lessons

10 (Mostly YA) Books That Changed My Life.

If you’ve been following my blog for even a little while, then you know at least two things about me: I studied English at university and I am the kind of person who will happily lose sleep over characters and plot twists. You see, I’m a lit lover through and through. As such, I owe a lot of what I know and love to the lessens that I’ve learned from printed lines on bound pages, the stories that changed my life.

On that note, here’s to literary game-changers and the marvelous people who create them.

Thank you!

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

By the time I graduated from kindergarten in 2000, I was a voracious reader and everybody knew it. But, somehow, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I didn’t read until 2001, feels like the book that started it all for me. It was the book that made me delve into fantasy and science fiction, the book that gave me a fan community to become immersed in, and the book that taught me how to do life. But, more than anything else, this was the book that led to a series of books that transformed my generation and made us all believe in magic.

Each of Rowling’s characters taught me something about people and the lives we all must lead. In Hermione, I learned that intelligence, loyalty, bravery, feminism, and drive can take you far. In Severus, I learned that everyone can change, some causes are worth living and dying for, and a good person is not necessarily a nice person. In Dumbledore, I learned that pursuing the “greater good” sounds lovely in theory but, people will get hurt along the way (i.e. Ariana and Harry). And, in Harry, I learned that love can change everything.

The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn

I haven’t been able to shut up about The Bar Code Tattoo since I ordered it through a Scholastic sale in 2004 when I was 10 years old. I even read a bit from it in a YouTube video because it was “the first book I could get my hands on.” (I totally didn’t edit out the time it took me to find that book in particular…) I have quite literally been blabbing about this book for years—I even got a tweet back from the author after I mentioned the renewed relevance of the “big brother is watching you” plot line in modern-day America.

Ultimately, in the primary character, Kayla (hey, that’s 71% of my first name), I learned to seek the truth with determination and work to create the life I wish to lead. However, as my introduction to dystopian fiction, Weyn is also responsible for teaching me to be aware of the world I live in, to question how today’s decisions will affect tomorrow’s conditions, and to discover my own identity instead of letting my community define me.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

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Uglies is a story with many layers. Mostly obviously, there is snazzy technology à la science fiction and a dystopian world with Big Brother government, which is fascinating and terrifying all at once. Underneath all of that though, there is an ongoing discussion of the big problems that plague humans regardless of time and space: personal identity, individual freedom, and conceptions of beauty. You know how English teachers and professors always tell students to “unpack” or “bleed” the text? I could write a 20+ page paper “unpacking” this story. This tale never comes up empty.

Westerfeld said (through the character of David) that “what you do, the way you think, makes you beautiful,” and that statement resonates with me more every day of my life, particularly as I begin to bridge the gap between being a student and a professional. Whenever I question who I am or what I’m doing, I remember that I’m no different from Uglies and the characters within it—there is a whole world inside of me just waiting to be unpacked.

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

I grew up with a mother who studied psychology. What this means is that I’ve spent my entire life listening to impromptu psych lectures, as well as having all of my choices and ideas psychoanalyzed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly been interesting—as a child it was awe-inspiring because, well, my mother is undeniably a brilliant woman—but, I didn’t truly understand the concept of psychology until I read I Am the Cheese (and The Chocolate War immediately thereafter) around the beginning of middle school.

The psychological journey of Adam (aka Paul) led me to consider the core differences between people and how our experiences can define the past, present, and the future equally. In Cormier’s story (stories, really) I found perspective. As a result, in Adam’s pursuit of his father, I also became closer to my own mother, gaining a better understanding not just of why she would study psychology, but also why she considered her psychology-related knowledge and experiences to be eternally relevant.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

In only 383 pages of print, Dessen tackled familial relationships, eating disorders, sexual assault, anger management, high school dynamics, friendship, and so much more. Then, to make the story all the more important, Dessen showcased the metaphorical power of silence and the human inability to quiet the heart. The story doesn’t rely on a grand setting, a large character collection, or even sublime escapades; instead, the author just conveyed what it means to not think or judge, and instead “just listen” to what your heart is saying.

Music wasn’t precisely the point of this book yet, somehow, this book intrinsically altered my relationship with music. Music was just the tipping point of the lessons this book taught though. Through Annabel, I learned that secrets are heavy to hold, truths can be hard to share, and people are not necessarily the “characters” they portray to the rest of the world. Through Owen, I learned that music can be an escape or a channel, depending on which you need, and the truth should be shared, even if you have to “rephrase and redirect” to get your meaning across.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

For most of my sophomore year of high school, I spent every spare second I had in the library or reading a novel in an empty classroom. I carried a veritable library of ARCs in my backpack and I talked publishing with my journalism teacher (who became my yearbook supervisor). In the midst of that odd situation, I discovered the then-newly-published novel Paper Towns by John Green. I loved that book like it bled and breathed, but mostly I loved the world it opened me up to in its fleeting references: Walt Whitman’s poetic skill and the utterly intoxicating “Song of Myself.”

Whitman spent 400 poems trying to define and describe life before ultimately coming to the conclusion that people are large and “contain multitudes.”  In the sage conclusions of a long-dead man and in that time of intense personal growth, Whitman’s words enabled me to be comfortable with being a bit “odd,” living life like a “dance” when the “fit” of change was “whirling me fast.” Not to mention, it was Whitman’s poetic encouragement to explore one’s self that led me to create a blog called “mylifeinverse” or “my life in verse,” despite the fact that I don’t generally write poetry.

The Confessions of St. Augustine by St. Augustine

In this single book, often touted as a building block of the Christian faith, St. Augustine managed to make absolutely everything in life—every experience, every thought, every desire—seem like a mortal sin. More than any other book I’ve ever read, Confessions pissed me off and made me wish for a time machine so that I could go back to ancient times and deliver a punch in the face to the author. It was simply infuriating to see an author turn life overall into something so thoroughly ugly in the name of defending religion and ethics.

Despite all of that, St. Augustine’s Confessions taught me about the manipulative power of religions (not that all religions are manipulative), the diversity of moral and ethical systems, the tedium of entirely introspective and self-deprecatory works, and the ability of authors to make readers feel like they’re being castigated. That being said, this is the only book I have ever thrown away—quite literally, it went into the trash bin—and I don’t even feel guilty about it.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Susan Cain rose to fame as a self-proclaimed “public introvert” who utilized her incredibly astute observations about her own nature to tell the world (in a TED talk) about the superpowers of introverts and bring about positive vibes regarding the more “quiet” portion of the population. Where the majority of self-help and introspective self-analytical literature characterize introversion as something one must compensate for by adopting the seemingly superior characteristics of extroverts, Cain successfully presented introverts and extroverts as separate but equal.

As a young woman just finishing up my undergraduate degree and an undeniable introvert, Quiet spoke to my experiences with and worries about existing in a predominantly extrovert-positive world. I wouldn’t be nearly as confident about the very real and very necessary role I can fill in a work environment—particularly in the extrovert-oriented career field I’m aiming for—if I had not read this book at precisely the time that I did.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Just like The Bar Code Tattoo trilogy and Uglies trilogy, Divergent is the first novel in a dystopian trilogy with a badass female main character and slightly less important, but amusing and often game-changing, minor male characters. There are certainly strong feelings of girl power in Tris’ gradual and hard-fought transformation from the meek and compliant person others want her to be to the curious and brave person she truly is “on the inside.” And, well, what 21-year-old young woman doesn’t need a bit more girl power in her life?

Throughout my life I’ve always been told to “be myself” and “live for me” but, it wasn’t until I read Divergent that I began to understand that who you are can change, whether through sheer force of will or evolutionary circumstances, and you’re no less you for changing. Tris made me excited to transform from what I was as a child and a teenager, by upbringing or some sort of default, and become who I want to be. In that character I found the courage to make myself new while always remembering the past.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

If someone wrote a story about my first year of university, it would read much like Cath’s tale of college confusion, without the lovely (yet delightfully and realistically flawed) boy, twin sister, and supportive roommate. In essence, my first year of university, during which I lived on campus for a semester, was a roller coaster of success and failure, topped with discomfort regarding my degree choice and a complete inability to engage with people my age. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience until I reevaluated the situation, charted a new course, and started (sort of) fresh…just like Cath.

Rainbow Rowell provided me with someone who was comfortingly familiar, who struggled and learned to carry on in the same ways that I did as a new university student. This darling author and her characters validated my love of fan culture and fanfiction, reassuring me that fanfiction is real fiction and there is a beautiful community filled with wonderful people who enjoy being fans just as much as I do. Even more importantly, Cath taught me that, in being my awkward and untraditional self, I’m not losing out on anything but instead finding my own, different adventures.

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If you’re feeling talkative, comment below with the books (YA or otherwise) that have changed your life!

Thank You for Teaching Me to Learn.

When you graduate from university several things happen at once.

First, you realize that it all went by–primary, secondary, university–much faster than you thought when you were 5 years old and dreaming of going to “big kid school” with a grown-up backpack and fancy pens of your very own.

Second, you start to miss things that don’t make sense like the person with the cool jacket that you never got to know, laying on the concrete while waiting for your ride, and the feeling the first day of your last semester.

Third, you suddenly don’t know what to do next, not really.

When you’re a month out of university and you aren’t starting graduate school until you’re moved across the country, you start to look back because the future is too uncertain to contemplate. You start to wonder what you did right and what you did wrong. You start to see what the grey area of your education contains.

That’s where I am today. I’m floating, weightless, in the grey area between what I did and didn’t do to get to where I am today, and for some reason one phrase keeps coming back to me: “thank you.”

Obviously I’m thankful for having graduated, especially without any debt, but there’s something, or rather a collection of someones, that I’m also thankful for–the teachers and professors that helped me get to this point. This post is dedicated to them and all the “thank you’s” I should have said before now.

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“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit (John Steinbeck).”

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Mrs. Thornton,

You were the first teacher I ever had. You were the image that I had, from fall of 1999 onward, of what a dedicated teacher was, and every other educational figure was internally scored on a scale based on you. You taught me to write beautifully in cursive, read books like they are going out of style, and create anything and everything whenever possible. You were the last teacher who ever had to tell me to stop chatting with my friends and the first to tell me that not talking to my friends during class didn’t mean I should ever let anyone stop me outside of it. You awarded me a trophy for “citizenship” and taught me to sing Spanish. It is because of you that I have penmanship that others still compliment and bookshelves full of journeys I can take at any moment, as well as a voice and a desire to learn and create, that no one can ever stifle. Thank you.

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Ms. (who may now be Mrs.) Nawrocki,

You were the youngest teacher at the school that year and still relatively new to that all-girls Catholic convent school, just like me. You encouraged me to read, even when it meant that I spent all three breaks each day sitting at a picnic table with my face buried in pages. You coaxed me into making friends, even when I was ready to stay off to the side and prepare for the next class. You made me talk things out with those friends, even when we made each other cry at recess because none of us knew how to handle multiple friendships. And, when I wasn’t in your class or grade level anymore, you still said “hello” in the courtyard and asked about my family. When everything else made me feel like a misplaced and awkward child–and even as you interviewed me for your thesis–you made me feel better, normal. Thank you.

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Ms. Person,

When I walked into your class the first day of sophomore year, I was exhausted, nervous, and more than a little skittish. So, all in all, it was a pretty normal day for me. Throughout the fall of 2008 semester, I don’t think I said more than 10 words that didn’t relate to presentations and other assignments, but you taught me so much about writing and the world of nonfiction. Then, the spring semester happened, we talked about my book reviewing, and suddenly I was applying to be on the yearbook staff and being grouped with the students that were doing the same. Everything seems to have passed in a whirlwind after that: I was writing in styles that I didn’t even know how to do before you, I was using a camera that you put in my hands, and I was learning to love a school that you made me see differently. It’s because of you that I learned to enjoy the microcosm of society that is high school and I didn’t simply retreat into my neon-sock-wearing, review-writing, antisocial, pessimistic, sophomoric self. You helped me grow into myself and truly appreciate those around me; you’re a large part of the reason I see and love the world the way I do. I sincerely hope that I know you for many years to come. Thank you.

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Mrs. Ramirez,

I think that everyone, at some point, has that teacher that they desperately want to impress for reasons that they don’t even understand. For me, that teacher was you. I walked into your class with my heart set on enjoying my best subject and I was hoping against all hope that I would have a teacher that loved English and writing instead of merely teaching either subject. You did. To my 16/17 year-old self, who thought about everything in terms of lyrics, you personified the notion of a “heart so big it hurts like hell.” Feeling and caring positively exuded from you, and your assignments made me care and feel too, and that was an incredibly scary thing for a teenager. Sometimes I would put off your weekly essays just because I was scared that I would feel too little or too much and my writing abilities just wouldn’t be able to match the emotions and ideas I was supposed to convey. You made me tiptoe a careful line between comfortably loving writing on my own and the abrupt realization that there was a lot about the literary world that I had left to explore. It’s because of that I realized there is no end in sight when you love something, there is only the passion of the process. Thank you.

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Dr. Dumas,

The first day of class, you admitted that students and other professors called you Doctor Doom. You told us that your British Literature II course would be hard and that people typically failed or just barely passed. I think your speech was supposed to scare us, but I don’t remember being scared. As the weeks ticked on, you threatened us with bad grades, put us in our place with hard questions, and generally tried to personify Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. It was exciting because you truly made me work for my grades. You made me run across campus to buy a test scoring sheet and defile a textbook by making notes in the margins. You made me discuss the works we read and admit my opinions before others could give theirs. You made me speak out when you saw my nose crinkle up at other students’ comments. You made me live up to my choice of a front row seat, and you didn’t allow me to be an insignificant 17-year-old among 21-year-olds. I usually hated any grade below an A, but I was incredibly proud of the B I got in your class because it was by the cramps of my hand and sweat of my brow that I earned it. When I dropped off my final paper at your office, I had never felt more accomplished. Thank you.

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Professor Bayless,

If I had to point out a teacher or professor that I would most like to emulate, I would point to you. It’s not because I adored your lesson plans or got to know you personally, but because you love the material you teach. When I was in your courses, there wasn’t a single day that I felt as if you didn’t want to be there or that you resented what you were doing. Despite teaching being your job and a job being necessary to pay for all aspects of life, you didn’t seem to resent it like some professors do. Yet, you also didn’t settle and allow your job to become your life. When you spoke about your poetry, your wife, and the degree in creative writing that you got in spite of societal protestations, I couldn’t help but to feel encouraged in my own endeavors. If nothing else, your brand of optimism and insight was contagious. While I was only lucky enough to be able to take two fine arts courses during my degree, those two courses and you forever changed the way I look at art. You may not have taught me the quote, but you taught me the lesson: “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” (Oscar Wilde). Thank you.

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Dr. Redmon,

For a while, I felt as if you were my only professor. That is to say, how often does a student have the same professor as their advisor and for two or three classes for three semesters in a row? But, I think the feeling spawned from more than just the frequency of our interactions–your courses contained such poignant material that I couldn’t help but to think about the courses even when I wasn’t in them. You taught me about literature and films in such a way that the lessons resonated outside of the classroom and discussion boards. You taught me how one discussion or one piece of material can transcend that physical experience or existence. When I completed the assignments for your class, I felt like I was doing so much more. As I wrote about religious, historical, and literary modes of early American literature, simulation in films, and the sexualization of female characters, you made me realize putting pen to paper or fingers to keys was only the first step in changing life and society. You made me see how vital my education is to the world I live in and that, despite frequent dismissals of an English degree, skill with words and the ability to see beyond the obvious may be precisely what makes life worthwhile. Thank you.

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Foodulthood.

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When you’re a kid, you absorb little lessons each day without even realizing it. Later on, you start to notice what you’ve learned because others do something, or perhaps everything, differently. Here’s what my childhood taught me about food:

Nothing can beat taco pizza from Pizza Inn in Conway, South Carolina…except maybe the pudding at the Filling Station in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich are amazing…if you leave off the jelly.

When you get Pepsi in an individual bottle, buy a sleeve of Lance regular, salted peanuts. Then, drink a little bit out of the soda and pour the peanuts into the bottle. Drink that delicious motherfucker.

Eating M&Ms is automatically better when you have someone else to share them with and you can play a game of candy color go fish.

Eating spoonfuls of peanut butter at midnight is totally acceptable, as long as you use multiple spoons and never double dip.

There is a pizza joint in Canada, somewhere northwest of Ontario that, in the early 2000s, served the best food I’d ever had. Someday I’ll find that hearty joint.

Don’t dare to call barbecue the action of grilling meat and then pouring sauce on top of it. Barbecue is much more complex and generally only delicious if you get it from a place called Cooper’s Country Store in Kingstree, South Carolina.

Croissants are the perfect food for a Christmas morning…and Christmas afternoon…and Christmas night.

Giving me sugar or another sweetener to add to a glass of unsweetened tea does not sweet tea make.

Cereal counts as a meal whether or not you eat it with milk. However, if you stick it in a plastic bag, it becomes a snack, no matter how big the serving.

Bread is the ultimate food but, pro tip: take a slice of sandwich bread, tear or eat off the crusts, and flatten the remaining bread in whatever way you like. Just make that white bread goodness look like the Eucharist in church and eat.

The tangy tomato dressing from Outback Steakhouse is the best dressing in the world. It should be bottled and given out free to every U.S. citizen as salad potion, just to brighten everyone’s days.

Boiled peanuts are the ultimate snack. They’re actually the official snack food of my birth state. But, when you eat them from a brown paper bag, they are three times better.

For some completely unknown reason, a sandwich will always taste better if someone else fixes it for you.

The U.S. military has a secret weapon and it is the pepperoni pizza from Anthony’s…a restaurant that can only be found on military installations and I wouldn’t have it any other way. No one wants to share that amazing cheese, bread, and meat combo.

Popped jello out of the snack cup, slicing it into pieces, and putting whip cream on each piece automatically makes you feel fancy and fulfilled.

Coke and Pepsi are not the same. Don’t ask me if I’ll accept one when I’ve asked for the other.

Popcorn is evil. If it is anywhere even kind of, sort of, maybe, near its’ expiration date then don’t eat it. I’m telling you: pure, unadulterated evil.

There is a huge different between the Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese with the cheese powder and the same with the cheese goo. Say no to goo every time.

Coconut oil does not in fact make foods taste like coconut…however, if you tell someone who you used it, they will insist that they taste it.

The pop tarts that were around circa 1999/2000 that broke into three strips of pop tart were the best pop tarts ever. Why did you discontinue them, Kellogg, why?

Red delicious apples win. Small, medium, or large. Period.

Traveling just to go to a particular restaurant is acceptable and highly encouraged.

Everyday counts as a holiday if you make and eat pumpkin pie. Also, use the Libby’s recipe, but you must use more cinnamon and less ginger or your pies are pitiful.

Avoid drinking too much of the blue Gatorade, particularly if you’ve not eaten much else recently or with it. It goes down blue, but trust me, it comes up green.

They say that a watched pot never boils. I’m here to tell you that is just silly. A watched pot seems to boil over even faster than the one I abandoned for 10 minutes.

Making pasta sushi from the left over ingredients of lasagna (mozzarella cheese rolled in lasagna noodles and dipped in sauce) is the best part of lasagna-making.

The barbecue sauce from Burger King is the perfect dipping sauce for french fries and thus stockpiling it every time you eat there is fully allowed.

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That is all that I can think of at this moment, and the boiled peanuts my father just made are calling my name, so I’ll leave it up to you guys now. Post your own food lessons in the comments.

I wonder what food lessons I’ll pass on to people as time passes. Peace, love, and pizza.