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!** 

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!** 

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!** 

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!** 

True Story: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

On Episode 55 of the podcast, I had the opportunity to welcome my friend Caitlin Flynn to SSR! If you’ve already tuned in to the show, you know a little bit about our history — I met Caitlin in an HR orientation session on my very first day of work in the “grown-up” world when I started my publishing job right out of college. Caitlin was the only one in the room who looked like she might be close to my age (saying this sounds silly in hindsight, but at the time, it felt like something that could be really important!), and we started making small talk. She could probably tell that I was nervous, all dressed up and ready to go in the blazer my mom had bought me at J. Crew after graduation (for the record, I was wayyyy overdressed). It turned out that Caitlin and I had been hired into the same group, and that our cubicles would be next to each other! I was so relieved. It felt good to walk out of the orientation and into my workspace with someone who I knew, someone who could turn into a friend. All you introverts out there know what I’m talking about.

Caitlin and I sat within a few feet of each other for about three years, until I moved to a different part of the company. We saw each other through professional victories and low points. We compared notes on the best Thai takeout menus in New York. We drank too much at more than a few team happy hours. Caitlin was a few years ahead of me in her career, and she helped me navigate the transition from college to corporate life — and years later, she was also the person to help me navigate the transition from corporate life to freelancing! She left our company about a year before I started considering doing the same, and her experience with becoming a full-time writer really did inspire me to go for it. She made me believe that I could do it! I definitely wouldn’t be making a living as a full-time writer, editor, and content creator — and I probably wouldn’t be making the SSR podcast, either! — without Caitlin’s encouragement.

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I’ve been hoping to have Caitlin on the podcast for a long time, and I’m so glad we were finally able to make it work for this episode, on which we talk all about Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When I offered this book to Caitlin as an option, I had genuinely forgotten that it was one of her favorites (and I’m sure I knew this at some point, because we did a lot of book talking back in our publishing days!), but the fact that the story is so close to her heart made this such a rich, thoughtful conversation. I’m so grateful for Caitlin’s perspective!

I prepped plenty of notes on Perks, and didn’t get to share all of them in the episode, so I’m comin’ atcha with a few more thoughts about the book in today’s True Story.

(For context, you can listen to the episode here and get a refresher on the book’s plot here!)

Sam and Patrick are the kinds of friends I always wanted to have, and I think they probably represent that for many young readers.

When we meet Charlie, he’s anxious to connect with anyone. He’s just come through the tragic loss of his best friend Michael, making the beginning of high school even scarier and lonelier than it would have been otherwise. He meets a senior named Patrick in shop class, then says hello to him at a football game… and just like that, Charlie is welcomed into Patrick’s group of friends. Patrick’s stepsister Sam is, of course, the figure that looms largest for Charlie in this group, since he’s essentially crushing on her from the moment they meet.

This friend group is fun and unique. They aren’t afraid to do their own thing. They stick to traditions, like their attendance (and sometimes performance!) at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They listen to cool music. They seem to be generally well-known and well-liked among the student body, but they don’t seem particularly concerned with what others think. They aren’t afraid to be honest with each other, like when Patrick advises Charlie to stay away so things can get back to normal after his weird fallout with Mary Elizabeth.

As a high schooler, I dreamed of having friends just like this, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I could imagine being swept up in Patrick and Sam’s group just like Charlie had been.

I was fascinated with Charlie’s relationship with his older brother.

Maybe it’s because I, like Charlie, was born and raised in Pennsylvania and know very well the power of high school football culture in many parts of the state, but I was really interested in Charlie’s (nameless) big brother. We learn that he’s recently started his freshman year at Penn State, where he was offered a football scholarship. Where I grew up, this was basically the ultimate goal for many of my classmates. You’d fall and kiss the feet of anyone who secured this kind of scholarship!

As a result of my own experience, I think I may have read more into Charlie’s brother than the author even wanted readers to! I could feel Charlie’s admiration for him and the sheer weight of the opportunity that had been offered to him. I could only imagine how much Charlie’s brother was considered a golden child in their household, and how that must have affected Charlie’s self-esteem and feelings about his family. It also seemed to play into Charlie’s views of what it means to be strong, tough, and masculine. We see him try to step into that kind of strength when he gets involved in a physical altercation in the cafeteria to defend Patrick! He’s able to do it because he learned to fight from his brother.

I think it’s really interesting that this book has been on required reading lists for certain school districts.

When I shared on Instagram that I was reading Perks for the podcast, I heard from several teachers who said they were frustrated that the book had recently been removed from their schools’ curricula. I had never heard of it being on a required reading list, but I did a little research… and it turns out that it has, and for many school districts!

I think I’ve made it pretty clear by now that I’m definitely not in favor of censorship (and certainly not banning books from school libraries), but it did surprise me that The Perks of Being a Wallflower would be part of a high school English course’s curriculum. As we discuss on the episode, the book is chock full of sensitive issues that could be triggering or upsetting to a lot of students. I can understand why parents might be concerned about their children reading some of this content, even though I believe every teen should get their hands on it at some point.

Truthfully, I really do wish we’d known who Charlie was writing the letters to.

Caitlin and I spent a few minutes on this week’s episode chatting about the format of Perks. As you might remember, the book is told in a series of letters from Charlie, but we’re not sure who he’s writing to! In our conversation, Caitlin speculated that Charlie is meant to be writing to us as the readers, generally, and that the specific recipient doesn’t really matter. I tend to agree with her, but that doesn't mean I didn’t find myself wondering every few pages if I should be thinking about someone else being on the other end of Charlie’s messages! I kept looking for context clues, trying to figure out if the book was a very specific kind of mystery novel in which I was expected to guess which of the characters the protagonist was addressing. It might just be the way my brain works, but the lack of clarity on this was a little distracting for me.

I think it’s important that kids read stories about high schoolers who have complicated relationships with/crushes on their friends.

Charlie admits to Sam that he has feelings for her pretty early in their relationship. She doesn’t return those feelings, and instead spends much of the book pursuing older guys (who don’t treat her well). At the story’s conclusion, she tells Charlie that she didn’t want him to have a crush on her. She didn’t want to be idealized! She wanted him to learn about her as a real, flawed, complicated human before deciding how he felt about her. They do kiss after this conversation, which triggers the long-repressed memories of Charlie’s childhood sexual abuse.

Having been through high school and experienced complicated feelings about some of my close friends, I really appreciated this illustration of the push/pull that happens when there’s unrequited love in your social circle. I think it’s especially meaningful that Chbosky chose to bring Sam back as part of Charlie’s support network after he decides to get psychological treatment to address his childhood trauma. Even after their intense conversation and physical encounter, Sam is able to put aside any awkwardness and show up in her role as best friend. So many teenagers — and adults, too! — can relate to this kind of relationship, and I’m sure it gave young readers hope to see that their crush might remain a friend unconditionally.

I think this is one of the best book titles. Like, ever.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower?!?!? Seriously?!?!? Such a good title. I remember hearing it for the first time as a teen and thinking, “Wow! That sounds cool. I need to find out what that’s about.” It’s so evocative and funky and generally GREAT.

Listen to the podcast episode about The Perks of Being a Wallflower 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: 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!** 

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!** 

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!** 

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.

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