Posts Tagged ‘Little Women’

Whew – September has been a ride. I turned 39, hosted my parents for a few days, drove to Amherst with a girlfriend and had a few other adventures. In the midst of all that, here’s what I have been reading:

The Midnight Orchestra, Jessica Khoury
Amelia Jones is finally settling in at Mystwick School for Magic. But then her school enters a high-stakes competition, and the pressure’s on Amelia to compose a fabulous spell. This second Mystwick novel goes much deeper into the world-building, Amelia’s complicated family history and her friendships with other students. Twisty, musical and lots of fun.

Marmee, Sarah Miller
I loved Miller’s previous novel, Caroline, which focuses on Ma from the Little House books. This one is a first-person narrative of Marmee March from my beloved Little Women. We follow the March family through war, illness, Mr. March’s absence, a couple of weddings and lots of everyday life. Margaret (Marmee) is a wonderful narrator, and I loved how Miller hits these familiar beats from a new angle. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 25).

Nora Goes Off Script, Annabel Monaghan
Screenwriter Nora Hamilton has just sold a movie that could be her big break – though it’s about her husband leaving. When movie star Leo Vance, who plays Nora’s ex in the movie, begs her to let him stay on after filming, she reluctantly relents, and falls in love. But then Leo disappears, and Nora (plus her kids) must deal with the fallout. A witty, warmhearted, fun novel about love, family and second chances.

The Perfumist of Paris, Alka Joshi
Radha spent her childhood following her older sister Lakshmi around Jaipur, mixing henna for Lakshmi’s clients and – eventually – getting tangled up with a rich, careless boy. Now, she’s a grown woman and a budding perfumer in Paris, married with two children. A big assignment at work coincides with some long-held family secrets bubbling up. I loved this third installment in Joshi’s series that began with The Henna Artist: lushly described, with compelling characters (I loved the aging courtesans!) and lots of questions about work and womanhood. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2023).

Last Call at the Nightingale, Katharine Schellman
Vivian Kelly spends her days stitching dresses for the rich, and her nights dancing and drinking at the Nightingale. But when a man ends up dead in the alley out back, the club’s owner asks Vivian to sniff around for information. I like Schellman’s Regency-era Lily Adler series, and really enjoyed this start to a new series – Jazz Age NYC, complicated sisterly bonds, interracial friendships, an interesting love triangle.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We are (almost) at the end of January, and it has felt so long (and cold!). But as always, the books are helping me get through. Here’s what I have been reading:

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
I’ve been hearing about this novel for years and finally picked it up as part of my ongoing efforts to read more Black voices. It’s a powerful collection of linked stories tracing the different destinies of two half sisters, Effia and Esi, and their descendants in Ghana and the U.S. Heavy and thought-provoking.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev
Trisha Raje is a brilliant neurosurgeon who has to tell Emma, an artist patient, that a lifesaving surgery will cause her to go blind. Emma’s brother, DJ Caine, is a talented chef who caters several events for Trisha’s wealthy, close-knit family. Trisha and DJ give each other all kinds of wrong impressions, but are forced to reexamine their assumptions. I loved the gender-swapped nods to Pride & Prejudice, the complex dynamics of Trisha’s family, and the fierce dedication to work and family displayed by all the main characters. Recommended by Vanessa.

March Sisters: On Life, Death and Little Women, Kate Bolick et al.
As a longtime fan of Little Women, I expected to enjoy these essays about the March sisters much more than I did. They were well written, but felt forced, and (except for Beth’s) seemed to focus on less significant aspects of each character.

Hope Rides Again, Andrew Shaffer
Joe Biden and Barack Obama are back chasing down criminals, this time on the mean streets of Chicago. When Obama’s BlackBerry is stolen, Joe tracks down the thief, but quickly realizes he might be in over his head. Funny and very meta; the mystery plot was thin, but I read this for the bromance and the laughs.

The Fixed Stars, Molly Wizenberg
I adore Wizenberg’s first foodie memoir, A Homemade Life, and enjoyed her second, Delancey. This one is quite different: an exploration of how her sexuality shifted and what that meant for her life and marriage. She’s an excellent writer, and the parts about her divorce and soul-searching are well done. But I agree with my pal Jaclyn – some other parts felt too personal, even voyeuristic. Complicated, but still worthwhile.

Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev
Chef Ashna Raje is struggling to keep her father’s restaurant afloat, when her cousin (Trisha – see above) convinces her to compete on a potentially lucrative reality show. The catch? Her celebrity partner on the show is her estranged first love, footballer Rico Silva – and they’ve got 12 years of secrets sitting between them. I really enjoyed this Persuasion retelling (and sequel-of-sorts to Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors), though there was a lot of trauma (especially for Ashna) that never quite got properly dealt with.

Links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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February is half over (happy Valentine’s Day!), and I have to say I’m relieved: the midwinter blahs have been hitting me hard. Here’s what I have been reading, to counter them:

Jewel of the Thames, Angela Misri
When Portia Adams’ beloved mother dies, she leaves her native Toronto for London, in the care of the kind but mysterious Mrs. Jones. In her new residence at 221B Baker Street, Portia begins investigating a few mysteries, including her possible connections to Holmes and Watson. A fun YA spin on the Holmes universe. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. (I wish it and the sequels were readily available in the U.S.!)

Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles
As the Civil War in Texas ends with a whimper, fiddler Simon Boudlin and several other musicians form a scrappy band and begin seeking their fortunes. Simon also falls deeply and instantly in love with a pretty Irish governess, and begins scheming to win her heart. I like Jiles’ lyrical writing, though the plot of this seriously wandered and the ending was disappointing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 14).

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss
When Mary Jekyll and her friends return to London from the Continent, they discover that both Sherlock Holmes and Alice, the kitchen maid, have disappeared. Dramatic rescue missions (in London and Cornwall) ensue–the girls uncover a plot to depose the Queen. Witty, a little macabre and so much fun. Give me a band of misfits (especially whip-smart female ones) trying to save the world, any day.

Six Square Metres: Reflections from a Small Garden, Margaret Simons
I love a gardening book in midwinter–the very idea of green growing things can be so hopeful. I loved Simons’ wry, witty reflections on the joys and struggles of her tiny Melbourne garden: planting, composting, harvesting, battling slugs and shade and McDonald’s burger wrappers. She celebrates the small joys and weaves in funny anecdotes from her family life. Reminded me quite a lot of Kate Bradbury’s The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

To Night Owl from Dogfish, Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Bett Devlin does not want a sister. Neither does Avery Bloom. They also don’t want to go to the same camp and be forced to bond. But their dads have fallen in love, so that’s what’s happening. This Parent-Trap-style setup only gets more fun, as the girls become friends and then start scheming. Told entirely in letters/emails and full of smart, layered, compassionate characters.

More to the Story, Hena Khan
Jameela Mirza has dreams of being a great journalist. But although she’s been named features editor of her middle-school paper, things are tough: her dad is working overseas and her sister Bisma might be seriously ill. I loved this sweet, modern-day spin on Little Women featuring a Pakistani-American family in Georgia. Funny and lovely and smart.

Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics, Leonard Mlodinow
In Stephen Hawking’s later years, he and Mlodinow co-authored two books. This slim memoir is Mlodinow’s account of their friendship and their work on The Grand Design. I find physics fascinating but challenging, and Mlodinow summarizes his and Hawking’s ideas in an accessible way, while painting a nuanced portrait of the man. File under: much more interesting than I expected. (Flashbacks to the film The Theory of Everything, which I loved.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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mother daughter book club series heather vogel frederick

I discovered the Mother-Daughter Book Club series by accident, stumbling onto the first book at Books-a-Million in West Texas. I was in the mood for light summer reading, and the cheery pink-covered paperback promised just that: a tale of four middle-school girls and their mothers in Concord, Massachusetts, who form a book club and read Little Women (my childhood favorite!) together.

The daughters are wary of their mothers’ project at first, but they end up loving the book and each other’s company so much that they decide to keep the club going. Five books later, they’re smack in the middle of high school, and with their sixth adventure hitting shelves next month, I decided to visit them in Concord again.

Narrated in turn by the girls (bookish Emma, farm girl Jess, fashionista Megan and tomboy athlete Cassidy), the books give us several perspectives on the authors and books the club reads. The literary musings (and “fun facts” collected by Emma’s mother, who is a librarian) are interwoven with the daily dramas of middle and high school, life in small-town New England with their families, and each girl’s private struggles and dreams.

These girls (even snooty Becca, who joins the club in seventh grade and finally gets to share in the narration in tenth grade) are innocent, perhaps a little naive. There are no drugs or curse words, and very little rebellion, in the books. But their sunny simplicity matches their club’s classic reads, and keeps the focus on the books rather than on any serious teen angst. (After Little Women, they move on to Anne of Green Gables; Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs; Pride and Prejudice; and my beloved Betsy-Tacy series.)

All five daughters have mostly intact families and loving relationships with their mothers, even though (like all teenagers everywhere) they are embarrassed by their parents sometimes. Despite being rather sheltered, they are thoroughly modern, with cell phones and crushes on boys, and a disastrous fashion blog plays an important role in Pies & Prejudice, the fourth book.

I love these books partly because the characters and setting (not New England, but a friendly small town) remind me of my childhood. I grew up with two parents who loved each other (and me) deeply; I fought with my sister sometimes, but she was always one of my best friends; and we could hardly go to the grocery store without running into someone we knew. I navigated the insecurities and drama of adolescence with the help of my parents, a handful of close friends, and my beloved books.

And that is the other reason I love these books: they embody the idea that literature can change your life, or at least infuse it with more joy, more sparkle, more zest for living, more courage.

None of the girls, except Emma (daughter of a librarian, and an aspiring writer) care much for books when the series begins. Jess loves animals and singing and science; Megan designs and sews clothes, and loves to shop; and Cassidy is a hockey nut who’s still grappling with the death of her father and a cross-country move. They don’t expect to enjoy Little Women (or Anne, or Daddy-Long-Legs), but all of them eventually fall in love with the heroines of these classics, realizing that despite differences of time and geography, Jo March and Anne Shirley and Elizabeth Bennet face the same struggles they do.

The book club motif gives the characters plenty of chances to discuss the books, which means they not only gush about the heroes and heroines, but learn to appreciate the minor characters, from Mrs. Rachel Lynde to Mr. Collins, and Betsy Ray’s merry crowd of friends. Similarly, the minor characters in this series are great fun, from the girls’ parents and siblings to their boyfriends, a couple of grandparents, teachers and friends. It’s a pleasure to revisit Concord (even more so since I’ve now been there myself), and spend time with not only the five narrators, but the whole cast of characters.

If you’re in the mood for some frothy, literary fun, I highly recommend these books. The girls are tackling Jane Eyre next, and I can’t wait to visit England – and hang out in Concord – with them.

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I’ve been an avid reader – and rereader – almost since I learned how to read. (Just ask my parents, who swear they read Ned’s Numbers to me a million times when I was a toddler.) I’ve read – and reread – hundreds of books since then, but a few of them have truly, powerfully changed the way I see the world. This list is not exhaustive, but contains a handful of the gems that marked some important shifts for me. (Inspired by Roxanne’s Books Well-Loved series.)

1. Little Women, first read when I was seven – the first story that completely, wholly absorbed me and made me want to read it again and again. (Which I did.)
2. Walking on Water, my “back-door” introduction to Madeleine L’Engle (now one of my favorite authors) and her oeuvre of beautifully written, thoughtful, moving books. (And, eventually, a topic for my master’s thesis.)
3. Watch for the Light, a book of Advent reflections that has shaped my relationship to liturgy, and indeed my faith.
4. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which constantly pushes me to be more honest in my writing.
5. The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron: given to me as a college graduation gift by J, it has powerfully shaped my creative life.
6. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which revolutionized the way I think about food and seasonal eating.
7. The Cool Girl’s Guide to Knitting by Nicki Trench, which helped reinforce a lot of the basics for me.
8. A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren, which introduced me to the concept of postmodern Christianity.
9. The reading list for my World Lit class, my senior year of college – most notably Saramago’s Blindness and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Horrifying, heartbreaking, powerful stories with pitch-perfect writing, and so many different ways of seeing the world.

What books have changed your life?

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The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, Jeanne Birdsall
I’m a sucker for a fun, well-written children’s story – and I loved The Penderwicks, which begins the chronicle of Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty. So I picked up the sequel, and loved it too. From spying on the new neighbors to writing plays about Aztecs to setting their father up on dates, the girls are always thinking up new adventures. The Penderwicks simply don’t believe in dull moments – and there aren’t any.

Seeds, Richard Horan
A fun idea for book and nature lovers – a scavenger hunt for the seeds of trees beloved by famous American authors, or located near their homes. I admire Horan’s passion and tenacity, though I got fed up with his verbose, self-consciously clever writing style.

Picnic, Lightning, Billy Collins
Collins is probably my favorite poet – so this was pure pleasure reading. The best of these poems are also collected in Sailing Alone Around the Room, but it was fun to revisit them. (I also love his collection The Trouble with Poetry.)

The Little Women Letters, Gabrielle Donnelly
I’m a longtime Little Women fan, so I’m a bit protective of Jo March and her sisters. Anyone attempting to piggyback off their story – much less write in Jo’s voice – had better do it right. And Donnelly does – the letters from Jo sound awfully like her. And I loved her modern-day characters – sisters Lulu, Sophie and Emma, who are supposedly Jo March’s great-great-granddaughters. Such a fun, heartwarming, spunky read. Loved it.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender
I had high hopes for this one – and the writing is beautiful. But I found it hopeless and empty, much like the lemon cake of the title. When it comes to food and magical realism, I think Joanne Harris (Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, etc.) does it better.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Jeanne Birdsall
This third Penderwick story is another fun ride – this time to Maine, for an eventful summer vacation. I missed Rosalind, the oldest sister, but loved watching Skye, usually second in command, rise to the occasion as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). Lots of fun beach adventures and a sweet subplot involving a long-lost father and son.

Winona’s Pony Cart, Maud Hart Lovelace
This was the only Deep Valley book I hadn’t yet read – it was a pleasant way to spend my morning commute. I like spunky, sassy Winona (though she is a bit spoiled), and this was a fun trip to a fictional town I love. (Also: it’s always interesting to see Betsy Ray from her friends’ perspective.)

A Vintage Affair, Isabel Wolff
Lush descriptions of vintage clothes, a little romance (with the wrong guy and then with the right one), and a long-buried World War II secret both heartbreaking and lovely. I quite enjoyed this feel-good story. (And – as always – I love me some British spellings and expressions. Happy sigh.)

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
I hadn’t read this in years…until a blog reader reminded me of how much I’d loved it (thanks, Allison!). The story of Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver Melendy, and their Saturday adventures in New York City, is so fun and utterly charming.

The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright
This sequel to The Saturdays is equally charming…the Melendys move to the country, into a large, rambling house with a cupola, a cellar and a hidden room (!). And they have more adventures, beautifully written and lovingly detailed.

Then There Were Five, Elizabeth Enright
The Melendys continue their adventures, which include meeting a lonely orphan boy named Mark and taking him to their hearts, literally and figuratively. So fun to see each child pursuing his/her interests, from Mona’s radio show to Rush’s piano compositions to Randy’s dances and drawings to Oliver’s fascination with bugs and moths. They are growing up, but not yet too grown up, thank goodness.

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Recently, while rereading Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, I realized how many of my favorite literary heroines are writers, or aspiring writers. This surprised me, actually, because I’ve read or heard somewhere that books about writers aren’t very interesting.

Now, that statement probably came from an article or book urging writers to get out and live life, instead of living in our own heads all the time – sound advice. But I disagree with the statement itself – because I find all these writer girls utterly fascinating. Here are my writerly heroines, inveterate scribblers one and all:

1. Betsy Ray, who writes on tablets from her father’s shoe store, with “a real theatrical trunk” for a desk
2. Anne Shirley, who writes “pretty, fanciful little things” (after she graduates from tear-jerking Story Club tales)
3. Jo March, who frequently “falls into a vortex” and scratches away in her garret
4. Cassandra Mortmain, who sets out to “capture the castle” and writes her way through a very exciting summer
5. Emily Byrd Starr, whose “Jimmy-books” are fascinating collections of miscellany
6. Penelope Wallace, who daydreams for quite a while but finally gets down to writing
7. Juliet Ashton, who finds a book idea – and love of all kinds – on Guernsey
8. Julie Wallace, who writes for her father’s newspaper, scribbles poetry at odd moments, and fights for what she believes in
9. Harriet the Spy, whose notebook is both hilarious and honest

Did I miss any? Any writerly heroines you adore?

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A few weeks ago, I made a pilgrimage I’ve wanted to make for years – possibly ever since I picked up Little Women and fell in love with it. (It’s been my favorite book since first grade.) On Columbus Day, Abi, Shanna and I headed to charming, literary Concord, and to the Alcott home, Orchard House.

You can’t take photos inside the house, which still contains many of the Alcott family’s original furnishings and possessions, including Jo’s (Louisa’s) “mood pillow,” Beth’s (Lizzie’s) little piano, a copy of Meg’s (Anna’s) marriage license, books belonging to several family members, and Amy’s (May’s) drawings on the fireplace, the breadboard and even the windowsills. (I was in heaven – it was literally like walking through the book!) Anyway, here’s a view of the exterior:

Also on the property is the Concord School of Philosophy, opened by Louisa’s father in his last years. It’s unheated and chilly, but beautiful:

We had a fabulous time touring the house (kitchen, parlor, dining room, bedrooms and Mr. Alcott’s study) and browsing the gift shop (where I could have spent sooo much money). Since the Alcotts supported the suffrage movement, the gift shop sells mugs and teacups with “Votes for Women” printed on them. Abi and I each bought one, and I think Louisa, Jo March and Mrs. Banks (from Mary Poppins) would all be proud.

We drove into Concord proper to seek out some lunch and explore Main Street, which has adorable shops and a few monuments:

(This is the Civil War monument, which figures prominently in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series – the girls are always riding their bikes past it. And the leaves are so gorgeous right now…)

We all took about a zillion photos of the beautiful little church on Monument Square, complete with windswept leaves and cloud-brushed blue sky:

We all felt like we were walking through a storybook all day…the whole town is just so charming, and quaint, and pleasantly bustling. And since I have idolized Jo March for years (though I’m also part Meg) and read Little Women so many times that my old, orange-covered Yearling edition is quite tattered…well. There aren’t even words to describe how it felt to finally tour Orchard House.

I love living in New England: everywhere I go, I walk through history (political, literary and otherwise), which then becomes a part of my personal history. Or in some cases, I get to see the places where parts of my personal history were born. I get to close the loop, so to speak, and then keep writing my own story in a place that teems with so many voices, so many histories…and infinite possibilities.

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(Editor’s note: I met the lovely Erin Blakemore via Twitter and blogs a few months ago, and have been eagerly awaiting the release of her book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf – on sale last week. She’s doing a book signing at Wellesley Booksmith this Wednesday, as well as a panel discussion at the Boston Public Library on Thursday. I’m so excited to finally meet her! Read on for some surprising facts about one of her – and my – favorite authors.)

6 Things You Didn’t Know About Louisa May Alcott

When I started writing The Heroine’s Bookshelf, I knew I was excited to find out more about the lives of the women behind my favorite literary heroines.  What I never expected was to become even more fascinated (okay, semi-obsessed) with one of American letters’ most irascible and intense figures.  Here are six things I was surprised to hear about Louisa May Alcott: 

1.  She hated fame.  When Little Women hit big, Louisa hated the public outcry for information on their favorite new author.  She resented the people who felt it was okay to knock on her door, interrupt her life, and demand her attention.
2.  She might have been a drug addict.  Racked by pain from the time of her ill-fated stint as a Civil War nurse, Louisa turned to morphine and opium for pain relief and sleep.
3.  She didn’t just write girls’ stories.  In fact, Louisa penned some scandalous stuff — racy stories full of sex, violence, and unsavory characters.
4.  She didn’t love being a little woman.  In fact, Louisa railed against her role as a daughter and a woman her entire life long.
5.  She was an adoptive mother.  When Louisa’s sister May died tragically young in Europe, Louisa inherited her daughter, Louisa (“Lulu”).  She also legally adopted the son of her sister Anna, willing him the rights to her work.
6.  She was a runner.  Only about a century ahead of her time.

Want to learn more about Louisa and eleven other fascinating authors?  The Heroine’s Bookshelf finds life lessons in some of literature’s most enduring books.  Visit http://theheroinesbookshelf.com to learn more.

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Tagged by Julie D. at least a week ago…I am quite tardy in following up, but here are my (current) answers to some questions about one of my VERY favourite things.

1. One book that changed my life: Do I have to pick just one? The Lord of the Rings trilogy swept me up in a great and grand story…Anne of Green Gables introduced me to a dear friend…Blindness horrified me but made me more aware of grace…there are so many more.

2. One book you have read more than once: Most of them…but I think I’ve read Little Women the most times (it’s my favourite).

3. One book you would want on a desert island: currently, The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron

4. One book that made you laugh: No Children, No Pets – a childhood favourite that I still love. “Everything in here but the kitchen sink…Ouch! Here is the kitchen sink! I just banged my shin on it.” 🙂

5. One book that made you cry: Where the Red Fern Grows…sniff…sniff…

6. One book you wish you had written: I Capture the Castle. Better yet, I want to be friends with Cassandra Mortmain and her lovable, unconventional stepmother, Topaz, and share in their adventures.

7. One book you wish had never been written: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy…these books made me so angry and sad that I almost didn’t finish reading them. They’re well written, but they hurt my heart and soul.

8. One book you are currently reading: The Dead Don’t Dance by Charles Martin (it’s technically a reread, but sooo good)

9. One book you have been wanting to read: Evasions by Melanie Jeschke (the third in the Oxford Chronicles series – just released!). And when our lives slow down a bit, Jeremiah and I are going to continue our read-aloud journey through the Chronicles of Narnia series. (After we finish Mr. Popper’s Penguins…which he is enjoying, since it involves not one, but a whole dozen of his favourite tuxedo-clad birds.)

10. Booktag five other people: Jeremiah, Laurie, Scott, Cole and Candy

11. One book you would like to see made into a movie: one (or more) of the short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. The only drawback is that you’d lose the elegant, lyrical prose on a movie screen.

12. One children’s book you always recommend: The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy and the Great World is my favourite one) for chapter books, and Guess How Much I Love You for a picture book

13. One young adult book you always recommend: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series (for girls!) and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (for both boys and girls)

14. One book character you’d like to have lunch with: There are dozens…but for now, Azar Nafisi, who wrote (and narrated) Reading Lolita in Tehran, a fascinating nonfiction account of being a literate woman in Iran.

Blog party at Cole’s house tonight. Get excited!

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