Saturday, August 17, 2019

Bookstore Romance Day - Reading Recommendations

Today is Bookstore Romance Day, something independent bookstores are celebrating across our country. To celebrate today, I wrote a post for our local independent bookstore, Hartfield Book Co., about the reasons to read romance books. You can check it out HERE

As a teacher, I tell my students that I will honor anything they want to read. Graphic novels for days? You bet. Reread a favorite book or series, absolutely that counts as reading. Below their level, above their level? Why not? I am not here to shame any reader, I simply want them to read. I want them to fall in love with books the way I have. Will that happen for every single kid, every single year? Nope, but I still try. 

Imagine my surprise when I dove back into reading romance books in the summer of 2017 and recommended them to friends. There were many comments about reading “those books” or raised eyebrows. Not cool, friends. Not cool. 

I am willing to shout it from the rooftops, I love romance books. I love the fact that one of the defining characteristics of a romance book is that there is a happily ever after for the main characters. I love that when I’m stressed, these books help me feel better. I love that I read books that celebrate and empower women. I love the supportive community that is the romance writing community. And above all, I love that these books have inspired me to chase a long ago childhood dream of writing my own book. 

With a crazy amount of new books flooding the market everyday, it’s intimidating to try and find books to read. My number one way of finding new romance novels is talking to friends who read the genre. Also, I follow authors I love on social media and they often sing the praises of new books that are similar to theirs. In honor of Bookstore Romance Day, I’ve attempted to do the impossible and tried to come up with a top ten list of romance book recommendations below. Really, I cheated, because I only listed each author once, allowinng me to squeeze in a lot more recommendations. But truly, go read any books by that author and you won’t be disappointed. 

Here we go...

*****

10. Kristen Ashley - Breathe
I had to begin with this book because this was what got me back into romance. I googled “librarian romance book” and this came up. Reading it, I realized it was the middle of a series. I went back and read the first four. Then I realized Kristen had written over forty books and I bought them all. Seriously. The Rock Chicks is one of my favorite series of all time. It would be fabulous on Netflix. Bounty in The Colorado Mountain series is one of my favorite books of all time. The male lead of that book, Deke, makes me think of Jason Momoa. Ahhhh. So yes, read Breathe, or any of Ashley’s book. You’ll be glad you did.

9. Robyn Carr - Virgin River
I have no idea how I found the Virgin River series. I know a friend told me about Carr’s Thunder Point series, which I loved, but somehow I made my way over to Virgin River. The series has been optioned for a Netflix series, which would be amazing. What I loved about this was that while there is a couple at the core of each book, other storylines overlap from book to book. I’m a sucker for a small town romance, which is obvious from many of my favorites, and this twenty book series melts my heart. 

8. Melonie Johnson - Getting Hot with the Scot
Let’s celebrate this Illinois author, Melonie Johnson! Melonie had my dream come true, she had a publisher pick up a three book series for her first published books. Getting Hot with the Scott is the first of a three book (for now) series about five college friends who, in this book, head to Europe on a trip five years after college vacation. I’ve read all three books and am praying the publisher options the next two ASAP.

7. Abby Jimenez - The Friend Zone
This is Abby’s first book. She’s actually more well known for her baking ability after competing on Cupcake Wars, or the three bakeries she owns called Nadia’s Cakes. In The Friend Zone, the main character of Kristen is planning to get a hysterectomy, even though she’s only twenty-nine, due to a medical condition. She meets Josh and is immediately attracted to him, but puts him in the friend zone since she won’t be able to have a family. This book took me from hilarious laughter to the ugly cry, and back. I cannot wait to read the next in the series in 2020.

6. Penny Reid - Neanderthal Seeks Human
I had a really difficult time picking a Penny Reid book. The woman is amazing and I’ll read anything she writes. Her Winston Brothers series is likely one of my all time favorite series, but I think you need to start with the Knitting in the City series, of which this is the first book, because it feeds into the Winston Brothers with book five of this series crossing over to be like a prequel to that series. Penny’s books are smart, quirky, full of love, and wickedly funny. Check them out. 

5. Kate Canterbary - Underneath it All
Not sure how I found Kate’s books, but I love them. I wrote about Kate’s book, Before Girl, HERE. Kate also let me pick her brain about writing HERE. Underneath it All is the first book in her Walsh series, Note, she also has anthologies for the series packaged that you can read about the brothers in The Walsh Brothers, and the sisters in The Walsh Sisters. When I read the series originally, I read each book on its own in the order it was published. I love Kate’s characters because the Walsh siblings are blunt, have overcome a lot, make me laugh, and her books are steamy. She is also a riot on her own. Highly recommend! 

4. Melanie Shawn - Teasing Destiny
It really doesn’t matter which book I put up here, I love everything these ladies write. (Melanie and Shawn are sisters that put their names together to create one author.) They have so many different series, but read one and you’ll likely encounter some of their characters from another series in little cameo roles. I love that. While their Hope Falls series is one of my favorites, I picked Teasing Destiny, the first book in the Wishing Well, Texas series, because I began running again after being inspired by some of the female heroines in this series. Who knew that romance books could make you want to exercise again just by reading about other characters who loved to run? One thing I would caution you, these ladies are writing so much that their website is often not up to date. So, for example, the website lists this series as having three books, there are actually eight released so far.

3. Sally Thorne - The Hating Game
A friend gifted this book to me when she heard I was diving back into the genre a few summers ago. It is the perfect enemies-to-lovers story. The idea that this was Sally’s first book is mind boggling to me. I haven’t read her second book yet, but I can’t wait to read it or see the movie adaption of this book. The book revolves around the relationship between Lucy and Joshua, forced to share an office and compete for a job. Whomever wins will be the other’s boss. They’ve never gotten along, but now there is a lot more on the line. Excellent writing. 

 
2. Casey McQuiston - Red, White, and Royal Blue
I read this book on vacation this summer and fell in love with the characters. Alex is the first son of the President. Prince Henry is his nemesis from England. After a misunderstanding while across the pond threatens to blow up into a social media nightmare for both countries, a fake friendship between the two men is created to smooth these rough Atlantic waters. Alex and Henry realize they each understand the unique position the other is in and romance begins to blossom. This is unbelievably Casey’s first book and I cannot wait to read more.
1. Lucy Score and Claire Kingsley - The Bootleg Springs series
I wrote an entire blog post about my love of this series a few weeks back. You can find it HERE. Luckily for you fine folks, the final book in the series, Highball Rush, is out now so you won’t be tortured with a wait like I have been. The first book in the series was Whiskey Chaser. That being said, I’ve read everything Lucy and Claire have written - together and separately. To give you a starting point, try Rock Bottom Girl by Lucy or the Miles Family series from Claire. SOOOO AMAZING.

*****

See? I totally cheated. Far more than ten books, but it’s a start. My list has a bias, of course. I read contemporary romance almost exclusively. There are amazing books out there in historical fiction - Courtney Milan, Beverly Jenkins, Sarah Maclean, Alyssa Cole. There are fantasy books, paranormal romances, crime/ thrillers, and more. But if you need a recommendation in contemporary, I’m your girl. 

How about you? Do you have a romance suggestion for me? If so, please share! And romance or not, pick up a great book from an independent book store this week if you can. Places like Hartfield Book Co. are vital parts of their community and I love everything they represent. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Writing Wednesday - Writing Identity

Toni Morrison has died. I opened up social media on Tuesday to find that news all over my news feed. Opening up CNN, I read THIS article on her life. A quote from Morrison called to me,


I know how to write forever. I don't think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It's control. Nobody tells me what to do. It's mine, it's free, and it's a way of thinking. It's pure knowledge.


The way Morrison spoke of writing captivated me. She wasn’t who she was without writing. It was part of her identity. 




On my way to a local coffee shop where I was going to write on Tuesday, I listened to the podcast Hot and Bothered. The premise of the series is that Vanessa Zoltan, who writes romance under the pseudonym Lorelai Mason, has ten friends that she is going to teach to write a romance book. Author Julia Quinn comes on every other episode to give some writing advice. I love it. In this episode Vanessa’s friend, Ariana Nedelman, is attempting to write an enemies to lovers romance story. After a few years of writing that has tortured her, she quit grad school, only to decide to join this writing challenge. Vanessa questions her friend, why write if it makes her suffer? Ariana says she needs to write, it is who she is. Again, writing is part of her identity. 


These women are at the forefront of my mind as an impending school year draws near. I teach seventh graders reading and writing. These are vital skills for a host of reasons, but also, I know that for some of them they are part of their identity. I know this because it is true for me. 


I don’t know who I am without the elements that make me a reader, a writer. I have long coped with stress by disappearing into a book. Books line the shelves in my house, spilling over as I run out of room, yet still I buy more books. Writing has forever been a part of me too. As a kid, I remember getting in trouble for lying at school. Not because I made up completely untrue stories, but often I rewrote how something had happened in my mind. Not changing any outcomes, but crafting the scene just a little bit better. It seems that I was creating a world through my own reality. I am in love with words, with characters, with story. And yet, I didn’t write a drop of fiction from around middle school until I was almost forty. 


Why the almost thirty year gap of writing the stories I loved? One, there was little time devoted to it in school. Two, it wasn’t an identity that was held sacred. My papers bled when they were returned to me, yet I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. Diagramming sentences were a mystery. I’m still not fabulous with grammar and mechanics, but in school I felt ignorant because I couldn’t understand what my teachers were trying to share with me. A shy kid, I would never have asked for help, so I just decided writing was not for me. 

That was rough. 


This school year as I venture back in the building to begin my twenty-fourth year in education, I want to remember myself as a seventh grader. Their identities are being formed and I want to celebrate all of what makes them who they are. Inside of my classroom we have kids that have so much potential. I want them to strive for what makes them who they are, not teach them to give up on dreams they hold dear. I will point to authors like Morrison and talk about what their words meant to me. I will share with them my own dreams, dashed for so long, then taken up like a lantern in the night if I am just brave enough to follow. Then together, we will write. 

For me, I'm holding another of Morrison's quotes closely as I try to be brave enough to follow my dreams. Morrison said, "If there's a book you want to readbut it hasn't been written yetthen you must write it." Words that I will keep close as I continue on my journey.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

It's Almost Time


On Tuesday I traveled to a local university with my oldest son. We attempted to figure out what he should be thinking about for his last two years of high school to prepare for this journey into college. It was amazing, as well as a bit overwhelming. Upon returning to town I considered that the date was July 30th, yet I hadn't been in my classroom since the last day of school. That is not typical for me. Usually, as soon as we get the email or text that states the floors are done, I head in. Most of the time, that’s closer to the 4th of July, not the end. While I completely understand teachers wanting to wait until as late as possible in summer, for me heading in to set up my room is something that is better done as early. It doesn't take me long to get the overall set up done, maybe an hour or so, but then I can put school out of my mind until closer to the start.

Tuesday afternoon I headed in and looked around my room. Overall, most of the furniture was already in the spot I needed it to be. I usually leave a map for my janitors showing where things would go and they are amazing, getting it set up how I need them to. I saw that I had left three small shelves off of the map and needed those moved still, so I sent a text to one janitor for help moving them so I wouldn’t scratch the floor. 

When the guys arrived they quickly moved the shelves as I caught up on their summers and what was going on around the building. It is amazing to me how easy it is to slip back into this work life after weeks at home. It felt like at any minute the bell might ring, kids would trek down the hall, and I’d need to teach. In reality, however, I still have thirteen days.

The guys left and I began to get out small items I’d put in the cabinet for storage over the summer. I walked around the room, wiping down shelves with Clorox wipes. To me, a classroom in the summer is an odd place. It almost feels alive with ghosts. Not ghosts from the beyond, of course, but the ghosts of memories. This will be my fourth year at middle school and this classroom, the start of the twenty-fourth year of teaching. I can look around the room and think of stories of former students over the years. I remember when one group of girls started a book club over the Maximum Ride series, working to get the whole class to read it. I see the fake Christmas tree we have on top of a bookshelf and I remember the class that decided we had to call it Thalia after The Lightning Thief and how they brought a blanket to drape on it for the Golden Fleece. Standing in the back of the room, I remember one rough conversation with a student at the start of last year and the dread in my heart as I worried I would be unable to reach him. Looking back and thinking of his last reflection on our year together, my fear was unfounded. On our end of the year reflection, I ended with this question…

What good memory will you take with you from seventh grade? 
His response - my time with you.

As I cleaned and organized, I found little notes left from last year’s class. My eyes welled up more than one memory as I moved quietly about the room. I love teaching with my whole heart. Every year I’m sad to see my classes go, but I also look forward to summer. I need time with my family. I need to relax. I need to let my brain be quiet. I was fascinated to see that the eye twitch I’d had on and off during the school year went away as soon as summer began. 

Summer is necessary for me. It is essential. 

And yet, I am ready for a new school year. Well, almost. I will be in thirteen days. I’m ready to greet new classes of students. I’m ready to worry about them, laugh with them, love them, and build new memories to fill our classroom. I’m ready to share my love of reading and writing with a new class of kids, watch them roll their eyes at me, and then quietly grin as I see so many of them start to love the subject too.

It’s almost time.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Writing Wednesdays - The Importance of Feedback



Friday I sat in Starbucks and typed the last words in the second book in The Highland Falls series, the romance series I'm currently writing. As I finished, I sat and looked at my computer in a bit of awe. Make no mistake about it, I’m well aware that I haven’t finished the great American novel. These first two books are only in the first draft stage and so much work is needed before I feel like they’ll be something I am willing to share with the world. That being said, since April of 2018 I have written 190,000 words contained in two books in a fictional world called Highland Falls, Illinois. I’ve met a host of characters. I’ve built their world, their homes, and for four of them, their happily ever afters. 

It’s pretty cool.

What is even better is that a few friends have read these stories. Lots of friends have asked, and if you have, thank you! However, I knew I needed to keep the feedback coming my way small when I just started. My friend Cindy has read the first book and is getting ready to read the second. Karen has read the first one and read the second one chapter by chapter as I wrote. I’ve written before about the need for different types of feedback as I write and what that’s taught me for teaching writing in my classroom. You can read that post HERE. What I want to talk today about is what a blessing feedback can be.

If you teach kids writing, whether that be in preschool through college, I hope you are writing too and asking for feedback as well. I don’t care who you are asking for feedback from, but what I want you to remember is how much trust is involved in that act. Writing, at least for me, is deeply personal. There is not a moment that I’m writing that I’m not afraid of sharing it, that I’m not well aware of my lack of writing knowledge. And yet, I’m still trying. These characters are in my brain and I really want to tell their stories. I love writing about them, even as I cringe at my inability to write how my favorite authors do. So when I actually pull together the courage to share that writing, it makes me want to vomit a bit from nervousness. This is why my friends rock.

Karen finished my epilogue on Sunday. I saw that she left me a message on Voxer about it, so I clicked over to listen. Please recognize, Karen is not grading my writing. She’s not my teacher or boss, yet my heart rate still increased. Imagine what our students feel, then, when we sit down to talk to them about a piece of writing they care about and are turning in for a grade. So, as I said, I clicked over to listen to her message. I was sitting in my kitchen on a couch, curled up with my dogs. Karen’s voice came through and I could immediately tell she was crying. She proceeded to tell me, through a whole lot of tears, how much she loved how I ended the story, how sad she was to leave this couple, and what she thought of the world I’d created.

Karen apologized repeatedly for not waiting until she had her emotions in check to send me a message. I immediately messaged her back and told her that she couldn’t apologize, she’d just given me the greatest gift in her reaction to my writing. 

It reminded me of a time in my classroom last school year. I had twins in my first hour class. Emma, one of the twins, came up to me with a Chromebook and said, “Lynnsey and I think you need to read Kylie (her twin’s) Age poem. She doesn’t think it’s good enough to publish.” 

The rest of the room was quietly typing, twenty-six seventh grade (almost eighth grade) bodies sprawled on the floor, couches, around tables. By this point of the year, we were very comfortable together and they knew me well. Grabbing my coffee, I sat down with Emma’s Chromebook and read her sister’s poem. I’ve shared their poetry for this assignment before (you can check them out HERE), but here’s Kylie’s poem:

I am 13.
Officially a teenager.
Technically, I’m 13 years and 8 months.
Not like that matters.

I belong to what is called “Gen Z”.
We’re the kids born between 1995-2013.
We’re the ones ridiculed for our technology
They call us “iGen” “Gen Wii” “Screenagers”
To quote the lovely Maisie Williams:
“They [older people] think you’re a self-obsessed,
Selfie-stick waving generation.
They’ve counted on that.
They’ve kicked your future in the teeth,
And hoped you wouldn’t notice.”

She’s not wrong.

13 is the age where, maybe, 
you finally realize you deserve to be treated 
Like more than the dirt you walk on.
And then,
They have the audacity to say 
“it’s a rebellious phase.”
“They won’t respect their parents.”
“How dare they disrespect their elders!”
“Back in my day, we treated our elders with respect!”
Why should I respect someone who won’t respect me?
Why should I respect someone who brushes me off as self-obsessed? 
Who says that they are better than us?
Who doesn’t listen to what I have to say?
Tells me my thoughts don’t matter
Because I’m younger than them.
It baffles me.
They really think I should respect someone
Who tells me to shut up and sit down.
Not in a million years.

Being 13 is being a part of the generation
Who knows that they could be killed in their own classroom.
By their peer.
By someone they’ve known since they were 5.
By a friend.

Being 13 is entering a classroom for the first time
And thinking
“If someone came through that door with a gun,
What’s the safest way out of the room?”
“Who in here might have a gun in their backpack?”
“If I’m by the window, is it a quick escape if need be,
Or is it an entrance point for an intruder?”

Being 13 is growing up
Being told by that we’ll drown in college debt.
That buying a house is unrealistic.
They’re just too expensive.
I mean, you could buy a house. 
But then you can’t afford to pay for food.
It’s your choice, I guess.
Food or a decent living place?
Can’t have both.

Being 13 isn’t all negative.
We’ve got social media
So we can talk to our friends who live far away.
I’ve got a friend from England
Who I can talk to whenever I want.
Although, time zones make communications tricky.

Another thing about being 13.
I see my peers standing for what they believe in.
Remember what the kids from Parkland did after the shooting?
Remember how they refused to be silent?
How they marched for their lives?
How they took to the streets?
Saying,
Asking,
Begging,
For change
Saying “Enough is enough”
“You stand by and watch us slaughtered.
In our own schools.
And you’re okay with that.”
They pushed for change.
Kids like me
Demanding stricter gun laws.
So maybe we won’t get mowed down in those uncomfortable plastic chairs.

Of course, because we are 13,
Because we are kids,
We can’t make a change.
We tried.
We tried so hard.
They didn’t change the laws.

At 13,
I’ve been raised on fantasy.
Heros and heroines teaching me right from wrong.
I grew up with Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Captain America.
I was told we could make a difference,
No matter our age.
People seem surprised we are speaking up.
Why?
They’re the ones who told us to stand for what we believe in.
(But only if we believe the same things as them.)
(We aren’t supposed to stand up against them.)

Because I’m 13,
I’m typing this at home.
It’s midnight.
I need to be up in less than six hours.
My parents tell me I need to go to bed.
“Why?”
I ask.
“You need sleep.”
They reply.
“But I’m not done with my homework.”
I say.
“You still need sleep. Getting your homework done isn’t as important as sleep.”
I look at my parents,
Confused.
What do they mean, 
Basic self care is more important than my grades?
No one has ever told me that.
“Your grades should be the most important thing to you.” 
Is all I’ve ever heard. 
They are. 
I put my grades before my own health.
Because that’s all I know.
That’s all I’ve been taught.
I’ve never heard someone say
“Your happiness and mental health is more important
Than your schooling.”
So why do my parents think I should put myself first?
Isn’t that what they told me to avoid?
That it’s selfish
To put your basic needs before others?

Being 13 is asking your parents to proofread your poem
And your mom thinks it sad
That this is our reality.
But your dad
Looks at you incredulously
And tells you
“You realize you live in the most privileged generation?”
“We didn’t have the internet
When I was young.
We had books.
We didn’t have television,
Or phones, 
Or music we could easily access.”
You’re comparing being scared of being shot in your classroom
To not having internet.
Not exactly a fair comparison.
But I hold my tongue.
“Don’t disrespect your parents”
They say.
Apparently sharing your own opinions is disrespectful.
Don’t worry,
Next time, 
I’ll write what you want to read.
Because 
I know it’s hard to read.
But,
Sometimes?
The truth hurts.

I remember reading this that day in April and not even bothering to hold any tears back as they snaked down my cheeks. I looked up to see Kylie back at a table, peeking over her computer screen, the fear of sharing something so personal written all over her face. Ignoring her sister standing next to me, I locked eyes with her and said something like, “I love that you wrote bravely from your heart. This is personal, this is beautiful, and I won’t forgive you if you don’t publish it.” 

Her smile is something that stays with me. She beamed. 

This week I will begin the hard work of revision on my two novels. From there I need to decide if I want to look for an agent or if I am going as planned into the self published route. It’s a lot, but this journey has taught me so much. Hopefully my classroom will continue to benefit from all that I learn as I go. I want to remember how brave my students are when they share bits of themselves with us. Especially through writing, but in all the ways they do. The reaction Karen gave me honors me. It makes me want to keep writing. It buoys me on the days when it’s hard, which is exactly what I want for my students.