Catalina’s Summer Reading List

“Ms. Hendricks, I’m not looking forward to summer.”

“Why not?” 

“I don’t like summer,” the third grade girl replied blandly.

“Why not?” I repeated myself. 

“I like learning. I don’t want to stop learning.”

“You can still learn over the summer. You can read.”

Catalina looked at me. “But what should I read?”

“Do you want me to make you a list?”

She nodded eagerly. “I read The Wizard of Oz. I liked it.”

I sat down with a pen and a notecard. “You’re nine, right?


“Give me a couple minutes while you guys work.”

In the end, I made her a list of ten books. She’s a smart girl, and I wanted to give her a list of books that will encourage her to grow into a strong young woman. I thought I’d share this list with the internet in the hopes that it might help and encourage some other book-loving young women.

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye

I was introduced to this book when I was eleven, and it has long been a favorite with me. I cannot speak highly enough of this book.

I’m not much for princess stories (although Catalina is), but I love this princess story. Amy, the titular ordinary princess, was cursed at birth with ordinariness. That is to say that she is not the stereotypical blonde-haired, blue-eyed demure princess with pink cheeks. She’s much more “normal” looking. She isn’t perfect in personality or appearance. But over the course of her story, she comes to learn the value of ordinariness and what it really means to be a princess.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

When Catalina asked for book recommendations, this book just jumped into my brain. All I could hear was Meg Ryan’s voice saying “Streatfield, Noel Streatfeild..start with Ballet Shoes.” Here’s the thing that I love about this book. It’s about helping your family and achieving your dreams. It also doesn’t attempt to pigeonhole girls into traditional roles, but it tries to encourage girls to pursue their talents, their strengths, and their dreams.

(As I was describing this book to Catalina, her group-mate Eva kept asking “Ms. Hendricks, can I read that too? Can I read it?” Sure, Eva; you’d love it.)

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

This book was a favorite of mine as a child. I’ve always enjoyed a good fractured fairy tale, and this is definitely a favorite in that genre. It is both insightful and funny. The greatest strength of this book is that it reminds girls that they don’t need some charming prince to save them; if they look inside of themselves, they can find what they need to save themselves.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

A girl with magical powers who isn’t afraid to use them? Count me in. I love a few things about this book. One is the fact that Matilda loves to read. Another is the fact that she doesn’t just use her strengths to help herself, but she also uses them to help others.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Both boys and girls look awesome in this book, and they fight in different ways. Regardless, I think that Lucy Pevensie is a valuable friend for any young girl. Eva commented, “Oh, I like witches!” when I said the title, but I cautioned her that the witch is the villain of the piece.

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

I love Ramona Quimby. She’s just the best. She’s spunky, and I think that all girls need to meet good girls like Lucy Pevensie and brave girls like Ella and Amy, but they also need to meet spunky girls. This book features my favorite Ramona story-The Tiddliwinks Story, but really all of the Ramona books are excellent.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.

If I ever write a book on the subject of How I Got to Be This Way, Pippi Longstocking is going to be a heavily featured subject. She made me want to be a pirate. She also inspired me to call multiplication “pluttification.” I wanted to be like her so much that I once (for five all-too-long minutes tried to sleep with my feet on the pillow and my head under the covers. Pippi is a spunky girl. She doesn’t fear much of anything, and I think she’s a good role model for a girl who needs to realize her own gifts and strengths.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

I liked the Julie Andrews movie. I thought these books were The Bomb-Diggity. I read all of them multiple times as a child. Mary Poppins didn’t take anything from anybody, and while she wasn’t the nicest or sweetest person on the planet, she was good. She taught the Banks children to be good people, and I think that’s to be respected. I want each girl who I teach to learn to stand up for herself and for others. I think that Mary Poppins provides an example of striving to do what is best for others.

That’s the list that Catalina is starting the summer with. I also tangentially recommended the Harry Potter books, Heidi, Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables. But I didn’t want to overwhelm her. What books would you recommend to a third grader heading into summer?

NB: It ought to be said that neither Catalina nor Eva is the real name of any student with whom I work.


A Toast to the Bard

Four hundred fifty four years ago, a child was born in Stratford upon Avon. His father was a local merchant. His mother was from a wealthy Roman Catholic family. John and Mary Shakespeare surely had, as all parents do, hopes and aspirations for their new baby, their first son.

I have no doubt that neither of them ever dreamed that this new baby would change the world. They had no idea of the things that this new baby would grow up to do. How could they? How could anyone look at a baby and imagine at this child would grow up to revolutionize literature and theater, invent words, coin what would become common phrases, invent names that would become popular, and shape the way that the world would view a nation’s history?

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

It is unimaginable. Even that child himself must have had no idea what he would accomplish. The man never published any of his plays. He wrote to pay the bills, to entertain the masses, and to please his patrons. (I’m sure that he also wrote to satisfy his own internal drive.) He wasn’t trying to become the greatest writer in the English language. He wasn’t trying to become a household name. And yet…

A few years ago, I asked my Facebook friends to tell me why they think that Shakespeare matters. One of my friends pointed out that tons of movies are based on his plays. (The Lion King, Ten Things I Hate About You…) Someone else pointed out that his plays are a foundation for storytelling. Several people mentioned his facility with language. Someone pointed out that if you’re a guy you can impress girls by quoting Shakespeare. (Someone else pointed out that Shakespeare doesn’t know who Ken Branagh is.)

Shakespeare knows how to use language. I remember being fourteen and seeing a stage production of Much Ado About Nothing. I was hooked on Shakespeare. I was in love. I loved the language and the stories, and I just wanted to live in his world. Then I heard the St. Crispian’s Day speech, and the love grew. In the spring of 2003, I saw a stage production of Pericles that was set in the Far East. The culture of the play was new to me, but I got the story. If I’d been in love before, now I was completely gone. This man could tell a story like nobody else I’d ever encountered.

I’ve taken three Shakespeare courses in my life. I’ve read most of his plays. I’ve taught a few of them. I’ve seen countless film and stage adaptations of his plays. I’m fairly certain that a decent amount of my attraction to Tom Hiddleston is a direct result of his love for Shakespeare. (If you want to woo me, quote Shakespeare. If you want me to fall head over heels, play a thoroughly delightful Henry V.) I genuinely believe that Shakespeare is our most important literary inheritance.

Recently, I found myself puzzling over my fondness for Beatrice from Much Ado. Beatrice has been my favorite literary character since I was in high school. (When I was fourteen, I wanted to be Hero, but then I got a bit older, saw the show again, and just connected with Beatrice’s spunk.) I struggle with wondering if I like her so much because she is like me or if I became the way that I am because I like her personality. I don’t know the answer there. Maybe it’s a bit of both?

One of Shakespeare’s greatest gifts is his ability to understand humanity so well. His characters show a remarkable understanding of the human psyche. He gets how people think. He understands greed and anger and lust and fear and love and…emotions. He created characters like Lady Macbeth and Coriolanus who are obsessed with power, Juliet who wants to be loved, Prospero who wants revenge, Brutus who claims to want to restore Rome to the people, and Dogberry who really just wants everyone to know that he is an ass. Shakespeare creates characters who can feel real. Are there caricatures in his plays? Of course. But they are merely the background to vivid and lively heroes and villains.

Shakespeare understands that many people seek power, but others desire justice. But he also sees the dangers and mistakes that can happen on our road through life. He knows that some men (like Falstaff) would rather an easy life than a virtuous life. He sees how circumstances or a weak mind can destroy a man. The Bard sees and portrays humanity at our best and our worst…and on those places in the middle. Many of us may desire to live at our best and fear to live at our worst, but Shakespeare readily reminds us that it is far more common for us to live in the middle.

Shakespeare can make me laugh. He can make me cry. I believe that he has a quote or a moment for every mood. I’m sure that John Shakespeare and Mary Arden had no clue that their tiny baby would grow into a giant of literature when he was born 454 years ago, but no parent really knows at birth what their child’s full potential is. All that I know is that I’m enormously grateful to the Bard for pursuing his potential and to his friends and colleagues for ensuring that his words outlived him.

So raise a glass to the Bard tonight. I’m sure he wouldn’t scoff at a toast of wine or ale. Read something he wrote. Watch a production of one of his works. And rejoice that Shakespeare lived.

Choose the Wedding

There is a saying that all of Shakespeare’s plays end either with a wedding or a funeral. (It’s not entirely true; some end with more than one wedding or funeral.) If a play ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. If it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. (If it ends with a dude dying alone in a castle in northern England, it’s a history.)

In Madeleine L’Engle’s Certain Women, this concept is used to describe a way of approaching life. You can either choose the wedding or the funeral. You can either choose joy or you can choose sorrow. Choosing joy doesn’t keep bad things from happening and choosing sorrow doesn’t completely eliminate bad things. But it’s about your mindset. How will I approach each day? Each situation? Will I choose the wedding or the funeral? Will I choose to live with joy or will I choose to live in the negatives?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My week began with a funeral and will end with a wedding. As I was describing this to a coworker last week, she said, “Oh, it’s the circle of life!” At first I thought she was kidding, but she has a point. Weddings, births, funerals…it is the circle of life. But it also brings to bear a good question.

Am I living in a way that chooses the wedding or that chooses the funeral?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I think that I tend toward the funeral more than I ought. But when I think about it in such terms, I don’t want to choose the funeral. I want to choose the wedding. I want to choose joy. I think that’s a place to begin.

“Joy is a matter of perspective. It often takes work. But there are no circumstances of life in which you cannot experience Christian joy. You can experience it as a concrete reality in your life, not just as an abstraction.”

-Father Michael Scanlan, TOR

But it’s only the beginning. Wanting to do a thing is not the same as doing it. And actually choosing joy is much harder than wanting to choose joy. I can’t give you some magic solution or some quick tip to make it happen. It’s the result of consciously getting up in the morning day in and day out and making a conscious choice to live with joy.

“Walk joyously through life. And at the times you cannot, at least walk with faith and courage.”

-St. Francis de Sales

I’m told that things like this get easier as they become habits. I can’t promise you that. I can tell you that I hope it’s true. I’d like it to be true. But I know that building a habit is hard. The only advice that I can give you is to make an active decision to focus on joy. Ask God to put joy into your heart, and choose joy daily. To quote Henri Nouwen, “choose joy and keep choosing it.”

Sometimes (like this week for me) life feels like a whirlwind. That’s a real thing. It doesn’t always work out smoothly or perfectly. But in this week, I’ve been reminded that in good times and bad, we’re given the opportunity to choose joy.

So let’s do that. Whether we’re going to a wedding or struggling through the worst bogs of singleness, let’s remember to find God and goodness in the little things. Let’s choose joy. Let’s choose the wedding.

Run Mad as Often as You Like

(NB: When I started this series, I intended to publish every Thursday in March. However, I was in a car accident a few weeks ago and felt the need to take a week off from writing in order to better recover physically and mentally.)

Two weeks ago,  I wrote about a female writer who lived shortly before the phrase “feminist” was coined. This week, I’m looking at a writer who lived about a hundred years before last week’s author. She’s an authoress to whom I have a strong connection, and many people think of her almost immediately upon thinking of me.

You got it. The one. The only. Jane Austen.

She was a lady writer in a time when that wasn’t conventional. The heroines she created tend to follow the dictates of tradition and society on the whole, but none of them is completely bound to those rules. Each of them exercises at least a bit of independence and unconventionality.

Because each of Austen’s heroines has a different personality, different people connect with different of these ladies. This allows different women to find encouragement from different stories. For me, I’ve always connected with Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse in strong but unique ways. I’ve been compared to Jane Bennet before, but I didn’t understand that. I’ve been asked if Anne Eliot resonates with me because she’s the oldest of Austen’s heroines and naturally as a single woman who is almost thirty…yeah, Anne Eliot is awesome, but she and I are VERY different people. I don’t understand Fanny Price very well, and I find Catherine Moreland annoying.On the other hand, I know women who really connect with Anne and can’t understand Emma for the wide world.

Austen crafted six novels, each of which is centered around a strong woman. These women exemplify strength in different ways. They are also surrounded by women who are strong but again not necessarily in the same way as the main character. This allows us as readers to see conflicting viewpoints, to know the heroine’s flaws, and to understand what does and doesn’t constitute female strength in a deeper way. Each of Austen’s heroines has a female foil (or more than one) who allows us to see what Austen admires in strong women and what she does not value.

(I’m going to look at Pride and Prejudice and Emma with more depth than the other four novels to save this blog post from becoming a novel.)

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen gives us two strong foils for Elizabeth Bennet. First, we meet Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth’s peer and a rival (of sorts) for Darcy’s interest. Later, we meet Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine DeBourgh.

Caroline Bingley sets herself up as Elizabeth’s rival almost from the beginning. She appears to dislike Elizabeth on sight and almost without cause. Perhaps she senses that Elizabeth will be her rival for Darcy’s attentions? Perhaps she resents Elizabeth’s less sophisticated origins? It is not clear initially why Caroline dislikes Elizabeth so much, but given the way in which she treats all of Meryton, it is most likely Elizabeth’s origins. Whatever the cause, Caroline’s resentment causes her to act in a less refined manner than one might expect from her education. In doing so, she allows us to see some of Elizabeth’s strengths. Her one real attempt to act kindly towards Elizabeth shows us two of Elizabeth’s flaws-pride and prejudice. (Wait…what is this book called again?

Lady Catherine is ostensibly a well-educated woman who ought to be refined and dignified. Instead she is rude, impertinent, and self-important. She considers herself to be an expert on everything, and she bestows her opinions on everyone who can hear her. She shows Elizabeth to be a more moderate person and a woman who is willing to listen to others even when she doesn’t agree with them. Elizabeth listens politely to Lady Catherine’s lectures, and when she does respond to them, our heroine shows herself to be intelligent and wise with her words. Lady Catherine helps us to see Elizabeth’s strengths and gifts.

Emma offers a few foils for the titular heroine. We have both Mrs. Elton and Jane Fairfax who show us Emma’s virtues but also her flaws.

Mrs. Elton is a self-important woman who thinks that everyone around her NEEDS her opinions and guidance. To me, the most quintessential Mrs. Elton moment comes late in the book when she scolds Jane Fairfax for acting without her guidance. After all, Jane might have lived without Mrs. E’s help for the previous twenty-odd years of her life, but she cannot proceed from here on out without the Divine Counsel of Mrs. Elton. Emma may seek to guide and arrange others, but she doesn’t get mad at them if they don’t listen to her. She will argue with people who disagree with her (see her relationship with Mr. Knightley) but she doesn’t scold people as if they are complete fools for making choices without her guidance.

Jane, on the other hand, shows a more moderated lady than Emma. Emma has her rough edges. She’s incredibly strong-willed, and she doesn’t do well when she doesn’t understand the motivations of her friends’ actions. Jane has a more temperate disposition, and through that, Austen shows us the ups and downs of Emma’s temperament.

In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor’s quiet strength is contrasted against both Lucy Steele’s brashness and Fanny Dashwood’s manipulation. Fanny and Lucy both scheme to meet their goals. Elinor prefers to lead her life simply and quietly. If she loses out on certain things (like Edward Ferrars), she isn’t going to throw a fit or pull someone’s hair. She will be hurt, and she will struggle internally. But she isn’t going to create unnecessary drama. She also prefers to focus on the simple things in life. She wants a quiet country life. She doesn’t need money or titles for happiness. She wants a quiet life with the people she loves most close by.

Northanger Abbey offers a more subtle contrast between Catherine Moreland’s dreamy view of the world and Isabella Thorpe’s need to manipulate and connive. Isabella lies and conspires to achieve her goals. Catherine may dream about murder or mystery, but she tends to see the best about most people. (Except General Tilney-and that’s probably wise.)

Mansfield Park makes a clear distinction between Fanny Price and several of the women around her. But her most obvious foil is Mary Crawford, a woman who can simper and charm without scruple but doesn’t value the same things that Austen (or Fanny) did. Mary will break rules and mores to get what she wants. Fanny will not. While I don’t see much of myself in Fanny, I have a great appreciation for her commitment to her beliefs and her refusal to bend her will to make others happy. To me, that is her greatest strength. She may be quiet. She may appear mild. (I’m not convinced that she really is.) But she will not bend or change to make other people happy.

Persuasion gives Anne three foils-her sisters and Louisa Musgrove. It is when Anne is contrasted against vanity and a weak nature that we need the virtue of her quiet strength. Elizabeth preens. Louisa flirts. Mary plays the perpetual patient. And through it all, Anne stands by quietly caring for The Important Things in Life. Anne is intrinsically good. (That’s probably why I don’t see myself in her; I have too much Julia Flyte in me to ever allow me to be Anne.) Anne’s life is rarely easy or simple or fun, but Anne finds contentment when she knows that she is doing what is right.

Looking over this, I am once again amazed by the strength of even Austen’s mildest woman. And I am enormously grateful to Jane Austen for sending these women forth into the literary universe. I think that they provide some pretty excellent role models.

Books are like Lobster Shells

“Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him — or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them.”

Despite the fact that I’ve only really been acquainted with her works for a few years, Dorothy L. Sayers is undoubtedly one of my favorite writers. Sayers is best known for her works of detective fiction, the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Although she passed away before the Women’s Movement really got off the ground and the word “feminist” entered common use, Sayers writes from a decidedly pro-woman viewpoint. Her books feature strong women, and her prose indicates that the men who should be most attractive the reader are the men who support and encourage strong women.

A few months ago, I was talking with a dear friend about my love of Sayers, and we happened upon discussing the Harriet Vane-Peter Wimsey relationship. Specifically, we were discussing a moment from Gaudy Night in which Harriet says to a mentor “If I once gave way to Peter once I should go up like straw.” The mentor replies “That is moderately obvious. And how often has he taken advantage of that?” I confessed that this is my dream. I love that dynamic. I love that Peter treats Harriet as his equal and will not take advantage of her. He, like most people who know her, knows that he take advantage of Harriet’s affections for him. But he never does it. Harriet has a similar power over Peter although I must confess that I’m not always sure that she is aware of her own powers.

In Harriet and Peter, Sayers has created an immensely attractive pairing-a relationship of equals. It takes them a bit of time to find their footing together, but they are equals. At a time when it was not the societal norm, Peter treats Harriet as his equal. Now, Peter was created by the pen of a female writer. One could assume that a strong, well-educated, independent female writer would create a man who is the type of person to whom a strong, well-educated, independent female writer would be attracted. But I find it hard to believe that Lord Peter Wimsey is merely some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy. I think that Sayers knew that there could be and there are real men like him.

Sayers created a man who didn’t want a partner who was soft or weak. He is attracted to Harriet’s strength. To me, that is a noble trait. Harriet is a strong woman. She’s well-educated and successful. Peter himself confesses that he loves Harriet in part because she never resists a challenge. And in a time when those were not traits that society promoted or encouraged, Sayers (herself a well-educated and successful woman) puts Harriet front and center. Then, she surrounds both Harriet and Peter with strong women-The Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lady Mary Wimsey, Miss Lydgate, Miss Climpson, Miss De Vine and Miss Martin to name a few. Not all of her women are strong, and none of them are perfect, but Sayers shows us that strength in a woman can be a true blessing to the world around the woman.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Gaudy Night. Gaudy Night explores whether or not academia can be the proper sphere of women. Sayers puzzles through the age-old question of what happens to those people who are cursed with both heads and hearts. Is it possible to have both an active mental life and an active emotional life? Can academics or busy professionals also have full and healthy emotional lives? Harriet is an intellectual, but she wants to have both an emotional life and an intellectual life. She spends much of the book struggling to determine if she can have it all.

Sayers believes that it is possible. Women can have full lives. It doesn’t have to be either/or. They can have heads AND hearts. (Men can too.) Harriet can be an authoress and a scholar and a wife and mother. Peter can be a detective and a diplomat and a husband. To me, that is the beauty of Sayers. She believes that women shouldn’t fit into boxes. They should live their lives fully with both their heads and their hearts. It might not always be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

And I’ll leave you, perhaps a bit inappropriately, with one of my favorite Lord Peter quotes:

“I do know the worst sin–perhaps the only sin–passion can commit, is to be joyless.”

March Ado Round Two

As March Ado About Nothing begins, I wanted to give you a list of all of the posts that I wrote for last year’s March Ado. I will be creating new content for this year, but first I wanted to start with the old content.

March Ado Intro

Who do you trust?

If They Had Only TALKED to Each Other

What I’ve Learned From Beatrice

As I made clear last year, I really love this play, and I love getting to celebrate it throughout the month of March. I hope you can also enjoy that.

Also, keep your eyes peeled for some content celebrating March as Reading Month and as Women’s History Month.

Happy March Ado About Nothing!

You’re Always Reading Something

Every time that I spend time with one of my closest friends, she asks me what I’m reading. A few months back, I paused before answering the question, and she looked at me. “What? You’re always reading something. What are you reading now?”

I can’t remember what I was reading then, but she’s right. I am always reading something. I suppose it’s logical given that my bachelor’s degree is in English language and literature and I always choose “reading” as my favorite hobby whenever I take a BuzzFeed quiz. (By the way, I’m going to get married when I’m 26, I should live in Paris, and my ideal celebrity spouse is Chris Pine. Unfortunately, I’m 29, Paris isn’t even my favorite city in France, and Chris Pine is still losing that “prize” to Tom Hiddleston.) But yes, I love to read.

I was thinking about this as I made my to-do list for a relaxing evening in. I’m a bit stressed these days, and I’m really tired. i decided that my Wednesday night needed to be low-key. I also have a few things that I need to tick off my to-do list however. So I made a list.

  1. Finish reading Horse Soldiers.
  2. Work on test knitting.
  3. Watch something on Netflix so that I can work on test knitting.
  4. Start a new book. Pick one from the stack on the kitchen table.
  5. Clean the cat boxes.

Here’s the thing. If I’m going to finish a book, I have to start another one almost immediately. It’s a thing with me. I don’t want to be without at least one book that I’m currently reading. Also, I have to have some work done on my car tomorrow, so I need to have a book to read while I’m waiting for the work to be done. (It’s a scheduled repair; I shouldn’t have to wait too long.) But I can’t start a new book in a waiting room. It just never works for me. I don’t know why, but I can’t start books in public places. I have to build the relationship privately before the book and I go public together. (Do I sound crazy? That’s okay.)

Also, I don’t like knowing that I don’t have a book that I’m currently reading. There are three books in the stack on table, and three more books in a bag by one of my bookshelves. I know which one I’m probably going to choose, but I’ll have to vet all of my options before I make a final decision. I find it reassuring to know that there is a book ready and waiting for me to just pick it up and read it.

Why do I like to read so much? Why do I always have at least one book on the go? The internet can’t agree who it was, but someone once said that we read to know that we’re not alone. I think that’s true. I find hope in knowing that other people have felt the way that I feel. I find encouragement in knowing that other people have experienced situations like the ones in which I’m living.

But I also read for other reasons. I sometimes read to learn. Let me tell you; Horse Soldiers was highly educational. I read to escape. It’s helpful to run away to Narnia or Middle Earth or the jungles of Africa sometimes. I think that reading enriches the human experience. It connects us with other people. It helps us to learn about the world. And I think that reading is ultimately the greatest way of exploring the world. You can go oh so many places if you read, and I love to explore the world. So pick up a book and find an adventure.

And I’ll do that shortly. But first, I have to clean the cat boxes.