Farrah Penn

Twelve Steps to Normal


Review by Janae Iloreta

The inner strength we all need in Twelve Steps to Normal

Trust. It’s an important core value for healthy relationships, and defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.” According to 2007’s Do It Now Foundation’s Children of Alcoholics: Getting Past the Games Addicted Parents Play,it’s a value many children of alcoholic parents have difficulty with, and one that sixteen-year-old Kira Seneca wants the most with her father in Farrah Penn’s debut YA novel, Twelve Steps to Normal.

One year ago, Kira, the daughter of a recovering alcoholic father, left her hometown Austin and everything with it—her school, friends and (now-ex) boyfriend—to live with her Aunt June in Portland while waiting for her dad to seek help in getting sober. Now, her dad has completed his latest rehab treatment and Kira is forced to move back home with him right before she begins her junior year of high school. 

 As she settles back in town, Kira attempts to bring things back to how they used to be the last time she was in Austin. Using one of her dad’s past methods to recovery, the “Twelve-Step Program,” she creates a list of her own. Throughout trying to: 1. Forgive Dad, 2. Learn how to be a family without Grams, and fulfill eight other steps in recreating her old, normal life, Kira ends up realizing her goals have changed; that there is no such thing as “normal,” and that’s OK. 

 Told through a first-person narrative, Twelve Steps to Normalnot only resonates with children of parents suffering from alcoholism, but with any teen who has ever wanted a fresh start in life. In the author’s note, Penn mentions she grew up with an alcoholic father like Kira’s character as well, but “didn’t want to explore the negative aspects of [the] horrible addiction, [which is] hard to relive in any context.” Instead, Penn “[chooses] to focus not only on Kira’s journey, but on the hopefulness of her father’s recovery,” and on the small ways the its influence affects the life of a teenager coping with an alcoholic parent.

 Kira’s character comes off as mildy bothersome when the story begins, with her desperation to conform to high school society and the way she occasionally behaves querulously with the people in her life. It’s clear that Penn’s portrayal of the immature aspects of a young adult’s mind isn’t included to simply “fit in” for a young adult novel, but is incorporated for a reason. Penn shapes Kira’s character to react and grow in a way any human possibly would during this time of their adolescent life, given similar circumstances—angry and frustrated.

 The novel’s characters serve as important role models for others with similar familial struggles. They allow readers to recognize flaws as a natural part of being human, and are not something to be ashamed of or avoided. Readers come to understand that flaws—from Kira’s father, her friends and even her own self—can be seen as a tool to learn how to love unconditionally and handle life in a stronger and more mature way.

 Not only does Twelve Steps to Normalbring the uplifting spirit readers look forward to, but also exhibits the normalcy in characters of color, as the race and ethnicity of Kira’s friends—Asian, Black, and Mexican—are not conspicuously introduced. Instead, her friends are simply described through the actions and voice of any other teenager we see today: as Kira’s friends who all support each other’s struggles. Twelve Steps to Normalsucceeds in illustrating the optimism and strength others may pull from complex situations. Readers will walk away with the courage to fight through uncomfortable but necessary changes in life. They’ll understand the importance of acceptance and forgiveness in order to thrive and move forward.


Publisher: Jimmy Patterson, 2018
ISBN: 978-0316471602
384 Pages

Facebook: @AuthorFarrahPenn
Twitter: @FarrahPenn
Instagram: @farrahpenn


Tillie Walden

Review by Lily Reeves

Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeamis the lesbian space epic you’ve been waiting for—

on a sunbeam2.jpgon a sunbeam2.jpg

The first time I read Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, when it was a recently completed webcomic, I stayed up all night to read it in one sitting, crying my eyes out. The second time, when it was released as a physical graphic novel, I did the exact same thing.

On a Sunbeamis a tender gut-punch of a science-fiction romance. It tells the story of Mia, a young woman fresh out of high school, who joins up with a small, spacefaring, building restoration crew. It also tells, in flashbacks, the story of her freshman year, and how she fell in love with her mysterious classmate, Grace. As Mia grows closer to the crew, and more comfortable with her new life, you learn more about her past, and how it led her to this point—and how everything is more connected than it seems.

While Mia is the clear protagonist, Grace and the restoration crew—the methodical captain, Char, her hot-tempered wife, Alma, the larger-than-life Jules, and the enigmatic Elliot—have their own storylines as well, and they all tie together beautifully. In fact, Walden gives every minor character that shows up in the comic so much personality that you feel like you know all of them. 

On a Sunbeamis the type of book that science-fiction gatekeepers love to hate. This is not a story filled with lore and hard science. Rather, it seamlessly blends the fantastical with the science-fictional in a way reminiscent of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.Small plots of land that look like they were scooped off of contemporary country roads float untethered in space. Foxes made of vapor traverse a poisonous moon and are worshipped by human settlers. Every spaceship is a giant metallic fish, gracefully swimming through the stars. No, there are no explanations for these things, no concessions to the demands of logic. They just are, because they’re lovely and atmospheric and help tell the story.

Some people may also take issue with the lack of men in the story. (Let’s be honest: it’s probably the same people.) There are no male characters in On a Sunbeam:no side-characters, none in the background, none even mentioned by anyone. Nothing suggests that this is a sci-fi universe in which men have gone extinct though—Mia and Grace attended Cleary’s School for Girls, which would be a useless distinction without other genders, and the restoration crew own a male cat named Paul—they just never come up. So if you’ve been waiting for an epic space romance with only female and non-binary characters, this is the book for you.

Tillie Walden has crafted a beautiful love story, for every definition of the word “love.” Love for your friends, your family, or your outer space high school girlfriend—love that drives you to sacrifice yourself, to save yourself, or to travel to the edge of the known universe just to see someone one last time. Every aspect of the book, its story and its art, upholds its core function: to tell the story of how Mia learns to love life.


Published by First Second on October 2nd, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-250-17813-8
544 pages


Social media: 
Twitter: @TillieWalden
Facebook: @tilliewaldencomics
Instagram: @ tilliewalden


Eric May

Eric May talks about the origins of his novel, Bedrock Faith, his writing career, and how to stay motivated with writing your first novel.

Interview by Benjamin Peachy

I was a first semester junior when I first read Eric May’s debut novel, Bedrock Faith. I was most intrigued by the character of Stew Pot Reeves, the protagonist of the novel who is an ex-convict and has just returned to his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago with a newfound faith that causes immense tension amongst the people around him.

In my interview with Eric, we talk about his career in writing, his novel, and his thoughts on writing.

Eric May’s novel, Bedrock Faith, was published in February of 2014. It was one of Chicago Readers’s Favorite Books of 2014 along with being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels of 2014. Booklist had this to say, “In May’s vivid, suspenseful, funny, compassionate and epiphanic first novel, the decorous Mrs. Motley, a retired librarian, along with her close-knit, gossipy Chicago South Side community, dreads the return of the notorious Stew Pot Reeves.” It was selected as One of O, The Oprah Magazine’s Ten Books to Pick Up Now in April 2014. May’s fiction and nonfiction has been published in such literary anthologies as Criminal Class Review, Sport Literate, and Angels in My Oven. He has been on the English and Creative Writing Faculty at Columbia College Chicago since 1993. May is also a Certified Story Workshop Director. 



You worked for a time for the Washington Post, what made you want to come back to Chicago to continue your writing career?

I was a part-time instructor in what was then Columbia’s Writing/English Department from Spring 1976 through Summer 1985. Although being a reporter was great, I finally decided that teaching had the stronger hold on me. I returned to Columbia as a full-time instructor in the winter of 1993.


Was your novel, Bedrock Faith, based on a previous short story you had written? If so, what ideas of expansions led you to turning it into a full novel?

It began as a short story, actually. Then it was a long short story, and then at around page 50 I realized that there was enough material there for a novel. However, I what didn’t realize at the time it would take 470-some manuscript pages and ten years to see the project to a satisfactory conclusion, which is probably a good thing.


You have worked in the newspaper industry, published short stories and a novel—what medium do you enjoy the most for writing?

The novel form seems to be my “natural” form, the one that comes most easy to me, although I love the sweet brevity of short stories and journalism articles. I’ve also done nearly a dozen personal essays over the last ten years for various storytelling programs around Chicago.


There is a large, overarching commentary on religion and its effects on people in your novel. Does religion play a role in your life as it does for Stew Pot? (Possibly more of a minor one compared to him?)

I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and for the first thirteen years of my life I lived in the Morgan Park neighborhood where I had to pass four churches on the four block walk to my grade school. Although those long ago Sunday School lessons at Arnett A.M.E. have not left me completely, I would describe myself these days as more spiritual than religious. I did have to read voluminous parts of the Bible to finish the book.


Are you working on any stories currently? If you are, can you give some information on it?

 Working on another novel. Like BF, much of this story is set in the South Side neighborhood of Parkland. Don’t really want to say too much more about it. In print.  


 What would you say to a writer who hasn’t been able to complete a novel yet, but is still determined to do it?

 I started two novels and put them down unfinished before I got onto Bedrock Faith, which, as I said, didn’t even begin as a novel. Sometimes the novel finds you. Sometimes the reason a novel doesn’t work is that we haven’t found the right point of view from which to tell it, or we get bogged down in drawn-out explanations about the world of the novel and don’t get right to the story. Tony Morrison said she started writing the novels she had always wanted to read but had never found anywhere. That’s not a bad way to go. What are the sorts of things you yourself want from a novel in terms of subject matter, character, plot twists, dialogue? The key thing is to keep writing. I like to tell my students that it’s the people who keep at it that eventually get something like what they want from the writing process. My novel was published a month before my 61st birthday, and no less sweeter for the wait.


 Can you give any insights on your writing process for Bedrock Faith? Did you have a set time each day where you worked on it? Did you find any inspiration for certain characters from your daily life? 

 By the time the novel was up and going, I was too busy with teaching and various administrative duties to have anything like a writing schedule. I did have two sabbaticals in 2002 and 2009, which were a big help. Often times you have to work the writing in and around your work/family obligations. That means grabbing the time when you can, even if it’s while having a sandwich at your desk. The 3-4 hour block of time to write is often a train that either seldom arrives at the station, or never arrives at all. Also, putting off the writing until the home is clean and tidy, and the clothes are washed, and shopping is done, are sure fire ways not to get things finished.

Although I can’t say that any of the characters from Bedrock Faith are based on any particular person, I did draw heavily on the types of people I grew up around on the South Side. My character Mrs. Motley for instance, is kind of a conglomeration, a composite character if you will, of the college educated, church-going, middle class, African American women I knew growing up in the 1950s-60s; women like my mom and her sisters, as well as my grade school teachers and the moms of kids I played with.


Bedrock Faith, Akashic Books
ISBN#: 978-1-61775-196-7
434 pages