See All The Stars by Kit Frick

If you’re a reader, it’s easy to love books— to love the pages of every story you pick up. Almost every novel I’ve shared here comes from my love of a story well told. The books I’ve reviewed have taught me about the craft of writing and challenged me to strengthen my toolbox, so my own stories don’t end up in the circular file. But to say I loved See All The Stars by Kit Frick is an understatement. Having finished this extraordinary debut novel only 30 minutes ago, I am still awestruck.

The ending— as inevitable as it is in hindsight— ripped through my heart. My husband asked why I was crying. This story, I said. Sad? Yes, and more. It’s the way the inevitable pain of the events unfolded. How the storytelling geared me up for the worst while coaxing me into a false sense that the truth could never end as horrible as it turned out. How was that possible? The layers of the past, present, the lies and truth are so deftly woven, even if I dissect the every page, I fear I’ll never be able to figure out how Kit Frick delivered the goods. And perhaps, it’s best not to try. Sometimes I think a story so well told needs not to be analyzed, but absorbed viscerally. Let the mystery of how sink deep into the dark of my imagination until the day my subconscious figures out how to let me use it in the light of day.

Likability— a term pounded upon by reviewers, agents and critique partners and dreaded by writers. What does it mean? I recently tuned into Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on writing. Here’s what she has to say:

Likability is a factor when you’re choosing a roommate, but not a factor when you’re creating a living character.

I agree. And after reading See All The Stars, I agree even more because the most unlikable character in the novel, the antagonist, Ret, is one of the reasons I was riveted to every page of the book. Ret. How I hated her. From the moment I met her, I knew she was trouble, not to be trusted. She gave me the creeps. For me, she was creepier than Hannibal Lecter. Oh, she was flesh and blood and vulnerable, and I understood why the protagonist, Ellory and the other girls, Bex and Jenni were drawn to her. But even in those moments where the girls were bonding in the way only teenagers do, I kept wanting to hold up bunches of garlic and yell, “Run, run, Ret is evil. Evil. This will not end well for anyone.”

Unveiling the story. This morning before finishing See All The Stars, I read, “Wait. What?” by Dave King on Writer Unboxed. It’s an insightful post dealing with ambiguity, about when to hold back the facts and when to let the reader muse over the missing story pieces. King says:

It’s often possible to use ambiguity as a source of tension throughout an entire novel.

And Kit Frick’s debut is a shining example of how it’s done. She unpacks the truth like a birthday girl who doesn’t want to rip even a smidge of the wrapping paper that holds her gift. I wanted the unvarnished truth to come faster, but the way it dripped in front of me was the exact torture I needed to stay hooked. Frick revealed the exact amount of puzzle pieces all along the way for me to run scenarios of the ending in my head, and over and over again, the next truth she dropped obliterated my certainty— until wham— I was blindsided and the world of the characters crashed. Their lives forever transformed. And mine as well.

Before the end of 2018, read See All The StarsYour book loving self will thank you.

AUTHOR: A True Story by Helen Lester

Helen Lester and I met when I was working in a dental office. At the time, she was a multi-published children’s author, and I was twisting through the story maze of my first manuscript. We spoke of our love for the mysterious process of writing. When she returned, she gifted me this delightful personal story.

Author: A True Story is an honest and humorous look at one writer’s journey to publication. Helen’s charm— she is a three-year old when the story starts— will capture the hearts and imaginations of children, whether or not they have artistic dreams.

My writing was the prettiest in the class…And it was perfectly backwards…There’s a name for somebody with this problem. I was a “mirror writer.” My teacher had to hold my work up to a mirror to understand what I had written.

Reading Lester’s story at the beginning of my own journey fortified my desire and commitment to go the distance. I reread Author periodically until my first manuscript was completed, then other books on craft and creative inspiration pushed the book to a less visible place on my bookshelf.

Shortly before this New Year, I removed all the books from my office in order to revamp my writing space. Author went unnoticed until I was tucking my books into their new bookshelves, but as soon as I saw it I sat down for a read through.

My road to publication is now in its fifteenth year, and I’m twisting through my fifth manuscript. Whether I will reach the status of author like Helen Lester is uncertain; however, persistence in the face of rejection worked for her, so I’m hoping it will do the same for me.

In addition to rejection, Author touches on insecurity, writer’s block, artistic flow, and the importance of rewrites. Although it’s categorized as a children’s book, I believe the story will recharge writers off all ages and at every stage of the writing process.

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most delightful places— Author: A True Story.

OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff

The voice of the Narrator ranks as the writing element most likely to hook me as a reader. When voice works, the energy of the words resonate in my body, not because they feel like mine, but because I wish they were mine. That connection creates the necessary empathy for me to be swept into the story. This connection has nothing to do with actions done by the narrator, or the events that happened to him. My empathy for the narrator is rooted in how well the character is reaching me through their Point of View. Tobias Wolff‘s Narrator in Old School yanked me out of my world and into his.

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he’d been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy though—here was a warrior, on ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would’ve been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.

We begin the paragraph with Robert Frost and end with a note on class. It makes perfect sense and all we want is more. We’re riveted by every detail of the Narrator’s final year of prep school and we don’t even know his name. His anonymity allowed me to slip deep into his psyche. The result: I was more in sync with Wolff’s Narrator than I ever was with myself at his age. The strength of this empathetic bond led me to come of age all over again.

What sets Old School apart from coming of age novels such as Catcher in the Rye is the way Wolff offers up his Narrator’s point of view. When Holden Caulfield speaks I’m laughing because he’s so adamant about what he believes. I also agree with him because he voices what I was never able to say. However, when the unnamed Narrator in Old School  expresses his POV, he’s equally adamant about how he feels, yet he gives you room to examine the idea for yourself.

Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see rhyme in a poem, I know I’m getting lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true—rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wistful thinking. Nostalgia. 

The beauty of this wiggle room also provides space enough for the Narrator’s own transformation. We meet him at the beginning of a series of writing competitions. The winner of each contest will be awarded an interview with the famous writer judging each round: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway. He wants to win; his goal is to become a writer. The problem: he doesn’t see this opportunity as a means to improve his craft, he only sees it as an end in itself.

My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be annointed.

Eventually the magnitude of the situation sinks in.

Only one of us could be chosen, we all understood that, yet you couldn’t help feeling that not to be chosen was to be rejected. And to be rejected by Ernest Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway tossing your story aside, No, not him, not a prayer.  What a terrible thought.

Unfortunately, when motivation kicks in so does the pressure of competition and all the evils that accompany it: denial, fear, procrastination.

So far I’d been unable to complete even a paragraph […] All I needed was a good beginning, something to get me started in the morning […] When Bill White came back from the library at midnight I still hadn’t written a word.

Whether you’re an artist or not, the agony of getting in your own way when you want nothing more than to excel, hits home; and our unnamed Narrator becomes Everyman.

It’s the specifics of the Narrator’s journey through denial, fear and procrastination that Wolff ratchets up the stakes. This was a lightbulb writing moment for me. Old School contains no action sequences, no diabolical antagonist, no surprising plot twists, and yet, the suspense is uncanny. And the increase in tension is achieved through the inaction of the Narrator. This works because the smaller intentions and motivations are clear, as in this passage where the Narrator is reading Rand’s The Fountainhead for the fourth time.

I wasn’t writing, but that didn’t trouble me—I knew I could deliver my story when the time came. What I was doing was tanking up on self-certainty, transfusing Roark’s arrogant, steely spirit into my own.

The Narrator’s need to psyche himself up to battle his fear of failure is understandable, but what he’s doing isn’t going to help. He’s avoiding the bigger issue.

My stories are designed to make me appear as I was not. They were props in an act.

He doesn’t know who he is. This fact is Hemingway simple and drives the entire novel from the Narrator’s subconscious. No bells or whistles necessary because the situation Wolff plops the Narrator into is all the fuel needed to set fire to this character’s inner turmoil and sends him on the road of self-sabotage.

Old School possesses the simplicity of Hemingway, the suspense of Robert Ludlum and a Narrator you’ll want to introduce to everyone you know.

LOLA CARLYLE’S 12-STEP ROMANCE by Danielle Younge-Ullman


A: You lean toward morose drama in the winter and itch for free-wheeling comedy in the summer.

B: You’re afraid to venture into the Young Adult pool because it’s just not what you read and too many decades have passed since you were a teen, or

C: You’ve stumbled into a reading or writing slump…

then Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance is about to change your life. Still uncertain?

Lola Carlyle is lonely, out of sorts, and in for a boring summer. So when her best friend, Sydney, calls to rave about her stay at a posh Malibu rehab and reveals that the love of Lola’s life, Wade Miller, is being admitted, she knows what she has to do. Never mind that her worst addiction is decaf cappuccino; Lola is going to rehab.

Lola arrives at Sunrise Rehab intent on finding Wade, saving him from himself, and—naturally—making him fall in love with her…only to discover she’s actually expected to be an addict. And get treatment. And talk about her issues. […] Oh, and Sydney? She’s gone. 

Sounds like a story Nora Ephron would’ve brought to the screen. Nora Ephron-esque, funny, heartfelt situations call to me more and more these days, so I couldn’t resist taking the plunge with Lola.

Danielle Younge-Ullman delivers this zany tale with an enviable flare thanks to her irresistible protagonist. Lola and her antics at Sunrise Rehab captivated me so much I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a Young Adult novel. One reason we fall under Lola’s spell is because she is so adamantly clear about who she is.

I am a celebu-spawn, after all. And though we celebu-spawn are universally expected to come up short in looks, talent and moral fortitude and very often do crash and burn, we survive in a world that is completely wack, so we are also smart, resourceful, creative, and endlessly determined to get what we want. 

Of course this unwavering belief in herself also puts us on alert that Lola’s vision is about to blur. And it does shortly after entering rehab, where she is forced for the first time in her life to expand her narrow focus.

…on my way back to meet Adam I glance into one of the other rooms and see a blond-haired girl curled up and moaning on the floor.

Wow. The rooms are nice and the view pretty…but these people do not look like they’re at a spa. They do not look like a steam, a pedicure, and a light lunch will fix them.

From the moment Lola understands she’s not in Kansas anymore her self-portrait begins to crack.

I feel like he knows, like he can see something I haven’t seen and he knows about my dad and what I feel way deep down, and all I want to do is curl up into a ball and cry like I’m some kind of whiny reject instead of the very smart, strong, resourceful, unsinkable Lola Carlyle I am supposed to be.

But just because her expectations for an Oz-like rehab fall short and her vulnerability starts to show doesn’t mean she’s going to quit. Sure she thinks about it, she’s human. But one of the extraordinary things about Lola is how she rationalizes her behavior. Her reasons are ridiculous, yet grounded and they reinforce the strength of her character—a strength that is deeper than even she realizes.

On the pro-staying side, I have put a lot of time and energy into this project. […] And if I leave, I’ll just have to go back to my boring life where there is no chance at all to help Wade, much less make him fall in love with me. […] And leaving might be kind of like chickening out. So in that sense, staying is a matter of bravery. And selflessness. And honor.

Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance has a hilarious premise and an adorable protagonist who, in spite of her celebu-spawn status, is Everyteen and that is why Younge-Ullman’s novel is going to rise to the top of the YA stacks. True, she is not an addict and she feels out of place in rehab because all the other inmates have more horrible issues to deal with, but Lola’s pain and the events in her life are no less horrible or degrading for her. The inadequacies and alienation these teens feel, regardless of their addictions, are universal and Younge-Ullman illuminates the damage with a sensitive hand while offering practical solutions through her heroine.

When I was a teen I was enamored with The Bell Jar. Today I’m smitten with Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance. Both novels expose the emotional unrest and fragile nature of teens as they face the extraordinary challenge of seguing into adulthood. If I were a teen I’d carry both in my backpack; but Esther Greenwood would be on my mind while Lola Carlyle would be in my heart.

Slide into Summer with Lola Carlyle’s 12-Step Romance.

THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath

About a year ago I told my son I wanted to reread The Bell Jar. “You and every high school girl,” he said.  I laughed because my first experience with Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel was as a high school freshman. At the time I knew nothing about the author or the book’s content. I bought the book because the title beckoned.


What was it? I needed to find out. Yet, before I opened the cover my nerve endings tingled as if they were already in tune with the isolated emotional excess contained within. I never spoke to anyone about my encounter with Plath’s heroine Esther Greenwood. You don’t talk about what you write in your diary. Each sentence of The Bell Jar pulsed as if they were written in my own hand. I don’t recall how many times I perused those pages as a teen, but I remember dog-earring so many of them the novel fanned open like an accordion. Sometime after college the book fell out of my possession, but never out of mind.

By the time I picked up a used copy—don’t you love used books? They remind me of how closely mankind is woven together—a week ago, none of the details of Esther’s breakdown remained with me. I was thrilled to approach Plath’s work fresh, even if I hadn’t forgotten the vulnerability and fear that had drawn me in and spoken to me as a teen.

I’m happy to say my expectations were shattered. The vulnerability and fear that I expected to greet me in those opening pages was replaced by decisive, independent strength. The shift I encountered proved that I have changed over time, that the load I carried as a teen has lightened and I see myself, and the world, from a healthier perspective. As I viewed Esther Greenwood from my new perch I also gained a better appreciation of the timelessness of Sylvia Plath’s writing.

I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full. 

Haven’t we all been there? Hiding behind a mask, posing for the world that expects one thing out of us while we have something else to give, even though we haven’t a clue what it is. From where I stand in life, I often wonder if this unsteady “mask holding” that Plath exposed in the sixties hasn’t grown into a bigger menace for today’s youth.

In my teens, The Bell Jar hit me on a visceral level. Reading it as an adult I see how Plath is able to continue to touch the souls of so many adolescent girls. She zeroes in on the situations that separate us and feed our inadequacies.

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more crazy about each other, especially when you’re the only extra person in the room. 

At fourteen I was so thrilled that someone else shared my angst, I missed out on the naked bravery of Plath’s novel. (Remember I didn’t have the slightest idea the author killed herself not long after the book was published.) Reading The Bell Jar with the facts of Sylvia Plath’s repeated suicide attempts and death at age thirty at my fingertips, I can’t help but marvel at how brave she was to expose her darkest hour to the world.

But I don’t think the autobiographical nature of the novel is what makes this work a must read. It’s much more than a potboiler—the label Plath is rumored to have used—or a sensational tell-all often seen on-line today. The heart of the story lies in Plath’s ability to show the fragile state of Esther Greenwood. Esther’s frustration in not being understood by the people around her is born out of not yet, “getting” herself. This is a fault-line we all straddle throughout our lives though we are often oblivious to it. And what Plath does with such simple execution is reveal how easy our point of pain can be exposed. All it takes is one targeted interaction or event to trigger our descent.

While Esther Greenwood is each of us at our most vulnerable she also embodies strength and determination. Even in the last days of Sylvia Plath’s life she churned out her Ariel poems at a feverish pace. Esther doesn’t fully return to her writing by the end of the novel, but her persistence and faith in finding a way to free herself from the bell jar helps keep our own hope alive.

I’ve read countless books about young women with greater drive and more inner turmoil and conflict than The Bell Jar. But like The Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and The Sea, it’s a novel that needs to be read and reread by writers. Plath wrote her novel just as her chops as a poet were starting to root and blossom. The Bell Jar is an extraordinary example of writer getting out of her own way and trusting her instincts. Within these pages we experience snippets of exquisite imagery interwoven with stark simplicity. But what fascinates me most are Plath’s choices. Whether we are examining the sequence of chapters, the shifts within chapters or opening and closing lines, what we find is the result of a deliberate choice. I don’t think any other book has ever been so clear on this point for me. Maybe this gift was born out of her poetry, or maybe Sylvia became a poet because she inherently experienced the world through palpable moments. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful she was brave enough to share her corner of life with us.

The Bell Jar.


Word usage is constantly changing. In my lifetime, swell was replaced by cool, which transmuted into far-out, then rad, awesome, hot and the shift goes on and on. I don’t mind the changes. They’re a kick. Do people use kick anymore? As words come into fashion others get lost. One word that has fallen away, but never fails to tickle me is druthers. I often find myself wishing to use it, only to choke it back for fear people will not understand me. No more. Thanks to Harper Lee, I plan to use it the rest of my life just like Atticus Finch.

Jem, she’s old and ill. You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does. Of course, I’d rather she’d have said it to me than to either of you, but we can’t always have our ’druthers.

Atticus Finch is a man to admire and emulate. He isn’t fearless, but he isn’t afraid to follow his heart.

This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man. 

Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong… 

They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

I had just entered my teens when I first read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but the impact of her story was lost on me. During that same period of time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son. Those books were much more to my liking then. The combination of my raging hormones and the melodramatic flare Stowe and Wright brought to their stories overshadowed To Kill a Mockingbird. Although in reality I was Scout, I desperately wanted to be Eva. Such is the way of teens and literature, which is one of the reasons to reread the classics.

One of the reasons to love Lee’s novel, which escaped me as a teen, is her simplicity. From the accurate description of kids being kids, to the way she conveys the south, she plops the reader into the story and we have no other choice than to connect with the situation—like when Jem and Dill decided to peek in on Boo Radley late one night.

Because nobody could see them at night, because Atticus would be so deep in a book he wouldn’t hear the Kingdom coming, because if Boo Radley killed them they’d miss school instead of vacation, and because it was easier to see inside a dark house in the dark than in the daytime, did I understand?

Of course, we understand. The thought process makes perfect sense. The beauty and simplicity of a child’s point of view is another way Lee is able to drive the injustice of racism home. Once the reader is in the shoes of a child, it’s hard to stomach the complex excuses and narrow-mindedness that adults learn to accept. I found myself so tuned into Scout and Jem’s way of processing the world, even though I knew the story and had seen the movie almost a dozen times, I was as shocked as Jem when the Tom Robinson’s verdict came in.

Another point of admiration comes from Lee’s execution of Scout’s character. Scout shares the events of the 1930’s as an adult looking back, but there is no structural effort as she moves from adult narrator to Scout as a child; no technical means, such as space breaks or use of past perfect to signal the reader of the switch. Lee simply moves from one world to the next by allowing herself to be fully present in the telling of the tale.

When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house two doors to the north of us and the Radley Place three doors to the south…That was the summer Dill came to us. Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door to Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting—instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke: “Hey.” 

The story unfolds through Scout’s eyes alone. She is a curious, observant child eager to understand the complexities within which the adults of her world exist. Her desire to understand gives her a boldness many people only dream about. In some ways she reminds me of David up against Goliath, especially when she barrels through the gang of men, who want to take care of Tom Robinson in their own way, to reach Atticus.

They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one. 

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”…

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?…I go to school with Walter…He’s in my grade, and he does right well. He’s a good boy, a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” 

In a matter of seconds, Mr. Cunningham orders the men to leave. No arguments, no resistance, the men just shuffle away because a child’s openness disarms them. Lee’s choice to use Scout to end what could have been a horrific event helps underscore the rigid and uncompromising nature of the adults in Maycomb. It also helps raise the reader’s dander throughout the trial. If a child, who only speaks the truth, can soften adult hearts, why can’t the truth from their peers soften their minds? Children are a universal constant of tenderness and forgiveness, and makes Scout the perfect narrator for this story because she naturally shines a spotlight on what is ugly.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s story is, unfortunately, a timeless one. I’d wager it would garner the same success if it were published today rather than in 1960. And yet, I wonder how it would fair with editors. In a time when readers like writers to cut to the chase, I suspect Lee, as a debut novelist, might’ve been asked to trim some of the Maycomb lineage, or start the story later—perhaps with Chapter 9:

“You can just take that back, boy!”

This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly. Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more: I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot.

I’d like to think not. I’d like to believe the readers of this world still yearn for books of simple truth that unfold in the same gentle way a flower blooms. Harper Lee captured the South with all its idiosyncrasies. Her story seeps into our souls just like the humidity that hangs and presses against us on the dog days of summer. It is an uncomfortable and necessary experience that wakes us up and begs us to reexamine the way we live with others.

To Kill a Mockingbirda book to read and reread.

GEMMA by Meg Tilly

I met Meg Tilly at the Surrey International Writers Conference. I knew her from her film work Agnes of God and The Big Chill—liked her and was curious about what she would bring to the page. I picked up Gemma from the display, turned to the first page and couldn’t put it down.

No light tale. Gemma is twelve years old. She’s kidnapped and molested. Tilly holds nothing back. The reader is drenched in the emotional pain of both Gemma and the man who abuses her. I was appalled to discover, at times, I sympathized with her kidnapper—a perfect example of the potency of Tilly’s writing.

Much like Pan’s LabyrinthGemma is a dark tale that leaves you filled with the hope and resilience of the human spirit. A must read.

Learn from Gemma‘s hope.

UP FROM THE BLUE by Susan Henderson

Books allow us to run away from our lives. Sometimes the world we escape into and the emotional journey we experience is a joy. Other times the events within those bound pages make us appreciate our real life. Whether I end up coveting another world or not, whenever I read a book I marvel at how we are all connected. The connection might happen through a turn-of-phrase, or perhaps the situation is what resonates and binds us. Either way we are the stuff that books are made of and this is why we are drawn to the characters within them. This truth permeates throughout Susan Henderson’s Up From the Blue.

When Chekov said, “Life is a course business,” he might have had Henderson’s protagonist in mind. Eight-year-old Tillie Harris’s life is hard. 1975, the year her mother disappears, is the hardest ever. Her father and brother do their best to treat the mother’s absence as a minor blip in their lives. But the loss of her mother is a major episode of chaos for Tillie. As a result she is 100% emotional and barrels through life with all the impulsiveness we expect of an eight-year old girl. And because Henderson capture’s Tillie’s traumatic youth with such accuracy, in the beginning, I often felt I was no longer an adult.

Tillie’s childlike insistence and the strength of her will is so powerful, when she uncovers the truth we fear her discovery is false. The uncertainty of what to believe is what kept this reader hooked. I even began to contemplate how easily a person’s desires and hopes could turn against them if they lacked emotional support.

When a novel prompts us to step out of the immediate situation and examine a grander scheme, we know we are in the hands of a seasoned writer. Up From the Blue shows us that Susan Henderson is such a force.

Yet, as much as I was drawn to Tillie and empathized with her plight, the book vibrates with such courage I never worried about her. The strength and power of Tillie’s hope lead me to believe she would be okay even before I knew whether or not the ending was going to be a happy or sad one. My lack of concern puzzled me.

Then the pieces fell into place. Up From the Blue begins and ends with Tillie Harris as an adult and on the verge of giving birth to her first child. Although the early labor forces her to connect with her estranged father and is a logical springboard for her to remember 1975—the most difficult year of her life—it didn’t work for me.

Henderson’s child protagonist wins our hearts in the opening. We are at her side as she catapults forward, back and sideways against the external forces that shape her life. She has dreams, hopes and goals. She explores different ways of coping, forces her family to face the truth and question their own choices. Her actions lead Tillie to discover her own truth and her realizations cause her to change. Why wasn’t that enough?

Henderson does well to connect Tillie’s world as an adult to the past with two additional chapters in the middle of the book, but although they work technically they removed this reader from the story. I’m not a fan of frame stories, so I’m willing to admit my reaction to Henderson’s use of the frame may be colored by my general dislike of them. However I, personally, still believe the impact of her experience would have been stronger left raw.

Yet, disliking frame stories is not a reason to avoid UP From the Blue. In seventh grade I disliked Mr. Koss’s rule that everyone had to sit facing the front of the classroom. No one was allowed to turn to the back of the room, not even when a student was answering a question and Mr. Koss was standing in the back. His response, “Face front. Nothing is written on my face!” Mr. Koss had a lot of rules, And he was my all time favorite English teacher. I’m not a fan of frame stories, but it is impossible not to fall under the spell of Tillie Harris in Susan Henderson’s debut.

Examine the power of hope with Up From The Blue.


Although I’ve been a book addict my entire life, I don’t ever remember reading fiction written specifically for young adults (12-18 years old). By the time I was ten, I’d entered the worlds of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the Bronte sisters. I couldn’t get enough of tortured souls. But I may not have needed to dig into the past if A.S. King was writing when I was a teen. Everybody Sees the Ants has all anyone could ever want in the tortured soul category, but King also adds tons of humor and hope. Lucky Linderman is an unforgettable protagonist, who makes you want to not only examine how you behaved as a teen, but re-evaluate how you’re coping as an adult. If this is what YA fiction is about, I want more.

Discover Lucky Linderman’s world of Ants with one click.