Book Review: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary

Image from Carolrhoda Lab Books via readdisruptrepeat.

DISCLAIMER: I hesitated to write about this book because Ashley Hope Pérez has already written the perfect review, excerpted on the back cover: “I WANTED TO BURN DOWN THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD AND BUILD A NEW ONE WORTHY OF MACY. . . . UNFORGETTABLE.” But maybe you haven’t seen the book, let alone picked it up. In that case, allow me to introduce you to Nonieqa Ramos’s novel: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

Be sure to fasten your seatbelt, because the Dictionary is a helluva ride.

FOR: Teens and up

SUMMARY: As the Library of Congress says, “Fifteen-year-old Macy, officially labeled ‘disturbed’ by her school, records her impressions of her rough neighborhood and home life as she tries to rescue her brother from Child Protective Services, win back her overachieving best friend after a fight, and figure out whether to tell her incarcerated father about her mother’s cheating.”

Whoa, right? This book goes straight to the jugular. This is not a tidy, predictable story about a troubled teenager, `a la ABC Afterschool Special. This is a raw and unsettling journey.

As you’ve probably gathered, the Dictionary is a page turner, but not a beach read. This book tackles many serious issues and themes: loyalty, neglect, hunger, education, sexual assault, foster care, friendship, prostitution, poverty, ADHD, kindness, and drug use. Somehow, in the midst of such hefty subject matter, there is also a great deal of humor. Kudos, Ms. Ramos.


  1. It is a dictionary. Given the title, that should have been obvious, but when I read the words, “See H for Helmet,” it took me a while to realize that I could actually thumb through the book to find an entry entitled “Helmet.” (Among the H’s, no less.) But the words are defined on Macy’s terms. Macy has clearly had enough of the definitions forced upon her, like “disturbed.” This is our chance to see her actions from her perspective. Why does she steal from the grocery store, but refuse to eat what’s in the fridge? Why does she torment her history teacher and deface school property? Why does she give her mother’s coat to a prostitute? Or punch a boy in the jaw?
  2. The Dictionary is a diary as well. Macy (last name MYOFB) writes in it whenever she has time—e.g., outside the Principal’s office, waiting to be reprimanded, or in Homework Club with the supremely wonderful Miss Black. Macy’s opening entry is “ALWAYS/NEVER,” a linguistic combination that her history teacher considers grammatically flawed. Macy proves otherwise in the most poignant of ways. Have tissues handy.
  3. The chaos of the protagonist’s external and internal life is reflected in the structure of the book, which is arranged neither chronologically nor, technically, alphabetically. Mostly the entries are lumped like DVDs at the library: A-W-A-Y before AFRAID, MONSTERS before MAYBE, but then BURY comes after FIRELIGHT. Go figure. What is revealed—and when—depends on what Macy is moved to share at any given moment, so I recommend reading a hard copy to facilitate flipping back and forth between cross-references and entries.
  4. Nothing is cut and dried. The book raises a lot of questions and doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. Is her brother better off in foster care? Why does Macy’s friend George wear a helmet? Even Macy doesn’t seem to know. That’s OK with me; I don’t need everything explained in essay form. As Macy explains, LIFE IS NEVER LIKE THAT anyway.
  5. Macy frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly—and with a great deal of irreverence and profanity. She calls the reader out for a myriad of grievances: for reading over her shoulder, for being surprised she has heard of Odysseus, for not knowing a thing about Agüeybaná. To give you a taste of her confrontational yet humorous style, here is the entry filed under “DEAR READER:”

You are the person that I’m going to hunt down and assassinate when I find out you took my dictionary. I will hit your head so hard against the sink you won’t remember anything I wrote. . .Yes, the sink. That way I can wash your blood off my hands so I don’t ruin my sweatshirt.

Luckily she didn’t catch me reading it.

You may be wondering, is this a perfect book? Close, but the answer is no. There were passages that I had to read and reread, a few bits and pieces that didn’t ring true. Since the narrator is openly struggling and unreliable, let’s assume that was intentional. In any event, it doesn’t matter. Macy burst into three dimensions and haunted me long after I finished the book. I can still see her sleeping in the tub, swallowing paper, sneaking books from the recycling, saving two m&ms. She is all too real.

I HEART Macy. My recommendation? Buckle up and get to know her.

The Hate U Give

image credit:

posted by: Beret

Wow. This book.

It’s hard to know where to start besides the obvious: READ THIS BOOK.

Quick Plot Summary: The Hate U Give is about a sixteen-year-old African American girl caught between the two worlds she inhabits: Garden City, the economically disadvantaged neighborhood where she lives, and Williamson Prep, the elite private school she attends in the suburbs. In her struggle to belong in both worlds, we see Starr constantly jockeying to make the transition between home and school appear seamless.

In and of itself, that alone could fill a book, but first-time novelist Angie Thomas has decided to take on an incendiary current issue besides. She puts Starr in a car with a childhood friend when he is pulled over by the police, shot, and killed. As the sole witness, Starr has to grapple with a difficult choice: whether to speak up on Khalil’s behalf, or maintain her safety and anonymity at the expense of justice. Continue reading “The Hate U Give”

Hohokam Shell Etching

overview-iiIndigenous Peoples’ Day approacheth–and that’s not the only reason I’ve been thinking about the native peoples of the United States recently. The Dakota pipeline controversy erupting through the midwest is a reminder that a long and bitter legacy of disrespect continues.

I chose this particular activity because it was from the Hohokam people–of whom I’ve never heard, not even once. Since the Hohokam lived in what is now central and southern Arizona from around 200 to 1400, let’s hope I would have studied them had I grown up in the Southwest. Note: I include a pathetically brief overview at the end of this activity.

Hohokam people gathered shells from the nearby Gulf of California, and were highly skilled shell artisans. In particular, they are known for etching shells, and are probably the first people to ever etch objects of any sort, despite Wikipedia’s apparent ignorance on the matter. Traditionally, they would cover a shell with a protective substance—sap or pitch from the trees—and use a tool to scratch off the design they wished to create: animals such as lizards and frogs, or geometric patterns, for example. These shells were then soaked in an acidic liquid (probably fermented cactus juice) to eat away the exposed areas. Finally, the pitch was scraped off. The shells might be painted as a finishing touch. You can read more here.


From Ancient Lost Treasures.
From Ancient Lost Treasures.

To recreate their craft, we will use supplies more readily available these days, and our process will actually work in the reverse. Instead of etching the design into the shell, our design will be in relief, while the rest of the shell is worn away by the acid.  Continue reading “Hohokam Shell Etching”

Bullying: An ounce of prevention

posted by Beret

Just read Leslie Blanchard’s essay about her approach to the problem of bullying: making sure that her child sees outsiders as a human beings. I have pasted it here, but you can click here for the original link.

A note from Beret: In the comments section of the Ms. Blanchard’s article, I noticed that some folks interpreted the author’s intervention as “forcing a friendship.” By my reading, she was merely teaching her daughter the power of social capital, and insisting that she take the time to meet someone before deciding she didn’t like them. That seems reasonable and potentially life-changing for both sides of the bullying equation.

Continue reading “Bullying: An ounce of prevention”

On Barbies and Bodies and Beauty

body image
Image from Everything Under the Sun.

Posted by Beret.

Puberty is a wild ride; I must have forgotten. Or maybe–despite the hideously awkward classroom discussions and cheesy pamphlets–I just experienced puberty as my own ridiculously crazy life, rather than as a period of adjustment and development that everyone experiences.

Most even survive.

As the parent of two tweens, I get to relive plenty of adolescent drama and excitement, and this time around, I’m hyper-conscious about what I do and say that might impact the way my girls are thinking about their own health, beauty, and developing bodies. I want them to know that they are growing and changing in just the right way; that human beings are beautiful, and that each and every one deserves respect and kindness no matter what they look like.

Well, almost everyone.

I want to set my girls firmly on a path away from self-doubt and—I’ll be honest here, though it’s terrifying to do so–as far from self-loathing, eating disorders, cutting, binge drinking, and drug use as possible. I thought I’d start my campaign by addressing the issue of healthy body image. But how to tackle it? And am I far too late? Continue reading “On Barbies and Bodies and Beauty”

On a Mission to Appease the Candy Hound

Banana Soft Serve and Yogurt Pops

Image credit: Drew Swantak and Carrie Dennis
Image credit: Drew Swantak and Carrie Dennis

Growing up, I got dessert now and then, but candy was a rare commodity. All we had was a value pack of Trident in the kitchen cupboard, tucked between the mixing bowls and the vitamins. I had to hoard my Halloween stash and divvy it out slowly, making it last until Easter, which was the only other time of year that candy was prevalent.

Now I’ve got two kids of my own. For a while, both seemed equipped with the same level of restraint–despite the fact that I don’t mind having a little candy around the house–but once the oldest hit puberty, she went nuts. She’s become a maniacal candy hound, the likes of which I haven’t seen since The Great Cornholio. I don’t even know where she gets most of it. Now I find wrappers stuffed in the car door, on the bookshelf, in her pockets, bags, and between the cushions of the couch. “Why do you put the gummy bears in the cupboard where I can find them?” she asked one day, when I walked in and found her holding an empty bag.

It was time to find a way to satisfy her cravings for sweets without her sneaking around, binging on corn syrup and food dye.

Here’s what I have so far: two unbelievably easy, tasty, and reasonably healthy sweet snacks. Continue reading “On a Mission to Appease the Candy Hound”

Book Review: Fish in a Tree


posted by Beret.

Reading level:  4-6 grade. The protagonist is in sixth grade, however, and she wouldn’t have been able to read it. In fact, that’s the point. This book is for anyone who has ever struggled in school or felt like they didn’t fit in.

One rainy day last July, I wandered into a bookshop and accidentally left with a stack of five new hardcovers. Just what I needed for my suitcase.

The clerk was lovely. She agreed enthusiastically with all of my opinions–which is terribly charming–and I bought Fish in a Tree based on her recommendation and its adorable cover. So much for judging books by their contents…although, I finished it last night, and that’s what I’m set to do now.

I loved it. Here’s why… Continue reading “Book Review: Fish in a Tree”

Glowing Bubbles and the Great Black Light Smartphone Hack


posted by Beret

A few weeks ago, I was on a plane watching an endless parade of Buzzfeed clips. My  hour of debauchery was made possible by Virgin Airlines, who gave my kids an entertainment IV, and gave me an adult beverage and my own remote. That doesn’t happen often at home.

In between raw eggs dancing on a speaker and men trying to walk in high heels, I learned about glow in the dark bubbles.

As some of you may have noticed, I like things that glow. Last fall’s obsession was glow-in-the-dark pumpkin bowling. Very festive.

But this time I was dubious. Glow in the dark bubbles sounded great, but the Buzzfeed hipsters made them using highlighters–which don’t glow in the dark. This wasn’t going to work without a black light. LobeStir to the rescue!     Continue reading “Glowing Bubbles and the Great Black Light Smartphone Hack”

Misfit Lit: Counting by 7s


posted by Beret.

Age Range: Grades 5-8.

I’ve always had a soft spot for what I call “misfit lit.” Into this category I throw a few of the best books for young people I’ve read in the recent past: Loser, by Jerry Spinneli; Wonder, by R.J. Palacio; and A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass. A major appeal of these books is that everyone feels like an alien at some point in their lives–often and particularly in middle school. Delving into the brain of an outsider and seeing how they experience and cope with difference can be both comforting and empowering. It could also encourage young people to look for what they might have in common with others, no matter how different they appear to be.

Counting by 7s is no exception. What is unique is that we spend a good deal of the book inside the head of Willow Chance–a girl with incredible intellectual gifts and a penchant for botany, medical texts, and the number seven. The author, Holly Goldberg Sloan, does not water down Willow’s vocabulary or personality in any way to make her character easier to swallow. In fact, it isn’t important for the reader to understand everything the main protagonist says or does throughout the novel in order to grasp her emotional turmoil and her desperate need to cope and connect. Continue reading “Misfit Lit: Counting by 7s”

5th of July Fudgsicles


posted by Beret

On July 4th, it was ridiculously cold and foggy where I live. Too cold and foggy to see fireworks, or even to muster enthusiasm to watch the fog change colors. Instead, we went home and made hot chocolate.

July 5th dawned sunny and warm, and I found myself pouring the extra hot cocoa into a popsicle mold that had been sitting in the dish rack. Honestly, I just didn’t want to deal with the leftovers, because who wants hot cocoa on a warm day? A few hours in the freezer and voilà: I had accidentally made fudgsicles! Simple and tasty. In fact, waaaaay better than store-bought ones.

Here’s what you need: ten minutes and… Continue reading “5th of July Fudgsicles”

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