork is perfect, especially because the style changes depending upon the context. Baba Yaga’s Assistant could be considered a YA book, but it’s also entirely appropriate for and could be appealing to children as young as fourth or fifth grade.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Based on a webcomic by the same author, this graphic novel is a cross between a superhero story and fantasy. The title character is a shapeshifter with such a complex personality that it’s impossible to pin her down as either a good guy or a bad guy, or even to tell whether she’s impulsive or working towards some goal. She is a self-proclaimed assistant to Lord Ballister Blackheart, who is working to undermine Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, who aren’t really the good guys that everyone thinks they are. Recommended for readers ages twelve and up who like adventures with dragons, big battles, and ambiguity about which side is the good side.

YA Novels

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

The Accident SeasonCara’s family is inexplicably accident-prone during the month of October every year. They take every precaution that they can, but everyone has a feeling that this will be a bad year. The book starts with Cara noticing that Elsie, an acquaintance who she doesn’t know very well, is in every single one of her pictures. From that very first moment, this book is mysterious, suspenseful and intriguing. For teens that especially like Halloween, it’s an appropriately creepy read for late October. I may have been slightly biased by the setting, because it takes place in Ireland, which is cool.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

Lex is struggling to move on after her brother Tyler committed suicide. Some chapters take the form of journal entries that Lex writes at the suggestion of her therapist, Dave. Early in the book, Lex thinks she sees her brother a couple times, but this is not a ghost story, it’s a story about recovery from grief. I’m including it as one of my favorites not so much for the basic plot points as because it’s very well-written and Lex is a highly likable character. Between the length, the discussion of suicide, and the emotional depth, I would say that this book is best suited for readers age fifteen or older.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

Finding AudreyMinor spoiler: We never do find out what the traumatic event was that triggered Audrey’s extreme anxiety. We just know that she was in the hospital at some point after something bad happened at school. When she develops a crush on her brother’s friend Linus, it helps pull her out of her shell and overcome her anxiety. Unlike most books about mental illness, this one is light-hearted and humorous, particularly in the depiction of the relationship between Audrey’s gamer brother Frank and their mother, who hates gaming with a passion. I thought that the blend of humor, romance, and honest depiction of mental illness makes this book very unique. It’s a little on the long side for younger readers, but I think that middle-schoolers as well as high-schoolers could enjoy it.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

The farming town of Bone Gap is an unusual place that seemed to me to lie somewhere between the realm of realistic fiction and fantasy. The chapters told from the point of view of Finn, a teenager who lives with his older brother, are almost realistic, but the chapters told from the point of view of Roza, Finn’s brother’s mysterious girlfriend, are otherworldly. Roza was kidnapped and Finn is determined to find her, but he doesn’t know how. Bone Gap first attracted my attention when the National Book Award longlists came out, and it definitely deserves its place on that list, both for the unusual and compelling writing style, and for the twists and turns that keep the plot suspenseful.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger DeepI was pretty excited when this book won the National Book Award for the youth category. It’s about schizoaffective disorder, a mental disease that is characterized by episodes of depression, mania, and psychosis. Caden Bosch’s narrative switches back and forth between his real life and a dreamlike story in which he’s on the crew of a ship on an expedition to the Marianas Trench, and as the book progresses the reader gradually makes the connections between Caden’s experiences on the ship and his experiences in the mental hospital where his parents have brought him. Shusterman’s source is his own son, and the book even includes artwork drawn by Brendan Shusterman when he was experiencing psychosis. The book is very interesting and very well-written, but this is yet another case in which my fondness for it is somewhat biased by my own experiences. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression, I always like reading things that give an accurate and sympathetic view of mental illness.

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

Ballet, mystery, murder, and hints of time travel and the supernatural… This novel has it all, especially when you take into consideration how unique the prison setting is. Readers are left wondering who is guilty and who is innocent until fairly late in the book. It’s dark and disturbing, but too fascinating to put down for long. I’ve read reviews that call it haunting, and I really can’t think of a better adjective to describe this book. Like a couple others that I’ve included on this list, it’s not really ideal for most readers younger than high school, although I wouldn’t dissuade an intelligent and interested twelve- or thirteen-year-old from giving it a try.

Nonfiction

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

This autobiographical story was originally written for adults, and as such, was a New York Times bestseller, but there is also a “young reader’s edition” written at about a fourth-to-sixth-grade reading level. It takes place in a small, poor farming community in Malawi, Africa, where Kamkwamba grew up experiencing poverty and famine. But his dedication and innovation, as well as inspiration from a library book, led him to build a windmill that brought electricity into his home. Kamkwamba was eventually able to return to school and now has a college degree and is a public speaker. Not only is his story inspirational, but it is fascinating to read about how someone who was a child so recently (he’s only four years older than me!) grew up in an environment so different from what we experience in America.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

Most DangerousThis one is really a crossover between YA and adult. I could see some readers as young as twelve or thirteen enjoying it, but only if they had an interest in the Vietnam war or mid-twentieth-century American history. It’s not a quick read, but it is interesting, more so than I had expected. Daniel Ellsberg’s mark on history is that he leaked secret documents regarding America’s activities in Vietnam, demonstrating to the general population that many decisions were made for different reasons than what the government publicly said. This book, as the subtitle implies, is a cross between a biography of Ellsberg and an account of the Vietnam war as a whole.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder

Picture book biographies aren’t always good, but when they are, they’re very good. This one is very good. It’s fairly sparse on text and could appeal to readers as young as kindergarten, (I would recommend it to older readers as well, but it wouldn’t be much of a reading challenge) but it’s informative and will fascinate readers who like ballet and might not be familiar with the history behind the art form. Anna Pavlova, who was a famous Russian ballerina in the early decades of the twentieth century, was dancing at a time when the ballet world was significantly different than it is now, and her story is interesting and inspirational.

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker

The subtitle itself gives a pretty descriptive summary of this book. It’s another picture book biography, (if you can count a book about a bear rather than a human as a biography) but it has a little more text, making it suited for a slightly older audience. I’ll just say elementary-school-aged as a whole, although few readers older than second grade would find it challenging. The artwork is beautiful and the story is sweet, but the main appeal of this book for me is that it gives the complete story behind a fun fact that we’ve all heard without knowing all the details.

We are Living in a Material World and Jesus is Material God

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* to the tune of Madonna’s Material World*

 

Some gifts thrill me, some displease me;

I think that’s okay

‘Cause the gift that comes from God

takes all my sins away.

I have sinned and I have failed

but I can see the light

(that’s right)

‘Cause the boy inside the manger

comes to make things right.

 

Living in a material world

and Jesus is material God

You know that we are living in a material world

and Jesus is material God

 

Gifts will break or lose their worth

and that’s all right with me

The Word made flesh will last forever

to eternity.

So this Christmas please don’t say

“material” is wrong to me

Don’t say that material means evil

That’s Gnostic heresy.

 

‘Cause we are living in a material world

And Jesus is material God

You know that we are living in a material world

And Jesus is material God.

We are living in a material world

And Jesus is material God

You know that we are living in a material world

And Jesus is material God.

 

Starlight Blogger Award

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Starlight Blogger Award 05/30/2015

This Award is created to highlight and promote Inspiring Bloggers.

Thank you to J. of Salvageable for nominating me for the Starlight Blogger Award, created to “celebrate the creative bloggers who have truly inspired others through their beautiful and original content, imagery, art, abilities, and wonderful personalities.” The three rules, as laid out in Salvageable’s acceptance post, are as follows: “The recipient (if he, she, or they choose to accept) should thank the nominator, answer three questions from the nominator, and then nominate six more blogs for the award.”

So thank you J for the nomination! Since I haven’t been an active blogger in quite a while, I have to admit that I don’t have WordPress e-quaintances at the moment, and some of my original blogger friends are no longer active on WordPress, So I’m going to cheat and just nominate two bloggers. (I assume I’m not supposed to nominate the person who nominated me.) One is among my top commenters and the other is one of my best in-real-life friends, and both of them have awesome blogs that I follow and enjoy. They are Eagle-Eyed Editor and Clara’s Coffee Break. If you would like to accept the award, here are the questions from me:

  1. If you could have one round trip in a time machine, what time period (past or future) or historical event would you choose to visit?
  2. What is your favorite Christmas song, and why?
  3. What is your best memory (so far) from the year 2015?

And now, in response to J’s questions:

  1. What is your favorite part of the holiday season?

I know this is a very non-committal answer, but it really varies from year to year. Sometimes, the gift-giving part is the best part, sometimes the Christmas Eve and/or Christmas morning church services are the best part, and other years, various aspects of holiday preparations end up being more fun than Christmas itself. This year, I will be seeing most of the family about a week after Christmas rather than on Christmas day, so New Year’s will probably be the highlight of the holiday season.

  1. Of all the posts you have written, which one do you consider the best?

Since I have compiled top ten lists out of my first hundred posts and my second hundred posts, I can answer this one just by comparing two posts. I’ll go with this post about Star Wars from April 2013. It may not be the best-written, most humorous, or most intellectual thing I’ve ever posted, but it is, in my opinion, relatively good in terms of all three of those criteria, and it’s particularly significant right now in light of the fact that the movie it discusses came out last Friday. I actually haven’t seen it yet (I will tomorrow, and I very much regret that I didn’t get tickets for opening day) but I’ve heard such good things about it that, in retrospect, this post sounds very pessimistic and a little sad. But I don’t actually disagree with anything I said in it. Due to the fact that I’m very bad at giving straight answers, I’m not completely comfortable with choosing just one best post, and I therefore want to post a link to the short story I posted for Christmas in December 2013. At the moment, I’m also quite pleased with my Santa Claus post, but that probably does have more to do with seasonal relevance than anything else. I’m not going to post the link; it’s pretty easy to find, as it is the previous post.

  1. What is one book you hope to read (or reread) in the next month or two, and why?

In the interest of actually answering the question and naming only one book, I’m choosing The Mystery in the Cupboard as my answer. It’s the fourth book in the Indian in the Cupboard series by Lynne Reid Banks, although I tend to think of it as the main book in the series since I had read it multiple times before I read any of the others, and in my opinion, it’s by far the best in the series. It is a personal tradition for me to read it around Christmas time, preferably on Christmas Eve, although the book itself has nothing to do with Christmas. That tradition started when I was around ten or eleven years old, when I would get so excited and impatient right before Christmas that I felt a need to distract myself by getting lost in a really good book.  That was the book I chose that particular year. It was the second time I’d read it, but ever since then, I’ve associated it with Christmas Eve. I haven’t read it every single year since then, mainly because my own copy is packed up somewhere at my parents’ house, probably in the garage, and I’m not always there on Christmas Eve. Last year, I read it as an eBook on my phone, which I checked out through the library where I worked at the time. This year, I’ve already checked it out (as an actual, physical book) from the library where I now work, and will read it either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, depending upon when I finish reading the book that I’m reviewing for School Library Journal.

 

Thanks again for the nomination!

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