Review: The Crimson and The Frost by John Williams and James Colletti

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Crimson and The Frost
by John Williams and James Colletti

CreateSpace, 2013

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The verdict: A modern tale with classic holiday themes best suited for young readers who won’t overthink it.

Kids bored with the annual Christmas specials have something new to look at: The Crimson and the Frost. For whatever reason—maybe the cover art—I expected this book to target a slightly older audience, but it really fits best for middle-grade readers. That said, Williams and Colletti’s novel creates a Santa-Clause-meets-Polar-Express holiday adventure aimed at the gadget-loving, phone-tapping children of the twenty-first century. While the dialogue and conflicts are often trite, the authors mix in plenty of humor to reach their intended audience and keep the plot humming along. The storyline draws on traditional scenery with some creative twists, making a modern Christmas tale with classic themes and messages that parents won’t mind their kids reading.

A 17th-century whaling ship encounters the terrifying and magical King of Winter, but a mysterious and even more powerful force rises to oppose him. In the present day, young Billy Hampton competes for popularity by showing off techno gadgets from his dad’s company to his schoolmates. When Santa’s sleigh lands outside Billy’s window—driven by two bumbling elves who’d left home for a day of New England lobster fishing of all things—he sneakily stows away and winds up in Christmas Town. Along the journey, however, Billy accidentally loses the all-important jewel that powers the sleigh. Billy’s hosts try to hide the news and fix the problem themselves; meanwhile, Jack Frost seizes the opportunity to make his long-awaited move against the toy-building hamlet. While the elves and Billy seek help from Santa, Christmas Town goes on alert as Jack Frost lurks dangerously in the hills.

You see Billy, sometimes the decisions we make seem trivial to us, but can have a profound effect on others.

The light-hearted comedy definitely drives the story, and the elves’ personalities—either endearingly crotchety or hilariously hapless—play off each other to add some laughs. Billy’s tour of Christmas Town approaches something satirical even, which doesn’t mesh with the supposed gravity of the missing jewel and impending danger. Young Billy is a misfit in his own right, struggling to fit in among elves and ruining everything he touches, yet he rarely faces consequences. Even as Frost looms in the distance, the expected catastrophe never truly comes. A later reveal that losing the jewel wasn’t entirely Billy’s fault limits his character development, and the story never reaches the requisite gravitas for a power-packed moral. Still, Billy works toward an others-orientedness, which provides a necessary message for kids of any age. The authors present their take on the true meaning of Christmas directly from Santa’s mouth—a celebration of generosity and joy—but Santa’s own backstory and flashbacks are less interesting than the elves’ present-day conflicts. Critical readers will likely find some editorial issues and mid-section point-of-view shifts distracting, but a thrilling final act uplifts the story to show that even the most unlikely among us can be heroes. The Crimson and the Frost provides a kid-friendly, modern take on Christmas themes. Recommended for young readers looking for a fresh storyline with familiar holiday characters.

Be sure to check out John Williams’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Why I Gave Money To Wikipedia

One Educator’s Defense of the Free Encyclopedia

 

“If everyone reading this gave $3, we could keep Wikipedia thriving for years to come.”

Most of us recognize this appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales—and I really do mean most of us. Wikipedia sees millions of unique visitors every day and dominates the page rankings in Google search results. Yet as numerous as its faithful users are its heavy critics, especially among educators. Some blatantly disallow it in the classroom while others treat it like greasy fast food. “There’s nothing wrong with it, kids, as long as you don’t mind a life of morbid obesity and early heart failure. But go ahead, feel free to use Wikipedia instead of your own honest research.”

Even in Wikipedia’s own article about academic use, students are cautioned that “Wikipedia is not a replacement for a reading assignment by your professor.” Any critique of Wikipedia will eventually include the word unreliable, but out of context, that word creates a serious misconception. Asking “Is Wikipedia reliable?” oversimplifies how we ought to evaluate source credibility. In this age of the internet, a very small percentage of web content receives any degree of fact-checking before going public. Rote assignment of “good” and “bad” web domains doesn’t teach someone to critically examine the content itself, and that’s the skill students need.

In a 2005 TEDGlobal talk, Wales claimed that Wikipedia began “with a very radical idea…for all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” While all human knowledge sounds nice, it’s the idea of all humans contributing to that knowledge that makes people uncomfortable. In its defense, Wikipedia does work to mitigate the risks of dynamic entries:

  • Certain popular and controversial pages are protected so only long-time users in good standing and administrators can make edits.
  • Wikipedia clearly flags articles with factual disputes, subjective or self-promotional tones, contradictions, or no citations. While the page remains available, readers receive fair warnings.
  • Revision histories and references are all publically visible.

In fact, it’s these very features that should make educators love this website. Wikipedia provides the perfect platform to teach about bias, audience, and the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Students can clearly see what citations look like and appreciate their importance. Wikipedia offers translations and a “simple English mode;” its page layout helps students gain a basic understanding of a subject and locate initial resources for further study.

On the flipside, banning Wikipedia from the classroom leads students to the false assumption that anything “not Wikipedia” is reliable. I’ve seen some pretty suspect quote websites (see my article) with accuracy ratings far worse than Wikipedia. Just because something ends in .edu or .org doesn’t mean it’s been updated recently or that it’s written clearly. Consider, a science book from 2002 would still call Pluto a planet. Textbooks can have typos; scientific articles can be retracted. Wikipedia articles are constantly monitored and reviewed. Saying Wikipedia’s not reliable is like saying it’s not safe to leave the house. Sure, some dangers exist, but that doesn’t mean we ought to lower the shades and lock the doors.

Good research should compare multiple academic sources anyway, but there’s nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. Here’s the bottom line: Wikipedia isn’t 100% reliable, but I’ve yet to see a webpage—or textbook—that is 100% reliable on the literally millions of topics Wikipedia provides. We shouldn’t aim to find an impeccably accurate source; we should teach students to make their own judgments on a source’s credibility. Do I think a website I use almost every day with the mission to spread knowledge to people all over the world is worth $3? I’ve certainly given more money to lesser causes. Yes, Wikipedia. I read your plea, and I want to keep you thriving.

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Social Media Marketing

Truth, Lies, and What it Means to Win

As a novelist, the two questions I’m asked the most are “What is your book about?” and “How many books have you sold?”

I love answering the first one. Writing was my passion before it was ever my job, and when someone asks with sincere curiosity about something I’ve created, I’m thrilled to share. Yet the second question feels a lot riskier. Part of me wonders what weird rules of society even cause people to ask this—do they also ask restaurant owners how many customers they’ve served?—but I can only assume good intentions. Either they’re excited for me and want to celebrate, they don’t know many novelists and are genuinely interested in the business side of it, or they’re considering a publication of their own and are wondering how lucrative it might be in six months’ time. Maybe a few people simply want to ridicule my low numbers and so-called artistic endeavor, but I suspect most of those are only in my head. Hopefully.

So here it goes: truth, lies, and what it means to win. On second thought, I’ll put the bad news first.

LIES

  • Marketing on social media is easy.
  • I am more interesting than 99.9% of the internet and its users.
  • Tweeting about a book will generate instant sales and dedicated fans.
  • The whole world will immediately know about my book because (a) it’s published and (b) it appears prominently on a Facebook author page.
  • Bloggers make thousands of dollars sitting at home in their pajamas.
  • Any sentence ever uttered that describes a book as “passive income.”

Basically, it boils down to the myth that writers can type a few words, click a few buttons, and watch the money roll in. Sorry, but there is no magic formula.

TRUTH

  • Effective marketing strategies have short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. Visibility is only part of the equation. Especially on social media, promotion has to be meaningful, targeted, and interactive.
  • I am one interesting voice among millions (billions, maybe, that sounds more depressing). Rising above the noise is necessary, but it’s not just about being louder than everyone else. Social media marketing is about reciprocity and collaboration. People care about people who care about people.
  • In real life, I don’t say hi to a stranger in the grocery store and then suddenly have a lifelong friend. Just because people follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page, it doesn’t mean they trust me. Building a following is about engagement and consistency over time, not a sudden spike in numbers.
  • We are inundated with people’s online fundraisers and multi-level marketing scams. It takes some repeated efforts for anyone to actually recognize my book in a crowd, but experts will agree that social media users don’t just want a sales pitch. They want quality, enriching content. People need to buy into what I’m offering for free before I ask them to buy what I’m selling.
  • I sometimes wear pajamas when I blog.
  • Behind every “passive income” royalty check are untold hours of writing, revising, editing, and marketing. People who do make decent incomes on YouTube or Amazon Kindle didn’t just wake up one morning and find themselves there. It’s hard work, not magic.

So is writing just a bleak, meaningless wasteland? Absolutely not. While perhaps any art can be defined as “beautiful but impractical,” there are real, useful connections that have come from my social media efforts. Laying the groundwork takes time, and most rewards are not monetary. Yes, I sell books, and I want to keep selling. But winning is realizing that there’s a whole lot of giving that must come before getting.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

Don’t Hate Me

The Pronoun Problem, and Why Anyone Should Care

When we’re young, most of us learn to cover our mouths before we cough, wash our hands before eating dinner, and always refer to ourselves and another person as “that person and I.”

I haven’t done the research, but I’d guess that “and I” is one of the most overcorrected constructions in all of English.

Grandma gave ten dollars each to my brother, my sister, and I.
Mr. Smith asked Johnny and I to lead the presentation1

Are we so afraid of me? An even more perplexing problem is the rampant insertion of myself, perhaps under the mistaken belief that the word is somehow a longer, more formal version of me for use in adult conversation. I hear this one everywhere. Recently, a friend informed me, “Anna and myself are meeting with Kathy on Tuesday.” A coworker instructed a group of us, saying, “Email any questions to Robbie or myself2.”

To clear things up once and for all, here’s the trick: Remove the other person’s name, and see what makes sense. If I meet with Kathy, then Anna and I should meet with Kathy. People can email me, so they can also email Robbie or me. Myself is only ever used as a reflexive object (I see myself in the mirror) or for emphasis (I can do it myself).

What inspired this post, however, is less the modern assault on good grammar and more the question of why anyone should care. With first person pronouns (I, me, myself), we can learn the rules and move on. Death to awkward sentence constructions! Third person pronouns, on the other hand, are a whole lot trickier.

Gender-neutral language is a hot topic in the world right now, and, for English speakers, much of the debate centers on pronouns. Traditionally, he and she were singular while they was plural. Some instances of “singular they” have existed for well over a century: Emily Dickinson used they to agree with anyone back in the 1880s, despite anyone being a singular word (source: Merriam Webster). Most of the time, writers can avoid the potential confusion of these sentences by simply using a plural subject:

Anyone who has their ticket printed can form a line here.
People who have their tickets printed can form a line here.

Related to singular they is a form called nonbinary they, which refers to a person’s intentional use of “they” as a preferred pronoun.

Alex brought his/her book to class.
Alex brought their book to class.

In the first sentence, speakers must decide if Alex is a he or a she, but not so in the second sentence. Numerous alternatives to the singular they (such as ze) have appeared over the years, although none have garnered much traction outside of university settings.

Intriguingly, they might have some historical precedent to survive where other pronouns fail. Seven hundred years ago, thou was a singular second-person pronoun and ye was the plural form. Gradually, the more plural-looking you took over, and it’s since survived as the sole second-person pronoun for any number (y’all notwithstanding).

So should grammarians take a hard line on he/she vs. they? Time will tell, but history suggests a pronoun takeover is possible in the cultural mainstream. Regardless of how society changes language, our grammar can still stand up:

They have knowledge.
The future belongs to them.
They see themselves speaking correctly no matter how society changes.

1. Me is correct here, in case that wasn’t obvious.
2. Names changed to protect the innocent people unknowingly involved in these syntactic horrors.

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Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

 

Wonder
by R.J. Palacio

Knopf, 2012

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The verdict: A memorable portrait of human dignity—children’s literature that knows kids are smart enough to understand the world they live in.

So why add another review to the internet of this already smash-hit, critically-acclaimed novel? Wonder the movie is hitting theaters next month, in case people haven’t heard of it. I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the time to review it. That changed once I started. As a middle school teacher—as a human being—I must champion R.J. Palacio’s timeless message. Some books deserve the hype, and Wonder lives up to its name. Parents, your kids must read this book. Read this book with your kids even, then discuss it as a family. It’s rare to find literature that distills the complicated themes of life into such simple truths, and a novel that does so makes a powerful treasure.

Born with a facial deformity, 5th grader August Pullman enrolls in a private school to attend classes outside his home for the first time. While adults do their best to not notice and students make no secret of their curiosity and horror, Auggie wants nothing more than to just be ordinary. Soon Julian, a teacher’s pet when instructors are looking and a horrible bully when they’re not, leads a charge to ostracize the new student, and even the friends Auggie thinks he can count on wear masks of their own. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister Via struggles to adjust to a new high school and the pains of growing up. The point of view changes as the narrative unfolds, allowing the voices of Auggie’s classmates to intersect and craft a heart-wrenching tour of empathy and human dignity. Written at the middle-grade level, this beautiful coming-of-age story speaks to kids and adults alike.

“Like a lamb to the slaughter: Something that you say about someone who goes somewhere calmly, not knowing that something unpleasant is going to happen to them. I Googled it last night. That’s what I was thinking when Ms. Petosa called my name and suddenly it was my turn to talk.”

Told in short vignettes with a relatable middle school voice, Palacio’s novel captures the rapid change-of-subject and constant ups and downs of life from a kid’s point of view. Readers hear first from Auggie, then from his sister Via—whose section beautifully depicts the mess of compassion and resentment that comes with having a sibling who needs special care—and then from the perspectives of two of Auggie’s schoolmates, Via’s boyfriend, and her ex-best friend. Some expanded editions even include the ebook known as The Julian Chapter, giving voice to Auggie’s main tormentor.

Nothing about the story feels forced or contrived. Palacio builds her narrative on ordinary conflicts: shifting friend groups, arguments with parents, a sick family dog. Put together, the chapters touch on all aspects of identity from race and class to which lunch table a student belongs. At times I wanted a bit more pep in the plot; nothing terrifying or particularly unusual happens, especially when compared to other classic novels of its type. Yet the pedestrian tour of Auggie’s universe works to extend its humanity. While one might think Wonder is just a metaphor for how we all feel like the outcast sometimes, it bravely goes beyond that expectation by featuring themes about kindness and courage. The other narrators see just as much transformation as August does, and at times they’re even more likeable. Creative in form and content, Wonder is a twenty-first-century tale that bridges gaps across generations, fighting for every kid to take a turn in the spotlight. Recommended for middle school and high elementary school readers, especially for class or book reports.

Be sure to check out R.J. Palacio’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Grace Group by Carrie Maldonado

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

Grace Group
by Carrie Maldonado

eLectio, 2017

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The verdict: A deeper-than-usual inspirational romance that’s as much about living as it is about dying.

As a guy who doesn’t normally read romance, Grace Group caught my attention with its supernatural twist. The idea of angels coming to Earth and a character racing against the clock intrigued me, and seeing the content in some of Maldonado’s blog posts told me this would be more than just fluff. Yes, the story hinges on some romance-novel tropes: The male characters of interest are all gorgeous and near-perfect (even with a terminal illness), making them far too good for the stumbling and increasingly self-conscious female protagonist. Yet Maldonado’s message shines in her appeal to the human condition. What starts as a story about one woman soon becomes a story about all people, and readers of all ages and backgrounds can find points of connection with the narrative’s discussion of life and death.

Holly Matthews—workaholic corporate HR director, impatient, irritable, self-proclaimed loner with a crumbling romantic life—receives a terminal diagnosis at age 35. She reluctantly attends a support group for the dying and is surprised by the members’ camaraderie and frankness. Taking a challenge from the group, Holly begins volunteering at a local shelter—where she finds instant attraction to a hardworking (and possibly single) dad of an adorable little kid—and she develops a new openness and healthier sense of self. When a second potential love interest arrives at the grief group, Holly finds herself on the verge of death but with a sudden urge to keep living. After discovering her counselors are actually angels in disguise, Holly’s on a clock to turn from her selfish ways and instead experience the goodness of faith. Trying to unravel her tangled knot of romantic attraction and caught between her old habits and the hope of something better, Holly must reevaluate her priorities and squash the voice of temptation before her time on earth runs out.

“All of the people you are supposed to ‘touch,’ as you put it, are already in your life. Nothing happens by accident, Holly. You’ve always had everything you needed to live the perfect life for you. Your job is to go live it.”

After the first few chapters paint Holly in a miserable extreme, I expected to see a 180-degree, Ebenezer Scrooge-type transformation. Although Holly’s entrance to the grief group happens a little too easily, once she arrives, the angel characters are well crafted and engaging. Despite the enjoyable banter, however, at times the spiritual themes are a bit murky. “Accepting one’s purpose” becomes a catchphrase without full definition, and the angels describe a certain economy of good deeds combating evil intentions in a butterfly effect without much logic or demonstration. Holly’s prognosis is a universal one, though, and Maldonado certainly pulls no punches in exploring the ways life can get messy. Where the storyline starts as a thought exercise, it soon becomes a full-blown reality. Even the characters who aren’t aware of Holly’s condition appear in convenient places and manage to say what they mean, giving the story a parable feel focused on Holly’s internal conflict. Maldonado does a great job showing the confusion of life and the difficulty of deciding which impulses to follow without making the story itself confusing. Holly’s emotional turns are sharp enough to pull the reader along, and there’s a delightful amount of suspense considering readers know about Holly’s disease from the start. Grace Group is both a celebration of life and a challenge for those living it, demanding that every reader look in the mirror to discover what matters. Recommended for Christian book clubs and lovers of romance and inspirational fiction, especially those experiencing grief.

Be sure to check out Carrie Maldonado’s writing, visit her blog, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

You Don’t Decide

I thought I’d mix it up from my usual type of blog post. This is a free verse poem (or at least as close as I typically get to poetry) based on a writing prompt I did last year. I was thinking about people’s inherent value and where it comes from, and these words came to mind.

In the beginning,
the Maker stood and shaped the stars.
Whole galaxies set in motion,
ablaze and coruscating,
swirling arms to dance for
eons across the endless void.
White dwarfs and icy comets,
lonely moons and fields of asteroids,
and beneath it all
a single planet
whispered in the dark.

“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You sculpt with finest chisels and paint with deftest strokes,
but the hands that brush a billion worlds should hardly pause for me.
Go fill those gaseous giants or shine those stunning rings.
Why should I boast land and oceans? Why make my air fit to breathe?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

Then he poured the rivers
to fill the jungle tropics
and cast fists of seeds into
the fertile mountain soil.
From clouds spun flocks
of birds awash with sunlight;
On waves rode fish as varied
as the islands of the sea.
Beasts found homes in every corner—
the marsh, the cave, the trench, the hill,
the towering forest canopy.
Yet man
spoke softly in the breeze.


“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You anoint my soul and craft my heart,
but of all the wondrous creatures, surely I should not appeal.
Go climb with monkeys or sing with whales.
Why should I know self and purpose? Why burden me to rule?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

A thousand sunsets since we met,
but tonight’s the one that counts.
Humid air and untouched supper
and muddy streaks across the sky.
You speak as if it’s nothing;
you kiss my cheek and say goodbye,
but I block you at the door.


“Stop,” I say. “I know what you’re doing.
You’ll die for me and bear my shame,
but for once, my lord, you’re wrong.
Stand now with me out on the balcony.
Hear the crowds and catch their every slur.
My hands are stained without your bleeding,
my heart will grieve without your leaving.
I’ve cast my nets and found them empty;
I’ve torn seams no mortal hands can mend.
Die for the righteous! Die for the saints!
Die for the name of all goodness and virtue,
but I forbid that you ever d
ie for me.”

Your silence wraps my arms and pulls me down onto my knees.
Walls tilt and crumble, and space itself dissolves to form anew.


The Maker answers, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

The rarest painting is but oil on canvas,
and diamonds just stones pulled from the ground
until someone pays the price.

What price is there on man? I wonder.
What price is there on me?

He ascends and cries
My God
My God
Why have you forsaken me?

The terror of his question is
I already know the answer.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

 

Review: The Einstein Prophecy by Robert Masello

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

The Einstein Prophecy
by Robert Masello

47North, 2015

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The verdict: A predictable page-turner producing standard action fare, best suited for long flights or a fun vacation read.

From its back cover, The Einstein Prophecy sounded right up my alley: a WWII-era thriller involving an ancient curse and the world’s greatest scientific minds. If the title’s supposed to evoke some Da Vinci Code connection, however, Masello’s novel falls woefully short of its ambitions, but I’m not ready to completely discard it. Masello’s background as a journalist and previous novelist shows in his ability to technically piece together a story, and it does succeed as a quick, mindless thrill ride. Readers looking for complex characters and depth are less likely to enjoy the story as those just hoping for a lighthearted adventure, but the premise at least is enough to engage the imagination. I call it less profound revelation and more mindless entertainment.

On a top priority mission for the Office of Strategic Services, art-professor-turned-soldier Lucas Athan uncovers a stolen sarcophagus cloaked in secrecy and danger. When the US government calls to collect the object, the brilliant and beautiful Egyptian archaeologist Simone Rashid follows Lucas back to Princeton with a mysterious agenda of her own. Meanwhile at the university, the famed Professor Albert Einstein is in the middle of his own secretive work on the Manhattan Project, and as Professor Athan investigates the artifact, their storylines soon converge. The US military prioritizes uncovering the mysteries of the ossuary for reasons not fully explained, but its power soon becomes apparent. Strange and deadly happenings follow anyone too close to the project, and if that weren’t enough, the Nazis want the ossuary back to harness it as a weapon for evil. Set against the historical background of WWII, Masello unveils a fast-paced adventure back on American home soil.

“Even if one fights on the side of angels,” the professor continued, “it can feel as if one is doing the Devil’s work. For years now, every day, it is all bombs and bullets, guns and planes, tanks and cannons, death and more death…One must wonder, where will it all end?”

The many threads don’t always tie together, and some of the historical context, especially with Einstein’s war effort, feels forcefully inserted. Otherwise, though, the story unfolds as standard thriller fare true to genre. Inexplicably well-resourced characters with high-reaching government connections collaborate on a top-secret project to save the world. At times I enjoyed the fast pace and cross-town chase scenes, but the heroes lack the depth and gravitas to inject any personal conflict into the narrative. Lucas is barely affected by his horrific war injury while romantic sparks fly all-too-predictably with his female counterpart. The ossuary’s backstory provides the most intrigue, but the novel’s deeper themes about the nature of good and evil tumble through the air without sticking the landing. Einstein’s character ends up as more of a gimmick than necessary plot piece, and the mystery unfolds linearly with few surprises. It’s not exactly like readers are unsure how the Manhattan Project will turn out. Still, Masello knows the ingredients for an adventure story. Nazis, ancient evil, expendable side characters, and a beautiful woman join together for a novel that’s more joy ride than careful exploration. For readers who want easy thrills and don’t mind a serious suspension of disbelief, The Einstein Prophecy can still pass the time.

Be sure to check out Robert Masello’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

College Application Essays Dos and Don’ts

How to Put Your Best Foot Forward in Writing

In my years of teaching and tutoring, I’ve had the joy of helping many students with their personal statements and application essays. While the essay is often only one part of the admissions process, many colleges will say that a strong statement can save an otherwise lackluster application, while a terrible one can sink a student’s hopes no matter how high his GPA. So what does it take to win over the admissions committee? I’ve tried to keep it concise and include examples—that’s a hint for you, too.

DO

  • Answer the question.
    Some of those Common Application prompts sound awfully similar, and some are extremely open-ended. Be careful, though. “Recount a time when you faced a failure” is NOT the same as “describe a problem you’ve solved,” and “share a story about your meaningful background or identity” is NOT license to give an unabridged autobiography. Good essays are focused, clear, and organized. Don’t waste your precious word count restating the prompt; instead, make it obvious from your content.
  • Be honest, humble, and positive.
    Even if you’re a national champion gymnast or a published research scientist at seventeen, a little self-effacement goes a long way. Avoid certainty or finality (“For the rest of my life, I will protect our planet at all costs”) by instead exhibiting a healthy degree of doubt (“I realized that I can’t win every battle”)Most importantly, end on a positive note. A wise person knows she’s not perfect, she can’t fix everything, and that the world won’t always give her what she wants. Finding hope, purpose, and determination in the midst of struggles is a high mark of maturity.
  • Say something about college.
    Once you’ve figured out how to organize the essay and respond positively to the prompt, don’t forget the whole reason you’re doing this. An essay about your passion for building custom PCs should somehow connect to your future plans. It’s decent to describe college in general (“This experience inspired me to pursue an engineering degree”), but much better to name the school where you’re applying (“My love of research draws me to Princeton, where I can…”).
  • Show personal growth.
    A GPA proves you can learn facts, but what about life lessons? No matter what prompt you’re given, incorporate a clear before and after. Err on the side of too corny (“I learned that teamwork means sharing in defeats as much as sharing in victories”) rather than too subtle (“Teams go up and down together”).
  • Ask other people to read it.
    Spellcheck won’t catch every error, so make sure someone proofreads who can differentiate ‘affect’ and ‘effect.’ More importantly, however, give your essay to friends, family members, or a guidance counselor and simply ask, “Does this sound like me?” Grammatical correctness won’t save a bland, cookie-cutter essay.
  • Say what no one else can.
    You’ve probably heard advice to “just be yourself.” The way that happens is through using specific details that no one else in the world can claim. An essay about sports? The world has millions. About winning the state championship in soccer? Still not unique. About a girl who broke her foot in the district final and had to redefine her self-worth and role as team captain while watching her friends chase the first state title in school history without her? Getting closer.

DON’T

  • Try to impress the admissions committee.
    Don’t suck up by telling a school where it ranks in the U.S. News & World Report (if that’s your main reason for applying, I have bigger concerns). Show why the school’s a good fit for you, not why it’s a good school. Don’t spout GRE-level vocabulary or mention your perfect score on the SAT—they’ll see this on your application anyway. With respect, the essay is your chance to be a person, not a robot.
  • Be clichéd, arrogant, or negative.
    While sharing your narrative of personal growth and accomplishment, avoid the rags-to-riches story. Essay readers see far too many “life-changing moments” and “total 180s.” Describing your overnight transformation from self-absorbed jerk to community hero might have the opposite effect. Instead, be authentic and still young on life’s journey. As a corollary to my advice above about staying positive, don’t end the essay without any sense of hope for the world or drive for your future.
  • Write your resume in paragraph form.
    The offending sentence looks like this: “Becoming an Eagle Scout, which is the highest rank a person can achieve in the Boy Scouts of America program based on merit badges, leadership, and a final service project to help members of the community, changed my life.” A personal narrative about how you earned one of those merit badges will be far more successful. In general, don’t repeat information listed elsewhere on the application unless it’s absolutely essential to the story you’re telling.
  • Quote famous people.
    Forget that advice from 9th grade English class about opening with a quote. The truth is that you have a limited word count to display what makes you tick. Don’t fill up that space with lines from Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr.—they already went to college. If you absolutely must, quote your mom or grandma to at least make it personal. Always, always avoid “Webster’s dictionary defines ‘obstacle’ as…” Colleges already have dictionaries; they’re deciding if they should admit you.
  • Sound unnatural.
    It should go without saying to proofread for errors, but some essays manage to tip the scale too far the other way. Using six-syllable synonyms from the thesaurus or allowing your Ph. D. parents to suggest a more complicated syntax could end up working against you. Remember, it’s about relating through your humanity, not showcasing your book knowledge. Don’t bring your fine caviar to the backyard barbecue. It’s a personal essay, not a spelling bee.
  • Ignore the directions.
    This is “just be yourself” in a bad way. If the instructions ask for a 600-word essay, don’t think you’ll win fans by writing 1,000. Opening lines like “instead of a traditional essay, I decided to write a series of limmericks” or “I’ve attached an abstract painting to supplement this writing” should be red flags. Be creative within the constraints, and those constraints are the prompt.

    Questions? Thoughts? Comment below or contact me here. Thanks for reading!

 

 

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

Seraphina
by Rachel Hartman

Ember (Reprint Edition), 2014

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The verdict: Original, stirring, epic in scope and intimate in nature, Seraphina pushes beyond the frontiers of dragon fantasy tales.

A friend recommended this book and promised it wasn’t just a typical YA novel, and after diving into the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, I admit that I’m a fan of Seraphina. Hartman’s novel is a true labor of love, showing years of her dreaming and patience in the complex world building and thorough characterization. What struck me even more so was Hartman’s lyrical prose, creating a story that’s not just intelligent but actually beautiful. Seraphina’s musical talent features prominently in the novel, and the chapters themselves contain a sort of melody, adding layers of emotion to a plot already ripe with tension and conflict on many levels.

In a world where dragons can blend into society by taking human forms, Seraphina is a rare half-breed—and she closely guards the secret of her dragon lineage. Her position as a palace music assistant places her in view of numerous characters, including Princess Glisseldsa, sincere yet naive in her entitlements, and her cousin, Lucian Kiggs, a closeted intellectual betrothed to the wrong woman and not quite belonging in the regal world. When a murder in the royal court presents potentially disastrous implications for the long-standing peace treaty with the dragons, Seraphina finds herself teamed up with Kiggs to solve the mystery, and they find more commonalities than first meet the eye. In a strict caste system where the scaly beasts are forbidden to relate too closely with humans, Seraphina’s very existence risks upending the societal detente, but staying silent may be more dangerous still. It’s a story about dragons, royalty, and romantic adventure, but it’s also a story about identity, forgiveness, and the necessary challenge of loving oneself.

“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Hartman’s novel is Seraphina’s “garden,” a mind palace of sorts where she mentally retreats to sort—and contain—the emotions and memories passed down from her dragon mother. In a land steeped in religious traditions, rituals, and moral rigidity, Seraphina’s struggle to belong starts off a bit run-of-the-mill, and readers could quickly tire of sharing her burdens. In the early pages, even her musical talent manages to make her a misfit. Yet several unexpected elements—including the mind palace—save Seraphina from whining too much about her self-imposed isolation, and a strong supporting cast keeps the narrative moving forward. Seraphina’s father is progressive yet cynical; her uncle is peculiar yet instructive. In several clever scenes, dragons must adjust to having not only human bodies but also human emotions, for better or for worse. Where Seraphina soars is in how the reader senses a clear right and wrong while at the same time hesitating to name any one character as all good or all bad. The action slows down enough for readers to form opinions as varied and complicated as the figures in Seraphina’s mind garden, and the challenge of knowing one must act but not quite knowing how to act summarizes the plight of human existence. Thankfully for fans, Hartman already has more in the series. A marvelous exploration of the sacred and profane, the dignified and the ugly, the truth of knowledge and the truth of experience, Seraphina should be on every fantasy lover’s reading list, human, dragon, or otherwise.

Be sure to check out Rachel Hartman’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

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