I have to admit that I thought I would have a lot more free time while observing the last two months of stay-at-home orders. With school obligations and a one-year-old who is juuuuuuussssstttttt about to walk on his own, our days seem to fly by, and I wind up on the couch at 8:00 pm, wanting to lose myself in some type of true crime documentary. I’m still finding time to read, though, mostly through a collection of audiobooks from my Libro.fm and Audible subscriptions as well as Overdrive and Hoopla titles from our school and public libraries. I’ve written about this before but listening to an audiobook counts as real reading, everybody. If you can’t find time to read in the traditional sense, try listening to a book while you do housework or chores, drive, get ready in the morning, walk, etc. I switched to audiobooks several years ago thanks to the advice of two rock-star librarians I know, Shannon Grieshaber and Nina O’Daniels who have their own awesome book blog (check it out here!), and I realized I could finish a book a week pretty easily by following the advice I gave you above. I recently kicked it up a notch and accelerated my listening speed to a setting of 1.25 or 1.4, depending on the book, and I feel like such a bad-ass reader! But seriously, give audiobooks a try if you haven’t. They’ve been life-changing for me.
The book I’m featuring this week is The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais. One of my students raved about this book before our school closed due to COVID-19, and it was available as a freebie through Libro.fm’s Audiobook Copy Listening (ALC) Program. It had a powerful impact on me:
Maya is less than thrilled to be spending her senior year in a “hearing school” in Colorado after years of attending a school for the deaf in New Jersey. She doesn’t want to be accompanied by the interpreter who will signal her deafness to her classmates, and she dreads dealing with the pity and ignorance of her classmates. She doesn’t consider herself to be disabled and she doesn’t want a cochlear implant (CI); she knows it’s hard to understand, but she’s happy being deaf. Inspired by her brother’s brave fight with cystic fibrosis, she’s focused on studying respiratory therapy at a renowned local university. She just has to power through what is sure to be a crappy senior year.
It surprises Maya when two of her classmates, Nina and Beau, take an interest in her and actually make the effort to learn some American Sign Language. Beau, who seemed goofy at first, looks more and more attractive to Maya as she gets to know him, and she wonders about a future with this “hearing boy.” Maya’s senior year isn’t without challenges, though. Even the people she loves the most don’t seem to understand her resistance to getting a CI, and Maya’s not sure her dream of studying respiratory therapy can be a reality.
This is a sweet, clean romance written by an #ownvoices author, and it taught me SO much about the deaf community. I enjoyed the story, but I think the best part of this book is that it helped me walk alongside a person with hearing impairment. Author Alison Gervais has created a feisty, driven, memorable character in Maya, and Gervais does a great job of showing readers what accommodations are in place to support the hearing impaired. We need more books like this one!
I thought about teaching Tim some simple sign language as a plot-driven life experience for this book (Don’t know what a “plot-driven life experience” is? Check out my first post about it here.), but I thought one of the most beautiful parts of the book centered around Maya’s assignment to create a self-portrait. In the book, she’s entirely unsure how to portray herself at first, and I could empathize with that because I’ve never been skilled in fine arts like my incredibly talented friend Jaime who recently shared pictures with me that document the progress of drawing her self-portrait:
Because I can’t do anything that complex, I asked Jaime to help me find some kind of “Drawing Self-Portraits for Dummies” guide. She found and shared this website with instructions on how to create the “No Phone Selfie” which actually got me excited about creating a simple self-portrait using a mirror, a water-soluble marker, a spray bottle, and a piece of paper. I mean, even a dummy can trace her own reflection, right?
I followed the directions exactly and tried multiple times, and I have to say that I had varied success. My images didn’t transfer as cleanly as those featured on the website, but in some ways, I think this makes them even more special. I was wearing my hair in a high bun when I traced my features, and I like the way the transferred image makes me look like I have a shaved head and mohawk. I am a bad-ass! Another of my attempts makes me look like a bearded man, though. 🙁
I’m definitely going to try this self-portrait activity with students when we’re all back at school. It’s quick and cheap to carry out, and I can see students having tons of fun with it.
If YOU use this method to create your own self-portrait, let me know! And think about adding something extra to your portrait to make it representative of your time at home during the COVID-19 outbreak. Maybe add a pair of AirPods to communicate all the Zoom calls you participated in, or draw yourself with even crazier hair to show how much you need a haircut. You do you, Boo!
I REALLY had to put on my big-girl pants for this week’s #plotdrivenlife experience, but first, let me share a book that had me thinking about its message long after I finished it: Dhonielle Clayton’s, The Belles:
In the fantastical land of Orleans, Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, one of a select few girls born with the ability to beautify the population. Without the intervention of a Belle, every person–even royalty–reverts to a natural “cursed” state of pale skin, grey hair and colorless eyes: the definition of ugly. Only the wealthy can afford regular Belle treatments– painful procedures that must be repeated on a regular basis to maintain one’s beauty. Strong-willed Camellia is determined to outshine her Belle sisters to be hand-selected by the queen to serve as the official royal Belle, known as “the favorite.” When she’s named the runner-up, Camellia is devastated, believing she failed her mother who, herself, served as the favorite. When Amber, her Belle sister, mysteriously vanishes from the palace and Camellia is put in her place, Camellia doesn’t know what to think. Should she be happy she realized her dream? Or fear for Amber’s safety? Camellia soon realizes one of the royals is unstable and will destroy anyone–Belle or not– who gets in the way of her plans to be queen. When the ailing queen approaches Camellia with a plea to use her Belle powers in an unconventional way, Camellia must decide if it’s worth risking her own life.
This book made me weigh the value of beauty in our society and got me thinking about what lengths we are, as a society, willing to go to look beautiful. Will future governments put restrictions on what procedures we can and can’t undergo to look a certain way? Or will advancements in genetics allow us to choose the way our children look? This is a great book to start discussion about the the concept of beauty and the pressure to look beautiful. The author also includes an interesting note at the end of the book about what sparked her idea for this story.
As I mentioned earlier, the Belles kept me thinking about our obsession with beauty long after I finished the book. My original idea for a #plotdrivenlife experience inspired by this book was to do something fun and inconsequential: put notes in helium balloons and release them, inspired by the “post balloons” that the people of Orleans can magically send to one another. As I thought more about our societal obsession with beauty, though, I decided on a more meaningful and much more scary #plotdrivenlife experience to honor The Belles: I went a whole week without wearing a stitch of make-up.
Now let me put this into perspective for you because if you are a young person reading this post, you probably know that the current beauty trend is to look natural. Messy hair, bare faces and comfy clothes are “in” right now, and I think that’s absolutely fantastic. In fact, I’ve been an admirer of Alicia Keys and her decision to wear no/limited make-up since 2016 (read her powerful message about going “raw” here). I know in my heart that no person should feel like he/she has to wear a mask every day to look beautiful or fit in. So if you’ve embraced this natural trend, or if you’ve never cared to wear make-up, you’re probably thinking I’m a big baby for being scared by the idea of going without make-up for a week.
Here’s the thing, though: I grew up in a family of women who don’t let anyone see them until they have their “faces on.” I don’t think I EVER saw my Nanny without make-up and perfectly coiffed hair, and my mom will still sometimes apologize to me if I FaceTime her early in the morning and she has yet to do her make-up and hair. The women in our family typically rise early to go through their morning beauty routines before anyone else can see them. They don’t go to their mailboxes (attached to their houses, no less) without fully made up faces. They don’t go to the grocery store, the doctor’s office or out for coffee without their make-up masks. So, for me, this has always been normal and pre-programmed behavior. As a result, it was especially brave of me to consider going to school every day to teach the wrinkle-free, fresh-faced youth of America who had never seen me without concealer, powder, blush, eye-shadow, eye-liner, pencil-lined brows, mascara, and bronzer applied to my face. Add to this fact that my face is rounder because I’m seven months pregnant, and, well, I dreaded the idea of going a whole week unfiltered. However, my goal in tackling this experience was to attempt to be comfortable in my own skin and challenge the idea that I need to wear a make-up mask every day to hide my real self.
To highlight how uneasy this whole experience made me, I’m sharing with you a graphic that made me so uncomfortable to create that I walked away from it a couple of times. Here’s me, during my no make-up week, with some of my own commentary on what I don’t like about my face. And readers, it’s scary to me how quickly and easily I came up with all of these criticisms:
Day one without make-up was rough. Walking in to school in the morning, I thought about making a run for the door and calling in sick. Seriously. I wore my glasses instead of my contacts in the hopes they would hide my deep under-eye circles and my tiny, unlined eyes. I expected my fellow staff and my students to point and laugh at me, or ask why I looked so tired. I expected them to look longer at my face because they could clearly now see right through me and realize how flawed I actually am. But, you know what happened? No one said a thing. I taught a bunch of classes, had face-to-face conversations with staff and even visited another school to talk to students about my blog, and no one questioned my value, my professionalism, or my appearance. No one. And by day seven, while in a public place, Mike told me I had a wild blonde whisker growing out of my face, and I shrugged and said I’d get it later. That, my friends, is progress!
So while I’ll go back to wearing make-up to work next week because I feel more professional wearing it, I won’t be so hesitant to go bare-faced on weekends, and I am beginning to accept that my worth isn’t tied to my appearance. Here’s a powerful ad from Dove that ran a few years ago that supports that idea that we view ourselves so much more critically than others. This would be an awesome experiment to try with students to help them see how beautiful they really are.
I have never been particularly interested in birds because I prefer the type of animals that you can cuddle and walk, but this week’s book had me plan a #PlotDrivenLife experience to learn more about birds native to the St. Louis area. It just so happens that the Mississippi River in the dead of winter provides the perfect conditions to spot bald eagles fishing– that is if the extremely cold temperatures and wind conditions don’t keep them grounded. More on that in a minute, but first, check out the book that inspired this week’s experience: Flight Season by Marie Marquardt:
Vivi is in free-fall after a disastrous freshman year at Yale. Instead of road-tripping around the country with her roommate all summer, Vivi relocates to St. Augustine, FL with her mother, both of them still deeply grieving Vivi’s father’s recent death. Though she finds comfort in bird-watching and reliving the world-wide adventures she shared with her dad, Vivi is panicked that she’s dangerously close to destroying her dreams of medical school. If she wants a second chance at Yale, she’ll have to dedicate herself to the hospital internship she miraculously finagled. As a result of her father’s illness, Vivi feels called to medicine, and the fact that she gets woozy at the sight of blood is just a temporary inconvenience, right?
Broody TJ wants to make a life for himself beyond the confines of his family’s restaurant, Sabor do Brasil. He splits his days as a nurse-in-training at the hospital and his nights and weekends as a server. He never thought he’d run into the attractive, rich girl, so named Vivi, who got so drunk she took off her top and completely embarrassed herself while he was working at the restaurant over Thanksgiving break. At the time, TJ was disgusted with her and her uppity friends; now that’s she’s assigned to work on the cardiac ward with him, he can’t even look her in the eyes.
While caring for a young patient named Angel, Vivi and TJ are forced to face their misconceptions about each other, and they learn that life rarely goes according to plan.
Author Marie Marquardt writes about Vivi’s grief so realistically that I could feel it, and I easily connected to the characters. I liked the use of alternating viewpoints between Vivi and TJ, but I have to admit that I found Angel’s narration a bit weird. Overall, this is a sweet love story with a conclusion that will tug at your heartstrings.
To start each of the chapters that Vivi narrates, Marquardt includes a sketch Vivi has drawn of a bird she’s spotted and facts about the bird she’s learned from a bird reference book. Vivi feels a connection to her father through the birds she sees, and the reader sees her obsessive bird-watching and recording as a symptom of her grief. It’s both beautiful and heart-wrenching.
I hadn’t ever before been bird-watching outside of an eagle-watching excursion while I was on an Alaskan cruise, but after reading this book, I was particularly interested in participating in a local Eagle Days event to learn more about the prevalence of these birds near where I live. I did not know before researching this event that, according to the Eagle Days website, “The Mississippi River holds one of North America’s largest concentrations of bald eagles.” So, with blowing winds and temperatures in the 20 degree Fahrenheit range, Mike and I suited up in our winter gear, and prepared to walk across the Mississippi River on the Chain of Rocks Bridge in January to get a good look at some majestic eagles. As we took the long walk towards the center of the bridge where volunteers had set up telescopes for visitors, I found myself doing that cold-weather coping thing where you just scream for no reason, maybe just to prove to yourself you’re still alive?
When we arrived at the telescopes, the only thing to see was empty eagle nests tucked into the side of a nearby bridge or the branches of a barren tree. The eagles, according to the volunteers, were safely tucked away in a copse of trees downstream. Maybe they were watching us, laughing at our ridiculous outfits and decision to walk out over the Mississippi in conditions that literally took your breath away!
So, we didn’t see any eagles in their natural habitat, but the highlight of the day was a special eagle education program we attended onsite sponsored by the World Bird Sanctuary. Josh, an employee at the sanctuary, brought with him an injured eagle named Sanibel, and we sat just a few feet away from her while he taught us about the mission of the sanctuary, how Sanibel (aptly named because she once lived in Florida) came to be one of its residents and the basics of bald eagles.
It. Was. So. Cool. Sanibel was very chill, and so was Josh, considering that their faces were only a few inches from one another. There was no audience bird-petting allowed, of course, but this experience certainly made me more appreciative of the majestic beauty of the national bird. I mean, these birds know how to build a nest!
If you missed out on one of the many eagle-watching events in January, consider a visit to the World Bird Sanctuary any time of year to learn more about ALL of the different kinds of eagles. I had no idea!
By now, you probably know that Jimmy Fallon picked Children of Blood and Bone for the Tonight Show’s Summer Reads book club. And how cool is it that his audience helped choose a book with strong, diverse characters, the first from crazy-talented twenty-something author Tomi Adeyemi?! My summer YA book club of teachers and librarians who live in the O’Fallon, MO area actually picked this book to read before Jimmy chose it for his show. That’s how on-trend we are! Check out Jimmy Fallon’s interview with Tomi Adeyemi here. She is #goals!
It was no easy feat to choose a #plotdrivenlife experience to go along with this book, but more on that in a sec. Check out my review, first:
What makes Children of Blood and Bone particularly on fleek is that Adeyemi created a FIERCE main female character with the envy of magical powers. Zelie Adebola first appears to be a hot-headed mess-up, someone whose hasty decisions get her in trouble on the regular. She lives in a fractured world without magic, and she’s old enough to vividly recall the night when her mother was brutally murdered for her magical ability to call on spirits, the same night all magic and magi disappeared forever.
But we all know magic didn’t really disappear forever (duh!), and Zelie is, of course, central to restoring magic to the land of Orisha. When she unknowingly helps Amari, the princess of Orisha, escape from her father, the king, it sets off a chain of events that lead Zelie, Amari, and Zelie’s brother, Tzain, across the kingdom, in search of three holy items and the mysterious island where they will perform the ritual to revive magic. Complicating matters, Amari’s father is the evil ruler who banished magic and ordered the deaths of the magi. He sends his son, Inan, in search of Amari and the holy artifacts with the directive to destroy anything and anyone that gets in his way. Inan’s loyalty to his father and country is tested, though, when Inan realizes he, himself, has magi blood and finds himself dangerously attracted to Zelie.
This book includes epic sea battles, steamy love scenes, fantastical beasts, and ratcheting suspense. It reminded me of a cross between some of the darker scenes in Diana Gabaldon’s, Outlander and the survival challenges in The Hunger Games, and A Court of Thorns and Roses. It’s the first in a series, and it ends with a cliff-hanger.
As you can probably imagine, it takes extra imagination to plan a #plotdrivenlife experience based on a fantasy novel. For a while, I gave serious consideration to adding a white streak to my hair (the Orishan sign that someone has magical abilities), but I don’t think I could rock that as well as one of my favorite fashionistas, Stacy London. Stacy London co-hosted a long-ago canceled show called What Not to Wear, one of those guilty pleasure shows you sort of hate yourself for enjoying, but she has a fierceness that in some ways reminds me of Zelie. But, I digress.
Instead of dying my hair, I focused on magic. In the book, there are actually ten magi clans whose powers vary from control of natural elements to the ability to affect life and death. Zelie is a Reaper, a magi with the ability to summon the souls of the dead, just like her mother. If I had to choose from one of these ten powers for myself, I think I would be a Tamer with the ability to communicate with animals, but guess what!? There is actually a quiz you can take to determine which clan you belong to!
Since I don’t have any actual magical abilities, I decided Mike and I would go in search of a real magician. And as luck would have it–and this was kind of creepy/cool– the day that I searched for upcoming magic shows in the area, it just so happened that THE David Blaine was performing at the local Peabody Opera House that very night. I bought tickets, and off we went.
Now, I couldn’t take any pictures of the show, but trust me when I tell you that David Blaine is INSANE. The man encouraged an audience member to sew his mouth shut, and then he somehow revealed her very large engagement ring on his tongue once he was un-stitched. Another (giddy) audience member stuck a foot-long needle all the way through his bicep without producing ANY blood. He blew fire on a candelabra, held his breath underwater for thirteen minutes and regurgitated a LIVE FROG that I never saw him swallow. The whole time, he was cool as a cucumber. He is a total beast, and I could fall down a rabbit hole watching all the videos on his YouTube channel. Take my money, David Blaine!
This is another unique experience for me inspired by a dynamite book, and I loved the last-minuteness of taking in David Blaine’s show. If you read Children of Blood and Bone, what would you have chosen for a #plotdrivenlife adventure?