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

⋆   ⋆   ⋆   ⋆   ⋆

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.

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: The Diviners by Libba Bray

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


The Diviners
by Libba Bray

Little, Brown, and Company, 2012

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The verdict: Deeper than many YA novels of its type, the first book in Bray’s series delivers a spunky heroine and solid adventure despite its unanswered questions.

If last year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them created a hankering for more 1920s occult in New York City,  Libba Bray’s The Diviners might be the just the fix. It’s hefty for a young adult book, nearly 600 pages in the first edition, and at times the novel feels bloated with supporting characters, back stories, and wandering side plots. The central mystery, though, creates enough intrigue to keep the reader interested, and the conclusion provides an action-packed finish while leaving the door open for more to come in the series. As a plus, Bray’s extensive research into the setting lends authenticity to the happenings and places, making the paranormal elements all the more chilling.

Seventeen-year-old Evie O’Neil, a wannabe flapper girl with a secret supernatural gift, is sent from her dull Ohio hometown to live with her uncle in New York City. A grisly murder leads the police to consult Evie’s uncle, a curator of a museum dedicated to folklore and superstition, and Evie soon finds herself involved in the investigation. As the story progresses, readers meet a growing cast of teenagers with mystical powers, each with his or her own secrets, history, and ever-unfolding romantic tensions. Told in short chapters with changing perspectives, the novel revolves around Evie’s hunt for the killer, who proves to have otherworldly origins and growing powers of his own. Some of the secondary plotlines drag in the middle without contributing much to the main attraction, and at times the overlap is a bit hard to follow. Yet, despite the bumps, the last act delivers enough suspense and thrills to lure the wandering reader back in and refocus on Evie.

“‘Oh, sure. Of course, they say now that we’ve got Freud and the motorcar, God is dead.’

‘He’s not dead; just very tired.'”

While Bray easily could have left it at just a good old-fashioned ghost story, she doesn’t, and the push into deeper themes of identity adds a welcome complexity to the novel. Interspersed among the clues toward the murderer are questions of race, class, and religion as victims of abuse and personal tragedy take turns on center stage like the different acts of the Ziegfeld revue. Readers see not just the gruesome violence of a ghost-killer but also the human-led exploitation, prejudice, neglect, and lasting calamity of dreams long deferred. As Evie sneaks out to speakeasies and roaring parties, she remains largely naive to the darkness and hardships of those around her, but the reader gets a front-row seat. Evie’s uncle directly voices the question Bray paints throughout the narrative, wondering, “What sort of god would let this world happen?” Where the novel falters, however, is in Evie’s distance from these issues. Her rebellious attitude starts off as endearing but lacks a pivotal revelation to bring about maturity. Evie largely romps through the city without consequence or second thought while everyone else around her suffers, and she needs little personal sacrifice to obtain what she wants. Even in the most perilous moments, she escapes on her own without needing support or admitting any weakness. As a result, the novel falls flat instead of offering strong responses to the questions it raises, and readers are stranded in the same dark world they start in before the rise of a ghost killer. In the final chapters, it’s unclear who the real enemy is or what’s at stake for the many characters other than learning that sometimes the world can disappoint. Still smarter than many of its peers, The Diviners appeals to lovers of urban fantasy and YA romance, especially with a paranormal twist.

Be sure to check out Libba Bray’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: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

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

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

Random House, 2006

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The verdict: Heartfelt, accessible, and deeply compelling, Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel is an all-around triumph.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge David Mitchell fanboy. I’m consistently blown away by his raw talent, endless creativity, and sheer ambition as a writer. Having read other titles prior to this one, I knew I’d be predisposed to love Black Swan Green, but it still managed to surprise me. I didn’t grow up in 1980s England, but I had no trouble relating to the protagonist or seeing the world through his eyes. Some have compared Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel to Catcher in the Rye, and I’d dare to say it’s better. I found it more approachable, more universally appealing, and, frankly, more entertaining than the classic American Bildungsroman (I’m an English literature teacher, so I don’t say that lightly).

The novel follows 13-year-old Jason Taylor for one year (13 months to be exact—each chapter is its own episode that contributes to the larger narrative) in the small town of Black Swan Green. Jason worries about his rank in the social hierarchy of his school and how to fit in despite his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it under a pseudonym; he fears failure, exposure, and rejection, yet through a nonstop whirl of adventures must learn to experience and overcome all three. The scenes range from a tense family dinner with visiting relatives to a bizarre afternoon spent hiking down a horseback riding trail, with everything from the nighttime hazing of a secret club to a life-changing occurrence at a town fair in between. Jason accidentally breaks his grandfather’s treasured watch and then seeks to replace it before his parents find out. As the story progresses, Jason himself must break, sometimes forcibly and sometimes by choice, wondering if anything in life can ever be put back to the way it once was.

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.'”

Mitchell’s achievement comes in how brilliantly he interweaves events of personal and global significance—Jason’s parents’ impending divorce, the growing conflict in the Falklands—without ever breaking the enchantment of the narrative. The slang fits without being distracting, and the reader stays just enough ahead to appreciate the joys and horrors of being a kid without exactly knowing how the story will end. Each of the chapters absorbs in its own way, from the ugly brutality of school bullies to the shy awkwardness of a first kiss, and the final tapestry is a timeless portrait of adolescence. Poignant throughout and a little bizarre in some parts, Black Swan Green is empathetic without sacrificing action and thought-provoking without sacrificing wit. To offer a criticism, I might say that the ending doesn’t pack a mind-blowing punch that will fundamentally change the way readers see the world, but I still found it satisfying. The subtlety provides a different kind of thesis. A 13-year-old doesn’t figure life out in a year, and that’s okay. Mitchell assures that, in the end, everything will be alright—but we’re still on the journey, and it’s not the end yet. I don’t have to be 13 to agree with that. Best suited for advanced teen readers and adults who appreciate literary prose, Black Swan Green is a rich depiction of a season of life and well worth the visit.

Be sure to check out David Mitchell’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.

Silent Killer, Mr. Anonymous

The Fake Quote Pandemic
and How to Fight Back

Anonymous.

No, I’m not talking about a computer hacker with a Guy Fawkes mask trying to steal your identity. I’m talking about the single most widely quoted person of our time.

If a quote’s any good, share it on the internet.            -Anonymous

Yes, the word anonymous has long been a convenient place holder to avoid the effort of tracking down an original source or to add some air of credibility to an inspiring text overlay. Yet this seemingly harmless act of attributing quotes to Mr. Anonymous has wide-reaching implications for the way we process information on the web. In the age of Fake News, internet users may be more gullible than they realize, and the problem starts off small.

Inspirational quotes remain one of the most ubiquitous categories of social media posting, garnering likes and shares no matter how many times viewers have heard the line before. Many marketing websites actually recommend sharing quote images as the number one way to engage with new followers, and the practice is not inherently bad—anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I do it too. Yet here’s where Mr. Anonymous makes his entrance. Sometimes anonymous gets slapped on to a popular saying or maxim that doesn’t require any citation. (At least people are making an effort to list some kind of source, even if it’s a meaningless one.) But the ease of anonymous presents a real danger, and that’s a lack of basic fact checking or common sense. While researching for this article, I stumbled upon this gem:

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How is this anonymous? It’s a Bible verse. Matthew 6:34 is in the quote! Unless maybe this person is making a statement here by doubting the authenticity of Matthew’s gospel, but then I’m struggling to reconcile any subversive attack on religion with the clear reference in the background image to the God’s-Carrying-You-Footprints-in-the-Sand poem. Either this is just ridiculous, or it’s part of some Matthew/Footprints conspiracy—we’ll probably never know for sure. (As an aside, “Footprints” has its own raging authorship debate with various claimants to the throne. Check out an article from the Gospel Coalition to see the full controversy.)

The problem, however, gets more serious when people leave out Mr. Anonymous and valiantly look for a real human being to whom they can attribute the quote. Not all wise people are equal, and a quote belonging to the likes of Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, or Abraham Lincoln will see far more shares on social media than those from less notable public figures. In fact, most people trust these names so much that they’ll accept a wise or inspiring quote with one of their names on it, no questions asked.

Consider these quotes, all of which I’ve found published on the internet.

“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
-Albert Einstein

So the great frizzy-haired physicist was really into boats? Although it’s a clever saying, this line predates Mr. Einstein.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt / -Marilyn Monroe

Misbehaving in different ways, I suppose. Sadly, the saying gained popularity several decades after these two women.

“A house divided cannot stand.” -Abraham Lincoln

To be fair on this one, he did give a famous speech in which he quoted this Bible passage. So maybe we could write it like this:

“A house divided cannot stand.” -The Bible -Abraham Lincoln

xByII

Too much of Mr. Anonymous teaches people that they either (1) won’t find a source or (2) shouldn’t bother looking, and these are horrible habits to develop online. It often takes less than a minute to double check a source, whether it’s for a simple quote, a news story, or a compelling infographic. Don’t stop there, either. Comment on posts with misinformation, and respond when people unknowingly share hoaxes or fake stories online. I’ve posted three of my favorite fact-checking sites below, and feel free to join the conversation and comment with more. Before sharing anything on social media, unmask Mr. Anonymous and demand that the source provides its real name.

Some of my favorite resources:

Quote Investigator – Great site for uncovering quote origins
Snopes – investigating rumors in online stories
Politifact – fact checking politics
Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

17 Reasons I Hate List Posts

Number 13 Will Shock You!

It’s borderline epidemic. I’ll be at my desk, minding my own business while minding everyone else’s business on Facebook, when BAM! It grabs me.

The list.

10 Disney Movies Your Kids Should Avoid
22 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Vegan
99 Ways to Make $1,000,000 While Sitting on Your Couch

The ever-present clickbait soon drags me down into that dark rabbit hole of internet time-sucking. I admit it: Many a list has trapped me with its claws. So what’s my issue with the increasingly popular article format? Hold on—I’ve got a few.

1. I feel swindled.

Hoodwinked. Double-crossed. Downright duped. I’m halfway through “101 of Our All-Time Favorite Cat Memes” when I realize that my productive workday has transformed into a gallery of indignant felines. What happened? How’d I get here?

its-your-fault-595e49

2. Lists encourage my indecision.

Why can’t we have just one Best New Restaurant to Try This Summer? Too many lists and pretty soon I only drink beer in sample flights and want to know if extra cheese can go on a quarter of my pizza instead of the full half.

3. They insult my reading ability.

I can skim for relevant keywords without your bold title text, thank you very much.

4. The burdens are unnecessary.

Why do I need to worry about “where they are now” for all 25 women of The Bachelor Season 1? I didn’t want to know where they were then.

5. Actual burdens seem unnecessary.

My brain automatically categorizes “12 Ways Global Climate Change Will Affect Your Children” alongside “15 Foods You Didn’t Know You Could Microwave.” Oops.

6. The organization never makes sense.

This probably should have been my first point.

7. Random advertisements pop up in the middle.

this_space_for_rent_rectangular_sticker-r78bcd1767df64555b13d09fda9993922_v9wxo_8byvr_324

8. It’s hard to be original.

As Solomon said, there are no new life hacks under the sun.

9. They’re rarely controversial.

I prefer highly charged, one-sided political rants that I can post to Facebook without actually reading them. Really, nobody ever leaves amped-up five-paragraph responses to list posts. “9 Reasons You Should Start a Protest” just doesn’t fan the flames.

10. Talented authors sell themselves out.

Dear list writer: We both know you could create Pulitzer-worthy journalistic exposés, but we also both know your freelance blogging career is better launched through “23 Superfoods That Won’t Break Your Budget.” Fine literature, I grieve for thee.

11. I’m ashamed of how much Netflix I watch.

You want the truth? I clicked on “50 Shows To Binge This Weekend” because I wanted to. Because I can’t sleep without it. Because nothing in my life has been the same since Sherlock. Now go away.

next-episode-in

12. Those photo galleries where I have to hit the next arrow each time instead of just scrolling down and then a whole new window opens just because I clicked on something.

I can’t even.

14. I don’t trust lists.

“4 Fantasy Quarterbacks to Start This Week and 3 You Should Sit” all but guarantees I’ll start the wrong guy. But if I don’t click on it now, I’ll always wonder…

15. I like the idea more than the thing itself.

A post like “15 Ways To Improve Your Concentration” sounds good until I realize that I actually have to do stuff. Breathing exercises? I think I’ll just move on to “35 Workout Routines to Finally Burn That Belly Fat.”

16. They’re always way too long.

When I’m saying tl;dr to a list post, you know I’ve got attention-span problems. By the time I get to the bottom, I don’t even have the energy to troll the comments.

17. I still have hope for our world.

Stand up, dear reader! Raise your voice! We are more than just sponges to absorb whatever random bullet points these internet marketers decide to drop in front of us. Am I wrong to yearn for quality over quantity, knowledge over gossip, and cultivated discourse over mere stimulus injection? We must fight for meaningful content!

By the way, any good documentaries on Netflix?

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

The Best Books for Middle School

Finding engaging, age-appropriate reading material for middle schoolers can be hard.

As a middle school English teacher, I often receive questions about finding the best books for middle schoolers. Parents want reading material that’s challenging, educational, and suitable for young minds; students want books that are interesting, relatable, and entertaining enough to finish. In an ongoing project, I’ve asked teachers and students to contribute to this list of the best books for middle school. Whether it’s for a class book report or some fun summer reading, scroll down to find twentieth-century classics, contemporary hits, and a few you’ve never heard of in all genres. I keep it updated, so let me know if there are titles you think should be added to the list.

Best Books for Middle Schoolers:

Low Fantasy (Magic/Myth in the Real World)

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Percy Jackson & The Olympians series by Rick Riordan
The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud
City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Doll Bones by Holly Black
Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
The Michael Vey series by Richard Paul Evans
The Diviners by Libba Bray
The Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke
The Midnighters trilogy by Scott Westerfeld
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

High Fantasy (Set in Alternate World)

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
Redwall series by Brian Jacques
The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
The Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
Dragon Run by Patrick Matthews
The Five Kingdoms series by Brandon Mull
The Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth
The Everworld series by K.A. Applegate
The Selection series by Kiera Cass
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
The Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland

Science Fiction

The Maze Runner series by James Dashner
The Infinity Ring series by James Dashner
Dissonance by Erica O’Rourke
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Virals by Kathy Reichs
Maximum Ride series by James Patterson
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements
Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh
I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Historical

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Book Thief 
by Markus Zusak
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Mystery / Thriller

When you Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddox
Stolen Children by Peg Kehret
Dead Girls Don’t Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
Do You Know the Monkey Man by Dori Hillestad Butler
The Compound by S.A. Bodeen
The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz
Need by Joelle Charbonneau
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Literary

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Holes by Louis Sachar
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Eleven by Tom Rogers
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce

Biography / Nonfiction (YA Editions)

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
No Summit Out of Sight by Jordan Romero
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
March [graphic novel] by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Judith St. George
Black Pioneers of Science and Invention by Louis Haber
Mud, Sweat, and Tears by Bear Grylls
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Classics – Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 
The Giver
 by Lois Lowry
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Classics – Historical and Literary

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Hardy Boys series by various authors as Franklin W. Dixon
The Nancy Drew Mystery stories by various authors as Carolyn Keene
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

100+ titles for The Best Books for Middle School
Know any novels that I should add? Contact me to add them to the list!

Modern Mayflowers: Global Immigration

aka Where Are You Really From?

I remember watching the 2012 London Olympics and seeing one of my favorite athletes, Mo Farah of Great Britain, capture historic gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m. In a conversation later that week, someone asked me if I knew where Mo was really from, with a let’s-be-technically-correct sort of voice, the kind people use to explain that tomatoes are actually fruits. I had a suspicion where this was going, but I felt stumped all the same. Farah grew up in London (where his father was born), only ever competed on British teams, and has a decidedly British accent, so…Britain?

No, the person informed me. Mo Farah was born in Somalia and moved when he was a little kid. So, he’s not really British. Britain was only trying to claim him for the London games. (This isn’t just one person’s bias, by the way—the Spanish runner Fabián Roncero infamously argued that Farah’s European records should all contain asterisks.) I was born in Ohio but grew up in Michigan and went to Michigan schools, so should my high school track times have asterisks? Of course not. While I’m guessing that for most of my readers I’m preaching to the choir here, unfortunately, this kind of ethnic prejudice is alarmingly common. Sometimes, it starts with a simple misconception.

For one, some terms that many people use synonymously actually hold different meanings.

Nationality denotes a person’s affiliation to a particular country, most often through citizenship or another designated status (e.g. US Nationals). It’s a little complicated because not all nations have international recognition as states, and different countries have different requirements for citizenship, but in short, nationality means nation in a legal, official sense.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a much wider, looser term that can refer to any number of shared cultural traits, including language, heritage, or religion. Race refers to socially constructed groupings of physical characteristics that can (and do) belong to people of multiple ethnicities. Hispanic is an ethnicity containing people of many races; black could refer to a racial or ethnic identity depending on the context.

So why does this matter? With an increasingly global economy and international events like the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration and resettlement are worldwide realities. While the USA has long prided itself on being “a nation of immigrants,” its foreign-born population is relatively small compared to others. As many as 46 million people living in the US were not born there, but foreign-born numbers in nations such as Canada and Austrailia are even higher by percentage (Pew Research Center). In 2016, citizens from a whopping 143 different countries applied for asylum in the European Union, with Germany receiving the most applications (Eurostat). People have been migrating for all of human history, but it may be happening now more than ever. As first-generation nationals become second- and third-generation and cultures assimilate, narrow definitions of what a person must look like, sound like, and act like to be “from” a particular country must go out the window. Ethnicity entered the English language less than a hundred years ago, and while it’s served us in some ways, it’s also supplied obstacles to those holding multiethnic identities—by some arguments, that’s most of us.

In the coming decades, we’ll debate what it means to be German or Swedish or American with fascinating research studies and dissertations. Essays and artwork will display the beautiful, bewildering intersections of human experience. Starting right now, though, we must teach our current and future generations that people who look different can be from the same places. Nationality belongs to the whole nation, not just the ones who came first.

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