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A Wonderfully Nerdy Marriage Proposal at the National Book Festival

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Like most 20-somethings using social media, my Facebook newsfeed often features "Jane Doe is now engaged to John Smith" posts, with requisite thumbs-up, squeals of glee from friends, and photos of the engagement rings. Last weekend brought a round of several new proposals, but one in particular caught my eye—it was so unique and so wonderfully nerdy that I had to share it with you all.

On Sunday, September 23, Mike Muller proposed to my friend Rebecca Berkowitz at the Library of Congress's National Book Festival on the National Mall. With a ring hidden in a book. A book that was then autographed—and illustrated!—by the author.

The accompanying caption on Facebook: "Oh you know just hanging out in the media tent at the national book festival on the mall waiting to be interviewed about my engagement!!!!"

But let's start at the beginning...

Becca and Mike dated for years. Last year, though, they broke up; at the time, they were living several states apart and still figuring out their post-college lives. While they were broken up, Becca discovered Craig Thompson's autobiographical graphic novel Blankets (2003), which depicts Thompson's coming-of-age and first love. (The book won 3 Harvey Awards in 2004, 2 Eisner Awards in 2004, 2 Ignatz Awards in 2004, and the Prix de la critique, a French award for best comic album/book, in 2005.) She encouraged Mike to read Blankets as well, her message to Mike being for them "to have faith and to let each other grow and see if we come back together."

They rekindled their relationship during a New Year's trip to Costa Rica, where Mike purchased a wooden lady bug box—lady bugs have a special meaning to them—and they agreed that if he was ever to propose, the ring would go inside that very lady bug box.

So when Mike headed to the DC area last weekend to visit Becca, he brought the lady bug box, an engagement ring he designed himself, and one of their two copies of Blankets, in which he had carved a ringbox-sized hole. The initial proposal plan involved the Capybara exhibit at the Smithsonian, which would have been equally nerdy. That fell through, though, so Mike moved on to Plan B: the National Book Festival.

Once at the Festival, Mike and Becca listened to Thompson speak and then got in line to meet the man himself. When festival workers handed out Post-It notes so the fans could write down what they wanted Thompson to sign in their books, Becca asked Mike what he wanted, taking the book out of her backpack and opening it. As soon as she saw the box, she knew—and Mike dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him.

"We had a few wonderful moments to ourselves," Mike says, before the rest of the fans realized what had happened. The happy couple was soon being cheered and photographed by the Thompson fans around them, and word of the proposal quickly spread. The Festival workers "thought the idea was wonderful" and photographed the two to tweet the news. "It took a full 20 minutes for us to realize they had broken to news to our friends and family before we could," Mike told me; they then rushed out "the typical Facebook update" to alert their nearest and dearest.

The tweet that broke the story from the Junior League of Washington

And then their happy day got even better. Mike and Becca were rushed to the front of Thompson's signing line, where "Thompson seeemed as excited as [they] were." Mike reports that Thompson "was as friendly as could be" and was "flattered" that his book meant so much to them and was such an integral part of their story. Thompson not only signed and dedicated their proposal copy of Blankets, he also drew a personal picture in it.


Left: Showing Thompson their special book. Right: The author and the newly engaged couple posing together


Thompson signing Becca and Mike's book

Becca and Mike were asked by Festival workers if they would tape an interview for the web site, to which they agreed, and they were whisked off to the media tent. (In the photo at left, Becca and Mike prepare for their interview with event staff.) They had a few moments to call their families and have their "own little private celebration," enjoying the free coffee and food provided.

As the party guests—all the prominent authors of the Festival—filed in, they asked Mike and Becca who they were. Upon hearing Mike and Becca's story, the authors wanted to get photos with the happy couple. How many other newly engaged couples celebrate with the likes of Peter Reynolds (illustrator of the Judy Moody children's series), Ed Young (Caldecott Medal-winning author and illustrator), Christopher Paolini (author of Eragon), and Patricia Polacco (children's book author and illustrator)? For Becca and Mike, "it was beyond amazing" to share their day with such literary and artistic minds.

Becca with, from left, Ed Young, Patricia Polacco, and Christopher Paolini


Posing with Peter Reynolds. Says Becca: "He was inspired by us! Amazing."

Becca, an elementary teacher, considers it "a teacher's dream to be 'engaged' in a book." Mike, an aspiring author, found the whole thing "surreal," to have a story "leave the pages and come to life in such a real and profound way." As he wrote to me, "We were able to touch the story that inspired us [Craig Thompson's amazing work] and build it into our own, reinventing the narrative of our lives with every step of the way. All-in-all, not a bad Plan B."

I have to agree with his assessment—not a bad Plan B at all!


The proposal copy of the book, complete with the hole for the ring box and Craig Thompson's dedication and illustration


The custom ring Mike designed for Becca

Congratulations, Mike and Becca!

All photographs courtesy of Rebecca Berkowitz and Mike Muller.

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Kyle Ely
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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.

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