Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Open Letter to Faith Christian Academy of Orlando, Florida

Recently, I saw an article on Facebook via Yahoo Shine that absolutely appalled me and I thought, surely, this is just a shock feature, but untrue. Sadly, the answer seems to be no.

While others may skim by this article and not say anything, it goes against everything I believe in, and I cannot stay quiet on behalf of the brave and beautiful Vanessa VanDyke. I am literally shaking as I write this open letter because my heart is aching for the atrocity that this school completed, hiding behind a shield of God.

For readers who missed the article, according to Yahoo, Faith Christian Academy of Orlando, FL has issued an ultimatum to twelve-year-old VanDyke: shape and cut your natural hair, or be expelled from school.


Did I just read that right? Coming from a CHRISTIAN school? In the year 2013? I understand that the school may be focused on academics and a nurturing learning environment, but according to the article, VanDyke is also an honors student and violinist at the school. Check.
They are hiding behind rules written by man (their student handbook), quoting that VanDyke's hair is distracting. Who cares? Did Jesus turn away disciples because they looked different? NO. He embraced them.

He marched right into all communities and took the underdogs under his wing. Stood BESIDE the poor, the blind, the broken, the weak, and even more -- was THEIR VOICE. Did he condemn them for their hair, their clothes, the color of their skin? Did he judge them? The Jesus I know wouldn't do that. Or tolerate a school doing that in His name. For any reason. Rules made by men can be changed by men. They can be altered when they are wrong.

Why is the school even focused on her hair? The real issue is the fact that VanDyke complained to the school that she was being picked on about her hair.  Yes, she was being BULLIED. And what does the school do? Appease the parents of the children who are "offended" by her hair and issue an ultimatum. INSTEAD OF ADDRESSING the REAL issue. Which is intolerance.

This is a CHRISTIAN school, people. Everyone reading this should be as outraged as I am. This is a damn fine time for the school to teach a lesson to its students about valuing and appreciating what's on the inside, instead of making fun of someone for what's on the outside. It's about appreciating character and strength. About standing up for what you believe in. Which is what VanDyke had the grace to do at only twelve years old.

According to the Yahoo article, VanDyke said, '"It says that I'm unique," she tells WKMG. "First of all, it's puffy and I like it that way. I know people will tease me about it because it's not straight. I don't fit in."' 

Here's what I say to VanDyke:

Vanessa, you are too beautiful to fit in. You were BORN to stand out and be a leader. Stand behind your beauty and never let a school, friends, or society condemn you because they are too small to appreciate diversity and uniqueness. You are smart, beautiful, and brave. NEVER CHANGE WHO YOU ARE. Jesus would love your tenacity, fortitude, and heart. Continue to remind and teach others about acceptance and love based on what's inside, which is more important than our outer appearance any way. Your insides are golden, just as your outsides are - you are truly beautiful just the way you are. I love your hair. And your spirit.

And here is what I say to Faith Christian Academy:

You should be ashamed of yourselves for forcing a little girl to change her natural appearance. Instead of focusing on the "victim" you should be listening to her complaint. Hear that she has been ostracized by your very students and address the bullying issue with the entire school. Teach your students about tolerance and acceptance--no matter what a person looks like on the outside. Tell them that bullying is not okay. Jesus would not turn a student or disciple away if she had dreadlocks, or orange hair, or green skin. He would embrace them. Teach them. Celebrate them. Heal them. Give them ALL the glory of God's UNCONDITIONAL love. Perhaps you should open your hearts as well and consider banishing a senseless rule and worry more about the why behind the issue instead of the what. You're focused on the wrong issue and penalizing a bright young student for your limitations as adults, Christians, and role models.

Here is the silver lining in this story: VanDyke (gasp!) has confidence and inner poise. So does her mother who is willing to stand up for her and fight the unjustness of the situation with her. A parent who supports her daughter's decision and backs her, because she knows the issue is bigger than just her daughter's hair. No matter what the outcome of this story, this little girl will go on to be successful. She is too bright of a soul not to. But this is setting a very sad precedent if this kind of small-minded behavior is allowed. Whether it's a private school or not.   

I understand that schools need to teach. I understand that some students may be distracting. (But, come on...that's not really the case here, and we all know it.) But when you thrust conformity onto children, they need to find a small outlet to express their unique beauty and allow their personalities to shine. A yellow bow, dreadlocks, pink hair...who really cares? What's the harm?

Instead of letting it become a distraction, why not teach tolerance instead and let kids express themselves in this small way? Why do we want to white-wash our kids any way? Jesus opened his arms to the masses. Shouldn't we be teaching, and certainly at CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS, our next generation to be more tolerant? To accept that not everyone is the same, nor should they be? It's what makes America great. It's what makes us learn more from each other and have OPEN HEARTS, not closed ones based on superficial things like appearance.

Note to Faith Christian Academy: It's what's on the inside that counts. And it looks like a twelve-year-old girl just served you a lesson.

Photo courtesy of Hinterland Gazette.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Sea of Tranquility (or what happens when you lose your heart while reading)

You know that all consuming feeling you get when you can't put a book down, because it's just that freakin' good? 
It's like finding a new boyfriend you're obsessed over, then discover how much you really--and I mean, really--like him. Then your feelings move into appreciation and swoon-worthy moments that turn friendship into love. And then, before you realize it, your life will never be the same. You can't remove the echoes of your memories created together. You can't mend your heart when it breaks into a thousand little pieces because the one you love is so perfectly flawed and beautiful.

That's what my experience was like while reading The Sea of Tranquility, by "new" author Katja Millay.

How can you not fall in love when she dishes out an opening like this:

"I hate my left hand. I hate to look at it. I hate it when it stutters and trembles and reminds me that my identity is gone. But I look at it anyway, because it also reminds me that I'm going to find the boy who took everything from me. I'm going to kill the boy who killed me, and when I kill him, I'm going to do it with my left hand."

Woah! Have you ever read an opening so compelling? As a writer and editor, I am blown away by the genius and craftsmanship of such an opening. It sucker punches you right in the gut and makes you ache for this girl and her yet unrevealed trauma. What happened to her? How did she die? Who did it? Why? Will she really find him and kill him? Will I want to cheer her on when she does (and with her left hand to boot)? An opening like this is gold. Pure gold.

The Sea of Tranquility is a Young Adult, coming of age, romance story that while is centered around the main character, Nastya/Emilia/Sunshine, it also delves deeply into the flaws and character analysis of friends Josh and Drew--and why they are the perfectly messed up kids they are as well. Millay spotlights the reality of how we all have things that have damaged us, and how many teenagers feel like outcasts, but why there is always a story behind them feeling that way. Each character's storyline is so unique and heartfelt and endearing, you just want to be a savior to each and every one of them, even though only they can truly save themselves. 

The summary one-liner on Amazon is spot on: "The Sea of Tranquility is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the mira­cle of second chances."

Second chances. I admit that while reading the book, I was skeptical about whether Nastya would find hers. What Millay does beautifully is she weaves Nastya's story together slowly, so you can savor each raw, emotional piece, a little at a time--because it's dark, and hard to read her horror (what makes her want to kill that young boy). And it's not what you think. And that's what I loved. It's unexpected. Original. Raw. Heart-wrenching. Horrific. You have to wade through Nastya's grief, self-pity, despair, pain, rebirth, one paragraph at a time. One scene at a time. It's like watching a beautiful flower unfold petal by petal until you get to the core: the delicate, fragile heart of the flower that is its essence, its true core and character. And there is hope. Hope throughout. Even as she self destructs as you know she is bound to. You cannot carry that much hurt and horror inside, and not be self destructive.

But all that said, and though this is a dark book, it is also a beautiful book. As a lover of words, and how I'm constantly amazed at how the best authors are able to string them together in such a way that shoots right to the reader's core and pulls them in, I was floored by the brilliance and beauty that Millay brought to the game. I've highlighted over fifty passages on my Kindle of words that were so beautifully strung together, it's as if language was reinvented again.

I listed some of my favorites in my Goodreads review. But I wanted to list a few more that left me breathless here, so you can hear the poetry and raw, honest emotion captured in each of her carefully chosen words.

"I think I'll stay in pieces. I can shift them, rearrange, depending on the day, depending on what I need to be. I can change on a whim and be so many different girls and none of them has to be me."

"I don't have any special powers. I'm certain of that, because I've spent a lot of time lamenting my lack of them. I do have an uncanny capacity for bitterness and misdirected rage, but I don't think that counts. I feel a little mislead. I spent a crapload of time over the past couple years reading books and watching movies, and in all of them, when you die and they bring you back to life, supernatural abilities are just part of the deal. Sorry you didn't win the grand prize of eternal peace, but you're not walking away empty handed!"

"And maybe it's a mistake, because when I look at her now, I think, for just one second, that God doesn't hate me so much after all."

"So I sit in the dirt. Under the trees. In the place where he beat me."

The one thing that makes a reader love a book the most, above plot, above anything else, are the characters. If you can get a reader to become invested in the characters, to HAVE to know the outcome, the hook, what caused the tension point, and to see the character get some sort of win in the end--whether that's personal growth, the boy or girl, a HEA, whatever it may just have to be invested 100%. And that's what readers become when they read The Sea of Tranquility. That's because of Millay's genius ability to nail the YA audience and voice, while holding the adult readership as well, and while NOT underestimating her YA audience. She gives them a voice, a story to relate to, one that doesn't caricaturize them, or make them feel petty or trivial. One that acknowledges and validates the very real things teenagers face every day that make them grow up well before they ought to. Like Josh. And Nastya. It also reminds us of the beauty and hope in even the most damaged people. And how friendships and relationships can break even the hardest and highest walls down.

This book is going on my top 10 favorite books of all times list.--it was that good. I wish I could give some special books ten stars instead of just five. I hope you 're as moved as I was while reading The Sea of Tranquility. Just be warned, you will not be able to put it down once you start. It pulls you along in a well-paced cadence, but despite its intensity, its unique beauty and raw honesty makes it unforgettable and unable to set down. Draws you in to learn her secret, hope and pray for peace, and then flings you down the path of breaking into a million pieces with Nastya and her family when her moment comes and she has the biggest decisions in her life to face: to remain broken, and damaged, or to believe in her worth and stop feeling sorry for herself so that she can forgive a monster and let herself heal.

The Sea of Tranquility is an epic love story meets unforgettably horrific tragedy resulting in the biggest hurdles to overcome and the most satisfying novel ending of the year.

Find out more about this novel and Katja Millay at:

Goodreads | Facebook | Amazon | Twitter | Author Page