How Reading Challenges Shape my Reading Life

Ah, the reading challenge. There is something about having a little guidance that makes my never-ending log of books I want to read a little more manageable. For the last several years, I’ve focused mostly on the Goodreads Challenge. There are no rules to the Goodreads challenge; just set a book number goal for the year and go for it!

The lack of rules is nice. The pressure is a little crazy. At my peak, I read 155 books one year. But, here’s what I realized about myself last year? With a few exceptions, there were books I didn’t read in 2017 because I knew they would take too long. They were too long or too dense and I knew that giving the time to reading them would mean that I wouldn’t be able to hit my goal. So, I didn’t.

This year, I want my reading life to be different. I’ve set a slightly smaller goal on Goodreads, but I want my reading life to be about things I love and books that challenge me. So, I’m focusing on a couple different challenges.

The Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge

I love Anne Bogel. Like, a lot. I read her blog for awhile and loved it, but then got busy with life. However, her podcast, What Should I Read Next, is one of my favorite things ever. So, I’m focusing on her annual reading challenge first.

The Book Riot Read Harder Challenge

Book Riot is a great reading resource and this challenge is hard! It requires a lot of reading and a lot of stepping out of your comfort zone, book-wise. But they also do regular blogs with the categories and what they suggest reading from each.

Check out all the details here.

I’ll do a post soon about books in each category I’m planning on reading, but what category above excites you the most? What would be the hardest category for you to fulfill?

What book challenges are you doing this year? I’ve had a hard time finding new ones (even though there were approximately 11 billion in 2017).

(Anxiety) Demands to Be Felt, Too

In ‘The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green wrote: “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” Has there ever been a more true statement? The thing about pain is that, if we don’t feel it, don’t allow ourselves to feel it, it gets even worse.

The same can be said about Anxiety. I have blogged before about my battle with anxiety. It’s not a secret I care to keep a secret any longer. Because talking about it means I can begin to heal from it. There need not be shame or hiddenness about the experience of feeling overwhelmed, out of control, and even lost.

But, here’s the other side.

There is also no shame in healing.

About 17 months ago, I did one of the scariest things I have ever done. I reached out for help. Between the anniversary of my dad dying, work being overwhelming, friendships changing, and deaths in our families, I was overwhelmed. I was scared. I was completely at the whim of my anxious mind.

So, I called a therapist. And then I made an appointment. And then I actually went. And kept going. Showing up week after week was hard. It meant telling my boss I needed the 90 minutes in the middle of the workday for me. It means working late to make the time up sometimes. It meant having a standing appointment that was creating relief but still causing shame. Because I didn’t want people to know.

But here’s the thing. Much like pain, anxiety demanded that I feel it. It demanded that I look at its ugly face. It demanded that I stare it down, and, in turn, find the tools I needed to control it.

And now it’s been a little over a year. In December, I was officially “released” from therapy. Am I suddenly CURED? Heck no. But, through a lot of hard work and a lot of tears, I have the tools to feel the feelings, but also control them. I have the ability to look at situations and see where it’s my anxiety talking, versus the reality of the situation.

I feel better than I have in years. I feel like Emily again.

Treating my anxiety was like learning to breathe again. Suddenly I realized I didn’t have to feel lost. I didn’t have to let these thoughts win. I didn’t have to be in control and I didn’t have to be the only one experiencing them. I am more honest with my husband now. I am more honest with my family and friends. I am more honest with myself.

I still have those moments: the moments where I think “OH MY GOSH I CANNOT DO IT.” I have moments where I feel like the future is overwhelming and the possibilities are scary. I have moments of worry and anxiety and stress. But, they no longer control me. They no longer define who I am and how I interact with the world.

Turns out, anxiety is a chapter of my life, but it’s not the defining story arc.

Come Alive: The Promise (and Problems) With the Greatest Showman

Things I’m a sucker for:

  • Singing
  • Dancing
  • Movies that make me feel all the feelings

In the span of about 72 hours, I managed to see “The Greatest Showman” twice. Once with my lovely husband and once with a dear friend. I left the theater both times smiling like an idiot and having had a wonderful time. There was something magical about that theater experience; the empowerment and promise all wrapped up in one.

At its core, “The Greatest Showman” is about humanity at it’s best and worst. The outcasts, the ostracized, the lonely…they all find a place to belong in the world of this PT Barnum and his circus. The film is a celebration of what the world should be like – a place where you are loved and cherished for who you are – a place where you can find your tribe – a place where everyone has a place.

With the music, the spectacle and the joy, “The Greatest Showman” stands as a film that is both shocking in simplicity and empowering in its message. If you can walk out of the theater and not spend the next few days humming the songs, you’re a better person than I.

But, there is more to consider. It is well-documented that the real PT Barnum was, well, not a nice human. He was accused of treating his “freaks” poorly, his animals even worse, and a number of atrocities. There is a lot about the life of PT Barnum that is not brought up on the surface of the movie. His life was about the bottom line, about fitting in, about being the best.

For some, those errors are reason enough to not experience the movie. For others, they don’t care because the movie is never billed as a history or biography of the great Showman.

Here’s what I noticed upon the second viewing: If you watch and know, there are moments when the darker side of Barnum’s character come out:

  • When trying to recruit his first “freak,” he says, “They’re going to laugh at you anyway, so you might as well make some money.”
  • He’s call out for oddballs and oddities is cruel; the people that point out the “freaks” to him are even crueler
  • He exploits and contorts some of his sideshow participants to make them even more “freakish” than they already are to the world
  • He lies and cons his way into money more than once, and without talking to his wife.
  • He’s more concerned with the show than the hearts of the people
  • He abandons the people he brought together when the “legitimate” Jenny Lind comes along
  • He has an emotional (at the very least) affair with Jenny Lind
  • He makes fun of Carlisle for living the very life he himself wishes he had

The great showman is not always the hero of his own story. He is shockingly human and flawed. But, at its heart, “The Greatest Showman” is not the story of PT Barnum; it’s the story of the misfits and miscreants that he threw together that somehow formed a family. Despite all Barnum doesn’t do for them, they are family and family sticks together.

For me, the wonder outweighs the need for it to be true to life. There is a lot of dark, scary, and worrisome in the world. I will take a couple hours of dreaming about how the world could be over a real-life biopic any day of the week.

2672 Review: March (Book Three)

   Title: March (Book Three)

Author: John Lewis (with Andew Aydin)

Illustrator: Nate Powell

Publication Info: Top Shelf Productions (2016)




March (Book Three) picks up right where the first two left off, telling the story of Senator and civil-rights activist John Lewis. The first two books deal a great deal with Lewis’ growing up years and the early years of his activism, but book three jumps right into a world and country in chaos.

From the beginning, the March books captured the public’s attention. Not only were they the story of an ugly part of American history, but they felt contemporary and deeply personal as race issues continue to plague who America is and who we, as a country, want to be. From his childhood to the streets of Selma, Alabama, Lewis’ mission to change the way America sees people of color is clear.

The March trilogy is a crash-course in the civil-rights movement. You will learn more in these three books that you probably encountered in all your history classes. It’s powerful and disturbing. From churches being burned to bodies being covered up, Lewis tells it like it was – including the moments where he lost a little faith and wasn’t sure the way they were trying to change America was the right way.

My only frustration with March is that the end of the third book feel so rushed. There is still so much between the conclusion of the book and the publication of March Book One that I would like to have known. Getting the vote was just the first step; it was not the last. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Mr. Lewis and Nate Powell when they spoke in Bloomington in 2015. Lewis’ stories are fascinating!

Read-Alikes and other Books:

Websites and Other Activities

S672 Book Review: Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Title: Out on the Wire

Subtitle: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of the Radio

Author: Jessica Abel

Publication Info: Broadway Books, a Division of Random House (2015)



To say I loved this book would be a grand understatement. I picked it from a list, just because I was trying to get a variety of books and opinions throughout the class. However, once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Out on the Wire is a comic book about the radio, a medium that most people consider completely auditory. What author Jessica Abel says, however, is that radio is visual (like one of her close friend, NPR’s Ira Glass), says.


We are all storytellers!

Out on the Wire is a captivating look at what it means to make good radio programs that go beyond talking heads a little music. But, it does so in such a funky, modern way that you forget that you’re learning a ton about the radio process. The graphic novel illustrates everything from picking stories to editing, and does it seamlessly, all while telling the bigger narrative of why the radio still matters today, no matter how you listen (in the car, at work, online, etc).

What surprised me the most about Out on the Wire is just how good it is. It’s all black and white pencil illustrations, and there is a lot of dense information in it. But, at the same time, it’s powerful, funny and interesting. This is a book about capturing people’s stories and the essence of what makes them human. It legit made me want to read more about the radio – and turn on the radio.

Read-Alikes and Other Books

Out on the Wire is the perfect book for people interested in a career in radio or podcasting. Other great resources include:

Websites and Other Activities


S672 Book Review: Big Top Burning

Title: Big Top Burning

Subtitle: The True Story of a Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth

Author: Laura A Woollett

Publication Info: Chicago Review Press, Inc. 2015

Suggested Age Range: Grades 5 and up



Big Top Burning is the true story of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus disaster of 1944. A fire broke out, and just a mere 10 minutes later, the big top had been destroyed. All told, 167 people lost their lives that day. Amongst those affected by the tragedy were Mildred Cook and her three children, Donald, Eleanor and Edward. Though injured, Mildred and Edward escaped the fire. Donald was rescued by another family and taken care of until he could be reunited. Edward later died in the hospital from his wounds. But the real mystery is what happened to little Eleanor Cook? The mystery of Eleanor and what started the fire is central to the book.

spectators run from the fire in 1944

Big Top Burning is factual without being graphic, even when talking about the dozens of children burned, and the bodies of people that were unrecognizable after the fire. Author Woollett uses photographs from that day to highlight what happened, as well as setting the background for why the circus was such a big draw during World War II America. Even when the book provides “answers,” it is quick to say that this is what the current thoughts are, but impossible to know for sure.

Big Top Burning is factual and fascinating. I learned a ton about something of which I had only a vague memory. Interestingly, the author also includes stories from famous families that are still a part of circus lore, like the Flying Wallenda’s, who were performing when the fire broke out.

Read-Alikes and other Books

Websites and Activities

S672 Book Review: Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts

Quiet Power Cover

Quiet Power CoverTitle: Quiet Power: The Secret Strength of Introverts

Author: Susan Cain (with Gregory Mone and Erica Moroz)

Illustrator: Grant Snider

Publication Info: Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Young Readers Group (2016)

Suggested Age Range: Grades 5 and up


Susan Cain’s remarkable best-seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, changed my life. Definitely for adults, Quiet validated everything I had felt as an introvert who actually can spend time in front of people and with people. Cain, a former lawyer turned personality advocate, wants to help everyone feel comfortable in their own skin and the way they were made. What Quiet did for adults, Quiet Power: The Secret Strength of Introverts can do for kids of all ages.

illustration from Quiet Power: How to Leave a Party Early
Every introvert has an escape plan. The “right” way may be a polite goodbye, but that isn’t always what happens.

Cain uses her same theories and stories, but makes them relatable to what youth are going through today. From the fear of being called on in class to the need to escape from uncomfortable situations, this book gives introverts the words to express their world, and extroverts a way to understand their introverted friends better. There is a common misconception that introverts are standoffish, snobbish, and/or enjoy, isolation. The reality, however, is that introversion is about how you get refreshed, not about your ability to be around others.

Quiet Power is broken up into four parts: school, socializing, hobbies, and home. Each section walks through how introverts experience these parts of their lives and how introverts can and are changing the world.

As an introverted kid, nothing scared me more than being called to the front of the classroom to do a math problem. There were two reasons for this: I was embarrassed…and I was really bad at math. I’m pretty sure I did one of each of the above at some point in class, but the “preemptive strike” was usually the last ditch attempt to not be asked something I didn’t know.

As an introvert to this day, the Fortress of Solitude is how I recover. Find a way to recharge your batteries; it looks different for everyone.

Quiet Power is a book I wish I had as a teen; and it’s a book I wish more people would read now. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert OR an extrovert. We just have to know what we are, and how to deal with those different than us. Schools and social settings are designed with the extrovert in mind and books like this help introverts find their place, too.

Read-Alikes and Other Books

Has Quiet Power made you (or someone you know) want to read more about their unique style of recharging and relating to the world? Here are some great resources:

Websites, Activities, and More

S672 Book Review: The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

Title: The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

Author: Jen Bryant

Illustrator: Melissa Sweet

Publication Info: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2014)

Suggested Age Range: Grades 2-5



As a person who loves words and has actually asked for a thesaurus for my birthday, I found this book both silly fun and totally informative. The Right Word is the story of the childhood and life of Peter Roget, who created one of the world’s first usable thesauri. As a small child, the death of his father greatly affected him.

Peter Roget begins creating the lists that would be come his Thesaurus

The photo above depicts Peter, a budding writer. But, instead of making up stories, he made lists. He wanted to find exactly the right word for exactly what he was thinking and feeling. And, he discovered, there were often several words that meant the same thing!

Roget struggles to find exactly the right words to express what he and his family are experiencing.

Roget went to medical school, graduated (at 19), was a teacher and speaker at many society events. Uncommon for the time, Roget did not marry until he was 45. He and his wife, Mary, had two children. He watched other people create books similar to his own thesaurus, finally publishing it in 1852. Roget’s Thesaurus made him a famous author!

Beautiful illustrations bring The Right Word to life,

The Right Word is gorgeously illustrated. There are several pages (like the one above) that I would hang in my house as prints, if they were available. The illustrations bring to life the words that Roget struggles to find, and enhance the story of Roget’s life in a beautiful way.

Read-Alikes and Other Books

Word-lovers looking for other books about Roget, the written word, and how words have evolved should check out the following:

Websites, Activities and More

Help library patrons and students learn more about the written word!

  • Thank you, Thesaurus: This activity helps people see the difference between the “right” and the “almost-right” word.
  • The Right Word discussion guide
  • Explore Roget’s online thesaurus
  • Have groups of kids create word clouds. Give each group a word and have them come up with as many different similar words as they can

S672 Book Review: The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded

Title: The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded

Author: Jim Ottaviani

Illustrator: Leland Purvis

Publication Info: Harry N. Abrams (2016)

Suggested Age Range: Grades 9 and up



The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded is a graphic novel about the life of Alan Turing, the mathematician genius who helped stop World War II by helping break the Enigma Code. This graphic novel has multiple narrators, all who tell different parts of Turing’s story, and how he shaped the world. Not only was Turing a complicated man with a complicated history, he was also a recluse, a genius, and a gay man leading a secret life during a time when being gay was not just frowned upon, but also a crime.

Telling Turing’s story in this manner helps people who may want to learn more about Turing do so in a format that many younger people are drawn to. While the multiple narrators and flexible timeline can be a little confusing at first, the strong visual story makes it compelling and exciting.

Panels from the Imitation Game show strong lines and forward motion

The Imitation Game covers Turing’s early life from boarding school to his involvement in the military. Author Jim Ottaviani does a brilliant job of weaving the facts of Turing’s life with just enough additional information to make readers forget that they are reading a non-fiction narrative and not a fictional story. Turing was a real person, really persecuted for his sexual identity, and really the man behind so many advancements in technology.

Panels of The Imitation Game

Turing’s legacy is in his breaking of the Enigma Code. Had he and his team not finally decoded the Enigma machine, millions more people would have died and who knows how much longer the war would have gone on. Above, Turing tries to explain how his machine should work. But it doesn’t work quite like it should.

Decoding the Enigma Machine

With just writing and strong lines, The Imitation Game brings to life the excitement and power and understanding of the Enigma Machine. Above, one small tweak and the machine comes to life!

Turing’s life and legacy are worth knowing, despite the fact that who he was was mostly hidden from the world for decades.

Read-Alikes and Other Books

People interested in lives of pioneers in our recent history may like books like the following:

Websites, Activities and More

Help students learn more about science during WWII and more.


S672 Book Review: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Cover of hardback children's book

Cover of hardback children's book

Title: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine 
Author: Laurie Wallmark (illustrations by April Chu)
Publication Info: Creston Books, LLC, 2015.

Suggested Age Range: 5-9




Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine is the story of famous poet Lord Byron. Unlike her poet father, Ada is fascinated with numbers and mathematics. This short book is a summary of Ada’s life, from her childhood through early-adulthood. Told is short sentences and beautiful illustrations, Ada Byron Lovelace is a fascinating look at a woman many don’t know about – and how she influenced the world.

Ada Byron Lovelace includes an author’s note about Ada, information about early computer programs, the many nicknames Ada was known by, and additional readings for people who want to know more about the female scientist and mathematician. The author also included a timeline of Ada’s live and a bibliography of the books she used to create the story.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that, before picking up this book, I had never heard of Ada Lovelace. There is a chance she was glossed over in a high school class, but if she was, it didn’t stick in my head. I’m always fascinated with books about women breaking social barriers, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Lovelace was a mathematician in a time when women were not supposed to think of such things.

The book details much of Ada’s childhood, which makes sense since it’s a children’s book. The “thinking machine” detailed in the title appears just a few pages from the end and is almost an afterthought. Since the machine never came to fruition, the book is more about Ada following her passions than it is about the actual thinking machine. In addition, the last two pages of the book summarize how Ada influenced the computer age – a computer language is named after her, which is used to guide modern aircraft, satellites and spacecraft.

I believe this book is a great addition to a classroom and/or library collection, especially for girls who might be interested in more STEM-based subjects and want to know more about other girls and women who are scientists, engineers,
and mathematicians.

photo credit:
    The image, above, toward the end of the book, encompasses the beauty of the illustrations and the unique way the story is told. Ada always looked to the future and what could be, instead of what she was told already was. The telescope is symbolic of the stars, where the Ada programming language would be used.
photo credit:

The above photo is an illustration of the first time Ada sees her friend Charles Babbage’s difference engine. This machine is what made Ada develop an algorithm to help the machine solve complex math problems. This scene is crucial to understanding Ada’s life. Without the difference engine, who know where Ada’s life would have taken her.

Read-Alike’s and Other Books

Readers who love Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine would probably be interested in other STEM-related books for young readers. Here are a few:

Activities, Websites and More

Pair Ada Byron Lovelace with other activities and websites to create a better learning experience. As more and more people focus on STEM activities and how to make sure girls continue to be passionate about mathematics and science, it’s important to provide well-rounded activities and ways to learn more!

These websites have great information on STEM education, including additional reading lists, activities and ways to get the whole family excited about people in history like Ada: