Writing Science Fiction Fantasy for Middle Graders

I am thrilled to have this opportunity to talk about my books on Unleashing Readers. I came to fiction writing late, having spent most of my career as a professor at universities in the U.S. and in Italy. I have a PhD in Renaissance Art History, and it never occurred to me that I would someday write books for children. However, it must have been inevitable because my grandmother, Dorothy Kunhardt wrote some of the best-loved Picture Books of all time, the most famous of which is Pat the Bunny.

Learning to write fiction

Five years ago, I decided that I wanted to write books that would bring art and artists to life for children between the ages of nine and twelve. When I stopped teaching to write The Crystal Navigator, I knew nothing about writing fiction. However, I have been an avid reader all my life and to write well, one must be well read. Reading books by great writers like Ann Tyler, Flaubert, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, and of course, E.B. White is the most instructive way to learn how to construct a beautiful sentence without being flowery and sentimental, how to avoid using clichés, how to show rather than tell.

The rules laid down by the how-to write books- never use adverbs, stay away from adjectives too, don’t begin a book with a dream, waking up, walking on a beach- paralyzed me. Once I decided to forget them and wrote without worrying about rules, my writing became much better. However, it takes practice to be a good writer, and it takes time to learn how to edit. I had to teach myself not to get sidetracked with things that had nothing to do with the story. Every sentence must move the action along or the reader will get bored.

I think there are two ingredients that that make a good writer. First, great writers have read enough great literature to have internalized the rhythms of the written word. If you know what a sentence should sound like, you’ll be able to write sentences. Second, all great writers are great storytellers, and it’s the storytelling who keep us up at night. “Stylish writers make you admire them, but storytellers force you to read the next chapter.” I can’t remember where I read this, but it’s helpful. It takes a huge burden off my mind. Just allow yourself to write the story and worry about the writing later.

My Aim

My aim is to inspire a love of reading and spark of lifelong love of art. There are so many wonderful stories about the lives of great artists -what they were like, and the circumstances surrounding their most famous paintings-I knew would delight children.

A Literary Upbringing Helps

I grew surrounded by books. I gobbled up the Oz books, Alice in Wonderland, and I was addicted to Nancy Drew. Although I don’t think it makes a writer, I think it helps to grow up in a literary family. My maternal grandmother was a Lincoln scholar and author of fifty children’s Picture books. My father was a professor at Harvard Business School, who wrote books about ethics and economics. His father, Henry Cabot Lodge wrote about his experience in Viet Nam. And my great grandfather, George Cabot Lodge was a poet.

Plot and Characters Development for Mona Lisa’s Ghost?

Usually, I have a hard time coming up with a plot, but it was easier in the case of Mona Lisa’s Ghost. There are three sources of inspiration for the book. In 2004 I read an article about the Louvre Museum’s plans to scan the Mona Lisa to measure the paint layers. I thought ‘how ludicrous and yet how typical of art historians.’ On the other hand, what a great starting point for a mystery. A monstrous and deadly Spectrographic Scanner zooms into the Mona Lisa and causes a ghastly molecule-destroying syndrome. The second source of inspiration was the otherworldly landscape in the background of the Mona Lisa. It is truly a fantasy, where snow-capped mountains exist alongside sunlit rippling lakes and streams. I thought how wonderful it would be to enter the painting at the horizon-line, so I wrote about portal into the background of the painting. Finally, I was inspired by Einstein’s idea of creating our own reality was the third inspiration.

My character, Lucy is probably pretty much a self-portrait. She is braver than I am, but her impatience and humor are mine. My character Sam, the eleven-year-old genius is inspired by a dear cousin. Sam is an inventor with a wide knowledge of physics, communications, and Einstein. I had to read articles about physics, underground rivers, sound waves, how the telephone works, hence ‘faulty feedback loops.’ I like to think up interesting, fun things for Sam to invent, such as his program called Roving Tentacles, a digital, steerable telescope thingy and can go around corners and investigate or the Plasma Pinch, cloaking a person with plasma-like sound waves.

The Books

Drawing on my knowledge of art history, I have written the first two books in the Lucy Nightingale Adventure series about an eleven-year-old girl, as she learns to value herself and others. In both The Crystal Navigator and Mona Lisa’s Ghost, I incorporate art historical fact into a fantasy world where children travel alongside my protagonists, Lucy and her magical guide Wilbur. I want them to feel the exhilaration of flying though a star-crowded night and feel the spongy grass under their feet, as Lucy and Wilbur jump onto Sandro Botticelli’s flower-strewn meadow in his painting, the Primavera. I wanted children to imagine what it would be like to be hurled into the night sky over the little village in Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night or to find a portal into the background landscape of the Mona Lisa.

In The Crystal Navigator, Lucy goes back in time to meet and helps famous artists. For example, she helps Leonardo da Vinci achieve the right expression on Lisa’s face. Lisa is a fun-loving, somewhat naughty teenager. Leonardo is at his wits end trying to stop her from making funny faces. He is about to give up when Lucy whispers to him, “Why not ask her husband to surprise her? Maybe she will smile the right way.” Sure enough, when Lisa sees her husband, her eyes light up with love and she smiles in the mysterious way that allows Leonardo to capture her soul.

On the rainy evening Lucy and Wilbur visit Michelangelo in his leaky hut in Rome, they find him in a particularly grumpy mood. He is furious because it’s always too dark for him to sculpt when he gets home from painting the Sistine Chapel. Lucy thinks of an ingenious way to help him see his sculptures at night. “Glue a candle to the visor of a wide-brimmed hat and you will have plenty of light to see your sculptures.”

Her last visit is with Vincent van Gogh in the year 1889 at the asylum in St. Remy, France. Vincent shows Lucy his panting, Starry Night and asks her what she sees. Lucy tells him she sees a “stormy painting, everything moves like ocean waves. The cypress tree is like a sea monster.” She marvels at the thick paint, the choppy lines of his brushstroke, and the smear where he dragged his finger through the paint. He tells her about his fears and she tried to comfort him.

Kirkus Reviews wrote this about The Crystal Navigator, “… Throughout this entertaining, fantastical debut, the author brings the artists and their paintings to life with resonant, informed vignettes. Each funny or soulful encounter gives Lucy opportunities to realize that she’s also an original, smart thinker…A vividly written work of juvenile fiction that mixes fantasy and suspense with messages of empowerment, history, art, and science.”  The book won a Mom’s Choice Award and Readers’ Favorite Best Educational Book of 2015.

This year, while editing Mona Lisa’s Ghost, book two in the series, I was lucky to have a group of bright sixth graders from a local school to help me with dialogue and plot. The book revolves around Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious portrait of Lisa Gherardini and combines themes of reincarnation, science, and the theft of the Mona Lisa. Lucy and her best friend, Sam have formed SLARP, (Sam and Lucy’s Anomalies Research Project,) to investigate odd happenings in the universe. They find their first case while watching a class video about the newly-scanned Mona Lisa. The experiment to measure the paint layers with a Spectrographic Scanner has had terrible consequences. Lucy and Sam are horrified when they see that the painting is in chaos. A purple storm engulfs the sunny landscape, Lisa is crying, and letters float in her right eyeball.

If those weren’t reasons to investigate, one of their classmates, shy Melissa Blackwood, claims to be the reincarnation of Lisa Gherardini, the real Mona Lisa. She tells Lucy that she has come back to get the portrait her husband paid for, but which Leonardo never delivered to her. Then the painting vanishes without a trace and Lucy and Sam embark on a perilous chase to find it before the molecule-destroying syndrome destroys it. With Sam’s superphone, the Quetzal, a gadget equipped with a shape-shifting key, micro tracking chips, and deactivation program called Roving Tentacles, Lucy travels with Wilbur through the phantom-infested catacombs under Paris, down underground rivers were evil monsters flick their tails against Wilbur’s little boat, and back to sixteenth-century France where Leonardo is working for the French king.

In the end, SLARP’s first case is a success. They solve the mystery of who stole the panting and how it got fixed. If the details of the case were ever made public, it would stun the world and change the face of Quantum Physics forever.

One editorial reviewer wrote this about Mona Lisa’s Ghost: “Art historian Nancy Kunhardt Lodge’s Mona Lisa’s Ghost takes readers on a thoroughly researched, mesmerizing, and magical journey, incorporating a mix of art history, time-travel fantasy, communication across time, reincarnation, high-tech devices, science, and the mystery of the letters in the eye of the Mona Lisa.”

Mona Lisa’s Ghost was awarded a Gold Mom’s Choice Award. Both books have been published in Spanish by Madrid publisher Editorial Kolima.

In the end, the only critics who matter are the children we write for. I value all the wonderful letters I’ve received from children telling me how much they loved my books. They are the real reward. Thank you so much for giving me a chance to talk about my books.

Thank you, Nancy, for this wonderful post sharing your books and goals!


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Super Powers!: A Great Big Collection of Awesome Activities, Quirky Questions, and Wonderful Ways to See Just How Super You Already Are
Author: M.H. Clark
Illustrator: Michael Byers
Published 2017 by Compendium, Inc.

Summary: Calling on all kids to turn on their superpowers! A great big collection of awesome activities and quirky questions, this book offers tons of wonderful ways for kids to discover what really interests them, what makes them unique, and what makes them so amazing just the way they are. With invitations to declare a superhero name, create a superhero tool kit, and even write their own superhero legend, this book will light up the imagination of young kids and open up their minds to big possibilities.

Kellee’s Review: Compendium Inc.’s tagline is “Live Inspired,” and I really do feel like every book I read from them embodies this. This new title from them that we received helps us look more closely at all the different ways we are awesome. Throughout the book, the reader gets to answer questions, draw, and imagine to help make a superpower profile. I think the questions really make the reader think about different aspects of their life and how things that they don’t normally consider super are just that. Then after picking what their superpower is, they get to expand and imagine and be creative! It is truly a fun and inspiring interactive picture book! I cannot wait to complete this book with Trent as well—it is so special!

Ricki’s Review: I absolutely love this book! My son and I work on a different page each night, and we’ve had so much fun. He’s four, and the book is a bit above his reading level, but we are going to go back and continue to fill the pages as he learns and grows. Each page takes a closer look at his personality and others’ perceptions of him. It really boosts his confidence level about his positive characteristics and skills. Below, I post a picture of one of the pages we worked on:

This page asked him to circle the words that he felt described him. He circled all of the words except fierce. He was also instructed to write words not listed. He decided that he should write down that he is a good brother (which is very true). I am going to purchase a second copy of this book for his brother, who is younger. It is a great learning experience!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Superpowers! takes the reader through a complete prewriting activity for a creative story! Instead of having students answer for themselves, teachers might ask them use the questions and activities to plan their main character. Another option is to have students complete the books with consideration of a protagonist that they just read. Both of these activities make the reader/writer look more in depth at the characters, emotionally and physically.

One thing, as a teacher, that we really like about this book is that it can be used in so many different ways for so many different types of students.

Discussion Questions: This book is a big discussion question! 🙂

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Doodle Adventures by Mike Lowery,  Just Imagine by Nick Sharratt, Interactive picture books

Recommended For: 


**Thank you to Moira at Compendium for providing copies for review!!**

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Histories Mysteries
Author: Kitson Jazynka
Illustrators: Various
Published October 17th, 2017 by National Geographic Society

Summary: Why were the Easter Island heads erected? What really happened to the Maya? Who stole the Irish Crown Jewels? The first book in this exciting new series will cover history’s heavy-hitting, head-scratching mysteries, including the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the Bermuda Triangle, the Oak Island Money Pit, Stonehenge, the Sphinx, the disappearance of entire civilizations, the dancing plague, the Voynich manuscript, and so many more. Chock-full of cool photos, fun facts, and spine-tingling mysteries.

ReviewI feel like a broken record, but I just feel like it needs to be repeated: National Geographic Kids are publishing some truly phenomenal books for kids to read independently and/or for teachers to use in the classrooms. This one is no exception! It is beautifully structured with each mystery being shared with background, more details, clues, and theories along with illustrations and photographs. It is broken up into 7 chapters with mysteries all within the chapter around a specific topic. The chapter topic’s are: vanished civilizations, unexplained deaths and disappearances, creatures of myth and legend, freaky phenomena, mystifying monuments, cryptic codes and lost languages, & treasure troves.

 Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I felt very similarly about this book as I did about What Would Happen?, another National Geographic book–I just want to bring it into a classroom and let kids just inquire about any of the mysteries that tickle their fancy! How much fun it’d be to just allow students to get obsessed with a mystery then share it with their classmates.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Which mystery do you want to do more research on?
  • [For each mystery] Do you agree with the theory shared? OR Which of the theories shared do you agree with?
  • What other mysteries would you like to learn more about?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: History, Mysteries, National Geographic Kids books

Recommended For: 

Stop by Kid Lit Frenzy to check out the link up of other Nonfiction Picture Book reviews!


**Thank you to Media Masters Publicity for providing a copy for review!**

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Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl. This feature allows us to make lists, which may be one of our favorite things to do!

 Today’s Topic: Ten Books That Have Been on our TBR Lists the Longest


This was an easy post to write! I popped onto GoodReads and found the five oldest books. I added these almost a decade ago.

1. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough

This book is all about rethinking the way we make things to support sustainability. Even the actual book is made with sustainable materials.

2. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I know that a lot of creative writers find this book to be very helpful.

3. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

I am really interested in reading about Einstein’s life. The book is quite long, and I think that’s why I haven’t started it. Shame on me!

4. Stitches by David Small

I’ve heard this graphic novel is life-changing.

5. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

This book comes highly recommended! I need to read it!


Like Ricki, I went on Goodreads and found the first five books I added the first day I joined Goodreads (January 24th, 2009) that I haven’t read yet.

1. Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahams

2. Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe

3. Firestorm by David Klass

4. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

5. H.I.V.E. by Mark Walden

Which books have been on your TBR list the longest?
Have you read any of these books? 

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IMWAYR 2015 logo

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA!

It’s Monday! What are you Reading? is a meme started by Sheila at Book Journeys and now hosted by Kathryn at The Book Date. It is a great way to recap what you read and/or reviewed the previous week and to plan out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week. It’s also a great chance to see what others are reading right now…you just might discover the next “must-read” book!

Kellee and Jen, of Teach Mentor Texts, decided to give It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? a kidlit focus. If you read and review books in children’s literature – picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, young adult novels, anything in the world of kidlit – join us! We love this meme and think you will, too.

We encourage everyone who participates to support the blogging community by visiting at least three of the other book bloggers that link up and leave comments for them.


Last Week’s Posts

**Click on any picture/link to view the post**

Tuesday: Books We Can’t Believe We’ve Read

Thursday: Guest Review!: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao


 Last Week’s Journeys



  • I am so glad that I finally picked up a Gae Polisner book! The Memory of Things is such a special book. It is so much more than just a time machine back to one of the worst days in our history, it is a look at the human spirit.
  • I am officially done with the published Whatever After books! I love them still; I think Abby and Jonah are such fun kids and their adventures teach such great lessons amidst crazy plots.
  • Rebels by Accident by Patricia Dunn was recommended to me by a student of mine that is in my class for the second year. She begged and begged for me to read it so she could talk to me about it, and I am so glad I finally did. She is from Egypt, and I can definitely see why this book is special for her. She really only had one concern about the book’s representation of her country; other than that, she (and I!) loved it though we were left wanting more of Miriam’s story.


  • For this season, Jim, Trent, and I have season tickets to the Orlando Philharmonic’s Storytime Symphony which is every couple of months. This last storytime presentation focused on jazz music, and we were read the story The Jazz Fly by Matthew Gollub, and we were so lucky to have the author there to read to us. We enjoyed it so much that we bought a copy to listen to in our car.
  • The first Storytime Symphony of the season, in December, was Paddington, so after we listened to The Jazz Fly, I found some Paddington audiobooks through our library to listen to.
  • In the car on the way to school, we have continued listening to an audiobook every morning. The new ones we’ve listened to recently are Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo by John Lithgow and King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub by Audrey Wood. The first was a new to me book as well, and it is pretty funny, with a great rhyme & rhythm, and loved the inclusion of a variety of animals. King Bidgood is a book that we read often when I was a kid; however, we had a different audiobook than the one that came with our copy. I wish I could find one that was the same because I can still hear it in my head. This new audiobook adds extra things to the story which, in my opinion, it doesn’t need.

I’ve been working on coding data this week. Because I’ve been staying up until 2/3 am each night, I haven’t been able to read as much. I am excited to check out your blogs and see what you all are reading!

I REREAD Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz for the fifth time. Gosh, I love that book so much. I am looking forward to teaching it tomorrow afternoon. If history repeats itself, it will surely be a great class. 🙂

The boys and I read A Color of His His Own by Leo Lionni. I enjoy his books. They are fun to read and colorful. He reminds me a bit of Eric Carle.


This Week’s Expeditions

  • After the Whatever After series, I made quite a drastic change, and I am now listening to Prisoner B-3087. Alan Gratz just is so talented at tying story and history; however, I will tell you that I have to emotionally be ready to listen to it.
  • Ink by Alice Broadway is such a unique concept, and I cannot wait to share more with you when I finish it.


A third of my class is reading Whale Talk next week, and I am excited to be facilitating their group conversation! I will definitely be reading it to prepare!


Upcoming Week’s Posts

Tuesday: Books That Have Been on our TBR List the Longest

Wednesday: History’s Mysteries by Kitson Jazynka

Friday: SuperPowers!: A Great Big Collection of Awesome Activities, Quirky Questions, and Wonderful Ways to See Just How Super You Already Are by M.H. Clark

Sunday: Author Guest Post!: “Art in Stories” by Nancy K. Lodge, Author of Mona Lisa’s Ghost (Lucy Nightingale #2)

 So, what are you reading?

Link up below and go check out what everyone else is reading. Please support other bloggers by viewing and commenting on at least 3 other blogs. If you tweet about your Monday post, tag the tweet with #IMWAYR!

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Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Published: October 10, 2017 by Philomel

Guest Review by Kaari von Bernuth

Goodreads Summary: An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.

Kaari’s Review: The entire time, I wasn’t entirely sure if the  protagonist was the hero or the villain. And, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing! I appreciated this book because it made me think. I’d be cheering for Xifeng and wanting her to win, and then she’d do an awful thing to help her win, and I’d be repulsed by her. This book highlights the struggle of ambition, and how difficult it is for a woman to achieve the dreams she has. And, while I am off put by Xifeng’s methods and don’t necessarily think they were the right decisions, her actions and the way she achieves power could spark great discussions.

The setting and the plot of this book was thrilling, and I Ioved the way that fantasy was woven into a world so seamlessly. The creatures and ideas introduced were thought provoking and had amazing descriptions that made me feel like I was living in the enchanted world with the characters. I do wish that there had been some more resolution regarding some of the magical beings and the warnings they gave, but I think that Dao intends for this to be the first in a series, and I’m sure that more resolution will come in later novels.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I would definitely include this book in a classroom library for kids to check out if they want to read it. However, while this book is interesting, and explores an interesting take on female empowerment, I don’t think I would teach this book in a classroom setting, or use it in literature circles. I am a huge advocate for female empowerment, and discussing the paths for women to claim their power. However, I think that because Xifeng’s methods were so morally questionable, and readers aren’t sure if Xifeng is a hero or a villain, that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is not the best novel to discuss for this topic. There are many other books that discuss female empowerment in a much more productive light. So, I’d include it in a classroom library, but not necessarily teach it in any way.

Discussion Questions: Do you think Xifeng’s methods were justifiable?; What does the social hierarchy look like in this novel?; Is Xifeng a hero or a villain in this story?; What is the effect of portraying a strong female protagonist in this way?; How is the fantasy world characterized?

We Flagged: “‘I’m a good man, Xifeng. I let you have your own way and speak your mind…’

‘You think I don’t know that? That I’m so blind and stupid?’

‘Yes, I do!’ he shouted, his face bright red. ‘I offer you the world…’

‘Yes, the world as you see it!’

‘I saved you from that evil woman!’

‘Only to trap me yourself.’ She watched him turn away and run a trembling hand over his head. ‘I was Guma’s, and now you want me to be yours. I have my own soul and my own destiny, and I’m tired of belonging to someone else’” (Advanced Reader Copy p. 125).

Read This If You Loved: Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu; Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin; Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Recommended For:



**Thank you to Kaari for reviewing this book!**


Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl. This feature allows us to make lists, which may be one of our favorite things to do!

 Today’s Topic: Ten Books We Can’t Believe We Read


1. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

It took me a long time to get through this book. I think I read it in year two of the blog. It was on my “currently reading” section of the IMWAYR post for a solid four months. I was teaching high school at the time, and I remember a student saying, “How are you still reading that?” I took a lot of breaks, but I finished it. Finally.

2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I listened to this book on audio. As a tip, if you want to read this book, get it in print. It is incredibly difficult to understand Ray Bradbury’s voice.

3. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I have read several Charles Dickens books. I really want to enjoy them, but I find them very difficult to enjoy for whatever reason. I read this book on my honeymoon, too. Ha!

4. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I read this in high school and loathed it. I wonder if I’d like it as an adult?

5. A Certain Book with “Grey” In Its Title

My only memory of this book was that it was ridiculous. There was one paragraph in which 8 sentences in a row started with “I.” This was a trendy book, though, so I decided it was in my best interest to read it. My husband made fun of me relentlessly. Needless to say, I had no interest in seeing the movies when they came out.


I’m taking this post topic as, “OMG! I cannot believe I finished it! Yay me!” These are all books that I read during my literature degree that I was so proud of myself for finishing!

1. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

If you have read Faulkner, you know how tough his style is! This was my first exposure, and I was so proud of reading it.

2. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Although I ended up liking The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald is not my thing. I really love Hemingway’s bluntness and dialogue while Fitzgerald is a bit wordy for me. I had trouble finishing this novel, but was glad I did when I was finished.

3. The Prince by Machiavelli

Reading a book that some terrible people feel is the most important book ever is a bit tough.

4. The Monk by Matthew Lewis

I took a Gothic Literature class, and I ended up loving so much of what we read in that class with The Monk probably being my favorite. Super scandalous from 1796!

5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Like Fitzgerald, Dickens just isn’t my thing, but I ended up really loving Oliver Twist, and it actually started a huge research project for me looking at how prostitutes were written about and viewed in Victorian England.

Which books can you not believe that you read/finished?

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