* In Sight of Stars *

IMG_4794After tackling the aftermath of September 11th in her novel The Memory of Things, Gae Polisner brings us her latest book, In Sight of Stars, which follows high school senior, Klee (Clay) Alden. Klee is reeling from his father’s suicide the year before and we meet him in an opening scene of self-harm. Klee can’t forgive himself for not doing more to save his father and he blames his mother even more. He seeks solace in a young woman named Sarah, but he will learn that healing rooted in someone else is only a temporary salve.

The opening days are crafted to mirror Klee’s fog due to his trauma and subsequent medications. The narrative unfolds over the time he spends at the Adolescent Inpatient Center at Northhollow (aka the Ape Can). During this time, he also shares memories about the experiences that brought him to the brink where we first met him.

Klee is an artist, a connection that he shares with his father. Klee both wants to be like his father and is also terrified that he is like him. I think this is one of the most important aspects of the story. The struggle most face: the fear that we might turn into our parents. I appreciate that In Sight of Stars is exploring the complexities of this dynamic – that while loving your parent, there can still be tension of both wanting and also not wanting to be like them.

Their connection is also compounded by their relationship with Van Gogh – his father’s favorite artist. Van Gogh is connected to the title of the book, his paintings are woven throughout the novel, and sometimes he appears as a hallucinatory figure. Ultimately, he serves as the basic model for us of the “crazy artist” – Klee’s great fear. In order for Klee to pursue his art, must he also be willing to sacrifice his sanity?

Klee is contending with his father’s death, the fractured relationship with his mother, the isolation he feels from his best friends, and the romantic relationship he finds himself in. It is mostly through his relationship with Dr. Alvarez that Klee can begin healing, reminding us how important access to healthcare can be. Other YA novels published recently also explore mental illness, so I think this novel would fit in with a book study bringing greater self-awareness for teen readers about their own mental health – that it’s ok to ask for help, that one choice doesn’t determine the rest of your life, that the only thing any of us can ever do is keep moving forward because we are all doing the best that we can.


For the Love of Nashville

Jeff Zentner has said that his latest book Goodbye Days is his love letter to Nashville. There is one passage in particular that made me want to visit this city:

“Even though the skyscrapers don’t have chimneys, downtown Nashville somehow always smells of woodsmoke by mid-October. And it’s perfect jacket weather. The night air tastes like chilled apple cider and the sky breathes with stars” (63).

Isn’t that gorgeous?

When on a Zentner pilgrimage, it was only fitting to grab a chocolate shake at Bobbie’s Dairy Dip (page 63). We also spent some time wandering around Centennial Park (page 63). However, there weren’t any cooperating squirrels. We stopped in Provence Bakery (page 263) for a chocolate croissant. We checked out the self-guided tour at the Ryman Auditorium (page 306). Even though I had a mild chicken sandwich at Hattie B’s (page 329), it still made my mouth tingle.

In my opinion, the best spot Zentner’s book took me was Fall Creek Falls (277). The days we spent in Nashville had been equal parts unbearable humidity and thunderstorms. We weren’t sure if the weather would cooperate for this Nashville adventure. However, on our last full day, the sky held, we rented a car, and then drove the 2+ hours. We parked up at the overlook and then hiked down to the base. It was a workout and a half. We met lots of other people on our descent. I was surprised by the number of dogs making this trek. We hung out for a bit (obviously took advantage of the photo op) and made the even more exhausting hike back up to the car.

Zentner places I missed: Percy Warner Park (52), Bellvue Library (234), Parnassus Books (324), and Shelby Bottoms Greenway (343).

My overall review of Nashville is that I can’t wait to go back.

We stayed at the Union Station Hotel, which was amazing. I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.

We visited the typical tourist spots like the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash Museum, the Patsy Cline Museum. Did I squeal when I saw Chris Stapleton items? Perhaps. We also didn’t have a bad meal. I would 100% go back to Biscuit Love and Adele’s.


The closest I’ll get to Chris Stapleton’s clothes.

One of my favorite things we did was take in a performance at the Grand Ole Opry and then afterwards we also did the backstage tour. It is a must-do.

I have had the opportunity to see firework celebrations in several states now and I can confirm that no one is doing it better than Nashville. We made our way over to the Pedestrian Bridge and were able to get a spot. I thought it was the finale six different times – thinking there was no way they were going to top that display, and they did each time. They had fireworks that I’ve never seen before. There was one kind that looked like a flock of birds. If you ever have the opportunity to see Nashville on 4th of July, I highly recommend it.

Of course as has become our new tradition, I donated books to a Little Free Library in Nashville. Since I also used Book Crossing, I am able to track where my books go. The copy of The Serpent King I donated was already scooped up and brought to a neighborhood in Oregon.


Verdict? This Jersey girl might have come back just a little bit country.

Check out my Nashville readings on YouTube.


The Dodge Poetry Festival

In late October, I was lucky enough to attend 3 days out of 4 for the 30th Anniversary of the Dodge Poetry Festival (the largest poetry festival in North America).

One my favorite aspects of Dodge is hearing from poets I didn’t know before. When Mahogany Browne read her poem about the skating rink, I knew it was one I wanted to bring back to my students.

Perhaps I should have taken more detailed notes but here were some things that stood out to me.

Billy Collins spoke about the “traces of dragon smoke” or mystery of poems. I really loved that image. His recommendation for how to discuss poems with students included looking at how a poem moves, how we can follow it as a set of maneuvers because it shifts points.

Li-Young Lee proclaimed that “Reading is the deepest form of love.” He also spoke about how he believes “Poems should inspire action, not just more poems.”

“Silence is a syllable of speech.” – Jane Hirshfield

“When we read poetry, we read differently.” – Jane Hirshfield.

If you are able to attend the next festival, I would highly recommend it. Teachers get professional development hours. You can even register to bring students on Student Day for free. If you are unable to come to the festival, try to attend some of their other teacher events, like “Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain.” This is also a free opportunity (except if you choose to attend the Common Gathering). I have heard many teachers shy away from exploring poetry with their students. The events at Dodge are a great way to learn more and gain resources to bring back to your classroom.

What are some of your favorite poems and poets? Specifically, ones that are great to share with students.


Below are the sessions I chose to attend.

Thursday’s Schedule (Teacher Day):

  1. Welcome and Poets on Poetry (Laureates for Teachers): Billy Collins
  2. Poets on Poetry: Li-Young Lee
  3. Poets for Teachers: Fatimah Asghar, Rickey Laurentiis, and Safiya Sinclair
  4. Poets on Poetry: Martin Espada

Saturday’s Schedule:

  1. In Praise: Martin Espada, Mahogany L. Browne, Parkington Sisters, and the Newark Boys Chorus
  2. Washing in Clear Water – Asian Poetry in America: Marilyn Chin, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Li-Young Lee, Gary Snyder
  3. Poet’s Forum – The Poetic Line: Mark Doty, Linda Gregerson, Jane Hirshfield, and Arthur Sze.
  4. Main Stage Readings: Li-Young Lee and Tim Seibles

Sunday’s Schedule:

  1. From Homer to Hip-Hop – Poetry and the Oral Traditon: Fatimah Asghar, Martin Espada, Li-Young Lee, Tim Seibles, and Safiya Sinclair
  2. I, Too Sing America – Poetry and Race: Marilyn Chin, Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine, and Vijay Seshadri
  3. Tribute to Galway Kinnell: Billy Collins, Martin Espada, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Mirah Kozodoy, and Tim Seibles
  4. Main Stage Readings: Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Gary Snyder



Book Review: The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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When we first meet 16 year-old Kyle Donohue in Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things, he is making his way across the Brooklyn Bridge. He is heading home from school among the many others who are scrambling toward safety after terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center. In the midst of this exodus, Kyle’s attention is drawn to a figure on the edge of the bridge. He thinks it could be a large bird. He soon discovers that this figure is a girl wearing wings. “On the bridge, in those wings. Covered in ash. Then, leaning out like she was going to fly. No, like she wanted to fall” (111). Kyle is compelled to rescue her and bring her back to his home.

The Memory of Things might be set during September 11th, but the novel chronicles all of the challenges that Kyle faces. His father and uncle are working at Ground Zero which brings with it great uncertainty. His mother and younger sister are also supposed to be flying home from California. This leaves Kyle as the only one available to care for his favorite uncle, who is home recovering from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Lastly, his “bird girl” seems to be in shock and is perhaps suffering from a case of amnesia.

Gae Polisner’s writing delicately and deftly captures this heartbreaking day. Her novel will allow teen readers to experience the uncertainty many of us felt, while sparing them the graphic images seared into our own memories. Through their reading, they will come to understand the events of the day like Kyle: “So, now I get it. Now I fully understand. Tuesday, and those planes, they’ve broken something. Permanently. And, in the process, they’ve changed everything. And everyone” (153-154). While those of us alive during 9/11 might be hesitant to relive it, our students are curious. After reading a synopsis of The Memory of Things, my readers expressed an interest because they felt the events of that day have been filtered mainly through adult voices and they thought experiencing it through a teenager’s perspective (even a fictional one) would speak to them in a new way. They know to speak of that day using words like “tragedy,” “devastation,” and “helplessness.” But these labels seem empty in their ability to convey the loss felt by those affected. It is through Kyle’s story that readers will find insight about this event that shaped the America they live in.

My readers are drawn to books that have multiple narrators. Many of them also love reading books written in verse. The Memory of Things offers both of these features. Readers will get to hear from both Kyle (prose) and the “bird girl” (verse). This offers the opportunity for readers to think about how the format of each character’s voice reflects who they are and where they are emotionally. I think another praiseworthy quality of this story is Kyle’s exploration of masculinity. He feels pressure from the men in his family to be a certain way and he is trying to reconcile that with his own ideals. This is an important tension to explore with students. Kyle is an earnest character, one who readers will want to follow on this journey. Ultimately, while The Memory of Things is set during tragedy, it is a story of healing, in its many forms.

Initially, I will be using this book in the spring for an after-school book club that typically draws about 40 students. Next year, I plan to include it as part of my curriculum. I envision a literature circle with several other novels like ElevenNine, Ten, and Towers Falling. Although each book poses their own important questions, I’d like to focus our overall exploration through the lens of resilience and how people survive experiences that seem insurmountable. Each novel approaches the same historical event from a distinct perspective, which is why I believe using them in a literature circle would be an enriching opportunity for students. Other teachers can easily make the case for such a choice. This literature circle would fall under the 7th grade Common Core standard RL9: “Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.” It also opens up possibilities to collaborate, especially with your history or art department.

And I will close with perhaps my favorite section of the book: “Change comes in two ways. The first is the blindside way that comes without warning. Like Uncle Matt’s motorcycle accident. Or the Twin Towers collapsing one Tuesday morning as you’re minding your own business in school. Or a girl showing up out of nowhere, covered in ash, and wearing some costume wings. That kind of change takes your breath away. But other times, change comes gradually, in that sure, steady way you can sense coming a mile away. Or maybe a day away. Or, maybe, a few short hours. And since you know it’s coming, you’re supposed to prepare. Brace yourself against the stinging blow. But just because you plant your feet wider, doesn’t mean the blow won’t take you down” (225).


Wherein I am the Worst Blogger and How I Ended Up in Nebraska

I have been telling myself to write this blog post. But I haven’t. So a year in the making, here it is.

“Why are you planning a trip to Nebraska?,” most people asked. I thought planning a trip to Nebraska was the obvious choice for our second literary pilgrimage. Even people IN Nebraska were surprised to find that we did not fly to Omaha to visit relatives. To them I say: Go get you some Rainbow Rowell. Then we’ll chat.

This pilgrimage was quite different from our TFIOS one. Primarily because TFIOS was one book and in Nebraska I was juggling several. Shout out to Rainbow Rowell for tweeting me specific locations and answering any follow-ups I had.


I knew before we arrived that quite a few locations mentioned in the books had closed. For example, the movie theaters mentioned in Attachments and the bowling alley are now defunct. While that was disappointing, there was still a lot to do.

Our Attachments landmarks included eating a piece of French silk pie at the Village Inn and visiting the Lithuanian Kafe. I had never had French silk pie before. Honestly, I had never even heard of it. But chocolate and whipped cream = what’s not to love? The Village Inn was not what I imagined. Something about it made me think it would have dark wood with window treatments in shades of wine. It was actually more like a Jersey diner. One thrilling twist in our night was that the diner’s garbage had actually caught fire. We essentially walked into an inferno for French silk pie. I have no regrets.


Eleanor & Park led us to some residential locations like North High School on Ames

Ellison / Sherman School. I was surprised at how neglected the neighborhood around Ellison still was post-1980s. It was rather a rather depressing sight to see people still living in what appeared to be abject poverty. One night we basically recreated their date in the Old Market by eating at Zio’s, hitting up Drastic Plastic and topping the night off with ice cream at Ted & Wally’s. We also spent some time at the Gene Leahy Mall (or Central Park in the book).


Fangirl brought us to South 24th Street where we found Taco Trucks, South High School, and the International Bakery. We also took a drive about an hour away to Lincoln toward the University of Nebraska East Campus, Love Library, Andrew’s Hall, Valentino’s, Downtown Starbucks. Maybe if Fangirl was written before I went to college, I would’ve ended up in Lincoln. It seemed like a great college city.

Although Landline takes place mostly in California, we do have some pivotal moments in Omaha. Namely, the airport and Rainwood Road.


I am not sure if I will ever back it back to Nebraska so in addition to our Rainbow Rowell spots, we tried to see as much as our time would allow.

We visited Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. It is under some serious construction and it sounds like it is going to be amazing when they are finished. We rode the Skyfari. Did I mention I am scared of heights? We walked down through the Heartland of America Park and saw the cool (and massive) fountain there. Our first day in Omaha it was raining so we visited the Joslyn Art Museum. One of my favorite stops was the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where you can ostensibly be in Nebraska and Iowa simultaneously. We hit up the Sunken Gardens, which were quite beautiful. What is a book pilgrimage without a trip to an indie bookshop? We popped in The Bookworm, where they instantly recognized my telephone shirt as a nod to Landline. We didn’t get to visit Carhenge because it was too far away (Just Google it). Maybe that means I’ll be back in Nebraska.

I consider characters to be the most important element of stories for me. I would never think that setting would play a pivotal role for me as a reader. But here I am – going on pilgrimages so what do I know?

Nobody writes relationships like Rainbow Rowell. She will make you swoon and fill you with hope. Now go buy all of her books immediately.

Things I Learned about Nebraska:

  1. The food is delicious. My favorite meal might be the breakfast we had at a little trendy spot called Overeasy. I had vanilla pancake sticks stuffed with bacon. It was heaven.
  1. There is something happening in Omaha with balconies. They.are.everywhere. I consider it their signature architectural trait.
  1. Nobody does Independence Day like Nebraska. When our server at Over Easy found out that we were visiting, she asked what our plans were for the day. We mentioned that we wanted to see some fireworks and she told us her church had to best view and invited us over. She wasn’t lying. We sat on a steep hilltop and had a 360 degree view of fireworks. In New Jersey a fireworks display lasts for a few minutes. In Nebraska, it lasts for hours.
  1. You have not seen green until you’ve been to Nebraska. There is a rich, deep green. It needs its own name.

    PS: You can check out our on-site readings on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BG9LICRDc0

On Being an aTi Participant – aTi 2014

One of my favorite days is the final showcase day – definitely not because I am enthusiastic about sharing my own writing with a group of people. I really look forward to seeing what everyone else has created. The visual arts specifically always interest me, because it is so not my wheelhouse and I am in awe of what the participants make.

When Wendel was speaking, he referenced source material for the photography participants. That made me think about how cool it might be if a bunch or all of the classes went on the same trip and worked on producing a response to the same source material. This could also be done with students in an interdisciplinary collaboration.

aTi has become a special place for me.  I am not sure if there is anywhere else where I would get the quality of instructors with this sense of community.  I am grateful for the experience and hopeful that I can attend again.

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Am I a writer? – aTi 2014

There are some people in our class who write constantly and don’t hesitate when calling themselves writers. I am not one of those people. I admitted that I am not sure that writing is something I need to do. When I think about it, while I enjoy the work I do at aTi, if I never wrote another poem, I’m not sure it would be devastating. I might get the shakes, however, if I never read another book. Peter offered my repeated attendance at aTi as the answer to that question. When I was talking to my friend about it, I confessed that maybe I’m just scared to need or want to write. I am very famous for living in my controlled comfort zone.

Even while I am so hesitant to call myself a writer, it is what we expect our students to be. How few of us are actually writing though? I would totally judge an ELA teacher if they told me they were not reading. It never gave me pause that the same should be true of writing. I am also responsible for teaching that as well. And if I am not writing, it should be the equivalent outrage if I were not reading.

This was the first year that I was not scared of running out of ideas to write about. Previously, this had been a gnawing concern. I am not one who has a never-ending supply ideas. On a few occasions I have gotten a thread of a poem I hold on to it for aTi in case I need it. I have come to accept this as an irrational fear. This is the first year I am leaving aTi with additional ideas for poems that I will pursue on my own.

The more I write the more I become aware of my style and the circumstances I need to write. I watched a participant write while on a bench surrounded by a crowd on the Atlantic City Boardwalk while waiting for a laser show to begin. I envy the ability to block out all that external stimuli and to be able to focus. Whenever Peter gave us writing time, I always left and went back in my room or if I was around people during studio time in the evening I needed my ear buds in to block things out. I am not sure if writing more frequently would change these needs or if I will always find myself distracted by the other.

Even though I find myself composing in isolation, writing cannot stay that way. It was so valuable to bring my drafts back to the group. Jackie and I discussed sending things to each other throughout the school year, which is great but also daunting, because teaching is life consuming. This year will be a little less frantic than last year, because I am teaching one less prep and will have a more streamlined group of students. I am hoping that this will allow me to incorporate more of the writing that I used to do. I think Peter mentioned that if we are grading or even seeing everything our students are writing then they aren’t writing enough.