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Should Writers be Unique or Write to Sell?

This morning on bookstagram, a fellow bookstagrammer posted about their weekend read. It was a story about a teenage girl who is sick and so prevents many people from getting near her. But, surprise surprise, she enters a relationship with a boy and has to find a way to let people in. The book’s title? “Sick Kids in Love.” It doesn’t even try to be creative. That’s like a vampire novel calling itself The Sparkly Vampire Meets the Awkward Loner. (Not that it’s fair for me to criticize a book without reading it, but by the summary alone, which I often use to decide whether I want to read something, I’d be letting this one go.)

It was the same thing with vampires back when I was younger. Our local library’s YA section was so saturated with vampire books–I’d say that was 50% of the book selection– that I got sick of going to the library and went to Barnes and Noble a lot more. (Of course that could just be a slight on my local library, but still.) I think it goes without saying that not every teenager wants to read the same thing. Perhaps that library was trying to make reading “cool” by being super-trendy. But there was nothing for me there. I personally don’t want to read the same story over and over again, nor do I want to pay money to do so. Yes, I do like psychological thrillers featuring obsessive love, but the books still need to do something different to keep my interest. I’m even tiring of the Netflix versions of these because the same cliches keep popping up. What I do appreciate is when a thriller tries something new.

So what can writers do if they do have legitimate interest in writing something that’s seen a lot? Do something new, even if slightly. I took a copywriting course recently, and one technique that advertisers can do to enhance their brand’s message is finding a unique selling point. Meaning, if you want to write another book about sick kids, for example, add something that hasn’t been done yet. Some ideas might include characters being cousins who hate each other, having it be a thriller where the guy isn’t who he seems and may have something more sinister going on, adding a racial/cultural conflict, etc.

Is their risk in doing something new? Sure. But you’d be hard pressed to find me, or many readers, complaining about actually doing something different. In my reviews, even if I don’t like the way something is done, I will almost always applaud seeing something different. Every time I see a character have a good relationship with their father, I want to jump up and down, because it’s so weirdly rare these days. Who knows? Writers may start the next popular trend.

Ultimately, writers should write what makes them happy. If they enjoy writing what they create, chances are it will be a good story. And if something is popular, there will probably be an audience for it. But I think, too, that creativity is important, and that writers shouldn’t hesitate to break new ground. People will eventually get tired of hearing the same narrative over and over. If they’re ultimately doing it for the money, they may do better, and be happier, finding a different career path, as it’s so hard to make a career from it to begin with.

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Stories of My Childhood: Amelia’s Notebook

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good too.

What is the book about?

The first book begins when Amelia is getting ready to move to a new house in a new state with her older sister and her mom in fourth grade. She doesn’t want to leave her best friend, Nadia, but there are other fun adventures that wait at her new place. In her notebook, she writes and draws about her time there and new friends. And Amelia isn’t just a writer–she’s an artist and scientist curious about the world.

There are many other books in the series, too. In the sequel, she struggles with a school fire. In another, she corresponds with Nadia and they talk about their dads. When Amelia enters middle school, the books become hardcovers and take on a more linear storyline and deal with subjects such as a mean teacher, gossip, and overnight field trips. Other books are purely entertainment, such as a notebook with boredom busters and another devoted to fortune-telling games.

My favorites had to be Madam Amelia Tells All, Amelia’s Easy-as-Pie Drawing Guide (which actually taught me of all people how to draw some things well!), Amelia’s 6th Grade Notebook, and Amelia’s Family Ties.

How did I discover it?

I was subscribed to American Girl magazine, which used to have a two-page Amelia spread–a mini-story– in every issue. Most of these stories weren’t published elsewhere, but once the feature was retired a book was published that included some of the best stories from the magazine. I bought it, and one thing led to another, and soon I was purchasing other books in the series. It soon became a favorite. Well before that, I think, I bought her Boredom Survival Guide from a school book order.

What I like about the books

They were different! Although they were also good for middle schoolers, it wasn’t a chapter book format–just Amelia’s entries and drawings that combined to form an overall story. They even looked like notebooks with marble covers and lined pages. Amelia was a great artist, too, and her drawings and side notes lined the margins. When she went to Chicago, for example, there was a cow exhibit throughout the city at the time, so she made up little themed cows to draw throughout the notebook.

Just look at these pages. How cool are they? I think these predated Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dear Dumb Diary, and most other notebook-style stories. I’m not sure if it predated Abby Hayes or not, but either way, this notebook series was arguably the original.

How did the books inspire me?

I tried once or twice to make a notebook of my own, but didn’t get very far. Journaling has always been challenging to keep up with! Fortunately, there was an official notebook you could fill in from the author of the series, and I loved working on that. Of course, I didn’t complete that either.

My thoughts on the books today

I still enjoy them. Looking back, these are very standard issues, but the format is so unique that it never feels like the author is trying to beat you over the head. I don’t know if Marissa Moss is still writing them, but supposedly she also has 7th and 8th grade notebooks. One of them I think involves Amelia wanting to ask a boy to the dance, but it’s my personal prediction that Amelia will eventually come out as bisexual if the books go that far.

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Eleven Fun Garfield Facts

All comics courtesy of Garfield.com.

There shalt be no comments complaining, “but it’s only a comic, you’re looking into it too much!!!” This is just for fun.

Jon wasn’t always the dweeb we know him to be.

His clothing hasn’t changed much, but in the early days, he was your normal bachelor. He smoked a pipe and it was hinted that he liked print pornography. Perhaps this normality was because he lived with a roommate who influenced him. Lyman stopped appearing in the strip sometime in the 80s. Soon after that, Jon dumbed down considerably once the strip needed to find other sources of humor. See my post on Jon’s possible history here.

Garfield used to see a male vet.

He didn’t make a ton of appearances, but based on some comics, we can see that Garfield saw a different person. Dr. Liz didn’t appear until later. She rejects Jon in her first storyline.

Jon finally found love in 2006.

He got together with Liz Wilson and they’ve been together ever since. There are still no signs of a marriage. Maybe Liz still has lingering doubts? (The storyline, in June 2006, shows Jon going on a date with longtime interest Ellen and swapping dates with Liz while there.)

At the time of this writing, Jon is almost 70.

He was twenty-nine sometime in the late 70s. That would make him about 69 today. He’s looking good!

Despite Garfield aging along with the comics, he is still a full-sized fat cat in his first appearance.

We never see him grow up with his parents in the pasta restaurant where he was born. His birthday is considered to be the day he was born. So did he just appear from thin air? Then again, Jon doesn’t seem to age either. Maybe they live in an alternate universe.

Jon going golfing, tropical vacations, and Halloween storylines were popular ideas all but nonexistent now.

Newer popular storylines involve Garfield challenging the dog next door, Garfield befriending mice, and Garfield at Christmas. There was a great existential storyline in the 80s involving Garfield waking up in his abandoned house. Unfortunately, weeklong tales of how Garfield squishes spiders are still common. Irma also barely shows up anymore, if at all.

Jon’s dated a plethora of interesting women despite being unlucky in love.

Garfield Comic Strip for May 27, 1979
Bye, Felicia.

Among them: Big Bertha, a woman named Euphemia, a woman raised by wolves, and more. Jon also dated some normal women near the beginning and even kicked one out of the house when it was revealed she didn’t like cats. He’s had better dating luck than I have.

Garfield has a non-canon Thanksgiving special.

Image result for garfield thanksgiving

In it, Jon must prepare a Thanksgiving dinner in less than a day when Liz actually accepts his invitation to dinner. Garfield, meanwhile, struggles with being on a diet. It takes inspiration and dialogue from the comics but creates an original story. He also has Halloween and Christmas specials.

Jon is not unemployed.

He is a cartoonist. In early days, we can see him working at a board.

There is a comic where Liz congratulates Jon, implying that he just drunk a mug of dog semen. When people took the joke too seriously, Jim Davis came forward and said that wasn’t the case.

In reality, the mug probably contained pet medication or coffee for Liz. However, it remains infamous and a popular meme among the fanbase.

Nermal belongs to Jon’s parents.

Image result for nermal
Garfield Wikia

So if his parents haven’t been off the farm since ’53, how does Nermal get to Jon’s place? And why don’t we see Nermal at the farm? So many questions.

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Stories of My Childhood: Amazing Days of Abby Hayes

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good too.

What are the books about?

This series features a ten-year-old girl named Abby Hayes. She loves writing and chapters are interspersed with detailed journal entries. She is a typical fifth grader in that she likes hanging out with her best friends, and struggles to stand out among her genius brother, athletic sister Eva and accomplished debator Isabelle. The first novel shows her going out for the soccer team and aiming to be a better player. Of course, she finds that her real talent is in writing and develops that during the series.

How did I discover them?

Nothing interesting to say here; I think my mom bought a few for me.

What I loved about the books

Abby liked to write, just like I did. I loved how the chapters were interspersed with her well-written diary entries and how she “reported” on things that were happening. She had a Hayes Book of World Records and wrote down quotes word-for-word. I also loved the characters. Mazer’s characterization was effortless and even minor classmates seemed well rounded…for the most part.

I’ve talked before how sometimes stand-alone children’s books in school, at least for me, became mundane. Many took place in rural areas, featured wacky relatives, traveling to Europe, took place in the first half of the century, fantasy worlds with Chosen Ones often in Middle East-ish settings, etc. I liked book series because they often deviated from this and discussed modern issues. Moving, wanting independence, siblings, schoolwork, and family are all discussed, and they’re not necessarily the same-old-same-old narratives. Abby herself is a different character than the MC we see so often. She has a bunch of friends rather than just one best friend. She’s not an outcast. She isn’t lower middle class; in fact, her family has considerable money by the time she’s in middle school. We see her utilize her talents instead of having her be a generic well-rounded character (even if she doesn’t always recognize that she has these talents).

Favorite memory involving the books

I can recall a time many years ago when I would go to an extended care program after doing summer camp at my school. I spent most of my time there browsing Scholastic’s Harry Potter website, but I also found a different minisite that way. It was called CJ’s Book Club, and at the time of discovery, “CJ” and her “friends” were reading book 10 of the series where Abby goes to visit her grandmother. I thought that was kind of cool, but I didn’t return to the website too many more times after the first few months.

How the books inspired me

I had once looked at starting a book series where the elementary-aged main character is an aspiring writer, but it hasn’t come to fruition yet. And of course, I feel like I owe it to every book I’ve read where characters keep journals for wanting to keep one of my own. Abby’s entries add a lot of insightful thoughts to the plotlines.

My thoughts on the books today

I love this series, but a few glaring issues stand out to me today.

  1. The big elephant in the room here is how Abby is in fifth grade twice, or three times even. As much as I loved the books, reading them in order there are MASSIVE continuity errors. We see Abby go on summer vacation twice and meet Hannah during the second summer, and then they go into fifth grade again and become best friends now that her friend Jessica has moved away. This needed some extra attention because it is really confusing. Readers can’t even chalk it up to having Abby be in fourth grade for the first few books, moving on to fifth after book 5 along with Ms. Kantor, because she spends an entire school year in fifth grade with Hannah and then one without Jessica–thank you, holiday novel for making this clear– so presenting an alternative doesn’t work. She also does not become friends with Bethany until their second go-round in fifth grade after they bond during the first summer, but you can’t just ignore everything that happened between them leading up to it either. It’s a mess.
  2. Brianna, the Mary Sue. She’s too perfect–models, speaks French, has money, is a great soccer player, is a great actress lauded among her community, and rarely gets her just desserts. Characters like that make my skin crawl.
  3. It saddens me that one of the last books is about Abby being jealous of an iPhone. Yay, a book about kids playing on their phones?

I really do like these novels, but the flaws stick out looking back. A TV series would be great, though.

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In Defense of Dumbledore

Warning: there are spoilers.

It’s come to my attention over the past year or two that Potter fans online aren’t too happy with Albus Dumbledore.

They aren’t happy that he sent Harry to the Dursleys. They aren’t happy that he made mistakes in his past. But like most characters in the series, they all have light and dark inside of them. What matters, like Sirius said, is the part they choose to act on.

I, for one, don’t think Dumbledore is a bad character. Rowling’s characters often have shades of good and bad, but Dumbledore changed his life around to what I think is the better. Sure, he originally sided with a power-hungry wizard, but that was partially because he didn’t want to stand up against it and jeopardize their friendship. Not that I’m advocating for that, but the fact that he was able to turn against those ideals says a lot more than people who are power-hungry from the beginning and never learn. Voldemort was not one of them.

What about his relationship with Harry? Snape accuses him of raising Harry like a pig for slaughter, and sometimes, he doesn’t always explain things to Harry straight out. But in the magical world of prophecies that must come true–in this case, neither can live while the other survives–there isn’t really a lot that Dumbledore could have done other than prepare him for what is to come. That is a hard fact of wizarding life. It’s not the only hard truth either. One can wipe another’s memory, control another, or torture with one flick of a wand. These flaws make the wizarding world much more real. Such is true of prophecies. Overall, though, I have a hard time believing that Dumbledore doesn’t care about Harry. Does he make mistakes? Would it have been better to be honest from the beginning? Possibly. However, Dumbledore wanted him to have a childhood, so his intentions weren’t bad ones.

He did, however, do a good job of training up Harry for battle and unlocking the keys to Voldemort’s past. He couldn’t help his allegedly untimely death, so even though Harry was on his own by that point he had some good preparation and friends to help him out. (When he left out the Mirror of Erised, and discovered him in the dungeons at the end of the book, he certainly wasn’t disappointed in Harry. He knew where his life was going and wanted to give him a chance to take on Voldemort.) This isn’t so terrible, since Harry has proven himself to have solved complex mysteries with the help of Ron and Hermione. Dumbledore may not have been able to straight out explain the things he left out for them in the will, seeing that if it fell into the wrong hands, someone else may be inspired to try and take on Voldemort themselves (or worse), whilst the trio were more than capable of coming to their own conclusions.

And then there’s the matter of the Dursleys. No doubt that it’s an abusive environment. Still, Dumbledore did sort of take steps to protect Harry while he lived there. The Howler he sent to Petunia in Book Five was a good example of this; Petunia, in turn, listened and kept Harry in the house. Petunia would never have allowed anything truly terrible to happen; not that her behavior shows this, but it wasn’t obvious to Harry at the time. Harry was obviously fed and cared for to some degree as a child. He went to school. He didn’t sit in a cupboard for his entire life. Obviously, Petunia was willing to work with Dumbledore somewhat, so his intentions weren’t awful. Another detail that I’ve just picked up on, too, was the reminder of Mrs. Figg living down the street. Although the was a Squib, she was able to keep an eye on him. Of course, was this life at the Dursleys perfect? Definitely not. The important part was that he had a place to call home. Upon leaving his first year at Hogwarts, he also seemed more capable of leaving himself to his own devices. Again, not a perfect home life, but Dumbledore’s plan was better than leaving Harry with no protection at all.

With that, then, let’s go to another argument I often see against Dumbledore: why didn’t Dumbledore give Sirius a second chance and let him sit in Azkaban? Because anyone could have betrayed their friends. He probably thought that Sirius did do it. Not many would have guessed that Pettigrew would have betrayed his friends, yet that is exactly what he did. Dumbledore is not at fault for any of this. If we are going to attack Dumbledore for not giving Sirius a second chance, we also have to attack him for not seeing what Pettigrew did, and for not giving Pettigrew that second chance, which doesn’t make sense.

Now of course there is his past. A love of power, a terrible friend, and the death of his sister. Yes, Dumbledore probably wasn’t that great of a guy back in the day. However, he’s clearly changed. And I think that that change is important. After all…”it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.” That is why Dumbledore is a strong character. He learned from past mistakes to be a great mentor to Harry and a legendary headmaster of Hogwarts. Being a wise old wizard of his type creates an illusion of perfect wisdom, which is why readers may see flaws and be fast to point out that as soon as he’s flawed, he’s a bad character. I personally respect him, and he is one of my favorite wise old wizards of all time.

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Stories of My Childhood: Just Grandma and Me

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good too. This month’s choice is a special pick for Grandparents’ Day.

What is the book about?

This is a simple little story about Little Critter and his grandmother. Together, they have many adventures at the beach. Narrated by Little Critter, it tells all about their day from morning until he falls asleep on the bus ride home.

How did I discover it?

It was part of Grandma’s book basket–more on that below. It was a staple whenever I came for a visit, usually on my own. It did, after all, feature a grandmother and one grandchild.

What do I like about the book?

It’s a simple story about grandparent appreciation. I don’t remember most of the things that Little Critter actually does, but there are events that you’d often see at a typical beach day…but the focus is on the grandmother. It’s a different approach to family stories. I remember there being some nice illustrations, too. One particular two-page drawing featured lots of animals and little critters having fun at the beach, and I remember being intrigued by a plane carrying a “sign” behind it that said “Work for Peace.” This may have been because I was used to seeing so many “planes with signs” at the Jersey shore as a kid.

Favorite memory involving the books

Grandma used to have a book basket–pretty much an Easter basket with books inside. Titles included things like “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” “If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” “Nina Nina Star Ballerina,” “The Berenstain Bears’ Week at Grandma’s,” and the books about the Westie terrier whose name I can’t recall. But by far the most fun to read was Just Grandma and Me. Sometimes Grandma would even read it from her perspective instead of from Little Critter’s. It was especially funny at the end, where Little Critter insisted his grandmother fell asleep on the bus ride home even though it was he who did so.

Not that I don’t give the Berenstain Bears book any credit; that too was a good grandparent book. It showed Brother and Sister Bear going to their grandparents’ home for a week while their parents took a second honeymoon. I never understood why they were disappointed about it; going to Grandma and Grandpa’s was fun! But they learned to have fun too, through baking and ship building and square dancing. That was almost my choice for this month’s Childhood Stories post. Both are great.

Digging deeper into the fandom

Little Critter had “grown up” books too. In second grade, I was delighted to discover a series for young elementary school students starring him, now called LC. He and his friends had many adventures, and while I don’t remember what they were, I do know that I loved checking them out for silent reading time. They’re very hard to find now it seems. I may have outgrown Just Grandma and Me, but it was fun to continue the series later on.

My thoughts on the book now

Just Grandma and Me probably isn’t as popular as it used to be, but it does bring back memories. I’m sad I don’t remember too much about it, but it is what it is. If I can remember the happy times it brought, it must be a good story.

Happy Grandparents’ Day to all!

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6 More Things I’m Tired of Seeing in Modern Stories

To see the first six things, click here.

The Bar Scene

Going to bars is more exciting in person then it is to read about. On the page, it can be pretty dull. You have your MC, often female in my experience, meeting a guy and having a conversation over beer. It just doesn’t translate all that well and usually serves as a plot device.

The Random French-speaking U.S. Citizen

This is an oddly specific trope that has popped up in at least 4 books I read this past year. It consists of a side character (sometimes MCs do it as well though) who mostly speaks English, but occasionally drops French phrases for reasons often unknown. Oh, they’re not usually French or anything, they just do it…because…uniqueness? A recent book I read did call themselves out on it, but that still doesn’t mean it was necessary. In another case, I think it was because the author took French and was looking for an excuse to use it. This is frustrating when the French helps to move the story along and I have no idea what they’re saying! Unless France or its culture is important to the US-based novel, I’m tired of reaching for a French-English dictionary just to understand the story. (Obviously, it was fine in Jenny Colgan’s The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris.) If authors want to make quirky characters, I’d like to see them stick to using interesting traits, not having them spew French phrases now and then. (And it’s always French, never random Spanish or Japanese, furthering my theory that the author is trying to jump on a romantic, stylish trend.) Characters should have reasons for suddenly sliding into other languages.

Sexual scenes

This is a matter of opinion, but I would much rather have a story than read about what characters do in the bedroom, sometimes over and over again. When I read a book, I want excitement and interest. This usually takes the form of having the characters go out on dates, having adventures, and getting to know each other. I don’t feel the need to go any more personal than that…and it’s just not very interesting to me, especially when they’re done over and over.

The Open-Ended Ending

Possibly one of the biggest issues plaguing my book choices, sometimes authors feel like they want readers to imagine their own ending. But I personally buy books because I want the author to spin me a story, and for me that means coming up with an original ending that’s thought-provoking and doesn’t leave me hanging. I don’t want to decide for myself. And yes, stories should have endings.

Gay carciatures

Come on, people. It’s 2019. Of all the gay characters I’ve met this past year, there were TWO (in the same book) that weren’t flamboyant, fashion loving, stylish, or resorted to terms like “sweetie” and “darling.” Let’s start making gay people sound and talk like actual people. The occasional semi-stereotype is probably fine for diverse reasons, but even so, characters should have some sort of uniqueness to them.

Drawn-out drinking scenes

I sometimes wonder whether characters in the adult fiction world have hobbies other than drinking. It’s rare these days where I read a book without hearing someone wax poetic about their favorite wines or beer or who knows what. Maybe this is just me again (I find drinking overrated), but these are often the scenes I find most dull in a novel. I feel the characters are putting on airs, and it just seems so superficial. Characters are allowed to have hobbies and activities other than drinking. Additionally, scenes where characters socialize at bars are rarely exciting in themselves (see above).

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Elite Eight: Fictional Teachers

As back-to-school season is upon us, sometimes it’s hard to think about going back and leaving summer behind, especially not always knowing what you’re getting into. But one thing that can truly make the difference between a good year and a bad one are the teachers. So today I’ll be talking about what teachers I love…in books! Most of these teachers will be from kids and YA books, since after all, kids are the ones in school–and I find that most of the teachers in adult novels I’ve read haven’t been very good so far!

Do you love any of the teachers I mention? Did I miss any other good ones? Let me know in the comments.

Mrs., Junie B. Jones

While everyone else is worrying about what the note in Pam’s teapot said or what Penny’s last name was in the Big Bang Theory, I’m over here wondering about what Mrs.’ last name was. (Seriously, what was it?) Not always patient with rambunctious Junie B., Mrs. was nevertheless a great teacher. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Junie B.; in fact, Mrs. was often supportive, sticking up for her when she brought in a fish stick for Pet Day and celebrating with her when she got the biggest Valentine in the class. She also isn’t afraid of a little wrongdoing, like testing grapes in the grocery store. It was then that we learned that teachers are real people (who don’t live at school). And when Junie B. moved on to first grade, I found myself missing Mrs. in the same way I always missed my old teacher on the first day of a new year.

Professor Lupin; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

There are many teachers to choose from here-McGonagall, Hagrid, and are other contenders, but Professor Remus Lupin wins out. He’s a great, supportive teacher whose class you actually look forward to during the week because you get to do super fun things in that class period, like fight actual magical creatures. He doesn’t let other teachers harass his students (coughSNAPEcough), but instead lets the unassuming, shy students be recognized. He’s also not afraid to get to know his students, though having a connection to Harry likely helped with that.

Mr. Gianini; The Princess Diaries

Normally your algebra teacher coming to live at your house would be a nightmare, especially for Mia and I (words people). But after a while, having Frank Gianini as her stepfather wasn’t so bad. Sure, it came with some downsides–extra practice at home, anyone? But hey, it was all in the name of helping Mia try to get good grades. Soon, he became a cool drum-playing member of the family, though it probably helped matters when Mia was no longer taking high school algebra too.

Mrs. Claire Shawcross (UK version); The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

At first glance, Claire Shawcross may seem like your average French teacher. Anna takes her class and doesn’t take much away from it…or does she? When the two reunite, Claire suggests that Anna go to France, and helps her brush up on her French skills even as adults. It’s revealed that Claire has an ulterior motive to have Anna help reunite her with a long-lost love, but the adventures they have together are those of two friends. Who says you can’t be friends with your teacher? Mrs. Shawcross proves that you really can use high school skills later in life.

Bill; Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sometimes it’s hard to share your thoughts in front of the whole class. Charlie knows, but so does his advanced English teacher, Bill. Seeing potential and passion in one of his shy students, the two often talk about books that he assigns Charlie in private. He automatically gives Charlie As, because he likes him, but gives him the real grades in private. Seems sketchy? Not really, considering that Charlie is getting a good education. And it’s nice that the two can become genuine friends. Bill gives lots of advice to Charlie about putting himself out there, and it seems to pay off.

Ms. Bunder; Amazing Days of Abby Hayes

Not even an official teacher, Ms. Bunder still proves that learning should be fun. A friend of Abby’s real fifth grade teacher, Ms. Kantor, she came in once a week to share creative writing exercises. How cool is that? She encouraged Abby, and the rest of the class, to be creative in their work. She often let the students decide writing topics. And when Abby was less than thrilled about being the class advice columnist, Ms. Bunder gave her advice to reach her full potential. The two had such a special bond that Ms. Bunder gave Abby her business card at graduation. We’d all love to have a class, and teacher, like Ms. Bunder, even if you don’t love creative writing. As for me, the whole thing would be a dream come true.

Miss Winston; Kirsten Learns A Lesson (American Girl)

It must be terrifying to move to a new country and have to speak the native language only at school. For Kirsten, it was. And Miss Winston expected not just English only, but for her to recite a poem in English. Although Miss Winston seemed strict, she was able to assist Kirsten in learning the poem and even helped her choose one that reminded her of home in Sweden. She’s what we need in teachers: she expects hard work, but is willing to help you through it all.

Mr. Ratburn; Arthur

Because Arthur originated as picture books and had a chapter book series, I’m including Mr. Ratburn here too. A feared teacher by Arthur’s new third grade class, he does have a reputation for giving a considerable amount of homework. In some episodes, we see Arthur look longingly at Miss Sweetwater’s class, who are often singing songs and telling jokes. But when it comes down to it, Mr. Ratburn is truly a great teacher. He helps his students study for tests and spelling bees and genuinely wants them to succeed. He takes them on actually fun field trips and is a great puppeteer too. And if you want to find an excuse to have a class party, Mr. Ratburn is almost always game (he LOVES cake). If you want to see some examples, just watch some Arthur (it’s actually a great show and not just for nostalgia purposes). I see many more instances of Mr. Ratburn’s good side than his bad one. And we all know this: Miss Sweetwater’s class will fail fourth grade, but Mr. Ratburn’s class will be prepared for anything.

Who is your favorite fictional teacher? Did I miss any?

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Should we criticize books for having triggers?

I recently published a review of a book on this blog, and then went to check out what other people were saying on Goodreads as I often do. I was shocked by the amount of reviewers who gave it a very low score and said they hated it because an animal was abused, or because there were instances of rape. I disagree with those sentiments, but at the same time, there is a time and place for criticizing the use of heavy topics, and it’s when they aren’t done well.

Life is a mixture of the good and the bad. There is war and crime and mistreatment of animals. So criticizing a book just for merely having child abuse or abusive relationships is ridiculous. Bad events do not equate to a bad book.

Now when do you criticize said heavy events? Maybe when it seems like the author is agreeing with, or romanticizing, what is happening. Most readers should, but aren’t always able, to separate author beliefs from what a character says or does and should keep that in mind.

Let’s take a look at my recent reviewed book, I Know Who You Are. (There are spoilers!) After a series of events, in the epilogue, the main character finds herself pregnant with her brother’s child. Disgusting? Yes. But a bad book because of it? No, because these things unfortunately happen and the story is still pretty interesting. What makes this instance critique-worthy is the author’s attitude towards it. The main character isn’t put off by this pregnancy; rather, she seems delighted that she finally has a child. (Um, EW.) That is why the ending made me run for the hills. It wasn’t because the MC was raped. It was because the MC seemed happy about it, because it finally gave her a child, and the author felt like this event resolved her character.

Looking at A Simple Favor, which I didn’t like, there is an instance of incest near the beginning. However, it adds absolutely nothing to the story and it’s just there to add–romance? Tension? A storyline to throw readers off the trail? This, I can see, would be distasteful to readers. This scene in particular does seem romanticized more than anything. I too complained about the use of it.

There’s one other excuse to complain too: when an issue is handled badly. A recent book by Jenny Colgan that I DNF’d killed off the gay characters. Many readers didn’t like this; evidently killing off the happy gay couples is a trope and overdone. This I understand to a point; the gays always being the ones to die does strike me as strange. There are other instances too, such as when a writer writes male characters as being overly touchy towards women and not having that issue addressed, instead acting like this behavior is totally normal. But often, an author writing about something like that does not mean they agree.

So instead of bashing a book because the author dares to include something less than sunshine and rainbows, think about what the author is trying to say about it. If it’s bad, maybe it’s because of the way the author is handling it. We shouldn’t shy away from books and be quick to write them off because there is a topic included that’s hard to swallow. Or perhaps you mostly prefer light and fluffy books. That’s fine too. But it’s not fair to the author to leave a 1-star review saying it’s bad because there’s animal cruelty inside when that isn’t your cup of tea.

The world has gotten a touch more sensitive, but writing off books as bad because something traumatic happens to the characters is just silly–as long as the above isn’t happening. Talking about these issues is important. In some cases, we read to learn more about these instances and look at an issue from a more personal standpoint. They may help readers to see that okay, maybe the rape victim isn’t to blame after all. Or, wow, I didn’t realize how saying that to a person of color is offensive. I’ll have to check myself. And not always does it mean that the author agrees with what is happening. If readers learn something new, why is it a bad book?

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When Do Endings Ruin Books?

Endings. You love them, or sometimes, you hate them. But why does the ending often have such a big impact on what we think of a story? Sometimes it goes so far as to ruin the book! In fact, some of the books I don’t like the most are disliked because of the ending. But why? Why are endings so important? And, when done wrong, why do they ruin books?

There are heavy spoilers for Tiny Pretty Things, The Storyteller, Book Thief, My Sister’s Keeper, and Not Your Daughter.

Because there is no ending and no closure.

Have you ever heard the joke where a reader is running out of pages and worried that there is not enough time to resolve anything? Sometimes, this is actually true. I picked up a YA ballet thriller a few years ago. Tiny Pretty Things featured the stories of three ballet dancers. Pranks ensue. Horrible stuff happens to the girls. We don’t find who did them, or why. In fact, there really isn’t an ending at all. The book just stops.

When you’re reading a thrilling book or a mystery, readers want to know who did it and why. For me, there is no excuse for not explaining these things. Readers want endings, k? We read books so we can learn what happens.

They can make previous events unimportant.

In other words, “never have your main character wake up from a dream at the end.” When the ending makes the book irrelevant, why should we care? Why did we just spend all that time reading about what was going to happen if the motivations aren’t at stake, or if nothing comes of all those pages? Here are some examples (there are spoilers, obviously):

My Sister’s Keeper: Anna dies before anything can come of the court case.
The Book Thief: A bomb kills almost everyone except the protagonist. Yep. (I will give this a slight pass because it takes place during a major war, but this shouldn’t happen anywhere else.)

You might think, well, this is like real life. Sometimes acts of God happen. Well, yes. But in books, I feel like things are a little more orchestrated than they usually are in real life. That means we should usually get an ending that is relevant.

The plot twist exists for shock value.

I return to The Storyteller, which had one of the most bizarre plot twists I’ve ever seen. Spoiler: Our MC encounters an older man named Josef who used to be a Nazi and committed crimes against her grandmother. It turns out that the MC decides to kill him, but it was never Josef. What was the reason for it? To have readers gasp and go, “oh no, the moral character killed the wrong person?” But that wasn’t the point of the book. The point was to have a debate on justice and what is right; whether a citizen whose grandmother was tortured had the right to kill a former Nazi who asked for it. It was never a crime thriller. Not to mention that this also meant that the brother had pretended to be Josef for the whole book, an odd behavior that was never explained.

When a plot twist is there just for shock value, it’s obvious and takes away from the meaning of the book. And it’s just poor writing in my opinion. This plot twist (among other flaws) made this 5-star book into a not-quite-3 star book for me. That’s pretty bad.

The original issues are hardly addressed, or the author changes the meaning.

YA, I’m looking at you. I haven’t read it regularly for years now, but near the end of my time with it, I noticed it was the same deal over and over again: character with interesting plot premise meets a love interest and the author decides to spend more time on yet another boring love triangle, feeling that readers don’t care about the interesting plot anymore. If the author suddenly decides the original plot isn’t important, I’ll probably lose interest too. Stories should stay focused. If I pick up a book marketed for it’s thrilling spy mission, the second half shouldn’t be focused mostly on a romance.

Sigh. Speaking of which…

Now I’m going to return to Storyteller yet again. This started out as a really captivating book where a real mission was going on. But when Sage, our MC, meets Leo the prosecutor right away, you know what’s going to happen. Yep. What starts out as a captivating debate on forgiveness and justice turns into a sappy love fest, and that made me angry.

The author doesn’t know how to wrap things up.

This sort of ties back into my last reason. Endings can be hard to invent, especially in the thriller genre if the author isn’t familiar with how those types of events work. Rea Frey’s Not Her Daughter is a wild booklong chase of a well-meaning woman trying to save a young girl from a life of abuse, but does so by kidnapping her. It ends when the MC calls up her real mother on the phone and asks if she can just keep her daughter. The real mother, fed up with life and Emma, merely says yes.

Not only is this a really unsatisfying way of ending the book, but there are legal issues that make the events of the epilogue not work. Emma would need paperwork to start school, wouldn’t she? A birth certificate? Will she never be able to get medical attention again if she has no paperwork? And why are they still on the run if her mother gave her up? But then again isn’t it still a kidnapping because they never formally went through with adoption? It can be obvious when an author is putting half-effort into an ending because they don’t want to deal with legal consequences.

Maybe it’s not that endings can always full-out ruin books, but that they can make us feel cheated. Readers want to be satisfied, and for me that means wrapping everything up like so.

What endings are you unsatisfied with?