Book chat: ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeIt’s been too long since I sank into some solid young adult fiction. And with my limited attention span these days? Well, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before really hit the spot.

The middle of three daughters, Lara Jean Song is used to hovering behind her successful older sister — often feeling a bit adrift behind Margot’s perfection. But with her sister heading off to college abroad (and breaking off her relationship with Josh, once Lara Jean’s own crush), this Song girl is ready to shine.

Maybe.

When a secret box of Lara Jean’s letters disappears, she is suddenly forced to confront her crushes — past and present — as her notes land in mailboxes around town. Lara Jean has always taken to letter-writing as a way to release her feelings for the boys she has loved: her first kiss, her summer camp love . . . even Josh, her sister’s ex-boyfriend.

As her crushes receive her notes and press her on her feelings, Lara Jean is forced to own up to her emotions — even as a faux-relationship with Peter, a popular boy on the rebound, begins to actually blossom. On the home front, Lara Jean is charged with caring for Kitty, her sassy younger sister, as well as her warmhearted but busy, bumbling father.

Though she’s initially mortified by the letters, are they actually the key to moving forward?

Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a sweet story with plenty of family dynamics, high school loves and entertaining escapades to delight its audience. Though it’s described as the tale of Lara Jean confronting her crushes, it’s also about family and self-acceptance.

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? As a teen, I frequently drafted notes to crushes and ex-boyfriends as a way to “get out” whatever angsty, complicated, 16-year-old drama I had stored up without fear of embarrassment or reproach. In fact, I had a floppy disk (a floppy disk! You too will get old someday, kids) full of such missives.

Had someone found my super-private collection of letters to the adorable guy in my math class or my first kiss or first love and actually sent them, I’m pretty sure you would have had to pry me out the dark cave I would have made my new home. But Lara Jean? She’s a pretty resilient, courageous cat. As a narrator, she’s entertaining and matter-of-fact — the sort of person who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is the best kind.

Though I enjoyed Lara Jean’s burgeoning friendship/relationship with Peter, the charming boy-about-town, the real highlight here was the Song sisters’ dynamic. Especially tight-knit since their mother’s death, I found their closeness heartwarming and realistic. I loved that Lara Jean appreciated Margot even more after she was off in Scotland, and young Kitty is a wise-beyond-her-years and fun character pivotal to the story.

A breezy and enjoyable novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before demands little of readers except their rapt attention . . . which you’ll happily hand over. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need!


4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Quiet baby stories

“Are you telling me a story?” I whisper, watching Oliver’s tiny mouth open into a perfect O after he utters a string of sounds, his own little “words.”

Everyone said we would learn his language, his father and me; that, in time, we would begin to know what the whimpers and grunts and dolphin-like calls all mean. For nervous parents-to-be, this seemed impossible. “He won’t speak English,” I remember joking with Spencer. And we won’t know the Language of Oliver.

Despite assurances from seasoned parents, I pictured myself as this sleep-deprived, wild-haired monster pacing the halls with a howling infant in her arms. In these anxious daydreams, it was always dark, maybe even raining, and I was always exhausted. I imagined being frustrated, so frustrated, that I’m singing every lullaby-esque song I can think of . . . nonsense words to old tunes that rise up out of nowhere; often songs my parents sang to me. Yet Ollie stays stuck in his own frustration, ignoring my tunes and pleas. He bucks and howls louder in my arms.

Have I actually had nights like that? I have. I have. Our 10-week-old has wailed and begged for something I cannot see, cannot parcel out, and I have felt helpless and lonely and sad. We have tried fresh diapers and extra milk and swaddling with arms in, swaddling with arms out, and nothing pleases him. Nothing can quiet that wail from that perfect O mouth.

That is not every night — or even most of them. But on the rough nights, the hard nights, we rock and twirl as I hold tight to him, this warm little body somehow created out of nothing, trying not to trip on the too-long legs of my pajamas. We stand in the nursery prepared during the weeks Oliver was in a hospital far from us, Spencer and I worrying obsessively about his care and well being and when — when — we would finally bring him home.

And we sway, Oliver and me, two people watching another sunrise catch summer dew on grass I once danced through myself. The day slides in, already waiting for us. He finally quiets, a drowsy and reassuring weight in my arms, so I watch alone. And it’s hard to imagine feeling lonely ever again.


Dropping everything to read

You know when I felt we were going to be okay, my little family and me?

When my sister shared that April 12 — the unexpected date of my son’s birth — is Drop Everything and Read (D.E.A.R.) Day, a national celebration in which families are encouraged to settle down and enjoy books together at home.

Ramona booksThe date is a special one: Oliver shares his birthday with author Beverly Cleary, who wrote so many of books beloved by children, including me. Chief among them are the “Ramona” stories. I remember borrowing Ramona Quimby, Age 8 from the library so much that my parents eventually broke down and got me my own copy.

When it came to Cleary’s famous sisters, I was the quintessential older sister — the Beezus — to my little sister’s Ramona. Cleary’s stories were the first “chapter books” I related to on a personal level, seeing shades of both Katie and myself in her delightful characters. Along with Judy Blume’s Super Fudge, another book I read constantly, the “Ramona” novels were my earliest introduction to reading as pleasure. The more time I spent with those folks? The more I realized characters can become as “real” as your own dear friends, which has added texture to my entire life.

My elementary school was fortunate to have a fabulous librarian — a woman with whom I’m still in contact. I remember her helping us select chapter books and encouraging our zest for reading, even dressing up as the Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat on special occasions. I was such a dutiful little reader that, after finishing a story, I ran excitedly back to her with completed book reports that would earn me paper “reading mice.” They were more valuable than gold.

Though 10-week-old Oliver isn’t exactly ready to “drop everything and read,” I want reading to be a part of his world from the get-go — and already love sharing stories with him. My favorite right now is Nancy Tillman’s On the Night You Were Born, which never fails to make me ugly cry, but picture book versions of Old MacDonald and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar are also in heavy rotation.

I’ve imagined building my child’s library and reading books together long before this sweet babe was even a twinkle in my eye. When I was pregnant, I often read to my belly — even when it felt a little silly. In fact, when Ollie was in the NICU, one of the saddest moments I had was sitting in our home library surrounded by the children’s stories I’d been “reading” him for months. I thought I was doing okay — until seeing a stack of board books cracked me right in half.

But that was only temporary, of course. Now that he’s home (and feisty!), I’ve tried to get in the habit of sharing a bedtime — or close to bedtime — story with him. I’ll admit that there have been nights I couldn’t muster the strength, but I already look forward to these quiet moments together and hope that, as he grows, he will do the same.

I want to raise a reader. I want my child to find shades of himself in powerful, courageous, brave and wonderful characters — just like his mom. Though I know Oliver will be his own person, his own man, I know we can find stories that will interest him . . . no matter what he’s someday interested in. And I’m so very ready to walk with him down that literary path!

As a lifelong lover of books, it seemed serendipitous that Oliver’s unexpected birth would fall on a day dedicated to reading — and in honor of a favorite childhood author, no less. My sister shared the news of D.E.A.R. Day with me as I recovered in a hospital bed away from my tiny babe, stunned and hurting and sad.

It felt a little like a novel-toting guardian angel tapping on my shoulder, promising that Ollie and I would have many stories to share.

I couldn’t wait to get started.


Reading with Oliver


Tomato basil chicken stew

Chicken stew

I try not to be too hard on Old Me.

You know, pre-baby me — the person who found rising at 6:30 a.m. painful, and considered anything less than seven hours of sleep to be a death sentence. The woman who could barely drag herself out of bed to smooch her husband goodbye at 7, and would chain-drink coffee in the mornings, “lighting” the next mug from the previous cup.

Now that we have a feisty newborn in our house, my previous experiences of “being tired” are sort of . . . funny. In that “Man, I was just so innocent” sort of way. Sleep deprivation will do funny things to you, and we’ve only been at this a month.

But this was my first week back at work, and I wanted to make life as easy for us as possible. Just sorting out our new schedules — two full-time work schedules, plus our day care planning — was a task, so I tried to make sure we’d be reasonably well-fed during the transition.

So I’m back to the slow cooker, my dear friend. I remember when getting a meal in the Crock Pot had me feeling like Superwoman, and I walked around all day anticipating the dinner I got ready before work. Yesterday I did all that, plus ten thousand other little tasks — and with a cranky, adorable baby on my hip.

At almost 10 weeks old, Ollie is already getting used to the aroma of garlic. Gotta teach that kid early.

This Tomato Basil Chicken Stew might not scream “summertime,” but it’s hearty in all the right ways — and generated leftovers for lunches, our saving grace. It’s not heavy or dense . . . in fact, for a stew, it’s remarkably light. The Parmesan cheese adds a nice saltiness and punch.

And honestly? As it was ready when we walked in the door with the aforementioned cranky infant after a very long day, it probably could have tasted like sun-baked seaweed and I would have still licked the bowl.

But it really is good. Trust the sleep-deprived.


Chicken stew

Tomato Basil Chicken Stew

Ingredients:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 stalks of celery, diced
2 tbsp minced garlic
2 (28 oz) cans whole tomatoes (with their juices)
1 (14 oz) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 lb chicken breasts or tenderloins
2 handfuls baby spinach
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Parmesan cheese (to taste)

Directions:
In a medium skillet, saute onions, carrots and celery in olive oil, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and translucent, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and saute for additional minute, then put aside.

In a slow cooker, pour in and crush tomatoes. Layer chicken over tomatoes and add remaining ingredients, except cheese. Stir gently to combine and cover chicken. Cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours. Before serving, remove chicken and shred with two forks, then add chicken back to stew. Serve with Parmesan cheese and enjoy!

Recipe lightly adapted for the slow cooker from Gimme Some Oven


Chicken stew


Sleepless in Maryland

Sunrise

If you’re looking for me, I’m probably watching the sun come up.

At this point in his young life, I know we can’t expect our newborn to sleep through the night . . . or even for a few solid hours. Especially my 10-week-old preemie, who is actually two weeks old when adjusted for his early arrival.

But is the idea of five hours of unbroken sleep a beautiful fantasy?

Absolutely.

Oliver’s schedule can be somewhat flexible, now that he’s getting bigger, but he generally eats every three hours. Spencer and I took turns with the feedings at midnight, 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. when I was home, but I’m strictly on the 3 a.m. shift on our work days.

Sometimes Ollie falls back asleep after that feeding . . . and sometimes he doesn’t.

Sometimes I fall back asleep after that feeding . . . but often? I don’t.

I think it’s a combination of middle-of-the-night overthinking and listening to every whine, gurgle and hiccup our infant is making. Oliver sleeps in a bassinet in the corner of our room, recently moved from right beside the bed. When he first came home, I was up constantly to check his breathing — like every anxious parent — and have since released some of those nerves, but am still on alert for anything that seems amiss.

I’m okay if I fall asleep before Spencer and Ollie. In a quiet, dark room, it doesn’t take long for exhaustion to pull me under. But when I’m roused by his cries for the 3 a.m. feeding and get up for the half hour or more it takes him to finish his milk, I’m finding it harder and harder to go back to bed myself.

How can I be so tired . . . yet unable to rest? It’s torturous. After Ollie finished his bottle around 4 a.m., I should have collapsed immediately. But even with my little guy actually settling himself down, I was staring at the ceiling feeling the minutes tick by.

I’ve quickly realized I can’t do the math. Initially, I became obsessed with the mathematics of sleep: as in, “Well, if I go to bed right now and Ollie sleeps for a few hours, I’ll get three hours now and maybe an hour later, possibly two . . .”

And when that didn’t happen, I would calculate how much I actually got while waiting for the Keurig to spring to life. And the answer was just really depressing.

Spencer is so wonderful, and we really take turns with these nighttime misadventures. Parenting is a shared contact sport at our house. But at the end of the day, if it comes down to Spence or me, I try to let him sneak in some extra shut-eye. I know he’s just as worn out as I am . . . and has to go to work even earlier.

So at 5 a.m. this morning, rather than spend another few restless hours in bed before I had to get up, I decided to try and make the most of that time.

Oliver was fast asleep, of course. Because why wouldn’t he be — then? So I dragged my laptop upstairs with a fresh cup of coffee and settled in.

I wrote this blog post. Answered emails. Placed a Thirty-One order before the party closed. Uploaded some photos, replied to Facebook messages, perused some books on Goodreads.

And away from the digital world? Well, I eventually squeezed another few ounces of milk into Oliver’s reluctant, fussy tummy. Got myself showered, dressed and makeup-ed. Packed my lunch and his bottles. And then, my crowning achievement: I got dinner — this tomato basil chicken stew — in the Crock Pot.

It feels like I’ve lived a full day before I even left for the office.

Better than tossing and turning for hours? Definitely.

But let’s hope for a better night tonight.

Even coffee fanatics have their limits.


Nine weeks at home

Today is my first day back at work.

I’ve had a shock of bittersweet emotions coursing through my veins for days. “This is your last week at home” starting ringing in my ears last Monday, mocking me with this desperate insistence to make every moment count.

That can be hard to do when you’re running on four hours of sleep with a baby human screaming in your face . . . but I’ve tried.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of me was looking forward to getting back to “normal” life, even if my definition of normal has changed greatly. For as much as I’ve loved being home with Oliver, I’ve missed my friends and my work. Nothing about my life has felt familiar since April. The first month was spent drifting like zombies through hospitals, worried and exhausted, and the second wandering the house with a whimpering newborn, even more exhausted than before.

But we have adapted. Ollie’s month in the NICU taught me to be resilient, strong and patient — especially with myself. I had to learn to trust in a greater plan than the one I’d so fastidiously been crafting, and to accept that life does not always follow our color-coded spreadsheets.

That was a tough one for me . . . a lesson I’m still learning. One I swallow down every day.

I can’t say I have any regrets, though. With this little guy napping on my chest, how could I?


Sleeping with paci


Like all working parents, I already feel guilt nibbling away at the corners of my consciousness. Though he’s now tipping the scales at more than 9 lbs., Ollie is still a little tike — and his preemie status, especially, has me desperate to take care of him. When he spent those long weeks in the NICU and I was hours away, crying in the darkness, all I wanted was to hold him.

And I have held him constantly over the last month. There are times I thought I was going crazy, alone with him in this house; times I could not watch another second of daytime court shows or make another cup of bitter coffee that would cool before I could drink it. Times I was so desperate for human contact that I would prowl Facebook with one hand while soothing Ollie with the other, and afternoons I sat near the door waiting for my husband to come home.

But there were so many beautiful moments, too. Times Oliver and I rocked in the nursery and I swallowed back a tidal wave of tears reading On The Night You Were Born, which I can’t even type without getting weepy. Mornings we did nothing but cuddle over the morning news, then took photos in the cloudy light to document the growth of my sweet babe.

He’s gained about 4 lbs. since he came home in early May — doubling his birth weight and then some. When Ollie arrived early, so vulnerable and small, I didn’t know how I’d ever feel confident holding and feeding and soothing him. Everything was overwhelming. I plunged forward because I had to — because I am his mother — but I was scared, so scared, each time we walked into the NICU.

The past few weeks at home — these final weeks of my maternity leave — have really helped me find my mama footing. Though I am dead exhausted (and I’m sure that’s about to get worse), we’re so in love with this tiny baby . . . and that love carries us through another (nearly) sleepless night.

I’m sad to be going back to work. I’m happy to be going back to work. I’m not exactly sure how life will look yet, now that I’m returning to the office and Oliver is headed for daytime care, but I’m trusting that we will form new routines and make it work.

I don’t have a road map . . . but I don’t need one.

We’ll draw it ourselves. And it’ll be okay.


Adventures in motherhood: Oliver at 8 weeks old

Ollie on quilt

My mom surprised me with a gift last week. It’s a daily journal with a polka dot cover, slim and adorable. “First Year Moments With My Baby Boy,” it reads. “The Hardest, Happiest Times I’ve Ever Loved.”

And I promptly began to cry.

That one sentence so perfectly sums up the first month we’ve had Oliver home: beautiful, difficult, wonderful, strange. There are times I feel totally competent, even smug — like, What? I got this. Was this supposed to be tough?

And then there are times I’m so exhausted I can barely see, trying to comfort a howling infant who was due for a bottle 15 minutes ago. I have to push my unwashed hair from my eyes to peer at him from behind smudged glasses, trying to ignore the rumbling in my own stomach as I mix formula and stare blankly at late-night television. I don’t have this, I think. I had no idea it would be this tough.

My husband took two weeks off when Oliver left the hospital, and we tackled everything as a pair. Feedings, diapers, games, soothing . . . when I needed a break, we played Pass the Baby. When he needed a nap, we passed back. My mother- and father-in-law arrived over Memorial Day and were a tremendous help. My family and friends have also stopped by frequently, and the company and meals have been invaluable.

But I’ve been without Spencer until dinnertime for the last few weeks. I quickly had to figure out a way to sneak in a shower and transform myself into a real, live human, which didn’t turn out to be as hard as I’d feared. After his bottle, Ollie is pretty much sacked out for an hour. I’ve quickly figured out ways to maximize these naps to rest myself, pull the house together, answer emails.


Baby feet


Today, June 5, was my due date. Instead of waking up to labor pains or waiting anxiously for my water to break, we welcomed Oliver in April after I developed preeclampsia. We’ve had him home from the NICU for almost a month now, so he’s been with us longer than he was in the hospital.

That knowledge gives me so much comfort.

Sometimes I still forget any of it happened, honestly. I wake up to Ollie whimpering from his bassinet and think, That sounds like a baby. Is that a baby? And then . . . it floods back, of course. And I sneak my face close to his and look into those dark blue eyes peering up in the darkness, searching and eager and sure. (And hungry, of course.)

The first week was hard. Really hard. After the roller coaster that was life in the NICU, suddenly bringing home our tiny infant — and staying inside the house for days, weeks — was abrupt, isolating and lonely. We were okay, but it was a weird transition I could not have anticipated.

Once I started letting go of “the plan” (“This is not how it was supposed to be” was, for a short while, my sad mantra), everything began to improve. And when I started focusing on the moment and just looking at my son’s sweet face, putting aside my anxieties about . . . well, everything else, life got better still.

For as much as I love being able to hold and comfort our son whenever I want, I initially struggled with feeling competent as his mother. Where Spencer has instinctively seemed to know how to change diapers, swaddle and comfort, I did best when I was just rocking or soothing him. Though we gained so much knowledge in the NICU, I still worried about him being so small.

But he’s not so small anymore. He’s not small at all, in fact! Now weighing more than 8 lbs., Oliver is the size of a full-term newborn — which is exactly what he would be had he arrived on schedule.

Hitting this date is a major milestone, and one I’ve been thinking about for weeks. Though I know his prematurity is not my fault, I’ve still carried guilt around like a backpack. After all, my body could not do its “job”: protecting this little guy until he was ready to come into the world. June 5 has been looming over me.


No photos please


I really don’t dwell on that, though . . . not anymore. I’m nowhere near that nervous first-timer I was two months ago. In the last four weeks at home, Oliver has flourished and given us so many glimpses of his little personality. He loves his meals and naps like a champ; he has these sleepy, “milk drunk” smiles he offers just as he’s drifting off.

Preemies have two ages: their actual age based on their date of birth, and their corrected age calculated based on their due date. It’s important to know the latter for determining milestones. So Oliver arrived 8 weeks ago, but he’s actually age 0! His “adjusted” date of birth is . . . today.

Sometimes during the last few months, Spencer and I would look at each other and say, “Can you believe you’d still be pregnant right now?” or “Can you believe he wouldn’t even be here yet?”

At 8 weeks old (or 1 adjusted day old), Oliver . . .
– Drinks 3 oz. of milk every three hours
– Loves to snuggle on Daddy’s chest
– “Laughs” soundlessly in his sleep
– Is fascinated by black and white images
– Sucks his thumb occasionally
– Takes a pacifier when he’s hungry
– Turns at the sound of our voices
– Is beginning to make eye contact
– Seems fascinated by ceiling fans
– Likes to “hold hands” by squeezing our fingers
– Naps right through TV shows, vacuuming, power tools
– Has about 10 different silly nicknames
– Can raise one eyebrow at a time . . . and does
– Is wearing newborn-sized clothing — for now!

Spencer and I take turns looking after him — and just looking at him — into the long, dark hours of the night. Though the broken sleep and exhaustion were crushing at first, I’ve made a quick return to coffee and Diet Coke and am finding a way to function. People do this every day, everywhere, I think. And he’s more than worth it.

Speaking of caffeine, I return to work in a little over a week. I stretched my paid time off as far as I could, and my job has been very accommodating in light of all the chaos. Part of me is a little excited to go back, honestly. I’ve missed my friends and routines, my desk and . . . well, just the normalcy of it all, I guess.

But I’m tense and heartbroken, too. I cannot say I’ve hardly been away from him since he was born. I’ve spent many minutes and hours — even days — away from Oliver. Heck, save a frantic few seconds after he was born, it was days before I could even see and touch him.

So I do know what it’s like to be away from him — and it sucks. A lot. But we’re going to keep moving forward and figure everything out as a family.

After nine weeks off, returning to work will be tough. Being away from Ollie will be really tough. Navigating our new schedules and responsibilities won’t be a cinch, either. But I think I’m ready for the challenge — and ready to start developing a new normal as a happy family of three.

I’ll never forget how fortunate we are.

And as long as we get to smooch this face at the end of the day, I know we’ll be just fine.


Ollie chubby cheeks