Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"The Moon Within" Book Review


The Moon Within by debut author Aida Salazar is a beautiful middle grade novel in verse which explores growing older and self-discovery.

The protagonist, Celi Rivera, has questions about growing older: about her changing body, about her first attraction to a boy, and her best friend Mar’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

It is incredibly important to Celi’s mother that Celi will have a moon ceremony, a ceremony marking her transition from girl to woman, as Celi explains in one of the first poems, “Moon Ceremony”. Celi initially refuses not only the ceremony, but the prospect of growing older:

“I dread the ceremony where she will gather

all six of my aunts

some of my dance teachers

a constellation of grown-up women

to talk to me

about what it means to bleed monthly…

Embarrassment will eat me up whole!” (9-10)

Celi expressed a fear that may be relatable to both readers who have gone through a moon ceremony, and those who have dealt with their first menstruation as well. Although she is embarrassed, her Mima explains,

Our ancestors honored

our flowering in this way.

It is a ritual taken away from us

during so many conquests.” (10, italics in original)

Salazar here not only shares an important part of her heritage with the reader, but she is alluding to the need to take back this ceremony from the times whiteness has attempted to snuff out the rich heritage that Mima is passing along. This snuffing is from the shame that is associated with menstrual cycles, while Celi’s culture celebrates it. Through the reader being privy to Celi’s thoughts, the emphasis on her ceremony brings up interesting points of discussions on preserving culture and taking back a sense of ownership when puberty may make someone feel out of control of their body. Like the ritual being taken away by colonizers, Celi tries to take back control of her body and her moon ceremony.

Although Celi struggles with the idea of growing older, poem by poem she comes to explore what it is to be changing. We follow Celi as she grows to accept her changing body through dance, comradery, and self-love. Dance is one of the spaces that allows Celi to feel comfortable in her body and her femininity, as explored in the poem “Puerto Rican Drum Dance”.

She began dancing as a very young girl:

“I held the tips of my little dress

and pretended I was catching

butterflies in the air.

That is what the music told me to do.” (89) 

Celi for once does not have questions when she dances, she simply knows how to dance, how to answer the rhythm of the music.

The verse of this poem sways like a dancer and Salazar expertly breaks lines to create space within the poem, like a dancer awaiting their next move. Salazar’s poetry is full of vivid imagery which made me feel as if I were falling into the middle of Celi’s world.

Celi is not the only young character going through change, but her best friend, Marco (previously known as Magda), begins to explore his gender fluidity and finds his own self best expressed through his short hair and pants instead of the long dresses Celi loves to wear.

The Moon Within is an honest portrayal of some of the feelings of growing up and having a changing body and mind. Salazar’s verse is an excellent novel exploring the themes of changing and growing older.

Kirkus Reviews calls The Moon Within “a worthy successor to Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret”, and US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera says the book is “revolutionary and culturally ecstatic”.

This book was not published until I was in my twenties, but I wish I had this book when I was Celi’s age, and I hope that readers going through a similar experience as Celi or Mar will find this book. In beautiful prose, Salazar works to destigmatize gender fluidity and menstrual cycles. I can imagine readers experiencing either of these topics will find solace not only in feeling less alone, but seeing Salazar turn these experiences into beautiful poems.

Salazar has more books planned for publication, including Jovita Wore Pants, her first picture book about the revolutionary Jovita Valdovinos. She also recently published her sophomore novel The Land of the Cranes, a novel in verse about a young girl being held in a family detention center for migrants and refugees.




Friday, November 13, 2020

Teaching Literature Online


This semester, I taught a section of Introduction to Literature for the first time. I had been looking forward to this opportunity since I had heard of it, but creating my own syllabus was more difficult than I had imagined. My literary interests are scattered, so nothing I could come up with was a broad enough theme to trace across a survey of literature. Thankfully, I had support for this brainstorming process and for the theme I eventually came up with during my Introduction to Graduate Studies course.

My course is titled: “The Hero(ine)’s Journey.” Unsurprisingly, most of the texts ended up falling into the category of children’s literature. We began the semester by reading a section of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to introduce “The Hero’s Journey,” as it would be the foundational theory from which we would begin our analysis of heroes in literature. Campbell was followed by a poetry unit on the characters of Beowulf and Psyche to compare older notions of heroes with heroines. Those texts were then examined in contrast to the contemporary novels The Lightning Thief and Children of Blood and Bone.

Truth be told, I can hardly remember what the first day of class was like, though it was evident that the students and I were both cautious about the new virtual environment we were learning in. The pressure to make a good first impression was both compounded and eased by Zoom. As the host of the meeting, I felt in control about how I would present myself – but at the same time, I had no experience with the format of a hybrid online course. I could see how I appeared to students, but it was much harder to tell how they perceived me. I was upfront about my position as a graduate student specializing in children’s literature, and the students seemed to respond favorably. There was more shuffling during the add/drop period than I had experienced when teaching rhetoric and writing studies last semester, but I took nothing personally as I knew that academic advising was difficult to access. As the class roster settled, we fell into a routine that the students and I felt comfortable with.

            Here’s a look into a regular week of our hybrid online course! On Mondays and Wednesdays, we meet via Zoom for fifty minutes. Before class, students read the assigned text and then submit a short meeting prep/reading quiz. This is a small-stakes assignment meant to assess reading comprehension or prepare students for the topic of that day’s class. During our Zoom time, I often begin with a plot check for the more complicated texts, then introduce whatever concept I have planned for the day. Occasionally, I squeeze in a video, poll question, or article relevant to our topic. We spend most of our time on the discussion questions I have prepped ahead of time. Discussion takes various forms: verbal conversations, chat quick replies or detailed responses, and breakout groups.

I found that it was difficult to build a sense of community on Zoom, particularly when students were not able or willing to turn their cameras on. As a result, group work has been awkward and generally results in lackluster responses. What seems to work best with this group of students is for me to lead them through the concept or article for the day, converse with discussion questions, and then assign some individual work to be completed and sent in the chat box. Fifty minutes is a short amount of time to get this done, but I have been impressed with how students engaged with the text and the concepts I threw at them. On Fridays, students submit a discussion post on Canvas responding to a question or on whatever free-write topic they would like to bring up. This is a chance to think deeply about the text, elaborate on topics briefly discussed, and to practice MLA citing. They can also “like” each other’s posts.  

Having just finished our “reading half” of the semester after Children of Blood and Bone, we paused reading and discussing texts to begin the “writing half.” Their first major assignment was a literary analysis essay. A couple of weeks were dedicated to the writing and conferencing process, and students submitted a three to four-page paper on one of three prompts. Online peer review was something of a nightmare: if one student submitted late or in the wrong place, the other students would not have access to their peer’s paper. Canvas closed the peer review deadline a day early, so we had to work around it by using email. Conferencing, on the other hand, was much more efficient with Zoom. I made a simple sign-up sheet and hopped into Zoom when I knew a student was coming. I was able to share my screen to point students to where I had left feedback on their rough drafts, and could affirm whether or not they could see it on their end. It also seemed to work better for people’s schedules; they could open up the Zoom app during a work break and didn’t have to worry about commuting.

Once the literary analysis essays were successfully submitted, we took a “break” with a picture book and graphic novel section analyzing ethnicity and disability through Super Cilantro Girl and El Deafo. The conversation about representation that these texts engendered led into the research essays that students are currently developing as I write this. The prompt is quite open-ended: “What kind of representation should we see more of?” Students are tasked with selecting a topic and genre – for example, an essay that focuses on Chicanas in picture books could use Super Cilantro Girl as the main text – to argue that representation is lacking or insufficient. I am excited by the range of topics and genres that students have expressed interest in, and hope that the writing and research process will be enjoyable because of how flexible the prompt is.

I cannot end this blog post without mentioning the fantastic internship course, ENGL 796, that is paired with the first semester of teaching as a graduate student in SDSU’s English department. ENGL 796 is guided by an associate professor and, this semester, is comprised of two M.A. students teaching Intro to Literature and two M.F.A. students teaching Intro to Creative Writing. This course has kept me abreast of current issues and innovations in pedagogy as well as gave me the chance to prepare a portfolio for future hiring. Most importantly, I can share my concerns and successes with peers as we use Zoom to teach our first ENGL classes.  

I am very grateful for the opportunity to teach an introductory course during my time as a graduate student. So far, despite the less-than-ideal online format, it has been wonderful to delve deeply into topics in literature that my non-English major students would rarely discuss otherwise. Though varied in academic year, all of them are taking the study of children’s literature seriously and have shared profound insights in class and in their written work. It is a bit sad to look back at how much we have completed, knowing that there are only four weeks left until the semester ends. Yet I can already see students making connections between their lives and the texts we read, which I hope they will take away with them even after they move on to other courses. My goal as a novice teacher is to encourage students to do this critical analytical work, discovering its relevance to their lives so that they can enact the change they want to see in the world. With this first class, I hope that analyzing “The Hero(ine)’s Journey” will lead to students becoming the hero(in)es they themselves need no matter where they go. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Book Review of "A Song Below Water"

A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow is a fantastic book about prejudice, friendship, and magic. Written in powerful prose with dynamic main characters, Morrow balances magic with real-life events in her novel to create an impactful and resounding story.

Morrow’s first young adult novel follows Tavia and Effie, best friends who are more like sisters. In this world, all sirens are Black women, including the siren Tavia. Although not related, Effie and Tavia refer to one another as sisters, and have such a powerful, and perhaps magical, love for one another. Morrow carries the important theme of sisterhood throughout the story, and shows the true, honest, and loving friendship these two young women have. The two are not only some of the few black people in Portland, Oregon, but Tavia is one of the only magical folk in the city. Tavia is a siren who mostly converses through ASL, except around Effie. Magic weaves through her story, sometimes taking the stage and other times swirling through the background. I would personally call this a light fantasy novel, while others have shelved it as magical realism or urban fantasy (according to Goodreads).

Morrow perfectly describes her book on twitter as embodying “Black girl magic” and excellently focuses on the idea of voice as magic and resistance in her novel.

Although a beautiful and magical book, the more you read, the more chilling the book gets.

At the start of the book, a Black woman named Rhoda Taylor was murdered by her boyfriend. However, she only appeared on the news “because social media had been circulating it and demanding to know why no one seemed to be saying her name” (12). Soon, Tavia learns “the defense is saying the deceased was a siren. Which means she wasn’t a victim after all” (13). Sirens have a voice full of so much power that it can control others. Sirens are powerful, and therefore they are feared. Humans blame Taylor for her own murder.

Art of protagonists by Twitter user @layahimalaya

This hate of sirens was not started by Rhoda Taylor’s murder. The hate is traced back to at least the 1960s “Siren Trials”, when sirens were publicly outed and murdered. The murderers were never brought to justice (27), and this trial seems to be well-remembered and is a cause for fear in the town among humans.

Following Rhoda Taylor’s murder trial, Tavia begins to fear for her own life, as all sirens are seen as dangerous, as murderers. Those found out to be sirens are forced to wear an electronic collar to control their magical voice.

Although these sirens are of course not all murderers, Tavia says “none of us are immune to the public distrust of sirens” (29). Tavia is emphasizing that this distrust pervades society, and perhaps Tavia, a siren herself, has been inundated and therefore mislead by these implicit biases.

The real-world parallel of Morrow’s novel is undeniable. On her Twitter account, she says “I wanted this book to be a reflection on a recent past, not a statement on the brutal present, but I pray it finds the black girls who need it”. Morrow’s book came out not only during the current prominent civil rights movement in America, but being published June 2, 2020, Morrow’s book was published only three months after the murder of Breonna Taylor, to name just one of the many, many Black people who have been unjustly killed at the hands of the American police.

Not only is the parallel to the real world undeniable, the publication of A Song Below Water was perfectly timed, in my opinion. In an interview with Den of Geek, Morrow speaks further on the timely nature of the novel: “In conversation with my sister, I said, ‘My voice is power,’ an assertive, knowing statement and I meant it literally; I was talking about why the world gets so frothingly, viciously, violently enraged at the audacity of Black women daring to have opinions online…I was referring to the ridiculous gaslighting that comes with it where much of the abuse heaped on the Black woman in question is around the supposed fact that she’s a nobody and she means nothing, and no one cares what she thinks—despite that everyone is dogpiling her to tell her so”. 

Author Bethany C. Morrow

Morrow has found a way to elevate her voice in a time when voices like hers are the most important to listen to with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Morrow’s book has not gone unnoticed. Following A Song Below Water’s publication, Morrow was listed on USA Today’s 100 Black novelists and fiction writers you should read, and is highly rated on the popular website, Goodreads.

This is a beautiful, timely book that should be read by anyone. With excellent writing skill, Morrow balances real-life issues with captivating magical elements. All I want is to sing my praises for A Song Below Water, and I hope this review can be seen especially by who Morrow refers to as “the black girls who need it”.

Morrow has announced a sequel to her novel, A Chorus Rises, will be released in 2021, which I am surely looking forward to.





Friday, October 30, 2020

What is an Independent Study?

 You may have heard of the term “independent study” before, and may be wondering what it means. An independent study is not, like it may sound, quiet time in your schedule for you to get your homework done. It is an undergraduate- or graduate-level self-designed course in which you create your own syllabus and assignments under the guidance of a professor whom you request to be your advisor. 


There are so many pros to doing an independent study. One of the exciting aspects of it is how it is self-designed with guidance from the professor, and since it is self-designed, you can hone in on your interests with the course theme. Sometimes independent studies give the opportunity to create a portfolio paper in a dedicated space that is honed in on those interests. Independent studies allow students to take a class on a topic that may not be offered otherwise.  Through researching specific scholarship of your own interest, this is a great chance to create a portfolio paper you may not have been able to write if the class is not offered. Doing an independent study is a little bit like creating your own class. Through such a level of freedom, you can explore what interests you for a whole semester. 


I took an independent study on grief in queer young adult literature. Already my favourite area of interest, the independent study allowed for her to explore such a specific topic and how grief in queer literature varies throughout a specific form of children’s literature, that is, adolescent or young adult literature. After already taking a class on queer adolescent literature, I felt drawn to the older end of the spectrum of children’s literature, and focusing on both a specific age group and topic truly shows the range that can occur even in such a specific genre. Focusing in on a small area allows for variances to illuminate the various aspects of queer young adult literature. Learning more about a specific area of children’s literature and its nuance allowed me a chance to explore a narrowed interest that may not have the opportunity to be offered within our program. 


I am currently in the process of completing a two-semester independent study sequence of Asian American literary and cultural studies followed by Asian American children’s literature. The first independent study was beneficial because I learned how to independently go about researching and familiarizing myself with a field that I had never taken a course in. But I soon faced the challenge of reconceptualizing the role of the secondary sources that supplement the main texts. The critical scholarship that had been integrated into previous graduate seminars, in my mind, were important because the instructor deemed them so, but in these independent studies, I chose what was relevant to what I wanted to study. I was guided to understand that even core scholarship such as Immigrant Acts by Lisa Lowe was groundbreaking in its time but should not be conceived of as an unflawed foundation on which to build my current studies. Taking this concept into the second semester of independent study, which is ongoing, I am currently oscillating between attempting to develop a comprehensive familiarity of the children’s literature field and creating an original contribution to the conversation in the form of a final paper.There is no way that I will ever fully understand every article published in this field, and so I must develop a general understanding and then zero in on the scholarship that is most relevant to my thesis. I am moving away from merely criticizing the texts I read to highlighting what is productive in them. While I've gone back to the drawing board many times, the chance to keep exploring has been an enjoyable process. As my advisor would say, none of my reading and research is ever wasted! I feel confident that the threads of the ideas I have come up with will intertwine into a strong contribution to the area of Asian American children’s literature by the end of my M.A. career. 


However, we do want to warn you of some of the difficulties that we’ve faced in our experience with independent studies. As the student with the course concept, you have to find a professor whose research is similar to that which you want to study, or who is willing to guide you through a field that may not be their expertise. Additionally, you have to create your own syllabus, which includes the main texts you will read, what secondary materials can complement those texts, and what assignments you will produce as a result of the course. Some struggles, successes, and advice about that journey can be found in Ashley’s earlier blog post about “A Graduate Student’s First Attempt at Summer Research.” During the course of the semester, you are responsible for keeping up with the syllabus you create, and since your meetings with the professor are one-on-one, there’s no hiding what you didn’t read! You also do not benefit from the contribution of classmates. All of this is compounded in our current virtual learning environment, in which Zoom fatigue is a barrier to lively and generative conversation.  

Our overall experience:

Overall, we can both agree that we had fantastic experiences in our independent studies. It is important to emphasize here that what you put into an independent study is what you will receive. We both experienced a push to become our own scholars and advocate for ourselves and what we wanted from our classes, and therefore our professors knew what to give in our learning experience. Putting in the time and energy produces rigorous conversations (verbal or written) to create an interesting final paper. Independent studies are intellectually challenging, and therefore, incredibly rewarding -- we figured out what contribution we can make to the field of literary studies. 

Independent research has been an irreplaceable opportunity to create a focused, well-researched paper to contribute to our portfolios (one of two culminating project options for English MA students at SDSU). We both grew as scholars, developing self-motivation and time management skills. It can be difficult to study alone and not have fellow classmates to reach out to, so we both agree that we learned to be productive and self-sufficient scholars. We highly encourage undergraduate or graduate students to take an independent study as part of their academic journeys.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Going to Graduate School During a Pandemic

Spring 2020 is the first time I took an online class, but I didn’t sign up for one. We had to move online due to a now global pandemic.

I am currently in my third of three years of graduate school at San Diego State. I had initially planned on jumping into employment once I graduate, but our current situation has made me rethink that idea. I am now planning on returning to graduate school to pursue a master’s in library and information sciences. This has always been a dream of mine, but the pandemic pushed me to return to school for yet another time. Even though school has been changing and evolving, it has nonetheless been my stability point.

I started hearing about Covid-19 around February or March, although the first case of COVID-19 in San Diego was reported in January of 2020.

I sat in my Aesthetics of Children’s Literature class, listening to students:

“It’s called Covid.”

“It’s not a big deal.”

“It’ll be over in a couple weeks.”

March 12th, 2020 was the last day I was on San Diego State campus. I never knew it might have been the last time I’d be on campus, nor did I know to say early goodbyes to some friends getting ready to graduate and move.

A mandatory statewide stay-at-home order was issued March 19th, 2020 for California.

It’s been seven months since our school went online. It feels like it’s been forever, but also just a month or so.

For me, and many other students and professors alike, this is a very new experience. The closest experience I have had was Swine Flu from my elementary school days where we still went to school and just washed our hands more. I also heard of the SARS epidemic of the early 2000’s, but being so young and in America I had no firsthand experience.

The events this year all felt like I was watching a movie, a scary one at that. 

Professors had a week off to adapt the next month and a half of their brick and mortar classes into an online modality while some students scrambled for new living situations, or those living at home had to readjust to an overall new school experience.

At the start of the pandemic, I took one typical graduate class which met weekly, and an independent study class that met roughly once a month, so my experience may have been a bit atypical in comparison to other students. Both classes were in-person instruction.

My weekly graduate class became an asynchronous class. An asynchronous class means we do not all meet in a scheduled online meeting. We follow the same syllabus, but all our work was online, and we would share ideas and thoughts via Blackboard discussion posts.

My independent study started to meet through zoom as I tried to collect myself emotionally while trying to kick out a twenty-page paper.

It was a very emotional time for me. Between my new adjustment to working from home and trying to process all the news of Covid I felt pretty overwhelmed. I was scared for my family’s health and simply what changes would be coming in the future.

Fall semester, we had a little more time to adjust to going to school during a pandemic, and professors had a bit more time to revamp their classes over the summer to be online.

I currently have one class meeting synchronously, and one which typically meets asynchronously.

For my asynchronous class it probably can be inferred we don’t meet on Zoom. We have various readings and we post weekly reflections and responses to Blackboard prompts and our fellow classmates.

These Blackboard posts from class simulate for me real conversations I would have in class, and it is incredibly helpful for me as a student to read, respond to, and get responses from my fellow classmates. I have recently discovered I love having most our conversations written where we can go back and continue to reflect on what others have said since it’s all typed out on Blackboard.

For my synchronous class we meet once a week on zoom, similar to an in-person class, but maybe a little bit more awkward at first. There’s a lot of people mistakenly talking over each other or for me or being too anxious to talk simply because it is such a new experience. I definitely was initially very overwhelmed. I see a dozen or so faces staring from my screen, and I feel like they’re all staring at me. I’ve grown used to it, but it’s a bit unsettling sometimes.

Recently in my asynchronous class we met with a scholar on our topic (over zoom) and it felt nice to put a face to all these names I have been responding to for weeks. I felt happy to see some friends and classmates I have dearly missed and also have the opportunity to connect to so many new people. I missed seeing my professor, and as we all laughed and discussed nonsense literature it felt a little bit like I was in a classroom again.

I have social anxiety which especially comes out when I talk in class. I have gotten more comfortable speaking up, but on Zoom I almost felt set back at first. I had to relearn how to speak up. I even take notes slightly differently with my class on one side of my screen and my notes on the other side. In class I feel like there are dozens of eyes when I look up because, well, there are. In some classes, our every word is recorded, which although very beneficial, is terrifying for me to think of when it’s already hard enough to talk in a standard class.

Something interesting about doing online school is the change in social queues. In person, I can pick up more moods in the class or when someone is about to talk, but online these social queues, like a small tilt of the head or other minute expressions, are muddled and confusing. I can’t pick up a minute gesture as easily, and it can be easy to misinterpret what someone is saying without being able to see body language.

Another difficult part of doing school online is staying motivated. Staying at a desk and not leaving my house for days on end can be difficult. I try my best to take breaks and change up my environment a little by not staying at my desk or taking a quick drive to run an errand, but I can really only do so much during a pandemic.

I get distracted by duties at home and new noises I didn’t hear at school like a garbage truck or one of the ten barking dogs I live by (or my own dog). The most distracting part though, is the quiet.

At my campus office, I hear the shuffling of feet, students laughing, cars driving by. I hear professors stopping by to say hello. Visitors asking for directions are a thing of my past.

It’s quiet now at home. We don’t live by a major intersection. I can open my windows and hear nothing. The quiet can be distracting, even overwhelming.

It can be lonely doing online school. Some days I can sit for hours on end at my home desk doing homework. I do homework, log on to my online class in the afternoon, log off, and then continue homework until I go to bed. When I wake up, it’s the same cycle all over again.

It definitely is difficult to be so self-motivated when we can’t easily interact with fellow peers. We aren’t used to doing work asynchronously, and it definitely is an adjustment to motivate yourself even more than usual in graduate school. Without talking to classmates about their process, and simply being physically surrounded by people from the same program, at times I tend to feel a bit alone and thrown into the deep end.

I think it should be kept in mind that this is an unknown scenario, even months into online school.

Students and teachers alike are worried about not only staying on top of schoolwork, but some have to worry about employment, a new schoolwork environment, childcare for children or siblings, on top of the health of ourselves and our loved ones. Some members of SDSU lost loved ones and had to still write a paper or teach a class. Some students were displaced from their campus housing and had to move home, or find a new place to live.

Although I have not had to deal with these scary realities I mention, through these months, I think mental health has become a real priority for me, and I think it should for my fellow graduate students who are staying at home for such long periods of time. Like many other graduate students I know, I can work for hours on end with no breaks, forgetting to eat, drink water, or even get up and stretch. Not needing to leave to go to school definitely exacerbates this habit.

Although this is common behavior to discuss in school, this is not healthy.

Last semester, after we started distance learning, I would work for hours on end to complete a paper. I barely remembered to eat sometimes, and this hyper-focus was detrimental to my mental health. I cried, I felt lonely, I felt anxious. I learned the hard way that this is not how I personally should be doing school. I had to learn how to do school at home, including the most basic things like when to get up and go outside or just take a walk around the house for a break from my schoolwork.  

We’re adapting to a new way of doing school, but it’s still incredibly difficult. I’m overwhelmed by the news when I already have school to focus on. I’m clearly learning a new normal.

However, I’m not alone. I’m not the only student in a pandemic.

I need to remember to (virtually) reach out to my friends and those I work with, and I encourage other students to do that as well, and it’s important to remember to simply be kind to yourself in such a strange time.

It’s a hard semester, but I have learned a lot about myself and about school and how we can change and adapt in the face of a difficult situation.

I’m not completely sure what will happen in the Spring semester. I think that if the pandemic requires us to be online in future semesters, it will slowly get easier with time. I know Spring semester will be online, and I hope and expect I can get a little more used to online classes. I truly feel like I will become better adjusted given time. 

I graduate in seven months, and I think graduation will be odd. If online, which I expect will happen, we won’t have that space to say goodbye to one another. There’s an inherent positive, buzzing energy during in-person graduation ceremonies within the students, but I don’t know if this will be the case when I graduate. I am curious if it will even feel like I graduated if it’s all through a video. Will I get that rush I physically felt when I was handed my undergraduate diploma? I don’t know if it will even hit me that I graduated without my classmates around me. 

It’s all pretty uncertain. I’m grateful I can go to a school that allows us to do classes safely from our own homes, but it’s scary to be unsure about what is coming next. 


Friday, October 9, 2020

“Du nót ri-eo cao-bồi:” The Beauty of Language in Butterfly Yellow

 Thanhha Lại’s Butterfly Yellow (2019) clearly stands out among Asian American texts for its delightful play with both the Vietnamese and English language.

The main character, Hằng, is a native Vietnamese speaker who journeys to the United States to find her airlifted younger brother. She ends up carpooling with LeeRoy, a wannabe cowboy raised by professors, who can understand her accented English pronunciation. Lại wields both languages to her advantage in this novel, utilizing the Vietnamese alphabet to capture a distinctly Vietnamese pronunciation of English words. Unlike in English, every Vietnamese word is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. The diacritical marks above vowels indicate changes in tone – follow those, and one cannot mispronounce.

Images from

Lại’s choice to write out English words using Vietnamese diacritical marks does more than just educate a linguistic outsider. It poses a unique puzzle to the readership that is fluent in both languages, a readership often unacknowledged in texts that aim to educate ignorant readers about the “authentic” experience of refugee children. This implementation of language encourages readers who know how to read diacritical marks to sound out each syllable, then translate the resulting sound into a word in the English lexicon. Readers are given clues: spaces separate words and dashes indicate which sounds belong together in a single word.

For example, the main character Hằng says, “Thanh kìu” (60) – “Thank you.” 
Using the chart above, try to decipher “Ai phai bờ-ró-đờ” (52)!

If readers cannot solve the riddle or do not know how to read Vietnamese, Lại smoothly uses the English-speaking listener, LeeRoy, to repeat the words in English spelling so that the meaning is revealed whether or not one has the linguistic knowledge.

Despite the accented pronunciation, this writing choice demonstrates that Hằng knows much more English than refugees are given credit for; her father taught English in Việt Nam and passed on his expertise to his daughter. Hằng even diagrams sentences in English, arguing with LeeRoy as to how sentences should be parsed. At the novel’s climax, Vietnamese, English, Spanish, and French are all sung, becoming a moment of unbounded connection between Hằng, the native Vietnamese speaker, her brother David, who had forgotten the language, and LeeRoy, the native English speaker. This novel shows that language is not an assimilation barrier but a multifaceted means to form relationships despite cultural differences.

Works Cited

Lại, Thanhhà. Butterfly Yellow. Harper, 2019.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

A Grad Student's Experience Writing a Limerick

Senior year of college, we had to write sonnets for my poetry class. I read my sonnet and professor asked, “you don’t get meter, do you?”

I was a little embarrassed, but he was kind of right. I was told it’s just instinctual, it’s how you speak, some of it is the exact rhythm of a beating heart. Nonetheless, all the “da da da da da das” of people sounding out the rhythm just blurred together for me.  

Fast forward two years, I had to write a poem in meter for my graduate school class this semester, and my stomach dropped. I had to write a limerick, specifically. The class is called “Edward Gorey and Nonsense”, so, appropriately, the way to write a limerick makes less sense to me than pure nonsense poetry on the sense to nonsense scale.

While Dr. Thomas kept throwing out limericks through Twitter like he was spitting out sunflower seeds, I was still stuck on starting the first line.

Why is the hardest part of this class about nonsense the one poem with strict rules and guidelines to follow?

First, what’s a limerick?

A limerick is an often humorous, short poem popularized by Edward Lear. It is made up of five lines with a strict rhyme scheme of AABBA. The third and fourth lines are often shorter than the other three. Limericks are typically in anapestic meter, meaning it has two unstressed syllables for every stressed syllable.  

You may have heard of the phrase, “There once was as man from Nantucket”. This is the opening line of many limericks (and jokes) and is in anapestic meter.

The earliest published version of this popularized poem appeared in 1902 in the Princeton Tiger written by Prof. Dayton Voorhees: (Life)

There once was a man from Nantucket

Who kept all his cash in a bucket.

But his daughter, named Nan,

Ran away with a man

And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

I was quite delighted by this poem with the playing of rhymes and the song-like nature of the poem.

I quite enjoyed the rhymes especially, as I am sure is the reason many people are drawn to limericks.

After lots of reading and watching videos, I hoped I was ready. I was able to come up with two limericks for the assignment. Here’s one:

There was once a girl hailed from Ann Arbor

Who searched high and low for just one harbor

She found the lakes and rivers a plenty.

Boats and bones and skulls fill up the jetty

As she throws one more, this time a barber?

So I perhaps obviously styled this after the traditional limerick of “there once was a man from…” I have heard “a man from Peru/Nantucket” poem/joke many times when I was growing up, even in cartoons (I distinctly remember it from a Spongebob episode).

I tried to put this poem in anapestic pentameter, and to what I understand, I think I succeeded, but it sounds a little off.

I’m doing my best to try to understand meter, but I am still not quite there yet.

Roethke’s Some Remarks on Rhythm commented on many limericks having “the rhythms of children” (Roethke, 65), so I tried to make the poem sound musical and playful, not just in the rhyming, but hopefully in a little bit of the rhythm.

Since the class focuses partially on Edward Gorey, I flipped through some of his works to get inspired. I love the dark nature of his works and really wanted to capture that and the atmosphere of many contemporaries who draw inspiration from him.

I was inspired by the River Styx from Greek mythology. I also was inspired by the idea from Asimov and Ciardi’s Limericks – Too Gross: or Two Dozen Dirty Dozen Stanzas of contrasting a rhythmic limerick to create darker or raunchier ideas behind the poetry. The girl in the poem is going on a search for a harbor, which seems all nice and fun, perhaps evoking a young girl having fun in the summer, and then you learn she is getting rid of a body. To me that seems a little bit Gorey (or gory-yes bad joke), and creepy as it sounds I kind of like the storyline. I also did ten syllables per line (pentameter) of possibly anapests.

Here’s the second limerick I wrote:

Let’s go to Kalamazoo, to visit

The world’s largest shoe. A child once quipped

It looks better from much farther away.

It smells like some poo, she said in quite disdain.

And all they can say is “oh no, oh shit”.

I’m going to be honest. I have no idea what meter this is in, if it is even in any meter. I don’t think it is, the first line definitely is not. I again was struggling with meter, but I was playing a lot with sounds and rhyming externally as well as internally. This poem is obviously quite a bit goofier than the other poem which makes it fun to me. I played with enjambment quite a bit in this poem and just with “storyline” I guess in general. I also wanted it to be a bit more nonsensical even though I didn’t quite achieve that to the point which I hoped.

I felt like for this one I was really channeling my inner goofiness and laughing at poop jokes and with a touch of a nonsensical storyline to follow.

I noticed a big part of my struggle in both of these poems was starting, and trying to get over an anxiety I have of it being “right” or good or “perfect” or not “stupid”.

Am I now suddenly skilled at limericks? Not really. But honestly, the hardest part of writing these was starting. I obsessively worried about being in meter, if it sounded stupid, if my lines were too short or too long, and I was just self-conscious.

I can be a very self-conscious writer. I question myself; I agonize over sentences or words until it all just sends me in a spiral.

Through it all though, the biggest barrier to writing a limerick was myself. It got easier when I simply just wrote a limerick and tried my best. I didn’t think about others reading it, or it being posted on our class blog until I posted my submission for class.

We can sit and stare at blank pages for hours, but when it all comes down to it, it’s all just words and what we make of them. I hope to return to limericks in the future in the hopes of getting to understand the genre more.



Asimov, Isaac, and John Ciardi. Limericks: Too Gross. W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.

Isham, Mrs. William B. Life, 1903,

Roethke, Theodore. “Some Remarks on Rhythm.” Poetry, vol. 97, no. 1, 1960, pp. 63–74. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Love & LiteraTea Opportunity for LGBTQ+ High School Students

This week we’re pleased to share the Love & LiteraTea online book group. Love and LiteraTea is “a safe and affirming place for LGBTQ+ youth to connect through books and pop culture”.

Every academic year, students and facilitators will read and discuss LGBTQ+ young adult books along with supplementary literature and media. The books chosen as the foundational texts for this year center on authors and characters who identify as LGBTQ+ and Black, Indigenous, People of Color. The list of books can be found at the end of our blog.

This Fall will be their first year. Their mission is to empower, uplift, and provide community for LGBTQ+ youth by reading and discussing the work of LGBTQ+ writers and artists. Founded by queer teachers, shea martin and Dr. Cody Miller, Love & LiteraTea is a virtual community that aims to create connections in a space rooted in radical love, truth, and pride. 

This group is not a class, and there are no grades. Love and LiteraTea is a space to read, discuss, and amplify LGBTQ+ stories. “This space is by and for LGBTQ people who love reading, sharing, and discussing books!”

Love & Literatea is run by Dr. Henry “Cody” Miller and shea martin.                                 

                                 Dr. Henry “Cody” Miller (he/him/his)        shea martin (they/them/theirs)

Any members of the LGBTQ+ community who are in high school are welcome to join. The application process can be found here ( and applications are due at 11:59PM on October 5, 2020.

Please share this information with anyone who may be interested.

Love & Literatea is free to join, and books will be provided to readers pending funding. (Group members can also buy their own books). Dr. Miller and shea martin will meet bi-weekly (and virtually) with exact dates TBD.

Here are the books Love & LiteraTea will be discussing this year:

“Anger is a Gift” by Mark Oshiro        “The Black Flamingo” by Dean Atta


“Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender   "Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby Rivera    


“Like a Love Story” by Abdi Nazemian "Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas

For those who are not able to join but would still love to contribute, here is the GoFundMe to find more information and donate:

In addition, here is their Patreon:

The first $1000 raised will go towards supplying a copy of their first book to each participant, digital resources accompanying the book, and a safe, password protected space for participants and facilitators to meet.

In addition, check out shea martin ( and Cody Miller ( on Twitter to get to know them!

Here is their website to get more information:

The NCSCL is so happy to hear about this fantastic opportunity for LGBTQ+ youth. Please share this with anyone who may be interested!