Chaos Walking: Book-to-Movie Adaptation

When I first heard that The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness was going to be made into a movie, I was cautiously optimistic. This book seemed like an odd choice for a movie adaptation, as it was filled with dark themes and had a very complicated setting that would be hard to translate into a movie. However, if done right, I could absolutely see this adaptation becoming something like The Hunger Games, where the dark themes and complex world were translated almost seamlessly to film. And seeing as they cast two of my favorite actors to play the leads, Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, I knew that I at least needed to give this movie a chance. However, after finally getting to watch this adaptation, I have to admit that I am disappointed. While it was by no means terrible, the movie sanded down a great deal of what I loved about this book, leaving behind a movie that just felt underwhelming. In this reflection I will detail the things I enjoyed, and the things that let me down, in Chaos Walking.

Before I begin, however, a quick spoiler warning. Since I will be comparing the book and the movie, there will be spoilers for both. If you wish to view either of them unspoiled you can find the book here and showtimes for the movie here.

The Good

First off, what I enjoyed about the movie. One of the areas where I was most skeptical when it came to adapting this book to a movie was the concept of the Noise. Basically, in the book, the humans live on a planet where the men are all able to hear each others thoughts all of the time, an ability which they call the Noise. This would obviously be very difficult to do in a movie, as the voices would eventually become overwhelming. Much to my surprise, however, the movie actually managed to portray this not only in a way that didn’t overwhelm the viewer, but also led to some of the best moments in the movie. The Noise is portrayed as an iridescent fog that whispers, which allows for the viewer to differentiate between spoken and thought dialogue, and only gets louder when it’s necessary for the scene. My favorite scene where this occurs is when Todd, the main character, learns that the town murdered his mother and all the other women in the town. Todd’s panic and his subsequent struggle to hide his thoughts leads to a wild hurricane of competing voices that expresses the turmoil of the scene perfectly. I would even argue that this was better than how it was handled in the book.

Another way the Noise is improved from the book is its ability to create illusions. In the book you can only hear the disembodied voices, but in the movie the Noise will periodically take the form of people and things that look real enough to fool several characters. This is used in my favorite scene in the entire movie, where the main antagonist is fooled into thinking that the ghosts of all the women he killed are confronting him. It creates a powerful moment where the movie finally addresses the darker themes of the book in a direct way, and if the movie had featured more moments like this I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more. Instead, the movie shied away from these themes, so I’m only left with a small handful of moments that I remember fondly.

The Bad

Sadly, the occasional good scene wasn’t able to save this movie—and for every good choice the movie made there were far more missteps that just didn’t work.

The first misstep in Chaos Walking was the age of the characters. The two main characters were 13 years old in the book, but in the movie their age seems to be somewhere in the 18–19-year-old zone. While I understand why movies age up characters, especially when the movie is rated PG-13 and contains a great deal of swearing and violence, this change damages a large portion of the movie. Todd, the male lead, is often treated like a child and behaves in a manner that would make sense if he was 13. He is also treated like a child by the adults in the movie. However, while Tom Holland is an actor that can often play younger characters, he’s still too old to fit in with the attitude and the treatment he receives. This problem also happens with Daisy Ridley’s character. She is treated and behaves like a frightened little girl, but she still comes off as a young adult and it creates a jarring disparity that is never really addressed. As much as I love Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, they weren’t the best pick for a story about children, and the confusion over their age and the way they behave follows them throughout the entire film.

The movie also removed Todd’s entire character arc—his struggle with what it means to be a man. In the book, Todd is repeatedly taught that in order to be a man he must be able to kill, and when he finally leaves his town, he is confronted with many opportunities to do so, some more justifiable than others. Todd struggles with his desire to prove himself a man to his society and his innate humanity, inevitably questioning what it even means to be a man and if he really wants to be one. This arc is helped by Todd’s age, as he is regarded by his entire town as a child whom they don’t take seriously, and he is frustrated over this treatment. This is completely absent in the movie. Todd has no hangups about killing; he says one line about being a man in the beginning but it never comes up again, and for all intents and purposes he doesn’t struggle at all with his identity. This wouldn’t be an issue if the movie added another aspect of Todd’s character to replace it, but instead Todd is just portrayed as a doe-eyed kid with very little substance to him. This is a shame, because his struggles with manhood would’ve been an unique arc, but instead Todd is left a very bland character.

Where the movie really drops the ball, in my opinion, is the removal of the religious themes. The main focus of the book was how religious extremism can lead to violence and evil, especially when faced with the unknown. This is shown in two ways: first, how the humans treat the natives of the world, known as the spackle; and how they treat women. Without giving too much away, The Knife of Never Letting Go shows just how dangerous fear of the unknown can be, and how opportunistic people can use fear combined with religion to manipulate the masses for their own selfish ends. However, this is not the case in Chaos Walking. While religion does occasionally make an appearance, it is limited to one character who is generally dismissed by others. The power that fear has is glossed over entirely, with only slight moments where people behave irrationally. The violence and death driven by fear is completely dismissed as well. The animosity between the humans and the spackle only makes one very brief appearance, and could honestly have been left out of the movie entirely. While the movie does address how they subjugated and murdered all the women, it is only focused on occasionally, and the movie pins most of the blame on two men (rather than acknowledging that it was done by the entire town). At times it feels like the movie is afraid to delve too deeply into these ideas and risk alienating movie watchers, which is a real shame seeing as, like I said before, the times where this movie shines is when it embraces the themes of the book. If Chaos Walking had taken the risk and addressed these themes head on, it would’ve been a much better movie, but instead it only went halfway and left a lot to be desired.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I was pretty disappointed by this movie. I don’t necessarily blame anyone involved in the film, because this book was bound to be hard to make into a mainstream movie. It’s a book that is jam-packed with themes and ideas, and the movie struggled to include them and ended up feeling incomplete. As someone who read the book, I can’t say whether someone new to the story would enjoy the movie. I did watch this movie with my father, who hasn’t read the books, and he was often lost and confused, so I can’t imagine this movie being a good introduction the the world of The Knife of Never Letting Go. That being said, I can’t say that I completely regret watching it. The scenes where the movie really embraced the original story, though few and far between, were incredible to watch. Ultimately, I don’t see myself watching Chaos Walking again. It just lacked the spark I felt when reading The Knife of Never Letting Go that made me fall in love with the series.

Twilight Books Ranked

Most of us are likely familiar with the Twilight Saga from Stephanie Meyer. If you were a teenager in the late 2000s–early 2010s, you probably saw the series everywhere. Meyer’s vampire versus werewolf world had us captivated. Like with all series, I’m sure each of us has our favorite installment. Here, I have compiled my ranking from least to most favorite. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

4. New Moon. Starting out the list at the bottom is New Moon. I loved this series for the better part of my young adult life, and while I do appreciate this installment in the series, it does fall at the bottom of my list. This may seem counter-intuitive as I was Team Jacob growing up and we see the most of Jacob in this novel, but I can’t fully handle lifeless-adrenaline-chasing Bella. I definitely understand where her emotions were coming from, but it doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting read. That being said, I do love how we learn about the werewolves here and see Bella’s friendship with Jacob evolve.

3. Twilight. As the book that began the whole series, it didn’t feel right to put it last. This book is important to me for a lot of reasons. I had seen the name being thrown around but wasn’t sure what to think. Eventually, the movie came out and I watched it and immediately fell in love. At that point, I picked up all of the books and read them immediately. So in that sense, it was this one that kicked it all off for me. That being said, I have always been a big fan of sequels in stories, which is likely why I am more drawn to the later installments in the series. I also think it’s fair to say that Meyer’s writing improves greatly across the series, therefore the others are just slightly better.

2. Breaking Dawn. Now this one may be controversial, as Breaking Dawn is a universal fan favorite. There are a lot of reasons to love this one—we get to see Bella as a Vampire, we learn about a new type of “magic,” and there is the ultimate vampire showdown. A lot of momentum has been building for this book, and it played out really well. It can be hard to end off a series and I think Meyer did a good job rounding everything out. The ranking of Breaking Dawn as 2nd is mostly due to what it lacks compared to Eclipse, which I will get into next.

1. Eclipse. There is a plethora of reasons that Eclipse takes the gold as my favorite installment of the Twilight Saga. One of the best parts of learning about any world is seeing world building while also getting to know more about the characters, and this is something Meyer’s does beautifully here. We learn about the newborn vampires and how they’re used for armies while getting to know more about Jasper. We also get Rosalie’s backstory as well as the backstory for the Quileute tribe. All of these are important pieces to the puzzle of the Twilight world and it makes for an extremely satisfying read. The love triangle between Bella, Jacob and Edward really comes to a head here as well. I remember reading this for the first time and finishing it within four days. Whenever I want to re-read or watch a part of the series, I always choose this one.


This list was not as hard to make as my list for The Harry Potter Books, however the amount of novels in the series played into that. Eclipse has been my favorite ever since I first read the series, but the rest I wasn’t sure about until I sat down and went through each of them again. Feel free to comment your list and let us know what you think! If you’re interesting in purchasing any of these, you can find them all on Changing Hands’ website here.

Real Life Magic

Reflecting on Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Boys

As an avid book reader, I’d never been able to pick a favorite book. It had always felt like this unimaginable, impossible choice, like a mother picking her favorite child. I’d had favorites, of course—books I more than enjoyed (rated five stars on Goodreads enjoyed), and books that were quick to come to mind when asked for recommendations. But ask me for my favorite, my top pick, my if-I-were-stuck-on-a-deserted-island-and could-only-have-one-book-to-read read…I’d have nothing. So, to say that Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Boys snuck up on me would be an understatement.

I first discovered The Raven Boys through Tumblr in 2015. My dashboard had been full of bloggers reposting quotes and character art and fancasts, all for a series that I’d never even heard of before. With such a dedicated fanbase that had seemingly come from nowhere, I’d decided to give it a try and bought a copy…

And didn’t like it.

Which sounds crazy, I know, for a book I’m claiming to be my favorite book. Shouldn’t it have been love at first page? But it took a little longer than that for me to start feeling the magic that Maggie had been building up to in those beginning chapters. In all honesty, it took me until about halfway through the book (roughly 200 pages in) to decide that it was something worth continuing. Once I got there, though—once it clicked—I was all in, devouring books one through three in a little more than two weeks. 

Looking back on it, what I considered to be slow pacing—my biggest issue with the beginning of the book— was actually careful building. There’s five characters that make up Blue and her Raven Boys: characters who’d been complete and utter strangers to one another in the beginning of the book. Characters that are so fundamentally different from one another, each with such different dynamics, personalities, backstories—if Maggie had simply thrown them together in the beginning, what would’ve been sacrificed were the moments that made them come to life before our very eyes. The moments that slowly but surely guaranteed that before you even realized it, you too had become part of the group (affectionately referred to by fans as the Gangsey).

More than Maggie’s ability to create such strong individuals, The Raven Boys truly does have something for everyone: romance, history, friendship, adventure, magic…but a different kind of magic than I’d ever felt before. 

Other fantasy novels, such as Harry Potter, make magic feel like real life. Like at any given moment, we too could receive our Hogwarts letters and be whisked away to a world of patronuses and magic wands and talking sorting hats. But The Raven Boys makes real life feel like magic, and that’s not something you feel by picking just any book off a shelf. It wasn’t even a distinction I was aware could be made until I felt it for myself. Don’t let the small town setting fool you: there is magic to be found in Henrietta, Virginia. Just maybe not in the places you’d expect.

What I Learned About Misogyny Through Reading The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy

Elizabeth Kendall’s The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy recounts her long-lived romance with one of America’s most prolific serial killers, Ted Bundy. The firsthand account is terrifying, but not for the reasons you might think. Elizabeth doesn’t spend time detailing the killings themselves, but instead tells the story of Ted Bundy from her perspective: that of a lover. Haunting is the tale, as she slowly realizes that a person she loved and trusted was capable of such horrendous crimes.

However, upon reading this novel, there was a component I found to be far more chilling: the power that Bundy held as a man in the 1960s and ‘70s, that allowed him to more easily manipulate his relationship with Kendall. In turn, she was led to believe her instinct was wrong, which manifested in her strong feelings of guilt for suspecting him of murder. 

First, Bundy was able to begin to manipulate Kendall by agreeing to marry her, only to break off the engagement numerous times. Even as he began to betray her trust and pursue affairs with other women, she was coerced into believing he was going to marry her. This was especially important given the context of the times, because she was pressured into marriage by both her peers and parents. This allowed Bundy to wrap her around his finger and keep her looped in for years, even after she had reason to end the relationship beyond reasonable doubt.  

In addition, Bundy used her naivete and lack of self confidence to feed her sense of self-doubt. In her novel, Elizabeth often expressed that she felt ugly—especially in comparison to other women with whom Bundy was involved. These ideas were enforced often throughout the relationship, as Bundy would often tell her she was the love of his life, only to tell her she was clingy and desperate days later. This vicious cycle continued to instill doubt into Elizabeth, and contributed to her beliefs that she was inferior to her male counterpart. 

Perhaps the most crucial example of misogyny in the novel occurred outside of Elizabeth’s personal relationship with Ted Bundy. Instead, it took place when she initially attempted to speak with detectives about her concerns regarding Bundy’s involvement in local murders and kidnappings. Despite the evidence Elizabeth provided, she was often written off by male detectives as a ‘crazy’ girlfriend who was accusing her partner of a crime without any form of evidence. This, however, proved to be wildly untrue, as Bundy was eventually convicted of all the crimes Elizabeth tipped off detectives about. Even more disturbing is the fact that the male detectives seemed more concerned with Kendall’s sex life with Bundy than they were about her thoughts on his involvement in the crimes themselves. This was, without a doubt, one of the most striking examples of misogyny in the novel.

In conclusion, I feel that Kendall’s novel was very important, even in today’s political climate. Although her suspicions may have been taken more seriously in the present day, there are still parallels due to the leverage Bundy took advantage of by being the male in the relationship, and the lack of influence Elizabeth had over detectives because she was perceived as a woman with little self-confidence. The Phantom Prince is a worthwhile read for those who are seeking to reflect on gender roles and their unfair impact both within personal relationships and outside them.

Elizabeth Kendall, Getty/Netflix via esquire.com

Taylor Swift—The Poet of Our Generation

In case you missed it, Taylor Swift has been very busy during the pandemic. Within the span of five months, she released two studio albums—Folklore and Evermore—bringing her to a grand total of nine studio albums. Now you may be wondering, why is a book blog telling me about Taylor Swift? Well the truth is, whether you love or hate her music, her poetic songwriting ability rivals that of some of the best poets to date. She started by creating stories within 3–4 minute songs and now creates love triangles by connecting individual songs. If you still don’t believe me, let’s look at some of her best lyrical work. There is a multitude of ways to analyze her work, but I will be breaking it down into three different categories: literature references, powerful lines, and storytelling.

Literature References

Taylor loves her literature references—and so do I. Some of them are very obvious, such as “Love Story,” (which I won’t include for that reason) but a lot of them are more subtle, which just adds to her genius. This list is not exhaustive and doesn’t include every album, but let’s look at a few of my favorites:

  1. “Wonderland”: Taylor took it up a notch on her fifth album, 1989, by creating an entire song based on a literary reference. The song “Wonderland” is a reference to Alice in Wonderland and the idea of getting so lost in love that you don’t realize you fell down a rabbit hole and now you have to figure out how to escape or spend forever where “life was never worse but never better” (Swift, 2014). Taylor directly references the beloved tale with lines such as “Took a wrong turn and we / Fell down the rabbit hole,” and “Didn’t you call my fears with a Cheshire Cat smile?” (Swift, 2014), meaning the subject of the song wrote off her fears with a wide grin, causing her to feel falsely assured. This song is a prime example of the strengthening of Taylor’s literary references.
  2. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”: All of Taylor’s albums are an era in their own right, but Reputation took that to the next level. A number of the songs on this album allude to various classics, from A Tale of Two Cities to Slaughterhouse Five, but I am just going to talk about the most thorough reference on the album, which is “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” This song is basically The Great Gatsby explained in three minutes and 27 seconds. It details a friendship that was extravagant and wild—much like the way Gatsby would party—that ends due to secrets and lies, much like the way friendships and relationships ended in Gatsby’s world. The first verse reveals this idea immediately with the lines, “It was so nice throwing big parties / Jump into the pool from the balcony / Everyone swimming in a champagne sea / And there are no rules when you show up here / Bass beat rattling the chandelier / Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year” (Swift, 2017). If that doesn’t sound like a Gatsby party, I don’t know what does.
  3. “Invisible String”: I am going to break my “explaining one literary reference per album” streak here, because Folklore is an English major’s dream. “Invisible String” contains a nod to the popular line from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Hemingway, 1926). In the chorus she sings, “And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?” (Swift, 2020). Personally, I think this is one of her most beautiful songs and I love the way she slipped this reference in there.
  4. “The Lakes”: Before Taylor started writing in quarantine, she must have been reading, because this song immediately took me back to my English Literature class. In this song, Taylor references what I guessed to be the five Lake Poets from the late 18th to early 19th century. The chorus opens with “Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die” (Swift, 2020), which, if I remember correctly, were the big five romantic poets. Upon further listen, I noticed an interesting line which I believe is a further nod to them. In the second verse she sings, “I’ve come too far to watch some namedropping sleaze / Tell me what are my words worth” (Swift, 2020). William Wordsworth was one of the five Lake Poets, so I can’t help but to think that the last bit of that verse is meant to continue the allusion to the poet. It could be a coincidence, but most of us know by now that Taylor doesn’t do coincidences.
  5. “Happiness”: Moving into her most recent album, Evermore, we have the song “Happiness.” When I first heard this song, I nearly died. Not just because it’s one of her saddest songs ever, but because the literary references in it made my nerdy heart swell. Once again, Taylor has alluded to The Great Gatsby, but in an even more poetic way. In the second verse, she sings “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool” (Swift, 2020), which is an obvious nod to Daisy’s famous line from the novel and I audibly gasped on my first listen. Towards the end, there is also a line that says, “All you want from me now / Is the green light of forgiveness” (Swift, 2020), which I also took to be an allusion to Gatsby. It may just be me, but I am trained to think Gatsby when I hear green light, so I think this is the perfect subtle nudge towards it.
  6. “Tis the Damn Season”: By now, we’ve probably noticed that Taylor has taken to referencing phrases and lines from famous works and that’s exactly what she does in “Tis the Damn Season.” In the chorus of this song, she makes a direct reference to Robert Frost’s beloved narrative poem, “The Road Not Taken,” with the line, “And the road not taken looks real good now” (Swift, 2020). This poem was engrained in my head as early as middle school, so naturally I was extremely excited about this reference.

Powerful Lines

Taylor may be the queen of literature references, but some of her best lines have nothing to do with allusions and are simply poetic in their own right. I consider music and songwriting to be a form of poetry, therefore most of her songs themselves read as a poem. Honestly, I could pick a line at random and it would probably be beautifully written, but then we would be here all day. So, in no particular order, I’ll just go through a few of the ones that really strike a cord with me.

  1. “And you come away / With a great little story / Of a mess of a dreamer / With the nerve to adore you”—”Cold as You” (Swift, 2006). Taylor wrote her first album at 15 and she has grown a lot since then, and as such most of my favorite lines won’t be from her debut album. However, I think it is important to look at her old lyrics to help see how far she has come, and these lines from “Cold as You” still get me even after all these years.
  2. “So I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep / And I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe”—”Last Kiss” (Swift, 2010). This song, particularly this line, always hits me even now—despite the fact that I was 12 when it was released.
  3. “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest / I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here / ‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well / Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it / I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it”—”All too Well” (Swift, 2012). Unfortunately, I cannot paste the entirety of “All too Well” but this bridge speaks for itself.
  4. “Cause you can hear it in the silence / You can feel it on the way home / You can see it with the lights out / You are in love”—”You are in Love” (Swift, 2014). By itself, this doesn’t seem like much, but the song is about saying you’re in love without saying it directly, and I absolutely love the way she chose these lines to depict that.
  5. “Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere”— “New Years Day (Swift, 2017). Even though this is just a one liner, it gets me every time. Taylor has a way of describing scenarios in one line that packs a punch, and this is one of those instances.
  6. “I don’t wanna keep secrets just to keep you / And I snuck in through the garden gate / Every night that summer just to seal my fate / And I screamed for whatever it’s worth / ‘I love you,’ ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?”—”Cruel Summer” (Swift, 2019). The beginning and end of this verse are my absolute favorite, but I also love Taylor’s allusion to gardens throughout so many of her songs. It gives them such a whimsical feeling. Also, it was a cruel summer so it seems fitting.
  7. “You drew stars around my scars / But now I’m bleedin”—”Cardigan” (Swift, 2020). “Cardigan” is one of my favorite songs off of Folklore, because there are so many lines like this one that pack a punch but also tell a story, which is something she consistently does beautifully.
  8. “But I’m a fire and I’ll keep your brittle heart warm / If your cascade ocean wave blues come / All / these people think love’s for show / But I would die for you in secret”—”Peace” (Swift, 2020). This song is another one of my favorites off of Folklore (honestly, I love every song on this album). There is something undeniably poetic about this line in particular, with the metaphoric language and symbolism. I get the chills every time.
  9. “I don’t like that falling feels like flying ’til the bone crush”—”Gold Rush” (Swift, 2020). This is another one liner, but it does such a good job capturing a feeling that we all probably know in just a few words. Even though it’s short, it’s extremely descriptive and really shows off her talent.
  10. “While you were out building other worlds, where was I? / Where’s that man who’d throw blankets over my barbed wire? / I made you my temple, my mural, my sky / Now I’m begging for footnotes in the story of your life”—”Tolerate It” (Swift, 2020). I had a hard time picking just one line from this song, to the point that I considered pasting the whole song in. It’s honestly a very underrated addition to Evermore, but from a poetry standpoint is absolutely beautiful. If I read this in a poetry anthology I wouldn’t blink an eye.
  11. “There’ll be happiness after you / But there was happiness because of you too / Both of these things can be true”—”Happiness (Swift, 2020). I’m including this one as a bonus, because I couldn’t not talk about it. Not only is “Happiness” ironically the saddest song ever, but the emotion she captures is astounding. This is one of my favorites from the album because it is so mature and really shows how she’s grown as a person and writer.

Storytelling

Finally, we move into the last category, which is the storytelling she does in some of her songs. Like any good songwriter, Taylor knows how to tell a story. She writes about her experiences, but also creates characters in her songs. These are five of my favorite stories she has told, in no particular order.

  1. The Betty, Augustine, and James love triangle from Folklore. This Taylor original is one of my favorites because she gives us a presumed cheating scandal, but from the perspective of each person involved. There is no blaming the other woman or anything like that, and we get to see how each person may feel in a situation like this. It is a really interesting story and each song, “Betty,” “August,” and “Cardigan,” is different but equally fantastic.
  2. The failed marriage proposal in “Champagne Problems.” The phrase “champagne problems” means an issue that in the grand scheme of things may not seem like a big deal, but matters a lot to the person. In this song, Taylor effortlessly tells the story of a person who has turned down a proposal due to their own problems. Each verse adds to the story, hooking you from the beginning. It is heartbreaking and beautiful and I absolutely love it.
  3. The wedding being crashed in “Speak Now.” This song is great for a number of reasons. It tells the story of a girl who decides to crash her ex’s wedding by choosing to “speak now” rather than “forever hold their peace.” The imagery is so detailed it feels like you are watching the events unfold. Each verse gets closer and closer to the action until it unfolds, and they run away together (presumably). It is a lot more lighthearted than the previously mentioned storylines, but very well done nonetheless.
  4. The story of a young girl growing up and appreciating her mom in “The Best Day.” This song goes through a young girls life, presumably Taylor’s, and all of the small things that make growing up hard. Throughout it, she reflects on how the one constant was her mom. This song is extremely nostalgic for me. I used to listen to it on family road trips and I would think about how I wasn’t even close to the age she was by the end of the song. It made me appreciate my mom a lot more and how she was there for me through everything.
  5. Handling the illness of a loved one in “Soon You’ll Get Better.” In this song, Taylor tells the story of someone who has to deal with someone close to them being sick. It goes through all the motions of going to the hospital with them and watching them get worse and better and worse again. I don’t listen to this song often, simply because it is honestly so sad and it makes me think about what I would do if my mom got sick. However, as heartbreaking as it is, its extremely well written and never fails to pull on my heartstrings.


If you’re still here, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed analyzing the inner-workings of Taylor Swift’s music and songwriting abilities with me. Between her literature references, undeniably poetic lyrics, and strong storytelling, I think it’s safe to say she is truly the poet of our generation.

Survival of the Wordiest: My Month of NaNoWriMo

50,000 words in 30 days. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the ultimate writer’s challenge, runs from November 1st through November 30th and is not for the faint of heart. So, why would I, and thousands others, commit to such a lofty goal?

For starters, there is a huge sense of accomplishment in hammering out what could have taken you months or years in just thirty twenty-four hour periods. It is an effective way to start that project you have been meaning to get to for however long, and—if I am being completely honest—you can rack up some serious bragging rights! 

Yet, NaNoWriMo is not about creating a perfectly polished publishable piece of prose (try saying that five times fast) in 30 days. No, this is about getting that “shitty first draft” (thank you Anne Lamott for that bit of priceless advice) out of your head and onto paper, Google Doc, Word Doc, Scrivener, papyrus scroll, or whatever system works for you. Your NaNoWriMo project is simply the shell of what will, hopefully, become your novel. 

Before one begins NaNoWriMo you may want to identify what category of writer you fall into. Are you a Planner, a Pantser, or a Plantser? 

The Planner is one that does just that: plans. They create detailed  lists, outlines, character sketches, mind maps, world charts, and the like. They are going in armed with as much information that they can have about their novel. A Planner could work for a month or more before NaNoWriMo even begins to achieve their best possible result. Their novel idea might have been knocking around in their brain long before they decided to join the challenge.

The Pantser is one that literally “flies by the seat of their pants.” This is the writer that is pretty much winging it. They have an idea of what they want to write about, but generally have not outlined anything or delved much into character or plot. They are making it up as they go, and following whatever road presents itself to them in the process.

The Plantser, as you might have guessed, is the union of a Planner and a Pantser. It is the best of both types, and involves some outlining or mind mapping, but not so much that there isn’t a little room for spontaneity. 

I am of the Pantser variety and what is known in the Nano world as a “rebel.” My project was not a novel, but a collection of short stories that I have been dreaming about for three years now. Since it doesn’t fall under the novel category, I join the rebel ranks which include nonfiction writers and purveyors of poetry. My first love will always be the short story, and also as a creative nonfiction writer I wear the rebel badge proudly.

While I do not profess to be much of a planner, that doesn’t mean I didn’t do my share of preparation before November 1st. Here are a few of the tricks I employed during the month to keep the creative juices flowing, and the stress level relatively manageable. 

Support System

I warned my family. Many times. This was too big a project to go it alone, and I needed my husband and daughter to understand that I had to write a minimum of 1,667 words per day to reach the goal. In the end they were my accountability partners, cheerleaders, and figurative punching bags when things got tough and I needed to vent!  

Adding to my corner of the writing ring, I enrolled in a class here at ASU designed specifically for NaNoWriMo participants. Starting in October, the class was centered around one goal and one goal only—to get you to 50,000 words. Among the tools and assignments was the craft book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, motivational videos, taped lectures, and required word count screen shot submissions for extra accountability. A strong writing community grew out of this class—and while I was often too busy to actively socialize, I got some great advice and motivation out of my classmates.

The NaNoWriMo website itself ended up being a terrific source of support with national and local “write ins” and badges that you could earn for completing tasks like writing for seven, 14, and 21 days straight, among others. Their website became that one constantly open tab so I could enter my word count (even if it was just a couple of hundred words) quickly and easily. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to see those numbers creep up each time I logged a session. 

Music to My Ears (and writing fingers) 

A couple of weeks prior to the start of NaNoWriMo, I read that having some writing rituals could help put writers in the best possible and creative headspace. This was nothing new to me, but one ritual in particular stood out as being especially helpful: music. Normally, when I write for a class I use the Rainy Mood website to create some nice background noise, but several sources recommended creating playlists to match the mood and tone of the novel. Since I was writing a collection of short stories, I ended up tweaking this idea and coming up with several playlists. Interview with a witch story? I listened to a lot of Stevie Nicks, and instrumentals. Coming of age story with a mother/daughter duo and a John Hughes obsession? The Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles soundtracks became my muses. 

What Light Over Yonder Window Breaks

To bring a little ambience and atmosphere to my writing sessions, I added the element of fire. I started burning scented candles to help bring a little atmosphere to all those hours I spent bent over the laptop. There was something very soothing when, in the midst of some major writer’s block, I could breathe deeply and get a whiff of ocean air, vanilla toffee, or cafe fresco. Did it help the block? Not necessarily, but it did keep me from pitching my laptop out the window. 

Timing is Everything

When creating a writing schedule, I had every intention of writing first thing in the morning to begin my day. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. My writing schedule ended up being as pantsy as my process. When I discussed how difficult it was to write 1,667 words in one sitting (particularly when you have no outline, or other details to work off of) to my instructor, she recommended chunking.

This was one of many “aha!” moments during the month, and something I was already doing with my college coursework. Splitting up my writing sessions ended up being my savior. I would shoot for two sessions of 800 words, but often I would write bits and pieces throughout the day. In this regard, my obsessive rule of having a pen and notebook available at all times was on point. I was constantly jotting down bits of dialogue, action, setting and character details. And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it. My family swears I didn’t hear a word they said for the whole month!

The Finish Line

Yes, I made it. On day 30 with just hours left in the challenge, I finished at 50,120 words, which broke down into five short stories. Was it worth it? Yes. Despite the days that I struggled to get to that 1,667 words. Despite not knowing what my characters were doing or saying, or where the story was headed. Even those days where I was just so mentally exhausted from life stuff (being a student, wife, mother, and employee) that I just couldn’t fathom writing one sentence—much less hundreds of words—it was worth it. Knowing that I was completing work that would have taken far longer to write in such a short period of time kept me going. 

So, What Now?

Just because November 30th has come and gone, and just because I won NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean it is over. Yes, I wrote over 50,000 words. But they are some of the messiest words ever to grace my Google Drive, and that is because I heeded all the advice and did not edit anything while I was writing. I. Just. Had. To. Get. The. Words. Down. So, I know I am going to look back at the work, scratch my head, and ponder “What the heck was I thinking?”

The real work of hard editing is ahead of me. I wrote drunk for thirty days and now I soberly have to edit (thank you Hemingway). But, to quote another writer, Jodi Picoult, “You can’t edit a blank page.” You also can’t submit blank pages to a publisher, an agent, or a literary magazine.

Would I do it again?

In a word? Yes. While the process was demanding, it was extremely motivating. NaNoWriMo took over my life for 30 days, and it was exactly the kick-in-the-pants that I needed to make strong progress on a three year-old idea.

There are a couple of things I would do differently. Although I am a Pantser, I would conjure up some more story ideas prior to NaNoWriMo’s start. It was tricky to both brainstorm and write in such a short amount of time. While I did like splitting up the writing, I would try to do more of it in the morning hours—evenings became difficult for me to write after long days of classes, work, and family responsibilities. I can see myself planning an extra hour in the morning to get a jump start. Other than that I am definitely on board for next year, and I even have a new collection in mind. 

Are you a NaNoWriMo writer? What was your experience? And if not, would you consider taking the challenge and losing yourself in wordsmithing for a month?

Write on!

Adulting in Wonderland

There are some books that one should read only as a child because they sit better with those who are still impressionable. Then there are stories that are written for children but can only truly be appreciated by adults. Alice in Wonderland is one such book. The first time I read it I was in kindergarten. Back then, I felt like it was a regular magical story about a young girl who has a colorful dream. Like every other kid who read it, I was fairly surprised and disappointed to find that it was just a dream. Reading it again as an adult, knowing how it ends, I am in love with the metaphors and the little nuggets of worldly wisdom disguised as childish humor.

Alice is the embodiment of childish innocence. In contrast, her sister, to whom she excitedly relates her dream in the end, is nearly an adult—and more somber for it. She ruefully acknowledges that Alice will grow up to be a woman and Wonderland will be tucked away in some corner of her mind.

In the backdrop of Alice’s innocent young mind, Carroll paints pictures from real life but in funny, quirky shapes and colors. On the outside it looks exactly like something a child would dream up. But to grown-up eyes, it seems wretchedly familiar. I’m not sure if Lewis Carroll intended for readers to find symbolism in this book. It’s possible he really was just writing it for a pre-teen audience and inadvertently put some satire in there. But a great book is like a mirror: you often find exactly what you wish to find in it.

As for me, I imagined the whole rabbit hole saga to be a metaphor for introspection. Alice falls so slowly down the famed rabbit hole that she can pick books off the walls, flip through them, and put them back. When she finally lands, she is in a long hallway with numerous doors that are all locked.

Falling forever and landing nowhere is exactly what an introspective spiral feels like.

Throughout the book Alice drinks potions and eats mushrooms and literally grows and shrinks countless times. It’s a dream, so of course, she doesn’t think it’s odd after a while. Several times she is induced by one or more of the many strange characters to ask herself, “Who am I?” This brilliant metaphor for an identity crisis and personal growth is so prominent, it makes you wonder why this book is not reclassified as “for all ages”.

The various characters created by Alice’s sleeping brain are fantastical but accurate depictions of the kinds of people we know in real life. There’s the Hatter and the Hare, deep thinkers who are misunderstood and branded as “mad.” The Mock Turtle (of mock turtle soup), whose greatest sorrow is that he has no sorrow. And of course, the Queen of Hearts, who likes to execute anyone who ever annoys her. The world has probably seen too many leaders like the Queen and misjudged too many revolutionary thinkers like the Hatter.

The best part of the novel is quite possibly the trial at the end. It is a satirical take on how justice is served, or is often not served, as the case is in our society. If people like the Queen had their way it would probably be “sentence first, verdict afterwards!” Underneath the surreal nonsense, it depicts how prejudice, unfair treatment of witnesses, and misrepresentation of facts are often a large part of court trials. Reading this chapter makes you think that Carroll was frustrated with the judicial system and thought it was a farce. The style in which it is written suggests that it was a cathartic exercise for himself.

Whether Carroll wanted adults to enjoy his book or not, he scattered enough of his brilliant thoughts and ideas about people and society all over the story to engage mature readers. Like all great classics, it is still relevant and has something for people in every stage of life.

P is for Problematic: A Critical Review of of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mystery Series—From a Fan!

You may be familiar with the extremely popular alphabet mystery series by Sue Grafton, which starts with A is for Alibi and ends at Y is for Yesterday, when the series ended with Sue Grafton’s death. I read the series this year and I enjoyed it. The main character, Kinsey Millhone, is a no-nonsense, witty, assertive, peanut-butter-and-pickle-sandwich-eating badass and private investigator. 

And while I did enjoy the series, there is much to be critiqued. There are problems. You could say it is

p r o b l e m a t i c. 

Because the term “problematic” can become partisan or dismissed as simply meaning “offensive,” let’s get clear on what it means. As simply as possible, problematic means presenting a problem. Olly Thorn adds that problematic means presenting a “social or political problem to do with some issue of fairness or social justice.”

It’s even more important to discuss the problematic nature of something that we like, or put another way, to critique our “problematic faves.” And Grafton’s series, especially the Kinsey character, and even larger—the genre of mystery—are many people’s favorites, including mine. I’m not saying don’t read these books; I’m saying when you read them, do so critically, aware of what injustices it may be reproducing. I hope this is a call that we do better moving forward in the genre. 

There are many problems in Grafton’s series, including racism, copaganda, victim-blaming, and more, but I will discuss here: sexism, fatphobia, and classism (with a sprinkling of ableism and xenophobia). I write of these problems separately, but please know that they are inherently more complex and interconnected. The intersectional relationships between fatphobia and sexism or between fatphobia and classism, for examples, are extremely complicated. 


S is for Sexist. How could a series that stars a hardboiled female private eye be sexist? And it’s true that when A for Alibi was published in 1982, it was groundbreaking: a lady private investigator? And written by a lady? The character Kinsey defied previous stereotypical and limited female roles in the mystery genre: either “femme fatale or corpse.” Throughout the series, because of her professional identity and career, other characters often assume Kinsey is a man, which she always sassily and satisfyingly rebuts. “Kinsey was a fictional alter ego for every shy woman who hesitated to talk back. Grafton said she counted herself among those shy women.”  

But still, there are problems. In Y is for Yesterday, Kinsey believes, “The odd but unremarkable truth about women is we’ve had the aggression bred right out of us. Many of us are constitutionally unable to handle any kind of confrontation without bursting into tears.” This kind of generalizing about women as a whole is problematic in and of itself without regarding the intersections of gender, racism, disability, class, etc. It’s also problematic in regards to considering women as biologically weaker and that a “feminine” quality of expressing emotion during conflict is negative. Female characters in Grafton’s books, especially beloved Kinsey, regularly judge or comment on other women’s bodies or refer to other women as “bitchy.” Internalized sexism is readily seen when women habitually disparage themselves or other women, especially in regards to body-shaming them. It’s also seen in references to women as the “weaker sex,” which is, unfortunately, a surprisingly common theme in a series featuring a strong female main character!

And let’s talk about the trope of the strong female character, because that is harmful as well. Strong female characters might superficially seem feminist and anti-sexist, but it’s more complicated than that. What makes a female character “strong?” For a female character to be strong, it usually means she expresses masculine traits and eschews feminine ones. The problem is not masculinity, but rather that we associate strength with masculinity. Like other strong female characters such as Sarah Connor from Terminator 2, Kinsey reasserts masculine traits like having a willingness to commit gun violence; being tough and physically fit; needing to assert dominance in most situations; detesting stereotypically feminine interests like fashion, cooking, and make up—just to name a few. The work here is to change the way we see strength, to see strength in typically feminine traits or feminine expression. The response to the damsel in distress trope of the past isn’t to create harm as an overcorrection to the strong female character trope. 


F is for Fatphobic. [content warning: fat-shaming, weight] As someone who has struggled with disordered eating and body image, Grafton’s series was often difficult to read. Diet culture and fat-shaming feature as main characters of the series in their own right, unfortunately. Kinsey is constantly exercising to “stay slim,” analyzing the calories of every food, skipping meals or bingeing on junk food, and making harmful judgments and evaluations of other characters’ bodies. If you share the same struggles with diet, weight, and shame as I do, I might recommend skipping this series entirely.

Personally upsetting to me was Grafton’s descriptions of Kinsey’s friend Vera Lipton’s body. From books B through J, Vera is described with words like “big” and “bulky.” In J is for Judgment (how fitting), Kinsey says, “She’s a big gal to begin with: maybe five feet ten, 140 pounds on a good size frame. She’d never been apologetic about her generous proportions.” As a woman who is exactly five feet ten myself, 140 pounds is not remotely “big.” 

Especially concerning and harmful is how Grafton writes about a fat and lonely hotel clerk named Arlette who tries to argue for body acceptance:

“Fat is beautiful, Kinsey,” she said to me confidentially as I filled out the registration card. “Looka here.”

I looked. She was holding out her arm so that I could admire the hefty downing of excess flesh.

“I don’t know, Arlette,” I said dubiously. “I keep trying to avoid it myself.”

“And look at all the time and energy it takes,” she said. “The problem is that our society shuns tubbos. Fat people are heavily discriminated against. Worse than the handicapped. Why, they got it easy compared to us. Everywhere you go now, there are signs out for them. Handicapped parking. Handicapped johns. You’ve seen those little stick figures in wheelchairs. Show me in the international sign for the grossly overweight. We got rights.”

Her face was moon-shaped, surrounded by a girlish cap of wispy blonde hair. Her cheeks were permanently flushed as though vital supply lines were being dangerously squeezed.

“But it’s so unhealthy, Arlette,” I said. “I mean, don’t you have to worry about high blood pressure, heart attacks…”

“Well there’s hazards to everything. All the more reason we should be treated decently.”

What’s frustrating to see in this excerpt is Arlette arguing for fat acceptance and an end to fat-shaming, which I wholly support. However, Grafton presents it embedded in disgusted and judgmental descriptions about her body, which makes Arlette’s claims seem foolish and absurd. Not only is there fatphobia is this short quotation, but also sexism and ableism.

We know that fat-shaming, especially embedded in concerns about “health,” like Kinsey claims in the above excerpt, only do more harm than good. Shaming people for being fat by claiming you do so for their health not only doesn’t reduce their weight but actually leads to unhealthy outcomes: both increased disordered eating in response to public shaming, and rejection and the significant mental health tolls the shaming takes on our bodies. 

Sure, A is for Alibi was published in 1982, at the height of diet culture, the low-fat movement, and a time where fat-shaming was common (and unfortunately still is today). The book does reflect the culturally acceptable beliefs and behaviors of the day. However, there are 26 books in the series written over three decades, with the final book being published in 2017. Yet, diet culture and fat-shaming is a huge ongoing theme that never gets corrected or addressed. It doesn’t matter if Grafton shares these fat-shaming beliefs with Kinsey or if she is writing them as solely belonging to Kinsey—the harmful consequences are the same. 


C is for Classist. Kinsey (and arguably by proxy, Grafton) really hate poor and homeless people. Grafton’s series is rife with classism, which is the “systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.” Not only does Grafton write Kinsey into being in awe of rich characters’ homes and fashion, but she writes about homeless and poor characters and their associated negative qualities in extremely harmful ways.

A theme of the books places the responsibility on individuals instead of systems and structures: “bad apples” in the police force instead of structural problems with policing, criminals who “choose” crime instead of structural problems that leave them desperate, fat people who “choose” to be fat instead of the stronghold of food engineering and advertising. Likewise with classism. However, homelessness is not an individual’s failure—it is a structural failure of the society. Yet, Grafton continually writes that being poor or homeless is a personal lifestyle choice rather than being a victim of mental illness, poverty, and capitalist structures designed to keep people in poverty and out of homes. Even though homeless characters in W is for Wasted work heroically and without pay for Kinsey to solve that book’s case, she continually assesses them as smelly, unhygienic, and morally weak for living in poverty and having substance addictions.

In an intersectional medley of oppression in Y is for Yesterday, fat and homeless woman Pearl comes to live with Kinsey’s kind neighbor. Kinsey tells Pearl she is both taking advantage of the neighbor and illegitimately receiving disability support. Though Pearl’s hip is broken, Kinsey saw her hanging clothes on a clothes line and therefore believes Pearl is faking it, which is extremely offensive and harmful. Kinsey says, “Little sympathy I had for moochers and human parasites.” It should go without saying that no oppressed human deserves to be called a “parasite.”

Grafton writes a scene in V is for Vengeance that is an interesting and disturbing intertwining of classism and ethnocentrism, which entails the evaluation of other cultures as inferior to one’s own. Throughout the series, Kinsey disparages Rosie’s homemade Hungarian dishes as “repulsive” and focusing on animal parts typically considered “disgusting” in xenophobic perspectives. “By the time she finished telling me how tender the feet should be… my eyes were beginning to cross.” Kinsey more than once through the series spits out Rosie’s lovingly prepared meals. Such an ongoing “joke” throughout the series made me cringe every time. We get it: “foreign” food is gross and weird—ha ha. Pearl and another of her homeless friend are the only characters in the series to genuinely enjoy Rosie’s cooking, relating their subordinated social class with the unimaginable enjoyment of “gross” foods and lack of taste.


Grafton’s series itself won’t change as the years go on, but our reading of it will change, because we change with times. A 2020 reading of the series shows some of the problems and perpetuated harm still present in the series. So, read the series with a critical eye.

Better yet—if you’re a fan of mystery, crime fiction, and thrillers and are willing to join me, let’s read some incredible books from LGBT+ and mystery writers of color. Both of these groups have largely been historically excluded from the mystery genre. A classic psychological thriller written by lesbian writer Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley is gripping, suspenseful, and existential. New publications by black women mystery writers like My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole are fun and creative tales that seek to disrupt the status quo rather than perpetuate it.

And if you can’t get enough of a series featuring a hardboiled protagonist, check out Michael Nava’s series featuring a gay and Latino defense lawyer named Henry Rios. Nava’s queer framing of the mystery and crime genres challenge what we expect.

Maybe it’s time to get some new favorites.

Impact of Romance Novels on Young Readers

Twilight. Divergent. Matched. Pride and Prejudice. Romeo and Juliet. These stories are classics; known by readers everywhere for their intricate detail and swoon-worthy love interests. However, is it possible that these stories have ruined the young reader’s current perception of relationships?

I’ve thought a lot about the role of YA romance novels in the last couple years. I once praised the gooey-feel-good, yet often simplistic plot line of romantic comedies and the “bad boy/good girl” archetype I read throughout my tween and teen years. While these books are wonderful for many reasons, I couldn’t help but realize as I got older that the protagonists were much younger than myself, and yet they had their life easily figured out by the end of 300 pages. This led me waiting throughout my teen years to be older; but as I grew into my late teens, I found the end of high school didn’t mean the completion of my self development—and more importantly—no attractively mysterious love interest would randomly come into my life. 

In a blog post about why they hate YA novels, Vivian DeRosa discusses two important points surrounding the typical themes within teen-romances: first, teenagers are inherently awkward, underdeveloped, and immature people; second, YA relationships are pure fiction. I don’t think there is a single person who looks back at their early teens and thinks they were at their peak. Being a teenager, even well into someone’s twenties, is awkward both physically and mentally; developing into who we are and finding who we want to be is a lifelong process that doesn’t conclude when one problem is solved. It is difficult for young adults to read these iconic stories and not receive the impression that they are supposed to be stunningly attractive and fully mentally developed, especially when Hollywood casts older actors to play these characters. It is impossible to think that 16-year-old Tris, while just beginning to understand her “Divergence,” could possibly build an actually sustainable relationship with Four. Or that 17-year old Bella not only found true love with a 104-year-old Vampire but gets married and fights in an ancient feud between the vampires and werewolves all while still in high school.

To this point, “YA tends to treat teenage relationships like they’re going to last forever. Many epilogues show the main character and their love interest happily married. But that’s not how most teen relationships shake out…” (DeRosa, 2017). Most teenagers are focused on typical high school and young adult things, and if they are in a relationship usually it doesn’t develop into a life-altering love story that will take precedence of their life and last forever. However, these stories have young readers believing that not only are relationships purely built on “finding the one,” but that there is no effort involved in finding, cultivating, and sustaining an actual romantic relationship. This thought process is detrimental to the perception of good relationships because it doesn’t offer the difficult perspective of how much work and time relationships actually take; it gives young readers a false foundation that life is just like these stories and all two people need is an attractive counterpart and one very passionate kiss.

Additionally, the perception of love through not just YA romance novels but all romance media is dangerous for all genders and sexualities. Because while Twilight, Divergent, and Romeo and Juliet are all coming of age stories where the protagonist’s journey takes the reader on one of self discovery as well, these mediums are often excluding the storylines of non-cis gendered, racially diverse, or gay protagonists. That a male protagonist without abs might fall in love with another male, female, or nonbinary peer who might have a diverse set of beliefs or culture is almost unheard of in YA romances, while today this is the reality of relationships. These stories, while considered classics, cater to a specific female fantasy—and without the diversity of representation, there is a whole population who may either lack a well-rounded understanding of relationships and/or see love as an unreachable fantasy.

This is not to say that these stories aren’t good. They are. There is a reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is continuously taught and referenced through different mediums; why John Green’s “Okay? Okay.,” line reference has taken off with readers; and why the promotion of “sparkly, chiseled-abed vampires” has become a teen cliché. These stories are beautiful, incite strong emotions, and are oftentimes powerful. Despite having contradicting emotions about the genre, I still love and appreciate these stories. Don’t stop reading them, but don’t take them as a bible to your literary world. Teach each other that these books are not a guide for how to look, act, or love—and, most importantly, expand to local and diverse authors dedicated to telling the story that is not only special but realistic. In this way, we can indulge in the beauty and power of love, but remember that love is nothing without a relationship—which is often much more complicated than 300 pages would suggest.

Aviles, G. (2019, March 10). The rise of young adult books with LGBTQ characters – and what’s next. NBCNews. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/rise-young-adult-books-lgbtq-characters-what-s-next-n981176

DeRosa, V.P. (2017, June 21). I’m a teenager and I don’t like young adult novels. Here’s why. Huffingtonpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-ya-gets-wrong-about-teenagers-from-a-teen_b_594a8e4de4b062254f3a5a94

Magic and Mysticism

For everyone out there who learned to ask deep philosophical questions at the age of twelve or thirteen after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I would like to impress upon all readers the great power of young adult fantasy novels to teach the juvenile mind about ethics and existentialism. I have not come across a history or political science textbook that has explained a tyrant’s psychology as well as Albus Dumbledore: “Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”

A frequent argument I have heard from skeptics is that fantasy books fill their readers’ heads with unrealistic nonsense (dead flies and bits of fluff), while the truth is that these stories deliver some of life’s most crucial lessons in the form of allegory.

When Dumbledore points out to Harry that not every prophecy in the Department of Mysteries has been fulfilled, he reminds us that our decisions, even at a microcosmic level, are what shape our future in the end. The entire arc of the prophecy is a caricature of how human beings have always tried to predict and control the future. But as every time travel movie has proven, attempting to change the past or the future always comes at a great price. Even though it is not realistically possible to change the past, we like to think that we can alter our future if we can predict it. But these attempts to change our fate are the very things that set us on the path that was predicted for us.

Many lessons can also be gleaned from these books that are delivered in simple, straightforward sentences. These are usually extraordinary characters talking about the ordinary aspects of their lives. “People find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right,” is an example of a quote that rings with truth.

In addition to being a catalyst for philosophical discourse among youths, the fantasy genre constantly crosses paths with science. This is quite different from how science fiction presents science. While sci-fi books and movies try to depict what the advancement of technology based on current discoveries would look like, fantasy is more about staying true to the primordial laws of physics and chemistry—even in the world of magic.

As any Rick Riordan fan could tell you, The Kane Chronicles is easily the most existential of his works. Although these books echo some of the happy-go-lucky zaniness of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series, the Egyptian pantheon comes off as more obscure than the Greek or Roman ones. For starters, the deities are not necessarily “good,” which challenges the established notion of an all-powerful entity being all-benevolent.

Riordan cloaks the duality of life in the story of the Duat—the endless river which is like a second skin beneath the world that we perceive. All mortals exist in both worlds, simultaneously. This is a graceful ode to the scientific theory that matter can exist as both particles and waves (proposed by Louis de Broglie in 1924). Furthermore, there is Ma’at and Isfet, order and chaos, two inexorable forces that perfectly balance each other, coinciding with Newton’s third law of motion.

But the finest point of this series is when Sadie learns that there are conflicting stories about how the gods came to be and did what they did. For example, in one story, Isis and Osiris are siblings, while in the other, they are husband and wife. This is actually true for mythical stories in most cultures, because they began as folklore and were created by different people whose names cannot be found anymore.

But Riordan explains it in a way that does not break the illusion of the magical world he has created. In this universe, the Egyptian gods need mortal hosts to operate on the earth. Depending on the relationship between these hosts, the gods’ relationships change. As Iskandar says, “The gods do not think of relationships the way we humans do. Their hosts are merely like changes of clothes. This is why the ancient stories seem so mixed up. Sometimes the gods are described as married, or siblings, or parent and child, depending on their hosts.” This theory gracefully maintains the illusion of fantasy while also respecting the different views held by experts in this field.

It is in stories like this that magic and science blend into what was taught ages ago by ancient philosophers and what is now called mysticism. After all, modern technology may appear to be magical to someone who is not acquainted with the engineering behind it, as shown by The Wizard of Oz. Maybe, what we think of as magic is simply advanced science in another universe.