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My 2021 Year in Review

Yes, 2021 was less than ideal, but we have so much to be thankful for! Below I’ve compiled my top memories, moments, and mind-blowing reads in these highlights from a not-quite-terrible-maybe-sorta-kinda-ok year.

Notable Reads:

A world where witches command the weather but are limited by their season, so when the earth rebels and they suddenly lose control, only a special witch with rare access to all four seasons can save them? Yes, please! Loved this book with all my heart. Such a cool premise!

This nature photo shoot was tree-mendous fun!

To escape government persecution in 1970s Argentina, 18-year-old Mavi takes an English teaching job at an isolated boarding school on the frozen Patagonian coast, rumored to be haunted. What. A. Roller. Coaster. Ride! You think it’s a ghost story, but then you’re hit with a ton of bricks. Surprise! It’s so much more. This book truly makes you think. It’s a mind-blowing thought experiment I can’t stop thinking about. The elements of Latin American culture and women in STEM are exquisite, and that’s just the tip of the ice field. Sara’s execution of original concepts, along with fierce commentary on the human condition, sold this story as a modern classic for me. It’s one of those books that stays with you. The world-building of the ghost story—the history behind the “curse” and the motivations of the people who dare trigger it—was captivating to unravel. But the twist added another layer of sheer genius. Without revealing spoilers, all I can say is Sara’s ghosts are a metaphor for consciousness. I love how she uses a ghost story to examine not just our primal need to connect with one another, but also what it means to be alive and human and have hopes and fears and dreams and desires. Who’s to say whether what we feel is real or not? If I were a secondary education English teacher like Mavi, this text would be my go-to. I can think of countless essay prompts to explore in my imaginary classroom!

It’s the 1990s in small-town South Carolina. A vampire is on the loose, and he’s preying on your children. Who better to come to your rescue than a group of middle-aged, book club–going housewives who’ve bonded over their true crime obsession? This book was as addicting as a vampire’s bite—I couldn’t stop reading! While utterly terrifying at times (as great horror literature should be!), the tension, suspense, narrative, and characters were phenomenal. Very chilling. The parts about the housewives’ everyday lives were especially well-written. Who would have thought a horror writer could make the mundane moments sound as compelling as the horrific ones? I found myself constantly cheering on the strong female protagonist, even when no one wanted to take up her vampire-slaying cause. Plus, the inclusion of racial and class tensions added another seamless layer of complexity to the story. As a connoisseur of vampire stories, I appreciate how Grady created his own “brand” of vampire; he drew on mythology and gave a nod to tradition, while making it all his own.

(warning: potential spoilers ahead)

Imagine a YA version of The Truman Show, only with time capsule elements a la Running Out of Time, plus a futuristic side dish. Sound intriguing? Then meet Jess. She’s just trying to survive high school in her mid-America small town when she discovers that her entire town—entire life—is a lie: her insular world is actually a multi-million-dollar TV show broadcast to the entire planet without her knowledge. But once the truth is out, her idyllic 90s neighborhood begins to feel more like a cage, and she decides to risk everything for a chance at freedom. Only the world she breaks into is not one that readers are familiar with—the outside world is set in a future America, with sci-fi elements like self-driving cars, robot-automated grocery shopping experiences, and fingerprint scanners instead of credit cards. This book was a pure fun, wild ride! Anna’s tone and writing style made for a quick, fast-paced thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat. I raced to the end clamoring for a sequel (turns out there really is one coming in 2022)!

For a love letter to the 90s, the 39-year time gap was a nice touch; I expected the book to take place during modern day, but setting it 16 years into the future was exciting (1998 -> 2037). In today’s world, technology has advanced faster in the past 20 years than any other time in human history, so what fun to imagine how we might be living just under 20 years into the future! Plus, I absolutely loved how romance blossoms for Jess! Such a fun role-reversal: the down-to-earth, childhood best friend who was always there for her ends up being a self-serving jerk, and the full-of-himself braggart ends up being a true friend who helps her escape. Equal parts thrilling and ominous, this cautionary tale offers an insightful look into tech takeover—so creepy! A haunting allegory for today’s world, warning us about the consequences of “smart” tech, the powerful going unchecked (and therefore thriving on manipulation), and the price of fame.

Once I discovered breakout new voice Emma Lord, I devoured her work. Her first two novels captured my heart in the best way and crowned her one of my favorite authors of all time. (Plus, she has a third on the way in 2022.) She’s the new queen of rom-coms!

You Have a Match: To support her crush, Abby takes a DNA test and discovers she has a full-blooded sister, though her parents never got divorced like in The Parent Trap. Bewildered, she and her new sis meet up and spend summer camp investigating the mystery of their shared family history. Meanwhile, Abby’s busy falling in love with her best friend, who happens to be the camp’s co-chef, and dodging well-meaning parents who think she’s in summer school. This friends-to-lovers rom-com melds family, friendship, romance, and sisterhood in a beautiful commentary on life that made me feel every emotion and left me with plenty to think about. (The best books do both.) Emma weaves action and introspection together so well, it’s like every other sentence achieves each thing! Not to mention the fresh, unique metaphors peppered seamlessly throughout her writing. One of my new all-time-faves!

Tweet Cute: After flying through her sophomore novel, I was hooked on her style and needed more Emma, so I immediately dove into her debut. (Yes, I read them backward—which meant I was in the perfect position to appreciate her growth as a writer!) You’ve Got Mail is a staple in my household; we’ve watched it more times than I can count, and I’m pretty sure I could quote Meg Ryan in my sleep. So imagine my delight in discovering a contemporary YA social media take on this classic rom-com! Told in dual POVs, Pepper and Jack each run the Twitter accounts for their parents’ restaurants, a major fast-food chain and local deli, respectively. When the big guy is accused of stealing the little guy’s grilled cheese recipe, a family heirloom, their Twitter war goes viral. As if they didn’t have enough on their plates already with senior year in full swing and college applications on the horizon! While the teens are busy hurling Mean Girls memes online, they’re also falling for each other in real life through an anonymous app. This slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance wields even more fresh, unique metaphors (how does she do it?), and each plot thread comes together in a resounding, compounding climax! Plus, the narrative forward progress and character introspection are woven together throughout—again, it’s like external and internal devices alternate sentences! After reading both her books, I noticed they feature similar themes: food, small-business entrepreneurship, the wisdom of grandparents, parents’ secrets causing major issues for their kids, sibling drama, social media as a major plot point, and a lovely epilogue after an off-screen time-passage, just to name a few. I hope these continue to be recurring themes in her future novels. Can’t wait to get my hands on another Emma book!

The lives of three young couples intertwine in these swoony YA contemporary romances set in the city of love! Each book’s Parisian arc stands alone, but together they create a fully French, harmonious symphony of first love—and I appreciate the Easter egg cameos in between. This series has been on my TBR for a looong time. (For perspective, book one recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary with a special collector’s edition.) I’m so glad I finally experienced this absolute gem of rom-com trilogy!

Anna and the French Kiss: Anna’s all geared up for the senior year of her dreams when her father unexpectedly ships her off to boarding school in Paris. Of course, she immediately meets the “perfect” boy, and of course, he’s totally taken. But it’s a romance, so we already know that against all odds, they’ll somehow get together in the end. That kind of thing—the hottest boy in school instantly liking and quickly falling in love with the new girl—doesn’t usually happen in real life, but Stephanie sure portrays it convincingly! The year of romantic near-misses feels believable, and the Paris boarding school setting is well-built with an immersive atmosphere that led me to believe the author must have visited in order to include such minute details of sights, culture, and history—extremely rich with history! I love how this charming masterpiece foreshadows the relationship’s progression and even includes the classic “mean girl” trope without being over the top. I also appreciate the beautiful irony reminiscent of Under the Tuscan Sun: falling for an English boy (and subsequently learning Briticisms) while in France—just like learning to speak Polish while in Italy! (Um, yes, please!) Stephanie’s style has a Meg Cabot vibe with the elements of humor, easy banter, and snapshot of real teen relationships. It made for a swoony HEA without being cookie cutter, and not just because of the overseas setting! It was funny reading this after having experienced college because I found it super relatable to dorm life, even though it’s set in high school. This installment is brimming with consistent tension, conflict, subplots, and believable situations throughout, making it my favorite of the series.

Lola and the Boy Next Door: This next volume takes a break from the Parisian setting for a romp through picturesque San Francisco. Lola’s glitter-infused life is costume-design perfect—that is, until the boy next door who moved away years ago returns, along with his insufferable twin sister, and Lola is forced to reconcile her feelings for him. A very unique spin on the “boy next door” trope! The mystery of what happened with the twins drew me into the story, and Lola’s way with fabric and talent for costume design made for a fresh narrative with magnificent character growth. I appreciate how even the “villain” characters have well-developed, complex personalities, and I love how book one’s protagonists return as secondary characters with tons of screen time—much more satisfying than the usual brief cameo found in these types of novels.

Isla and the Happily Ever After: Finding their happily ever after is easy for valedictorian Isla and her new beau Josh, but they quickly learn that keeping their romance alive through life’s curveballs is another story altogether. I absolutely loved the scene where the head of the Paris boarding school warns Isla not to let a fling hold her back from going places in life, offering an unwelcome reminder that there’ll be plenty of “other” boys. It’s so romantic how our teen protagonist gets to prove the adult wrong, that this really is the once-in-a-lifetime epic romance her teacher can only dream of: true love! Even though she slips up at first and lets the teacher get under her skin for a hot sec. But that’s what this story is all about: finding the confidence to believe in yourself! (Also, since when are teachers qualified to give dating advice??? LOL.) I also loved how Josh, a troubled secondary character in book one, gets his HEA in his very own book, just like Adrian Ivashkov later got his in his very own spin-off series after Vampire Academy! (Underdogs for the win!) It was refreshing how Josh had a very good reason behind not caring or trying in school: he’s a genius and could easily outrank all the other students but chooses not to because he’s an art prodigy. I also enjoyed how Josh is a graphic memoirist long before its time—graphic novels don’t really take off in popular culture until nowadays. Also, it’s SOOOO cool how he writes a memoir of his life while still in high school, which is totally something I would do (and have)! No one does that as a teen! Super relatable for—well, okay. Only me. But so much to love about this sweet love story!

Current Events:

Barnes & Noble Grand Opening

My beloved local B&N in Crystal Lake closed in summer 2019, with plans to one day reopen in Algonquin Commons. Instead, the Spring Hill Mall location moved there this fall. Regardless of which store, I was excited to have one nearby again! I immediately started counting down the days until we’d reunite, but every time opening day arrived, it ended up being rescheduled. The infuriating goalpost kept moving! Finally, on November 3rd, the countdown concluded for good. After two long years, I was thrilled to welcome a B&N into my neighborhood again!

Follett to Close Its Book Fair Business

“This was truly a pandemic driven shutdown.” —Follett CEO

“Scholastic’s book fairs business has endured its own steep declines in sales over the last year, but FSS’s [Follett School Solutions’s] exit once again leaves the company as the only major player in the field.” —Publishers Weekly

I love Scholastic and am glad they survived the lockdowns, but my heart aches to witness another local small business shuttering, while the big guys have the bandwidth to absorb the pandemic-fueled losses. One day when we’re out of this pandemic, I hope Follett can rekindle its beloved book fairs! (For those who are unfamiliar, Follett is based in Chicagoland with headquarters in McHenry, at the heart of the Fox River.)

All Because Two People Fell in Love

My grandparents observed their 70th wedding anniversary at the close of 2020, but our family was unable to gather due to the pandemic. Instead, we made do with a virtual substitute. Then, in a very special visit to Arizona this summer, we all finally got to celebrate their remarkable milestone together. Plus, I had the honor and privilege to assist in the editing process for a beautiful tribute to their legacy in the paper!

Author Updates:

A Book Birthday

This year I wished another very Happy Birthday to my book baby, The Kiss of Death! It feels like just yesterday I was discussing the final details with my publisher in preparation for my Barnes & Noble Book Launch event. Now, Elizabeth & Matthias’s survival story (set during the medieval plague pandemic) is timelier than ever! Thank you to the friends, family, and friendly strangers whose wisdom and kindness over the past few years have made being a writer the most rewarding and meaningful part of my life.

Interview: The Writing Life + Strategies for Fellow Writers

I got to take a trip down memory lane this fall when I was interviewed by the lovely Cheyanne Murray about the writing life. For those who don’t know her, Chey is a novelist who maintains a writing blog, with the occasional book review and author Q&A. She’s also a talented artist. (I’m hoping for a graphic novel from her one day!)

In my interview, I discuss the writing process, strategies, how I got my start, and what I’m working on now. One thing’s for sure: as a writer, I’ve definitely evolved over time! I’m constantly weighing the pros and cons of different techniques and approaches, and I always learn something new from fellow writers about the joys (and trials!) of writing. Hope you take away a thing or two from my musings on the writing life.

Speaking Engagements

Story time with Pinckney, MI, 6th graders

This was a year of fully virtual events! While the pandemic has paused traditional school visits, it was such a joy to get back into classrooms and speak with students again—just a different setting.

For my first ever virtual event, I was uncertain how it would go. Technology is always a wild card for in-person presentations, so what happens when the entire event relies on the tech functioning smoothly? Thankfully, the first virtual classroom I visited was a well-oiled machine! Carl Sandburg Junior High School educator Stefanie Rittner’s unfailing enthusiasm and adaptability make her a phenomenal teacher, especially given the added challenges of distance learning. Her students are incredibly fortunate!

After a bit of trial and error, I think I’m getting the hang of this virtual public speaking thing!

A very warm welcome from Sandburg’s 7th grade!

6th Grade Events

On-screen classroom view

Next stop… Pinckney, Michigan! (Virtually, that is.) I connected with Navigator Upper Elementary School of Pinckney Community Schools through Nepris, a subscription service for educators which virtually connects students with volunteer industry professionals. My presentation on narrative writing covered the writing, editing, and publishing process, plus strategies students can use to make their writing more dynamic. The 6th graders made connections with current events in an engaging discussion about the unique power of historical fiction!

Behind-the-screen view

Plus, what a fun surprise to welcome special guest attendee Laura Hoehn, the Livingston County Career and College Readiness Coordinator at LESA (Livingston Educational Service Agency). LESA funded the district’s Nepris access through a generous grant, and my presentation marked the district’s very first use of the subscription. The event was so well-received that the district’s literacy coach invited me back for an additional presentation the following month, which involved another fun day engaging with Pinckney students through Nepris!

7th Grade Events

I returned to Sandburg for the second year in a row (this time virtually!) as a full-day guest speaker for the 7th graders. Students asked engaging questions about the writing and publishing process, and we finished each discussion with a fun activity I developed to practice the writing strategies we’d explored. I was blown away when a student asked how I came up with my book title The Kiss of Death, and as I described the irony, another student compared it with the dementors in Harry Potter. So many great connections were made, even in the virtual classroom!

University Event

I had a blast speaking on a panel for Drake Community Press’s first ever Career Day! The two years I spent interning at the Press were some of my most rewarding experiences as a Drake University Bulldog, and this involvement laid the foundation for my career as a book publishing professional. It was awesome to reminisce about the good ole days at DCP and hear from the faces behind the Press’s other publications. Also nice to meet the current students and interns and reconnect with former colleagues! If you’re a Drake student or Des Moines resident and aren’t already involved with DCP, you should be!

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

Website Overhaul

A-tinkering I go! 🔧

This year I did a major overhaul and redesign of my website because it looked like a kid made it. I mean, I was a kid when I made it . . . and it was about time for a facelift. It’s come a long way, but there’s still work to be done. If you have a few minutes to click through, I welcome your thoughts on my work-in-progress. Feel free to comment on elements you like/dislike, broken links, changes you’d like to see, etc. Please don’t hesitate to be critical. Any and all feedback is helpful! Thanks for the extra pairs of eyes.

Press

Professional Developments:

NYC Children’s Literary Agency Experience

I’m often met with surprise when I describe how my first three internships were virtual. I remember being overjoyed to finally work in book publishing offices! But then the pandemic happened, and remote work has become more accepted than ever. As a result, I’m grateful for the opportunity to experience a New York literary agency while living in Chicagoland.

After re-evaluating my goals (and experiencing full-time office life!), I decided to intern again to learn more about children’s publishing and what carving out a career in that space would look like. It was one of the best decisions I ever made! I was fortunate to work with talented mentors, agents, authors, illustrators, and award-winning books as I broadened my knowledge of contracts, royalty statements, and subsidiary rights. Those few months I spent working part-time in an agency setting provided a valuable learning experience, leaving me more certain than ever that children’s publishing is where I’m most at home! Which brings me to…

Day Job Updates 🐧

Excited to announce I’m a birdie now! Er, I mean, I work in children’s publishing for my dream publisher!

2021 was the year I accepted a position with the nation’s leading book publisher, Penguin Random House, as a Freelance Editor! My role involves copyediting and proofreading projects for the Penguin Young Readers department in the Viking, Razorbill, and Philomel imprints. Working in the children’s department of Penguin has been my dream day job ever since my “childhood self” discovered they published my favorite books. I’m so thankful for this opportunity to be one of the first people to read amazing books while being one of the last people to ready them for publication. Permission to go full grammar nerd: granted!

This experience has taught me about the power of a strategic “cold” email and a supportive network. I’m grateful to everyone who’s helped me get here!

Had way too much fun with this photo-ception photo shoot!

The first book I’ve had the privilege to work on is Kate Sweeney’s debut, Catch the Light—a beautifully written young adult novel about finding love and overcoming grief during that confusing and exciting time called senior year.

I’m excited for the projects to come in 2022!

(Check out my alma mater Drake University’s announcement about turning a “dream employer” assignment into reality.)

First Acknowledgement

Yeah, I did a double take the first time I saw it, too.

Kate’s stunning debut had been perched on my shelf since release day (yes, I counted down), so couldn’t believe a month passed before I noticed my name in the acknowledgements! Absolutely over the moon to find this unexpected gem in my first project for Penguin Teen. This book was a joy to edit, and I’m so glad it’s finally out in the world!

What’s Next:

Jumping for joy that B&N is coming soon (and in anticipation of my 2022 author career goals)!

Many of you have shared with me that you’re (im)patiently waiting for a new “Sarah Natale tale,” so I know you’ll be glad to hear that I’m hard at work on my next novels! I’m planning to go the agented route this time around so I can sign with a larger publisher. I’ve outgrown what the small press can provide in terms of marketing, publicity, and distribution. Plus, at this point in my career, I’d really like to let someone else handle the promotion side, so I can focus on the creative side.

“But wait a sec!” you say. “These days an author is required to wear several hats, right? Long gone are the ‘writing cave’ days where you simply poured your heart out, sent to the publisher, and hoped for the best—now promotion is a built-in part of the writing life. It’s inescapable!”

While yes, that is the new reality, I want to make sure I don’t end up shouldering 99.9% of the promotion again. Thank goodness for my marketing/PR/graphic design major coming in clutch while I was figuring out how to launch a book all on my own—and as a teenager, to boot. Whew!

Yep, it’s definitely time for a change. Plus, I have an exciting event coming up next year. Stay tuned for details!

New to the blog? Check out My 2020 Year in Review for last year’s highlights.

~ Sarah

2 thoughts on “My 2021 Year in Review

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