An Open Letter to the Dubuque Community School District

Dear Superintendent Rheingans, Principal Kolker, Members of the School Board, and Members of the Review Committee:

I am an alumna of Hempstead High School (‘02) who has spent my entire adult life working with youth. After finishing college I taught middle school for three years while completing my Masters in Education. I went on to complete a Masters of Library and Information Science and currently work as a librarian at Chicago Public Library. In my role as a librarian for CPL, I sit on the committee which reviews newly published teen books and curates our yearly Best of the Best List of recommendations to teachers, librarians, and readers across the country. In short, a large part of my chosen profession is making the kind of decisions that the instructor made when selecting Perks of Being a Wallflower for inclusion in the curriculum for Contemporary Literature.

I am proud to be a Mustang. I am proud of the education I received as a student at Hempstead High School. I have worked with and for schools around the country and so I know first-hand that not everyone is so lucky. I had teachers who opened my mind, who guided me as I confronted new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas that helped me grow as a person and articulate more clearly who I am and what I believe. Teachers who prepared me for a world full of opportunity and wonderful diversity. And though there were subjects I enjoyed more than others – knowledge of the inner workings of a frog have yet to yield tangible benefits in my adult life – I am happy to have studied them, if only in the knowledge that someone in my class is where they are today because of that knowledge, even if it isn’t me.

And so I am dismayed, appalled, and disappointed to learn that the District is considering the removal of Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky from the Contemporary Literature curriculum.

In the library world, we talk about books as mirrors and windows. We all need books that mirror our own experiences back to us, and we also need books that provide a window into other people’s lives. Perks of Being a Wallflower rather uniquely, served both these functions in my education.

I first read Perks of Being a Wallflower as a teenager when I was struggling with the knowledge that I am a lesbian. I grew up in Dubuque, and though I had a few gay friends, when I looked at the bigger world at that time, I had no role models. No representation. No one I could point to as an example for who I could become. Perks was the first book I ever read that had a character who identified as LGBTQ. It became a mirror for my own identity and a turning point in my life. I realized I was not alone. And though I had not, at the time of my first reading, experienced many of the other challenges Charlie encounters, this book gave me a window into the lives of teens who had. Knowledge is always power. Denying teens knowledge, denying them a safe place to explore the darker aspects of our world denies them the opportunity to grow into the adults they are meant to be.

In Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie experiences sexual abuse and witnesses violence. He has friends who do drugs and a sister who gets pregnant. Charlie goes through some rough things, but at the end of the book, he has become a stronger person. He has risen above these challenges.

If a book addressing such topics is removed from the curriculum, you must consider what that says to students who have experienced these things.

Some kids experience sexual abuse, and witness violence. Some have friends who do drugs. Some have sisters who get pregnant. These kids exist at Hempstead High School and all across the country and pretending that they don’t is an act of abuse against them. If you remove this book, if you deem it “inappropriate,” what message are you sending to those teens?

You are telling them that they are “inappropriate.”
That their lives and their very existence is something to be ashamed of and hide away because it makes others uncomfortable.
You are telling real teens who, I assure you, attend Hempstead High School, that they are not even worth the breath it takes to tell their stories.
You are telling students who do not experience these things, that those who do aren’t worthy of their empathy or their consideration, or worse that they do not exist.
You are telling teens that it is simply not possible to rise above difficult challenges or circumstances. That there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Ask yourself, are you really comfortable with that?

I could write as many words on the literary importance of Perks of Being a Wallflower as there are in the work itself. I could dissect it as a superior example of an epistolary novel, discuss the rich presentation of a slightly unreliable narrator, wax poetic about the stunning language used to convey heavy and complicated topics.

Or you could just let the instructor teach it in her class, because she will surely do all these things better than I can since she is a highly educated professional who has dedicated her life to teaching teenagers about literature. We must trust teachers in their decisions just as we trust a doctor to prescribe medicine for an illness. When we start dictating to teachers what they can and cannot say, what they can and cannot teach, all is lost. Many books we now consider classics were once considered controversial. Grappling with uncomfortable ideas is how we grow.

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

We talk a lot about freedom in this country, but the center of freedom is choice. We have the freedom to choose for ourselves, but we do not have the right to restrict that freedom for others simply because we disagree with their choices. Removing a book from the curriculum of a class restricts the freedom of others. It restricts the choices of the teachers in selecting material according to their expert knowledge in lieu of amateur opinions based on personally held beliefs. It restricts the choices of other parents to make decisions for their own children. It restricts the choices of the students who enroll in the class, whose education has been stifled.

Parents have the right to enroll their teens in the school of their choice, whether public, private, alternative, or homeschool. However once that choice is made, they do not have the right to bend the education provided at that school to their own personal whims. They have the right to request an alternative assignment, or – since Contemporary Literature is an elective and not a required class – to enroll their teen in a different elective course. They do not have the right to alter the educational experience of a class because subject matter makes them afraid.

As a public school, Hempstead has an obligation to teach all students. Students of different beliefs. Students of different experiences. Students who are gay. Who experience sexual abuse and witness violence. Who do drugs and get pregnant and know people who do these things. Students who will, at some point in their life, encounter other humans who disagree with them about something.

The list of acclaims for Perks of Being a Wallflower  is long and prestigious. It has earned its place in the contemporary canon through the opinions of experts in the fields of literature, librarianship, and education. The argument that this particular book belongs in this particular class is hard to overstate, and the idea that it could be toppled by a small group of adults who fear the reality of life makes me sad. But more than that, a challenge of this nature threatens the very freedom on which our country and our public educational system was founded. Removing a book from the curriculum, tying a teacher’s hands, dictating to educators the very foundation of their profession takes the freedom to choose from every teacher, every parent and every student who attends Hempstead High School.

As an alumna, a teacher, a librarian, and a reader, I beg the committee and the School Board to defend the rights of teachers and students and to keep Perks of Being a Wallflower in the curriculum at Hempstead High School.

Sarah Alexander
Librarian, Chicago Public Library
Hempstead High School Class of 2002

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The Day the Towers Fell

I’ve never written about 9/11 before because it just sort of seemed superfluous. Everyone had a story, everyone had a perspective and mine didn’t seem to matter that much. Others had lost so much more, been changed so much more by what happened. What could I have to say?

But now I work with teens who will learn about 9/11 as a historical event that took place before they were born.

It seems like maybe the moment is right to share what I remember.

Where I was, what I was doing.

I was a senior in high school, a few months away from my 18th birthday.

I had just finished my first class of the day – orchestra. We wound up 10 or so minutes early so we all had time to put our instruments away, and as we stood in groups near the door my friend Andy walked out of Mr. Fordice, the choir director’s, office which was attached to the classroom and said, “Mrs. Fordice just called. A plane hit one of the twin towers.”

“That’s weird.” I said.

We shrugged.

The bell rang.

We left for our next class.

We had both just been to NYC a few short months before on our music department trip. We had climbed to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. They don’t let you do that anymore. We’d seen a few Broadway shows and toured Time Square. Wandered around Central Park. But we didn’t have any concept at that moment what or where the Twin Towers were. It would only be days later when we started flipping through our rolls of pictures we’d taken that we’d realize – the Towers loomed in the background of almost half the shots.

We walked down the hall, idly wondering what kind of dumb ass pilot crashes his plane into a building.

We started to pass the film study room with the enormous wall sized television and both stopped dead in our tracks as we watched the image of the second plane hitting the other tower. Another 4 seconds and we would have missed it. But there we were, staring at a column of smoke and fire. A growing feeling that something really terrible had just happened. We realized there were students behind us, entranced like we were. We didn’t hear the bell ring again, it wasn’t until the teachers started telling us to go to class that we stumbled back down the hall.

We didn’t get in trouble for being late.

No one got in trouble that day.

Second period was AP English, the last class where the teachers attempted to hold our attention. “We don’t know what’s happening yet,” we were told by teachers who were surely as terrified as we were. “Let’s just continue on as normal.”

Halfway through second period, Sarah C got called out of class to go meet her parents. Her older sister went to Columbia in NYC and they hadn’t heard from her. At that point my teacher gave up and just turned on the news, which seemed to be full of smoke and panic and dread.

Third period I had a Sociology test. After we were finished we were allowed to go next door to sit with that class and watch the news unfold. Seconds before I turned in my paper, the Pentagon was hit.

Sixth period I had choir, and about a quarter of the class was gone, pulled out by parents who wanted their kids home with them. It was the only class where we didn’t watch the news, where we didn’t swap rumors about wars and attacks and how we were all going to die in a nuclear blaze. “We need to sing today,” my director said, “we need to sing for us.” And so we did. We didn’t rehearse, we sang. We sang America the Beautiful and Ave Maria. We sang Bridge over Troubled Water and Joshua Fit the Battle of Jerico. We sang the music we loved to sing and we sang the music our souls needed right then. In times of trouble we always seem to fall back on the power of the human voice.

In seventh period I had Government, and we tried to put things into perspective. To sort out what we actually knew and what we didn’t. My teacher tried to keep us from blaming people we didn’t know anything about, to keep us from being so scared. There was a lot of talk about how we were a target, in our little Iowa town, because of the John Deere plant. I rolled my eyes at that. It seemed everyone was either over or under reacting. The kids at school, the people on tv, the teachers I looked up to, everyone was either convinced the entire world was about to end, or shrugging like this wasn’t a big deal at all. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel, but I was pretty sure I was somewhere in the middle.

In the back of all this was the reality that I was a senior. Many of us were already 18 years old. And in my little corner of the world a large percentage of the guys enrolled in the Reserves to pay their way through college. Go to boot camp, serve a few weekends. It seemed like a really great deal on September 10. As school let out word filtered in. Justin had gotten orders and was shipping off next week. Ryan’s orders were changed and he was heading to Afghanistan too. Suddenly, everyone I knew knew someone going to war. Including me. One of my good friends would leave only a few weeks later.

At eighteen you feel invincible. At eighteen you feel like nothing could ever touch you. The most dramatic thing we were supposed to have to deal with was casting for the musical and who got elected Homecoming King. Of course, this isn’t true. There are always bad things going on. And as a middle-class white girl who was still in the closet at the point, I was/am enormously privileged and shielded from many of the bad things. I know that. I sort of knew that then, but it didn’t change the feeling that our lives had been turned upside down and we didn’t know what the future would hold.

The lines for the gas stations were around the block, everyone terrified of a gas shortage and skyrocketing prices. I showed up for work at Target and was sent home almost immediately. Only the managers stayed. There were no customers in the store. Everyone was at home in front of the television.

I don’t remember talking to either of my parents about what was happening. Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. I had been planning to move to New York, I guess that’s when I decided not to. The news was already peppered with stories of Arab Americans being attacked, which was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. But my town was ridiculously white and I only knew one Muslim kid, so I had a pretty limited view of what fear could do to people. Through all my memories of my own fear and confusion, I have no memory of what that week must have been like for him. Was he bullied? Threatened? Did anyone at school make a thing out of it? I don’t remember, which is one of the clearest examples of my own privilege I can think of. I hope that he wasn’t, that if he had been I would have been brave enough to say something. I hope, but I don’t remember. I wish that I did.

My friends and I dealt with it the way we dealt with everything. With music. I was asked to sing America the Beautiful in a quartet for the school over the intercom after the nationwide moment of silence.  Andy was in a band and they wrote a song. I added the string parts. We performed it for the school. And we recorded it, so I have it these fifteen years later. We were pretty good, for a high school band.


In the days that followed there was a lot of talk of patriotism from members of the government. We were encouraged to wear red white and blue. Rhetoric shifted to us vs them. French Fries became Freedom Fries, as if the french had anything to do with this. And suddenly everyone was more afraid, or at least they let their fear show and motivate them to do terrible things. It was as if the world lost a bit of it’s innocence just as I was shedding it too. It became our generation’s JFK. Where were you? We’d ask each other. Where were you? What were you doing?

And while there is a lot about what surrounded and followed that day that I’d like us to move away from, it feels right to pause and acknowledge the heroes that gave their lives, the lives that were lost, the lives that were changed forever. And it feels okay to acknowledge that all our lives were changed that day, even if just a little. The day the towers fell.

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Sunday Reflections: You can take the Librarian out of Teen…

I am no longer officially a Teen Librarian.

I might be having an existential crisis about it.

This past Wednesday I started at a new branch in my large, urban, library system. It’s one of the advantages of such a system that changing branches doesn’t mean leaving the system entirely. Each branch is very different, and since I’m moving from the southernmost branch in the city to the northernmost branch, a lot about my day to day experiences are going to be different.

I’m very excited about my new branch! I’m already sure that the Children’s Librarian and I will get along great and collaborate well, that there will be a lot of opportunity for me to learn and grow in responsibility. I know the experience will help me when I’m ready to start applying to Branch Manager positions – as I have accepted this as my probable future. I’m excited to do programing for the large population of queer women in this neighborhood, to potentially turn it a little bit into “the Lesbian Branch.”

I’m excited to do a whole different set of programs – for job preparation workshops and computer classes, for adult coloring and and crafting circles, and to break out my knitting skills. I’m excited to be serving the community where I actually live and have a long term investment.

I’m excited to serve the twenty-something patrons, who are so overlooked and undervalued. To reach out to the colleges, bring new adults into the library. To help a generation that was previously out of my jurisdiction.

I’m excited to get away from certain things that led to my seeking a transfer in the first place. To getting rid of a toxic and hostile co-worker. Maybe more than anything else at this particular moment in time, after 2 years of commuting 1.5 hours EACH WAY, I am exited to walk 15 minutes to work.

I’m excited about all these things, about new relationships and adventures. But I’m sad about leaving the teen department.

Yes we all kind of do everything in the branches, and distinctions are largely irrelevant, except in some ways they aren’t. On Wednesday, I changed my email signature to say “Adult Services Librarian” and I almost broke down and cried.

I have been working with teens since I was a teen. Peer leadership gave way to tutoring high school students when I was in college, which led to teaching middle school/high school after I’d gotten my degree. I’ve worked with teens one-on-one, as a classroom teacher, as a theater director/choreographer, as a mentor and as a librarian. I’ve built my entire adult life around that distinction- I am a person who works with teens.

I work with teens because it’s a magical and horrible time of life. Because teens need us more than anyone and they’re the future of the freaking planet. Because teens are wonderful and brilliant and are generally treated like trash by adults who disregard their incredible gifts and contributions to our society. Because I remember what it was like to be a teen. Because I had mentors to help me through it, and everyone deserves that too.

Leaving the Teen Department feels like a betrayal. It feels like I’m turning my back on Teens. Like I’m abandoning all teens everywhere. It feels like I’m joining the ranks of adults who find teens obnoxious and loud, who don’t care or understand, who don’t take the time to listen to what teens are saying. It feels like I’m becoming one of the large masses of Other Adults against whom I’ve been fighting my entire life. Like I’m just another in a long line of grownups who abandon them when something better comes along.

That’s what it feels like, still, a few weeks after my decision. Even though I know in my head, and also in my heart, that that’s not true.

I know that I’m just moving my fight to a different department, that now I’ll be advocating for the importance of teens and teen services from within the adult services department. And that – even though I HATE the fact that this is a reality – my voice will have more credibility to many people since it is coming from within adult services instead of from within teen.

I know that I’m putting myself in a position to move up, to be a branch manager someday who is intensely supportive of teen services, who will spend a lot of time telling other branch managers the importance of teen services and have the experience to back it up.

narnia quoteI know that I’ll still be a member of YALSA, still sit on the Best of the Best – Teen committee at work, still blog for teen stuff on the website, still present on teen services at conferences. I know that (especially since there is not a teen position at my new branch) I will still do programs for teens, still talk to them about books, still act as a mentor and confidant.

I’m not losing anything, really… well, except my fancy tech toys, those I’m going to miss. Although… my new branch has a very active friends group, so I can probably convince them to buy some cool tech for me🙂

I’m not losing anything, I’m only gaining. I’m playing the long game, and at the moment this is the right move to make.

But still, my heart hurts a little every time I have to go remove “teen” from my title somewhere. So much of my identity my entire adult life has been as a person who works with youth. A tiny part of me isn’t quite sure who I am anymore.

And yet, I have to remember, that you can take the Librarian out of Teen, but you can’t take the Teen out of the Librarian.

So “let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” Whatever new, strange, paths that might mean.

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In Defense of Introverts

“If I were in high school today, I would hate every minute of it.”

A friend and fellow teen librarian said this to me a few days ago at an after-work gathering at the bar and I have never agreed with anything more in my life. We burst into conversation about how much we would have hated the current educational models put to use in high schools, while another co-worker looked on, her brow furrowed in confusion.

Recently three things happened within 10 days of each other. I went to a big Education conference, I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and I had a day long training for all the teen librarians in my district to start planning our summer programming. And by the end of yet another improvisational game designed to “get me out of my comfort zone,” followed by another “group brainstorming session,” and another “hands on workshop,” to plan a full summer of workshops for teens that were actively engaging  I wanted to crawl into a hole and never interact with another living creature except my cat ever ever again.

The current workplace – and thus also education – model is that everything be hands on and collaborative, and teen librarianship is no exception. We are encouraged, to put it mildly, to provide meaningful experiential programming for teens over the summer so they can spend their off-school time honing skills, pursuing interests and continuing to actively learn.

And, like, theoretically I am on board with that. I like learning and pursuing interests and I like helping my teens do this too. But in a world that is increasingly obsessed with extroverted personalities, I find myself more and more defensive of the introverts among us.


Think of your will to human as a battery.  Some activities charge our batteries and some activities drain our batteries.

Extroverts charge their batteries by being around and interacting with people. Being alone drains their batteries.

Introverts charge their batteries by being alone. Being around people drains their batteries.

Extraverts are like dogs – always happy to be around you.

Introverts are like cats – they want to be pet every once in a while, but are mostly totally chill with just existing in the same room without making eye contact.

This is a general simplification, but it’s a start for this conversation.

Most people don’t believe me when I say that I’m an introvert because I’m friendly, enjoy performing and giving presentations, and I have a strong personality. I will gladly hang out with the teens and have long conversations about DC vs Marvel… for about four hours. After that, I’m done. I can’t interact with people anymore and if you try and make me I will totally disconnect. I need about an hour alone, not being around anyone, to recharge my batteries and be ready to resume the debate. And after my work day is done, I need to go home and be alone for at least another few hours or I won’t have enough battery charge to make it through the next day.

When I have multiple days in a row where I don’t get enough charge on my batteries (sleeping doesn’t count) I start to seriously shut down, much like a toy with low batteries. I will try to keep spinning and singing the song, but it comes out slow and garbled and no one wants to listen to it. The longer I go without getting a full battery charge, the longer it will take me to get back up to 100%.

All this group  work, the impov games, the brainstorm sessions, drain my batteries quickly and a lot. Where this type of work invigorates some people, it completely exhausts me. And if I have to do it all day I totally want to die at the end of it.

*Sidenote: I also fundamentally disagree with labeling things like ‘improv games’ or ‘team building exercises’ as getting people out of their comfort zone. Because that phrase is never applied to asking someone to read a thing and then write a thing, but that is outside many people’s comfort zones. So by labeling one and not the other you are saying that my comfort zone is bad and I should get out of it, but someone who likes improv games’s comfort zone is good. And that’s dumb.

Also I disagree with the idea that being out of your comfort zone is fundamentally a good thing. I like my comfort zone. I’m an adult who has earned the right not to make a total moron of myself in front of others if I don’t want to. I like to challenge myself, I like to grow. But miming being a ninja in front of a roomful of my colleagues does neither of those things, it just makes me angry. I’m totally willing to go out of my way to introduce myself to a new person on my team I don’t know. I am not willing to pretend to drive a car around the room. *

So being who I am, and knowing what I know about current educational models – where everything is hands on/interactive/in a group – I agree with my friend that if I were in high school now as opposed to the model of lectures and independent work and reading and writing papers that was the general norm in my high school days, I would hate every fucking minute of it.

I would be begging my teachers to let me do projects on my own, to write papers instead of performing skits, to give me time alone with my thoughts to process and create rather than ‘spinning’ ideas off my fellow group members.

I honestly process information the best by reading/listening and then writing/creating a thing INDEPENDENTLY. I need large chunks of time with my thoughts. It’s how I produce anything worthwhile.

And there are plenty of teens like me.

There are plenty of teens who need time to process information before formulating an answer, who can’t speak up in brainstorm sessions because they’re paralyzed by all the activity around them.

There are plenty of teens who would be more productive if we gave them a topic and let them sit alone for hours at a time to read/explore/process/create on their own.

There are plenty of teens who need to get used to a space and to a face before they feel comfortable interacting at all.

And. That. Is. Fine.

It’s okay for teens to come to the library to sit in a corner and never participate in a workshop. That same teen might rather you left out some coloring pages that they complete on their own and will blow you away with how stunning they are.

It’s okay for teens to feel after an entire day of intense collaborative work at school that they just want to play video games for a few hours because their brains are still buffering the information that was downloaded in during school and if you try to make their brain open one more application the whole system will crash.

It’s okay for teens to only say “hi” and “bye” 36 times and then be ready to tell me about their day on the 37th.

Susan Cain’s book articulates wonderfully how our culture is becoming increasingly obsessed with extroverted personality traits to the exclusion of everything else. And that the world needs the people who go into their garage alone for hours at a time. That’s how we got Apple computers. That’s how we got Hamilton. That’s how we got the Mona Lisa.

So I worry. A lot. That our current obsession with all things collaborative in school, work, and in the library, is leaving a lot of teens behind.

Do they need some group work? Absolutely. Should we strive to provide opportunities for enriching, engaging programming? For Sure! Should we view a day where the teens in our library want to chill rather than learn how to build a speaker as a failure? Fuck no.

Especially in an education culture that doesn’t value introverts learning style or cater to their way of processing information, I think it’s more important than ever for those teens to have a place where they can come and recharge their batteries. Where they can sit in the corner and not talk to anyone and know that that’s okay. That is a totally valid choice and I will not interfere. I will not try to guilt them into interacting, or withhold computers until they participate in workshops. I will say to them – you are valid. Your social interaction needs are valid. Your boundaries are valid. Your learning style is valid.

There is nothing wrong with you, teen introverts. And if anyone tries to tell you otherwise just watch me go all mama bear on their ass.



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Book Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

book coverTitle: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Author: E.K. Johnston

Published: Dutton Books 2016

Recommended if you like: Cheerleading, hopeful survivor stories, Shakespeare, Veronica Mars

Read-a-Like: All the Rage, Speak, Open Road Summer

Rating: 6 out of 5 Golden Bear Mascots

First Line: I start running after school.


Y’all, I LOVED this book. Like I LOOOOVED it. I read it the second I got my grubby paws on an ARC in December and have been waiting for it to release so I can gush about it to everyone I know.

It’s hopeful and heartwarming and rage inducing and sad in all the right ways and at all the right times.

So let’s begin by declaring this book the Winner of the Best Title Ever Award, because, hello? Perfection.

The title is a famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s not-so-famous play A Winter’s Tale.  The play is still performed, but is lesser known than, say, Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet. In Bear, Johnston has combined the essential characters and relationships of the play, with a Veronica Mars-meets-Bring it On feeling and a situation that is all too common in our society.

Hermione Winters (yes, this play is also where Rowling found her famous heroine’s name) is co-captain of the cheerleading squad at a school where the cheerleaders don’t just cheer for the star athletes, they are the star athletes. The book opens the summer before her senior year – her last cheer camp- spent with her best friend Polly, her boyfriend Leon, and the rest of the squad along with some new friends from other schools. But at the dance on the last night of camp, Hermione is drugged and raped, and found half submerged in the lake the next morning.

I’ve been an enormous fan of Johnston’s since discovering her debut The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, a story in which she populated the contemporary world with dragons. I eagerly read A Thousand Nights in which she turned a girl into a god. But, as she’s stated several times, this is really her fantasy novel.

It’s a fantasy novel because it imagines a world where a girl who is a victim of a heinous crime is universally believed and supported. After the assault, the adults in Hermione’s life step up and do exactly what they’re supposed to.  Her parents, her pastor, the officer handling her case, all treat her with compassion and respect and support each of her decisions along the way. Her cheerleading coach, Caledon, is one of my favorite characters in the book. Her reaction to the despicable and yet sadly typical rumor mill that runs at the high school for a short time is to tell Hermione,

“A lot of people are going to say some truly stupid things to you in the near future, and if you happen to punch any of them in the face in front of me, I’m not going to do anything about it.”

There are, of course, a few exceptions to this magical world in which everyone does what they’re supposed to. Rumors make their way around school before Hermione’s friends can squash them. Hermione’s boyfriend, Leon, quickly becomes her ex, after being an all-around ass hole about the situation. He spends all of camp being jealous that he’s not the center of Hermione’s world, and then when she’s attacked, he feels it wouldn’t have happened if she’d been dancing with him, “like she was supposed to be.” He’s a sadly realistic teenage boy who feels entitled to everything he wants. He does eventually stop being a total wanker but one of my favorite things that Johnston has done, is to refuse to make his eventual redemption a key point in the story. Yes he comes around, and that’s good for him, we suppose, but Hermione (and Johnston) Absolutely Will Not let his journey take center stage. Hermione is not the teachable moment that helps him become a better person. This isn’t his story, it’s hers. No one will steal that from her.

Hermione’s friends and teammates – male and female –  also rally around her. Flanking her in the halls on their way to class, making sure she’s okay at the Halloween dance. Cracking stupid jokes to deflect tension. Offering to rip heads off if they ever catch the guy who did it. Hermione learns to trust the boys on her team again, and when one of them asks her to the dance, he completely understands when she says she just can’t yet.

But my favorite person in the book is Polly. Polly how do I love you, let me count the ways. Polly is the best friend we all wish we had. The best friend we hope we are, or hope we can become. We should all be so lucky.

Polly is there to remind Hermione that “it’s no one’s fault but the bastard who raped you,” when Hermione needs to hear it. Who tells her that she sure as hell should make every male at that camp do a DNA test, and it doesn’t matter how uncomfortable or inconvenienced they feel about it. Who bares her teeth at the reporter who asks what Hermione feels she should have done differently to prevent the assault. Polly is all these things, the superhero Hermione depends on, but she’s not just the sidekick – she has her own life as well. She starts dating a girl (hurray for the gays!). She picks a university. She comes out to her parents. And as the school year goes on, Hermione and Polly let themselves start to learn to have space between them, since they’ll be miles apart for college. It’s a remarkable example of growing up and the healthy development of best friendship.

*****Here there be spoilers*****

Another element that I love in this book is both empowering and, sadly, fantastical. And that is the support Hermione has as she gets an abortion after the rape. Hermione is allowed by the people in her life to not feel guilty, to not feel traumatized for making what she knows is the best decision for her. Literally every character in the book who is aware the abortion takes place supports her unreservedly. The experience wasn’t cloaked in euphemism or put behind an unspoken white fade-away. We held Hermione’s hand through it and felt just fine on the other side of it. And that is something I find incredibly, invaluably important.

****End of spoilers****

This book brought me to tears multiple times because of the empowering and hopeful message packed into every word. No one should ever have to go through the trauma of sexual assault, but if you do, I hope you have people like Reverand Rob, Officer Plummer, Coach Caledon, Dr. Hutt, Hermione’s parents, Tig, Amy, Mallory and Polly in your life to help you through it, remind you it’s not your fault, and help to nail the bastard who did it.

We can heal, this book promises us with every page. We can overcome. And on the other side of this, there is hope. There is love. There is life.

Verdict: Read it yesterday!

Sunday Reflections Header

Sunday Reflections: The Importance of Being Earnest (About Books)

My Grandfather passed away on Friday. He was my last living grandparent, and while I fully realize it is rare to be my age and have any grandparents at all, I still feel the loss. In this brief calm before the storm of travel plans and work arrangements and ‘does my black dress still fit?’ I find myself just thinking back at the time I had with him and my Grandmother who passed away about 10 years ago. And the two constants that are present in almost every memory I have are 1) food and 2) books.

Quality Family Time in my house meant everyone sitting in the same room, silently reading different books and not talking to each other. This was as true during holidays and visits from my grandparents as it was on any normal Sunday afternoon. The kitchen was where you stood on hard linoleum floors, leaned against counters and talked for hours. The living room was for reading, quietly, or you’d be banished to the downstairs where the toys and little kids were.

My grandparents (and aunts and uncles and cousins for that matter) were never shy about loaning/giving us books either, rarely taking the time to consider our age or probable reading level before doing so. The first trashy romance novel I ever read was handed to me by my Grandpa. Whether he knew it was a trashy romance novel when he gave it to me is something I’ve chosen not to speculate too much about. One of my aunts gave me The Mists of Avalon when I was eleven or twelve. Most adults would have considered that title too mature for a kid who had just stopped believing in Santa Clause, but that thought never appeared to cross anyone in my family’s mind.

The adults in my family read everything from Harry Potter to historical non-fiction, to murder mysteries to literary fiction. In my house, my grandparents’ house, every aunt and uncle I have’s house there are tall, wide, bookshelves filled end to end with books. If I found an interesting title during a holiday or visit, I was encouraged to take it home and finish it and bring it back whenever. I have a vivid image of my grandparents’ car in the years they drove to see us frequently. The beige interior with Grandma’s knitting bag on the floor and a water bottle and a book tucked into the pocket on the passenger side door.

One of my favorite stories about my grandma, involves a run in she had with a librarian. They had just moved to a new town, a very small town in Northern Minnesota, and like always, the first thing she did was go down to the public library to get a card. When she refused to sign her name “Mrs. Warren George Hutchinson” and insisted on signing it “Lilly Karolina Hutchinson” (“Because that’s. my. name.” she yelled whenever recounting the story) the librarian refused to issue her the card. My grandmother came back home, spitting and swearing and refusing to comply. It was the only town they ever lived in where they didn’t visit the library every week.

And in my own growing up, we visited the library regularly, read stories at bedtime and had shelves and shelves of books along the wall. In all other respects my parents monitored us closely and had very strict rules. The list of television shows we were allowed to watch was short, and you had to put in a code to unlock the tv before watching anything at all. We had early curfews, supervised parties and had to check in when we changed our plans. But when it came to books, there were never any restrictions, no barriers erected between us and what we were allowed to read. And maybe because no one ever told me that I had to read books of this Lexile score or that AR level because of some arbitrary test I’d taken, I read well beyond my age range and probably comprehension level. But see —  that’s how I grew as a person and a reader.

I often joke that my library career began in the 7th grade when I volunteered to be a lunchtime helper in the Media Center of my middle school. My motivations were purely selfish, I wanted the override codes so I could check out more than 6 books to myself at once. I’d take stacks of them home every day and exchange them for another stack the next. I probably read every book in that library by the time I was done. And no one in my family ever thought that was strange.

Books were such a ubiquitous part of my life that it never occurred to me not everyone grew up like that.  It never occurred to me that some toddlers don’t pull books off the shelf and plop with them into your lap, because some toddlers don’t have books on their shelf, or know what do do with them when they do. At work, I hear parents tell children they can’t check out books because they can’t afford the overdue fees and I want to cry and then give that kid my entire childhood book collection, long since passed on to younger cousins and nephews and nieces.

And I see teens who view reading as a chore because they only encounter it in school where it comes with exams and worksheets and standardized tests. Who also don’t have walls of books in their house, because their parents need that money to help keep them all alive. I see teens who devour books like forbidden fruit and parents who shake their heads and mutter, “I don’t get you, kid” while I stand in the corner and cry.

Not everyone has to like the same thing. There is value to many things and many ways to learn and grow. But it is so hard for me to imagine a life where reading is not an every day occurrence, where adults are not only tolerant of books, but earnest about them. Earnest about giving and loaning and recommending them. Earnest about reading stories to toddlers and helping older kids sound out the hard words and buying books for teens for their birthday.

When I think of my grandparents, I think about books. About my 4 year-old self who on one Sunday afternoon decided she wanted to join the Readers’ Club and so fetched Hop on Pop from her bedroom shelf, sat down in the middle of the living room floor and read it aloud to her grandparents. I think of how my mom marked her place with a bookmark and looked at me with mild surprise before saying, “That was lovely, Sarah, where did you learn to read?” And my grandfather saying, “It’s about time, too,” before winking at me and going back to his own thick, dense, volume. Let me reiterate that I was four.

I grew up knowing that books were my window into other worlds. That they would teach me things and make me feel things and broaden my horizons. I owe that to my parents, my aunts and uncles, and to my grandparents who up until the very end of their lives were plugging away through books of all genres and sizes.

Thank you for the gifts, Grandpa.

It was a really good trashy romance novel😉

Sunday Reflections Header

#NotSorry : A New Year’s Resolution

Yesterday was my first day back at work after a 10 day vacation. Literally within seconds of opening the teen space one of my favorites  regular teens (we’re not supposed to have favorites, right?)  flung the door open and proceeded to shout:


Have I seen Star Wars yet? Girl please.

I literally jumped up and down and replied that yes, I had, and yes it was amazing, and yes, Rey was totally my favorite even though Leia will always be awesome and hold a special place in my heart Rey Rey REY EFFING REY is the best omg.

And this teen, (let’s call him S) almost-but-not-quite (he is a teen after all) jumped up and down with me right there in the teen space. We proceeded to spend a good hour talking about fan theories (Rey is totes Luke’s daughter, we are in perfect agreement about that) and debating the value of the prequels (he likes them, I refuse to acknowledge their existence) and quoting all our favorite moments and lines.


This is what a Bad Ass looks like.

About 45 minutes into this conversation another one of my favorites regulars came in (let’s call her Y) and immediately joined the conversation. The three of us sat there debating and recanting and generally being excited, and at one point Y got really Really excited about the moment where Rey got the lightsaber and as she was gushing about how great it was, it was like she ran into a wall of silent self-policing. She shut her own fangirling down and said,

I’m sorry, I just… it was my favorite part.

The excited look on her face disappeared and was replaced by a sheepish expression I know only too well.

‘I’m sorry’ for having feelings. ‘I’m sorry’ for voicing my opinion. ‘I’m sorry’ for existing in this world that was created for men.

I saw myself at her age. Fuck, I saw myself right now, trained and programmed to apologize for breathing air and taking up space.

And in that instant I made a choice. I looked at them both and said,

EFF THAT! I’m not sorry! That part was awesome. I freaking loved it and I’m gonna fangirl about it for months and I’m so completely not sorry.

They laughed and and the conversation moved on and I don’t know if it was as meaningful a moment for them as it was for me. Maybe, maybe not. You can never tell with teenagers.

But I knew right then what my New Year’s Resolution is.

To stop. fucking. apologizing.

not sorry

Of course I’ll apologize when an apology is due, when I hurt someone or cause pain – that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the constant presence of “sorry” in my professional and personal conversations.

Saying “I’m sorry, can I interrupt you?” when I mean, “Is this a good time to talk?” at work.

Saying “I’m sorry, that’s just want I think,” when I mean, “This is what I think.”

Saying “I’m sorry for rambling,” when I mean “Thank you for listening.”

Because I’m not sorry.

I’m not sorry for voicing my opinion. I’m not sorry for taking up space in the world. I’m not sorry for my knowledge or expertise or calling you out on your shit. I’m not sorry for my body, or for dressing the way I want that makes me feel good about myself. I’m not sorry for having ambition, or being professionally successful. I’m Not. Fucking. Sorry.

So I’m going to stop saying it. Or try at least.

Already, one single day into this resolution, I have slipped. I’ve said, “sorry,” when I had no call to apologize, when I was simply doing my job. It’s hard, to eliminate this word from my vocabulary, but I am determined to stop apologizing for Existing in the World.

If not only for myself – which is a totally valid reason to do anything by itself – but also for my teens. To try and lead by example, showing the girls that they deserve to take up as much space, love things as much, say what they think just as loud as the boys. And showing the boys that they aren’t innately entitled to a larger amount of life. They have shit they can learn from us too. And for all the gender neutral/flexible/ non-binary people? They don’t have to apologize either for being exactly who they are.

If people want to call me a bitch, then fine.

bitches get stuff done

I’m here. I’m me. And I’m #notsorry.


tales from the teen space header

A Librarian is Never Off Duty

Once upon a time…

(Last Night)

I was at my favorite bookstore, Women and Children First in Chicago,  picking up a book I had ordered through them. Before I did that, of course, I had to wander through the entire bookstore as if I hadn’t just been there 6 days earlier.

Because, obviously.

I was looking through the Young Adult section, and overheard one of the shop employees helping a man who was shopping for a book for his 14 year old niece. She was very helpful but he wasn’t quite finding what he wanted and she seemed to be at the end of her suggestions and I’m standing there like:

Don't butt in, don't butt in, don't butt in

Don’t butt in, don’t butt in, don’t butt in

After another few minutes, the employee said that she was going to go ask someone else if they had any more ideas and I JUST. COULDN’T. HELP. MYSELF.

Me: I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude or eavesdrop, but can I make a recommendation?

Luckily, both the customer and employee were like, “Yes! Please! That would be great!” The employee confessed that YA was one of the few areas where she hadn’t read as much as she liked, and I confessed that I’m a teen librarian and they both went “OMG that’s awesome! Yes please go ahead!”

So this lovely gentlemen proceeded to tell me that his niece is fourteen and kind of struggling with just generally being a teenager, and he wants a book that sort of gives her hope but also isn’t super cheesy.

I handed him Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy and was like HERE YOU GO YOU’RE WELCOME!

No I didn’t. But I did give him Dumplin’ and told him why I loved it and thought every teen girl ever should read it: because Willowdean has moment where she is really insecure about her body and moments where she’s like ‘Nah Girl I’m Fabulous!!’ and that’s so important. And because the book isn’t about her transforming in any way, it’s about her accepting that who she is is totally awesome without any alterations. And also there are drag queens.

He was so excited and said this was exactly what he was looking for!! Then he told me that he always buys his nieces and nephews toys/jewelry/whatever but that he also always gives them a book for Christmas, which made my bookloving heart melt, and I also loved that he was shopping at an independent book store and not That Website Which Shall Not Be Named (even though sometimes I shop there too), and he asked me if next year he could go to the library and ask a teen librarian for suggestions and then come buy them at W&CF and I was like

Yes you can, sir. Yes you sure can.

Yes you can, sir. Yes you sure can.

And he was happy and I was happy and we all lived happily ever after.

The End.

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Top Ten Queer YA books of 2015

It’s that time of year again. While everyone else is buying presents for Hanukkah and Christmas and baking cookies and whatnot, the book/librarian-type people are curating our Best Books of the Year lists. It’s one of my very favorite parts of my job: reading a lot and talking about those books with insightful, intelligent people. Many of those insightful people are teenagers, though many of them are fellow librarians.

This has been a fantastic year for Queer* Young Adult literature and since that’s kind of my thing, I decided they’d get their very own list.

These are my personal favorites. The books that I like because I like them, and the books that I like because of reasons. And that were published in 2015. And that have a major character who is queer. Those are the only qualifications, though many of these books you’ll also see on fancy/literary lists circulating around the internet. I guess that just means I have good taste. Or something.

10. None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio (I)

none of the above

While not the first time I’ve seen an intersex character in fiction (that honor belongs to Pantomime by Laura Lam, which – by the way – can we have the 3rd book already because I’M DYING HERE!) it is the first time I’ve seen an intersex character in contemporary fiction. While this book has some flaws, I truly enjoyed Kristin’s journey discovering that she is intersex, and the emotional process that followed. Kristin’s AIS is clearly described as only one of many things that can result in an intersex identity, and the story, while a bit simplistic, feels important and timely.

9. Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story by David Levithan (G)


Tiny Cooper from Will Grayson, will grayson is back, and if you didn’t think he was the best character in WGWG then I’m not sure we can be friends anymore. If you’ll recall (or not, in which case I’m telling you now) he wrote and performed a musical that was about, and starring, himself. And here it is – the script of his musical that manages to be both a script and a legitimate novel. As a musical theater fan, I was rolling at the references that prove Levithan is either also an avid musical theater fan, or did his motherfucking research. Either way he nails it. It’s laugh out loud hilarious.

8. Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler (L/B)

under the lights

This book has what is possibly the best girl-girl sex scene I have ever. fucking. read. Seriously. It’s hot. It’s consentual. It’s just graphic enough. And Vanessa’s coming out journey ends with one of the best mic drops ever written, which – combined with the fact that Vanessa is also Asian-American and her GF is bisexual – makes it a total win in my book. The hollywood plot, and the Josh chapters I could take or leave. They’re very well written, just not my personal jam. But I was with Vanessa to the very end. And seriously, ya’ll, that sex scene though. *fan’s self.*

7. Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konisberg (L/G)

porcupine of truth

The queer in this book comes on two fronts. Carson meets a bad-ass lesbian named Aisha (a dark-skinned black girl in Billings Montana), and they road trip to California where he finds out that part of his family history involves the 1980’s AIDS crisis. I like the reminder that AIDS was a thing, since it has largely passed out of our collective consciousness. But my favorite thing was Carson’s realization that while he views himself as the main character of his story, Aisha has her own journey that SHE is the center of. This seems obvious to me, and hopefully to the reader, but that lightbulb moment is one I want to print out and hand to every teenage boy on earth. Just to make sure they get it.

6. Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash (L)

honor girl

In this beautiful debut, Maggie tells her coming out story about when she fell for an older girl at camp, Maggie nails what it feels like to be a teenager, something that is rarely truly accomplished in YA lit. The book is in turns funny and touching and for those of us roughly Maggie’s age it has the nostalgia factor too.

Maggie feels like the kind of girl that I would have been friends with, and her journey makes me wish I’d been much younger when I had my own coming out story.

5. Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (G)


There is a lot to love in this book. The role reversal of the sensitive artist brother and the bad-ass, warrior sister. The fact that, once freed, the horned Prince from the forest ends up with Ben instead of Hazel. The way a fairy tale town is plopped right down into the middle of the world we currently know. The unique take on fairies, their relationships to humans and the way their society works. And the gorgeous language that Black uses to paint this world. It’s magical realism/ contemporary fantasy at its best.

4. What we Left Behind by Robin Talley (L/G/T/genderfluid)

what we left behind

I’ve already gushed about this title here, so I’ll keep my comments brief. I’ve never before encountered a book that felt so close to the process and processing I’ve experienced with so many of my queer friends. The debates about pronouns. The discussion about labels. The way, especially in college, identity can feel so fluid that it might change hourly and how other friends can struggle to keep up. How relationships can fall apart just because you become two different people. This book made me feel all the feelings. And I love that.

3. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (G)

carry on

Carry On is another spin off. It’s sort-of-but-not-really the fanfiction that Cath was writing in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and it’s sort-of-but-not-really Harry Potter/ Simon Snow fanfiction written not in the voice of Cath or Gemma T. Leslie or any other of Rowell’s characters. It is its own thing. Whatever that is. But whatever it is, it’s amazing. And I totally fucking love it. For the friend who about 6 months ago asked me to find him “some gay wizards and shit” I say – here you go and you’re welcome. Classic fantasy struggle with some really fun magic world building and gay ass wizards. Also lots of girls who kick all the ass. Bc obviously.

2. Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz (B)


The only thing that kept this from being my #1 title was the ballet audition scene at the end because that’s just not how ballet auditions work and it’s one of those picky pet peeves of mine. Other than that, it ticked all my boxes. Etta is a black girl who feels too gay for the straight kids and not gay enough for The Dykes, her ex group of friends at school. This book also shows that eating disorders don’t all look the same, and that sometimes people surprise you. It’s so rare to find a good bisexual character, let alone one that openly talks about the unique struggles of being bi. Two thumbs up.

1. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (G)


This is the epitome of “I just want a sweet fluffy romance with queer kids.” I audibly squee-ed – possibly more than once – while reading. It’s like, kittens in baskets level of adorable, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is the book that I want to hand to every gay teen boy I know. To wrap it up with a bow and say “This book is for you.” Simon has struggles, that’s what makes a good story, but Gayness is never presented as the phantom antagonist. He’s a teen boy trying to get through life. Double props to the idea that everyone should have to openly declare their sexuality – straight and queer people alike. Because can I get an AMEN on that? A. Fucking. Men.

Simon is also my prediction and personal pick for the Morris Award. And if it doesn’t win, I’mma throw a giant tantrum, so get ready.

*I use Queer as an umbrella term to include everything that is NOT hetero/gender normative.

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Book Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley


Title: What We Left Behind

Author: Robin Talley

Published: Harelequin Teen, 2015, 405 pages

Recommended if you like: Books with Diverse Characters, Books set in college, Character driven stories, LGBTQIA+, Gender Identity exploration

Read-a-Like: I am J, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Not Otherwise Specified

Rating: 5 out of 5 Top Hat Pendents

First Line: Even before I saw her, it was the best night of my life.

*Toni switches pronouns a lot in this book, so for simplicity I’m going to stick with they/them for Toni in this review.

I haven’t had a chance to read Lies We Tell Ourselves yet, but I’ve heard only awesome things about it, so I was pumped to read Talley’s new book. In it we have Toni and Gretchen who are their high school’s ultimate OTP. Basically you had me at adorable lesbian couple, but it just got better from there. The two go to different colleges and… predictably… their relationship gets rocky. Toni identifies on the trans spectrum and while Toni talks about pronouns and labels and spectrums and binaries to their new friends, Toni doesn’t talk about it with Gretchen. Which leaves Gretchen feeling left out, and confused and scared to say anything lest she says the wrong thing.

Most of all I’m glad we get both Gretchen and Toni’s POV. In Toni’s head we see them grappling with their identity. What pronouns to use. Does Toni feel genderqueer, non-binary, gender non-conforming, trans, male? WHAT DOES TONI FEEL? Toni doesn’t know and while they work it out we see how complicated that process can be. Every other YA book (or non YA book for that matter) I’ve read on the Trans spectrum has been a person very confident in their identity going through the process of transitioning, so it is super fucking fantastic to see someone who doesn’t feel like any of the labels work. I also love that Toni has a crew of queer friends because that’s both highly possible and a genuine reality for many, especially once you get to college. I mean, I hang out with like two straight people, maybe three. We so rarely get to see that in YA books and it made me very happy.

I also loved Gretchen’s point of view. She feels guilty for being the one to change their original plan to go to college in the same city, but her whole life has revolved around Toni since they met. Gretchen wants to see what it means to be Gretchen, and not half of Gretchen-Toni like she’s been for two years. Toni has been a bright spotlight that sort of drowned Gretchen out. Of course Toni shouldn’t change at all, but it’s okay for Gretchen to want to be her own person.

And I love seeing how hard it is for Gretchen when Toni is changing labels three times a week and doesn’t tell Gretchen about it. Every time they talk, Gretchen feels like she doesn’t know what to say anymore because she’s ten steps behind on the processing journey. It’s hard for her too. It’s hard in a different way than Toni, but it’s still hard. Meanwhile Gretchen has a harder time making a big group of friends and ends up hanging out mostly with her Gay Boy Carroll and roommate Sam.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Carroll as a person, but I really enjoyed his inclusion as a character. He’s not particularly sensitive to the whole trans thing, which doesn’t help Gretchen wrap her head around it either. His reaction to everything is a bit selfish and extreme, and while I want Gretchen to go get some other friends, I knew Carroll in college. Hell, I know him now. I love that we have gotten to a point where we can include a queer character who is kind of an ass hole without sending the message that every queer person is also an ass hole.

This book does so many things and it does them so well. It’s a completely authentic portrayal of a high school romance falling apart, not because anyone did anything wrong, but just because in college you become different people, and that’s okay. It shows areas of the queer/gender identity spectrum we haven’t seen in YA before in a way that feels real and immediate and relatable. It shows both the person struggling with identity, and the person that struggle most affects, presenting both their experiences and not making any judgements.

But most of all, it feels real. It feels like I knew these people in college, and maybe that I was some of these people in college. It lets them be who and where they are so clearly I completely believe I’ll meet them one day at a bar.