Rebuilding Classroom Libraries

I’ve made my donation of 12 books to help rebuild these school libraries lost to flooding in Louisiana. Please consider buying a few things off their Amazon wishlists. It’s an easy way to send some help to a broken and hurting community.

Lumos Libri


I’ve been teaching middle school English for over 20 years and like other veteran educators have seen movements start, end, get repackaged, and begin again with renewed vigor.  One of the things I know for sure: nothing beats recreational reading.

It’s one thing to know this and another to know and apply classroom practices fostering a genuine love of books.  Having a robust classroom library is a must, not a luxury.  Yes, I’m lucky to be in a school with a fantastic library.  Even luckier to have a supportive, energetic librarian.  But having books right there to put in the hands of a reader at the right moment?  That’s where the magic happens.

The magic of hearing a girl tell me after reading Linda Sue Park‘s A Single Shard, “This book was so great.  I’ve never read about a character from Korea like me.”  The magic of having…

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There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Books

You’ll find books on every floor of our house, and in nearly every room (bathrooms and laundry room excluded — reading on the john is anathema in our household). You’ll even find books in the hallway and on the landing.

Were I asked to estimate how many books the three of us own, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a number (especially since when you add in Zach’s books that are housed at his office in the church, the number likely doubles!). I can say that when we moved from Grand Rapids to Lansing more than ten years ago, the estimator for the moving company did not take seriously our warnings about the literal wall of boxes in our apartment when he was blithely counting them up to add them to his sheet.

“Those are all books, so they’re going to add a lot of weight.”

“Yeah, got it.”

No, guy, you didn’t. And when we moved, the movers had to check in the weight of the truck before they left…and had to get another truck…which they wanted us to pay for despite their mistake.

I digress.

In the decade since our move to Michigan’s capital city, we’ve accumulated more books. A lot more.

Now, I tend to be a person who likes to get rid of things that are not being used or haven’t been used in the past few years. I don’t like clutter and I (along with the two little pack rats I live with) am prone to it, so it’s a constant battle to keep my environment under control. I revel in throwing away expired food and giving away unloved clothes and even abandoning those “projects” I kept meaning to get to but never did. Get it all out of the house! Give me some breathing room.

But I have no problem with books. Books we mean to read someday, books we haven’t read for years, and everything in between. They are all welcome to stay. They just need an inch or less on a shelf somewhere.

“Why not just use a Kindle? Then you don’t have to store all those books.”

We do. Both of us. And we can read on our phones. And we also keep buying printed books. Because printed books are (I’m just going to say it) better for so many reasons. One being, hey, now we don’t have to figure out what to put on that wall for decoration; the answer is always bookshelves.

Books are not only wonderful for what lay between the covers, they’re also lovely as objects in and of themselves.

Especially old books, because back when books were not oozing out of every pore of the Internet, they were made differently.

They were sewn rather than just glued. They were bound in leather or fabric. They were gilded and embossed.

Those things still happen today, of course, and there are many beautiful books. But there is something about the old ones that is especially enchanting. Even when they’re a little worse for wear.

Maybe especially then.

Upon Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite

By far, I buy and read real, physical, printed books over and above ebooks. And I love buying them at real, physical, brick-and-mortar stores. I especially love finding old used books at cramped and charming used bookstores.

Now, with all those caveats out of the way, here’s what I love about

Way back when I was kid, I checked this book out of the old Bay City Library on Center Road about a hundred times.

I loved, loved, loved this book.

It kept me entertained for hours.

It taught me how to draw dogs.

It helped develop in me a love of the simple things — long walks, the seasons, and dumb (in the King James sense of the word) creatures.

It made me want to be an artist.

The only problem was, I couldn’t remember the name of the book (could it really be as simple as Dogs???) or the author/illustrator. When I checked it out of the library, I just knew where on the shelves it was. I never looked it up. And now that gorgeous, quaint library branch has been replaced by a much larger (and much more personality-less) new building. So though I’d been thinking about this book for years, wishing I could remember what it was called so I might find it again, somewhere, I wasn’t sure where to start. There are a lot of books on dogs and it was kind of difficult to describe.

It’s essentially the artist’s story of wanting to find his family’s next dog as his oldest hunting got so feeble he couldn’t do much anymore. As he considers which breed might be best, he paints them and mentions their merits and tells amusing stories.

Then suddenly I thought to myself, if I just had enough patience, I could click through every page of dog books on Amazon and somehow I would have to find it sooner or later. So I searched for “dogs, painting” in Books on Amazon. Then I clicked on the subcategory Dogs. And guess what I saw:

It was the second result in nearly 200!

Apparently I’m not the only fan of Poortvliet’s work (aside: no wonder I couldn’t remember the artist’s name) as the book enjoys 100% five-star reviews, and his other books are equally well-loved. I was surprised to see a publication date of 1996, a full ten years after my guess, as I was sure I’d been obsessed with it long before I was 16. But a look inside confirmed I had been more right than wrong. The edition on Amazon was a 1996 reprinting. The original had been published in 1983, just in time for it to settle comfortably into its spot on the shelf in the East Branch of the Bay City Library system and wait for me to get about as old as my son is now, venture up to the grown-up nonfiction shelves, and discover it.

I ordered a copy immediately and waited with great anticipation for it to arrive, which it did today. (Sunday delivery, what is the world coming to?)

When we got home from church I started flipping through it with my son, who wanted me to read him the notes on every page. (I think he asked me to do it because they are in cursive?) I immediately recognized every page, including some drawings and paintings I had outright copied as a child as I was practicing.

There was and is something about Poorvliet’s representation of the world — realistic, gentle, and with a sense of humor that doesn’t overwhelm — that I find irresistible. I like that in a time when modern art was being touted he continued to focus on realism and sweet illustrations. In fact, I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to find that his most famous work, The Gnomes, was the basis for an animated series I also loved around the same time as I was checking Dogs out of the library: The World of David the Gnome. Does anyone else remember this?

I was sorry when I looked Poorvliet up for this post to find that he died in his early sixties in 1995, which I suppose is why they reissued the book in 1996.

At any rate, I’m happy as can be to have it now (and to not have to return it to the library in a month). It’s a volume I’ll keep at the ready for relaxed perusal with a cup of tea.

Why We Read Sad Books

Gracious, it’s been May for four days already! Where is my life going? Oh, that’s right–I’m reading it away. From my 9-5 (oh, and it’s catalog time too), to beta reads for fellow writers in my two writing groups, to a freelance editing gig and a work-for-hire writing job, plus making slow but satisfying progress on my own manuscript, I’m awfully busy looking at, creating, deleting, and moving around words. This includes words I’m encountering for the first time as I attempt to learn German. Ich Heiβe Erin. Ich komme aus Michigan. Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

I’ve also started reading a couple new “real” books–you know, with covers and everything–after finishing up Spill Simmer Falter Wither (lovely and sad) and Lolita (anti-lovely and sad and twisted and I’m still not sure I’ve got a handle on what I think of it…).

I’m still very much in the beginnings of these long books, but it’s been a while since I read a memoir (Nafisi’s is one I’ve been wanting to read for years) and Ruth Ozeki’s book is very different/unique, especially when it comes to the contrast in the two voices. One of the beta reads I did last month was also extremely unique and played with time and even the form of the main characters as they transformed from boys and girls to a bear, an eagle, a fawn, and a sage plant.

In my reading, I’ve been far afield–Japan, Iran, the Pacific Northwest, New Hampshire, Ireland, and within a 400 year old Ojibwe legend. But in my writing, I have been enclosed–in a small cabin, in a small boat, on an isolated lake, with my main character focused on one point in time, one memory she must unravel. Is that why I’m interested in traveling far and wide in my choices of books to read? Were I writing a sprawling story right now, would I be reading something that was more contained, more restrictive?

Through the magic of Facebook memories (you know, those old posts that pop up and bid you share them once more) I saw this morning a photo I took of my not-quite-two-year-old son in a spring puddle. The trees in the photo are at least a week ahead of where the trees are now during our cold and rainy spring. The trees outside my office window are still tentative, still holding back, still a bit suspicious that winter may have one last punch to throw. They don’t know that the weatherman predicts temps in the 70s next week. They just know that right now, they’re still shivering.

When we’re feeling held tight or held back in life (by life?), we sometimes let our imaginations take us to all the new places we can’t quite reach. For some, that’s why they read at all–to travel to someplace new and be someone else for a while. I’m not sure I have ever had that exact feeling when choosing what to read next–I think I’d like to spend some time as a pedophile or I think I’d like to be a social outcast with a dog that brutally attacks other dogs while their owners look on, horrified. That’s Lolita and Spill Simmer Falter Wither. I didn’t choose to read those books because I wanted to be those people in those places. I chose Lolita because it was a classic I hadn’t yet read and I was curious about it since I knew it was controversial. I chose Spill Simmer Falter Wither because I heard the author, Sara Baume, interviewed on NPR while I was dropping my son off at school. It was a paragraph she read on air that made me buy the book immediately upon returning home, simply because I wanted to “listen” to her voice more.

In both cases, I knew enough to know these books would be downers. Already I know that Ozeki’s and Nafisi’s books could be downers. In Ozeki’s, the teenage diary writer alludes to the fact that she won’t be around long, hinting at suicide, and its clear that the diary washing up in the Pacific NW where Ruth finds it hints at the Fukushima disaster after the tsunami. In Nafisi’s, every one of these women is repressed, oppressed, or persecuted, prisoners of a regime that restricts them in every way possible. It cannot end all bright and happy and rainbows. At best it will be bittersweet. (No spoilers in the comments if you’ve already read it, please.)

So why do we read books like this? (And I realize not everyone does, but I do…Why?)

Maybe it’s because we know what it’s like to wait for a summer that is slow in coming, to look at bare trees, knowing they will leaf out sooner or later–they must, they always have–but with the knowledge there is nothing we can do to make it happen on our own timeline.

Maybe it’s because the fluffy book we read for an escape ends neatly, and what we really need is for someone else to acknowledge that life can be painful and beautiful and inexplicable all at the same time–and that it doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Maybe it’s because our most enduring feelings are those of loss, regret, confusion, and anger–those things we cannot reconcile with how we feel the world ought to be: peaceful, whole, healthy, loving.

Maybe it’s because we live in the in-between time, the already-but-not-yet, somewhere in the middle of the story of creation, fall, and redemption.

Deep down we know all things will be made right. We just wish it was now. And so we read books that acknowledge that longing, that grapple with all those unanswerable questions, that show us the darkness–but that also present to us at least one character who endures, who makes it through the long night, who lives on illuminated by a ray of hope.

I like sad books and sad movies. I like happy ones too. But there’s something about the ones that cause you pain that lasts in my memory while the happy ones fade quickly away.

What about you? Do you want your books to be a pure escape? Or do you like a little (or a lot) of reality thrown in, even if it’s a harsh reality? What’s the saddest book you’ve read? Would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

When Your Child Loves What You Love

I’m not really a baby person. When my husband and I decided to have a child, I’m sure he was looking forward to having a baby. He loves babies. Babies smile when they see him make a goofy face. When I make a face at babies, their reaction often ranges from suspicion to terror. Maybe just as animals can smell fear, babies can tell when you’re feigning interest.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t dislike babies. I just don’t usually give them a second look when I encounter them in restaurants or stores. And it always surprised me when others seemed interested in my baby. Being fairly introverted, I was always a little put off when I went out in public with my own baby boy and found that, for most people, babies are like a magnet. Toting a baby around already makes every task take longer, and when you add nice little old ladies who miss their grandchildren to the mix, that quick run to the store to buy milk can turn into an excursion for which you should have brought snacks. Most of those strangers mean well, though occasionally you get someone who makes some thoughtless, slightly insulting comment.

Beyond just not quite getting it when people fawned over someone else’s baby, I found that having a baby is just plain hard work, physically and emotionally. You don’t quite understand the depth of the physical exhaustion of never sleeping the night through for years at a time until you’ve done it, nor do you realize just how terrible of a person you are without sleep until you’ve gone without for too many nights in a row. Plus, like many new mothers, I experienced some level of post-partum depression which, again, you can’t quite understand until you’ve been there. I felt bad about myself for at least a year, which was an entirely new experience for someone who was self-confident to a fault up until then.

Anyway, all this to say that I didn’t grieve as my baby grew into a toddler who grew into a little boy. Each new skill he learned was a relief: Excellent! Now he can walk without me worrying about him falling over and cracking his head on the coffee table! Great! Now I can eat my own meal because he can eat his! Fabulous! Now he can let the dog out and go get me that pen from across the room!

I like having a kid more than I liked having a baby. Every year gets more fun as my husband and I get to watch our boy grow into a smart, silly little guy who makes jokes that actually make sense and informs me as I’m coming downstairs to make his lunch that he already did it.

And one of the very best things about having a kid is introducing him to all the stuff we liked as kids. Books, movies, TV shows, restaurants, toys, museums, beaches, and even entire cities. When everything you love is new to your child, you get to experience it like the first time again. You get to rediscover the emotional weight of your own childhood over again. And lucky for the both of us, that means good memories because we were blessed with good childhoods.

Zach has been excited to play old video games on the Apple 2C computer he still has (with all the big 5 1/2 inch floppy disks that still work after more than 30 years!) and read his favorite series of books, The Great Brain, with our son. He’s introduced him to Gordon Korman books, Voltron, model rockets, model trains, and Pac Man. Together they’ve built things out of wood and repaired things around the house. I’ve been excited to take the boy out to collect rocks, work in the garden, examine insects, and walk in the woods. We watch nature documentaries together and pick up feathers and press autumn leaves. Recently the boy helped paint a bathroom and decorate for Christmas. He loves to cook with both mom and dad. He thinks the movies his parents watched as kids are just as hilarious as they think they are.

One of the things I’ve been waiting to share with my son is my love for the book Watership Down by Richard Adams. I first saw the animated adaptation when I was about his age. I read the book for the first time soon thereafter and read it at least once a year for the entirety of my childhood and a few times as a college student and an adult. I also listened to an audio book of it many times and watched the film again and again, despite the fact that it leaves so much out. Simply put, I was big fan. But the animated movie is really bloody and the book is quite long, so I’ve been holding off introducing my nightmare-prone seven-year-old to it.

Until this week. I had a hankering to read it again myself. I glanced through and saw that the chapters themselves, while there are many, are fairly short. I knew I’d have lots of terms, both in English and in the rabbits’ own language, to explain. I knew the very British style and sentence structure might take some getting used to for him (I’m sure I learned more about language and expanded my own vocabulary immensely just from my repeated readings of this one book). But ready or not, I wanted to get him as hooked as I was.

I gave him a general idea of the content — an adventure story of a group of rabbits that must leave their warren to find a new home, encountering many dangers along the way — and explained that the story could be violent at times.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m okay with violence.”

[Pause for mother to be slightly concerned and mentally review all the shows he watches that might be considered violent…Realize it’s all comic-book violence with no blood and no death shown on screen…Feel a little better…Realize that Watership Down may be the most real violence he’s encountered thus far in his life…Remember that he and his father are reading through Judges right now and feel much better about it because this is just rabbits, not people, and it didn’t actually happen…]

See, these are the kinds of taxing want-to-do-things-right-and-not-mess-up-my-kid-for-life thoughts one has as the parent of a seven-year-old.

At any rate, we read the first three chapters last night. And just as I had been as a child who loved to imagine I was various animals, the boy was hooked and has already identified with one of the rabbits: Blackberry. At this point in the story, the reader knows almost nothing about him beyond the fact that he has black-tipped ears. We find out later that he is the most clever rabbit in the group. But it only took one or two sentences featuring him for my son to declare, “I’m Blackberry.”

“You know,” I said, “when I was a kid, Blackberry was my favorite too.”

I put down the book and left the room to get my guitar for his bedtime songs (three every night). When I returned, he was a rabbit. Just as I had once been. And I can remember how it felt to be a rabbit. Timid and nervous and wiggly. Then powerful and swift.

And always a little magical.

Storytelling, Books, and Bookstores

My agent’s blog is full of links to great content about writing, books, and creativity. And in the past couple weeks, she’s shared two items I want to share with you today — partly because they’re simply interesting and edifying, but also because once I’m done with revisions to The Bone Garden (the manuscript we intend to submit to editors first), I’ll be picking up I Hold the Wind again. And it so happens that I Hold the Wind is about books. Physical, printed, paper and ink books. And it’s about a bookstore. So I love reading things like Why the Printed Book Will Last Another 500 Years and listening to things like this:

Both give me the warm, fuzzy feeling of curling up on the couch under a blanket to enjoy a foray into another place and time. And both assure me that I’m not crazy.

Me on the Radio

I finally got up the courage to listen to a radio show that I was on back in…oh, was it last year? Yes. Yes it was. I was sure I sounded like kind of an idiot, but as it turns out, I don’t. I shared this interview time with Alyssa Alexander, a Lansing area author and a fellow member of the Capital City Writers Association. Alyssa also does not sound like an idiot (so kudos to the both of us).

So if you want to hear more about me, what I do for a living as a publishing professional, and a bit about why I still read and prefer printed books to ebooks, please give it a listen.


What I’m Reading in 2015

Well, I ended 2014 with what I’m assuming was a mild case of the flu and the news that our church had been broken into. I began 2015 with four stitches after a blunder with an extremely sharp knife that seemed to want to separate my right thumb from the rest of my hand. I also turned 35 on Friday. So there’s that.

Today was better, though. I’m healthy, my hand is healing, and I’m hoping to finish up the draft of my work in progress, a novel I’m currently calling I Hold the Wind, in the next couple weeks. I am also making preparations for what will probably be a full year researching for my next book, a historical novel set in various locales in France, Austria, and Germany during World War I and the years preceding it. I’m calling that one Enough of Peace at the moment. Here’s what I’ll be reading in 2015…



Since Christmas I’ve been hip-deep in failing aristocracies, rising anarchy, the Dreyfus Affair, and various other social and political upheavals as I read about the decades that led up to the start of WWI in Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. I’ve also been reading Mein Kampf, which has been alternately fascinating and horrifying.

Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century was glossed over a bit in my history classes. Except for the requisite pat on the back for ending the war, the First World War was not a subject upon which we lingered. Generally, we stuck to American issues: Reparations after the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Roaring Twenties, and the Depression, only concerning ourselves with Europe again when we were sucked into the Second World War. For that reason, I’ve never truly understood the causes of WWI. All I remember learning about it was that it was the first truly mechanized war, it was the first war to be fought partially in the air, there were lots of trenches, and the colossal loss of life was all in vain. So I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Also on the immediate horizon is the Write on the Red Cedar writing conference that my writing group, the Capital City Writers Association, is putting on. We’re officially sold out (!) and taking care of all the last-minute logistics. I’ll be sure to share pictures from and thoughts on the conference in late January.

Oh, and in the past couple days, it has finally snowed.🙂

Sometimes your husband is on the cover of a magazine…

And that’s freaking AWESOME.



Zach‘s debut novel, Playing Saint, releases in just six days. Here’s what people are saying about it…

“★★★★½! Bartels’ debut novel is a page-turner from the very beginning. His excellent use of foreshadowing and his glimpses into the past create a story that readers can’t put down. In the vein of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, Bartels weaves the supernatural into the natural in ways that are gripping and realistic, adding a shocking surprise that will leave readers stunned.”—RT Book Reviews

“Michigan minister Bartels (42 Months Dry) holds readers’ interest in this intrigue-filled thriller, despite its far-fetched premise. Saint’s character is particularly well developed. This book will be enjoyed by those who love a mystery combined with supernatural elements.”—Library Journal

Playing Saint is everything I love in a novel: great characters, edge-of-the-seat plot, and great twists and turns. I’m ready for his next book already. Highly recommended!”—Colleen Coble, USA Today bestselling author

“A thought-provoking exploration into the power of faith and the reality of evil. Filled with memorable characters and tight writing, Playing Saint is an impressive debut from an author to watch.”—Steven James, bestselling author

“Zachary Bartels is not afraid of head-on collisions with complicated issues. I loved Playing Saint for the recognizable reality, and the humor, and the way I felt when I finished the book—entertained, satisfied, and looking for more.”—Tracy Groot, award-winning author

Playing Saint is a reflection of its author—risky, fast-paced, sarcastic, clever, and ultimately hopeful. We need more novels, and more authors, like this!”—Ted Kluck, award-winning author



I am so proud of him and happy for him! And you should go pre-order it right now. No, seriously. Do it.

New Release! This Elegant Ruin…and other stories

I’m so thrilled to tell you that This Elegant Ruin…and other stories is now available at Amazon! Click here to order.

For the uninitiated, in 2013 I challenged myself to write one short story each month. The twelve stories that make up this collection are the result of that challenge. I’m so thrilled to see them in book form with the incredibly beautiful cover my friend and colleague Heather created.



Now that the kids are back in school, do something for you! Short stories make great reading material for when you just want a little down time (or when you are waiting in the pick-up lanes after school). I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them!

Here’s the back cover copy to give you a bit of the flavor of the writing:


Love and hate. Dreams and nightmares. Luck and misfortune.

In twelve engaging stories, the joys and sorrows of life glow against such varied backdrops as a snowy wood, a quaint country inn, a crumbling metropolis, the shore of Lake Superior, and a lonely country highway. A man in the twilight of his career falls in love with a young woman at the dawn of hers. A girl at the end of her rope finds an unexpected friend in an eccentric stranger. A young man haunted by memories finally gets a chance to forget his troubles. An artist takes stock of his life’s work and discovers an unwelcome truth.

With prose that evokes wonder and fear, regret and relief, Erin Bartels draws meaning from the small moments of life, challenging us to be still, to notice, to dream—and to hope.