Introvert Superpowers

March has been a busy month for school visits!

Early in March, I visited the HEART for Christ homeschool support group. One thing I love about homeschool groups is the mixture of age ranges. These students ranged from 4th-8th grades, and their questions were deep, varied, and fascinating.

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Photo credit: Paty Sayre

Last week, I was the author guest at Allen At Steinbeck Elementary School. They hosted a schoolwide event called Story Fun Night, and it was just amazing to see so many kids and parents turn out to support literacy. The crowd was huge and I was recovering from a bout of laryngitis, but we had a blast anyway.

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Photo credit: Paty Sayre

I love visiting school groups and helping students get excited about reading and writing. But I wouldn’t always have said that. If you’d told my 13-year-old self I would one day be talking in front of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, the shy, awkward teenager I was would have crawled under the nearest table (probably with a book).

I’m an introvert to the core. No work has better helped me understand that part of myself than Susan Cain’s amazing book Quiet. (It’s also an incredible resource for parents and teachers of introverted children, by the way.) Introversion can be a strength–it’s linked in many cases to traits like creativity, empathy, and a strong sense of conscience–but it can also be a hindrance to doing things like speaking dynamically in front of a crowd.

Unless passion is at stake.

Cain writes that (some) introverts have a special ability–call it a superpower–to temporarily act like extroverts for the sake of “core personal projects,” subjects they care about deeply.

For me, that subject is books.

When I’m talking about literacy, I’ve found that I can get up in front of people, speak with energy, and actually enjoy it. I get energized when I’m listening to students talk about their questions, their roadblocks, their story ideas. Because it’s about books. And kids. And putting the two together. And that matters to me.

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Photo credit: Paty Sayre

So yes, I thoroughly enjoy the solitude that a writing life entails. And yes, after speaking, I usually disappear into a book or take a nap. But I’ve also, surprisingly, come to love the part of my job that involves talking in front of people. I love the connection that reading offers us. I love the conversations that develop at the book signing table or over e-mail. I’ve discovered it’s actually pretty fabulous to love doing more than one thing.

So to all my fellow introverts out there–you’re okay. You’re doing fine. Follow your passions. They just might lead you to your superpower.

We Interrupt This Program To Announce…

I am not dead. That is today’s announcement.

Actually, today’s announcement is (possibly) even better than that.

The reason for the last few months of blog silence is…(drumroll, please)…

Book 3 is almost done!!!

In fact, this announcement is being made in a quick escape from the writing cave. Then I’m back to moving paragraphs, analyzing character motivations, and wondering how on earth I got so many prepositional phrases into that one random sentence. And how on earth to get them out again.

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Yes, those are peanut butter cups in the corner.

But all YOU need to do is get excited for Book 3 of The Voyages of the Legend, coming early summer 2016!!! 

This will be second-to-last volume in a projected series of 4 books. Writing it has been a journey, but I hope you’re really going to love this new story.

To celebrate the release of this book, I’m also excited to announce that Books 1 and 2 are getting a new look! These second editions will feature exciting new covers, an awesome new map, and even some bonus features, like discussion guides for easy use in classrooms or book clubs. The first editions will be retired when the second editions go live (hopefully near the end of this month), so if you want a first-edition copy, don’t wait! You can find one in select Bay Area bookstores or on Amazon.com.

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Wondering where to get your books signed this spring? You’ll find me at the Bay Area Kids’ Book Fair (Silicon Valley edition) on April 16 and the Bay Area Book Festival on June 4-5: both of which are amazing events and free to the public. Keep an eye on my News and Events page for even more upcoming fun. There are also still a few more months left in the school year, so if you’re a public, private, or homeschool co-op teacher interested in an author visit, send me an email!

And now…back to the writing cave.

Good, Not Perfect

Two years ago today, something little short of miraculous happened.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

I witnessed the launch of my first published novel.

It wasn’t the first book I’d ever written. I started my first novel when I was fifteen and labored over it lovingly all through high school and part of college. Then one day, I knew I’d outgrown it. It was crushing to realize that it wasn’t my magnum opus, and that it wasn’t going to be published. I lovingly, sadly filed it away in the proverbial drawer. And I started work on a new book. That one ended up in the drawer too. And the next one.

And then came the book that would become The Illuminator’s Gift. Five years of writing and rewriting–by the shores of an English lake, in the middle of the night, in bed with whooping cough, in fingerless gloves on bitterly cold mornings. A book whose first draft was 100,000 words long. A book that went through at least three titles and about thirty secondary characters, half of whom never made it into the final. A book whose story I didn’t know until I finished it. In some ways, it came to me like a gift.

As I was getting close to finishing, I held long debates with myself over whether this was The Book That Ought To Be Published. I studied literature and writing in college, and I knew enough to see that this was not a perfect book. Should it end up in the drawer with all the other defunct novels? Should I wait to publish until I wrote Something Perfect?

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Well, I decided to go for it. Because I knew that this book had come to me like a gift, and a gift is meant for sharing. I also had the sneaking suspicion that if I chickened out on this book and hid it away out of a sense of fear and rampant perfectionism, I might never work up the nerve to publish anything. After all, when am I really going to write Something Perfect? When is anybody? (Okay, Tolkien excepted.)

And there’s a time to let go of Something Perfect and go forward with Something Good.

This was it.

Not that I don’t still sometimes wonder why on earth I decided to share this imperfect book with the world. (Especially the first time someone found a typo in the book.)

But when it comes down to it, I’m awfully glad I did.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Because it started me on a path of saying yes to projects that are Good-Not-Perfect. Stuff like taking a solo roadtrip to a monastery (and nervously checking my tire pressure approximately 954 times). Like signing up to take graduate-level seminary classes. Like speaking in front of 200 fourth-graders. Like writing, editing, and publishing a second book within a year of the first (and writing a third, due out next year).

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” And as one Good-Not-Perfect project–writing, relationships, teaching–leads to another, this paradigm is shaping my life. With practice, I’m becoming better able to accept what is good in life, even if it’s not perfect. And for this life I am most deeply grateful.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

What are some of the good-not-perfect things in your life?

Searching for Inspiration

Last week at a school assembly, a student asked me, “Where do you get your writing inspiration?”

I blurted something out on the spot, but I kept thinking about the question. Where do I find writing inspiration? Most of my writing time feels more like running on a treadmill than communing with an otherworldly Muse, but inspiration is a part of the process.

I guess my shortest answer is that inspiration can be found anywhere if you’re looking for it. A good friend of mine finds inspiration for paintings in freeway overpasses. Another designs knitting patterns based on California state parks. I’ve found inspiration in many places (some of them odd), but as I thought about it, I was able to identify five of my most common sources of inspiration:

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  1. Nature. A refreshing break from Photoshop and airbrushing, the beauty of the outdoors is real. Colors, shapes, textures, are all there for the soaking in. When I’m stuck on a scene or just feeling blocked in general, a walk or hike outside often gets me going again.
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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

2. People. In their infinite variety and wonder, in their beauty and their ugliness, in their interactions with me and with each other, people are a powerful source of inspiration. If you want to be a good writer, I think you have to start by observing the people around you.

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3. Spiritual life. The words “inspiration” and “Spirit” reveal an etymological relationship that shouldn’t really be surprising. Praying and writing are both kinds of self-forgetfulness.

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4. Books. Not of course, for plot events to copy. But books inspire me because I love to watch how other authors handle characters, interweave storylines, and measure suspense. It’s the same reason that dancers watch recordings of ballets and athletes watch the Olympics. If you’re a writer, you want to observe other writers to learn the craft.

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5. Details. I tell my students to be aware of the world around them, to use their five senses, to stop and notice the things that someone else might pass by. You never know when, in the rush of writing, you’ll reach out for an image or symbol and hit upon the fierce flower you saw pushing through a picket fence this morning.

And, as I tell my students, wherever inspiration comes from, make sure you write it down! I’m pretty sure I’d never remember anything if it weren’t for the various notebooks I carry with me (almost) everywhere.

Where do you find your inspiration?

All Noisy on the Book Front

Good news! As my summer marathon of writing chugs forward (and Book 3 makes surprising twists and turns) all is not quiet on the book front (hehe, catch that Remarque reference?). Here are some exciting updates in the life of the Voyages of the Legend series:

1. New bookstore!

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I’m thrilled to partner with Bookasaurus, the children’s division of Leigh’s Favorite Books, in Sunnyvale. This charming independent book/toy shop is a paradise for the young and young at heart. A fixture of the community, Bookasaurus now carries both The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test. And the manager, Heather, is a real-life adventure heroine. At just 21, she goes to school, runs a bookshop, and reads every book she stocks. Hearing that she liked The Illuminator’s Gift was praise indeed. I want to be her when I grow up.

So check out this independent gem and shop local for your next book copy!

2. Five-star review!

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I was also thrilled to hear that Readers’ Favorite, an independent book-review service, recently gave The Illuminator’s Test a 5-star review!  Here’s an excerpt:

The author’s language is exquisite and the detailed descriptions make the scenes come alive. The simple and elegant style of writing gives good pace and movement to the plot and the story moves forward fluidly. It resonates with young readers along the lines of the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings with lot of adventure and whimsy that will make readers dream and imagine.

Don’t know if I can really compete with Tolkien and Rowling, but I’m quite flattered anyway.

Speaking of reviews, if you’ve read one or both Illuminator books, would you take a second to leave a review on Amazon? In the indie-publishing world, reviews from readers strongly influence what gets read. Many thanks!

Stay tuned for more events and updates in the works!

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you probably know that I love office supplies. Like a dog loves walkies. Like a hummingbird loves that red sticky stuff in the feeders. Yeah.

Well, it’s that time of year again. Better than Christmas. The time when the department stores put their office supplies on sale. They think it’s for kids going back to school. Actually it’s for me.

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Since perhaps I went a little overboard last year, this year’s haul of office supplies was a bit more modest. I’m especially excited about having a new planner. My current one ends this weekend, and I feel what’s probably an undue amount of panic at the idea of not having any white squares in which to write my life schedule. I’m also quite excited about a new pack of Flair pens. Besides being great for book signing, they carry a weight of nostalgia for me. My grandmother loved these pens. I remember reading a birthday card written in that thick, bold Flair script every year as I was growing up. Oh! And a 750-sheet pack of printer paper. Because, you know, printouts of my new novel…

But I dare you to figure out how a hole punch and a pack of binder rings helps me teach vocabulary.

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This sign was my unexpected happy find. Now it’s hanging on my wall. It was probably intended for teachers setting up their classrooms. But I think it’s just a good guide to using words in general. And I like words.

What’s your favorite school/office supply? 

A Whole Weekend of Books

I am finally sitting down to review the Bay Area Book Festival! Sometimes life just rolls in like a bulldozer…

This event was the first of its kind in the East Bay, with an estimated 50-60,000 people in attendance. Two days of nonstop immersion in books and readers. So. Much. Fun.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

For starters, I learned that my little 5-seater car can tote 250 books, 3 carts, a box of art prints, and all sorts of other necessary festival paraphernalia. And still leave room to see out the back.

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On June 6-7, whole city blocks of Berkeley were closed to traffic and lined with tables and booths. My illustrator, Amalia Hillmann, and I had a table in the Children’s Area. We had copies of The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test, a coloring book, art prints of the illustrations (now online here), stickers, bookmarks, and all sorts of fun. There was a little of everything in the space around us: independent author displays, publishing houses, educational foundations, a guy twisting balloon dolphins and swords, and some amazing food trucks.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

I didn’t get away from the table much, but I did check out the art installation at the center of the festival. Lacuna was an interactive sculpture designed to feel like an outdoor library. It was stocked with 50,000 donated books that were free for people to take home. And did they ever! By the end of the weekend, the shelves were almost bare.

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Book jackets fluttered overhead, like the winged ideas enclosed within books.

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Our blue-draped Illuminator table saw a lot of action over the weekend. The Children’s Area was busy almost constantly. It was fun to chat with readers both young and young at heart (I was surprised at how many young readers preferred paperbacks to e-books). I even met a girl named Ellie. She was excited to find a book with a heroine who shared her name. 

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

On Saturday we had my amazing mom in residence, painting Vestigian designs on kids’ hands in shimmery metallic colors.

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We also had coloring pages and a box of crayons available. I liked this neon-pink version of Aletheia. The young artist explained that he was helping the islands with their advertising.

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Authors and illustrators gave presentations on a nearby stage throughout the weekend. After her presentation, I got to meet LeUyen Pham, who illustrated Shannon Hale’s latest book, The Princess in Black. She is just as nice as she is talented. She even bought a copy of The Illuminator’s Gift. My only regret is that I didn’t take a picture with her.

By the end of the weekend, I was exhausted, but satisfied. Though I’m not really a big-crowds person, I enjoyed meeting such a diverse assortment of people who all shared my favorite interest: reading. The organizers say they’re already planning next year’s festival for the first weekend in June.

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Photo credit: Amalia Hillmann

I asked one young boy what he liked to read. He answered, “Books!”

That pretty much sums it up.

Literary Candyland

Phew! It’s been a busy month! So far I’ve visited four school groups, with one more to come later this week: one public, one private, and two homeschool co-ops. We’ve done fun activities like making up fantasy names, exploring our 5 senses, and drawing fantasy maps. These students, ranging in age from 8 to 15, consistently amaze me with their insight, creativity, and perseverance. One group was made up of mostly students with dyslexia who use software like Dragon, Siri, or Kindle text-to-speech to overcome their difficulties with print media. Some of them are writing books (or even sequels to books) of their own. It’s always an honor and a joy to meet these fearless young writers. (For details on how to schedule a visit for the 2015-2016 school year, check out my Speaking page.)

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With the school year winding down, it’s now time to mark your calendar for the first bookish event of this summer. I’m SO excited for this one. On June 6-7, downtown Berkeley will be closed to cars and open to readers! The Bay Area Book Festival is the first free, public literary event of its kind in the East Bay. The event is family-friendly and even has a whole area dedicated to children and another for teens. It will be like literary Candyland for two whole days! Here are some reasons to get excited:

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-Appearances by big-time authors like Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) and Judy Blume

A sculpture built of 50,000 books that readers can take home with them!

-Fun activities like book-themed sidewalk chalk painting, a dance performance by the Ballet Folklorico Mexicano, a giant gecko, a farmer’s market, a chance to play with typewriters, and a petting zoo with a baby kangaroo

-An art installation of flying, talking books

-A visit with illustrator Amalia Hillmann and me! We’ll be at a table in the Children’s Area by City Hall, along with lots of other authors, bookstores, and book-related activity booths, including a stage where performances will be going on all weekend. At our table we’ll have coloring pages and face painting from The Voyages of the Legend, lots of different art prints and some cool new art products, and of course, copies of both The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test. We’ll even be unveiling a reprinted edition of The Illuminator’s Gift at the event, complete with a map and some new illustrations!

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I can’t wait for the Bay Area Book Festival! All the details are on the event website. It will be a weekend of nonstop book fun! I hope to see you there!

How Writing Works (Or: Practicing and Paying Attention)

On this lovely April day, I’m pleased to say I’ve committed the first several thousand words of the third book of The Voyages of the Legend to paper! After several months of collecting images, building a writing playlist, and preparing my outline, I’ve at last begun to write words down.

And it’s been a bumpy couple of weeks. Finishing The Illuminator’s Test last December was like cresting a steep mountain trail, full of exhaustion and accomplishment. Starting the third book was like finding myself back at the bottom again. It’s intimidating to try to compete with your past work. I’d gotten rusty. And sequels are hard: it’s a challenge to work with the same world and characters, but pit them against new challenges and even higher stakes.

My first attempt at an opening paragraph was so bad I was discouraged for two days.  The second attempt was better, but still extremely lackluster. Now, on my third go-around, I’m finally striking a pace and tone that I enjoy. And already the characters are beginning to spring surprises on me.

Getting back into the rhythms of writing has me thinking about what writing is made of, what it is. Pick up almost any how-to book on writing, and you’d think writing is a checklist that just takes practice and willpower. But I also think there’s something more. Writing is both a craft and an art.

The internet is saturated with books, webinars, articles, etc. on the craft of writing a book: the nuts and bolts of what goes into a story. Some of them are quite good. I’ve been to a number of classes, conferences, and critique groups that have helped push my writing to a higher level. It’s important to learn the nuts and bolts of wrangling good sentences out of the English language (or at least asking her respectfully for them). And it’s very helpful to study the works of other writers and learn by imitation. I work intensively with my students as they learn the craft of writing: paragraphs, similes, research, punctuation, character profiles. This part is work, and it can and must be learned by instruction and labor-intensive practice. With enough practice, it is possible to achieve a level of excellence in the craft of writing.

But writing is also an art, like painting, like music. And art is a gift. To write well is not only to work and create; it is also to receive. For me, starting to write again is learning again to be open to that gift: taking time to slow down, to be still, to listen, to be in the dance with God. For writing to be anything more than an underpaid day job, a meaningless clacking of fingers on keys, it must be sourced from something greater. That means that being a healthy person is part of good writing. That means that taking time to absorb and appreciate beauty is part of good writing. None of the small moments of life are wasted if seen with eyes of attention. It’s an attitude of cultivating readiness to meet inspiration. In short, living is writing, and writing is living.

I’ve created a new writing space in my office that, I think, reflects this pairing of practicing and paying attention. It’s businesslike enough for all-day scribbling sprints, yet it’s also right next to a window that looks out on the reflective world.

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…And now I’m going back to write there.

Read Like A Girl/Boy?

There’s been a lot of buzz about gender-divided reading lately. Last month Shannon Hale, author of Princess Academy, blogged about her frustrations with gender-divided school visits. Because some of her books have the word “princess” in the title (and perhaps because she’s a female author), some schools have excused their girls to attend Hale’s assemblies, but not their boys, assuming–or forcing–boys’ disinterest. Yet Hale reports the story of a boy who asked to buy her princess book by whispering in her ear, too ashamed to admit it in front of either classmates or teachers.

Then last week, The Independent announced that it would no longer review books marketed to exclude either sex. For example, Buster Books markets books with titles like “The Beautiful Girls’ Coloring Book” and “The Brilliant Boys’ Coloring Book,” limiting the former to topics like fashion and the latter to sports, and using cover colors like pink and blue as cues. The Independent pointed out that such marketing is demeaning to kids, who are people of complex and diverse personalities. Some girls like to play and read about sports; some boys grow up to be fashion writers. The Independent further argued that the best books have universal appeal. Instead of spending energy marketing “boy books” or “girl books,” the publication urged putting out good books and letting people pick their own. Both girls and boys, for example, devour Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, undeterred by the sex of the protagonist and unaided by a pink or blue cover. It makes sense from my own experience: as a kid, I read and loved both Anne of Green Gables and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, simply because both were great books.

As an author and educator, I feel drawn to this debate. Reading fiction is all about identification with a character: learning to see the world through another pair of eyes. If you want to live many lives in the space of one, read books. When kids first start reading, they tend to choose protagonists who are similar to them in age, personality, and life circumstances. This is also true of gender: when they are beginning readers, my girl students tend to choose books about girls, and boys about boys. But the power of reading doesn’t leave us where we are. As we grow and mature as readers, we learn to see the world through eyes other than our own. It’s called empathy, and fiction has been proven to increase this skill. As adults (especially those in the roles of parents and teachers), it’s our job to expose kids to books about people who are not like them. It’s part of raising kind, thoughtful, and compassionate human beings.

As a writer of children’s literature, I feel especially strongly about this. The Illuminator’s Gift features a female protagonist. True, many of my readers are girls who identify with Ellie, a 12-year-old girl. But some of my readers are boys who identify with Ellie too. They’ve told me she’s their favorite character in the book because she’s kind and finds the courage to be brave when she needs to. The fact that she’s a girl doesn’t change that. That’s why I have never advertised my books as being only “for girls,” despite my female protagonist. I applaud these boys who are learning to see through the eyes of someone who is different from them.

Ultimately, it seems to me unjust that a child should be discouraged from reading a book because of their sex. Whether by gender-based marketing or discriminatory school policies, to keep a boy out of a female author’s school visit or label a book on rocketships and backhoes as being only for “Brilliant Boys” seems like a form of soft censorship. How can one person predetermine what another may read, on the basis of sex of all things? Why not filter their reading based on class, ethnicity, or shoe size? Sound like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or The Giver? (It’s no wonder reading speculative fiction is connected with having better ethics.) Kids (and adults) should never be shamed or pressured out of reading a book on the basis of gender expectations. To do so limits the ideas they’re exposed to, and thereby the amount of imagination, compassion, and empathy they can develop. It’s cutting off our own nose by handicapping our society’s future.

My caveat to this is as an educator. Some of my students are reluctant readers who struggle with comprehension, let alone finding enjoyment in reading. For these students, I place the love of reading as the first and highest priority. I give these students books that are as easy as possible for them to identify with. For my beginner boy students, I choose books with male protagonists and subject matter I know the students will enjoy. It’s most important to me that my students learn to associate reading with pleasure. If that connection isn’t there, they will never reach for the ideas and empathy that harder books can teach them. Only once that reading-for-fun habit is established do I challenge them to read about characters who are different from themselves. Only then can they begin to appreciate the Anne Shirleys, the Jo Marches, the Karanas of literature.

Have you tuned in to the debates on gender-divided reading? Share your thoughts in the comments!