True Story: Sweet Valley High #1 (Double Love)

This is a tough True Story to write.

Like you, I have a lot of warm and fuzzy spots in my heart for all things Sweet Valley. I grew up on Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Even as a kid, I knew the books weren’t exactly great literature, but that didn’t change my love for them! There were so many books to read, so many hilarious high school scenarios to get swept into. How many times can Jess and Lizzie successfully pull off a swap? As far as I can remember, the limit does not exist.

I’ve been teasing this week’s new episode for more than a month, and I know how excited so many of you have been to hear a Sweet Valley breakdown. We covered the thirty-second book in the series (yes, thirty-second) — entitled The New Jessica — on Episode 19, but when Grace Atwood and Becca Freeman from the Bad on Paper podcast signed on to chat about the first Sweet Valley book (Double Love), I knew it would be a totally new experience. There was something about revisiting the kickoff to the series that felt fundamentally cooler. It was going to be fun, right?

Well, I hate to say it, but it was not so fun. There was actually a lot to dislike in this book. I hardly expected to be blown away by the prose or anything, but I did not predict that it would be quitttte so problematic. This feels like a bold statement, but I’m prepared to make it: It might be the most problematic title in SSR history.

We touch on many of Double Love’s problematic plot points and characters in this week’s episode, so be sure to tune in for the full overview (apologies, in advance, for pulling back the curtain on all of this — yikes!), but…

I’m taking a closer look at some of the especially icky matters in this installment of True Story.

(You can listen to the episode here and get a refresher on Double Love from this summary, if that’s helpful.)

The characters have disturbingly inaccurate views of themselves and others.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which all of the characters were so ridiculously off-base in terms of their assessments of themselves and the people around them. As the book opens, we have Jessica talking about how unattractive she is, only so she can turn around later and congratulate herself for being so hot. We have Elizabeth constantly waffling back and forth between thinking that her sister is above reproach and, well, reproaching her. We have the entire Wakefield family making judgements about Steve’s girlfriend’s parents, even though they’ve never met them. We have an entire student body who seems totally willing to accept the suggestion that Elizabeth could have been caught drinking at a bar when all signs point to Jessica being the wilder child.

Like, WHAT?

Rick Andover actually assaults the Wakefields and it’s never really addressed.

Yes, we get a sense that Rick Andover is your stereotypical “bad boy,” and though Jessica is open to trusting him the first time they hang out, she does come around to the fact that he’s actually terrible by the end (to her credit, I guess). But I can’t help but think that the author should have been a bit more explicit about the fact that what happens between Rick and the twins is really quite serious — an assault! He pulls the girls into his car against their will and touches them in spite of their protestations. Young readers need to know that when things like this happen, it’s not enough to just roll your eyes and blame it on being a bad boy. They should be empowered to understand that it’s a much bigger deal than that and given the tools to address it head-on.

The fact that the twins think their dad must be having an affair because he’s working late with a female lawyer is both ridiculous and offensive.

My first instinct here was that this is simply a hilarious assumption. Clearly, the author wanted to add some drama to the Wakefield family so they wouldn’t be too perfect, so why not just make the twins suspicious of an affair between their father and his colleague at the law firm? Clearly, Jessica and Elizabeth are overreacting.

When I thought about it a little more, though, I realized that the assumption is also kind of offensive. We’re meant to believe that Jessica and Elizabeth are strong, independent women, but they never stop to consider the fact that Marianna West (the female lawyer who works at their dad’s firm) could actually have work to do with their father, or that she could be seeking some professional guidance. They can’t wrap their head around the notion that anything other than sex could be happening! Ugh.

This book is essentially all dialogue and description about appearances.

Maybe Francine Pascal thought that the kids and teens she was writing for would be most interested in reading conversations. And maybe most kids and teens are most interested in those elements! As an adult, though, it did kind of blow my mind just how much of this book is written in dialogue. Anything that’s not dialogue is pretty much just long-winded descriptions of how bright and shiny-looking the people and places of Sweet Valley are.

There’s no one exercising good judgement or discernment in Sweet Valley.

Everyone is jumping to conclusions and making misguided assumptions about others. There’s absolutely no critical thinking going on in this town. When you’re a teenager, it can be hard to exercise good judgment or be discerning, but I wish that there were a few more teachable moments in this book. If those ridiculous judgements and assumptions are going to fly around, fine! — but couldn’t the characters have a few more genuine moments of personal growth when it dawns on them that they didn’t think through something properly? The beauty of kid lit is that it often gives younger readers a chance to see their own mistakes reflected back at them so they can learn a few life lessons in a fun way, and I’m not sure how effectively this book does that. I’m not saying that every YA or middle grade book has to be moralistic — some titles should just be pure fun! — but there is such bad judgement happening in Double Love that I think it needs to be called out differently.

It’s hard to say who the target audience for this book is.

The reading level on this book seems to skew closer to middle school or early high school, but the content definitely seems older. I don’t think that this is an uncommon discrepancy, but it’s worth pointing out. Knowing what I know now about how this book handles relationships and sexuality (more on that below!), I think it’s particularly problematic for younger readers, who may be more impressionable and more likely to accept Jessica and Elizabeth’s behaviors as norms. I’d love to know what you think about this!

I hate everything that Double Love has to say about appearances and sexuality.

Jessica and Elizabeth spend so much of this book focused on nothing but the way that boys and men perceive them. Even Elizabeth — who we’re told is the bookish, smart twin — leads almost exclusively with her looks, instead of her brain and curiosity. Both twins are happy to accept less-than-respectful treatment from the guys in their life if it means getting worshipped and praised for their beauty. Double standards abound. There are a few scenes of the grossest kind of “locker room talk” as the boys of Sweet Valley work to unpack the mix-up with Elizabeth in the squad car. Jessica seems to revel in catcalling and other forms of unwanted male attention.

Obviously, it’s every woman’s prerogative to embrace their sexuality in the way that makes them most comfortable. That being said, Jessica and Elizabeth are not good role models for respecting and being kind to yourself in the process.

Listen to the podcast episode about Sweet Valley High #1: Double Love here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about Sweet Valley. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

Summer Reading Check-In

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but summer is almost half over. When did that happen?

I feel like it was just yesterday that I was complaining about having to wear a coat every day, and now I’m wishing that it was a little cooler so I could wear my denim jacket again. It always happens like that, and I hate it! I have all these thoughts about wanting to enjoy the seasons and then when they change and come to their most extremes, I just want the next one to come around. To be fair, summer in New York City is hard. Since we don’t tend to use cars on a regular basis, our options are either walking or the subway — neither of which is especially attractive when it’s humid and in the mid-nineties. Yuck!

But enough of my weather tirade… let’s talk about summer reading!

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Since we’ve reached the halfway point of the season, I thought it was about time that I do a little reflecting on my summer reading. This is hardly a hot take, but summer tends to be one of my favorite times of the year for digging into lots of books, for knocking titles off my TBR. Any time I get the opportunity to steal out of this icky NYC heat to a place where I can sit in the shade (or better yet, on a beach or near a pool), I somehow find myself powering through a few hundred pages in just a sitting or two. There’s nothing better than that!

So far this summer, I can’t say I’ve had that experience very much. Most of the travel we’ve had has been wedding-related, so there hasn’t been much time to spare with a book! There are a few trips planned for August, and I’m really hoping to squeeze in some of that hardcore reading time. I’m craving it!

All of this has been a kind of roundabout way to explain that my summer reading so far has been kind of… lame. My SSR recording schedule has been all over the map, too, so it’s been hard for me to find any consistency with reading “adult” books. That being said, there are a few titles that I’ve really loved! I’m not sure that I would call these typical “beach reads” (I have a few of those set aside for July and August!), but I would highly recommend them all.

This is hands-down my favorite book of the year so far (which you DEFINITELY already know if you follow me on bookstagram), and it was a great way to kick off my summer of reading. I think this is an important book for everyone to read. It gave me such an interesting perspective on the immigrant experience and the way it continues to affect families throughout multiple generations. The writing is also fantastic. Cannot recommend A Woman Is No Man enough!

I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick lately, and I especially enjoyed this one. It’s full of wild stories about the specific ways in which social media has changed what it means to be a teenager in the U.S. Honestly, it’s pretty shocking. All of the reporting that Nancy Jo Sales did to write this book was impressive, and it made me want to read more non-fiction titles by investigative journalists and written like this. It reminded me a lot of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, which is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction reads.

I wouldn’t normally include an SSR title in a round-up like this (mostly because I’m trying to mix things up a little more here on the blog!), but I’m going to have to make an exception… because rereading this book was that. good. You’ll get to tune in to the podcast episode on which we discuss it next week (it drops 7/23), but in the meantime, I fully endorse it as an addition to your summer reading list. It’s a heavy read, for sure — even more than I remembered — but so beautiful and affecting.

Remember when I said I was on a non-fiction kick? Told ya so! My book club chose this as our July pick and I’m so glad we did, because I’m not sure I would have selected it for myself otherwise. One of my reading goals for 2019 was to diversify my reading — particularly in the non-fiction space — and it’s thanks to books like this that I’m picking up steam toward accomplishing it. I didn’t know much about the Theranos scandal before Bad Blood, but the book has made me excited to learn everything there is to know about it!

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this summer? Tell me all about your summer reading on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

True Story: Bridge to Terabithia

On Episode 50 of the podcast, writer Meg Elison and I felt all of the feels in a discussion about Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Medal-winning middle grade novel Bridge to Terabithia. The book was published in 1977, but its themes of friendship and grief and self-discovery are about as timeless as it gets. Rereading this book was so much more emotional than I expected it to be, and I’m so glad Meg joined me to chat about how the author presents so many big subjects for young readers: class, poverty, relationships, grief, and the afterlife. It’s pretty heavy!

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I had no idea when I offered Bridge to Terabithia as an option for Meg that this book meant so much to her when she was a kid, and that she had even aspired to be Katherine Paterson when she was growing up! The universe works in funny ways. I’m so glad that Meg had a chance to share more about how Bridge made a difference in her life, and I think that recording this episode gave us both a chance to dig deep into the recesses of our childhood emotions. As usual, I wasn’t able to share all of my opinions about this book (there’s just so much here!), so it’s time to give you the True Story. Since we’re back from hiatus next week, I’ll finally be able to share the True Story of the book we covered on the most recent new episode in my Friday blog post, so look out for that! In the meantime…

Here are some of my additional thoughts (AKA the True Story)…

(And here’s a summary of the book if you need it!)

There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of heteronormative language in this one.

Meg and I spoke briefly about some of the heteronormative themes in this book. We also discussed the interesting dynamic that’s created when Jess is unsure of Leslie’s gender, since she doesn’t present the way that others girls he knows does. There was a lot more that I wanted to say, though, about the use of “traditional” gender roles and gendered language in Bridge to Terabithia. Yes, I know that it’s a product of a different time, but I think it’s worth mentioning, anyway.

We see it in the schoolyard, when the boys in Jess’s class are offended that Leslie would have the nerve to join their races… let alone beat them! We see it at Jess’s house, where it seems as though the only things that the girls and women in the family care about are clothes and appearances. Jess craves the kind of attention that his sisters get from their dad. “[May Belle] could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born.” Jess’s dad is the one promoting much of the heteronormative thinking in the book.

Jess is so driven to make his family — especially his dad — proud, in a way that is relatable to readers of any age.

While we’re on the subject of Jess’s dad, let’s talk about how much Jess wants to please him. Because Jess doesn’t earn validation from his father in the form of attention and physical affection (the way his sisters do), he seems to be constantly on the lookout for the smallest indication that he is doing his father proud. He spends the summer training for the schoolyard running races so that he’ll have bragging rights at home, and he never quits on the long list of farm chores assigned to him, despite the fact that no one seems to notice his efforts. All of this totally broke my heart, not only because I grew so attached to Jess over the course of reading this book, but also because this obsession with parental approval is something that so many of us can relate to, even as adults. Haven’t we all had moments of wanting to make our mom or dad proud, even if it seems like we’re not going to get the validation we’re looking for?

I liked the way this book portrayed boy/girl friendship.

All too often in middle grade books, there’s an undertone of flirtation and awkwardness permeating friendships between girls and boys. We don’t get any of that in this book! Jess and Leslie adore each other, but it’s entirely platonic and innocent. As someone who had many platonic relationships with boys when I was in middle and high school, I found this really refreshing and true to life. I appreciated that Katherine Paterson opted to never muddy the waters of Jess and Leslie’s relationship. It made their feelings for each other seem that much more meaningful and intense. They didn’t need to have crushes on each other to be in love.

Bottom line: Jess doesn’t want to share Leslie.

We’ve all been there, right? You meet an awesome new friend and you want to spend all of your time with them. The sheer notion that this friend might be able to have fun with someone else or that you would have to give up time with them so they can hang with another person becomes very upsetting. I definitely felt this way as a kid! It feels icky to say, but friendship can get a little territorial.

I recognized this in Jess’s relationship with Leslie. He is so grateful to have her in his life and he can’t deal with the thought of her bonding with anyone else. He’s not especially excited to invite kids or adults into their magical little world, whether that be Miss Edmunds, Janice, May Belle, or Leslie’s parents.

I was fascinated by the presentation of seventies culture in Bridge to Terabithia.

I’ve always loved the seventies. It’s probably my favorite era in terms of pop culture (and fashion, of course). In Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson presents a really interesting picture of the seventies, in which hippie culture is constantly at odds with a more conservative sensibility, which is extremely prevalent in Jess’s small town in Virginia. I thought it was fascinating that even the kids were aware of this divide, and that they were getting in on the “debate” by commenting on the ways in which their teachers dressed and presented themselves. Even the differences between Jess and Leslie’s families reveal a bigger picture divide between these two approaches to life.

Listen to the podcast episode about Bridge to Terabithia here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about Bridge to Terabithia. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

The 6 Hardest Things About Hosting The SSR Podcast

There are a lot of things I love about hosting SSR (and I hope you know that!), but it’s not always easy. If you’ve ever considered starting your own podcast or are simply curious about what goes on behind the scenes over here, I thought you might be interested in some of the challenges that come with having an independent podcast. I call it an “independent podcast” because I’m a one-woman show and I’m not associated with a larger podcast network!

Before you read any further, please rest assured that none of this is meant to sound whiny! I choose to continue with SSR as a passion project and I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way. The podcast and the community that it’s created (hi, you!) has enriched my life SO. DARN. MUCH over the last year, and it’s been well worth the challenges. That being said, I don’t think it ever hurts to be transparent about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here goes!

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1. Scheduling

My instinct is always to plan things super far in advance, which has served me well in the year since I launched SSR. It took me a while to figure out how much time I would need to get everything done and how much buffer time I need to build into my production schedule so I can get episodes released on a weekly basis while still keeping my cool in my work and personal lives. I don’t like to be caught in a situation where I have to record an episode the week before it’s set to drop (more on why that might be complicated below!), but rain checks and rescheduling can happen. For this reason, working with guests to set up recordings can be really stressful! It’s hard to respect their time while also staying on track with the podcast.

2. Juggling the Reading Schedule

I mentioned this briefly in my Year One recap, but it was (hilariously) a surprise to me when I realized that I would actually have to find the time to read every book being discussed on the show. How exactly did this not occur to me until after I had already started reaching out to potential guests for the first few episodes? I really don’t know. Obviously, I love to read, so I mostly enjoy doing this, but it does make it tricky for me to get to all of the “grown-up” books that I want to read. I feel like I’m always so far behind on reading new releases because I’m catching up on reading for the podcast! The upside, I guess, is that this has forced me to get clear about the books that I really want to read. It’s also helped me cut back on my TV-watching!

3. Anticipating All Possible Perspectives

While this can be a challenge, I also see it as an opportunity to learn. As you know if you’ve listened to more than a few episodes of SSR, my guests and I often find ourselves talking about big, complicated, sensitive issues — everything from race to gender to class to mental health. My hope is that listeners know that I never take for granted how personal these topics can be, but it’s not always easy to think about how to best represent that on the spot, and I know that I haven’t always gotten it right. I’ve learned better ways to educate myself and prepare for conversations that might be upsetting or triggering for people, but it’s definitely an ongoing process! It can also be a challenge to take my own politics (which I make pretty clear, I know!) out of every. single. discussion.

4. Listening to Myself Talk SO. MUCH.

I’ve always been a little self-conscious about my voice, so it’s kind of hilarious to me that I now spend so much time listening to it. Strangely enough, this is also one of the most-asked questions I get from people who are considering launching shows of their own: “Is it hard to listen to your own voice?” Well, sort of. But you do get used to it! This was a much bigger challenge for me in the beginning, especially when I started to realize just how many times I say “ummmm” over the course of a normal conversation (I edit most of them out!). More than a year in, I’m more or less desensitized to this part of it, except when I’m working on editing a recording when I know I was a little off my game. I can get really hard on myself!

5. Making Time for Production

It might seem like most (or all) of what I do for the podcast is what you hear when you listen to new episodes every Tuesday. If only that were true! Just kidding… kind of. The hour it takes to record every episode that you hear is only the beginning of what goes in to that episode. After I’ve finished reading each book, I spend at least an hour researching them — gathering various perspectives/reviews, transcribing especially beautiful or important excerpts, and developing interesting questions for the guest. After episodes are recorded, I do all of the editing myself in GarageBand. Editing a single episode can take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours (!!!!). Then, it’s time to write the intro, record it, put the whole thing together, listen through it to be sure it sounds the way I want it to, and assemble show notes. And all of this is to say nothing of the time I use to communicate with guests and get the word out about SSR!

6. Keeping Reading Fun!

Every once in a while when I’m in the thick of one of those periods where I’m seriously having to juggle my reading schedule (see above!), my husband will look me in the eye and say: “Are you sure you still love reading?” He knows me, so he knows that the answer is always going to be yes, and I’m pretty sure that he only asks to confirm that I’m keeping my love of books at the forefront of all of this. If I’m being honest, there are moments when producing and hosting the show can get really stressful and overwhelming (especially given all of the hats that I wear in my day job as a freelancer), and it’s easy to see reading as a chore. Fellow book lovers — you know that we can’t let that happen! Connecting with other readers on bookstagram has been a great antidote to this temptation. It’s so nice to be in constant communication with other people who are trying to keep their TBR in check while actually enjoying reading. Reading slumps are a real thing, people!

What else do you want to know about what happens behind the scenes of a podcast? Tell me in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

True Story: The Egypt Game

On Episode 43 of the podcast, writer and editor Andrea Bartz and I took a little trip to the land of Egypt… well, the version of the land of Egypt created by the kid protagonists in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Andrea and I reminisced about how this Newbery Honor winner had been each of our favorite favorites for a year or so when we were growing up. We swapped notes about some of the (potentially problematic) ways that our elementary schools taught about ancient and international cultures back in the nineties. We spoke about the value of imagination and the rich characters and how cool it was that the kids in this book are resourceful enough to build a world of their own in the backyard of a local antique shop without the help of Google or Amazon Prime (what? you can’t overnight magic markers? the horror!). And in true SSR fashion, we of course spoke about some of the elements of this beloved book that have aged slightly less well.

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On the whole, I’d say that the conversation that Andrea and I had about The Egypt Game back in April was a positive one. While I couldn’t say that the reread necessarily made me love the book all the more, coming back to it was a nice experience! It’s always good to be reminded of the things you were crazy about as a kid… and since the book was a favorite favorite for me, it felt that much more special.

Whenever I come to the end of a recording for the podcast, I realize that I still have notes! So many notes! I can never quite share all of my opinions about a book in the hour that I spend chatting with each guest, so every week in this True Story feature, I offer a few more observations. Typically, installments of True Story will focus on the book we’ve discussed on the new episode of SSR from that week, but since we’re currently on a brief hiatus from new episodes, I’m throwing it back to a title from an earlier show! (You can listen to the episode here and get a refresher on The Egypt Game from this summary, if that’s helpful.)

Here are some of my additional thoughts (AKA the True Story)…

The Egypt Game makes learning and curiosity look really cool.

Main characters April and Melanie bond because they are both fascinated with ancient cultures. I loved that curiosity and intelligence was the basis of their friendship! Even more, I loved that Zilpha Keatley Snyder took this idea a step further by setting up the Egypt Game as a thing that popular kids like Ken and Toby would want to be part of. The boys were so eager to be invited to play that they were willing to cut a deal with a group of girls they barely knew! I think that’s a really great message for kids who are questioning whether or not their interests or brains are “cool.”

When kids create their own world like they do in this book, it feels like they have a lot of agency.

I’ve spoken about this on a few episodes of the podcast, but I absolutely loved books in which kids were physically building their own worlds and spaces. In addition to The Egypt Game, the Boxcar Children series and Bridge to Terabithia are great examples. At the time, I think I liked imagining what it would actually be like as a kid to have access to the materials necessary to do this — and more than that, the freedom to do so in a creative way.

When I consider this kid lit trope from a grown-up perspective, I think I just loved the idea of kids my age having agency over their lives and spaces. That sense of control felt really satisfying! It didn’t hurt that I was a pretty imaginative kid myself, and I wanted to build my own world, too.

The situation with main character April and her mom is actually really upsetting.

April’s mom Dorothea is off trying to get famous (I think I refer to her as the equivalent of a Bravo-lebrity in the episode), which is why April is now living with her grandmother in northern California. Obviously, I have all of the respect for a single mom chasing her dreams, but she’s pretty negligent — and hurtful — in the way she handles the whole thing. Dorothea is barely in touch with her daughter, she keeps pushing back the date when they can be reunited for extremely vague reasons, and she even gets married while April is gone! (And you know that girl would lovvvve being part of a wedding.) While I’m sure I could put myself in April’s shoes and feel sad about all of it when I read this as a kid, I definitely found myself picking up on Dorothea’s patterns more this time around, and it broke my heart. April was such a cool and interesting kid, and I hated that her mom couldn’t see that… especially because April was constantly defending her when others had their doubts.

I don’t know that this book could have happened in 2019.

Cultural appropriation, anyone? Yeah, this would definitely be an issue today.

If, like me, you loved this book when you were growing up, I think we can agree that, since The Egypt Game was written in the seventies, it comes from a totally different context than our current one. Cultural appropriation was not part of the conversation at that time, and I have no doubt that Zilpha Keatley Snyder was actually trying to put together a cast of young characters who were celebrating Egyptian culture when she wrote this book.

That being said, I think it’s worth noting that the premise would potentially run into issues today. The kids (as much as I love them!) aren’t acknowledging the real struggles of ancient Egyptians or the existence of people in modern Egypt! Instead, their relationship with Egypt is purely performative.

The power struggles between the boys and the girls are really interesting (and funny).

We touch on this briefly in the episode, but I enjoyed this element of the book so much that I think it deserves an extra shoutout! The way that Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote the relationship between the Egypt Game’s OG ladies (April, Melanie, and Elizabeth) and the “cool guys” who eventually join them (Ken and Toby) felt so real to me. I love that the girls are on guard when the boys join them, and that they want to make sure that their ideas take precedence, since they were the ones to invent the game in the first place. There’s this weird tension underlying all of their conversations because they’re not quiiiiiite comfortable playing with each other yet, but everyone’s also trying to get their way at all times.

Small changes in language throughout the book show that April is bonding with her grandmother.

Andrea and I didn’t get a chance to talk much about April’s grandmother when we recorded the episode, but I think she’s actually a really interesting character! She’s taken her granddaughter into her home while her son’s ex is off trying to get famous (a complex dynamic in itself), and is doing her best to raise her while working full-time. And let’s be honest — I love April, but she is not an easy customer! When we meet these characters, there’s definitely an adjustment period going on as she eases into her new life.

For the majority of the book, April exclusively refers to her grandmother by her “real” name — Caroline. Yes, this demonstrates April’s sassy, independent attitude, but it also helps to make clear throughout the story that the girl is doing everything she can to maintain a healthy emotional distance between herself and her grandmother. She’s holding out hope that her mom is going to come back soon so she can resume her seemingly glamorous life in Hollywood, and as long as she doesn’t allow herself to bond with Caroline, that seems like a more likely scenario. Right? Right. There’s a very subtle shift toward the end of the book when April is involved in the dangerous attack in the land of Egypt. She starts calling her grandmother “Grandma!” It seems like she’s starting to let her walls down (Bachelorette-speak over here) and get comfortable in her new home, with her new family.

Listen to the podcast episode about The Egypt Game here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about The Egypt Game. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

Teacher Feature: Juli Stellato

Since the very beginning of the podcast, teachers have been a wonderful, active part of the SSR community. I’ve been consistently amazed by the wonderful conversations I’ve had about books and reading with so many educators via social media. In celebration of that (and because teachers are literally doing the most important job in the world), each month on the blog, you’ll find a…

Teacher feature!

This monthly series will give us a chance to learn more about the teachers in our community, the work they’re doing, and the books they love. I’m so excited about it! If there’s a teacher in your life who you’d like to nominate for an SSR blog Teacher Feature, please drop me a note! In the meantime, though, we’re kicking off the series with Juli Stellato, a first grade teacher in the Bethlehem Area School District in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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Juli just happens to be my sister (technically my stepsister, but we don’t like to use that word), and I’m so proud of her passion for her students. Outside of the classroom, she’s also pursuing her master’s degree in educational leadership with a principal certification at Lehigh University (smarty pants!). Juli will finish her degree next May, and you can bet that our whole family will be cheering louder than anyone else in the room when that happens! In her free time, she enjoys working out, running, traveling, and photography. Learn more about Juli’s work on her teacher Instagram and Twitter… and keep scrolling! Love you, Jul!

Tell us more about your life as a teacher! Where do you teach? What grades/ages/subjects?

I started my career teaching fourth grade at Fountain Hill Elementary School in the Bethlehem Area School District. I am "built by Bethlehem," having graduated from Liberty High School, so it was very special for me to receive a job within my hometown district. After my first year, I taught second grade in Fountain Hill. I will move to first grade for the upcoming school year, and I am very excited! I have loved every moment thus far in my teaching career, and I’m really starting to realize the impact I have on these young minds.

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What inspired you to become a teacher?

I sincerely love kids — it's truly that simple! I knew I was going to be a teacher from the second I could imagine myself with a job. I played around with a few other careers briefly, but I have always been led back to teaching. My grandmother, a teacher herself, always told me it was my calling, and I believe she was right!

What do you most remember about your favorite teacher from childhood?

As a kid, you always remember the teachers who go above and beyond for you. I have a handful of favorite teachers, and every memory of them revolves around the strong relationship we built. I am still in contact with some of them today, since we now actually teach alongside each other! You remember the teachers who love you and take the time to build a relationship with you.

What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

I was obsessed with Junie B. Jones as a kid!

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What is your favorite book to share with your students? What book do you think every teacher should be reading with their students?

Wonder by R.J. Palacio — I’ve said over and over again that this book is magical for young learners.

How do you cultivate a love of reading with your students?

I have learned in my time teaching both fourth and second grade that no matter what age they are, children love to be read to. I try to pick a book a year — if not two — to read aloud during any extra minutes we have at the end of each day. This shows students my love for reading, and allows them to become invested in a book. I also try to practice what I preach, so if I give the students a few minutes to read their library book (SSR!), I am finding a book to read, too. Even if the book is for my graduate classes, it still counts!

What is your favorite episode of The SSR Podcast?

I love them all, but I received a personal shout-out in the Charlotte's Web episode, so that may be my favorite!

What is the best book you've read recently outside of the classroom?

Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis truly changed my life in all the wonderful ways it could have.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

Irving Is 1!

Last week, we celebrated my podcast baby’s first birthday… and this week, we celebrate the same milestone for my dog baby.

Happy Birthday, Irv!

I know this post isn’t explicitly book-related, but you’re going to get a mix of everything here — and since Irv has basically become the official mascot of SSR ever since we brought him home in September, it seems only right that he get some dedicated space on the blog, especially for such a big occasion.

I grew up with a very special golden retriever named Jake, who my family unfortunately lost in 2017, but even before that, I’d been dreaming of having a pup of my own. Obviously, dog ownership can be a challenge in the city, and while there were many moments during my first few years in NYC when I seriously considered just going for it and figuring it out later, I deferred to my better judgement. Matt and I planned the whole “getting a dog” thing verrrrry carefully. Last summer, we decided to move out of the apartment that we’d been living in for three years — and absolutely loved — because it wasn’t big enough for our future fur baby. We knew we needed more space, so we moved into an apartment building in a neighborhood that we didn’t love quite so much. I spent months researching puppies while we packed our first home together. Ultimately, this little photo of Irving (his name was Harry at the time) was the one that captured my heart.

CAN YOU EVEN?

CAN YOU EVEN?

Irving is from a small family farm near Reading, Pennsylvania. His original humans owned two golden retrievers who occasionally ended up with a litter of puppies. They also sold veggies from their garden and had a small custom cabinetry business. I reached out to them, and we made arrangements to pick Irv up just five days after our big move. This would give us enough time to get settled, but not so much time that we would miss the squishy puppy stage! Luckily, we were both able to take some time off while all of this was happening, and I was excited that we would have the chance to bond as a new little family of three. We couldn’t have planned it out better.

As we drove the two and a half hours to Reading, I started to get nervous. I insisted on driving so that I would have a way to channel my anxious energy. As we got closer to the final destination, I was definitely freaking out. What if I had misjudged these people? What if the whole thing was a scam? What if they treated their dogs poorly? What if the puppy was nasty, or looked nothing like the photo I’d seen online? Luckily, just before I went into full panic mode, the song “Golden Slumbers” started playing on my Spotify. Is that a sign or what? I cried happy tears of relief and we went to meet our new best friend with confidence.

When we pulled up to the farm, we saw a group of little kids frolicking in the yard and jumping on a trampoline. One of the girls asked me if I wanted to meet the puppy. Duh (I didn’t say that, but you know what I mean). Irv was hanging out in a barn all by himself — the last of his litter to be picked up! — and when he saw us, his little head popped up and I was obviously in love immediately. I sat with him in the back seat of the car the whole way back to New York. We spent the next few days trying to establish some sort of potty training routine and laughing at Irv’s antics. We realized early on that we’d really lucked out with Irving. He was sweet and laidback, wasn’t very interested in chewing our things, and had very few bathroom-related accidents, even in the beginning. What a guy!

Most of you know that things took a turn pretty quickly after that. My grandmother died suddenly just four days after Irv’s Gotcha Day (on my twenty-eighth birthday). The three of us — me, Matt, and Irv — rushed back into the car, drove back to Pennsylvania, and did our best to bond and stay on track with training while the sh*it hit the fan. When we got back to Brooklyn a few days later, I was alone for the first time in days, in an empty apartment, with tons of work to do and a lot of feelings. I was also suddenly responsible for a dog full-time, without Matt to share walking responsibilities and to help me watch Irv’s every move. What I’m trying to say is that, despite the fact that we tried to plan Irv’s arrival the best we could, he ended up coming into the mix at one of the craziest (/worst) times I can remember. Isn’t life weird?

As challenging as it was to juggle all of these things while I was grieving and feeling isolated, having Irv around made all the difference for me. I’d always known that it would be nice to have a dog around during the day (since I work from home full-time), but I had no idea how much I would need a furry new pal last fall. Having a golden retriever has been one of my dreams for, like, ever, but Irving ended up being the best thing that could happen to us with everything that my family was going through. We like to think we’ve been pretty good for him, too : )

So, yes, while Irv is adorable and hilarious on Instagram stories, he’s also meant a whole lot more to me than I usually share on social media.

A few other things about Irv that you may not know: his favorite snacks are peanut butter, spinach, pumpkin seeds, and vanilla ice cream (don’t worry — we only let him have a liiiiiiittle bit). He’s terrified of cardboard boxes and any packaging that makes a crinkly noise. Every night, he sleeps with one of Matt’s old t-shirts. He really likes his alone time, and can often be found just chilling in his open crate. He loves going on adventures in the car, but does get carsick sometimes. He’s obsessed with watching sunsets. When he’s happy, he makes funny pig snorting noises. We think he has some wires crossed somewhere, because he also growls when he’s happy sometimes. He HATES taking baths. If I put music on and start dancing, he sits and gives me his paw or starts running around the coffee table. His full name is Irving Gilbert Kosik. Basically, he’s a really funny, sweet, wonderful little guy, and I am so happy that he is in our family. He has brought us so much happiness! And I may or may not be making him a doggie birthday cake to celebrate…

Here are a few of my favorite Irv photos to mark the moment! (Let’s be honest — I could go on for days.)

Wish Irv a happy first birthday in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

True Story: Walk Two Moons

Introducing… another regular series you can expect to see on the blog — True Story!

Every week on the podcast, you hear a lot of my thoughts and opinions about the book we’re covering on each episode. But you don’t get to hear all of my thoughts and opinions. Riiiiiiight? Right. While it’s important to me to be open with you about the books we discuss, my primary goal as the host of the show is to guide the conversation and get the guest’s take on things. After all, we get some pretty awesome guests, and I want them to bring their unique perspective to the topic at hand!

With the blog, though, comes the chance for me to share more of my own feelings about many of the titles we cover on the pod. Every Friday (well, almost every Friday), you can come here for the True Story — at least, IMHO! — about the week’s book. I’m excited to make this a place where you can share your own opinions and experiences, based both on your own childhood reading memories and what you thought while listening to the podcast. Let’s make the comments section a lively (and respectful, duh) place!

As you may already know, the latest episode of the show was a Q+A, so this first installment of True Story will cover the book we discussed last week, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. (Listen to the episode here! And get a refresher on the story with this summary!)

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I spend a lot of time on Episode 52 talking with my guest Katharine Scrivener (who you may know better as bookstagram’s @readwithkat) about the main plot points and character beats of Walk Two Moons, but with a book as rich as this one, it’s impossible to cover everything in just an hour. Here are a few of my other thoughts…

There are some really beautiful love stories in this book.

While romance certainly isn’t the focus of Walk Two Moons, there are a few seriously sweet love stories going on. First, there’s our narrator Sal’s budding — and EXTREMELY awkward — relationship with her will-they-or-won’t-they friend Ben. Like so many successful couples, Sal and Ben meet when they’re part of the same friend group… and like so many middle schoolers, they experience some incredibly awkward kissing attempts over the course of the book. Some of these misses were especially cringe-y, but I loved being in Sal’s head as she questioned Ben’s feelings, as well as her own.

Walk Two Moons would also not be the same without Gram and Gramps. Sal’s grandparents are free spirits who don’t seem to take anything too seriously, but their love for each other is painfully obvious. One of my favorite parts about their relationship is that it’s not perfect! There are a few references to Gram’s rendezvous with a milkman years earlier — an obstacle that these two have clearly had to overcome. But overcome it they did, and their interactions are the cutest (and the most heartbreaking at the end).

And I can’t forget the relationship between Sal’s parents! We never get the chance to watch these two interact in real time, but Sal’s memories paint a picture of real happiness.

the adults aren’t perfect… and they’re not afraid to apologize, even to kids.

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you know how much I love it when the grown-ups in kid lit prove themselves fallible. I love it even more when they actually have to admit that to the kids! Walk Two Moons takes this plot line a step further. Several of the adult characters reveal their flaws and “weaknesses” to Sal and her friends, but their teacher Mr. Birkway goes so far as to actually apologize to them! When he sends the class into chaos by reading entries from student journals aloud (you can only IMAGINE what was in there), he makes a public apology, admitting that it was a mistake to share things that should have remained their secrets.

I think it’s important for kids to see adults modeling apologies… and since apologizing doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we get older, Mr. Birkway’s example is well-taken, even for us grown-ups!

Phoebe winterbottom’s dietary restrictions seem a lot less quirky to me in 2019.

Sal’s new BFF Phoebe Winterbottom comes from a family that is very concerned with cholesterol. Dinners at the Winterbottom household are a very healthy affair. When Mrs. Winterbottom disappears, Phoebe copes with her sadness in ways that may seem unexpected. For one, she doubles down on the dietary restrictions imposed by her mom in the first place.

One evening, Sal and Phoebe are invited to have dinner at Ben and Mary Lou’s house, and Phoebe has a bit of a meltdown at the table when she finds that none of the available food is satisfactory. She goes into an extensive explanation of why each of the dishes is unhealthy, refusing to eat them all. I can only imagine that when I read this as an elementary schooler, Phoebe’s extensive list of dietary restrictions seemed completely absurd… but the conversation around food has shifted substantially over the last two decades. While I still can’t say I approve of Phoebe’s bratty behavior (there are polite ways to talk with your host about your food allergies and special dietary regimen!), I am much more sympathetic to the fact that she’s asking for certain adjustments to her meal.

Sal’s frustration about the pace of their road trip felt so real to me.

For most of the book, it’s unclear to us as readers whether Sal’s mother is dead or alive in Lewiston, Idaho… but we do know that Sal has decided it’s crucial that she and her grandparents make it to their destination in time for her mom’s birthday if they have any hope of “bringing her back.” As someone who gets very anxious about being on time (ideally, early!), I could literally feel it in my body when Sal was beginning to stress about whether or not she, Gram, and Gramps could get to Idaho by this deadline. Sharon Creech did such an amazing job of illustrating this!

There are more explicit references to mental health.

On the episode, Katharine and I talk briefly about some of the more vague references to mental health in Walk Two Moons. When the book was published in 1994, we simply didn’t have the same level of openness about the subject that we do now! The author does, however, paint thoughtful pictures of characters who are struggling with anxiety and depression, and in Sal and Phoebe’s explorations of their missing mothers, it’s impossible not to wonder if these women need more support with respect to their mental health.

There is, however, one more explicit reference to this subject that Katharine and I did not get to mention on mic. Sal’s friend Ben is staying with his cousin Mary Lou and her family, but for most of the book, we’re not totally sure why. Ultimately, we learn that his mother is a patient at a mental health facility. Sal even goes with Ben to visit her! I think it’s important for kids to understand that these resources are available and real… and that they don’t have to be scary.

sal’s relationship with her grandparents reminds me of my own grandmother.

There’s not much about the final chapters of Walk Two Moons that isn’t emotional, but the loss of Gram is probably what hit me the hardest. I lost my own grandmother very suddenly back in September, and when Sal experiences a similarly unexpected tragedy while on the road with her grandparents, it broke my heart into a million little pieces. I’m not one to cry over a book… but this one brought me pretty close to tears!

Listen to the podcast episode about Walk Two Moons here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about Walk Two Moons. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

Libro.fm Giveaway! — CLOSED

Assuming you’re up to speed on the last few episodes of the podcast, you’ve already heard me raving about Libro.fm. When the team there reached out to introduce themselves to me a few months ago, I was so excited to learn more about the platform. One of my reading goals for 2019 was to read more audiobooks, and Libro.fm’s mission has made me that much more excited to stick to that resolution!

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If you’re not sure what their mission is, let me explain… Libro.fm actually supports independent booksellers through the sale of audiobooks! For the last few years, one big company (I won’t name names) has more or less had a monopoly on audiobook downloads. If you’re like me, you don’t always like to support the big guys! Enter Libro.fm. They offer the same audiobooks — and at the same prices! — as you would find through said big company, but they allow you to support an independent bookstore of your choice with every purchase. There are so many wins going on here.

Living in cities for my whole adult life (I went to college in Washington, D.C. before moving to New York in 2012), I feel like I’ve developed a special appreciation for independent bookstores, since I’ve pretty much always had the luxury of living in walking distance of one. For the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to have Books Are Magic as my neighborhood indie. The store is so lovely and has done so much for our community here in Brooklyn. It makes me feel good to know that I can show them a little extra love when I buy audiobooks through Libro.fm (because I already spend, like, all of my money with them on physical books, anyway — oops!). You can share the same kind of love with the store of your choice when you shop this platform. Shop local, right?

As if the team at Libro.fm wasn’t already wonderful enough, they’ve offered to partner with me on a giveaway to help celebrate the launch of the blog! The timing is perfect, too, because they just rolled out a Kids Club and YA Club, which I knew you SSR fans would went to learn about. Each club will feature ten audiobooks priced at $10 or less every month. Anyway, here’s more about the giveaway…

One lucky winner will receive a three-month membership (AKA three free audiobooks of your choice) from Libro.fm!

To enter…

1. Check out this playlist that the Libro.fm team helped me create. It’s a collection of some of the titles that were most surprising to me when I reread them for the podcast!

2. Comment on THIS POST with the book from that playlist that you would most like to listen to on audio.

I’ll draw and announce the winner on Friday 7/5!

Thanks again to Libro.fm for partnering with me on this giveaway! And don’t forget — you can get a three-month membership for the price of one at any time with redemption code SSRPOD. Click here to learn more about this special offer!

Photos via Libro.fm

Three Love Stories for Three Years

I’m not quite sure why I thought it was a good idea to launch my podcast just two days after my wedding anniversary.

When I was in the planning stages of putting everything together for SSR, it didn’t occur to me that there would be quite so much to do in the final stretch before those first episodes went live. After all — I’d given myself plenty of time to get everything in order in the months before that day. It would be smooth sailing, right?

I can’t really say that it wasn’t smooth sailing — I’m a big planner, and I find that I can get almost anything organized as long as there’s notice — but I did find myself doing a lot of last-minute prep and promo while my husband Matt and I were on our second-anniversary trip to Mexico last year. As I scrambled to get the word out about SSR from our hotel room and ferociously highlighted portions of Nancy Drew from a hammock, I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe my timing hadn’t been quite right. Oops!

While it all felt a little chaotic in the moment, I kind of love the fact that I get to celebrate the anniversary of my wedding and the anniversary of the podcast (my sweet little baby passion project!) within the same 48-hour period. And now, we get to add the anniversary of the blog to the mix! I have so much to be grateful for, especially in late June.

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Matt and I were married on June 24, 2016, just short of seven years after we started dating in the summer before sophomore year of college. We had our wedding in Pennsylvania, roughly an hour from where we grew up, and although our venue coordinator came to me just thirty minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start to ask me if I was really sure that I wanted to move forward with the plan to be married outside (the sky was looking pretty dark!), the clouds cleared and we had exactly the day we wanted. I’m sure I’ll find plenty of ways to celebrate — maybe even embarrass — Matt in this space in the future, but for now, I’d like to celebrate our three-year milestone by sharing some of my favorite love stories with you. Is there any special moment that can’t be marked with BOOKS? Personally, I don’t think so.

Check out the titles below — one for each of the years we’ve been married — if you need a swoon!


The Time Traveler’s Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger

I read The Time Traveler’s Wife when I was in college and it TOTALLY captured me. At the time, I wasn’t reading a ton of books outside of what I was assigned in school, and I have such vivid memories of tearing through this one and being reminded of just how much I love fiction. It’s been long enough now that I can’t say I remember all the details of the plot, but it remains close to my heart and is absolutely among my favorite love stories. (For what it’s worth, I did not dig the movie adaptation. Such a bummer.)

One Day in December

by Josie Silver

When I picked up One Day in December a few days after Christmas last year, it was — at least in part — a case of “bookstagram made me do it.” But it ended up being so much more than that! I read Jack and Laurie’s story in just a handful of sittings, and I think it’s probably one that I’ll come back to every few years. More than any other book I’ve ever read, it gave me serious rom com vibes… and I mean that in a good way!

Tuesday Nights in 1980

by Molly Prentiss

As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most underrated books out there. It’s easily my favorite read of the last few years. The love story doesn’t necessarily have a happy, shiny ending, but I really enjoyed the gritty New York City romance. Whether you read this for the love or something else… JUST READ IT!

What are your favorite love stories??? Share them with me in the comments below or on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!**