because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

To Kindle or Nook? That Was The Question.

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Benjamin Franklin.
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So you remember how I blogged about how I couldn’t decide which e-device to go with.

Well, I decided.

I went against the trend.

Nearly everyone said to go with the Kindle, except for the few diehards who said to stay with books.

(These were the same people who, when polled, said they preferred using an abacus to a calculator.)

But I went out on my own and conducted my own research and came to the conclusion that this was the right decision for me:

I decided to go with the Nook.

And I tried it. I really did.

But after a week, I returned it.

(*insert gasps*)

I know, you are all horrified.

The reality is I’m a Book Girl.

Although it is possible to make notes on the device, I found it incredibly arduous. Plus, there was no way to make smiley faces or stars! 😉 I didn’t like that I couldn’t refer to the back of the book. (You know, to remind me what the hell I was heading with my reading because, frankly, I need to be reminded). I didn’t like not being able to physically see how far along I was in my reading. I missed using a real bookmark – especially when the “save your page” feature didn’t really seem to work reliably. Despite all the reports from friends telling me that they are reading “so much more” with e-Readers, I found I was falling asleep almost immediately after starting to read! I guess I need to take notes when I read, or it’s lights out. Who knew? Even after just one week, I missed the idea of not going to the library. Benjamin Franklin was so friggin’ brilliant when he came up with that invention. When I finished my first book and I wasn’t dying to download another, I suddenly realized I do not want (or need) to own every book I read.

So I’m back on library books because I truly believe borrowing books is the most earth-friendly decision a person can make. And if I love the book enough after reading it, then I’ll buy it.

As for my decades of accumulated book clutter (as seen on the floor in the photo above), those are going to the library for the annual book sale. (I just haven’t said goodbye to them properly yet.)

And when I drop them off, I’m going to pick up a bunch of other books to borrow.

For free.

And then I’ll going home to listen to my transistor radio… and play with my abacus.

So… um… what have you been reading that you have loved?

Lessons on E-readers

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A Picture of a eBook
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I’ve been considering getting an e-reader for a long time because I read a lot of books, but I hate the clutter that they leave behind. In fact, a Facebook friend recently commented on my sloppy bookshelves which were in the backdrop of a photo. Can you imagine? (Thanks a lot, Todd!)

Anyway, I have been holding out on getting an e-reader for three reasons:

1) Sheer laziness: For a long time, I just couldn’t justify moving up “Research e-readers” in the queue ahead of “Buy new bra.” Guess what? Went to Victoria’s Secret yesterday! 😉

2) Fear. I am definitely afraid that the e-reader could become a chore, another gadget that I have to charge and worry about losing. I worry that I won’t like the experience of an e-reader because I like to write in my books. Back in 1940, Mortimer Adler told his readers in his article “How to Mark Up a Book” that:

The physical act of writing, with your own hand, brings words and sentences more sharply before your mind and preserves them better in your memory.

As a teacher, I could not agree with him more. And yeah, I know you can highlight and leave notes with these gadgets, but there is nothing like flipping through an old book and finding my old handwritten scribble to remind me where I was at a particular point in time. I pick up favorite old books all the time and giggle when I find: “This is sooo mom!” or “Make husband read this whole paragraph!” I’m not sure I’ll have that same experience with the e-reader.

3) There is something creepy about e-readers. I don’t know. I’m not anti-technology or anything, but it’s like when I found out one publisher of the latest version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had taker out the “n-word” and replaced it with the word “slave,” I got a little bent out of shape. Things felt all Big Brothery to me. I worry that libraries are going to start closing, and I love libraries – even though, these days, they seem to have become places where the mentally unstable like to hang out to avoid the inclement weather. I don’t know, for me, books are as much a part of my head as they are my heart. I’m not so sure I’ll feel that in an e-reader.

Still, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and all the stores seem to be insinuating that the best lovers buy their significant others e-readers, so yesterday, I drove around town trying out various e-devices. I needed to feel them in my own hands, see what they could and could not do.

And so I am definitely leaning in one direction, and I must admit, it is not the direction in which I thought I would be going.

Without dragging things out (you know, the way I usually do), I figured I’d ask you, my beloved readers, for your opinions.


Note: iPads are not in the running. (I don’t need all those bells and whistles. Plus I need to be able to read outside, and the iPad has too much glare.)

For those of you who have e-readers, can you tell me which one you have, what you love most about the one you have, and if you had a chance to do it all over again, if you would make the same purchase. If not, what would you choose now?

The Giver: Thirteen Years Later

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The Giver
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It’s happening.

My son is reading a piece of literature that I used to teach.

He is reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the story of a young boy named Jonas living in a highly controlled community some time in the future. The novel fits into a larger genre of cautionary tales called “dystopian literature.” If a utopia is a society in which everything is perfect, a dystopia is the opposite: everything has gone wrong. The novel explores Jonas’s encounter with memories of “the past,” a time when people still had the freedom of choice.

When I first taught The Giver, the book had just come out, and it was controversial. In fact, it was banned in many schools for its disturbing content and ambiguous ending, but I taught The Giver to 9th graders in an independent school, so I had a lot of freedom. The Giver explores an age-old debate: Should government let people have freedom or seek to “protect them”? Should we value individuality or the greater good? Are emotional highs and lows better than the steady middle ground?

Fast forward. My son is now in 6th grade. Oh, he can handle the language and the concepts just fine. He is a voracious reader, and he seems to understand the book thus far. I have struggled over the last weeks because, really, I want him to discover the book himself. I want him to be stunned when he learns that the main character’s father has lied to him, that it is his father’s job to kill babies. To nurture them, yes, but also to decide which one’s live and which one’s die. Jonas watches his father administer a lethal injection to an otherwise healthy infant twin because the community has decided there can be no twins. And he learns that his father will have to “release” a baby that has been living with the family because he simply cannot sleep through the night without crying.

So I will be waiting for his response.

Because right now, he thinks The Community is a pretty good place to live.

No one has to worry about money, he insists. The climate is controlled. The birth-rate is controlled. Jobs are determined by Committee Members based on careful scrutiny of children and their personality traits. Kids who like to build become engineers and kids who like to play with children become Nurturers. There are Laborers and Birth Mothers. All kinds of jobs. My Monkey likes this kind of order. It seems logical, and it appeals to him.

“Sameness eliminated fighting and wars,” Monkey said matter-of-factly. “There is no more racism.”

“True, but people can’t see or appreciate colors. Everything is kind of beige, so they can’t appreciate hot pink flowers or the blue of an ocean,” I said. “And they don’t know snow or sunshine because of climate control,” I suggest.

He shrugged his shoulders at this. He isn’t far into the book yet to know what is coming.

While he was out today, I re-read The Giver from beginning to end. And I am struck by how Orwellian Lowry’s vision is. And I am amazed by all the ways the government has slowly intruded into our lives since 1993. Post September 11, 2001, video cameras are everywhere. Everywhere we go, we are being filmed. If we purchase something, our credit card transactions are tracked in a way they weren’t before. When we go to the airport, we are made to practically strip down – and we agree to do so, in the name of the greater good; we take off our belts and shoes and put our liquid products into baggies to be searched. We have caller identification so we no longer have to answer the phone. And every prank phone call can be traced back to the place of origin. The government is more involved in public education than ever, practically dictating to teachers the curriculum that needs to be taught. Textbooks, which have been approved and distributed throughout our country to our children, are filled with hundreds of factual and grammatical errors and people do not seem to be outraged. The latest version of Huckleberry Finn has had the “n” word removed. (Sure, you can still get the alternate version, but tens of thousands of students will never even know that another version exists because it is easier to edit the language of difference.) Journalism has become entertainment, and few people read primary sources. Most people just pop onto Blackberries and iPhones and read commentary (read: secondary sources or the ideas from “specialists” telling us what to think) about everything from the food we eat to the latest shooting. I see people forgetting how to think critically. I know people who do not know much about our Constitution. They could Google United States Constitution and read about it, but most folks would rather read Status Updates on Facebook or download the latest App designed to make us forget that our country is engaged in a war.

“There is no war in Jonas’s world,” Monkey said, his chin angled up defensively.

“True,” I said, thinking to myself but there is no love either.

And I wonder how many civil liberties my child might be willing to give up if the Government told him it was for the greater good.

If My Kid Writes One More Book Report…

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Sleeping Student
Sleeping Student

Monkey has been writing a helluva a lot of book reports this year.

In an English class, a student can — of course — write a formal essay in response to a piece of literature. And they must know how to do this competently. But let’s face it: Writing five paragraph (or two paragraph or three paragraph) essays after every book, can be a real drag. And there is no reason for this when there are a skillion (yes, a skillion) other ways to evaluate a student’s comprehension that are about 100 times more engaging than any book report.

Students could create a piece of art in any medium that represents a character, situation or theme from the story; they might compose a poem or a monologue which explores a situation or character or which develops a theme from the literature; they could write a script for a scene in the story and perform it before the class, or imagine a scene that could have been in the story/play but wasn’t; they could offer an alternate ending or imagine the characters in the future. A musical student could write a song that explores a situation or a theme from the literature and sing/play it for the class. A dancer might choreograph a piece that represents a situation, character, or theme from the literature. Someone could create a diary for a character, not just chronicling the facts of plot, but the character’s emotions regarding his/her experiences. A budding historian might want to research a historical reference he or she noticed in the literature and was intrigued by. Hell, a student could bake something symbolic which links to the literature. I’ve had students bake highly symbolic (and very delicious) cookies!

With any performance based assessment, there always has to be a written explication that accompanies the more creative project in which the student explains his or her intention and explores how the project helps his or her peers understand something important about the literature. Ideally, the assessment process informs the teacher and the learner about student progress and, simultaneously, contributes to the student’s learning process.

I could go on about some student projects that I have received over the years. One of my favorites involves a student who upon completing Lord of the Flies, made a trip to the local farmer’s market and bought a whole pig’s head and recreated the scene where the terrified boys, beat and unintentionally kill their classmate, Simon, and then put a pig’s head on the stick.

I still have the video (which I’ve had switched over to DVD) and I still watch it. And that kid makes movies now.

I know that No Child Left Behind supports “standards-based education”and is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.

So I get it. My school district clearly wants our kids to pass the standardized test.

They want a slice of the pie.

But our kids are dying of boredom.

So please, for this mother.

No. More. Book. Reports.

The Secret To Finding The Best Babysitters

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photo by margolove @

The best babysitters are, of course, the ones who love interacting with your children and know how to take care of them in any circumstance. But now that my son is older, I have found that the best sitters – the ones who not only take care of his physical and emotional needs – are the ones who like to linger around after my child (and usually my husband) have gone to bed so we can discuss life. And books!

Hilary was our first real babysitter. A former student of mine, I plucked her from my classroom (while I was on maternity leave) and asked if she would be interested in regularly watching my newborn on Saturday nights. By the time my husband and I came home, Hil would have cleaned the entire house and be quietly studying for some upcoming, major test. She would tell me some cute thing my child did, and then she would tell me what she was reading: usually something out of a ridiculously heavy science book she was toting around. Always diligent, Hilary was incredibly detail oriented, so I was not surprised to learn that Hilary became a pharmacist — and is now a mother herself!

I met Marioli while strolling at Nazareth College, determined to find another good babysitter, you know, for when Hilary was not available. I had my l’il dude packed into his stroller and was tacking up those little tear-off sheets indicating that I was looking for a responsible babysitter, with expertise in watching young children, who was willing to make my son priority #1 while my husband and I were out for a few hours. While pinning up my ad, Marioli stopped to chat, got down on her hands and knees and cooed at my l’il person. She made him giggle, so – of course, I liked her right away. Standing up, her brown hair bouncing, she said she was interested in the position. Turns out, she had a whole crew of siblings; people she missed while in college. She knew how to take care of children because she had always taken care of brothers and sisters. She was astoundingly entertaining, extremely reliable, my son loved her — and she turned me on to The Poisonwood Bible and we talked late into the night about Shakespeare and Dante’s concept of Hell in The Inferno.

The need for swim lessons brought me to Jen, yet another Nazareth College student. (By then, it had become abundantly clear that with their strong education department, I needed only to hang around the education department for a few minutes, and I would find a solid babysitter.) Jen taught my son to swim. She brought him games to play, books to read, new things to challenge his mind. She played endless hours of LEGOs with him. (Lord, love her.) And then, at night, she would discuss the new teaching standards and show me the rubrics she had designed. She talked about her student teaching experience, the politics – the up and the down days. I screamed with joy when she landed a full-time job, even though I knew it would pull her away from our family. I was just so stinkin’ happy for her.

My beloved Billy went from former student to one of my son’s favorite babysitters. After Billy graduated from college, he worked crazy hours. He worked three or four jobs. Maybe five. Seriously. I don’t know how he did it, but he had to make money to put himself through graduate school, so he worked. A lot. Billy and I would stay up waaaay too late talking about classroom stuff. He recommended books like I Just Want My Pants Back (which sucked) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which rocked). More recently, Billy expressed frustration about how to get re-designated as “World’s Best Substitute Teacher” to Full-time Math Teacher in a classroom of his own. And, again, I screamed when I learned he just recently landed a long-term substitute position in the district he wanted. Okay, so it isn’t perfect, but it is a foot in the door. Foot. In. The. Door.

Now that my son is in middle school, we are needing fewer sitters. Luckily, Christina lives across the street. A voracious reader in 11th grade, her reading aptitude extends far beyond her years. In fact, everything about Christina is far beyond her years; she has an adult sensibility and has found an escape into the world of books. We have texted about whether or not Ordinary People possesses a “bildungsroman‘ motif. We’ve chatted about Wuthering Heights and Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Death of a Salesman. As you can imagine, I adore Christina. She is like dessert after the dessert.

So my advice to parents looking for good babysitters? Go to your favorite, local college: one that has a reputation for its outstanding education program — and put up a sign. Ask the requisite questions: (What would you do if my child was bleeding? Choking? Knocked unconscious? Being a major pain in the butt?), and then ask:

What book have you really enjoyed?

If the person before you can’t pull a title out of his or her . . . um, brain . . . pretty darn quick, let ’em go. I don’t care how cute or nice she is, if she is the star of the field hockey team or the school musical. It’s all smoke and mirrors. But if you find a kid who says he has dozens of favorite authors, favorite books, how could he ever pick just one (and he starts tossing out a few titles), you have just stumbled onto a gold mine.

Hold on tight. You just might learn something.

What are your best tips on finding great babysitters? And what are you reading?

tweet me @rasjacobson

A Bridge From Cyber Chaos to the World of Words

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The Facebook Man. Facebook is celebrating its ...
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I am forever trying to make sense of how to balance the world of books (which sit quietly, unobtrusively on tables) and the world of screens (which flash and bing and ping noisily for our attention). To me, they are like two different kinds of children.

Today, I was reading Madame Librarian’s Blog, and I saw that she had stumbled across something wonderful that struck a chord for her, and also struck that same place in me! She found a quote from an interview with Jonathan Franzen where he says:

I think novelists nowadays have a responsibility—whether or not my contemporaries are actually living up to it—to make books really, really compelling. To make you want to turn off your phone and walk away from your Internet connection and go spend some time in another place. I’m trying to fashion something that will actually pull you away, so I’m certainly conscious of the tension between the solitary world of reading and writing, and the noisy crowded world of electronic communications.

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. You have the sense of “Oh yeah, I’m writing in my angry response to your post, and now I’m flaming back the person who flamed me back for my angry response.” All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else.

Franzen goes on to discuss how people who love books love to hold books, the whole experience of a book. I, personally, am a sloppy margin scribbler. I turn back corners and make notes. I underline and star things. No one wants to borrow a book after I have read it, and if I have ever borrowed someone else’s book, I usually have to buy them a new copy. Not because they wouldn’t take back the marked up copy, but because I simply can’t give back the book once it has become part of me.

This is probably partly why I have resisted getting a nook or a kindle, even though numerous people have told me I would love it. That I could still make my marginal notes; they would just be typed, and all my comments would appear in chronological order and be easily found. I understand all of this. It’s just, well . . . I just finished reading a book called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future by Mark Bauerlein. And frankly, it caught my attention. The premise of the book is that parents and educators have been sold a bad bill of goods, promising that computers will help make learning easier and more enjoyable for students. They have also been promised that their children’s test scores and literacy will go up as a result of this new technology: that the whole world is at their fingertips.

The author points out, however, that this is not the way teens use the Internet technology that is available to them. Teens don’t independently look up information about history or art or follow politics or listen to any music except popular music.  Young users have learned to upload and download, surf and chat, post and design, play games and buy things online, but they haven’t learned to analyze a complex text, store facts in their heads, comprehend foreign policy, take lessons from history, or spell correctly. They require teachers, parents, religious leaders and employers to teach to pull them from their adolescent ethos towards a more mature ethic which will expose them to the idea of serious work, civic duty, financial independence, personal and family responsibility.

And as ironic as this is going to sound coming from an online blogger, I am trying to minimize my screen time. Yes, I will continue to blog, but I’m trying to live a little more unplugged because I truly believe (and now have well researched and documented support, thanks to Bauerlein) that all this screen time is leading us down the path to a place of incivility that breeds incompetence in school and the workplace. I see people losing their ability to connect to each other. And, as a teacher and a writer, I want to be that bridge, so I have to work on being that bridge.

Franzen’s interview came at the right time for me. As I continue to write on a manuscript that has been like birthing an elephant. And by that I only mean it is taking a really long time. One day, I would like to hold that book in my hands, and I would like to dream that somewhere, someday, someone might write all over it. Underline. Make stars. Question marks. Pen, “This sounds like me” in the margins.

I want to be a real (metaphoric) bridge, though. Starting Wednesday, September 8, 2010, I plan to help my undergraduate students figure out how to pull their own stories from out of themselves and put them on paper; show them that the conventions of Modern Standard English matter, that an outstanding vocabulary can help them get ahead.

I don’t think it is possible to be a cyber-bridge. You have to really be present to help people make their journey, especially when they are scared. And, believe me, when you ask 18-24 year olds to put away their technology — even for just 50 minutes — they are scared.

So I will gently take their hands and pull them away from their addictions and try — for 15 weeks — to get them to let me be their bridge.

I just hope they don’t walk all over me. Or that they, at least, tread lightly.

Interview with Janet Goodfriend • Author

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When my old summer camp friend, Janet Goodfriend, decided to self-publish her own book, For the Love of Art, my ears pricked up, and I took notice. There are differing opinions about self-publishing. Some folks feel that it is the kiss of death for an author but  others swear that if sales are brisk and reviews are good, it can springboard an aspiring author’s career. Here is a little bit about Janet’s new book.

Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, etc.

Born in Rochester, New York where I spent most of my early childhood along with fading memories of Fort Devens Massachusetts, our family eventually settled in Ithaca, New York — the setting for my first novel, Straight Up. After earning a B.A. in English with a teacher’s certification from Fredonia’s State University of New York, I made my way to the Boston area and picked up a Masters in Literacy and Language Arts from Framingham State as I began my teaching career. The last several years have been devoted to raising a family and pursuing the dream of becoming a novelist. Though successful on those fronts thus far, selling a book in an extremely down market is an entirely different story. My hope is to be just success enough to allow me to continue to do this crazy thing called writing.

How did you develop an interest in writing? Did you go to school for writing?
My debut novel, For the Love of Art, is dedicated to my grandmother (a school librarian) who first passed down her profound fondness for literature and education. With a mother who kept me immersed in books and a father who nurtured my interest in poetry, it is no wonder that writing became a favored activity. After being editor of my high school literary magazine, I went on to pursue writing for my college newspaper. There, I was reprimanded before the entire newspaper staff because my journalistic style of reporting was considered “overly creative.” Though I concurred, the dreaded task of  reporting “just the facts” sent me packing. I have written poetry and prose over the years and, now with three novel length manuscripts, I find myself pining after a fourth. If only the business of publishing were not so all-consuming. For now, I will just have to be content for now to let that next book percolate among my thoughts a while longer.

Author, Janet Goodfriend

Who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book?
I am so not good with favorites. Always reading something, I often find myself having “I’m-not-worthy” moments as I amble my way in awe over the pages of another author’s cunningly lucid descriptions. Though I do have a penchant for contemporary fiction, I read all kinds of things. This year my favorite novels are The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, Shelter Me by Juliette Fay, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, and The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. If I had to pick favorite books that truly stand the test of time, my mind would dance over everything from The Lorax to Catcher in the Rye, to anything penned by Shakespeare, to The Diary of Ann Frank before comfortably landing on To Kill a Mockingbird.

What is For the Love of Art about?

A novel of hope, this literary mystery is about three mothers (one a writer/teacher) vacationing sans children, on Martha’s Vineyard, who become embroiled in an art heist. Their escape ironically turns into a pointed quest giving the reader an intimate look at some of the locals. The cast includes love’s lost painter, a visceral and passionate sculptor, a besieged poet, an introspective detective, an art teacher, a salacious reporter and a homeless man. It is my hope that people will not only be entertained but better value what seems most basic in life, recognize their part in tending our earth, raising its children and ultimately feel compelled to preserve art that moves us and validates our worth.

Where can people buy your book?
Currently my book is for sale on via Amazon. However, the publishing company will donate $5.00 per book to your school if purchased directly through Painted Wood Press, P.O. Box 1006, Upton MA 01568. Just send a $20.00 check to Painted Wood Press along with the shipping address. Price includes tax, shipping and a $5.00 donation to the education fund or school district in your town toward its Arts fund. In a book club? Consider Skyping me into one of your meetings! Contact Janet at: for more information.

What words of advice or wisdom do you have for aspiring authors?
With so much negativity about the economy and dooming words about how print is dying, it is nearly impossible not to absorb such stifling chatter. In spite of the stone cold anonymous face of the publishing industry, if writing is in you, you must do it because you love to write and have something to tell. Only after you have completed your masterpiece, should you agonize over how to go about piercing a market clad with impenetrable locks and barriers. Upon your final rejection  — and you’ll know it’s the last one because you will have stopped keeping track of the rejections, and feel as though your manuscript might actually combust inside your computer from the continuous fingertip friction upon the keyboard or, worse, you will be ever aware of your inner-quakings due to the punishing silence from publishers and agents who simply cannot respond personally to the 300 plus queries they receive on a weekly basis.) That said, you can polish your work as well as a professional editor and publish it yourself. We’ll see how it goes. Ask me again next year.

What are your plans for the future?
For the Love of Art is my debut into the bursting at the seams world of print. With any luck and sustained support for this title, I plan to bring Straight Up to the press in 2012 and follow it up with Surrender Flash.

Be sure to check out Janet’s website as she adds more books to her repertoire!