All posts by Shelah

About Shelah

(Editor-in-Chief) lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids. She has a BA in English Teaching from BYU, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU. Her work has been published in Dialogue, the Mormon Women Project, Irreantum, BYU Studies, and Segullah. When she’s not writing or wrangling, she can often be found running through the city in the pre-dawn darkness.

2014 Whitney Awards: Middle Grade Finalists

I feel fortunate to be the one writing about the Middle Grade Whitney finalists, because there’s not a bad book in the bunch– all five were delightful and interesting in their own (quite varied) ways. Here’s the recap:

Marion Jensen’s Almost Super is the kind of book that epitomizes a middle grade novel for me. The story centers on Rafter and Benny Bailey, of the famous Bailey superhero family, who will get their superpowers at 4pm on the first February 29th after their twelfth birthdays. They’ve spent their entire lives dreaming of this moment, and they’re totally underwhelmed when those superpowers do arrive (the ability to light polyester on fire doesn’t often come in handy in hand to hand combat). The boys worry that their family is going to go down against the cross-town rivals, the Johnsons, especially since it appears that Juanita, their nemesis, has all the powers. But the three kids come together to heal rifts and ferret out the real bad guys behind the scenes. This book is witty and entertaining and has a great message, and although it’s a perfect stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Rafter, Benny and Juanita.

I usually don’t have many good things to say about the second book in a dystopian action trilogy, but Peggy Eddleman’s Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats is an exception to my (highly prejudiced) rule. In this book, the bomb’s breath that threatens White Rock is descending, and Hope, Brock, and Aaren leave their home in Kansas to travel to the Rocky Mountains in an effort to find an antidote to the poison that will soon overtake them. The book has plenty of action and adventure, but my favorite part of the story was Hope’s relationship with her birth family, whom she discovered along the way. I think it’s common for authors to develop characters in their first novels, but I loved seeing Hope’s character change in important ways in The Forbidden Flats.

The first book in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince, was one of those books that was so good I think I bored all of my friends by talking about and demanding that they read it too. The character development was lovely, the descriptions of the setting were right on target, and the plot twist at the end of the story had me thinking Nielsen was a genius. I think that in some way that set my expectations too high for the other books in the trilogy. While The Shadow Throne brings the trilogy to an ultimately satisfying conclusion, I found myself unable to recapture the thrill I felt while reading the first book in the series.

This year the Whitney finalists included two books by Kimberley Griffiths Little, The Time of the Fireflies and Forbidden (in the YA category), and both books are gems. The Time of the Fireflies is the story of Larissa Renaud, who lives above her family’s antique shop on a Louisiana bayou. Larissa isn’t scared by much in the shop, except for the doll whose eyes seem to follow her. Then the phones in a wall of disconnected phones start ringing, delivering messages for Larissa, who realizes that she must travel to the past to secure her family’s future. The book is beautifully written with scenes spanning several centuries, and the themes of family love and bullying resonate with her intended audience. The story is also delightfully creepy, and may keep readers’ lights on for a few nights after they finish the book.

 My top pick of the category is undoubtedly Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The seven students at Saint Etheldreda’s School for Girls are enjoying their Sunday dinner when suddenly their headmistress and her brother drop dead at the dinner table. The girls see this fortuitous event as their ticket to freedom, and decide to bury the bodies in the vegetable garden rather than inform the authorities, who will surely return them to their parents. However, keeping their headmistress’s demise a secret and fending off a murderer becomes more work than they had bargained for. While the book takes place in the Victorian Era, these girls (Pocked Louisa, Stout Alice, Dull Martha, Smooth Kitty, Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane and Dour Elinor) have spirit to spare. They recognize that the death of Mrs. Plackett might lead to the most freedom they would have in their lives. This is a darkly tongue-in-cheek book that gets all of the details right, and also has a lot more heart than I expected it would when I started reading. I enjoyed it more and more as the story wore on, and was happy to see a satisfying conclusion, with lots of girl power.

2014 Whitney Awards: Romance Finalists

When I first started reading books for the Whitney Awards about half a decade ago, I was enthusiastic about the general fiction books and the young adult books (that’s back in the old days when there was a single YA category). I had a healthy respect for speculative fiction, and a degree of scorn for the romances. Yeah, I was one of those people who thought she was too serious a reader to enjoy romance novels. However, over the last few years, my attitude has changed. Once I understood the form of the genre and was willing to go with it rather than buck its conventions, I started to enjoy the category more and more. In fact, “reading the romance” (also the title of a fascinating book by Janice Radway) has become one of the things I look forward to most with each Whitney cycle. This year was no different, and here’s why.

This year there are three “historical romances” among the finalists, and two contemporary romances. For the last three years, historical romances have taken the prize, and they seem to be enjoying a heyday at the moment. This might be because Mormon authors and Mormon readers generally want to read “clean” books, and historical romances, which often feature aristocratic or highborn characters, tend to follow old-fashioned courting rituals, and there’s no expectation that sex and swearing will be part of the book, even if the characters aren’t Mormon (by the way, only one of the five finalists features overtly Mormon characters this year).  Continue reading

How to: Get stuff done!

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My son’s birthday cake, made by my mom

When I was a girl, long before the advent of Mommy blogs and Pinterest, my mom knew a thing or two about awesome birthday parties. One year I had a cake decorating party where she made all of the girls their own individual cakes, and then she sewed aprons and chef’s hats for all of us to wear while decorating the cakes. Another year, she created a replica of the Millennium Falcon out of cake, frosting, ice cream cones and candy for my brother’s birthday, which was served to a group of totally unappreciative four-year-olds.  When I turned sixteen, she threw me a surprise party, and I thought she had a stomach bug because she locked herself in the bathroom for two days to decorate the cake.

Yes, you read that right, two days.

When my mom takes on a project, it’s invariably creative, beautifully executed, and perfect. She doesn’t take shortcuts, and it shows. Those aprons my nine-year-old friends and I wadded up into balls when we finished our cakes didn’t have a stitch out of place. Whenever I have a project where I know that details count, she’s the first person I call.

But she would be the first person to tell you that all of that perfection has a cost. She pays in time.

Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday. She got half a dozen cheap presents I bought on Amazon and her older sister wrapped while I was getting the oil changed (in between trips to the orthodontist and the bakery, where I ran in and grabbed a cake). She didn’t have a birthday party, because she said she didn’t want one, which was fine by me.

I’m not quite sure how to say this without sounding full of myself, so I’m just going to say it: people often ask me how I manage to do the things I do in my life. I’m not the CEO of Facebook or anything, but I do keep six small people alive, work part time, hold a church calling, volunteer at my kids’ school, exercise, read, write, and (with lots of help) keep Segullah moving forward from day to day. Most days I even go to bed before 10pm, with the laundry folded and no dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.

How? Continue reading

Surprise: I miss winter

IMG_1006Usually, by the time March rolls around, I am ready to shed my skin. After months of running in subzero temps, my hide is literally chapped.

Usually, but the time March rolls around, I’m eager to welcome daylight savings time, because it means that the snow might finally melt.

Usually, by the time March rolls around, I’m hoping that the grass might make an appearance before school gets out, that I might be able to cross the back yard on the way to the chicken coop without slipping and sliding, that I might not have to buy another case of handwarmers from Costco.

I know that those of you in the East and South have been dumped on this winter. I’ve watched the news and seen all of your photos on Instagram. I know most of you are still shivering in your Uggs. But here in the west, the daffodils are in bloom, my skin is nice and soft, and my three-year-old begged to turn on the sprinkler this afternoon.

I hate it. Hate, hate, hate it. Continue reading

A Journey to the Heart of Africa: A Conversation with Margaret Blair Young


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lisowski at well celebrationMargaret Blair Young is an award-winning short story writer, playwright, essayist and novelist. Several years ago, she also took on the mantle of filmmaker when she and Darius Gray created the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. After centering her writing and research on Black Mormons in America for so many years, it should come as no surprise that she’s now turning her attention to Black Mormons abroad– her new film, Heart of Africa, is currently in production. It centers on the question of whether a former revolutionary from Congo and a farm boy from Idaho can transcend their pasts to become mission companions. There’s a kickstarter campaign for the film going on right now, and Margaret joins us at Segullah today to talk about the story.

What inspired you to undertake the Heart of Africa film?
My husband and I were in a French-speaking MTC branch, and sent many young men to the DR Congo mission.  I adopted these particular missionaries.  (Anglo women are not yet called there.)  I wrote to at least fifteen LDS missionaries and to their companions over three years, and so I went through at least fifteen missions in the DR-C via email.  We are STILL family, and these young men are very much involved in the film.  When I began writing to Aime Mbuyi, a Congolese companion to one of “my” young men and a former revolutionary, I saw the rich possibilities for a film. Aime had been a revolutionary, trained at a boarding school to distrust white people, and he’s paired with a naive kid from Idaho who doesn’t realize how deep his own prejudice is. Continue reading