Connecting with Family in South Carolina and Alabama

While I was planning my road trip and living with my grandparents, they told me about two relatives who lived along my route. As a second cousin and a great aunt, I’d seen them at funerals over the years, but I couldn’t say I really knew them. When I reached out, though, they quickly agreed to let me stay with them for a night or two. Family is cool like that – you’re tied together in a web of responsibility and affection despite being practically strangers.

Bill is my grandpa’s nephew.  He and his wife Diane offered to let me stay with them in Spartanburg, SC.
Sue is my grandma’s sister.  She let me stay with her in Alabaster, AL.   Continue reading

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My Cousin’s Sermon Reminded Me That Stories are Powerful

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This is some Norman Rockwell-esque adorable: walking home from church in the sunshine with my grandparents, aunt, uncle, cousins, and second cousins.

Yesterday I went to Downs, IL (a tiny little town outside of Bloomington) to hear my cousin preach.  I was going out of low-expectation familial support, but WOW, it turns out my family is very talented.  Steve is three months younger than me, but he is already a phenomenal preacher.  He’s laid back, good at working the room, and really great at getting his point across.  So great, in fact, that over 24 hours later, I can still remember what he said.

With Acts 6 and 7 as the backdrop, Steve talked about Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  But the point wasn’t about death, or intensity of faith, or anything like that.  Instead, the point was about story.   Continue reading

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

I loved this book!  I would have been content to read about the little backwoods town of Tupelo Landing and all its delightfully odd characters from Mo’s pitch-perfect sixth-grade Southern perspective.  But Turnage included hurricanes, murders, crushes, and car crashes on top of an already excellent story.  The result is one of the best middle grade books I’ve ever read.

I think I was most impressed by how Turnage stepped into a very stereotyped situation (both the small-town Southern setting and the middle grade characters) and infused them with unique and surprising qualities.  Mo could quite easily overpower her best friend Dale–she is bold where he is scared–but Dale turns out to be smarter and braver than expected when it matters.  Small town life could have been idolized, and while it’s certainly charming, there is also a genuinely distressing subplot about domestic violence.

I adored this book, and I can’t imagine anyone not feeling the same.  Read it!

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Meet Miss Moses Lobeau–rising sixth grader, natural born detective, borderline straight-A student, and goddess of free enterprise.  Mo washed ashore in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina eleven years ago during one of the meanest hurricanes in history, and she’s been making waves ever since.

Mo’s summer is looking good.  She’ll take karate with her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III (whose daddy believes in naming for the famous), and plot against her sworn enemy, Anna Celeste (aka Attila).  She’ll help out at the cafe run by the Colonel and Miss Lana, and continue her lifelong search for her Upstream Mother.

But when the cafe’s crankiest customer turns up dead and a city-slick lawman shows up asking questions, Mo’s summer takes an unexpected turn.  With another hurricane bearing down on Tupelo Landing, Mo and Dale set out to save those they loves and solve a mystery of epic proportion.

Release Date:  May 2012

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Wow.  I did not expect to be gutted by this story of a young Chinese girl and her mother.  Having moved to New York expecting a better life, they instead find poverty and hopelessness.  More than many books, Kwok did a phenomenal job portraying the shame built into poverty and the way it affects all aspects of life.  But at the same time, neither Kimberley nor her mother allow their dire situations to stop them from loving each other and ambitiously pursuing a better future.  The sad thing is…Kimberley is extremely gifted.  Not all immigrants manage to get perfect SAT scores.  So while she found a way out of crushing poverty, most do not have the same privilege.

Then there’s the relationship between Kimberley and Matt.  While she struggles to survive the foreign world of private schools, Matt is the one who knows her secret life illegally working at a factory in order to pay for a roach-infested, freezing apartment.  Their friendship is slow and sweet, and the turns they take had my heart in knots.  I appreciated the realistic feel of their choices and emotions, but I never stopped wanting to shake them and say, “Stop living real life!  Just be happy together in a fantasy world!  Why won’t this book just give me what I want!?”

But life doesn’t give you want you want, even when scholarships fall in your lap.  So while Kimberley is blessed with an enormous advantage, she never quite escapes the fact that life is a struggle.

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When young Kimberley Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to America, they speak no English and own nothing but debt.  They arrive in New York hopeful for a better life, but find instead a squalid Brooklyn apartment and backbreaking labor in a Chinatown sweatshop.  Unable to accept this as her future, Kim decides to use her “talent for school” to earn a place for herself and her mother in their adopted country.  Disguising the most difficult truths of her meager existence, Kim embarks on a double life: an exceptional student by day, and a sweatshop worker by evening.  In time, Kim learns to translate not just her language but herself, back and forth between two worlds, between hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.

Release Date:  April 2010

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

I haven’t read Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, but after Finding Audrey, I think I need to!  I loved Kinsella’s humor, inclusion of pop culture, and honest portrayal of mental disorders.

Audrey suffers from a host of anxiety disorders after a (presumably) horrendous bullying experience.  Although I understand the right of a person to not have to share why they struggle, it’s a book!  I want to know why!  This was the one thing I didn’t like about the story.  I can only assume Kinsella thought that no matter her description of bullying, some reader would scoff that it wasn’t that bad.  As it is, our imaginations are free to run wild.

While Kinsella doesn’t tell us exactly what caused Audrey’s panic attacks and anxiety, she does a phenomenal job showing how these disorders play out in her life.  Kinsella doesn’t glamorize her anxiety, nor does she make Audrey into a caricature of a human being.  Instead, she honestly describes the fear, growth, and healing that comes in a person working through their issues with the help of a loving family and a knowledgeable counselor.  And a cute boy.  Because it is a YA novel, and cute boys never hurt.  Continue reading

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I picked this up simply to cross off another title from this year’s Caudill award nominated books, and I wouldn’t have made it past the first couple chapters if I hadn’t assumed people liked it for a reason.  The protagonist is a little wooden (although that’s definitely part of her genius personality), and I didn’t like the way paragraphs tended to be one sentence long.

BUT THEN.  But then, Counting By 7s became something really beautiful.  Middle grade books have the opportunity to delve into the darkest parts of life (grief, racism, poverty) and address them with simple optimism.  This story was all of that, and it was so refreshing.  It’s not that these issues are resolved easily, but every page is infused with hope.  Whereas an adult novel might veer into something maudlin, Counting By 7s is fierce in its assertion that all things can be endured and overcome.  I loved it.  Continue reading

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I used to be really into novels in verse (stories told through numerous short poems), but I haven’t read one in a while.  I’m so glad Brown Girl Dreaming reminded me of the art form.  It’s a great way to condense a long story (in this case, Woodson’s childhood) into bite-sized emotional pieces.

Woodson does a wonderful job of conveying her experiences both through the micro lens of her family as well as the macro lens of the changing racial cultures around her.  We get to see what it was like for a black girl to grow up in the North and the South during the Civil Rights generally, and we get to see her family support and tragedy specifically.

I loved this book.  Because of its format, it’s a quick read.  It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking, just like life.  Continue reading