Author Archives: Jan Gangsei

The Power of Words

So I was watching this video while working out at the gym the other day:

(Okay, I obviously wasn’t working out that hard, but hey, sometimes I just like to get on the elliptical and do some thinking between bursts of cardio…).

Anyway, watching all The Fault in Our Stars quotes stream by, I was reminded why I’ve always loved books so much. I mean, I’ve always been a sucker for a good story whatever the format, but books offer something more, something magical:

Words.

I know that seems sort of obvious. But all my fellow book lovers understand what I mean. There’s nothing quite like being immersed in a good book and coming across a turn of phrase so perfect it makes you stop in your tracks and catch your breath, just due to the sheer beauty of how the words come together. Sort of like taking a walk and being captivated by how the sunlight hits the leaves in the trees — a simple and fleeting reminder of how wonderful it is to think… To feel… To be alive and connected to the world.

When I was a tween and teen, I dog-eared countless books, marking words that spoke to me. Some quotes made it onto the covers of my notebooks or into the yearbooks of friends. Some just rattled around in my head, making me think. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to writing for this age group — words held such power for me back then, shaping me, helping me see things in new ways and understanding I wasn’t the only one who felt a certain way.

Of course, I still love words and continue to highlight phrases that speak to me — reading them over and over, rattling them around in my brain, making myself think. A couple of my recent favorites:

As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once. — John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way. — Jandy Nelson, The Sky is Everywhere 

(Huh, looking back at those I clearly have a thing for books that reference the sky in the title somehow…)

So how about you? What are some of your favorite quotes (or quotable authors or books)? What makes you stop, catch your breath, and read something again? Tell me in the comments below!

Put down those arms… and strike a pose!

So, yesterday I did something kind of fun — I finally got an official “author chickenauthorsheadshot.”

I know, I probably should have done this a couple of years ago. But I’m weirdly superstitious at times. And I never really wanted to get one until I actually needed it.

(As it turns out, this may not be the best strategy. Especially when your agent asks for a high res photo and the only recent ones you have are your Facebook profile pictures and a collection of selfies from the Pitbull concert you went to Saturday.)

Luckily, my very talented photographer friend Jennifer Smetek was available on short notice (and also kindly didn’t insist I pose with a pimp cane).

Instead, she had the cool idea to do our photo shoot at the Workhouse Arts Center, a former prison site in Lorton, Virginia. Lots of neat distressed brick, overgrown vines, inmate-painted murals, etc., to use as backdrops. I’d highly recommend it. (Heck, even if you don’t need a headshot, it’s worth checking out — in addition to now housing dozens of working artists, the site has a fascinating history, including the (in)famous imprisonment and force-feeding of more than 70 hunger-striking suffragists in the early 1900s.)

Anyway, after spending an hour and a half posing all over the former prison grounds (and thankfully not getting kicked out… or jailed), I made a few stray observations about what to do should you ever find yourself standing awkwardly in front of a camera:

  • Put your arms down… Yeah, it’s really hard to know what to do with your hands when there’s a camera in your face. I found myself desperate for some pockets to stuff mine in. Or maybe just the opportunity to detach my arms for a few minutes. They felt weirdly in the way. All. The. Time. I spent a lot of time swinging them around like a monkey until I settled on crossing them, keeping them at my sides or putting them behind my back. Having something to lean on helps, too. But for Pete’s sake, don’t look like you’re trying to flap yourself airborne.
  • Put your true self forward. Me — I cannot pull off a serious face. At. All. While some people look great all thoughtful and brooding, I look like I just sat in something cold and wet. Or was given a very uncomfortable wedgie. I’m going to stick with smiling because I don’t look like a serial killer that way. Or, at least I look like a very nice one. Do what makes you comfortable.
  • Photo editing software is AWESOME. I know, I know — it’s really annoying when magazines photoshop a model’s arms right off (although, now that I think about it, maybe they were swinging them like monkeys…). But seriously, I don’t want to add a “thigh gap.” And I don’t need to look like Jennifer Lawrence (though that would be nice). Really, I just want to look like my best self. Not the one that’s been drinking too much coffee and hasn’t slept more than five hours a night for a week. A good photographer can do this without making you look like someone your own mother wouldn’t recognize.
  • Have fun! The best pictures we got were the ones where I was relaxed (and smiling and not flapping my arms). It may have taken a little while — poor Jenn probably had to discard the first 100 shots. But hey, that’s the beauty of digital.

Jan Edit 5095 CroppedNow that the pictures are done, I’m not really sure what I was waiting for. It’s kind of nice to have a professional portrait. So if you haven’t had yours done, go for it! And in case you’re curious, here’s how mine turned out. I may not be JLaw, but I’m happy… At least my arms aren’t waving around and I’m smiling. Really, all that’s missing are some laser beams and a cat and it would be perfect:)

 

In Memory of Kent

So yesterday I sat down, all prepared to write a post taking on this article that claims adults should feel “embarrassed” to read books “written for children.” (Cue massive, unashamed eye roll.)

Then, because I’m an epic procrastinator, I popped on over to Facebook. Figured I’d hang there a minute, check out my friends’ latest antics/kid pix/inspirational cat videos. Maybe post something witty about said procrastination.

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Kent, just being Kent…

Instead, I was shocked to find people saying heartfelt goodbyes to one of my lifelong friends, Kent Batchelder — a guy I’d known since second grade, who sat next to me in classrooms all through elementary, middle, high school and college. The guy who nick-named me “Jan-baby,” and spent half of eighth grade enthusiastically chanting that from the chair to my right — much to my embarrassment — over. And over. And over again. When we got into high school, he then became the guy I could count on to call and ask me to every formal dance, even though I never said yes. (After all, he was my friend. My Kent. I didn’t want to wreck that by throwing dancing into the mix.) Still, he never stopped asking. And we never stopped being friends, despite my stubborn refusal to dance with him.

As I scrolled through my news feed with a growing feeling of dread, I began to hope maybe Kent had just moved. Or was taking a new job. He was definitely too young to die. But as more pictures appeared in his “memory” and word began to spread among mutual friends and old classmates, it was clear the worst had happened. Kent — one of the cleanest living, healthiest people I know — had been struck down in his prime by a very fatal and fast-moving cancer.

Suddenly, arguing with a so-called “grown-up” about what other grown-ups should feel “shame” about reading seemed silly. After all, the greatness of literature is not defined by the age of its characters or target audience. That’s just insulting — not only to the adults who enjoy and appreciate children’s literature, but to the people who write it, and even more so to the kids and young adults who read it themselves. I mean really… who is to say that your experience at forty-five is more important/meaningful/literary than a fifteen-year-old’s? Sadly, as I was reminded yesterday, you may not even live to see forty-five. The greatness in life is not how many days you spend living, but how you spend your days.

So today, I’d like to pay tribute to my friend Kent, a man who didn’t dismiss young people, but fostered their growth in his career as a middle school counselor. You may not have known Kent, but I bet (or hope) you’ve had a Kent in your life. As a kid, he was the guy who got along with everyone. As an adult, he was the cool grown-up kids could relate to — the young, active guy with an empathetic ear, constant smile and solid advice. Looking at his Facebook page, it’s clear how many lives he touched — whether he was mentoring students or leading one of his many international studies trips to places like France, Japan and Australia. Kent was a man who completely and fully embraced life and encouraged his students to do the same. The world won’t be the same without him.

Like most old school pals, Kent and I moved in different directions after college (he landed in Massachusetts, I wound up in Virginia). But we always kept in touch. When my first book was published, Kent promptly ordered it from the UK (and, of course, donated it to his school library). I last got to see Kent a year ago at our high school reunion. Thankfully, he didn’t chant “Jan-baby” at me. We did, however, have a great time chatting and catching up. Because that’s the amazing thing about friends who have known you since your banana-seat bike riding, braces-wearing days — once you get back together, the years just melt away.

I only wish he’d asked me to dance. Because Kent, I still owe you one.

Rest in peace, dear friend. I will miss you.