5 YA Tropes That I'm *So* Over

When you’ve read as many YA and middle grade books as an adult as I have over the last year, you begin to pick up on some patterns. And when many of those books were written decades ago, some of those patterns begin to feel especially outdated, problematic, and, well, annoying.

A lot of those patterns make me feel like doing this…

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Here are five tropes in middle grade and YA that I find especially worthy of an eye roll.

1. Nice girls being mean to the mean girls and that somehow being okay.

(Because it’s not.)

I picked up on this trope almost immediately when I started the podcast. In the very first episode of SSR about Harriet the Spy, you’ll hear me and my guest Brittney get extremely fired up about how mean main character Harriet is to her classmates. Yes, we know that we’re supposed to think that those classmates are snobby and stuck-up and annoying… but did that really give Harriet and her friends the right to say and write horribly damaging things about them?

I saw a similar dynamic emerge in title after title — The Princess Diaries, Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock, and Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, to name a few. I’m all for putting an end to bullying and I know how sweet revenge can be, but I just don’t think that modeling this kind of you-were-mean-to-me-so-I’ll-be-mean-to-you behavior for kid readers is such a great idea. You just end up with a lot of mean kids and very few likable characters.

2. Girls “surprising” people by succeeding at certain things.

If I had a nickel for every time I read a line in one of these older kid lit titles about how a girl character can do something “just as well as the boys,” I would own a thousand books and Irving would have a thousand bones.

I don’t have much else to say about this. I know it’s most often reflective of the time period in which these books were written, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

3. Kids hating school.

Maybe I only say this because I was once a teacher’s pet and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to wake up every day and hate going to school, but can’t we make more kid characters enjoy going to school… or at least feel neutral about it? I understand that there are unique circumstances that make a classroom setting especially challenging for certain students — learning disabilities, classroom bullies, challenging situations at home — but I do find that all too often, hating school is the baseline state for characters in middle grade and YA books. I’d love for it to be the exception and not the rule!

I also get frustrated when I see kid lit portraying school in a scary way for kids. Matilda is a great example of this. Ultimately, of course, Matilda is a character who loves to learn, but Roald Dahl sets up her school as such a terrifying place that I can’t help but wonder if it made certain young readers worried about what their own school experience would be like. We talk about this a bit on Episode 3!

4. Girls needing to be rescued by dudes.

Twilight is the first book that comes to mind with this one! Not only did Bella need to be rescued from her whole lackluster existence by Edward, but she also needed to be rescued from her own clumsiness time and again throughout the story. Come on, Stephenie Meyer — let the girl have a few of her own wins! (You can hear more of my thoughts on Bella, Edward, and Jacob on Episode 17).

We see this trope popping up in all kinds of ways in other kid lit titles. In the first book in the Boxcar Children series, Violet and Jessie seem to require their brother Benny and Henry to do most of the heavy lifting if they’re to survive after losing their parents. Little Women — which is, admittedly, one of my all-time faves — contains all kinds of mixed messages about what women can and can’t accomplish without the help of a man. Book One in the Sweet Valley High series has Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield requiring male rescuing in all kinds of situations (which is really only the tip of the iceberg of issues we talk about in Episode 54).

The good news is that I think this one is definitely losing steam in more recent YA and middle grade books! I can’t remember flagging it in any of the titles I read for last year’s New Reads November. My fingers are crossed it doesn’t come up in this year’s round of newer titles, either!

5. Any and all plotlines that harp on weight and body image.

I wouldn’t consider this an unnecessary trope in any book in which weight, body image, or eating disorders are the central issue. While I haven’t read it myself, I would call Dumplin’ a good example of this. In Speak (which we talk about on Episode 39), Melinda’s struggles with her body are symptomatic of the trauma she’s dealing with in the months after a sexual assault — again, I wouldn’t call it an unnecessary trope here, either.

What does bother me is stories in which the author seems to have tossed in body image issues or relentless dieting as a generally arbitrary part of a character’s, well, character. I noted this in Go Ask Alice, Sweet Valley High: Double Love, and The Face on the Milk Carton, to name a few.

Part of my sensitivity to this is, of course, my own personal experience with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, but I also hate the fact that pop culture of all kinds has a tendency to suggest that dieting constantly and/or feeling bad about your body just comes with the territory of being a teenager (especially a teen girl).

Are there any kid lit tropes that bother you, either from your own reading experience or from what I talk about on the podcast? Tell 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!** 

True Story: Hatchet

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet was one of the books I was most excited to cover on the podcast. When I started making a list of all of the titles from my own childhood that I would want to cover once the show got up and running (well over a year ago!), I’m pretty sure this one was near the top. I have such vivid memories of reading it for the first time as an elementary schooler, and of thinking that it was so much different than any other book I’d read before. I couldn’t wait to see how I would experience it as an adult!

As you already know if you’ve tuned in to Episode 61, rereading Hatchet pretty much met my high expectations. The things I liked best about it now are different than the things I liked best about it when I was a kid, but I guess that’s the way it should be… and overall, I’d say that the two experiences balanced out so that I enjoyed the book equally both times. My guest on this episode was soon-to-be debut author Sara Faring, and we spent a lot of time writer-to-writer gushing about how beautiful Paulsen’s writing is. But, seriously. It’s very beautiful.

I had a lottttt of notes on Hatchet, and since we didn’t get to chat about them all in what essentially became a Gary Paulsen Fan Club meeting, I’m sharing the True Story below!

(Check out the episode here! Plot summary of Hatchet here!)

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I don’t think I actually knew what a hatchet was when I read this the first time…

I think I established prettttty clearly in the episode that I was firmly an indoor cat when I was growing up. And in my defense, what does a ten-year-old girl living in suburban Pennsylvania ever really need to do with a hatchet? In my experience, the answer to that question is nothing. She never really needs to do anything with a hatchet.

What is kind of embarrassing, though, is that I probably didn’t ever ask anyone to help me figure out what a hatchet was until the book was over. When I was little, I really didn’t like feeling stupid or needing to ask a lot of questions. I was told on more than one occasion that I was a bit of a know-it-all!

I’m sure I got the general sense of what a hatchet was based on the way Paulsen describes it in the book, but I definitely didn’t get a clear picture until way after the fact. If I had to guess, I would say that I probably learned the definition years later and had a moment of, “Ohhhhhhh, so that’s what that book was about!”

Brian had a shockingly mature handle on the legal nuances of his parent’s divorce.

I talk in the episode about the fact that — as a child of divorce myself — I often found myself drawn to book characters whose parents were also no longer together. When you’re a kid that spends a lot of time making plans based on whose house you’re going to be staying at on a given weekend, you can’t help but cling to that “divorced kid” identity! (For what it’s worth, I’m glad to say that I’ve moved on from that.) I think that Brian’s reflections on his parent’s divorce early in the book are probably what drew me in when I read it for the first time… because I can tell you right now that it wouldn’t have been the harrowing crash landing or the wilderness survival portions.

What is surprising about Brian’s relationship with his parents’ divorce is the extent to which he seems to understand the legal proceedings that are going on around him. He seems to know a whole lot about lawyers and how they can affect his life! My parents got divorced when I was so little that I have absolutely no memory of the legalities of all of it, so it was interesting to think about just how much a teenager might be able to pick up on in the same situation.

The heart attack scene in the beginning of the book was really hard for me to read.

Shortly after Brian boards the small plane in New York so he can fly to visit his dad, the pilot has a sudden heart attack. Brian is the only passenger, and at thirteen, he’s pretty ill-equipped to handle what’s going on!

When I read this book for the first time, I probably would have told you that some of the more survivalist scenes were hardest for me to read — eating the turtle eggs, hunting, dismantling dead animals to eat — but as an adult, it was that heart attack scene that really got me. It’s a danger that hits much closer to home!

My dad had a very sudden heart attack last summer. Thankfully, he’s okay now, but it was hard for me to read Paulsen’s graphic description of one of these episodes and to think that it could have mirrored at all what my dad went through.

The perspective shift I got with Brian’s age was particularly crazy with this book.

This is hardly the first time that I’ve reread a book for the podcast and LOL-ed about the fact that I once considered its main character a mature grown-up when they were really a teen — but it really got me with Hatchet! When I read it as a kid, Brian seemed so incredibly old to me. Maybe it was because I was in elementary school or was especially unfamiliar with teenage boys. Or maybe it was just because Brian did such an impressive job of taking care of himself for all of those days he was alone! No matter the reason, he basically felt like an elder to me. See? LOL.

Coming back to the book now having actually been thirteen myself, I couldn’t believe that Brian was going through all of this when he was so young. He was basically a baby left alone in the Canadian wilderness! Where I once felt impressed and intimidated by him, I now felt an almost maternal instinct to protect him. It was a wild perspective shift!

I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that he didn’t take the rifle…

In the final chapters of the book, Brian manages to get to a survival pack that’s been hidden in the back of the sunken plane. He takes most of the items in it, but he leaves the rifle behind. Sara and I didn’t get a chance to have a conversation about this, which is a shame, because I think that decision probably has a lot to say about the way he develops as a character over the course of the story. It’s also a really interesting moral discussion.

I’m not sure what I think Paulsen was trying to show us by having Brian leave the gun behind. Given the current conversation around guns in this country, I must say that I was happy that he did, though. Maybe he felt so lucky to have overcome all of the circumstances that easily could have killed him that he couldn’t bring himself to end someone else’s life? Maybe he realized he could fend for himself and didn’t need that kind of weapon to survive? Maybe he was scared of it? Whatever his reasons, I found that Brian’s choice made me like him that much more.

Listen to the podcast episode about Hatchet here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. 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!** 

Happy Back to School! 7 School Stories I Love for BTS

Over the last year and a half, I’ve read almost 70 books featuring tweens and teens as the main characters.

(I guess if you’re here reading the blog, you probably already knew that, though.)

Some ill-advised back-to-school fashion from my own elementary school days. Check out those jellies!

Some ill-advised back-to-school fashion from my own elementary school days. Check out those jellies!

As you might expect, this means that I’ve spent a lot of time getting reacquainted with the experience of being back in school — winding my way through crowded hallways between classes, trying to find the perfect seat in the cafeteria, and hoping to find the right friend group. It really is amazing how much life is lived in these school buildings, and the books I’ve read for the podcast have been a reminder of that for me!

With that in mind — and knowing how many students, parents, and teachers are smack in the middle of back to school season as I write this — I thought it would be fun to compile a few of the school stories that I’ve loved most in coming back to them for SSR! The titles below feature great teachers or school friends… or even just a generally awesome school vibe. I was always a big fan of school myself, so it’s really satisfying to see authors reflect that experience right back to me all these years later.

1. The Princess Diaries

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When I went to see the movie adaptation of The Princess Diaries when I was 11 (before I found my way to the book), I felt like I had never related to a character the way I related to Mia Thermopolis. Yes, she was a few years older than I was and yes, she lived with her mom in a funky converted fire station in San Francisco, but other than that, we were living the same life. Like Mia — and so many other girls in that age group — I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and unsure of how I was supposed to fit in at my school. While I don’t remember my first time reading the book quite as clearly as my first time seeing the movie, I can only imagine that it was a similar experience.

While I wasn’t crazy about Mia’s attitude toward some of her classmates when I reread The Princess Diaries for an early episode of the podcast, I did appreciate the way that author Meg Cabot described the ins and out of high school society. She does such an amazing job in this book of expressing the emotional highs and lows of being a teen, and she also drives home the importance of being able to set all of those distractions aside so you can focus on the people who really love you the most.

LISTEN: Episode 02

2. Matilda

Has there ever been a book that does more to put a love of reading and learning center stage? Personally, I can’t think of one!

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Weirdly, this was not a book that I was crazy about when I was a kid, but in coming back to it as an adult, I realized how cool it is that Roald Dahl made Matilda’s thirst for knowledge her primary — and perhaps most endearing — quality. Although Matilda’s parents try to conceal her smarts, they can’t hold her back! Her school is objectively terrible, but the special relationship that she builds with Miss Honey is proof that sometimes, all it takes to make a difference is one teacher!

LISTEN: Episode 03

3. Ella Enchanted

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Ella’s time at finishing school is actually a pretttttty small fraction of Ella Enchanted as a whole, but I can’t help but give a shoutout to any book that features a magical school setting like the one we see in this book. I always think it’s so interesting how teen and middle grade authors find unique ways to ground their characters in a fantasy world by plopping them into what may seem to many kid readers like the most mundane place in the world… school! Seeing the ways in which different fantasy authors imagine those schools is a super fun element of world-building.

LISTEN: Episode 12

4. Stargirl

So many YA books are about characters trying to find their way into the “norm” of high school culture. Stargirl is different. In the end, it’s about the title character’s journey to find her way out of that norm.

In order to get there, Stargirl does have to dabble with her fair share of conformity, but her grand entrance at the prom in the book’s final chapters is a reminder that she can never fully fit in with her classmates. And why would she want to? Stargirl is one of my favorite characters across all of my SSR reading. I’m so glad she found a way to be herself, and I like the way that author Jerry Spinelli shows her navigating that tension throughout the book.

LISTEN: Episode 26

5. Anastasia Krupnik

The vast majority of the first book in the Anastasia series takes place at home, but what strikes me most about the main character’s experience with school in this title is the way that her relationship with her teacher evolves over time and ultimately teaches her an important lesson about the value of staying open and giving people the benefit of the doubt. For much of the story, Anastasia is at odds with her teacher, largely because she doesn’t feel like her creativity is appreciated in the classroom (which I totally get!). At the end of the book, though, her teacher calls her house to check in after she finds out that Anastasia’s grandmother has passed away. Our main character realizes that she doesn’t actually hate her teacher, after all.

There’s also a fun scene in this book where Anastasia gets to go to class with her father, who is a college professor. I think it’s a fun little peek into higher education for younger readers!

LISTEN: Episode 46

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Although the main character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is dealing with several challenging, unusual experiences, much of the high school society in which he finds himself is reminiscent of quintessential teen-dom. You’ve got the football games and the cool seniors and the parties and the quirky social norms and the crushes and the drama and so much more. You’ve also got a really impactful teacher who helps the main character navigate the tougher moments in and out of the classroom.

While I personally couldn’t relate to a lot of Charlie’s specific circumstances, I heard the echoes of my own high school experience in suburban Pennsylvania throughout this story. High nostalgia factor on this one!

LISTEN: Episode 55

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7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Has there ever been a school more fun to read about than Hogwarts? I’ll wait…

I already mentioned above my fascination with school settings in fantasy worlds, and J.K. Rowling is (clearly) a master of it.

LISTEN: Episode 60

What is your favorite school story from your childhood? Tell 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!** 

Teacher Feature: Kate Czyzewski

It’s back-to-school week for so many teachers and students around the country, and I can’t think of a better time to roll out our second-ever…

Teacher Feature!

(Check out the last one here).

Our August spotlight teacher Kate Czyzewski — who you may know better from bookstagram as @thesaltybookworm — was nominated by multiple people! In addition to our love of books, Kate and I have bonded throughout the last year over a shared love of the Jersey shore, so I was thrilled to see her name pop up when I put out the call for nominations last month.

You’ll learn more about Kate’s life in the classroom as you scroll, but you should also know that she’s on a mission with her bookstagram pal Nikki (AKA @saturday_nite_reader) to spread a love of reading throughout the Garden State! “I feel so strongly that books are making a comeback in a big way, especially with how many first-time authors are being published,” Kate says. “It’s a great year for reading!”

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A few years ago, Kate got news of an untimely diagnosis, and since then, she’s been embracing and making time for what brings her joy: all things books! She spends the summers at the Jersey Shore (a girl after my own heart!), where she loves to visit the Little Free Libraries that tend to be quieter in the off-season. If you happen upon one of those Little Free Libraries and see a children’s classic there, it might just be from Kate!

I love being along for the bookstagram ride as Kate spreads her love of reading, and it’s my honor to take a moment to celebrate that and all of the amazing things she does for her students in this Teacher Feature. Thanks for all of your hard work, Kate!

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

I teach at Livingston Public Schools in Livingston, New Jersey. I teach seventh grade Special Education and Language Arts. I am a resource room and in-class support teacher.

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What inspired you to become a teacher?

My grandmother! She was a kindergarten teacher for almost forty years. She was the epitome of a great teacher through and through. She “played school” with me and my brother before we actually went to school! Not only has she inspired my calling as a teacher, she has helped make me a lifelong reader. As each new school year begins, I think of her fondly and hope that I am making her proud.

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

Some of my favorite teachers are those from my elementary school days. My second and third grade teachers — Mrs. Schefter and Mrs. Machesca — were inspiring. I remember them always being so ecstatic about whatever it was we were learning for the day. They were also structured and ran well-organized classrooms. As a teacher now, I admire their balance of fun with what were also very formative years of learning critical skills.

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What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It's probably one of the more simplistic children's books written, but it is one that is always a go-to for me. It reminds me to enjoy the small moments in life. Something as simple as a snowy day can have a lasting memory!

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

My favorite is The Outsiders, which we study every fall with my students. This is a book that makes some of my non-readers into readers. I get so excited to share the friendship of Ponyboy and Johnny with them. They are always impressed to know that S.E. Hinton was only in high school when her publishing deal came through!

FUn fact: Kate’s dog is named Boo Radley!

FUn fact: Kate’s dog is named Boo Radley!

I have two answers to this question about books that other teachers should be sharing with their students. For elementary teachers, I suggest Charlotte's Web. This book teaches us that friendship can be found in the most unlikely of places. It also cultivates a love for animals. For the older students, I believe every student should read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know it tends to be a go-to classic for many, but the themes discussed in this book still hold true today. A must-read!

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

This is a constant work in progress for me as a teacher, especially in special education. I work with some students who struggle with reading, so reading is something that, at times, gives them anxiety. In the past few years, since starting @thesaltybookworm and @gardenstatebookswap, I've used the idea of social media to cultivate an excitement about reading. I believe that reading doesn't have to be an "alone" activity. When the students see me getting excited about a new book release or an author visit at school, they get excited, too. Readalouds are so important and underrated. When we begin our first novel unit each year, I take my students to my reading corner and read aloud the entire first chapter with them. Like any book that any of us read, it has to engage us from Chapter 1!

What is your favorite episode of The SSR Podcast?

The Face on the Milk Carton and The Outsiders episodes

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

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

**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: Ender's Game

One of the things that I love most about SSR is that it gives me the chance to read books that I missed as a kid or teen and probably would have learned nothing about if I wasn’t hosting this kind of podcast. Ender’s Game is surely one of those books. It wasn’t on my radar when I was growing up, and since I’m not a big science fiction reader as an adult, I wouldn’t really have a reason to give it a shot for purely personal reasons in my grown-up life. Still, I knew that the book was a pretty big deal within its genre.

What I didn’t know until I was preparing to interview my guest Katy Rose Pool for this episode was that the author Orson Scott Card — though once technically a big deal within the genre, as well — has since become a very problematic, polarizing figure. It’s amazing what you discover!

Even with the author’s controversial viewpoints in mind, I’m glad I got the chance to read Ender’s Game, if for no other reason than I know it’s played an important role in the lives of many science fiction fans. I’m also glad that I had the chance to learn more about why Orson Scott Card has lost the respect and support (and rightfully so, in my opinion) of so many people in the years since the book made him famous. As far as I’m concerned, these facts don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

In reviewing my notes from the book and thinking about my discussion with Katy on the podcast, I honestly feel like we covered a lot of my questions and opinions in the scope of our conversation… so this is going to be a pretty short edition of True Story.

Still, there are a few thoughts I didn’t share in the episode. Here’s the (brief) True Story behind Episode 59.

(Check out the episode here and get a refresher on the plot of Ender’s Game here!)

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I did find that the book was a little long, on the whole.

I’m not one to shy away from long books, but I think that Ender’s Game probably could have been about 100 pages shorter. I could have done without a few of the battles that we witness in Battle School, and I didn’t need to see Ender be bopped around to quite so many armies as he was trying to find his place in the school’s social hierarchy. I understand that these kinds of details probably appeal to a certain kind of reader, but it went on long for me!

I would encourage you to check out the timeline around the brewing controversy with Orson Scott Card.

Katy and I spend quite a bit of time at the top of the episode talking about Orson Scott Card’s problematic politics. For the most part, we speak broadly about them, acknowledging how they are at odds with the seemingly inclusive, loving messages of the book and talking about how hard it can be when you discover that a piece of work that’s important to you comes from a damaging source.

If you’re interested in getting more into the specifics of Orson Scott Card’s hateful viewpoints, I would suggest you take a look at this timeline. It lays out all of the events that have built up our new (negative) perspective about this author so that you can make your own judgements!

I enjoyed a lot of the kid characters.

As much as Ender struggled to bond with his peers at Battle School, when he finally did make friends, he definitely found his way to the right people. I really loved the kids that he bonded with!

Bean and Petra, in particular, were extremely endearing. Katy shared with me in our conversation that some of the author’s additional books are actually written from Bean and Petra’s perspectives. In all honesty, I’m not sure that I feel motivated to read any of those other titles, but it does make me happy to realize that other people were interested enough in these characters that they ultimately merited their own books, too. It sounds like they may have some cool back stories!

The twist at the end really is one of the best I’ve ever read.

When I discovered that Ender wasn’t actually participating in war simulations, but was actively invading the Bugger home planet and was unknowingly responsible for an unprovoked genocide, I was genuinely shocked. Of all of the twists and surprises that Orson Scott Card could have added into the last few chapters of the book, I definitely did not see this one coming. In hindsight, I’ve gotta say — it’s pretttttty twisted. It’s crazy to think that the author likely had that twist in mind throughout the process of writing the rest of the book, and it’s interesting to consider how the rest of the plot leads up to it.

Listen to the podcast episode about Ender’s Game here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. 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!** 

7 Reading Lessons from Nana

I spent this past weekend back home in Pennsylvania. There are a lot of August birthdays in my family, one of the most important of which is my Nana’s. As you probably already know if you’ve been part of the SSR community from the beginning, we lost my grandmother very suddenly last September (on my birthday, actually). The year since her death has been hard on all of us, and none of us knew how it would feel to wake up on her birthday, this time without her. I’m so glad that I spent the occasion with my family so that we could support each other. As we approach the one-year anniversary of losing her, I do my best to celebrate her every day.

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Nana was the only person who loved books as much as I do — in fact, she’s one of the people most responsible for making me a reader — so it seems only fitting to pay tribute to her and some of the lessons she taught me about reading in honor of her birthday. My mom and I lived with my grandmother for a big chunk of my childhood and she and I had a very special relationship, so it’s hard for me to put into words how all of this has felt. But she and I always shared books, and I like to think that reading allows me to stay connected with her, even though she’s not here with us anymore.

Here’s what she taught me about books in the twenty-eight years we had together…

1.Read outside of your comfort zone.

Nana was always quick to tell me about the books she’d been reading, and because she was (truly) the smartest person I’ve ever met, I was often just as quick to assume that any book that she’d enjoyed was probably over my head or out of my genre. As proud as I always was to hear that she and I were similar, I also couldn’t fight the instinct to do my own thing and prove that we weren’t exactly alike. I always saw Nana as more intellectual than I could ever be (though I totally own being smart!), and because of that, I could be stubborn about taking her recommendations. But guess what? Every. single. time. I got out of my own head and my own comfort zone and picked up the book she suggested, it was the best book I’d read in months. In the year since she’s been gone, I’ve tried to push myself in the same way she would have pushed me.

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2. Books are for sharing and lending and talking about.

Like me, Nana was an introvert, but she believed that reading shouldn’t be a solitary activity. Books should be discussed and gifted and loved and lent! She was always generous with her own book collection, and as much as I like to hoard the titles I have on my shelf, I try to think of her whenever I have the opportunity to let a friend borrow something. I actually still have a stack of books that Nana gave me to read in the months before she died, and I’m so grateful. Since we shared such a love of reading, that stack (which I still haven’t touched, to be honest) is just as valuable to me as her beautiful jewelry.

3. When it comes to books, more is more.

When I was in sixth grade, my mom and I started living with Nana, but until then, one of the highlights of my summer vacations was the week I would spend at her house every year. She’d pick me up and drive me to New Jersey and we would enjoy long days together sitting out by her pool with our books and nights eating ice cream and watching PBS specials. One of the first stops of every summer trip was the local Barnes & Noble, where Nana would essentially let me loose to grab as many books as I could carry. She never questioned why I was choosing a particular book or if I really needed all six books. She loved spoiling the people she cared most about, and since we both adored books more than anything else, it was especially fun for her to spoil me with them. I tend to be a little more conservative about buying things, but I channel Nana whenever I’m in a bookstore debating whether or not to buy something! She did not believe in moderation… and when it comes to books, I can totally get on board with that.

4. Reading is best done outside and/or with snacks.

My favorite way to think about my grandmother is sitting out by her pool with a big bowl of cantaloupe or a big chocolate chip cookie on a plate. She could make a snack last for hours while she made progress in a book. Nana was a teacher and then a principal, so this is how she spent all of her summer days, even before she retired. She also loved nature, and she was always so happy sitting out on the deck of her house with her breakfast and a stack of newspapers (always The New York Times).

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5. Don’t be afraid of the big book.

Nana always encouraged me to read above my grade level when I was a kid. As a little girl, I loved exploring her massive bookshelves and pulling off titles that sounded interesting. She never once told me that I was too young to read something. Thanks to her, I was reading She’s Come Undone in middle school and attempting to read James Herriot in elementary school. Maybe I wasn’t technically ready for those books at that time, but her encouragement gave me confidence. I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t at least trying to read adult titles, and I think that has a lot to do with my grandmother and her easy acceptance of my curiosity. She always gravitated toward biggggg tomes (the kind that I often wrote off as too intellectual when she’d recommend them to me as a grown-up!), and I like to think of her any time I embark on a lengthier volume myself.

6. When in doubt, buy the book.

Remember that whole thing about more is more and about never exercising moderation? Yeah, I just needed to drive that home. These days, I buy books to honor my grandmother, and I always laugh a little to myself when I realize that a recent purchase wouldn’t meet her approval. She believed that a book was a more worthwhile investment than anything else, and I like to think that counts even for “bad “ ones.

7. There is no better use for your free time than to read.

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Throughout the seven years that I lived with Nana (through middle and high school), I could almost always count on her to be waiting for me when I got home from school. She retired as I was starting my freshman year, and even though giving up the career she loved was a real challenge for her, she eventually embraced the free time it afforded her by reading even more than she had before. During the mornings, she’d often be out walking her dogs and going to volunteer meetings at our local art museum, but in the afternoon, it was usually time to cuddle up with a good book. I’d find her with her legs thrown over the side of an overstuffed armchair, focused intently on whatever she was reading. She always had an afternoon coffee, which she often covered with a small glass plate (weird what you remember, right?). When I got home, she’d take a break so we could have a snack and catch up on our days. Watching her transition gracefully into retirement with the help of her books made me realize that spending free time with books is a surefire way to feed your brain, learn, and also have fun. I hope to spend just as much time reading when I retire someday!

Who in your life has taught you the most about being a reader? What was their best lesson? Tell 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!** 

True Story: Go Ask Alice

This week’s episode of the podcast was all about Go Ask Alice, and all I can say is…. WOAH. This book! This episode! The response from all of you!

As you know if you’ve already listened to Episode 58, this was the first time I ever read Go Ask Alice, but even beyond that, I knew very little about the book when Abbe Wright suggested we discuss it for her episode. Since I came into the experience with only minimal information, it was that much more surprising to discover that the book was so graphic and that the back story around it was so complicated. Clearly, many of you were just as surprised as I was! (For those of you who haven’t listened yet, we spend a lot of time chatting about the fact that the book’s “Anonymous” authorship is kind of a big, fat lie. Originally billed as the diary of a real teenage drug addict, Go Ask Alice was actually written by a middle-aged Mormon youth counselor named Beatrice Sparks. Kind of an important piece of information to leave out, no? Since I was new to the book, I thought I was the only one late to the party on this news, but it seems that many people were operating under the assumption — reasonably, since the publisher sold it this way — that it was, indeed, a diary.) It’s okay, friends… we’re all in this together.

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Literary hoax aside, I have some other thoughts to share about Go Ask Alice.

Here’s the True Story on Episode 58.

(For helpful context, listen to the episode here and brush up with a summary of the book here.)

The heavy-handed body image stuff in the beginning of the book was hard for me to read.

If you’ve been part of the SSR community for a while, you know that I’m particularly sensitive to depictions of unhealthy body image and food habits in YA. The first part of Go Ask Alice was chock full of this kind of content! The narrator spends a lot of time talking about her efforts to lose weight in preparation for her move, and goes into great detail about how little she eats to make this happen. Logically, I can see that this was probably how her anxiety and depression was manifesting itself prior to her drug use, but it was still hard for me to read.

I wish there had been more of a direct conversation around the mental health issues that the narrator was experiencing.

Toward the end of the book, the narrator’s family commits her to a mental hospital in hopes that it will give her the resources she needs to tackle her addiction. Before that, though, there’s little reference to the health issues happening below the surface that are fueling her addiction — and even after she finds herself in the hospital, the narrator doesn’t seem to have developed a vocabulary around what she’s feeling.

If Go Ask Alice really was the diary of a teen, then I guess this lack of explicit conversation around mental health would make more sense. Most teenagers don’t have command of the language around these topics! Beatrice Sparks, on the other hand, was a youth counselor! Given her background, I feel like she missed an important opportunity to educate her young readers about the mental health issues wrapped up in addiction. She was so heavy-handed about so many other aspects of this book… why couldn’t she have been heavy-handed with this? It would have been a service to her audience in the long-term.

Sadly, the book speaks to the fact that it’s really hard to start over with your reputation in high school.

I ached for the narrator when she tried to go back to business as usual at school. After running away from home multiple times and struggling with her addiction, she just wanted to try to set things right and be a normal kid. The barriers that her classmates set up to make this difficult for her really broke my heart. They want to keep her in a very small box, which ultimately sets her up to fail in her recovery journey.

The narrator’s experience with trying to start over in high school is obviously a highly specific and extreme one, but it speaks to a fundamental challenge of being a teen: kids are not always forgiving, and they’re often not ready to be supportive in a personal evolution. So many teenagers experience this to different degrees when they’re in high school, and this variation of it was particularly hard to read.

There’s a queer reading of Go Ask Alice that we didn’t have time to touch on in our conversation.

This isn’t my theory, but it’s one that I stumbled upon while researching for the episode, and Abbe and I just didn’t have time to discuss it! I would encourage you to take a look at this 2018 essay from The Paris Review. I found it especially interesting given the fact that I can only assume that Beatrice Sparks has a more conservative, heteronormative worldview.

I’m still wondering how I think the publisher should be packaging the book now.

One of the questions that I jotted down in the margins of my copy of Go Ask Alice was this: “What should the publisher be doing differently now in terms of packaging the book?” Since so many people are now aware of the true origins of the book — at the very least, the story is now widely available on the Internet and Beatrice Sparks has spoken fairly openly about it — I can’t help but wonder why it’s still being presented the same way as it always has been. Why are we still pretending that it’s a real diary by an anonymous teen? The intro literally says just that. Books are reissued with new intros all the time!

I would love to see a new edition with an update to the author attribution and a new introduction. As Abbe and I discuss on the podcast, I don’t think that the true backstory of Go Ask Alice somehow disqualifies it from being a worthwhile or impactful read, so why can’t we just be honest about where it came from? I don’t necessarily agree with Beatrice Sparks’s process in putting the book together (or at least, I don’t agree with what I read about it in my research), but she did have good intentions. I think that modern readers would appreciate the whole truth in the book itself. It’s actually kind of a fascinating story… tell it!

Listen to the podcast episode about Go Ask Alice here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. 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!** 

Thoughts on Book Club

About two and a half years ago, I started a book club.

My friends and I had been talking about it for ages. I tend to run in circles with a lot of fellow bookworms, and throughout the years that I spent working in publishing, my pals were always encouraging me to get the group together for a book club so that I could share all of the secrets I was getting on the job. At that point, my enthusiasm for reading had (sadly) hit somewhat of a low because of my mixed feelings about work, and I couldn’t see adding something new to my plate. So we just kept talking about it for a few months.

After I left my full-time job in publishing to pursue freelance writing full-time, I decided that the book club was seriously overdue. My schedule had shifted so significantly and I finally had the time to devote to coordinating it, and as happy as I was to be out on my own professionally, I was seriously feeling the loss of the book talk that I’d been lucky enough to have so frequently in my publishing job.

I finally did it! I finally started the book club!

Our first meeting was planned for February 2017. At this moment, we were all good and mad — and so many other things — about the results of the 2016 election (TBH, I’m still good and mad and so many other things about it), so the initial thought was that we would focus on feminist authors and titles so that we could really get and stay educated when it felt like there were few other things we could do. We used Emma Watson’s reading list as inspiration and chose Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman as our first read. I can’t say that the book was a hit (sorry to those who loved it!), but the process of coming together to talk about a book that some of us may not have picked up otherwise definitely was. We got our March 2017 meeting on the books and have been meeting almost every month since.

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In that time, we’ve picked up a few members and (unfortunately) said goodbye to a few others. We’ve eaten a lot of good snacks and sipped on all kinds of mediocre wine. We’ve cheered each other on through promotions and engagements and frustrating negotiations at work and so many other things. We’ve had some really intellectual conversations and some that I can only describe as the opposite of really intellectual. We’ve loved some books and strongly disliked others. All in all, our meetings are consistently among the highlights of my month and I encourage everyone I know to join or start a book club… even if they wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves big readers!

Here are a few thoughts on how I think book clubs can work best.

1. Smaller groups can be better.

Our book club has always consisted of fewer than ten members, and while I’ve talked to other people who think that bigger is better, I think that keeping it on the small side has been to our benefit. Each member of our book club knows that they’re an important part of the group, which makes it harder to disengage or to bail on a meeting just because you don’t feel like going. A smaller group also makes it easier for everyone to be heard, which is (in my opinion) the most important part of a successful book club.

2. It’s important to set dates in stone ASAP.

We all know how Type A I am, and that served me really well back in 2017 when we were trying to get the book club off the ground. My book club is made up of some of my closest friends, so it would have been really easy for us to take the approach of “we’ll figure out when we want to meet to talk about the book next time we see each other!” But we didn’t go that way! Instead, we set the expectation that we would never leave one meeting without having a date on the calendar for the next meeting (or at least a date that we could use as a starting point and rain check). This helps us keep the ball rolling!

3. Planning time to have non-book related conversations is totally fine… and actually pretty great.

I know a lot of people joke that book clubs are really just wine-drinking clubs where people happen to talk about books occasionally. I find that this feels a little offensive — especially because it’s almost always directed at book clubs made up of all women — but I’m also willing to admit that there have been times when my own book club has spent more time on personal chatter than we did on the book. And that’s okay! Often, the book we’re talking about inspires us to share things about our personal lives that we wouldn’t have otherwise. As a result, I’ve learned so much about people that I already considered close friends! Even if we spend a lot of time on book talk during a meeting, we also like to hold about 20 minutes open at the end to go around the group for updates. Sometimes, we also share our roses and thorns of the last month. You know how much I love to talk about books, but book club has also become a nice guarantee that I’ll have the opportunity to check in with my pals on a regular basis… and I appreciate that just as much as the book conversations.

4. Shake up your book selections!

As you may have guessed after my lukewarm reference to the first book we ever read as a group, we have moved away from focusing solely on officially feminist reads. That being said, we do like to read books written by female authors whenever possible, and we try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction somewhat regularly so that we are holding each other accountable to learn new things and stay informed. The women in my book club are all super smart and opinionated, and there’s generally at least one person every month who wasn’t thrilled with the book we chose. We try to let their feedback inform our choice for the next month so that everyone stays motivated to keep up with the reading and so that everyone is periodically being challenged with a book choice that may not have come naturally to them.

5. Celebrate the seasons.

We like to read a romance for our February meeting (last year, we read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and this year, we read Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating, so there’s been quite a range!) and we lean toward beach read-style fiction in the summer months. We try to look for “cozy reads” in the wintertime, which can mean a lot of things. In between, we slot in lots of memoir and non-fiction.

6. Use Bookstagram!

I didn’t get seriously into bookstagram until I launched the SSR Instagram feed in May 2018, but my title recommendations for book club got so much better after I did! Because we are such an opinionated group, it can take forever for us to agree on a book for the coming month, and it’s nice to be able to pull up my Instagram feed and offer a few suggestions based on what I’ve been seeing around most often. If you’re like me and often find yourself getting overwhelmed by the sheer number of books out there in the world waiting to be read, bookstagram is a really good place to start!

7. Go for books that everyone isn’t going to love.

Every once in a while, I like to come prepared with a suggestion that I have a feeling is going to spark some interesting, slightly divided conversation. I happen to have a book club meeting tonight, and I’m planning to push Three Women. I’ve seen such rave reviews and frustrated commentary about this one, so I think it’s a great choice. Plus, I’ve been dying to read it myself!

Are you in a book club? What’s the best book club book you’ve ever read? Tell 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!** 

True Story: Running Out of Time

Hey, friends! As you probably already know if you follow SSR over on Instagram, I was spending some quality time with my family at the Jersey shore earlier this week! We’ve been taking this trip every year since I was born, and while it’s changed over time — as my sisters and I get older, we’re not all able to stay for the whole trip, etc. — it’s a special tradition that I wouldn’t trade for anything. And while I did spend a few hours working each morning, I was able to be mostly out of the office for three days, which is very rare around here. Fun fact: it’s really hard to be 100% on vacation when you work for yourself. The good news is that this is the third family beach trip I’ve gone on since I started freelancing full-time, and I definitely did the best job yet of getting things lined up so I’d be able to take more of a breather. Yay!

The bad news, of course, is that the second half of the week (since I’ve gotten back to New York) has been a little crazy. This is true of every post-vacation reentry to real life, and I just happen to be turning around and getting back on the road again later this afternoon for a friend’s bachelorette party in Newport, Rhode Island. It is a crazy season of life that we’re in right now and my Type A self is slowly getting better at adjusting to the chaos as we go.

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With all of that said, this is going to be a shorter-than-usual edition of True Story… but I couldn’t miss the chance to post it! If you’ve listened to this week’s episode of the podcast, you already know how obsessed I was with Running Out of Time when I was growing up, so it’s about time that I share even more of my feelings about it — especially the ones I didn’t mention while I was recording with Rebecca.

So here’s an abbreviated(-ish) True Story post all about this 1995 thriller novel by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

(Need a refresher on this time-bending read? Check out the podcast episode here and a plot summary here.)

There’s a lot of interesting stuff around gender happening in Jessie’s village.

When we meet Jessie, she thinks of herself as a pretty average nineteenth-century tween. She’s going about her business in what she assumes (for good reason) is 1840s Indiana, and so she accepts as normal many of the cultural norms that are presented to her. As you can probably imagine, plenty of those norms come into play where gender is concerned.

In describing her own lack of fear of wild animals, the author refers to Jessie in relative terms to the boys in the village — “She was braver than anybody; she took more dangerous dares than the boys at school.” Jessie and her sister argue over the “proper” role for women in society, since the former has ambitions of becoming a doctor while the latter insists that there is no such thing as a woman practicing medicine. There’s even a reference to a minister named Reverend Holloway, who preaches the importance of women being obedient to their husbands.

I can only assume that the author put most of these elements into play in the book so that Jessie would be that much more surprised by the culture shock she experienced when she found herself in what she learned was the “modern” world, but still! These stunning gender disparities make a big impact on the boys and girls in the village.

Jessie’s caught the “cool girl syndrome” that we talk about sometimes.

I’ve read quite a bit about “cool girl syndrome” — the idea that some girls put themselves in direct opposition to everything that’s traditionally considered feminine for the sake of being too cool for school. Girls who actively reject girlfriends in favor of hangin’ out with dudes, for example, are poster children for this phenomenon. I don’t think there’s a value judgement to be made about “cool girl syndrome.” It’s simply an interesting concept to think about and to be on the lookout for in various forms of media. In rereading Running Out of Time as an adult, I realize that Jessie was probably one of the first cases of “cool girl syndrome” that I encountered growing up.

The more I think about how much pressure was on Jessie, the harder the story is to believe.

Her mother literally made her responsible for solving a diphtheria epidemic that was affecting her entire community… and she had to do it in a time and place that was entirely unknown to her. It’s just a litttttttle pressure on a thirteen-year-old. To Jessie’s credit, I think she handles it about as gracefully as could be expected!

Jessie is nearly a victim of assault and we kind of brush past it.

We spend a lot of time in the book on the so-called “fake Isaac Neely” — the man who Jessie thinks is going to help her get access to the medicine that her community so desperately needs, but who actually wants things to continue just as they are in Clifton so that its residents can go on participating unknowingly in genetic research — his attempt to murder Jessie, and her harrowing escape from him through the window of his house. It’s seriously scary stuff.

But what about the super creepy near-assault that happens when Jessie finds herself chatting with a carful of teenaged boys while she tries to find her way to Indianapolis? The boys taunt her and tease her and the whole situation is generally harrowing. When I read this as a kid, I probably brushed past it, thinking it was kind of a “boys will be boys” situation (shudder). This time around, I felt scared for Jessie. Based on their behavior, I felt sure that the boys were going to try to pull her into their car and assault her. It was a totally different reading experience!

Bravery — what it looks like, why it matters, why it’s different for everyone — figures heavily into the book.

Among her family and in her community, Jessie is considered “the brave one.” Her sister Hannah, in particular, seems to feel some shame about the fact that she’s not as courageous as Jessie, but at the end of the book, the two have a conversation about the brave things that Hannah had to do while Jessie was off searching for the medicine. Hannah tripped their teacher when it becomes clear that he’s on the wrong side of things, and she tells Jessie that she did it because she thought it was something she would do. And Jessie admits that she was trying to channel Hannah in her journey out of Clifton, because she knew how important it would be for her to be cautious. In that moment, they both realized that they had something to teach and offer the other — and that bravery can come in different forms.

Seriously… did I mention how much I loved Colonial Williamsburg?

Yes, I know I brought this up several times on the episode. But I really need you to know how serious my obsession was.

Listen to the podcast episode about Running Out of Time here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. 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!** 

True Story: The Outsiders

I always feel kind of guilty if there’s a classic, seemingly essential title that I’ve never read. In the year or so since I’ve started the podcast, I’ve realized that there are a lot (like, a lot) of books that fall into this category.

In my defense, I pretty much always did my required reading in school. There were a handful of books that I was supposed to read for English class over the summer when I was a teenager that I may or may not have skimmed (I’m looking at you, Lord of the Flies), but for the most part, I read everything I was supposed to. This leads me to believe that my school district perhaps shied away from assigning some of the reading that’s commonplace for other districts. I grew up in a somewhat conservative area, so I’m sure that has something to do with it.

S.E. Hinton’s iconic The Outsiders definitely falls into this category. From chatting with several of my friends, I know that this book made at least a few required reading lists around the U.S., and a quick Google search confirms it. I don’t think that The Outsiders was even on my radar in high school, which goes to show how little my teachers and librarians were talking about it!

Over the years, I’ve heard that famous phrase “Stay gold, Ponyboy” over and over again in various pop culture moments, and I’ve heard The Outsiders — both the book itself and the movie adaptation — mentioned many times. That guilt came creeping in! How dare I call myself a book lover when I haven’t opened a story that’s clearly been so formative for so many?

As it tends to do, SSR came to the rescue. I was thrilled when Esther Zuckerman — this week’s guest, who I met for the first time when I was 17 and at journalism camp at Northwestern University — opted for The Outsiders on her episode of the podcast. Like me, she was never assigned the book in school, so we were both looking at the experience as an opportunity to finally get caught up to speed on some legendary American literature.

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Esther is an entertainment journalist, so it was really interesting to chat with her about the broader pop culture implications of The Outsiders, which is the story of Ponyboy and his role in a gang of “Greasers” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The episode itself is a reunion of sorts, since Esther and I haven’t spoken in about a decade! We both had so much to say and probably could have gone on about this book for another hour or two.

So here it is, gang (see what I did there?) – my True Story on The Outsiders.

(Brush up on the details! Listen to the podcast episode about the book here, and read a summary of it here.)

The Outsiders presents a different kind of adult-free world than we’ve seen in other books for the podcast.

In the fifty-plus books I’ve read for SSR over the last year, I’ve picked up on a common theme: kids get to have much cooler adventures when they’ve found themselves plopped into a world without adult supervision. Often, this manifests in less extreme ways — in The Egypt Game, for example, all of the parents in the community have to work a lot, leaving the kids plenty of time and freedom with which to build their land of Egypt in the backyard of an old curio shop. Generally speaking, this absence of adults can read as an almost positive thing in middle grade and YA books… especially when parents or other guardians are still close at hand enough to show up when the going gets tough.

The Outsiders is different in that pretty much all of the teen characters we meet operate without adult supervision, but it doesn’t seem like an especially fun or freeing circumstance. If anything, it puts the boys constantly on-defense and in survival mode. It was refreshing to see what has to be a much more authentic portrayal of life without parental or family support. The Greasers didn’t have the luxury to go on the kind of parent-free adventures that we read about in other books, because there was no real safety net behind them!

I wanted to learn more about the girls who were adjacent to each of the gangs in the book.

We get this a little bit with Cherry and Marcia — two Soc girls who Ponyboy meets at the beginning of the book — but I would have really liked to learn more about the boy/girl dynamics in these gangs. Ponyboy’s general thoughts on the kind of girl that he’d like to be with made it very clear that relationships in his circles were dictated by class. Why didn’t we meet any Greaser girls in the story?

One specific thing that I thought was really interesting about Cherry and Marcia was the extent to which they seemed to understand that they were pawns in the weird power struggles that the boys around them were playing at. In the first few chapters of the book when the Greasers meet them at the movies, they seem genuinely happy to have a break from their gross Soc boyfriends… but they’re also very quick to leave when they sense that there’s going to be a fight if they stick around much longer. It’s crazy how much they internalized their seemingly passive roles in the gang wars!

The Outsiders is a really interesting examination of what motivates people to be violent.

“Soda fought for fun, Steve for hatred, Darry for pride and Two-Bit for conformity. Why do I fight? I thought, and couldn’t think of any real good reason. There isn’t any real good reason for fighting except self-defense.”

Yes, there’s a lot of violence in The Outsiders, but it’s certainly not glorified in any way. If anything, it’s closely examined and looked at from every angle. Ponyboy is so smart, and I loved the way he was able to step back and understand what was motivating each of his friends and brothers to engage in gang violence. He was also self-aware enough to realize that he couldn’t align with any of those motivations, and that he only wanted to get violent as a response to the sad realities of the dangerous world in which he lives.

I love how S.E. Hinton humanizes each of the Greasers… even the ones who seem particularly intimidating.

At the beginning of Episode 56, Esther and I talk quite a bit about the “boy/girl book” dichotomy. While both of us were big readers as kids and probably would have picked this up without it being assigned reading for school, we agreed that we probably felt intimidated by the covers we’d seen featuring a big group of boys or that we just couldn’t relate to the book’s synopsis. As a younger teen, in particular, I can’t imagine that I would have been particularly drawn to a book that seemed — at the surface — to be about a bunch of dudes in a gang.

S.E. Hinton does such a fantastic job of humanizing each and every one of the Greasers (and yes, even a few Socs) that within a few pages, I couldn’t remember why I’d ever thought that I couldn’t relate to the book. We learn so much about the boys that it’s almost impossible not to love them. Even Dally, who is easily the toughest of the Greasers, doesn’t seem especially scary in Hinton’s prose.

The book puts a fresh spin on “the grass is always greener on the other side.”

We’ve all read and watched countless books and movies that seek to communicate this message, but I think The Outsiders does it really, really well. “Socs were just guys after all. Things were rough all over, but it was better that way. That way you could tell the other guy was human too.”

Listen to the podcast episode about The Outsiders here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. 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!**