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Reading Beyond Your Experience

I’ve always believed that reading transports and transforms you, not only in the way it introduces you to new worlds and new experiences but also in the way it endears and entices you to characters while causing you to wish for the death and destruction of other characters. Reading reveals your true nature. It reveals how within you there is both love and hate. It reveals your assumptions, your privilege, your generalizations and challenges you to confront your true self.

Reading, this very magical, mystical experience is why I trained as a reading teacher, why I represented authors as an agent, and ultimately why I launched Harrelson Press with Sam. We believe reading transforms and transports and that language has the power to heal and challenge even the most difficult and ingrained beliefs.

The reality of our culture today is that the majority of our population doesn’t read. We skim searching for sources, posts, and people who agree with us. When your mission is to be affirmed, you will find affirmation because of the myriad of content that exists and is readily available. When your mission is to never stop learning, you will open yourself to words, stories, and experiences of other people and to the possibility to you are in fact wrong about some things you were pretty sure you were right about.

I can’t help but think about the cosmic, divine coincidence that I finished a young adult novel called How It Went Down the night before I awoke to news of the largest number of people killed in a mass shooting in American history. I read this book as part of my commitment over the past year to purposefully read books written by authors who have been systematically discriminated against in the world of publishing, including women, people of color, and people from lower socioeconomic status.

This journey has led me to recognize and analyze my own privilege. Privilege I was sure I didn’t have. Privilege I was sure hadn’t had anything to do with my pursuing and achieving two Master’s degrees, accepting a Fulbright scholarship, or living into a call to minister as a woman in the Bible Belt. Privilege I was sure everyone was afforded.

I was wrong. I discovered I was wrong by reading stories written by people whose experiences I have never had and quite honestly probaly will never have.

People like Cheryl Strayed.

People like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

People like Yaa Gyasi.

People like Toni Morrison.

People like Margaret Atwood.

When we don’t read, we hear our own beliefs, our own privilege in our hearts and minds echoing, “You’re right. You’re right,” again and again. Reading changes that voice to, “Are you right? Are you right?” Asking you to reflect on how you see the world and why you see the world the way you do.

What we need more of is not certainty, but uncertainty that leads to reflection asking us to question what we have always thought was true; asking us to question who we are and who we will become over and over again as we learn more and understand more about other people’s experiences.

What We’re Reading with Our Girls

As we were traveling to see family, Sam and I were listening to a NPR interview with the author of Lab Girl. She was talking about the difficulty she has had as a woman in a male-dominated profession.
Tom Ashbrook asked if she would thought that she would ever be able to operate in her profession, after the many discoveries and awards she has been given, without gender being an issue. She laughed and laughed again and then responded, “No, I think gender politics will always be an issue.”

And I wondered about our girls. How are we going to raise girls who are resilient and independent? How are we going to teach our girls that they can pursue and succeed in any profession and field they feel passionate about?

My teacher instincts tell me that introducing them to books that question and challenge gender stereotypes is really important. Here are some of the ones we are reading and we read and read with our girls:

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Stephanie’s Ponytail is a brilliant book that shows how having your own style despite what other people think about you is empowering and often leads to people following you. It also cautions about the power you have when you are a leader and have people who are looking up to you. Powerful message for independence and responsibility.

 

 

Paper Bag Princess falls into the category of fractured fairy tale because while it has the elements of a fairy tale, it changes the roles. The princess is the one who rescues the prince in this story and she does it without batting an eye. The questions and conclusions that have come from our reading this book are certainly worth rereading at every opportunity!

 

MH just got this book and she loves it. It is chock full of nonfiction stories of powerful women who were successful. It also included instructions for knot-tying, camping, and other outdoor activities that some would say were for boys. The content area reading strategies she is developing is an added bonus!

 

The story of a girl who doesn’t judge a giant for just being a giant and who travels to giant country and defeats the giants eating other children? Yes, this is one of our favorites for sure!

 

This one. Matilda harnesses her powers to help those who have been oppressed by an evil headmistresses while also defying and overcoming her family of origin. Wow, just wow. I need this one as much as my girls!

 

The hardest aspect of parenting is that you don’t know how your kids will turn out. You can’t be certain that what you hope you are teaching them settles down into their hearts and souls and becomes a very part of who they are, but we can try. We can read them stories with strong female characters who challenge powerful people and beings. We can reread these stories telling them that their style, who they are, is unique and special. We can talk after these stories about how we can use our power and leadership to do good and to be kind to others.

And we can hope that in reading and talking, we too learn these lessons.

Why I Started Harrelson Press

Two and a half years ago, I got a crazy idea to start an independent press. I had been working for Harrelson Marketing with authors, nonprofits, and musicians trying to help them find their voices as I pursued the same in seminary. What I found was that authors, especially were not getting much money for their creative work. In fact, many of the authors I worked with were up to their ears in debt to their publishers.

I knew I could do it better and fairer.

What I didn’t know is how to publish a book. After hours and hours of frustration, reading, asking questions, and researching and pricing printing options, Harrelson Press released its first book by Sheila Ingle called Brave Elizabeth. This is the story of Elizabeth Jackson, mother of President Andrew Jackson and how she survived as a single mom in the midst of the American Revolution with boys who all went to fight. Reading her story writing so eloquently by Sheila inspired me to be that kind of brave woman.

Our second book was Women’s Self-Defense: being sure-footed never to be a victim, which recounts the stories of women who have been abused and attacked as well as practical self-defense instruction. Denise’s stories and expertise as a Women’s Self-Defense instructor reminded me that there are stories that are hard to hear and hard to read that need to be shared. They need to be shared so that they don’t keep being more and more women’s stories. They need to be told so that we are all aware of the world we are living in and that it full of hurt and pain.

Our third book was Stacy Sergent‘s Being Called Chaplain. In this book, Stacy shares her experience being the presence of Christ in hospital rooms and waiting rooms in the hardest situations as a hospital chaplain. She is honest about her struggle to keep her own faith in the midst of seeing how fragile and unfair life is.

Since then, it’s been hard to keep up! We now have two picture books: Walking with Eliza and The Journey of a Flower.

I started Harrelson Press to do publishing better, but what I’ve found is life-changing stories and dear friends who have been brave enough to share their stories. They have reminded me that the publishing industry isn’t dead. Ebooks and print books will continue to sell when there are stories as good as these.

I can’t wait to see what stories I’ll find in 2016!

Finding Home

 

 

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which has made me fall in love with her writing and her ability to tell a story all over again. As I talking to Elisabeth this week on our weekly podcast, she told me that Gilbert had done several Ted Talks, which of course I needed to check out.

You should listen to the whole thing:

What struck me about this is her interpretation of home. “Home is the place or the thing that you love more than you love yourself.” For her, it was writing and that drove her through 6 years of frustrating failure.

There are so many of us who live each day off kilter and out of sync because what we are spending our time doing is so not who we are that we exist in a constant state of unhappy stress. Maybe you are living there because you are scared of change or scared of failure or scared of the unknown, but I just keep thinking there are only so many days we have to live. Why not risk living them to find home or if you’ve already found home to go home and enjoy giving up yourself for something more important?

$1.50 Grace

I went to the library today expecting to fess up to the fact that I had turned in an overdue book because it was a new release, and I just wasn’t quite finished with it. I knew what I had done and even if I had forgotten the email notice addressed Merianna Louise Neely Harrelson certainly got my attention as the use of my full name did when I was a child. I had calculate out that the amount I would owe would be about $1.50. I even had cash for the occasion.

So, I was very surprised when I brought my stack of books to the checkout and admitted to having a a late fine only to find out that there was no fine on my account. I knew I had received an overdue notice, but there must have been a grace period extended even on new release non-renewable items, even for repeat late return offenders like myself.

The librarian smiled and said, “Well, that’s something unexpected and nice for today.”

I smiled in response and started to think about that $1.50. It doesn’t seem like much, but it could be a pack of gum of box of mints to help us get from Columbia to Asheville on one of our many trips back and forth. It could be a water or pack of peanuts at a gas station when Baby H is desperate for a snack.

And it could be just a little bit of the divine creeping into regular life reminding me that there are always opportunities to see people and to help people no matter how little the gesture may seem.

Why It’s Hard for Me to Read Books Now

We have now published 3 books in print and after agonizing after each and every detail of the formatting and book cover, it makes it hard for me to read other books.

I notice things I didn’t notice before. (Is it just me or are all the copies of Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity printed crooked on the first 5 pages? No, really they are. I got a ruler out and measured it.) In the midst of noticing these things, it distracts me from reading the book, even books I have been longing to read.

I wonder about the glue choice and why the publisher didn’t upgrade or perfect bind their books. I wonder about bleeds and spacing and why the print is so small in so many books.

Sure, there are things about our own books that I wonder if we’ll change in the next printing because the fact of the matter is publishing isn’t a stale profession and is changing more and more everyday. I wonder these things, but I can’t help but smile when I hear:

Oh wow, you can actually read this font!

The spacing between these lines makes me so happy.

This cover feels so good.

It’s the little details that count. I know we haven’t been at this long, but I sure am proud of what we’re doing at Harrelson Press for our authors and our readers.

We’re taking care of the details so you can enjoy the awesome stories our authors have written.

On Renewal

I did it. I actually renewed my books before any fines were incurred.

This sounds simple, especially since the options for renewing your library books are endless: by phone, in person, online. Why I haven’t been able to do it effectively is beyond me, but it has gotten to the point that my husband won’t let me borrow his library card. He knows me too well.

The main reason is that I think I am going to be finished with the book in the allotted time. It seems completely reasonable that I will be able to finish reading, studying in three weeks, right?

But as we all know, life doesn’t tend to go as any of us plan. So, I end up scrambling to remember how many weeks it has been and whether I have time to renew the book before fines begin. Most of the time, I can’t remember without a little help.

For me, that’s a truth I need beyond just my library books. We all need help in life. We all need renewal in life. Some time that is life-giving that reminds us that three weeks have gone by since we checked out. It’s easy to get caught up in the fast pace of day after day and week after week. It’s even easier to forget that there are things our bodies and minds need to be renewed.

As I approach Holy Week this week (with no worries of library fines), I know I am going to take time to check in with myself not because I just want the refreshing spirit of Easter, but because I want to be reminded of my limits and boundaries as a human being who needs help and who needs time for renewal.

Inactive Churches

I’m reading Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal and ran across this moment of brilliance from the character of Joshua or Christ in Christopher Moore’s narrative:

No, action. Contemplation. Steadiness. Conservatism. A wall is the defense of a country that values inaction. But a wall imprisons the people of a country as much as it protects them….One cannot be free without action.

He continues to explain this concept to his friend Biff who is a having trouble understanding:

[He] wasn’t teaching us about action as in work, it was action as in change.

This caused me to literally stop and go find a pen because it is the perfect description of the frustration I have with so many  churches.

Our country and our cities are full of inactive churches, hard at work, but doing absolutely nothing to change the world.

We’re building ourselves into sanctuaries of safety, protecting ourselves from the threat of change. In the process we are worshipping ourselves and not a God who is living and active and working among us. Creator God did not breathe life into us for us to feel comfortable, but for us to join in the creative work God is doing.

Inactive churches are not introducing people to God. They are introducing people to how to make themselves gods.

That’s not the gospel Christ died for.

It’s time to break down some walls.

Reading Brain Labs

Did you know there were reading brain labs that study how kids learn to read?

“The theory of the fourth-grade shift had been based on behavioral data,” says the lead author of the study, Donna Coch. She heads the Reading Brains Lab at Dartmouth College.

We actually ran a reading lab in the summer at Furman for the final practicum of our grad course work. It was fascinating to see how parents, teachers, and students interacted with our professors. They asked question we would have never been asked as classroom teachers because our setting changed.

The process of reading and learning to read and re-learning to read still fascinates me (I mean really here I am writing these words sipping a cup of tea and there you are sitting where you are sitting reading those words on a screen, incredible!) and reminds me of the time spent with students trying to find that switch to flip to help them see they have magic inside their heads that turn symbols into letters, letters into words, and words into sentences.

Trying thinking about that for a bit while you’re reading your favorite book and be thankful for the teachers, parents, and researchers who helped unlock that magic for you. I know I sure am!

Summer Reading

 

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On Saturday morning, we went to our library branch for the puppet show and found that they were telling Elephant and Piggie stories.  As we listened, I basked in the way there were so many different types of people for us to share the reading quilts with including Arabic-speaking families as well as Hindi-speaking languages. Afterwards, we talked to a mom and her two children who had a Jamaican accent to ask how far they were in the Magic Tree House series, and they gave us the inside scoop that the main branch had all the Magic Tree House books.

As we were looking for the Elephant and Piggie books we had just heard aloud, the librarian reminded us of the summer reading challenge. Although we had lost the lists I had picked up at the SC Book Festival, we were able to get new ones and relive all the reading and activities we had done.

I was reminded of the summer mornings we spent at the Spartanburg County Public Library as we wrote down the chapter books and picture books we had read this summer. I was reminded of the folded up list that we would get in the summer and those yellow reading tubes my younger brother, and I would hide in while my mom checked out the books. I was reminded of the trips back and forth that my mom made with us, and how we started to learn the different parts of the library and where our favorite books were kept.

When we went back to the library yesterday afternoon, the girls went straight to the Magic Tree House and Babymouse section, and I just smiled.

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And when we went to Barnes and Nobles to pick out new books to celebrate reaching our summer reading goals and MH said, “I wish I owned a library, then I could get books whenever I wanted to,” I smiled again. It’s really hard and scary to wonder what you are passing on to your kids, but sometimes you see little glimpses of good things that are sinking into their hearts and minds.