Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Homeschooling the Right Way: More of the World, Not Less

I follow multiple grown homeschoolers on Twitter. Most of them are unschoolers who, like myself, had positive experiences growing up without school. But a couple of the people I follow had a very different background, coming from the world of Evangelical Christian (or otherwise ultra religious) homeschooling, and finding such a background to be neglectful at best, abusive at worst. I think it’s important to listen to a variety of experiences when it comes to grown homeschoolers, and for homeschooling parents to get a good idea of what not to do as much as what they should do. And I think I would do a great disservice to those who did not have good homeschooling experiences by deciding to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist, just because they come from a very harmful branch of homeschooling.

However, I also find myself frustrated at times when people who survived awful situations present abusive religious homeschooling as the default. Homeschoolers are like this, homeschooling is like that. We’re always going to view things through the lens of our own experiences, and I don’t think it’s the job of people who had bad experiences to avoid stereotyping something that was, in their lives, bad. But the picture they’re painting looks nothing like what I lived. Their background is so wildly different that it really brings home how “homeschooling” as an umbrella term is largely useless when it comes to describing the details of our different educational experiences. In my life...

I didn’t miss out on pop-culture, or fashion, or anything else like that when I was growing up. I listened to top-forty type stations as a child, and I can still sing along to more Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears than I would like to admit. I watched Shrek about a hundred times (and can sing along to the entire soundtrack, too). My first solo-concert as a teen was Linkin Park. And though we got our gaming consoles when they were older instead of right when they were released, me and my sister spent plenty of time in our teens playing Mario Kart and Mario Party with friends, on first the Nintendo 64 then Gamecube. I wore clothes that were at least roughly in style. I waited in line for the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter book. In short? I was pretty plugged into pop culture as both a child and teenager!

One of the (many) reasons it makes me uncomfortable when parents entirely cut off or severely limit “screen” access is because of how valuable it is for interacting with and discovering shared culture, shared media, shared interests and communities. I’ve seen many people who grew up with bad homeschooling backgrounds talk about feeling like strangers in their own culture, having never been allowed to have access to the wide range of media available to most people. That stuff is important, and has been something that’s allowed me to bond with people from a wide variety of childhood backgrounds.

I wasn’t isolated as a child, and I don’t have trouble fitting in with my peers now. I might be “weird” in some ways, and I might not fit in terribly well with groups that are too “normal,” but the points of difference and of commonality rarely have anything to do with educational background, now that I’m an adult. If I’m hanging out with people who are queer or feminists or radical leftists or geeks who share my specific geekery or yes, unschoolers, I feel perfectly at home. I often felt out of place in my teens, but that’s a feeling almost universal to teenagers, regardless of background, and I often found myself on the sidelines with fellow outcasts who did go to regular school, meaning I never really thought my education was to blame. That point seemed further proved by my unschooled sister, who was very outgoing and seemed to always find or make a friend group wherever she happened to find herself. Some kids find it easier to make friends than others, but as long as they have the opportunity to be around other kids, I don’t think it has much to do with education.

On the other hand, right-wing Christian homeschoolers are often extremely insular, interacting only with others of their faith and politics, and seeing the broader culture as being filled with bad influences. Children raised to fear the other, raised in isolated surroundings, who don’t get to spend much time with other children (or at least children that aren’t exactly like them), are unlikely to be happy or emotionally healthy, and will be at a disadvantage when it comes time to merge with the broader culture. Isolation, whether from other people or from pop culture, is a bad thing.

I think everything I’ve mentioned here can really be broken down between the two major groups of homeschoolers: those who want to give more of the world to their children, and those who want to restrict their children’s access to the world. This cuts across homeschooling approaches (though unschoolers obviously by majority fall into the first category), and seems from what I’ve witnessed to be the biggest indicator of whether a homeshooler has a good experience, or a bad one. Was it their parents’ intent in going school free to allow them more freedom, more exploration, more meaningful relationships, more engagement? Or was the purpose to isolate them from the “wrong” influences, “wrong” ideas, “wrong” people?

Homeschooling shines when it’s embedded in the world, suffused with an excitement for discovery and learning. When it’s instead just a way to exert even greater control over children? Then it’s better labeled simply as abuse.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Finding Balance in a Plugged-In World

This post was originally published on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform which allows people like you to make a big difference in my life by pledging $1 or more a month. In exchange, you receive perks like an extra post per month (among other things!). Most of those posts will never appear anywhere else besides Patreon, but occasionally I like to share an older one here as well. I hope you enjoy!

In the ongoing discussion of technology, its usage, and what is and isn’t appropriate for children, something that frequently comes up is balance. I shared a quote recently that I really liked by Zina Harrington that touched on just that:
"We have to stop pretending that we can 'unplug' our children. Technology is an integrated part of our kids' world--and it will continue to be throughout their lives. We need to change the conversation. Instead of restricting screen time, we need to teach our children balance in a world where technology is abundant. We must shift focus and introduce them to the concept of mindful usage." 
I want to first discuss just what balance means, because too often what someone means when they say balance is “someone doing things the way I think they should be doing them.” There are some things all humans ideally need to feel and function best: food to fuel our bodies; physical movement and exertion of some sort; sunlight and outdoors; access to intellectual pursuits and exploration; places that feel safe; enough sleep; time for leisure and relaxation, daydreaming and calm; human company and support and community… But the ways those needs are met, the limitations and opportunities dictated by each person’s body and mind and environment, and the quantities needed to satisfy each individual will vary wildly. Your balance isn’t my balance. Your balance isn’t necessarily your child’s balance.

So when I hear words like “mindful usage,” I’m cautious. I like the idea, if what it really means is helping a child figure out what’s right for them. I don’t like the idea if it’s just another euphemism for parents making their children do whatever they think is best for them, working on their children instead of with them.

What mindful usage can mean, to me, is adults working in partnership with children to help them decide how they want to engage with technology. This can happen by teaching important safety practices; by creating family/community cultures that embrace a range of different activities on and off screens; by prompting children to listen to what their bodies are telling them; by having open and honest discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of various activities; by modeling a thoughtful relationship with screens (talking about what you enjoy doing on “screens,” and also when and why you choose to take breaks or do something else)… And yes, it can definitely be the job of a parent to intervene when there is an actual, serious issue. But not to preemptively control, just in case your children might make “bad” decisions, or because you think their explorations are different than what you would choose yourself, to stop them in their tracks and never let them find their own rhythms.

I’m always cautious to point out that I’m not a parent: the ins and outs of how to parent respectfully, from the point of view of a parent, are better left to others. Instead, the perspective I try to speak from is that of someone raised with very few screen limitations, and someone who now seeks to place all of my writing in the context of children’s and youth rights: their rights to, within reason, make their own decisions about the way they spend their time, the things they choose to focus on, and the mediums they choose to use. I don’t think there’s only one answer, one way of doing things, but I also think that any answer that shuts children out of the decision making process when it comes to their own lives is a faulty one.

If balance is truly the aim, then that’s less of a static goal, and more of a constant query, a touchstone of daily life: how does this feel? Is anything off? If so, what needs to change? It’s a collaborative process, not something that must be imposed from above.

Children definitely don’t need to be “unplugged,” and instead technology can be an integral part of a well balanced life.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The History in Historicals: Learning Wherever Interest Takes You

I spend a lot of time talking about how ever present learning is, and how learning doesn’t have to look like schooling in order to be valuable. I also believe that fun and leisure are perfectly good pursuits all on their own, whether they lead to learning or not (and they almost certainly will, anyway).

But I also think it can be helpful every now and then to discuss examples of learning that looks “educational,” found in places that may be unexpected.

In the last few months I’ve been reading what’s certainly the most maligned of the broader historical fiction category: historical romance. People like to make snide comments about “bodice rippers,” and disapproving comments about what sort of people would read such “trashy” non-literature. Yet I’ve been not only enjoying the genre immensely, but also learning a lot. Shocking, I know! While books within the genre range from quite thoroughly researched and historically rooted to what’s perhaps best described as anachronistic, they’ve all lead to a whole lot of historical fact gathering. Thanks to my friend Google, I’ve been looking things up multiple times for every book I read, seeing what is and isn’t accurate, figuring out when exactly a story is set, and falling down rabbit holes in pursuit of more details about a particularly fascinating event or topic.

An incomplete list of things I have looked up and learned something about in the past four months of romance reading, in no particular order:

When (and where and for whom) wigs were fashionable; the British political party of the Whigs; the various “eras” in British history and where they start/end/overlap (Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Edwardian); the evolution of bustles and bonnets; the Peterloo Massacre and the Six Acts; the Cato Street Rebellion; the Corn Laws; history of condoms from earliest examples to mass production; bloodletting and the theories behind it; when the link between hygiene and infectious diseases was first made; what railway surgeons were; history of “sodomy” and other anti-gay laws in the UK, France, and North America; Regency era sex clubs; British nobility, all the ranks and rules around titles and courtesy titles; the differences between various horse-drawn conveyances; Mary Wollstonecraft and the Vindication of the Rights of Women; history of epilepsy and treatment of epileptic people; the anti-slavery sugar boycotts of the 18th and 19th centuries...

Even the staunchest supporters of learning-that-looks-like-schooling couldn’t find fault with studying history, and all of this gaining of greater understanding of the United Kingdom in Georgian through Victorian eras is thanks to the humble historical romance novel.

Constant curiosity, the drive to look things up, discuss and consider, is in large part an innate human quality… Though it can, of course, be discouraged and suppressed. Even when that’s the case, cultivating a practice and lifestyle of curiosity can be done, by paying attention to those sparks, the ideas or comments or facts that our brains get snagged on, and seeing where it goes. It helps not to put pressure on yourself to make a passing interest into something it’s not: a passion. There’s no need to force it, just follow it for as long as you’re eager to do so, and veer off down a different path when the mood takes you. Unless you have a specific reason for sticking with something past that point (and if you do have a compelling reason, go you!), there’s no need to do so.

I’m quickly becoming almost as enamored with historical romance as I’ve been of fantasy fiction for the last 15+ years, and novels in general definitely merit a passionate interest rating from me. But my online historical fact-finding missions don’t usually go very deep: I’m content to know important dates and make connections between different political events and movements without feeling a need to check out six books on the appropriate topics from the library. What’s important to me is that I keep on reading what I like to read, researching where curiosity prompts me to do so, and just enjoying going wherever life learning takes me.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Feedback vs Criticism: the Importance of Learning with Consent

When it comes to self-directed learning, one of the biggest concerns brought up by those not practicing it is the perceived lack of teaching: people can’t learn things on their own, goes the common thought, they need to be measured and tested, they need that feedback! Of course, people can learn things on their own sometimes, and self-directed learning is by no means an entirely (or even mostly) solitary pursuit. But I do want to discuss the meaning of feedback, and when it is and isn’t helpful.

I saw a thread on Twitter by Annalee Flower recently that explored, in the context of writing, just what good feedback actually is and pointed out what I really think is the heart of the issue:

“The thing about feedback is, it can only be constructive if it’s consensual. Presuming to tell someone how to improve their work when they never asked you is presuming a position of authority.”

I think that quote applies whether we’re talking about writing or anything else, and no matter the age of those involved.

Constructive feedback must be consensual. If “feedback” is not consensual, it’s rarely if ever helpful.

Though the terms could be used interchangeably depending on context, for the purpose of this post I’m going to separate the two, and use feedback when I mean consensual and helpful, and criticism for the opposite.


In the decade I’ve been blogging, I’ve had a host of people edit my work for me, at my request or with my agreement, and I’ve also had people appoint themselves as my retroactive editors without my consent, once a piece of mine has been set loose into the world.

I’ve had people who’ve never talked to me before send me a tweet pointing out a small typo and saying nothing else. I’ve had strangers send me long emails literally breaking down a post of mine piece by piece to point out every perceived grammatical error (often only some of which are even “errors” to begin with, instead of deliberate stylistic choices). Or send me even longer emails telling me all the ways I’m wrong while assuring me they’re just being helpful by sharing their oh so valuable criticism.

All of the above are examples of people criticizing my work, to me, without my consent. People who, as Annalee Flower put it, are “presuming a position of authority.” This is, by the way, entirely different than criticizing a piece of work on your own social media channels, with your own friends, or on your own blog. It’s also different than someone respectfully disagreeing with me, saying “well actually, I think it’s more like X…” or “I think you left out some important context” or anything else of that nature. When I put something out there, it is with the full understanding that it will likely be interacted with, shared, and disagreed with. The thing I take issue with is when someone comes to me not on equal footing, but attempting to correct me.

If someone writes a blog post responding to one of my posts about how they think I’m wrong, that’s fine.

If someone sends me an email “editing” a post of mine without my consent, that’s arrogance.

The latter stands in stark contrast to all the countless editors, both professional and amateur, who have helped me with my writing over the years, with my full and grateful agreement. Almost to a single person they’ve been part of my improving skills, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without their feedback.

I’ve used my own experiences as an adult to illustrate the differences between feedback and criticism, but as is almost always the case, the same goes for both adults and children. We all deserve to be treated with respect, and a part of that is considering how consent plays into all of our interpersonal interactions, regardless of age. In this culture where hierarchies are built into every area of our lives, the presumption that adults hold authority over children is taken as a given. Depending on your definition of “authority,” that could be true to an extent: children aren’t capable of doing many things independently, and to develop properly they need adult care and guidance. But then, so too do adults need others to function best. Adults have varying needs and sometimes require quite a bit of care from others. Authority, to me, implies some level of force or coercion, and when adults feel that their position is not carer, guide, or friend to children, and instead a figure of authority, they’re giving themselves permission to work upon children instead of working with them.

When adults have embraced their position as shaper-of-child, they take for granted that they have the right to criticize at will: to correct, to lecture, to direct, and to inspect. It never occurs to them, just as it never occurs to the people who email me about typos, that their shouldering of authority might not be welcome, and that it is up to the individual they’re attempting to act upon to decide whether or not they want feedback.

If instead we start acting with consent in mind, trying to create respectful relationships, figuring out what each person wants and needs, and attempting to come up with solutions that work best for all involved, you’ll start to distinguish between what’s actually helpful feedback, and what’s unwanted criticism.

We all have a right to figure things out on our own without someone constantly peering over our shoulders; to make mistakes without having every single one of them pointed out in real time; and to choose when and from whom we receive feedback.

As I touched on previously, feedback can be immensely valuable, and is most definitely important for children at least as much as for adults… But there are ways and ways of going about it, and as with anyone else, if children feel heard and respected, if they know they have a say in their own lives and get to make their own choices, they’ll be far more likely to seek out and accept feedback from people whom they trust. The voice of someone who respects you will always be more welcome than that of someone who thinks they always know best, and that you should be grateful for any criticism they throw your way.

It’s okay to set boundaries, to reject unsolicited criticism, and to only pay attention to the people who respect you enough to figure out if you want their help before deciding you need it. It’s okay for children to do all that, too. Criticism and feedback are not the same thing, and it’s time to stop pretending that people should be grateful for the former.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sending a tip my way via Ko-fi, or becoming a Patron, which will give you access to all kinds of extra content from me.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What Makes Unschooling Successful? Advice From Grown Life Learners

I’m delighted to be sharing some words from fellow grown unschoolers today, something I’ve been wanting to do more of for a while now. For this post, I asked people to share either something they think their parents did especially well, or an aspect of their experience they found especially positive. The ten responses gathered below are thoughtful and insightful, a collection of anecdotes and advice that I hope will be helpful for parents and carers still in the earlier stages of this journey. I’m always really fascinated seeing what others who grew up with a similar philosophy as my family have to say, and I hope you find these tidbits similarly interesting and helpful.

“[My parents] carefully respected my privacy, especially in my teens, and let me and my brother spend a bunch of time playing video games, reading comics and watching cartoons even as it seemed like the whole world was freaking out. ‘Oh my god, your kids do WHAT all day??’ They just ran with it and looked for the good in whatever we were doing.” -Nola A.

“My mother was completely judgment free about how I spent my time, never criticizing me for spending hours on my computer every day. This allowed me to cultivate many of the interests I hold most dear to this day.

[She] frequently offered my brother and I the chance to go to school if we wanted to, and supported me when I decided to shadow at local high schools as a teenager. I ultimately decided I wanted nothing to do with high school, but many of my unschooling friend's parents had a lot of difficulty when their teenagers expressed interest in high school. Having parental support through considering what school had to offer empowered me to make my own informed decisions about continuing to unschool.

Going to conferences and connecting with other unschoolers was one of the best decisions my mom made. Having the support of other young unschoolers got me through some of the most difficult times in my life. It made me realize I wasn't alone. Meeting grown/older unschoolers at conferences gave me a way to imagine myself as a successful adult- a thing that can be hard when you've never met anyone like you. Around my fellow unschoolers was maybe the first time I ever felt like I truly belonged anywhere other than with my family, like I was entirely celebrated for being myself, and like no one would question me or my right to exist.” -Emmett D.

"The best thing my parents did was let me sleep when I needed to. That meant the world to me." -Rachel H.

“Follow your kids' interests and provide them with resources to find more info. We were all into community theater so our mom would get us books about the plays we were in. When we did Annie Get Your Gun we learned about Annie Oakley, things like that. The trick was to NOT choose the topic for us, but to notice the topics we were already interested in (the plays we were acting in already) and then give us the tools to expand from there.

Relatedly, a story about why you shouldn't force kids to learn. I was late to start reading. My parents were new to homeschooling at the time and my mom got concerned and tried to push it, having me do this horrible reading workbook every day which I absolutely despised. It did not work, I made no progress, I hated it, and my mom probably hated it too, so eventually she stopped pushing it. Pretty much immediately I spontaneously started reading random things I'd see without any prompting. So we all learned that I am incredibly stubborn and that kids learn better when they're not forced to learn.

Make a learning experience out of EVERYTHING. My dad is especially good at this. He actually built the second largest home owned aquarium in the US in our house (huge conversation piece), which requires a lot of upkeep and for many years we'd help him do the iodine testing. That's how I learned, at like 7 years old, that saltwater life (as well as humans) need a very specific amount of iodine - not too much, not too little - to be healthy. He had to do the testing anyway, so he involved us, explaining why he did it, how the chemistry of the testing strips worked, etc.” -Jennifer L.

“The very best thing my mother (specifically) did was pushing us to do everything on our own. Calling to make doctor's appointments, doing our own laundry, taking us to the grocery store and having us weigh the produce (okay, we weren't forced to do that one!), etc. She never hesitated to step in to help if we asked or were really frustrated, but she always had us try before doing things for us. I think this is something a lot of parents are missing (I work in a daycare). Things like having your 2 year old put on their own pants after using the potty, for example, are more important than many would imagine. It not only teaches children real-life skills, it also builds self-confidence and mastery without constant praise (read Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn) or inflating self-esteem (which is different than true confidence).” -Casey H.

“Some things I really appreciate that my parents did during our unschooling years:

1. Made sure we had library cards and made going to the library a regular thing.
2. Honoring season rituals and other ways of marking time. I loved the abundance of unstructured time but having a rhythm to the week and season and year is grounding.
3. My parents were able to afford high quality art supplies and we always had access to lots of 'making' supplies which was really wonderful for satisfying creative play.
4. They gave us tools and helped us learn to use them to do stuff on our own: make our own snacks, do our own laundry, dress ourselves, etc. We learned a lot of skills participating in regular housekeeping and self care activities. I have really appreciated those practical skills as an adult.” -Anna CC

“My parents were good at seeing when I seemed to be lacking direction, and asked if more structure would be helpful. They didn't push anything on me, but helped me set goals and gave gentle reminders when I wasn't doing the things that were most important to me for long periods.” -Julian B.

“The best thing my parents did for myself and my sisters by unschooling us was encouraging us to devout our time to what we were passionate about.

I spent my high school years drawing and painting and reading books. I'm in my early twenties now, still working to put myself through college, but I have 5 years teaching experience as an elementary grade art teacher in museums, centers, and public school systems. If I hadn't been unschooled I wouldn't have had the time to devote myself to my art, which is one of the major reasons I've received the scholarships I have for programs and college.” -Ashley H.

“No ‘screen time’ limits. Instead, we used television, movies, the internet, etc. as limitless resources. These were topics of conversation, which turned into interesting tangents about all sorts of subjects, which turned into questions. Depending on the question, we would either talk with each other about our ideas and opinions, or look up the answer online (or both). Limiting resources would limited possibilities for one thing to lead to another this way.” ZoĆ« B.

“Over time, my mother's education mantra became 'the parent/teacher opens the door - it's is the child/learner's decision whether to walk through it'. In other words, I was allowed to try any subject (academic or practical) that I wished, and was often supplied with opportunities for new experiences. It was always my decision whether to participate however, and there was never any pressure on, or judgement of, my decisions.” Flora G.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Why Assigning Books or Reading Time is a Bad Idea

This post was originally shared on Patreon back in October. I can't emphasize enough how big a difference my monthly Patreon income, small as it might be, makes in my life. Seriously, by investing $1 or more a month in me and my work you can have such an impact. And you also get extra posts, like the one below, most of which will never end up on this main blog, some of which will end up here many months after their original Patreon publication date. So please consider becoming a financial supporter, and whether you do or not, I hope you enjoy this taste of what I share with Patrons!

I don’t think children should be assigned specific books. I also don’t think children should be assigned specific reading times or amounts. Basically? I don’t think that reading should ever be compulsory.

Some of the biggest pushback I get when I say this is from people who fondly remember the works they were introduced to thanks to assignments in English class: If I hadn’t had to read Pride and Prejudice I probably never would have. I’m glad to hear of people discovering Things They Love, in whatever way they do. However, I find the underlying assumption that coercion is the best way to force someone to love something to be troubling, to say the least.

Compulsion is not the best way to create passion. This one should be obvious, really. For everyone who loves a book they were assigned in school, there are probably at minimum two other people who hated it, and decided they’d never go near that author again (or never touch another classic, or in some cases just avoid reading altogether). Humans as a whole do not react well to being forced to do things they don’t want to do, and often develop a strong resistance to the subject or thing they are being coerced into doing.

Compulsion shows a fundamental distrust of the child. “I know what’s best for you to do, so you should do it and like it.” Nowhere in an assigned reading list is there room for a child to make their own decisions, to explore what they’re most drawn to. And there’s little more room for a child to set their own pace, their own priorities, and their own goals within assigned reading times or logs, which turn what should be something joyful into a chore. Every piece of a child’s learning that is taken out of their hands is another signal to them that they are incompetent, untrustworthy, and incapable of learning on their own, which is such a sad message to be sending children.

Sharing really is caring. Enthusiasm is often infectious. If there are books that had a big impact on someone in their formative years, or that seem culturally important, or that they think a kid will like, it’s great to suggest reading it, to borrow it from the library and leave in a stack of books-I-think-you’ll-like, to initiate a read-aloud...It’s definitely the role of adults in children’s lives to expose them to things, to make suggestions, to share passions. But all that can be done without bringing coercion into the mix.

Developing a personal relationship with stories. As someone who really, deeply loves novels, who comes from a family of readers, I feel very strongly about the importance of individuals developing their own unique relationships with literature and more broadly with the written word (or spoken word! Audiobooks are great if that’s your jam). As all of us who love books know, they can be truly magical, but only if they remain an enticing option, and not the brussel sprouts of the learning world: do it because it’s good for you, not because it tastes good.

Ultimately, no one has control over what another person will like, or love, or be curious or passionate about. All you ever have is influence, and when used both enthusiastically and respectfully, you have the power to introduce exciting and beautiful things into the lives of children… Without compulsion.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Favourite Novels of 2017

I think it’s fair to say 2017 has been a difficult year for a lot of us, both on the world stage and in our personal lives. And for me, no matter how much I’m struggling with depression, no matter how bleak things are looking, books are a source of comfort, a way to grapple with difficult topics in more removed settings, a strange glimpse of other possibilities… And I wanted to share some of my very favorite novels from the past year. They’re all sci-fi or fantasy (because that’s what I love best), but within those genres they vary wildly, from historical fiction with just a sprinkling of magic, portal fantasy that’s just as much literary exploration of identity and abuse, a fast-paced murder mystery in space, and a series of linked short stories that act as a damning critique of the way women are too frequently used and discarded in the superhero comic genre. I tend to read both young adult and adult fiction without distinguishing much between the two, and I believe this list contains about a 50/50 split (I’m not sure how a couple of the titles were marketed). I hope you’ll find something here to love as much as I did!

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
A murder mystery on a generation starship starring clones with missing memories, this is the definition of a page-turner. I think I finished it in under two days. The pieces come together for you as the reader at the same time as for the protagonists, giving you a genuine chance to solve the mystery, and skilled use of flashbacks serve to propel the plot forward instead of feeling like a frustrating diversion. This is very much a plot focused story, and the characters, though some are intriguing, never have all that much depth. But all in all, a very enjoyable read.

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire
A beautiful little novella about a ghost who just can’t seem to forgive herself for either her own death or that of her sister--so she sticks around, takes in very old cats, and works at a suicide crisis call center. But when other ghosts suddenly start disappearing, she realizes she needs to help her fellow undead, and in the process learns how to finally forgive herself. Fast-paced, but also wistful, lyrical, and moving… A lovely story.
“The world is full of stories, and no matter how much time we spend in it—alive or dead—there’s never time to learn them all. They just go by so quickly.”
― Seanan McGuire, Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Continuing with novellas (this year I read quite a few good ones), Martha Wells’ new sci-fi adventure is definitely worth checking out. This is the story of an AI who, unbeknownst to its owners, hacked it’s “governor” program in order to gain independence, a limited freedom which it mostly uses to watch soap operas. Because robot or not, Murderbot (as it named itself) has some serious social anxiety, and is generally much more concerned with being left alone than with murder. But when the small exploratory team on a remote planet that it’s assigned to protect start encountering strange problems, and the signals from nearby settlements go dead, Murderbot puts itself right in the path of danger for the people it’s reluctantly started to actually like… Funny, sweet, and full of suspense, I can’t wait to read more about the surprisingly charming Murderbot in future installments of this series.

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
It’s been a long time since such a quiet, slow novel pulled me in so easily and completely. When I say quiet, I definitely do not mean dull! Over two decades before the start of this book, the US government became aware of the “Deep Ones,” a small community of people who, as they age, transform into aquatic beings who slip into the ocean depths to spend their remaining millenia. Spurred on by malicious rumours and fear of their strange powers, the government rounded them up and imprisoned them in concentration camps far from their ocean home, where due to neglect and violence both, one by one they died. This is the story of one of the only two survivors, Aphra, who’s reluctantly drawn into an investigation of the potential use of magic by the Russians. Far from a spy novel, this is instead a thoughtful and very real-feeling exploration of prejudice, trauma, family, and recovery. An excellent debut novel by an author I will now be following closely.

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel that’s such pure fun! A historical adventure of a romp across 18th century europe, this story follows Monty, an unrepentant rogue, his best friend Percy, whom he just happens to be hopelessly in love with, and Felicity, his peskily sensible younger sister, as he savors what will likely be his last taste of freedom on his Grand Tour. But things take a turn for the dangerous when he sort of accidentally steals something precious, and the trio is forced to go on the run. While grappling with their feelings for each other, and how to find their place in a world that’s often very unfriendly to our characters (who are queer, multiracial, disabled/chronically ill, and have the wrong pursuits for a woman), this story is ultimately sweet, hopeful, and all around delightful.
“God bless the book people for their boundless knowledge absorbed from having words instead of friends.”
― Mackenzi Lee, The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
An achingly sad novella, one that almost reads like a cautionary fairy tale on what happens when children aren't allowed to be themselves, when parental expectations become so huge, so crushing, that they break something, perhaps irreparably, in the small humans at their mercy. It's an exploration of abuse, and what it can do to someone. It's also a strange story about a strange world, one filled with mad scientists and vampire lords, a red moon and endless moors. One where blood and fear are an everyday companion. With that in mind, it says something that the part of the book which takes place in our world remains the most disturbing. It also says something that Seanan McGuire is the only author to show up twice on this list. She is an absolute master of the novella format, and I will read every single one she writes with great joy. Highly recommended, if you're up for something thoughtful, dark, and moving.
"It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own."
― Seanan McGuire, Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
I’m sure I’ve said before how much I admire originality in my fantasy novels, seeing as I read so many of them, and this one here? Does not disappoint! On the surface, this is a story about a young woman, Jane, grieving the death of her aunt and surrogate parent, who accepts an invitation to a mysterious mansion. But things quickly start becoming more surreal, and more strange… How different would things be if you made a different choice? Or a different one? Or a different one? Many paths unfold, possibilities both bizarre and terrifying, as Jane seeks to better understand herself and her place in the world. Highly recommended.
“People tell you that what happens to you is a direct result of the choices you make, but that's not fair. Half the time, you don't even realize that the choice you're about to make is significant.”
― Kristin Cashore, Jane, Unlimited

The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
This linked collection of short stories is surreal, furious, and sad. There are no happy endings here, as what unites the women protagonists is that they were all either the wives or girlfriends of superheroes (or supervillains) or superheroes in their own right, and that now they’re all dead. Taking direct aim at the “fridging” of women in the superhero genre in order to further the stories of men, this combination novella and anthology is disturbing and captivating.

Buried Heart by Kate Elliott
This is the only book on the list that’s not the first in series or a standalone. Instead, it completes a series which began with Court of Fives, about young athlete Jes, though in this novel the athletics are in short supply. Civil war has broken out as various colonizing Patron factions vie for the throne, and revolution is brewing as the Commoners look to take advantage of the disarray to once more claim control of their own country. Jes’ growth through the previous two novels has been a pleasure to watch, but that pales in comparison to this final instalment, where we see her truly come into her own, and finally realize she has to start picking sides and taking stands. Seeing the surprising roles her whole family play in the rebellion was also one of my favorite parts of this book, and it felt very fitting, because such big themes throughout have been family, loyalty, and doing what’s right. All in all a very good conclusion to a very good series, and as always, I can’t wait to see what Kate Elliott comes out with next.

Honorable mentions, aka beloved series published previous years that I enjoyed re-reading this past year: The Fall of Ile-Rien series by Martha Wells, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, The Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Passion Doesn't Require Purpose

This post was originally published on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows supporters to pledge a monthly amount of their choosing (as little as $1) towards my work, in exchange for perks including an extra post each month... Like this one! If you want more like it, please consider becoming a patron

I have a confession to make: I really love makeup.

No, wait, that’s not right. Not the loving makeup part: that’s entirely accurate, but the confession part. While I can sometimes have twinges of embarrassment or uncertainty around interests of mine that are often ridiculed or seen as shallow (like makeup, which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with the gender it’s most often associated with…), I’m not actually in the least bit ashamed about it. I try hard to live the idea--which I know to be true--that all interests have merit. The things that are important to me matter, and don’t require justification. What I should say is this:

I have a confession to make: I really love makeup, and I don’t plan to ever make a career out of it.

I’ve often seen people, in an attempt to convince others of the merits of children’s interests, point out that the kid who loves video games might become a game designer; the teen who’s obsessed with Anime might become an author of graphic novels; the child who can’t get enough of baseball stats could become a professional athlete… All of these arguments seem to be based on the underlying idea that each of these passions are worthless on their own, but gain greater status in being seen as a step to something useful: a step towards a career.

To be clear, I’m not trying to put down individuals for using these arguments: I’ve said similar myself at times. And if pointing out that interests can lead to financial gain in the future helps a parent relax about video game time, or mollifies a concerned grandparent, I’m certainly not going to say there’s anything wrong with that. But when that’s the go-to justification for “letting” children pursue their interests, I feel like we’re internalizing some harmful ideas about worth--the worth of our own and others’ interests, and by extension the worth of ourselves and others as people. If you see your worth as being tied to your actions, to the way you spend your time, as is true for most of us, then if you think time spent doing some things is worth less, isn’t that going to affect the way you feel about yourself? And if you look at others and think “what a waste of time,” isn’t that going to affect how you think about and treat them?

If we fall into the trap of believing that our purpose is productivity, and further that “productivity” has to be about financial gain (or steps towards that goal), then it seems to me we’re undervaluing important work, dismissing joy (focus, excitement, creativity, play) as a worthless goal to pursue, and missing out on a lot of the most enriching parts of life.

Is money important? We live under capitalism, so of course it is (and we often need it to pursue the things we love most… Makeup isn’t free, after all). But we need to let children, especially, and also ourselves, explore all the parts of life we find ourselves drawn to, all the hobbies and interests that catch our eye, without needing to come up with a reason why we’re “allowed” to enjoy it.

I don’t want to be a makeup artist. For me makeup is an important and exciting form of self-expression, something that makes me happy, allows me to be creative, and is a skill which I can greatly enjoy improving. What I get from it might not be as tangible as money, or recognition, or approval (though I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing this interest with others), but it’s important nonetheless.

If it enriches your life, or the lives of your children, it has value. It might not be something that you’d choose--I fully respect your right not to wear lipstick--but we each find delight in different things, and that diversity is a good thing.

Forget what an interest may or may not lead to in the future. Look instead at what joy it’s bringing, right now, right in front of you. That’s where the learning, and the fun, is happening.