What We Don’t Say

For the last several weeks–before Charleston and McKinney and too many more–I’ve been thinking about this post. 

On Monday evenings after work I’ve been sitting in the cafeteria of the elementary school and talking about race.

Our school decided to take part in the Community Dialogue program run by YW Boston. At first I wasn’t sure if I would go. I already do a lot of meetings, my time with the kids is limited, and I wasn’t sure if I needed another thing in my life. But I’ve been unsettled and troubled and sad about so many things over the last year and I thought that maybe this would help me cope. I also thought that it might help me figure out what I could do to help with the racial problems that still exist in our communities. 

Sometimes I struggle to know what my part is in the conversation. I’m a white woman brought up in white suburbs who attended white schools. Sometimes race played a role in my life, like the year we moved to a town in California where half of the school was Japanese, but usually my life was one where I was overwhelmingly surrounded by white people.

But things changed for me as an adult. I spent years working in prisons and as a public defender where I worked with all races. I saw racism playing out in front of me every day. Atlanta is a pretty segregated city, but before I lived there I lived in a town outside the perimeter that was only 8% white. Boston is pretty segregated, too, but for the last few years I’ve lived in a neighborhood that is 50% white. and my specific area is probably more like 30 or 40% white. My kids attend a school where they are the minority, not the majority. Race has played out very differently in my life for the last 10 years than it did in the first 25. 

I know I understand a lot more than I used to. But often my background leaves me feeling like I don’t have the right to say anything. I worry that I’ll offend someone, I’ll decide to wait for someone else to speak up. After all, that’s how race is in many predominantly white neighborhoods. It’s not something you really talk about. I remember being a teenager and thinking how great it was that we all just didn’t care about race and how we were all just the same. A lot of people still think that way, but I don’t anymore.

The Dialogue sessions were made up of a small, racially mixed group. Our school has a minority white population but we tend to have majority white parental involvement and we have a majority white faculty. It’s something the school continues to struggle with and work through and part of the reason we were having these sessions. 

There’s a lot of ways that our hours spent together sharing personal stories and very raw emotions will help our school moving forward. But the biggest benefits was for us, the attendees. The conversations we had were honest and eye-opening and engrossing. I looked forward to going every week and I was sad when someone couldn’t make it. I felt really close to all of them when our sessions ended. All this from sitting on folding chairs and going through guided discussions about a truly difficult topic. I never realized just how much we are all missing by not talking about race. Being “polite” is hurting us. Speaking up opens eyes in ways you can’t imagine until you do it.

I won’t share their stories because they’re not mine to tell. But I can tell you about the themes that came back over and over again. Some of it was what I expected, the struggles that come from a school with a large population living in poverty, the places where race and class get intertwined, the achievement gap, the delicate balance between race and cultural heritage and ethnicity. Much of it was different. There were a lot of personal stories shared to show just what is happening to us on a daily basis and just how different your day-to-day experience can be when your skin looks one way instead of another.

One exercise that was particularly eye opening divided our large group into the whites and the persons of color. Each group was told to list ways they felt like their racial or ethnic heritage was celebrated and ways it made life more difficult. 

The minority group had a lot of celebrations: festivals, parades, community activities built on a shared ethnic or racial background. White participants struggled at first to find ways we were celebrated and our list ended up being a lot of the things that we now call “white privilege.” Seeing white people in media and in positions of power. Being treated politely. Assumptions people make that we are educated and well off.

The other side of the list was drastically different. The white list had a lot to do with the specifics of our school and the neighborhoods we live and work in: trying to reach out to others and sometimes being treated like we don’t understand because we’re white.

The list from the group with people of color, however, was long and troubling. Being watched and monitored in a store. Being stopped by security or law enforcement for no reason. People assuming you didn’t belong or were in the wrong place because you weren’t white. People making blatantly racist comments. Feeling threatened and unsafe. These were not occasional happenings but daily occurrences. 

The differences between these lists struck me in a way I haven’t been able to shake and it’s helped me to understand a lot about why our discussions about race over the last year or so are playing out the way they are.

When you’re a minority, you have to work harder to celebrate who you are. You have to be visible and vocal and work for respect. 

When you’re the majority, you just don’t realize how good you have it. Almost every privilege you get as a white person is silent. It happens every day, all around you, and no one says anything and you don’t notice it happening. But it happens constantly. I wonder what would happen if a little bell dinged every time you enjoyed a white privilege. Would it make people see things differently? 

The celebrations of the minority? Sure, they exist, but they happen only a very small amount of the time. No one is coming together to celebrate whiteness or help build the white community, and that can lead to some white people who feel like they don’t get a fair shake. 

This is, of course, ridiculous and shortsighted. It’s the same kind of thinking that took #BlackLivesMatter and turned it into #AllLivesMatter. It denies the hurt and fear of being treated as an other even if it’s under the guise of equality. Of course all lives matter. But black lives are under attack in a way that’s different from other lives. If we value all lives equally we have to pay attention when one set of those lives is being targeted and taken cruelly and horrifically. (You can and should read Claudia Rankine’s stunning essay expounding on this.)

As a white person going through life, when you’re treated respectfully you don’t assume it’s because of the color of your skin. But the honest truth is that your skin color has a lot to do with it a lot of the time. Just because you don’t hear a bell ringing doesn’t mean you aren’t coasting on privilege.

No one has ever told me I was in the wrong place because of my skin. (On the contrary, they tend to be kind and solicitous because I’m a white girl and that makes people want to treat me sweetly and take care of me.) No one ever assumed I was the maid or the janitor. When I tell people I went to law school, they aren’t surprised. 

I have friends from other races, but we don’t talk about these things beyond sharing articles and comments on social media. Every single person of color in our meetings had stories of rejection, displacement, fear, and danger. And even more stories they’d heard from their friends and family members. As I heard them over and over again, I realized that we’ve all been doing each other a disservice. We don’t tend to share these stories across racial lines.

And among groups of white people, we don’t call out racism when we see it.

We need to tell our stories, not just share whatever makes national news. We need to tell our friends when we experience racism or when we see it happening to those around us. We need to call out people who enable racism whether through ignorance or willful action. 

I had one of these moments recently. It wasn’t anything big. It was just one of those times when I was in a group of people, most of them were white, and someone said something casually racist. For the last year or so I’ve become much more aware of these occasions. With a few weeks of Dialogues under my belt I decided to open my mouth and try to stop it. I was gentle at first, trying to shut it down with indirect disapproval. But that didn’t work. So I said something I don’t think I’ve ever said anymore, “That’s kind of racist.” 

I look at that “kind of” and wish I’d left it out. It was my manners trying to come in and smooth things over and counteract the pointedness of my comment. But I should’ve just said, “That’s racist. You need to stop,” and left it at that.

Regardless, it stopped the line of conversation and we moved on. No one got upset. I actually felt much more awkward and uncomfortable before I said anything. After saying it I felt relieved. 

This is a duty we all share. You may feel like a conversation doesn’t matter much. But it does, And there’s more you can do.

You can look at life around you and ask if there’s racial discrimination. If there’s something around you where people of color are underrepresented, you need to examine it and ask what may be behind it. Sometimes it’s systemic racism, sometimes it’s the ignorance of the majority, but either way it should be changed. You can look at systems in place at work, at school, and in government that put a burden on people of color. It doesn’t have to be the serious stuff on the news. It can be something you’re involved in, somewhere you have influence, something you care about.

At Book Riot, for example, we make a conscious effort to read books by authors of color because the publishing industry still dramatically favors white authors, it publishes books mostly about white characters, it pigeonholes authors of color as being incapable of creating universal stories, reviewers pay more attention to white authors, and publishers push their marketing dollars behind a very white list of authors. (I saw this in person recently at BEA, the publishing industry’s largest trade show.) We use our platform to draw attention to the problem and to celebrate books by authors of color.

I have started to talk about it on Facebook because most people don’t know about the problem and just how bad it is. Awareness is the first step to changing a system. I get comments sometimes wondering why I bother or what’s the point. These people say they just want good books and they don’t care about race. They love books by authors of all races.

This is the same way I used to think as a teenager. It’s responding to an accusation of prejudice supported by data and evidence by ignoring it. So saying they “don’t care about race” may actually be true. It’s less that they don’t care about the race of the author but don’t care about whether racial injustice is occurring in an industry. 

If a system is racist, you not caring only allows the system to stay just as it is. 

Sure, my steps to change publishing are small. But I do what I can with my influence. I talk about it. I educate myself. I make an effort to expand my reading to include more authors of color. I bring needed attention to deserving books and authors. I provide my readers with information about books that they may not get from other places. And that is the beginning of change. Even if it’s just one industry in a big, giant system.

If you are in the Boston area, I’d encourage you to consider bringing the Community Dialogues to a part of your community that could use it, whether it’s your neighborhood, school, or business. If you’re not in Boston, do a little research to see if one is near you. (I’d just google “community dialogues on race (insert city name)”) Listen to the people around you, really hear their stories, and look at the world around you to see what you can do.

Storytime

A year ago at Graham’s IEP meeting, I was worried. He’d been in his pre-K class for 2 years and he’d made amazing progress there. I didn’t know what would happen when we put him in a classroom with more kids and more academics. Luckily they kept all his supports and I left feeling like it would be okay.

It was okay. All year he’s been comfortable and confident. But I’ve had a few nagging doubts in my head. 

I won’t lie, I succumbed to a few autism myths after Graham’s diagnosis about the big brains inside these closed-off kids. I clung to lines in his reports that talked about him being “bright.” But I saw him struggle with numbers and letters and I let go of those thoughts. I learned a lot as Graham got older and one of them was that I need to accept Graham as himself. If he’s great in school, if he struggles, he’s still my kid and it’s who he is.

Graham in tree resized Storytime

So this last month has been kind of a surprise. In Graham’s IEP this year, I heard that he’s at grade level in all subjects. They’re seeing signs that he’s good at math. 

I was still a little worried about reading. Graham and I have started reading chapter books together and it’s been a lot of fun to get him excited about reading. He would take one of his Magic Treehouse books to bed to “read,” and then tell me 20 minutes later that he was finished. I knew that with 1st grade coming up I needed to keep better tabs on his reading, but he’s always been so private about it, so hesitant to sound out words, so easily aggravated.

I told him that we’d be adding a new thing to our evening reading time, where he would read a book to me. He hesitated. I told him we didn’t have to do it right away. 

But then, yesterday, he asked to read to me. And this happened:

 

OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD You guys, it's the first time he would read for me and he can read!!!!!

A video posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

 

He read all of A Kiss for Little Bear with only the occasional question for words like “another” and “kissing.” There was a little trouble with “was” and “saw,” and I know he’s still prone to get things backwards, but I was floored. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. 

I try to remind myself that my kids are their own people, that there’s all this going on inside their heads that I’m not privy to, and that’s a good thing. But it’s really something when they take whatever they’ve been doing on their own and parade it in front of you without warning.

Is this post bragging? Probably. 

But it’s strange to have dreams about what your kids will be like, to see them all come crashing down, and then for them to start showing up again. It’s a strange, strange thing. 

I’ve watched other kids his age start reading this year and it hasn’t been painful, I have enough years of practice now that I’m better at not worrying about it and Graham isn’t so terribly far behind that he won’t catch up. But I’ve been aware of it, aware of his differences and his lag time. I wasn’t expecting him to surprise me so thoroughly. 

I had a complete bursting-with-pride moment and bought him 3 new books (even though I’d just told him no new books at the book fair, that we need to save our money for other things). Last night I had him read to me from one of his new books and he wasn’t nearly as excited. I think he likes to have some time by himself to get things right. I’m working on trying to balance his inner perfectionist and still letting him learn to make mistakes. 

Storytime in our house is a pretty great time right now.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

It’s not unusual for there to be flurries of activity around something in the blogging world. Right now there’s a lot of talk about quitting and the pressure of blogging.

I respect where those people are coming from, but it’s only reminded me of something that I realized a long time ago: I don’t feel it the same way a lot of other bloggers do.

For me blogging is only a choice in that it’s the fastest end possible. But it IS an end, it’s not a means. I’m not using blogging to get somewhere or be someone. Blogging itself is what I want, it is where I want to go, it is who I want to be.

I have been able to use my blogging to make other things happen in my life, I’ve tried to be savvy and leverage it when I can, but that was never the goal. And it has never been more than a perk.

It is possible that someday I’ll pull post less or differently. But that’s life. That’s things changing. 

I do have that dream that I really will get the time to write that novel and that my blog will become my secondary form of expression rather than the primary one. 

But I don’t see a future where the blog stops. I don’t see me quitting. 

I’ve been doing this for a long time. Two weeks ago marked my 14th blog anniversary. 14 years ago I wrote my first blog post on my old site. I wrote that post as a freshly minted college graduate, just 21 years old. I’ve been blogging my entire adult life. 

I went through one big change, moving from that old site to this new one. I had to find a different way for my blog to work. I had to fit it into a different kind of life. But it didn’t die. And I only feel more strongly about it as time passes.

Those pressures? I don’t feel them. Lately I’m posting around once a week and I’m okay with that. I’m still experimenting and trying things. The blog continues to evolve, but I feel like “evolve” is the correct word because it’s moving forward and becoming something better. 

I post and I feel better. I post and I feel centered. I post and I feel like I’ve spent some time with myself. 

I forget to promote my posts sometimes. I have things I want to try that I don’t get to or forget about. I have goals I set and don’t meet. But none of it changes anything. 

I get that blogging has become an industry. And I’m thrilled that it’s a way some of us can monetize something we love. But I’m here for it whether that happens or not. 

If you don’t get me, that’s fine. You don’t have to. I’m not saying my way is the right way. We all do this for our own reasons and in our own way. But I think there may be some people out there like me who are starting to feel like they should respond to the pressure to “be” whatever it is. And if that doesn’t feel right for you, I just want you to know that there’s nobody out there who says you have to play by a set of rules.

I have a small blog. I don’t care if it ever gets big. I am thrilled with it staying small. I write what I want and the funny thing is that my readers have become more involved when I am more true to myself. I’ve been able to make tons of blogging friends and get a day job or two out of it and learn things and teach them and be fairly well respected in my own small-time way. I thought for a while that I had to be popular and have huge numbers for those things to happen, but you don’t. And I want to make sure that someone who needs to know that can know it.

I love my blog. It is me. It makes me happy. It makes my life better. It makes me a more fulfilled human being. That there are other people who enjoy it and even care about it is still astonishing. That it has done something small for a few people is more than I’ve ever asked for. It is, frankly, the best. And I just can’t quit.

Welcome to BEA

I attend blogger conferences a lot and people find that concept very confusing. They find Book Expo America, aka BEA, to be a little less confusing but still not something that makes a ton of sense. So I thought I would pass on a little bit of insight for those of you outside the book world to have an idea of just what happened to all of us last week. 

This was only my second BEA. I am by no means an expert. But at least it wasn’t the flailing confusion that I had the first time. Now I kind of get it. 

The short version is that BEA is a trade show for the book world. Publishers, authors, agents, booksellers, librarians, and reviewers all come together to see what’s happening. That kind of makes it sound very kumbaya. It’s really less singing and more lines. 

It’s kind of like Disneyland… except at the end of the line someone hands you a book and then you get in another line.

BEA takes place in the Javits Center in NYC. It’s 3 blocks long. And you feel it. Everyone talks about the books they got while they’re at BEA, then they talk about how much their feet hurt.

When you come inside, there are massive banners for books hanging from the glass ceiling.

Good morning #BEA15 looking beautiful as usual! Time to rep some awesome books! #kdpg #bookcon #bea

A photo posted by Pantheon (@pantheonbooks) on

Then you get to the floor, which looks like this:

Back at #bea2015 #Bea15 aimlessly wandering.

A photo posted by Coffee and a Book Chick (@coffeebookchick) on

Except that it just looks like that forever and ever and ever and why bother bringing a fitbit because you know you’ll walk 85 bajillion steps?

Seriously, it’s impossible to give you an idea of its size

The view from above. #bea15

A photo posted by BookEnds Literary Agency (@bookends_literary) on

This picture shows you aisles 700 to 1900 or so. And even then you can barely see 700. You definitely can’t see all the way to the end. Plus the aisles kept going in the other direction into the 3000’s. And, of course, you always need one thing on one end and then have to go back to the other end for the next thing.

So what is it that we’re all doing here? 

Some of us are taking meetings and doing business. Some of us are trying to find contacts or build relationships. And some of us are here for the books. 

You see, the publishers all have booths on the floor. Some are big, some are small. But many of them have books. And they know that there will be many people at BEA who put books into the hands of readers by reviewing or selling or lending. They want those people to see their books. So you’ll see a lot of this:

Just one of our lines for giveaways this week #books #bea15

A photo posted by Veronica Kutys (@kutysv) on

Sometimes these piles are just there for the taking. Sometimes they require a line. 

Now the nice thing is that the line usually comes with a signing at the end. So you and the author can say hi. Sometimes these books are in the publisher booths. Sometimes they are in the “autographing area.” The Autographing Area makes me feel as though I’m about to be led up a ramp and zapped.

Part 2 autograph area #BEA2015 #bea15

A photo posted by Lucy D'Andrea (@lucy_dandrea) on

The drill becomes familiar. First line.

Oh good, now I know where I am! #BEA15

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

(Good lines had signs and people keeping everything in order. Props to them. Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster all seemed to do pretty well. But the Macmillan line signs, pictured above, were by far my favorite.)

Then sign.

Ernest Cline signing a copy of Armada at #BEA15

A photo posted by Mike Pyle Writer (@mikepylewriter) on

This continues throughout the day. Some of us intersperse this with other stuff. Some devote themselves solely to books. This all requires a tote bag. I brought my favorite one with me.

As you can see, my tote already has a few books in it. I tend to go light. I like e-galleys on my Kindle and save just the good stuff for hard copies. Others don’t.

And for some people it gets kind of out of control.

Gotta admit I'm jelly they got all these #books at #BEA15 and I've got like 5 ???? #booklover #booksonbooks

A photo posted by Eunice (@guysitseunie) on

That is why the roller bags are here. So that people who cannot possibly carry all their books around have something to put them in and a way to get them back to their hotel. There are lots of them.

The sea of roller bags. #bea15

A photo posted by Kate (@librariankate7578) on

I am not a roller bag person. I am strictly a one tote bag person. And I prefer that that tote bag not be full. 

There is also a shipping area because sometimes you have too many books for your suitcase and you have to mail them home. 

I did go home with one small roller bag which was about half full of books. So it wasn’t a small haul. Less than 20, but not by a lot. 

It is really easy to get so caught up in everything that you don’t eat. It is easier because the cafeteria in the Javits is less than stellar and there’s really no decent food for several blocks. (Pro tip: I did snag a gyro from a place in the lower level called The Agape Cafe or something? And it was a pretty great gyro piled ridiculously high with lettuce, tomato, onion, and tzatziki and I’m pretty sure it was cheaper than a hot dog and fries. Also it was really delicious. And I’m kind of sad that I finally figured out Javits Center food the last day I’ll be there.)

For two days I walked back and forth across the floor. I said hi to the handful of people I knew. I took only one selfie with an author because we weren’t in line and I mean COME ON she’s a legend.

I waited in zero celebrity lines. And there are lots. Off the top of my head I can recall Jesse Eisenberg, Nathan Lane, Julianne Moore, Mindy Kaling, Felicia Day, Gloria Steinem, Bernadette Peters, etc. And those are just the non-book celebrities. The book celebrities are ridiculous. 

The funny thing is that the book world is so wide that I didn’t recognize the vast majority of names I saw. It’s a great opportunity to dig through the listings and explore new possibilities and try new things. Almost every book I got is by an author I haven’t read before. That’s exciting. There are picture books and middle grade and young adult and nonfiction of all kinds and fiction of all kinds and cookbooks and coffee table books and literally every possible book. It’s a big world.

I was lucky to attend BEA this year as a member of Book Riot, where I’ve been a ridiculously happy member of the crew for a year now. Last time I went was back in the day of Red Letter Reads, a tiny site with tiny numbers that no one had heard of. This year people knew who we were. It was weird and kind of exhilarating. 

But it wasn’t nearly as wonderful as getting to meet many of my fellow Rioters in person. 

Good morning from the Rioters who are in NYC this week! #BEA15

A photo posted by Book Riot (@bookriot) on

Getting to hang with them was a huge highlight of BEA. I know from years of blog experience that you can become fast friends without ever meeting, and this was yet another confirmation. They are good people and my favorite.

I also got to spend a bunch of time with JoLee and her sister Paige who run the book blog Intellectual Recreation and who I have known for more years than I should admit publicly if I want to keep the belief going that I am 27. We roomed together, ate much food together, talked about curly hair together, and walked many blocks together. 

I obviously didn’t have this post all mapped out because we took zero selfies together. Bad blogger.

BEA is in many ways more work than a blogger conference, but it’s also less. I got home and went out a few minutes later (even though my feet were so sore by this point that I just started pretending they weren’t there). Blogger conferences usually take me a few days to recover from the forced extroversion. But BEA lets you be as much of a hermit as you’d like, though you’re still surrounded by people. It’s not a place where people are chatty and constantly introducing themselves, although plenty of conversations happen. It’s not a place where you’re afraid to ditch your friends and go wait in a line by yourself that no one else wants to wait in. And happily, for many of us, we have no qualms about our book choices.

I went home with this

Hey-o! #BEA2015

A photo posted by Book Riot (@bookriot) on

And I really don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed or like I can’t tell people. I’m really excited to read it. 

People walked around with high fantasy, YA, indie books, etc. Just people who love reading and that’s that. Also people who love tote bags. Because so many tote bags. 

Next year BEA will be in Chicago and I will definitely be there. It’ll be an adventure to leave the Javits, but I’m really hopeful that there will be better food and maybe, just maybe, less walking. A girl can dream.

Summer Reading Picks

affiliate links pic Summer Reading PicksIt’s time for summer reading lists. They’re popping up everywhere. I’m pulling from (mostly) the last couple years to find the best options for your airplane seat or beach chair. Not everyone wants the same beach read so I’m dividing these up into Light, Medium, and Heavy fare. 

First off, the sad news. You’ll have to wait until late-Summer and Fall for a bunch of great picks. Upcoming memoirs and essays from Mindy Kaling Summer Reading Picks and Jenny Lawson Summer Reading Picks aren’t out until August/September. Sad face. Same goes for upcoming nerd fodder in Felicia Day’s memoir Summer Reading Picks (out in August) and the new novel from Ready Player One Summer Reading Picks author Ernest Cline, Armada Summer Reading Picks, which is out in mid-July. Get your pre-order game on accordingly. 

summer picks Summer Reading Picks

Light Reads

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksCrazy Rich Asians Summer Reading Picks is a perfect pick for this category, fluffy and indulgent, perfect for people who secretly read gossip magazines or celebrity websites but only with guilt. The sequel is out in June, China Rich Girlfriend Summer Reading Picks, and author Kevin Kwan follows the same kind of formula (family clashes, relationship drama, ridiculous wealth, all with maximum melodrama and a humorous, light touch) moving the setting from Singapore to mainland China. He keeps many of the main characters, but I was relieved that I didn’t need a refresh on who was who, the book picks right up and you’ll be fine if you have only vague recollections of Nicholas, Rachel, Astrid, and the rest. Another pick on the rich and famous: The Royal We Summer Reading Picks by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. American girl falls for English prince, paparazzi, drama, and hilarity ensue.

Want scares? Go for The Deep Summer Reading Picks by Nick Cutter. It takes the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to scares and has kind of a Stephen King-slash-Michael Crichton feel. Speaking of King, his thriller Mr. Mercedes Summer Reading Picks is really, really good and makes you wonder why King went for horror when he does crime so well. (King has a new novel, Finders Keepers Summer Reading Picks, coming out this summer but I haven’t read it yet.) 

Swinging 60’s London is the scene of Funny Girl Summer Reading Picks, from author Nick Hornby, who’s written plenty of smart and super readable novels. Following a small town girl who becomes a famous TV comedienne, it’s good for fans of zippy dialogue and quick wit. 

If you want twisty and turny, don’t overlook YA. The genre is busting with plot-heavy novels that you can read at breakneck pace. I have a bunch of great picks here. Tiny Pretty Things Summer Reading Picks is basically Mean Girls meets Center Stage. Elite ballerinas, sabotage, betrayal, all that fun stuff. Authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton are great writers, so the book feels like more than a soapy romp, there are real characters and real stakes.

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksWant realistic teenage struggle and romance? If you’ve run out of John Green books, you should try Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda Summer Reading Picks for lots of heart, great characters, excellent dialogue, and a pageturning love story. Simon hasn’t come out yet, but he’s fallen in love with a boy online whose identity he doesn’t know. When he’s threatened with blackmail, it all gets kind of crazy. One of the best high school coming-of-age novels I’ve read. For another YA with strong characters and a realistic feel, try The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes (which has some religion and survivalism thrown in to boot) and Guy In Real Life (which has geeks and video games). 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksIf you prefer more sci-fi flavor, try The Cage by Megan Shepherd. A group of teens wake up to find themselves in an impossible place where there are empty buildings and strange black windows. It isn’t long until they realize they’re being held captive and that someone (or something) is watching. The first in a new series. Another great choice is The Leveller, set in the near-future in a world with virtual reality. Protagonist Nixy makes bank by finding kids in the virtual world and delivering them to their parents for bounty. She gets the job of her life when she’s sent to rescue the son of the billionaire developer who created the game who doesn’t want to be found. 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksThe Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman is pitched as We Were Liars meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and it’s actually a pretty decent comparison. (Usually these X Meets Y pitches are sketchy at best.) It takes place in a world a lot like our own, except for the existence of hekamists (basically, witches) who can do magic but are outlawed from practicing it. So of course there’s a black market for their services, and plenty of their spells are cast on people without their knowledge. It gets really complicated and really messy, a great plot concept that’s pretty well executed.

Medium Reads

There are plenty of big books from the last year or so that you may not have caught up with yet. Now’s the perfect time.

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksThough it came out last summer, still building buzz and going strong is Everything I Never Told You, a family drama with a mystery feel that would be great for your book club. Author Celeste Ng mines the family-secrets-in-the-suburbs genre but subverts it by focusing on the family that doesn’t really fit in, Chinese immigrant James Lee, his white wife Marilyn, and their three children. They are much more than they appear on the surface and the book’s slow reveals are fascinating.  

For a feel-good memoir with plenty of heart, go for Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. It was one of the big books at the end of 2014 and if you didn’t catch it then you should definitely catch it now. 

Riding a very long train of buzz still leftover from Fall 2014 is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which really is as good as everyone says it is. With its mix of graphic novel geekdom and high Shakespeare with apocalypse thrown in for good measure, it’s appeals to a really broad readership. Along

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksGirl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is the big-buzz book of early 2015. If you haven’t read it yet, summer vacation is a good time to catch up. It falls in the Medium section rather than Light because it has the dark plot and unlikable characters that are kind of in vogue now with the successes of Gone Girl and The Dinner. While not as good as those two (they are pretty killer in the genre) it’s a tightly plotted book. If you don’t like books about bad people, skip it. Because the whole premise is that the main character, who is descending ever deeper into self-destructive alcoholism, has potentially witnessed a crime while on a bender. 

Now, let’s move on from what everybody’s reading to talk about what more people should be reading.

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksIf you haven’t yet jumped on the Rainbow Rowell train, now is a great time. Landline, her most recent novel, is one of my favorites of hers. Some may put Rowell books automatically in the Light Reads category, but I don’t. She isn’t afraid to put her characters in situations where there isn’t an easy solution and they aren’t their best selves. If you’ve been married (especially with kids) chances are you’ll find a lot that’s familiar in the story of Georgie McCool and her troubled marriage. Of course it’s not all difficult and sad. Georgie is a comedy writer, she’s funny even when she’s in the midst of a crisis, and it’s fun to tag along with her. The twist of magical realism in the book works astonishingly well, allowing Georgie to have conversations with her husband… except she’s calling back in time to speak to a younger version of him. Rowell makes her characters work for happiness, she doesn’t just bestow it on them, and it’s one of the things I love about her.

If you’re looking for something fast-paced with complex subject matter try Hyacinth Girls by Lauren Frankel. Rebecca is raising Callie, the daughter of her best friend, after her mother died. When Callie is accused of bullying at school, Rebecca thinks back to her own tumultuous teenage years and is determined to prove Callie’s innocence. But after she does, Callie starts being targeted and Rebecca worries that it will all end in the same tragedies she lived through. 

For suspense-driven horror that’s more than cheap frights, be sure to read Bird Box by Josh Malerman, the single most terrifying book I’ve ever read in absolutely the best way. It really is suspense and not horror, but it’s just so expertly done and ultimately unrelenting that it starts to feel like horror. I’m not going to tell you anything about it. But I know a lot of people who have read this book and the results are almost entirely very, very enthusiastically positive.  A good matching book would be Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, part police-procedural, part trippy horror, set in gritty Detroit. 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksPolice procedural fans probably already know that Richard Price put out a new novel this year even though it’s officially “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.” Long story. Anyway. The Whites is, like many of Price’s novels, gritty and gut-wrenching and perfect. Price doesn’t write pulpy procedurals where the hot young FBI agent and the hot young psychiatrist consulting on the case fall in love. His books zero in on the blue collar life of cops and the lives of the criminals they chase. The Whites is all about revenge and has two parallel plot lines that come together so well that only a top caliber novelist could pull it off. You get intimately acquainted with the rhythms of detective Billy Graves’ life, but you also race through the story to solve a string of murders targeting murderers who managed to avoid prison time for their crimes. Seriously satisfying, one of my best books of the year for sure. 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksFor a crime novel that’s less procedural and more of an old school feel (think Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes) try The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. There’s a lot of fantastic crime fiction in Japan, but this one has a throwback style complete with an eccentric physicist who advises his detective friend on cases and a plot that’s so meticulously constructed that you have no idea how complex it is until the last page. I was in awe of this book. I listened to it and physically gasped at the end. I wanted to applaud the author. And read all his other books. (Only 2 more are currently translated into English. Let’s fix that.) Just don’t read this one on a plane. I made that mistake and when it was over all I wanted to do was talk about it or meditate on it and instead I was just stuck on a plane (which is basically the worst). 

If spy novels are more your speed, I can definitely recommend The Distance by Helen Giltrow. It’s not your normal spy novel, but it has that same kind of breakneck pace and shadowy secret figures. After reading this, I suspected it would appeal to the John Le Carre and Tom Clancy crowd so I gave it to my Mom, who gave it a very positive review. Karla “gets things done” for powerful people. But her newest job for a mysterious client is to kill a target in an experimental and impenetrable prison colony. There are layers and layers of intrigue, and a plot that left me in awe. 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksSlow down a little for Eden West, a moderately paced but mesmerizing book about a teenage boy who’s been brought up in a religious commune. At first they seem unusual and mostly harmless, with antiquated social orders and a live-off-the-land heartiness. But as Jacob grows up he sees more and more that troubles him and starts to question everything he’s ever known. Especially when the world becomes much more real when he encounters a girl from the outside on one of his border patrolling trips. Author Pete Hautmann does so well with this book because he treats Jacob’s beliefs with respect and understands the struggle and compromise that comes with religion and community. 

 Summer Reading PicksFor more of the drama that comes with community, read The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, about a group of immigrants who live in the same apartment complex. They come from different countries, they have vastly different backgrounds, but they all have the same dreams and they come together for better of for worse in this book. At the center of the story is Maribel, a teenager whose parents have brought her to the US to be treated for a traumatic brain injury. Mayor, the boy across the hall, sees in her a 

Heavy Reads

While summer reads for many people mean light or fast reads, there are those of us who like something meaty and difficult to contrast with our relaxed surroundings. For you guys, I have some bigger reads. 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksThere are several recent releases that fit the bill. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, a companion novel to Life After Life, is out now. Either one would be a hefty summer read. The books follow 2 siblings in a large family. Ursula lives and dies and lives and dies and lives again in Life After Life, getting a little farther and doing a little better and being a little different each time. It’s an interesting conceit that lets you explore characters in significant depth while seeing them in drastically different circumstances. A God in Ruins is a more traditional novel that follows Ursula’s brother Teddy, focusing mostly on his time as a pilot in WWII, his marriage and daughter, and eventually his grandchildren. The book flashes forward and backward through Teddy’s life, saving key bits of insight to be revealed after you thought you understood everything. Atkinson is a wily writer but also a wise one. It is the kind of heavy novel that’s all about humanity and family and love and war and what it all means. 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksThere is also the final novel from Kent Haruf out in bookstores. Haruf writes quiet, meditative novels set in the mountain west. Our Souls at Night is the kind of book that has only a small amount of plot. It is grounded firmly in realism and exploring its characters. Addie is a widow and Louis is a widower. They are older, parents of adult children, and have known each other for many years. They forge a new relationship, something between friendship and romance, creating real intimacy and (of course) setting the neighbors talking. Much of the book is the conversations of these two, their thoughts, their dreams, their regrets. It is spare, delicate, rich with emotion, and best read in the quiet evening air. 

 Summer Reading Picks Summer Reading PicksI know someone who took Missoula, the new nonfiction book by powerhouse Jon Krakauer, on vacation because it was the only way she would be able to get through it. There’s something to be said for taking this difficult book to a place that is soothing so it’s a little easier to deal with. Missoula follows several young women in a Montana college town. Each of these women is raped by someone who is an acquaintance or a close friend, and each of them struggles with what to do. As these crimes turn into a problem that takes over the community, Krakauer examines how we respond to rape in our society, especially the myths that abound about how victims respond to rape and the complex issues around non-stranger rape. 

If you haven’t yet tackled the big doorstop of 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and the big doorstop of 2015, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, you now have no excuses. If you love big books but can’t fit them into your busy life, use your vacation. (And preferably your e-reader because they really are heavy.)

If I had a vacation, I’d probably think about finally reading Redeployment by Phil Klay, the highly praised book of connected stories about soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and what happens to them when they return. War books are tough for me, and I tend to put them off, if you’re in the same boat you may want to pick it up. 

So that’s the list! It should have something for pretty much everyone. I’d love to hear your suggestions for what you’re taking with you to read this summer.