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My 2020 Year in Review

First off, I’m relieved to finally draw the curtains on 2020 and head into brighter days in the new year. For being aesthetically pleasing with its numerical symmetry, 2020 has proved anything but pleasant. What a dumpster-fire of a year this has been, but I’m optimistic for what 2021 holds!

I believe there’s an upside to every situation. In my case, I’ve always been able to thrive in isolation: leave me on my own and I’ll jump headfirst into tackling a project! So, I’ve embraced the quiet solitude as an opportunity to make headway on my ever-growing list of personal projects, challenges, and goals. I’m a nerd, what can I say?! I miss those moments of connection with friends and family, though. And I’d love to be able to get back into classrooms and speak with students. Nevertheless, I’ve rounded up some highlights from this disastrous year:

Notable Reads:

Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Miles Halter has spent most of his life flying under the radar. He has the chance to finally break out of his comfort zone and pursue the “Great Perhaps,” in the last words of a famous poet, when he moves to a remote boarding school. There he meets Alaska Young, a larger-than-life young woman who flips his world upside down. This book would be worth its weight in gold simply from its compelling, realistic depiction of the teen experience through well-developed characters and friendships. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read! The exploration of philosophical themes adds another layer expertly woven between exciting action, emotion, and character arcs. At its core, this book explores the human struggle to truly know someone, to access their spirit and innermost hidden demons that briefly bubble to the surface. I fell in love with the way Green refuses to resolve all the questions he poses. Instead, he explores ways to cope with grief when the answers aren’t all laid out in front of you, which is true to life. This novel displays the possibilities, then leaves the situation open-ended to allow both characters and readers alike to determine what happened. In real life, you may never know what actually went down, but you need to face the available facts and move on anyway. This book oh-so-subtly helps readers find hope through all the pain. In a pure stroke of genius, it made me feel every emotion in a new and nuanced way. With a debut this brilliant, no wonder Green smashed onto the literary scene!

Nonfiction

Not your typical “how-to” book, this public speaking resource is bursting with humor and heart. It reads like a memoir but proves just as insightful as a how-to guide. Berkun uses relatable personal experience to reflect on the human condition, and I often found myself nodding along with shared experiences. I love how he doesn’t sugar coat the nitty gritty unpleasant details; instead, he tells it like it is, with sarcasm and laugh-out-loud candor. Berkun even includes deep psychological and biological insights into how our minds work (ex: fight/flight response). This is the best book on the subject I’ll probably ever read!

This guide is an excellent, comprehensive resource on a little-known time period in history. I love the exclusive focus on my favorite century—it’s rare to find a piece of literature like that. The amount of research it must have taken to cover the wide variety of topics is astonishing. Mortimer blew me away! His philosophy in the intro and conclusion is my favorite part, and I love that he takes an uncommon approach to research and exploring history: living vs. dead. This perspective makes his book much more valuable than a textbook without having to resort to historical fiction.

Current Events:

Beloved Bookstore Makeover

New store layout at Barnes & Noble in Schaumburg, IL

I visited the Schaumburg, Illinois, Barnes & Noble this year and couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m absolutely in love with the new layout! The open floor plan embraces perimeter shelving units and interior display tables. Talk about simpler to navigate. Plus, it’s so much easier to find what you’re looking for thanks to larger signage! The building was renovated in June, making this location the first store in the country to receive the new floor plan (which happens to be right here in my backyard: Chicagoland!).

Book Mask

#BooksAreEssential

Publishers Weekly inspired me to wear this book like a face mask because #BooksAreEssential! Plus, Five Feet Apart is an amazing read and perfectly captured this year’s mood. Read more about why I loved Five Feet Apart here!

Literary Mountain Hike

I was fortunate to visit the Helen Hunt Falls hiking trail in Colorado Springs this year. Upon arrival, I discovered the breathtaking waterfall was named after Helen Hunt Jackson, a prominent writer in the 1800s. An unplanned (but welcome) coincidence!

At Helen Hunt Falls in Colorado Springs

Pillow Book

I did something a little different this year to celebrate my book baby’s birthday with my publisher, Kellan Publishing. My historical fiction debut The Kiss of Death became a pillow! Yes, you read that right: a book that’s also a pillow! What better way to kick off its five-year anniversary than with a Pillow Book!? Elizabeth and Matthias’s journey in a pandemic world is now timelier than ever, and I’m excited to continue their story in the forthcoming sequel. Thank you to all who have shared encouragement, feedback, wisdom, and kindness over the past few years. It means more than you know.

The Kiss of Death Pillow Book

Timely Repost: “English Historical Fiction Authors” Guest Feature

This year, the lovely English Historical Fiction Authors blog republished my article, “Deadly Plague: How It Devastated One-Third of Europe’s Population,” as Editor’s Choice, given its timeliness. Plus, The Kiss of Death was EHFA’s Book of the Day once again! In my guest post, I explore the plague—its origins, its types, and the devastation it caused. I enjoyed compiling the research for my novels into this one-stop-shop article. Thank goodness COVID isn’t anywhere near as deadly as the plague was! It wiped out 1/3 of Europe’s population. (Some scholars even claim that number is as high as 1/2.) If given the option, I’d choose to live in the 21st century COVID pandemic over the medieval plague pandemic any day!

Speaking Engagements

It goes without saying that I’ve had to hang up my microphone for the time being. It’s a bummer that my public speaking career has come to a halt as a result of the pandemic, since teaching is one of my favorite ways to spend my free time!

Last Pre-Pandemic Event

This year I traveled to Palatine, Illinois, to be a full-day guest speaker for 7th graders at Carl Sandburg Junior High School. My presentations sparked fun discussions about the power of writing, why we write, how to read a book’s copyright page, ways to set an ominous scene through details and word choice, book binding techniques, different publishing routes, “This I Believe” essay idea building, the publishing process, the intricacies of rat travel on trading ships that spread the plague during medieval times, and more. I loved these engaging conversations with students! Looking back, it’s saddening to realize this was my one and only in-person visit this year and my last for the foreseeable future.

One of the 7th grade classes I spoke with at Carl Sandburg Junior High

Thwarted 10-Year Reunion

Getting bookmarks ready for all-school assembly

I was especially looking forward to a K–8 all-school assembly at my grade school alma mater this year, which would mark an extra special 10-year reunion since my graduation. The current principal is the former librarian from my nine years as a student there and was going to give a special introduction. When the pandemic arrived out of nowhere, I was particularly bummed that the event was rescheduled indefinitely. Crazy how we missed it by one school day before the Illlinois state shutdown! That’s been the hardest part of 2020. I miss being able to do that in-person event.

Learn more about my upcoming (virtual) events or invite me to speak at yours here.

Recognition in Major Literary Magazine

Writer’s Digest official award certificate

This year has brought many challenges, but it has also afforded the opportunity to challenge myself with an activity I hadn’t pursued in ages: submitting short writing to literary magazines. I was excited to learn that one of those pieces placed in the 2020 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition! The competition, now in its 89th year, received over 4,000 entries across 9 categories. My essay, “Kiss Me for the Last Time,” was a top-50 finalist in the Memoir/Personal Essay category, out of 745 total entries. My piece is the result of the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication JMC 104 Communications Law & Ethics course for an assignment called “6-Word Race Card Reflection Essay and Oral History Project.” The project was a joy to complete, and the result is very special to me. As an English nerd, it’s pretty crazy that my favorite piece of writing to come out of my Drake experience is from a Law class, but sometimes life is funny that way. I’m thankful for this small bright spot at the end of a truly tumultuous tunnel of a year.

Virtual Story Time Videos

After the Illinois state shutdown, I started partnering with a reading-positive nonprofit and local middle school to assist with distance learning curriculum. These activities presented the opportunity to rekindle one of my favorite pastimes: making silly videos for fun! If you need a brief diversion from COVID-fueled doldrums, sit back, relax, and enjoy watching me read aloud from the story that started it all!

#ReadTogetherIllinois: Excerpt from The Kiss of Death by Sarah Natale

I created this video for an Illinois nonprofit’s COVID-19 campaign to encourage reading among children. The video includes a special message for families!

The Kiss of Death – Chapter 3 Read Aloud

I made this video read aloud for a Literacy teacher’s 7th graders to connect history with current events. The teacher used The Kiss of Death for Virtual Story Time in her classes’ distance learning. This video is similar to the first one, except it includes the full chapter and has a different focus!

Press

A Peak Inside the Classroom: The Kiss of Death in Action!

Here’s a selection of tweets that showcase my little book making impact in classrooms this year!

Spotted in the wild—Carl Sandburg Wildcats with a familiar read!
Such a fun project! I was impressed by this teacher’s smooth handling of a crisis situation with COVID and turning it into an opportunity for students to learn even more about themselves and life!

Pandemic Survival 101:

I’ve been keeping busy this pandemic, especially during the lockdowns. The real question is: what haven’t I been doing? Haha. It’s kind of a laundry list . . .

Personal Survival

  • Daily walks in the neighborhood with my household to stay active.
  • Soaking in long-overdue family time, plus to-do lists for personal projects.
  • Engaging in family read alouds.
  • Offloading my camera roll backlog of several years’ worth of photos onto the computer and organizing the resulting photo database.
  • Long-overdue major household cleaning/purging/organizing endeavors—a lot of work, let me tell you!
  • Catching up on pen pal letters (including a gal I’ve corresponded with in Washington state since first grade!).
  • Reminiscing over family home video VHS tapes from the 90s and 00s to catalogue and convert to digital.

Volunteer Survival

  • Freelancing (on a pro bono basis for now): tutoring, editing, critiques, and private consultations on publishing industry options.
  • Partnering with a reading-positive nonprofit and assisting with their COVID-19 campaign to encourage reading among children and families.
  • Partnering with a local middle school as a virtual Literacy Tutor for 7th grade classes’ distance learning curriculum (to help offset their workload).

Professional Survival

  • Virtually connecting with fellow industry pros to keep up with trends and key industry insights. (It’s fun getting know new book people!)
  • Continuing education (self-guided). Now that I’ve been out of school a few years, I realized it’s up to me to continue learning. I miss literary analysis essays, so I’ve been studying ways to improve my craft, both as a critical reader and writer. I’ve also been reading textbooks for fun, like the history of the medical industry, as well as medieval life in the 14th century. Did you know people used to think toothaches were caused by tiny demons living inside the tooth? Who would have thought! I usually breeze through fiction in my free time, so this pandemic-induced influx of dense, heavy nonfiction has been challenging to get through, but it’s rewarding to finally finish these tomes I’d been trying to carve out time to digest for ages!
  • Chipping away at my next novel—a sequel called The Kiss of Life. I never expected the medieval plague story I wrote in high school to have ties with current events, yet I can’t help seeing parallels as news unfolds each day. I’m also working on YA contemporary rom-com projects. Publishing-wise, I went directly through a small press the first time around, so I’m preparing to pursue the agented route when my new work is ready for submission.
  • Challenging myself to submit short fiction and essays to online literary journal outlets—a fun passion project (though surprisingly costly when submission fees start to accumulate!).

What’s Next

Good riddance, 2020! Welcome, 2021! In spite of all the challenges this year brought, I decided not to let pandemic get me down. I realized it’s an opportunity to re-evaluate my goals. Ironically, the pandemic has helped bring into focus what I’ve always known in my heart, and after some soul-searching, I’ve decided to make some major life changes. That’s all for now, so stay tuned for more exciting news in the coming year!

New to the blog? Check out My 2019 Year in Review for last year’s highlights.

~ Sarah

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