Dan School

Dan School

Howdy! It’s been a while, and yes, I’m still pregnant.

I’m almost 39 weeks along now. At the 34-week ultrasound, this baby was as big as Dan was at birth. We were all sort of hoping that original July 10 due date was the real deal (my doctor even started questioning the new date), but that turned  out not to be the case. Things are pretty uncomfortable, and soon I’ll need to train Dan to operate a forklift to get me off the couch, but hey—it’s better here, anyway.

But that’s not the topic of this post! Today I want to tell you guys about a cool thing Dan and I have been doing for the past few months: Dan School.

I decided to start Dan School for a few different reasons. One is that as this pregnancy progresses, I’m getting lazier about engaging with Dan. This is a way to get me off my butt and spend some focused quality time with him. Another is that he had all these goofy knowledge gaps—for example, he knew what a trapezoid was but couldn’t correctly identify a square. But the deciding factor was when I realized he had memorized all the lyrics to Rebecca Black’s Friday.

I figured if Dan was so eager to learn things that he was going to memorize random crap like Friday, I might as well expose him to some actually useful information.

My main inspiration for the Dan School “curriculum” is my awesome friend Serena’s website on homeschooling toddlers, although I also drew from my mom’s “summer school” system she used to keep us from forgetting everything we knew over the summer. Dan School has five subjects:

  • English: Dan had all the capital letters down, so we started with lowercase. Now we’re working on sight words, and he has a handful under his belt already.
  • Math: We focus on one number a day. I write it down and tell him what it is, and we practice counting up to it. I bought some marbles at the dollar store, and he loves counting them and rolling them around. The double digit numbers are tricky for Dan, so we review them often. I wasn’t sure how well this was sinking in until the other day when Dan was supervising Tom doing push-ups and counted up to 22 by himself.
  • “Special Topics”: This is where we introduce random knowledge just to shake things up. After reviewing shapes, we learned music vocabulary, days of the week, and how the hour hand on the clock works (I’m hoping I can use this to show Dan when it’s appropriate to wake me up in the morning). The music vocab unit was especially successful, because we can use hymnbooks to entertain Dan at church.
  • Story Time: Dan continues to love reading books. Now it’s even more exciting because he can practice finding the letters and words he knows.
  • Music Time: Dan loves listening to music, and he’s shown a remarkable aptitude for memorizing inane song lyrics. I try to find songs that line up with something we’ve talked about that day (like “Hickory Dickory Dock” during the clock unit, for example).

Dan absolutely loves Dan School, and will often ask about it on days when we have to skip it. Here are some things that I think have made it successful:

  • Stickers: After every school session, Dan gets a dollar store sticker. This kid is a sticker fiend—at the grocery store, he’s always hustling the cashiers for stickers before I can even say “hello”—so this is great motivation.

    Dan’s shirts rarely sport fewer than two stickers at any given time.

  • Start simple: We started with lowercase letters and shapes even though he knew most of them already. I wanted him to think school was easy and fun, so when we moved on to less-familiar material he wouldn’t get frustrated.
  • Keep it short: Each “school day” lasts 20 minutes at most. This way we never have any attention-span-related problems, and I never get to claim I’m too busy. 20 minutes of structured time doesn’t feel like too much to me, but I also want to make sure Dan has plenty of time to play and explore the world on his own.
  • Low pressure: I know what you’re thinking: I’m not trying to tiger-mom Dan to death here.. Dan School is, above all, just for fun. I try not to quiz Dan or put too much pressure on him—he learns better when he can soak up the information at his own pace. Sometimes I do have to suppress my inner tiger-mom (“You knew this letter yesterday! What happened?!”), especially on days when I’m super tired. But for the most part, Dan School is something we both enjoy.
  • Support from Dad: Tom has been fully on-board with Dan School since the beginning—probably more so than most of my other crazy schemes. Tom’s support helps me keep going even when all I want to do is turn on Cars and curl up on the couch all day, and I think Dan enjoys showing off for his dad.

I have no idea how Dan School is going to work after the baby is born. We’ll probably have to take “summer vacation” until we can get into something resembling a routine. But we’re going to keep it up as well as we can for as long as it’s fun and useful for Dan.

And if we accomplish nothing else, at least Dan knows some songs other than Friday, so I’m prepared to call Dan School a success story.

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Writing FAQ!

Every once in a while a well-meaning friend or relative will ask well-meaning questions about my writing. And every time, I find myself completely unprepared to answer those well-meaning questions.

“What’s your book about?” they ask, all friendly-like.

“Um,” I say, ducking my head and zipping up my jacket until it obscures the bottom half of my face, “words and stuff. Probably fantasy stuff. I think Dan’s crying. Gotta go.”

As you can imagine, I never did well in job interviews.

It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing or I’m trying to keep it a secret. I’ve just had some negative experiences talking about writing with people—no one who reads this blog, don’t worry—and it just makes me nervous. Plus, the whole talking thing isn’t really my forte—why do you think I got into writing?

With that in mind, I’ve created a little writing FAQ to answer some of the questions I normally get. They’re all reasonable questions with answers I’ve thought a lot about, but can’t bring myself to say out loud when put on the spot. Hopefully this will clear up some confusion.

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Q: So…why are you doing this writing thing?

A: I just like it! I really can’t help it. My brain likes to tell me stories, and it gets antsy if I don’t write them down. It’s always been this way, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

Writing is therapeutic. It helps me channel my natural surliness without raging at people at the grocery store. It also gives my brain a bit of a workout, which is nice since I spend most of the day reading board books. Don’t get me wrong—I love reading to Dan, but I’ve got Dazzling DiggersHello Ninja, and Little Blue Truck memorized. Bring on the next challenge!

Also, I’ve got a tiny shred of hope that someday, something I write will help someone. My life has been changed by some of the books I read as a child, and I’d like to pay it forward if I can. The world is a weird place, and good, wholesome books are always in demand. Whether I can actually deliver said books is another story, but hey—it’s worth a shot.

Q: What makes you think you’ll have time for this?

A: That’s a good question. I’m raising a crazy toddler. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to take a shower tomorrow (note: the answer is “probably yes”). The point is, I’ve got some time right now, and the Lord tells us to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will.” I think writing can fit that description. It certainly beats Netflix, at least.

Kevin J. Anderson, one of the most prolific writers in the sci-fi industry (and maybe generally), tells a story of a friend whose wife’s career took off in such a way as to facilitate him quitting his job and writing full-time. The guy created enough distractions for himself that he never wrote another book. Someday all of our kids will be in school, and I’ll have larger chunks of uninterrupted writing time. Those chunks will do me no good if I can’t learn to manage the time I do have, and that’s what I’m doing right now.

My current goal is 500 words a day, and it’s working really well right now. I know I’ll be making adjustments throughout our kids’ childhood, and that’s fine. But I have no intention of ever stopping completely—I doubt I could if I tried.

Q: So why are you always writing that fantasy stuff?

A: The short answer is because that’s mostly what I read. I’m an escapist reader, and I always have been. When I want reality, I go to Walmart.

There's a little too much reality at Walmart sometimes...

There’s a little too much reality at Walmart sometimes…

I’ve always loved fairy tales and stories about magic and unicorns and all that nonsense, but I really fell in love with fantasy in third grade when Ms. Ward read Ella Enchanted to our class. I wasn’t a big fan of most of the books we had to read in elementary school. It seemed like we were always reading books about dogs, probably because a lot of kids had dogs and teachers wanted them to relate to what we were reading. I didn’t have a dog. I didn’t even particularly like dogs. Those books were not meant for me. When we started on Ella, I sat straight up in my chair, paying rapt attention the whole time. I remember thinking, “You can write books like this?” It blew my eight-year-old mind. I think that was also the moment when I really decided I wanted to be a writer.

Later that year I picked up Harry Potter for the first time, and from then on, I was stuck. I’ve been a fantasy junkie ever since.

I have nothing against other genres, and enjoy reading them (except the dog genre—not a fan). But fantasy is my favorite, and for now, that’s the genre I’m most interested in writing.

Q: Plotter or Pantser?

Plotter! I can’t write without an outline, though I’m impressed by those who can.

For those of you who don’t know, a “plotter” is someone who has to “plot” their story out from start to finish before they start writing. A “pantser” figures it out as they go, writing by the “seat of their pants,” as it were.

Q: Traditional or Self-publishing?

I’m planning to self-publish eventually. There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding which publishing route to take, and I don’t really have time to get into them here, but after a lot of research, I’ve decided that the pressure inherent in traditional publishing would be too hard on our family. I love writing, but I’m a mom first. I need the flexibility to give my children as much attention as they need, particularly when crises inevitably arise. I’m not trying to be the primary breadwinner in our family (if I was, we’d be in a heap of trouble right about now), so flexibility really is the most important factor here.

Q: What’s your book about?

I don’t think any writer likes answering this question. It’s hard to answer for several possible reasons:

  • It’s too early in the writing process to have a satisfactory answer available. This is particularly true for pantsers. I am very much NOT a pantser, but I usually don’t come up with elevator pitches for my stories until they’re basically finished.
  • The writer doesn’t know what “version” of the answer you’re looking for. Do you want the genre? The five-second elevator pitch? The “theme”? An “It’s like Star Wars meets High School Musical 2“-style answer? A point-by-point summary of the plot? Sometimes there’s no way of knowing, and no writer wants their listener to walk away in the middle of a 20-minute explanation of their “Sexy Robot Monkey Pirates from Outer Space” saga. (I actually did have to walk away from the guy who was writing those books. Apparently, so did his ex-wife.)

But, since this is a FAQ and I’m committed to answering your questions, I’ll tell you that the book I’m working on now is about the struggle to be a man in a post-modern world.

Just kidding; it’s about ghosts and stuff.

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Q: So when are we finally going to see something you’ve written?

Um…someday.

In all seriousness, I’m just starting out in my “writing journey.” I went almost four years without writing anything other than college papers (and before then, my efforts weren’t much to look at, believe me). I’ve written a few “novels” over the last few years, but I’m still learning how to tell a good story.

Brandon Sanderson says you need to write about five garbage books before you can write anything decent. I’ve written about three since I started writing again, and they’re garbage-y enough that I’m not sure they even qualify as books. My writing is definitely improving, and that’s the point of this whole exercise, but I’ve still got a long way to go.

Life is super crazy right now, what with pregnancy and keeping Dan on the straight and narrow and whatnot, so I’ve decided to stop setting crazy and unrealistic goals like, “Write something publishable this year!” Instead, I’m going to keep plugging along at a pace I can keep up. Someday I’ll get there, and you guys will be the first to know when I have something to show you.

***

Well, I think that about covers it (hehe, “covers.” Because books. See what I did there?). Everything you’ve never wanted to know about this weird thing I do in my spare time, in one convenient blog post. And because you’ve been so patient, here are some adorable pictures of Dan “driving” a train.

 

Book Review: The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting, by Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman

Heya, reader peeps! I’m happy to report that the Nysetvold family is, in fact, alive! We may all have nearly succumbed to the plague, but things are looking up (knock on wood).

Before the great plague outbreak of 2016, Dan and I were traveling for almost a month straight. Many fun times were had, but man—I am absolutely exhausted. So instead of working on the high-effort blog posts I had planned, I’m just going to tell you about this fabulous book I read.

The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting is basically exactly what it sounds like—it takes game theory principles and applies it to the different challenges of child-rearing. I was disappointed to learn that its focus isn’t on manipulating the little devils into doing what you want 100% of the time, but on training them to possibly grow up to be decent people. As stated in the introduction:

You might think that kids who don’t care at all about the good fortunes of their family—because they are “rotten”—would not make much of a contribution to their parents and siblings. But if the parents show that they care about the welfare of their rotten kid—despite his behavior—he will soon learn that it serves his selfish interest to treat his parents better—because they will then treat him better. According to the theorem, even rotten kids, in the right circumstances, might be maneuvered into becoming little angels. Or if not angels, then at least less rotten.

I mean, I guess that’s a worthy goal, but…meh.

Anyway, the book was interesting. None of the ideas were revolutionary—the first two chapters teach how to use “I cut, you pick,” and auctions to settle disputes, respectively—but I picked up some handy tips, like using a Borda count to choose among three options (when deciding on which movie to watch or where to go for dinner) as long as none of the kids are clever enough to use strategic voting. I also liked that there was just enough child psychology to determine which strategies will work on kids of various ages, and not enough to make this into yet another hippie parenting book.

 

Reading this book is an amusing experience. You can definitely tell this book was written by two nerdy (Kevin more so than Paul) dads with a sense of humor. In the aforementioned discussion on the Borda count and strategic voting, a hypothetical scenario is presented in which one of the kids suggests that among other possible after-dinner activities, the family could visit creepy Uncle Larry. She then lists creepy Uncle Larry as her second-choice activity, skewing the count in her favor. It’s a funny story, and it illustrates the point perfectly. The only question is why the parents in this scenario would accept creepy Uncle Larry as a serious option.

That’s the only real problem I had with this book: in many of the examples, the parents appear to have relinquished their authority in the name of “fairness.” If Mom and Dad don’t like eating at McDonald’s every night, maybe they shouldn’t put dinner up for a vote every night. If they don’t want to spend a bunch of money taking the kids to Six Flags, maybe that shouldn’t be an option. But I realize that it’s hard to come up with examples for these types of problems, and that this book shouldn’t be taken as a step-by-step guide on how to raise the chill’uns. It just made me raise my eyebrows a little bit.

Basically, The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting was an interesting read. I’d give it four stars.

 

Fat Dan Reads a Book

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There you have it!

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Wasn’t that a great experience?

Just kidding.

After getting fewer views on my last post than pretty much any other, I grumpily joked to Tom that if I’d titled it “Fat Dan Reads a Book,” it would have been super popular. I almost reposted it the next day with the joke title, just to see what would happen, but decided that wasn’t the best idea.

“Fat Dan Reads a Book” is just too good of a title to waste, however, which brings us to today’s post.

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He loves the shiny cover on The Alloy of Law.

Dan actually likes books a lot. I try to read to him at least a couple times a day, and he sees Tom and me reading all the time, so he seems to have figured out that books are cool. Every day he pulls all the books he can reach off the bookshelf and examines them one by one, flipping pages and talking to himself like he’s reading. When he can get a-hold of one of our books, he’ll try to carry or drag it out of my line of sight, then play with it silently until I take it away (he usually can’t resist crinkling pages after a few minutes).

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Dan definitely has strong opinions about his books, and on Tom’s and my end, some are just more enjoyable than others. Today we’re going to talk about our favorite Dan books!

Most of these are board books, because they’re indestructible and about right for Dan’s attention span, but a few have paper pages. Tom usually reads those to Dan because his arms are longer and can keep them out of Dan’s sticky, destructive hands more easily.

1. Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry

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This is a fun little book about a friendly blue truck who makes friends with all the animals and helps a grumpy, self-important truck out of a tight spot. It’s one of Dan’s absolute favorites. The illustrations are pretty and detailed, and he loves the colors. He also loves hearing me make animal noises, which are color-coded for reader convenience.

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Little Blue Truck isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but there are enough amusing details to keep the parents entertained.

This guy is the real hero.

This guy is the real hero.

All in all, it’s just a nice story that teaches kids that being friendly gets you farther than being a jerk to everybody. What’s not to love?

2. Bugs Galore by Peter Stein and Bob Staake

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I picked this book up at 2nd and Charles, and I’m glad I did. It’s chock full of good times. Dan generally can’t sit still long enough for me to read it straight through, but that’s partly because he’ll keep going back to previous pages to stare at all the bugs. You can’t really blame him—there’s a lot going on in this book! It helps that there’s not really a plot, so you can just open up any random page and have a good time.

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You have to admire the fun details in this book, even if they’re not very entomologically correct.  I mean, the “fruit bug” is a pineapple with wings. That’s pretty great.

I just hope Dan doesn’t ever decide real bugs are this much fun and bring them inside to show me. Ew.

3. Pretty much everything by Sandra Boynton

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I’d never heard of Sandra Boynton before I was pregnant with Dan, but once we received Happy Hippo, Angry Duck at the baby shower, there was no going back. I love these books even more than Dan does, and I grab them at 2nd and Charles (or Amazon) whenever I can. They’re so quirky and random, and I love the illustrations.

The first time I read this page, I lost it. Tom was looking at me like I was crazy.

The first time I read this page, I lost it. Tom was looking at me like I was crazy.

I feel you, cow. I FEEL YOU!

I feel you, cow. I FEEL YOU!

If I can be as cool as Sandra Boynton when I grow up, my life will have been a success.

4. All the Dr. Seuss Classics!

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Plus…Sam and the Firefly? Where did that come from?

Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? Tom is usually the one who reads these to Dan because of the aforementioned arm-length issue, but they’re always a good time. We received a bunch of them from Tom’s grandparents, and we’re so grateful!

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Foo-Foo the Snoo. I always wondered what that guy’s deal was.

5. Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever

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The title doesn’t lie—this was one of my favorite books as a child, and I made sure we had a copy once Dan was born. To this day, my family still talks about Couscous, Schtoompah, and I Am a Bunny.

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Where else do you put a tuba?

Im pretty sure I learned everything I know about colors from Richard Scarry. And maybe some of my chemistry classes. But mostly Richard Scarry.

I’m pretty sure I learned everything I know about colors from Richard Scarry. And maybe some of my chemistry classes. But mostly Richard Scarry.

And what Richard Scarry-loving child doesn’t want to visit a castle in Denmark?

Watch out for that dungeon, Dan.

Watch out for that dungeon, Dan.

This book is full of short, colorful stories that are perfect for an easily-distracted Dan, and he’ll appreciate the experience more and more as he gets older.

6. Parables/Stories Jesus Told by Nick Butterworth and Mick InkpenIMG_1158

This book gave me my first exposure to the parables, and it’s absolutely fantastic. The authors turned the parables into cute, funny stories that are easy for little kids to remember. I’d highly recommend it.

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7. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

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This one’s a classic, and the different sized pages and caterpillar holes keep Dan engaged while we’re reading.

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See, Tom? Green smoothies are good for you!

See, Tom? Green smoothies are good for you!

8. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr, John Archambault, and Lois Ehlert

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This one found its way onto one of our wish lists at some point. I’d completely forgotten about it, but once I started reading, I remembered disliking it as a child. We kept reading it in school, and even then I knew that books read in school weren’t as cool as books read with my parents at home. “a” was a smug little jerk. I was suspicious of anthropomorphized letters, and I couldn’t figure out why they kept saying “chicka chicka boom boom.” And then there was this scene, which disturbed Little Elissa greatly:

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The book clearly states that these letters were comforted by “Mamas and papas and uncles and aunts.” But there’s only one capital letter for each lowercase letter (a fact confirmed by the inside back cover), so do all of these baby letters come from single-parent families? What about those that only had an uncle or aunt? Were they orphaned? Why aren’t we talking about the sad story of these letters coming from broken homes? How does gender work with anthropomorphized letters, anyway? None of this made any sense to me, and it made me distrust the book even more.

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In hindsight, I was probably overthinking things a little.

I’ve had to take another look at this book, because Dan really likes it. The bright, bold colors catch his attention, and he loves pointing at the sun, moon, and coconuts. Maybe the book isn’t so bad.

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Let’s just hope Dan doesn’t ask me where baby letters come from.

Do you guys have any suggestions? Which books remind you of your childhood? What do your kids love to read?

How I (Almost) Met Shannon Hale

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Hello, friends! I hope you had a good Valentine’s weekend.

We just got back from a lovely trip to Utah, where my family lives. As you can imagine, the Dan was thoroughly spoiled by his aunt and grandparents.

This little boy loves his grandpa!

This little boy adores his grandpa!

He also learned how to eat Cheerios, and now he won’t stop shoveling them into his mouth. I’m not complaining, though, because they made our 2.5-hour flight home a breeze.

Nom nom nom.

Nom nom nom.

In addition to fun family times, I was also in Provo for Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE), an academic symposium on science fiction and fantasy. If you’re into writing in those genres and have the resources to get to Provo in February, I highly recommend it. This was my second year attending, and I learned so much about writing and publishing.

I forgot to take pictures, but here are some notes I took. Also, if my name tag looks like its been chewed by a teething baby...it has.

I forgot to take pictures, but here are some notes. Also, if my name tag looks like its been chewed by a teething baby…it has.

I could tell you guys all about the magnificent learning experiences I had at LTUE, but we all know that’s not why you read my blog. Instead I’m going to tell you about my painfully awkward experience with Shannon Hale. This type of thing is why I love writing so much—when I’m busy writing, I don’t have to interact with people.

***

On Saturday, I thought it might be fun to take a break from furious note-taking by sitting in on a live recording session of my second favorite podcast, Writing Excuses (again, if you write genre fiction, you really need to be listening to this. I’m just plugging all kinds of things today). It was interesting, but I soon found myself zoning out and scribbling in my notebook. As I was doodling, a woman asked if the empty seat next to me was taken.

I thought for a moment, and then remembered the chair’s previous occupant muttering about having to leave early, so I told the woman to go ahead and take it. Then I turned back to my notebook.

During a break, people kept coming up to chat with my neighbor, asking her if she was going to be at Comic Con and if they could take selfies with her. I realized she must be a panelist, but I couldn’t remember having seen her before. I peeked at her name tag—and sure enough, I was sitting next to Shannon Hale.

Shannon Hale is kind of a big deal. She was actually one of the Guests of Honor. I’m not a passionate fan of her books (and in fact, I skipped her keynote address to run back to my parents’ house and feed the Dan), but they’re enjoyable, and similar to the kinds of books I’d like to write someday (light, YA fairy-tale-type stories). I probably should have recognized her, but in my defense, her hair was lighter and shorter than it was in her picture in the program:

Shannon Hale

Suddenly I felt very awkward. Shannon Hale was sitting next to me, and I had all but snubbed her. Now that I knew who she was, I couldn’t just ignore her and doodle. Here’s a bit of my thought process.

“Maybe I should say something to her.”

“Why on earth would I do that? I don’t talk to people!”

“I’m at a con. People come to cons to talk to people.”

“This isn’t that type of con. I didn’t come here to kiss up to famous people.”

“I came here to network. This is kind of like networking.”

“But not really.”

“Come on, this is a neat opportunity.”

“What do I say? ‘I’ve only read two of your books and they were a’ight, and I’ve just ignored you for the past twenty minutes because I ditched your keynote and didn’t know who you were. But you seem pretty cool, so let’s take a selfie’?”

“For the love of all that is Mike, do not say that to Shannon Hale. And who says ‘a’ight’ anymore?”

As I dithered, Tom pointed out that a panel I’d been interested in was about to start. I took my opportunity to escape.

“Sounds good. Let’s go.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, let’s go! Now!

Tom seemed a little surprised at my urgency, but he rolled with it. We packed up our stuff, squeezed past Shannon Hale, and booked it out of there.

***

And that’s the story of how I almost met ran away from Shannon Hale at a writing conference. Ms. Hale, if by some bizarre chance you happen to read this, I’m sorry. From one Jane Austen fan to another, “Tallyho!”

7 Books I Wish I’d Skipped

Everyone has probably seen those “10 books that have stayed with me” posts on Facebook by now. I’m kind of sad that I haven’t been tagged yet, but I know when people try to think of their most literary friends, I don’t immediately come to mind. I love reading, but I’m not exactly what you’d consider one of them “literary types.” Plus, everyone knows at least three of my top ten books were written by Tolkien, and I guess that isn’t very interesting to some people. However, many of my favorite bloggers have been talking about books lately, and I want in on the fun!

We’ve already established that my top ten list would be a little boring and predictable, so I’m going to discuss my bottom seven. One of my favorite quotes from my dad is, “Life’s too short to read bad books.”

Facebook Data Science compiled the results of those “Ten Books” statuses, listing the top 100 books according to Facebook users. Tom and I read through this list together; while we were pleased to see that The Book of Mormon was #35, our reaction to much of the rest of the list was the following: “Really. Reeeaalllly. Really? REALLY?!” It quickly became clear that our idea of “good literature” doesn’t match up with that of the rest of Facebook. Most of the books I talk about in this post came from this or similar lists, and they’re all hailed as “great.”

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This was a school-inflicted experience, and it will probably be a school-inflicted experience for every kid from now until the Second Coming (after which I hope many of the books currently being produced by the Mormon Texts Project supplant some of these so-called “classics” in school curricula).

Objections

  • I would summarize Gatsby this way: “It’s about horrible people being horrible.” This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but seriously, what is this book even about? Rich people having affairs? Something about the American Dream? A cautionary tale about going to Long Island? I just have no idea!
  • The characters are unrelatable and unlikeable. By the end of the book, there wasn’t a single character I cared about. I was glad when people started dying, and I wished more of them would die. Hey, you might as well kill off the narrator—it’s not like he does anything at all.
  • I wasn’t a fan of the heavy-handed symbolism. It was just too much. You couldn’t see the forest for the trees—and you couldn’t see the story for the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

Substitute

If you’re in the mood for reading about horrible people being horrible, try Wuthering Heights. This book, at least, has a plot.

2. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

I can’t blame this one on school. I picked up Rebecca by myself after enjoying the black-and-white Hitchcock movie. I was looking for some good timesy Gothic romance, the Kindle version was only $5, and I wanted to use a Mrs. Danvers-like character in my NaNoWriMo book this year. Boy, was I in for an unpleasant surprise.

Objections

  • I expected this book to be creepy and unsettling, and it was—but not in a good way. I felt a little bit depressed and skittish any time I picked it up.  I couldn’t place it, but I felt like I was reading something immoral (other than the incident mentioned in the next bullet point). According to the afterword, it seems my subconscious was right. I won’t elaborate, but let’s just say I’m really bad at picking up on themes.
  • [SPOILER ALERT] Maxim de Winter, husband of the narrator, never faces any legal consequences for murdering his first wife, the titular Rebecca. In fact, when the current Mrs. de Winter learns of this, her first reaction is, “Oh, how wonderful! Maxim isn’t still missing his dead wife! Now we can be in love forever and ever!” Yeah, until you both get to that lake of fire and brimstone. Hitchcock danced around this issue in the movie by having Maxim explain that he was about to shoot Rebecca, but then she fell over and hit her head and conveniently died. As implausible as that is, it’s better than a murderer getting off scot-free.

Substitution

If you’re looking for Gothic romance, stick with Jane Eyre, which is one of my favorites and won’t leave you feeling icky inside.

3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

By the time we read The Grapes of Wrath in 11th-grade English, I was convinced that American literature and I would never be friends. There isn’t enough Mark Twain in the world to make up for all the authors like Steinbeck in our fair country.

Objections

  • Everything Jim Casey says. He’s supposed to be the Christ-figure of the book, and I find that incredibly blasphemous. He’s a preacher who gives up his profession because, in addition to the fact that he has a disgusting habit of fornicating with young members of his congregation, he’s decided that there’s no such thing as sin, and that religion has no answers for people having hard times.
  • Sadly, nothing in the above bullet point surprised me. Steinbeck was a dirty commie, and he couldn’t keep his destructive ideas out of his book. (I don’t like commies.)
  • The ending. My goodness, was that really necessary?
  • All the main characters are from Oklahoma.
    Better dead than sooner red.

    Better dead than sooner red.

    Enough said.

Substitute

I really want to plug The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck here. It tackles a lot of the same themes as The Grapes of Wrath: family relationships, gender, wealth and poverty, etc. In a way, it explores the opposite side of the “American Dream” (in quotes because it takes place in rural China): what do you do when you achieve it? Buck’s characters are engaging, and her writing is lovely—you almost feel like you’re reading Chinese. Why isn’t this one assigned in school?

4., 5., and 6. Anything by John Green (but especially Looking For Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson)

None of these count as “classics,” but they’re popular enough and bad enough that I had to include them here. I could rant for hours about every terrible thing John Green has done. However, the only person contractually obligated to listen to said rant is Tom, so I’ll spare you the whole thing and just focus on the problems with his books. I can’t imagine any responsible parents letting their children read anything by John Green. Apparently he “totally gets what it’s like to be a teenager,” but if this is what teenagers are like, I don’t want my kids to be teenagers.

Objections

  • The language in these books is quite bad.
  • John Green frequently trivializes pornography, which is never, ever okay.
  • He also romanticizes teen sex.
  • All his characters are exactly the same: insufferable hipsters masquerading as nerds. Why should I read about the kind of people I go out of my way not to hang out with?
  • This one is purely my problem, but I’ve realized I don’t like reading about teenagers unless they have magical powers and/or are trying to save the world. Yawn.

Substitute

There is plenty of good YA fiction out there. Put down TFIOS, and go reread Harry Potter. Read Allie Condie’s Matched series and learn something about game theory. Not a dystopian futuristic romance fan? I enjoyed the No Safety in Numbers series by Dayna Lorentz—it’s about being trapped in a mall infected with killer flu. In each of these books, stuff actually happens. Yay for YA!

7. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

I can’t even come up with a bullet list for this. I really tried to read this book for senior English. Really. I tried everything. I summarized each paragraph with a post-it note. I read with the book in one hand and a printout from Sparknotes in the other. I read chapters out loud to myself. And yet, as early as a week after we’d finished the book, I realized I couldn’t remember anything about it. Conrad’s writing is just not my cup of tea (my dad feels the same way—ask him about Lord Jim sometime). Plus, he spends pages and pages talking about cannibals, but the cannibals never eat anyone! Talk about disappointing your reader.

Substitute

I vaguely remember that the story took place in Africa. If you want to read about Africa, I’d recommend Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s not great, but it taught me a valuable lesson that has stayed with me for years—yams are a man’s crop. That’s all you really need to know. Plus, Achebe isn’t a fan of Heart of Darkness, either, and called Conrad a “bloody racist” for writing it. I obviously can’t gauge Conrad’s racism one way or the other, but if the Yam Lord thinks he’s a racist, that’s good enough for me.

***

I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t read classic literature. I’m not even saying “DON’T READ THESE BOOKS!” (except for 4-6). What I’m really trying to say is that while many good books are immortalized as “classics,” not all “classics” are good books. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with you if you made it through high school without enjoying everything (or anything) assigned in English class. It’s okay to be discerning, and it’s okay to disagree with those “100 Best Books of the Century” lists. Designate your own “classics.”

And hey—tell me why you love them! I love comments!