Book Reports: Eighth Grade


Ok, so, I went to a private Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade. My favorite class was always English, and its permutations – Literature, Language Arts, etc. I could diagram a sentence in 20 seconds. My spelling was on point. My vocabulary was HUGE. (Just ask my fourth grade teacher. She gave me a low grade in Language Arts because, and I quote, “Sara often uses words she doesn’t know the meaning of.” Which is utter. Total. Complete. Bullshit. She never asked me if I knew the meaning of those words, and I was using them correctly. But I digress.)

In the eighth grade, we did book reports. One per month. We had a class period in the school library where you picked your book and then told the teacher the title. I suppose this was so you didn’t repeat books from month to month, or read a little-kid board book. (I mean, who DOES that?? Who DOESN’T want to read a book?? I didn’t get it.)

The librarian was newish to the school. She took over when Mrs. Wolff, who was the sweetest woman, retired. The new librarian’s two kids went to our school and she was pretty cool. I don’t remember her name… We’ll call her Mrs. Smith.

I browsed the paperback rack of choose-your-own-adventures, classics like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and (my favorite, but I’d already read this for a prior report) Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was getting toward the end of the hour we had allotted to pick a book.

Finally, I grabbed a Judy Blume I hadn’t read and got in line to tell the teacher which book I’d chosen. After all, I’d read tons of Judy Blume. Tales a Fourth Grade Nothing, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Blubber, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo.

Here I should perhaps mention that I was not curious about bodies. Or sex. My mom explained how babies are made, sure, but I really didn’t feel the need to know any of the squishier details. We certainly  hadn’t yet watched the childbirth video that would traumatize the entire class for the next decade.

If you have never read Forever, Judy Blume’s take on teenage sexuality, well… (SPOILER ALERT) It’s about a high school girl who has sex for the first time with her boyfriend, then they break up because she meets a sexy tennis instructor and she wants to do sex with Mr. Tennis Balls, instead of the guy who calls his penis “Ralph.”


I was also really embarrassed.

But THIS was the book I’d chosen. And THIS was the book I would report on. I was too embarrassed to tell my teacher what had happened. I mean, it was a Catholic school. She would have TOTALLY let me pick another book on the basis that I should probably not be reading this anyway.

We filled out worksheets with open-ended questions on the book. I’ve never turned in such…blank assignment.

Q: “Write a description of the book.”

A: “Katherine is a teenager who has a relationship with Michael. They break up and she begins dating Theo.”

Q: “What was the central conflict of this book?”

A: “A girl struggles with growing pains.”

Q: “What are some of the themes?”

A: “Growing up. Relationships. Feelings.”

I got a C on the report. But I didn’t care. DID NOT CARE. Because I didn’t want to explain any further than I did. I just wanted to put this incident behind me.

A few weeks after that, I was back in the library, researching for a different assignment. I made some comment about being surprised that such a book would be in our school library. Mrs. Smith knew exactly what I was talking about. She replied, “Some authors get to be so big, their publishers let everything they write go to print.”

We had an understanding.

My dad was a big reader, and that’s where I got my love of books and reading. My mom is not much of a reader, and isn’t widely read, so they didn’t bat an eye when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in seventh grade. (I know, I know, you’re thinking: She was outraged at Forever but didn’t know what the fuss was about Lady Chatterley? All I can say is, I am large. I contain multitudes.)

Though at the time I was shocked that a book like Forever would be in my grade school library, I think in retrospect, I’m glad we weren’t censored in that way. I was allowed to read what I wanted to, above and beyond my grade level. And sometimes I was shocked or embarrassed or I just didn’t understand the context of the literature. But I learned how to read, really read, and understand. So thanks, Mrs. Smith, and Parents of mine. For giving me free reign.






I’m Only Happy When It Rains

Monday is typically my twin sons’ day at “school.” But since one of them has been throwing up since about noon yesterday, I am working from home. A home coated in old blankets and towels to catch all the goo.

I am happy to stay home on days like today. A few hours ago, my friends were all posting pictures of the sky – dark and ominous horizons, huge cloud banks rolling in, trees mid-whip in the wind. Yes, I thought. I’m happy to be home today.

When I was about five, maybe six, a storm like this began to brew. It was mid-afternoon. My mom had a clear plastic umbrella with a white tassel on the J-shaped handle. I ran outside with that umbrella and sat on the sidewalk. The umbrella formed a toadstoolish cover to keep me dry as the rain pelted down. I was fascinated, watching the ground around me form a perfect circle of dry pavement. I could look up and see the rain racing down at me.

“What are you doing?” My mom called from the front stoop.

I don’t remember exactly what I said. Probably a sheepish, “Nothing…” Which meant, I don’t know what it’s called but it’s making me happy.

Another time, not long after that, I walked up and down the short street on one side of our house. Rain pouring down, with that clear umbrella. My dad hollered from the back porch, “You look like the Morton Salt Girl!”

The truth is, I don’t love sunny weather. My English-Irish skin burns too easily. I hate being hot. I hate sweating and smelling bad. I’m not good at outdoor things like sports. Or tanning. I loathed summer vacation because I like a lot of structured time. When I was a kid, nobody had invented helicopter parenting, and we didn’t have a ton of money, so my summers were spent watching cartoons, reading, riding my bike aimlessly around the neighborhood.

Rainy days at school meant we did indoor things like coloring. YASSSS COLORING. I like indoor things. Board games and reading and watching movies.

I’ll go outside in the rain. I like umbrellas. I’ll run through the rain and splash in puddles. Everybody is good at that.

I’m not sure how I would do in a rainier climate, like the Pacific Northwest. But I’d like to visit. Just to see.

Lost in Translation

(For C, because he asked, and is very like the only person I know who has not heard this story 12 times already.)

I went to India while I was in grad school. My friend Rashmi invited me to her wedding and I thought, “Screw the panic attacks. I’m going.” It was the farthest (furthest?) I’ve been from Louisville – after a 22 hour plane ride, then a 2 hour plane ride, then a 10-hour train ride later… I got to Palagkat, India.

This story isn’t about the whole trip, just a couple of moments. Moments where something got lost in translation.

Like when I asked Rashmi, “Should I bring enough clothes for the whole three weeks, or can I do my laundry?”

She laughed and shook her head in the charming way some Indians do that makes them look like bobbleheads and can mean anything from “yes” to “I’m listening” to “no.”

“Oh, Sara,” she said. “We have help for that sort of thing.”

Translation: we have a house maid who will beat the life out of your clothing on a huge rock, then hang it to (never) dry on a line in a place where it is so humid, there is just enough air to breath the water.

“Rashmi, do I uh…need to bring toilet paper?”

Laughing, head bobbing: “Oh, Sara, no. We have toilet paper.”

Translation: “We will offer you goofy Westerner something on a roll that is thin enough to read through and then you must not put it in the toilet, lest you clog it. You must put it in a plastic bag and the above-mentioned house maid will clear it away.”

None of the house servants spoke a word of English, so there was a lot of smiling and nodding and pointing on my part.

My mom gave me a silver ankle chain for my birthday, a few months before this trip. I wore it, one of the only pieces of jewelry I took with me, thinking I didn’t want to keep track of that stuff on the way to and from other side of the planet. I also wore a lot of long sari-ish skirts and modest t-shirts, thinking that I would be somehow less offensive this way.

It didn’t seem to matter though. I wasn’t offensive, for the most part, but I was in a very remote part of India – surrounded by farms and the occasional Ayurvedic center (which, sadly, were all closed at the time of year I went). I am a very, very, very pale person. I have dark hair and light eyes. This is an  unusual combo to see in southern India. I never got used to be stared at or pointed at, or, on one occasion, gripped in an old woman’s hands as she implored me to, “Go back to America and tell them about India.”

You think I’m going to keep this a secret? Not a chance.

The night before the wedding, almost forty people were at the bride’s parents’ home, just talking, relaxing before the big day. I’d been in India for almost two weeks and while the jet lag had abated, I was still uneasy all the time – people staring at me was part of it, but also just culture shock.

I sat in a corner, drinking tea, and trying not to look so uncomfortable. To my right sat the groom’s grandmother, a Buddha-woman with glasses, wearing an orange and green sari. She didn’t speak English, so we didn’t have much to say to each other. But at some point, she seemed very interested in my legs or feet.

She looked down at my lower half. Per local custom, I was shoeless. I wore a long navy blue linen skirt. She frowned and turned to her right, speaking rapid Mallayallam to the auntie on the other side. Auntie leaned around and looked at my legs as well.

Now they were both frowning a little bit.

The house was too crowded for me to really get up and go anywhere, so I sat. Frowning granny and frowning auntie continued their concerned conversation.

Eventually, the party broke up and I tracked Rashmi down.

I asked her about the frowning.

“Oh, Sara,” (headbob laugh), “they wondered where your other ankle bracelet is.”

“My other…? This is from my mom. I only have one.”

“Yes, well, the only people who wear one ankle bracelet here are prostitutes.”


She continued, “The servants have been asking if they can help you find your other ankle bracelet. They assume you lost it.”

Right, because there’s no way mistress brought home a dirty American whore.

The day after the wedding, I bought a pair of ankle bracelets for myself, my sister, my mom, my best friends.











Social(ly awkward) Media


I like social media. Some of it, I like a lot. I joined Facebook a million years ago for the sole purpose of seeing an out-of-town friend’s baby pictures. Well, that friend is no longer out of town and the baby is a whole child now and I’m still on Facebook all the damn time. Are blogs considered social media? Because I like blogs. I like Pinterest probably more than I should and I’m getting better at liking Twitter. I still don’t get Instagram. Snapchat is not even on the radar in my world.

I’ve had to start thinking A LOT about social media and how I use it. My book will be out next year, but I have to think about building a platform NOW. Which, as I am learning, is done primarily online. I mean, some of it can be done in person but that costs more and I’m not quite there yet.

As I go along on social media though, it becomes more and more clear that I am STILL socially inept even online.


I’m most comfortable on Facebook. When I started out there, it was just to hang out with my friends. Being on Facebook is like being at a party that is mostly a class reunion but only with the people that I like. Well….no, that’s not exactly right. There ARE some people I accepted friend requests from but I should probably have declined because, if we are all honest, we’re not really friends and never were. Or maybe we were, but that was fifty-eleven years ago and I DON’T EVEN KNOW you anymore. Maybe they are curious to see how a weirdo like me turned out.

Building on that party analogy, sometimes people come up to me at the Facebook party and I don’t know them. Sometimes I accept their friend requests because I know where they know me from – maybe I know we both go to the Moth story slams, or maybe we both like cheese. I’m pretty sure I want to get to know those people.

I have an author page on Facebook that I created in the hopes that people could follow if they don’t know me but are interested in the Book or the Author part of me, and not my bleeding liberal heart or pics of my kids or inside jokes with high school friends. So far, I think three people who aren’t my actual real friends have followed me on there.


I love the CONCEPT of Twitter. If Facebook is a weekend house party full of friends, Twitter is a cocktail party where someone you know invited you as her plus one, and then once you get to the party, you only see her dashing past on her way to get more wine. Maybe you mingle a little bit, trying to make friends. You don’t get to know anybody very well, but it’s mostly fun, although sometimes someone asks you to join their multi-level marketing scheme because you seem like a real people person. When you get home, you’re pretty sure everybody there hates you and you swear you’re never drinking gin again.

I’ve had a couple of real high points on Twitter.

  • A tweet I wrote was favorited by Mira Sorvino, whom I love, and who is, CLEARLY, very awesome. The situation was, I had just listened to her on the Nerdist podcast and I tweeted that it was a great show.
  • I tweeted to Susan Orlean, journalist, author, and red-haired awesome person, who not only favorited it but re-tweeted it. (She posted a picture of a feather and asked if anyone knew what it was. I responded.)
  • I was followed by this guy for like, five seconds.
  • After the kerfuffle with Cecil the Lion, I followed (my idol) Neil Gaiman’s advice and put my money where my outrage was, and donated to a wildlife conservation organization. He favorited and retweeted my tweet. THen he came to my rescue when there was a Weird Misunderstanding.


I have an Instagram account. But if Facebook is a friend-full party and Twitter is a cocktail soiree, Instagram is kids hanging out behind school with a stack of Poloroids. Or something. Honestly, I don’t know. I put things on Instagram but I don’t understand the RULES. The rules of hearting (is it ‘liking’ or ‘favoriting’?) or following or sharing. I don’t get the differences between Twitter and Instagram – why not just post a picture on Twitter? But I like the filters on Instagram so… I mostly post pictures of what my writing life looks like.


Pinterest is a classic shy person’s social media. It’s like sending your scrapbooks to strangers who then look at them and maybe copy some of your pictures to put in their scrapbooks. I find it the least social of social media but gawd do I love it. I have a couple of boards dedicated to the Book and also the world of the Book. But I also have stuff on cooking, parenting, and “my style” which is mostly pictures of dresses I would like to own.


Those are the social media platforms I use. But as I think more about engaging on them, I get nervous.

I’ve had a couple of (minor, compared to this and this) dust-ups on social media. One was during the above mentioned Neil Gaiman Twitter thing. Someone on Twitter asked me something about donating (I can’t remember exactly – thanks mushbrain…) and I said something like, “It really gave me ALL THE FEELS and I felt like I had to do something.” Well, the capitalization put the other Tweeter on the defensive and s/he thought I was yelling and being nasty to her/him. It’s a long story – it turned out that this person is on the autism spectrum and has trouble with reading emotions, especially the nuances of emotion in language. Also, this person wasn’t savvy with references to memes or jokes, etc. (Side note: Neil Gaiman totally came to my rescue and gently suggested that I meant no offense, because we are actually best friends, even though he doesn’t know that.) It was a misunderstanding, at its heart, but like so much online, it had the potential to blow up into something that left everybody mad/sad/bitter.

This happened again a week or so ago when I made an offhanded comment that aimed to capitalize on the over-use of “-shaming” online. Someone got offended because she thought I was implying that people who do not have literary agents should feel bad about not having literary agents. I wrote and re-wrote a response and finally hit POST on it. Someone else said, “Oh I get it.” But the originally offended person never responded with anything. No “You’re still an asshat.” Or, “Oh, I get it, thanks for clearing that up.” Which for me, is like, DEVASTATING.

But that shit has to stop. I have to stop letting that sort of thing bother me. In less than one year, I’m going to have 85,000 words out in the world, plus all my blogs/tweets/statuses/instagram crackers, and I’m going to have to be ready to answer for all of them. People are going to call me names or worse (in my mind at least) – THINK bad things about me.

Add on top of that, I’m a woman, and I’ve written a fantasy novel. Women are consistently denigraded, shamed, and dismissed for doing things like writing words and also being women. Don’t believe me? Ask Kameron Hurley.

So as I build my social media platforms, as I wade into the waters of authorhood in the 21st century, I feel cautious and a little fearful. I have time to gird my loins.







Nice Book Reviews


I have a confession to make. I have been a terrible person in book reviews. I have skewered, slashed, hacked, and scorned. I have pointed and cried, “J’accuse!” I’ve made wild speculation on authors’ upbringing, education, and mental facility.

I’ve written some blog posts, too, that were…well…unflattering to the subjects.

Back in the old days, before we knew about bullying online and how stuff lives on the interwebs foreeevvvaaahhh, things were different. We thought we could post crap and no one would read it. Like we were writing in our little diaries that got stashed under the mattress.

I, too, thought I was immune. I never dreamed there would be a situation in which the unflattered subjects would read my blog. I mean, who am I? Nobody. A girl has no name.

I should know better! I found a bulletin board post once, written by a “friend” that said some pretty mean things about me, and my boyfriend. Friend never dreamed I would read that. But when you’re bored at work and start googling your friends…

This is all to say, that I am not going to give 1 star reviews on GoodReads any more. This is not because I am about to have a book come out myself and I don’t want people to be harsh with me.  I’ve been thinking about this for a while, after I heard someone on the radio talk about how giving someone a nasty book review is pointless to everybody, for starters.

Shitty book reviewers are just slightly literate trolls. I don’t want to be a slightly literate troll.

When I review online, I’m going to put more thought into WHY I don’t like a book. I’m not going to take it out on the author as person. I will be specific but not mean. I will be thoughtful not knee-jerk. I’ve heard several interviews with an author who sounds like a great person! Sounds like someone I would be friends with in real life! But man, I did not like Person’s book. I ended up not reviewing the book on my blog or Goodreads or anywhere. If my friends ask, I will tell them, “It wasn’t for me.” But I won’t send out self-righteous BS any more.

If I don’t like a book, I will say so, but in a way that lets people know that it’s not you, it’s me. The book wasn’t for me. That’s all.


Bird skirts, mean girls, and diseases

sally j freedman

This is middle schoolish age favorites (not listed: Sweet Valley Twins and Nancy Drew)

Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O’Dell) Holy shit did I want to make a cormorant skirt. Karana is a badaasssss.

Silver (Norma Fox Mazer) Poor kid gets to hang out with rich kids and sees that the grass is not always greener. And also please get me some silver earrings stat.

Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade (Barthe DeClements) Reading about fifth grade girl politics is the best. Unless you are living them in real life, then it’s just commiseration.

The Girl with the Silver Eyes (Willo Davis Roberts) Ok, yes, it’s like Thalidomide but instead of physical deformities, the babies got cool powers. I love this book so hard. Was this my first science-fiction read? Maybe…

Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself (Judy Blume) I’ve always been sort of obsessed with the 1940’s/50’s, and the theater/performing. And also Nazi Germany. So this was pretty great.

Anything with diseases:

Six Months to Live (Lurlene McDaniel) She gets leukemia. In the second book, her bestie with leukemia dies and her ashes are in a matchbox and omg sad.

Deenie (Judy Blume) They thought I had scoliosis once, but it was just one side of my back was more muscular than the other because of swim team. Go figure.

13 is Too Young to Die (Isaacsen Bright) All I remember is that she has lupus. And I was sure I had lupus for a hot second.

There was another one about a girl who befriends twins, one of whom has given a kidney to the other one.

Reader discussion: What were your favorite books as a kid?