What Teens Really Want to Read (or Lessons Learned from Teaching High School Lit)


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9748274The school year is coming to an end, which has caused me to reflect on all the works we’ve read in my classes this year and the stories my literature students have enjoyed the most. I’ve also been reading blogs and articles about what’s “in” in YA fiction at the moment (now that vampires, ghost boyfriends, and dystopian societies are decidedly not), which has me wondering: when writers and publishing professionals speak about what will “sell” in today’s competitive environment…sell to whom? It can be easy for writers to forget that we are ultimately writing for kids (a.k.a. people, not “a market”) and what kids want to read matters far more than what happens to be hot or trendy at any given moment. Besides, are young adult readers truly the ones demanding these trends (“We want more books about eating disorders and suicide!”), or do we adults have a tendency to thrust certain issues and messages onto our teen audience, rather than take the time to discover what they really want to read?

My high school students are wise, analytical, and introspective readers. This isn’t the result of high tuition costs or a privileged neighborhood (I teach at a public charter school open to all)—it’s the result of a school culture where reading is taken seriously and good stories are viewed as one of the keys to a good life. As a result, we take the time that’s required to work through some of the best literature our civilization has to offer. This year I’ve had the privilege of teaching Hamlet and Sonnets by William Shakespeare, Paradise Lost by John Milton, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Persuasion by Jane Austen, The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer, Oedipus by Sophocles, Medea by Euripides, The Aeneid by Virgil, and a few short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and others. And by “teach” I mean that each day my classes of 15-17 students move their desks into a circle and crack open the book we are reading. Then we proceed to talk about characters, motivations, conflict, ethical dilemmas, universal truths, human nature, and beautiful language for the next 40 minutes or so.  There are no teacher plot summaries and very few lectures—we read and discuss these challenging works line by line, from cover to cover. Do students love every chapter or even every work? No (Paradise Lost is a particularly tough sell). Do our conversations sometimes get sidetracked, so that one minute we’re talking about Madame Defarge and the French Revolution, and the next we’re discussing how human beings would really behave during the zombie apocalypse? Yes, all the time. Ultimately, what I have learned from teaching teens is that young readers can be just as shrewd as adult readers (if not more so!), even if they find some plots more interesting than other. If I had to choose a “winner” based on student enthusiasm, Dickens takes the prize with A Tale of Two Cities, but after reading and discussing any of these works, my students were able to articulate strong opinions on what makes a character heroic and what makes a story great.

So here’s what I’ve learned about what teens love in literature, and what they really want to read.

1) Stories with Strong Heroes, but Complex Heroes

Achilles starts out as a pouty jerk and most of my 9th graders can’t understand why Homer seems to consider him the hero of the Iliad over the noble Hector, but they start to come around after Achilles avenges the death of Patroclus and reconciles with Hector’s father, the King of Troy (though ultimately I still love Hector more!). Similarly, Sydney Carton receives little student interest until the very end of A Tale of Two Cities, but by then most of my 10th graders think he’s the greatest hero ever because he started out as an unmotivated, drunken loser. The key concept here is growth.  For all the talk I hear about the importance of writing “sympathetic, likable characters,” I really don’t think most teens care that much about likeability (after all, very few of them probably feel “likeable” most days). They don’t want “everyman” characters. What they want are interesting, unusual, and complex characters with strong convictions; characters who grow and change; characters with an edge or a major flaw; characters who are not born heroes, but become heroes. In A Tale of Two Cities, Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay are practically perfect the entire book—both as individual people and as a couple. Students recognized their virtues and do not dislike them per se, but they also don’t care about them as much as they care for and admire Sydney Carton by the end of the book.

2) Love Wins

Even if teens want heroes who overcome obstacles and are not squeaky clean from start to finish, they also want Good to defeat Evil in the long run. Who doesn’t? Of course this doesn’t mean that all YA books must have a happy ending where loose ends are tied into a perfect little bow—far from it. But the stories they truly love do seem to end on a note of hope or moral triumph. To again use A Tale of Two Cities as an example, the ending is sad and bittersweet (spoiler alert): the hero dies, but he sacrifices his life for something greater—love—and so you are left with the satisfaction that he ultimately triumphed. Think of all the YA/MG bestsellers that will probably be considered “classics” years down the road (e.g. Harry Potter)—the concepts may be fresh and the characters unique, but the stories themselves are not avant garde and follow a Hero’s Journey that has captivated readers for centuries.

3) Romance—It Isn’t as Big of a Deal as You Might Think

One of the “rules” for YA fiction seems to be that romance is a must. Sure, teens love a good love story, but based on what I’ve learned from my students’ comments, there also needs to be a bigger picture. The romance that develops between characters is far more appealing if it occurs in the midst of a larger struggle with higher stakes. The characters “in love” must realize there is actually a world beyond the two of them, and their ennobling romance enables them to confront the challenges of this world head-on. Teens get accused of being self-centered and narcissistic all the time, and they live in a world of constant media that encourages them to be this way. Yet that doesn’t mean they want it or like it. Many desire a purpose and long to devote themselves to something greater. As a result, they admire characters who realize they are not the center of the universe, and neither is their love story.

4) Cliches and Copycats—Avoid At All Costs

One of the things that surprised me about teaching smart, savvy teens is how annoyed they get at some of the trends and tropes that exist in YA fiction—love triangles, stories where the hero discovers he is a “chosen one” with magical powers, dead parents, the girl who is somehow overlooked by everyone, but is actually smoking hot—these have all been done a million times before, and teens are getting tired of reading the same old thing. Now of course it’s true that “there is nothing new under the sun,” but the crucial piece of advice here is that when you are writing for teens (or anyone really), you should avoid chasing trends and instead chase after a good story that will stand the tests of time.

5) Beautiful Writing

As a literature teacher, I know that teenage students sometimes struggle with “the classics” because many of them initially seem dry and slow, especially when compared to what they typically read for fun.  Yes, a gripping, page-turning plot is likely to attract more young readers in this age of fast-paced everything, but I also know that kids can and do appreciate beautiful writing. When I told my best friend (since age 15) that I would be teaching A Tale of Two Cities, she immediately quoted her favorite line from the story—“the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate”—which has stuck with her ever since she read the book in high school. Whether it’s “Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles,”  “To be or not to be? That is the question,” or “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” these poetic lines are what we remember years later. So if you want to write books that shape souls and stick with young adults long after they put them back on the shelf, write honest stories that matter and always make beauty a priority.

Ursula K. Le Guinn: Fantasy is the New Realism


During her recent acceptance speech of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Ursula K. Le Guinn, one of the most beloved writers of fantasy and science fiction alive today, stirred authors awake with her prophetic words: “We will need writers to remember freedom…the realists of a new reality.”

Top 10 [Spring Break] Trips for Book Worms


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The month of March usually means Spring Break for anyone with a connection to a school. If you live in a location with an actual winter (like me), the cabin-fever month of February is finally over and you’re ready to get out of the house and explore. If you’re a book lover, add these locations to your spring/summer travel bucket list!

  1. Northern Michigan

Ernest Hemingway spent the summers of his boyhood in Petoskey, Michigan, and the Big Rapids area is home to Michigan “man of letters” and spinner of ghostly tales, Russell Kirk (as well as some great used book stores). And if, as a child, you fell in love with a spunky red-head named Anne (with an e), the historic and romantic Mackinac Island is about as close to the Prince Edward Island of the Edwardian era as you’re going to get!


9. Seattle, Washington

Coffee shops and lots of rainy days for indoor reading, what’s not to love? Seattle also has some amazing independent bookstores, such as the Elliot Bay Book Company.

  1. Salem to Amherst, Massachusetts

A road trip through New England is one of the best ways to appreciate America’s literary heritage. Start at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in Salem, MA (the colonial settlement famous for its witch trials in the 1690s) and then head west, making stops at the Louisa May Alcott house and Thoreau’s Walden Pond near Concord, before reaching the liberal arts college town of Amherst, home to the Emily Dickinson Museum.


  1. Estes Park, Colorado

Estes Park is really known for two things—Rocky Mountain National Park and The Stanley Hotel, a haunted Victorian resort that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining after he and his wife stayed there in 1974. So book a room, enjoy the mountain vistas, and prepare to write a bestseller!

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  1. Baltimore, Maryland

Walk streets traveled by one of America’s most eccentric writers and macabre poets, Edgar Allan Poe. Visit the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum and Poe’s grave in the city’s historic catacombs. Then grab a pint at the Annabel Lee Tavern before taking a trip across the Chesapeake Bay for a stay at the Alexander House Book Lover’s B&B.

  1. The Shire of Montana

Can’t afford a flight to the Middle Earth, New Zealand? Get your geek on and head to The Shire of Montana, a Tolkien lover’s guesthouse, instead!

  1. Portland, Oregon

Portland always ranks as one of the top cities for book lovers, and with book worm paradises such as Powell’s City of Books and a number of other independent book stores, it’s easy to see why. Once you’ve stocked up on reading material, head to the Oregon coast for a stay at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, a literary-themed hotel with rooms named after famous authors such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain. The third floor of the hotel consists of a library and comfy reading area with ocean views.

  1. Hay-an-Wye, Wales

If you’re willing to travel further afield, take a trip to one of the world’s only “book villages” on the border of Wales and England. Hay-an-Wye is home to dozens of secondhand antiquarian book shops and hosts an annual writing festival for 10 days each May.

  1. New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans is like no other city in the United States. It’s history, rich atmosphere, and unique blend of cultures captivates the imagination, which is probably why so many writers—from Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner to Anne Rice and John Grisham—have spent time there and found inspiration. Visit Faulkner House Books in the heart of French Quarter before catching the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District, where you can traverse streets lined with huge gnarled oaks and ornate Southern mansion—the lush setting of many of Anne Rice’s novels.

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  1. Edinburgh, Scotland & Oxford, England

Okay, this one is a tie, but if you’re heading all the way to the U.K., you might as well visit both places in one trip!

As the birthplace of Harry Potter and home to one of the largest literary festivals in the world, Edinburgh, Scotland should be at the top of every book lover’s travel list. In addition to being the city where J.K. Rowling wrote the bestselling children’s series of all time (seriously, Edinburgh is Hogwarts), grey-stoned and spooky Edinburgh can also claim Victorian writers Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), as well as Historical fiction author Dorothy Dunnett. Start off with a walking tour at the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum and then stop for coffee and a slice of Banoffee pie at the famous Elephant House Café (always crowded and kind of a tourist trap, but if you’re a HP fan—THE BATHROOM!). The city fills up in August, but that’s also when the renown Edinburgh International Book Festival takes place.


After Edinburgh, catch a train down to Oxford, a university town home to one of the most famous writing groups in history—the Inklings. A pint at the Eagle and Child is a must, and C.S. Lewis’ home (the Kilns) and his final resting place at Holy Trinity Church are important pilgrimage stops for Narnia fans.


Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot



2014-04-25 06.14.04Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death…

How To Be Courageous Part II: Fortune Favors the Brave


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Right now I’m teaching Virgil’s Aeneid to a class of precocious 9th graders, and I’m loving it. If there’s one trait the ancient Greeks and Romans valued, it was courage. From Hector in the Iliad, to Odysseus in the Odyssey, to Aeneas in the Aeneid, each hero must take a giant leap into the unknown and accept his Fate. In Aeneas’ case, courage meant holding on to the prophecy that he was destined to establish a new Troy (Rome), even if he must first wander around the Mediterranean for over a decade.

Most modern readers of these classical works quickly notice how the human characters are subject to the fickle whims and tantrums of the gods of Mt. Olympus, who represent an ancient truth that’s easy to forget these days: in life, there are many, many things that are completely out of our control. This is so easy to forget because most of us are told from an early age that we are masters of our destiny as long as we are willing to work hard and stay focused on our goals. Now I’m all for tenacity and I certainly believe a strong work ethic goes a long way, but I can also see how single-minded determination can lead to perpetual dissatisfaction and an inability to experience gratitude for the present moment (I say this from experience). You can knock on a door all you want, but someone on the other side has to answer, and there are some ways that may remain forever closed.

That’s why I love this quotation—Audentis Fortuna iuvat—from the 10th book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Fortune favors the brave. Fortune favors those who step into the unknown. Fortune favors those who carry a promise inside them, no matter how long they must wander. Fortune favors those who knock.

Because eventually, one of those doors is going to open.

How to Be Courageous (Even When You’re Afraid): Part I


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courageI’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately—how it is the quintessential quality of heroes, how it is something we all want more of, and how it is something most of us believe we lack. But before I get into how we can become more courageous, here are a few of the reasons why this topic has been on my mind in the first place:

1) Yesterday was MLK Day.

In addition to living a life of courage, Dr. King sure knew how to describe it in a way that gives goose-bumps:

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances. Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it. Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency ask the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

2) Yesterday I saw American Sniper.

I certainly believe that our soldiers exhibit tremendous courage on a regular basis, but one of the things that struck me about this film was the way it showcases the courage of military families in general. This excellent article describes the intense emotions those back home experience on a regular basis, and the courage it takes just to go on living a “normal” life under extraordinary stresses.

“The movie didn’t show what came next. I wished it would have. The throwing up, reflexively, again and again, out of pure fear. The dry heaves, streams of snot, and the feeling of your own body temperature dropping as you curl into a fetal position and stay like that for hours.

The movie didn’t show how you must use every ounce of energy just to exist through the two days of wondering if you’re a widow yet, and then relaxing a bit on the third day because the casualty notification team has not come. If he were dead, they would have been here by now.”

If getting up and carrying on after regular scares like the one described above doesn’t take courage, I don’t know what does.

3) Rejection Results in Fear

And a few days ago I experienced rejection. I won’t go into the details, but I now have two options: 1) Give in to the fear of failure and give up, or 2) Use the door that unexpectedly closed in my face as an opportunity to burst through another. I’m sure many fellow writers out there are familiar with rejection and the fear of failure (if not, you’re doing something wrong), and it helps to know that we’re not the only ones (which is why I watch J.K. Rowling’s speech The Fringe Benefits of Failure at least once a year).

4) Courage Breeds Creativity (to return to Dr. King)

Like I said, it doesn’t take much for the writing life suck you down into a cesspit of fear. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of writing the “wrong” kind of story (i.e. one that isn’t marketable at this exact moment), fear of what others will think. It’s paralyzing, and it certainly doesn’t make you a more creative person. In fact, it often seems that those who create without a care about any of the things mentioned above, but rather because they have something to say that’s worth hearing, end up being the ones who produce art that is actually transformative.

5) I’ve Been Reading Works by Ancient Greeks

And the ancient Greeks thought courage was kind of a big deal.

Take the Iliad, where Hector is frequently described as the most courageous of Trojans, even though he isn’t as great of a warrior as Achilles and knows he’s fated to die at this enemy’s hand. One of the main ways Hector actually shows his courage is through his willingness to accept those things that are beyond his control, along with his willingness to face his fate no matter the outcome.

“Why so much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you – it’s born with us the day that we are born.” ~The Iliad

Aristotle was another ancient Greek who had a lot to say about courage. He describes courage as a virtue that can only be gained by…acting courageously. In other words, we rarely (if ever) feel brave, so if we wait for this elusive sensation we will never become courageous. We only gain courage by taking actions—even the smallest “baby steps”—that demand courage. Take public speaking, for example. Even though America is a fairly extroverted nation, public speaking tends to rank as one of our top fears (surpassing even death!). Yet the only way to get over the fear of public speaking is to…engage in public speaking! If you wait for the fear to disappear before giving it a go, you’ll never do it and you’ll definitely never become good at it. Similarly, the only way to become courageous is to put oneself in uncomfortable, challenging situations where courage is required.

Stay tuned for Part II…

2015: From Survival to Renewal


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I’ll be honest, 2014—at least the second half of it—has been a blur. I finished a graduate program in Scotland and a new novel, and then headed back to the U.S. to start a new job teaching literature at a superb K-12 charter school. Thanks to my Army brat upbringing moving is pretty much second nature by now, but there’s always a period of readjustment that’s filled with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.  “Wisdom comes through suffering” (Aeschylus) is a quotation I often hear at my school, and while it isn’t always helpful in the midst of suffering, upon reflection I do believe that it’s true. My goal for 2015 is to turn a few lessons in survival into opportunities for renewal, so here are the top three things I’ve learned from the challenges of 2014:

  1. Teaching is hard work. Really hard work.

Anyone who has worked in education has probably heard people say things like, “The first year of teaching is the hardest” and “You just have to survive…it gets easier with time.” Because I’ve taught at the college level as a part-time adjunct instructor, I didn’t really feel “new” to teaching, but full-time teaching at the secondary level is truly a whole different level of intense. I now have a new and profound respect for public school teachers, as it is impossible to regard teaching as merely “a job”— it  is a lifestyle, an identity, a vocation that is deeply personal and touches every part of you. This graph from the New Teacher Center has provided perspective during moments when I’m overwhelmed by the emotional rollercoaster that is the first year—apparently it’s completely normal!

2. You have to make the time.

Every year I think life will slow down and get less busy, but it never does. There’s nothing earthshattering about this insight, but making time for the important things really is a choice, though it isn’t an easy one. Whether it’s exercising regularly, reading, praying, cooking healthy meals that take more time to prepare, writing, spending undistracted time with loved ones—these are all things that easily fall to the bottom of the “to do” list when life gets crazy, therefore they are priorities we must choose. Every day.

  1. Challenging books are worth the effort and “the view.”

This semester I had the privilege of reading and teaching some amazing books: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Homer’s Iliad, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. There books aren’t the easiest to read (or teach!), but the beautiful language and permanent insights they provide when it comes to the human condition make them well worth the effort. I had one of my classes write an essay on the lecture The Essential Value of a Classic Education, and in it Dr. Jeffrey Brenzel uses a great analogy to explain why we should struggle to read the classics at all. He compares this journey to a difficult hike his son experienced as a Boy Scout: “You climb up into the mountains, you make your most strenuous effort, you give it everything you have, and what’s your reward? It’s the view. It’s the view.”

I was able to experience Brenzel’s insight after my ninth graders spent the entire fall semester reading the entire Iliad. Now I love Homer, but this amazing epic poem is over 700 pages long and a lot of those pages involve detailed descriptions of brutal battle scenes. I’m sure getting through parts of the book was a challenge for most students, but I think “the view”–the deep understanding gained from this slow and steady journey–was well worth it. By the end, they knew Achilles and Agamemnon, Hector and Andromache, Helen and Paris, and could articulate the virtues and vices of these complex characters. Personally, one of my tangible rewards as a teacher was this doodle by a student, left on the white board after we discussed one of the most moving passages in the poem—the scene in Book VI where Hector, defender of Troy, speaks to his wife and baby son before returning to the battlefield to face Achilles and certain death.

 Heart Hector

 (And by “good” the student meant morally good/virtuous)

Long before there was “Team Peta” vs. “Team Gale,” there was “Team Hector” vs. “Team Achilles” (for the record, I’m for “Team Hector” all the way!). This was definitely one of those moments as a new teacher where “the view” was worth the effort. :)

Happy New Year!

IMAGINATION Part I: The Moral Imagination


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Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive–it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” ~ Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery)

Every summer that I spend in northern Michigan I watch the 1985 film adaptation of Anne of Green anneGables (northern Michigan—especially the Victorian summer colony of Mackinac Island—always makes me think of Prince Edward Island). My fascination with the power that words have on our imaginations probably started when I first read the ‘Anne books’ as a very young girl (and then re-read them multiple times). One of the most endearing characters in all of children’s literature, Anne Shirley made the mundane magical and infused ordinary life with wonder. During her early life in orphanages, Anne’s active imagination seemed to be a coping mechanism (i.e. Katie Morris, her window friend), but once she reached Prince Edward Island it became her characteristic response of gratitude for her new life (“It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it?”), as well as the source of her passionate spirit, love of poetry and history, longing for transcendent mystery, and moral courage. Anne of Green Gables, without a doubt, was the fictional character who sparked my young moral imagination more than anyone else.

The term “moral imagination” was coined by the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and described those intangible ideals “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination” that form a foundation for all flourishing societies (myth, religion, poetry, art…in a word, culture)–sentiments Burke believed were being rejected by certain thinkers who wished to narrow valid experiences to those that could be explained by a limited definition of reason and a reductionist vision where human beings are little more than advanced animals. Russell Kirk reinvigorated the term in the 20th century, referring to the moral imagination as an empathetic “power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.”

Many parents want to encourage the imaginations of their children, but I also meet parents who are wary or discouraged by the kinds of stories currently being marketed to young people (“they’re so dark,” “there’s no clear sense of right and wrong,” “the content is too edgy and explicit”). Perhaps this fear explains why imagination has not always been thought of as a positive faculty. In the Middle Ages the word was often used to describe dark fantasies of the mind that tempted one to do bad things, and in modern times imagination is sometimes associated with romantic daydreamers who can’t cope with the world as it is, so they create their own. This certainly wasn’t what Burke and Kirk meant by moral imagination, but defining the somewhat ambiguous term—especially as it relates to fictional stories—can be a challenge, so I’ve come up with a list of 10 Principles in an effort to narrow it down.

An important point to mention is that when it comes to books for children and young adults, stories with squeaky-clean characters and overly preachy messages (in addition to being dull) aren’t usually the best representatives of the moral imagination. Stories of the moral imagination promote wonder, empathy and hope. They allow us to enter into another’s plight and experience ethical dilemmas, but they also inspire by giving the reader confidence that Goodness ultimately wins out and is not for the weak.

What stories have you read that embodied these principles? Please comment below!

10 Principles of the Moral Imagination

by Ashlee L. Cowles

1) Stories of the Moral Imagination point to an enduring and transcendent moral order, and therefore resist ethical relativism, utilitarianism, and nihilism. They suggest that many aspects of the human experience are universal and can be shared across cultures.

2) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize “what a thing is”—especially, human nature. They recognize that there is something “above human nature” (the supernatural) and something “below it” (the diabolical) (Russell Kirk). The writer does not create this reality, but rather discovers it.

3) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that humans have a mythopoeic means of knowing reality that transcends rationalism and empiricism. Human beings are “sub-creators” (J.R.R. Tolkien) who naturally seek out the Good, True, and Beautiful through story and myth—our primary modes of understanding the deepest truths.

4) Stories of the Moral Imagination defend the notion of free will, while also acknowledging the possibility of destiny, grace, and providence. Because humans are free agents who will not always choose to act virtuously, they as individuals, as well as the societies they form, are always an imperfect—but redeemable—blend of good and evil.

5) Stories of the Moral Imagination reveal that the purpose of human life is not pleasure, power, or utopia, but arête (virtue or excellence) and, above all else, Love.

6) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist the extremes of libertarianism and collectivism by emphasizing individual personhood in inescapable community. This is reflected in the story’s heroes and in the lives of the writers themselves, whose craft is often the result of both solitude and community.

7) Stories of the Moral Imagination emphasize that there are “permanent things” (T.S. Eliot) which must be passed on in order for a culture to endure and flourish. The characters in such stories fight not necessarily for total victory, but “to keep something alive” (Russell Kirk). Memory is therefore crucial, as are the traditions of past generations.

8) Stories of the Moral Imagination resist rigid dualisms by stressing paradox, as well as the sacramental nature of existence. Humans are a mystery in that we possess some kind of consciousness/soul that cannot be explained entirely by scientific means, yet we are also embodied beings, which means the pleasures and sufferings of the material world are central to the human experience.

9) Stories of the Moral Imagination have an ethical end, but they need not be didactic and are not always allegorical. Their primary purpose is not to instruct, but to awaken (George MacDonald). Just as the Moral Imagination is not a thing or even a faculty, but “a process of making metaphors out of images and experience” (Vigen Guroian), stories of the Moral Imagination use powerful symbols, believable characters, and authentic situations to achieve their purposes, rejecting simplistic moral lessons.

10) Stories of the Moral Imagination recognize that truthful fiction often requires “getting yourself dusty” (Flannery O’Connor). Such stories do not shy away from depicting the nature of evil and the broken state of our world, but they also recognize that without the possibility of transformation and a vision of hope “the people perish.”

A Year in Scotland


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It’s hard to believe that our time in Scotland has come to an end. This past year has been a whirlwind, but fortunately we still found time to explore this enchanting land of lush forests, emerald isles, misty mountains, sea-glass studded beaches, and heather kissed moors. As a lover of history, literature, and folklore, I can see why Alba is a place that appeals to people with more romantic sensibilities–those who prefer timeless truths to temporary ‘facts’ and long-lasting, fantastical legends to prosaic annals of the past. From the gritty atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Old Town with its narrow closes and winding cobblestone streets, to the white sands of sunny (relatively speaking) St Andrews or the haunting Highland valley of Glen Coe, Scotland is a land that—in the words of my favorite literary heroine, Anne Shirley—provides much “scope for the imagination.” Here are a few of the highlights from our year in Scotland:

The Western Isles & Highlands


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Edinburgh – Scotland’s City of Literature…and lots of fun pubs! (the two go hand-in-hand, right?)




Radiant Ruins & Creepy Cemeteries





Fairy Forests & Secret Gardens

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Castles and Cairns

IMG_1451 DSC_1416 DSC_0650  Sowells in Scotland 107 Sowells in Scotland 105

Sands, Seashells, and Sunsets

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Craft Beer at STABCO (St. Andrews Brewing Company)

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Hamish McHamish the St. Andrews Cat…and other Creatures Great & Small

WP_20140119_018 WP_20140119_004 WP_20140425_02820140425210100 WP_20140423_118 WP_20140305_01220140317192814 Sowells in Scotland 186 Sowells in Scotland 146 WP_20140520_052 WP_20140520_059 WP_20131020_007


Mini Pilgrimages & Long Walks

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Old Books

DSC_0975 DSC_0989 Chaucer Romance of the Rose Glasgow Monkey


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