Geography Club, Brent Hartinger

Geography Club was a book I picked up over the summer knowing full well that it was aimed at an audience much younger than me. I’m comfortable reading books meant for YA and even MG audience, and I would say this one falls somewhere in between. It’s definitely a novel I would have picked up and enjoyed in sixth or seventh grade, and as an adult, it’s a little light on the drama for me.

Part of me couldn’t help but feel that it’s a good thing though. The possibility of stumbling across a sweet, coming of age book that deals with the struggle of being a LBGTQA teen is slim. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard kids that I’ve worked with complaining about the fact that all the books that even tangentially represent them end with depression, critical injury, or death. While those books are certainly important (because sadly, those stories do represent the reality for too many teenagers), it is not the only story by a long shot.

When I was in high school, I had at least a dozen friends who had come out, not just to close friends and family, but to the school community. They were as happy as any other kid I knew, which is to say…some of the time life was good, and some of the time, it sucked. Relationships went south. Friendships were built over common interests and then allowed to slip away. Classes were hard or a snap or an escape from a difficult home life. Basically, everyone I knew, regardless of orientation, was just really busy. Rehearsals, soccer practice, Junior World Council, swim meets – endless hours, all filled to the brim.

Looking back, I feel exhausted for my younger self, but in the moment, it was ordinary. And honestly, I was less concerned with who wanted who than I was with meeting deadlines. Well, that’s not true. In locker rooms and green rooms and class rooms, we stuffed our entire social lives into five-minute between-the-bell increments. “Love” could rise and fall over the course of a single day.

This is not to say I don’t expect that relationships were harder for some of my friends than they were for me. I just don’t recall bullying being linked specifically to sexual orientation. I also don’t remember the teen mothers or the hearing-impaired students (our school had inclusive programs for both) being singled out, although it would be impossible to believe it didn’t happen. To me though, it seemed like bullying was targeted at a certain type of kid, a person who, through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, was an easy victim; in Geography Club, that kid’s name is Brian Bund.

While it’s critical to have stories about the Brian Bunds of the world (he’s actually my favorite character in this book), I also like finding a novel that’s focused less on the more on the ordinary foibles of adolescence. Yes, Russel Middlebrook is a gay teenager struggling with the decision to come out, but he’s also casually cruel in order to protect himself. He’s a clueless jock, and he’s a guy dying for acceptance when the only thing he believes sets him apart is also the thing he fears people knowing.

When it comes to deciding what sort of person he’s going to be, Russel has to choose between remaining silent in the face of hatred, or taking a stand. It’s not a cavalier decision to make, no matter how simple it may seem at a distance. I found myself often thinking of a well-known quote from a speech by Martin Nieöller that my best friend’s parents had up on their fridge throughout my childhood:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I remember wondering whether I would speak out to protect someone at great risk to myself, and I saw, over and over, how I did not. It’s incredibly hard to stand against bullies, against a frightening majority, especially during the fragile years of adolescence when everything seems impossibly significant. It gives me hope, even all these years later, to read about teenagers who choose to do it, who set an example of confidence in compassion. It doesn’t require perfection, but it does mean taking a risk, then living with the consequences.

For more about Brent Hartinger, go here.

To learn more about LAMDA Literary arm, head here.

Hurricane Story, Jennifer Shaw

On Sunday night, we got home from a three-week trip halfway across the country and back. In twenty days, we visited twelve states and drove over 6,000 miles. We visited roughly twenty-four friends (ten families), stayed in five hotels, one airbnb apartment, and in some of the most pillow-filled guest rooms imaginable (especially amusing since we packed our own beloved pillows and slept on them happily every night). We woke up at 4am in Albuquerque to see the first exquisitely peaceful dawn patrol of the city’s famous hot air balloon fiesta. We stayed out way too late in smoky jazz clubs in New Orleans. We played board games with my husband’s best friends from college, and watched his team win their homecoming game in the rain. I have a tiny clay “puppy” given to me the very first night of the trip by a new young friend, carefully protected from the ravages of the road with toilet paper wrappings, and I have beautiful autumnal pictures of Temple Square in Salt Lake City (mere blocks from where we had afternoon beers with friends who used to live down the street from us). We stargazed in Arches National Park and had catfish and green chiles and grits until all we wanted was something green. It was a wonderful trip. Exhausting and ridiculous in its scope, but still precious.

And because we were driving, I was able to justify buying a few books to add to my collection, although admittedly I forgot about most of them as they were lost under the detritus of car travel. This one though, this little volume of photographs, I’ve been carrying with me since New Orleans. My husband found Hurricane Story when we went to an after hours event at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We’d spent two hours wandering around the museum, mostly exploring the Gasperi Collection (self-taught, outsider and visionary art) while half-listening to the band that had been booked in the lobby (extremely loud punk-jazz…is that a thing? It’s what they sounded like). It was our last night in the city, and we’d spent the past few days digging into the history of the region (an absolutely fascinating part of the country I had known virtually nothing about).

I suspect that’s why I was so taken by Shaw’s story. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I remember the overwhelming imagery of a ravaged city, but I had neither been there, nor knew anyone living in the area, and it felt very removed from my life. I had no frame of reference for what was being lost, or even (despite the hours of news I watched) how it could be happening. Levies and wards were words that meant almost nothing to me. It wasn’t until I was walking the city, listening to people who had lived there for years, and exploring it for myself that I truly appreciated both the devastation and the resiliency of the community.

New Orleans is a fascinating mix of uninhibited exuberance and solemn tradition. The beads and the drinks and the food are shiny paper on a city that deserves to be unwrapped and appreciated more deeply for its political and cultural history. It wasn’t my favorite stop of the trip, but it is where I learned the most, and thought most deeply about many troubling aspects of our nation’s past and present. Shaw’s book added another dimension to my perspective of the city. I finally got to read about the hurricane nine years ago through the eyes of an artist, rather than a reporter.


For more about Jennifer Shaw, go here.

Untitled, Rainer Maria Rilke

One more week of vacation and I’ll be back full time, but for now, enjoy one of my favorite pieces by Rilke.


My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me; I stand before it like a tree;
I am only one of my many mouths,
and at that, the one that will be still the soonest.

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.

And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

I’ll be back “in the office” in two weeks, but for now, please enjoy this lovely book based on a true story about chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the story is a perfect follow-up to questions from little tikes about what makes a family a family. Spoiler alert: it’s love and commitment.

For more about the authors, head here. For more about the illustrator, this way.

Journey, Aaron Becker

From Sept 30 to Oct 21, I’m on a road trip across the south and I haven’t brought my computer with me. (Vacation! Hallelujah!) I don’t want to abandon you for three weeks though, so while I’m gone, I’ll be posting videos of some of my new favorite children’s books.

This week, I present Journey, an absolutely stunning wordless picture book I fell in love with this summer. When my mother refused to give me her copy, I ordered it from my local children’s bookstore, and the woman working there shared with me that Becker has a sequel coming out soon. (Update: the new book is called Quest, and I am already in love with it having seen the cover.) I’m incredibly excited to hear that. This book is my happy place, and I highly recommend that you watch the video in full screen, and then go get a copy for yourself.

For more about Aaron Becker, go run here.