Why I Write

In third grade, I noticed for the first time that I had a talent for storytelling and a command of words and sentences that my peers didn’t have. In pairs we had to read a short story to each other, something we’d written in response to a prompt. It had to do with a canoe resting on the shore of a beach. My story was epic, elaborate, about a shipwrecked boy who survived something like the Titanic, only in the Pacific. No icebergs. Basically I had the storyboard for Castaway some 15 years before that movie was made. I used the words startled, determined and collapsed. My reading partner didn’t know what those meant.
Throughout elementary school I was often called a liar. This had to do with me being unable to stick to one version of a story. It makes sense to me now, why I was like this. I didn’t have a name until I was 14 months old. I lived in three different foster homes before I was placed with the people who eventually adopted me. No one explained these events to me. Instead I was terrified to be alone in the dark and I told and wrote stories about stolen children, kidnapped in the middle of the night while they slept. Lost children, who moved through the world without adults to help and guide them. I wrote to try to make sense of the story I was living, the one in which I was dropped off with my parents by a stork who couldn’t tell them where I came from or why I was brown.
When I moved on to junior high and high school, I stopped writing to tell stories. At my rigorous college prep school, all writing was in service of the divine 5 paragraph essay. Thesis-evidence-commentary. Pink, yellow, blue. If it couldn’t be highlighted in one of those colors, it didn’t belong in the essay. It wasn’t worth saying. I mastered this style of writing. I can write persuasively to prove any point. As an undergrad, I got an A on every single paper I wrote across literature, history and theology courses. In the process, I forgot how to tell stories. I never did figure out how to tell my own.
Until a year ago.
At the prompting of a gifted writing coach, as part of a profound healing retreat, I put my origin story into words, evolved the story to include drawings, removed the words, and found the primitive, caveman art version of my early life story. This is the story inscribed in indelible ink on the walls of my heart. It’s the story hardwired in my brain.
Lest you think that’s it, that’s my story—let me stop you there. It’s the beginning of my story, like how cave paintings are the beginning of the story of humankind. I had to excavate that story, had to discover it. Now, understanding how I started, I’m retracing the path I took to get here, to this moment. And from here I’m creating my story. The story in which I’m a priestess in my own temple and anything is possible.
I write to reflect on the journey. I write to persuade you I’m not a liar. I write to speak your language, and to help you understand mine.

 

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Six Years

Five half marathons

One Master’s degree

100+ books

Three solo dance competitions

Permanent visual impairment

A teenager

2016 & #MeToo

I’m not the teacher librarian who created this blog to serve as a database for the YA, middle-grade and children’s literature worthy of your reading time. I’m several months shy of four-zero, coming-of-age as though I’ve finally progressed past my own adolescence, and inclined to listen to your stories rather than turning to fiction to satisfy my need for narrative.

Writing this post, and the last, is a bit like talking to myself in public. I’m self-conscious, not entirely convinced that no one will notice, taunting my cowardly parts to click “Publish.” I have a lot to say about important matters but I’m not ready to wade out into deeper water. I’m not a good swimmer. I’m afraid of sharks. I don’t want to drown. I’m hoping when I do venture out there, I’ll find a liferaft. Or maybe some other seafarer will haul me onto a boat. Even better, I’ll discover an island and my tribe.

For now I’m pacing back and forth on the shore of this island. The view is nice and I feel safe. I’m proud of myself for being here. That’s enough.

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Fears and Cravings

“Is this the journey I both fear and crave?”

~ Mark Nepo, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky

I fear sensations, like the nausea that ripples out from the knot in my stomach. Or the heat in my ears that feels like the wails of a desperate baby. I fear the sensation of my skin going cold, of my vision blurring. I especially fear the combination of these and so I step with lithe agility, cautiously, wistfully. I try to float above my own path.

Yet I crave groundedness. I want to dig my toes into the earth that deep roots might burrow. I crave an anchored existence, a history that extends into the past, beyond my lifetime. I crave my own blood, mirrored in warm flesh rather than cold glass.

This IS the journey. The one in which I’m pursuing the horizon of my life.

I fear judgement and rejection. I crave empathy and belonging. Though I know I am not alone–neither in these feelings, nor in the journey–mine is a solitary way. Is there a sweet spot between urgency and patience? That’s where I’m trying to be today so that tomorrow I can choose whether to stand still or take a step.

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Each Kindness

A library colleague (who has a terrific blog over at Great Kid Books) brought Each Kindness to my attention last fall and I finally got around to reading it for myself.  I am still reflecting on the book so what follows is less a review and more a reaction.  (For a great review of this title, head over here).

Each KindnessRipples in the water are a familiar metaphor for cause and effect, used here by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson to teach young Chloe the impact of small acts of kindness.

When the principal introduces new student Maya, hardly anyone in the class bothers to greet her.  Chloe does not return Maya’s smile when the girls are seated next to each other.  Soon Maya is nicknamed “Never New” by her classmates because her clothes, shoes and toys all seem to have belonged to others before they belonged to Maya.  On the playground, Maya plays by herself because no one will join her, despite her invitations.  When she is absent no one notices.  One day, the teacher gives a lesson about kindness, using a small stone dropped into a bowl of water to show the ripple effect of being nice.  When it is Chloe’s turn to share an example of how she has been kind, all she can think of is how she wasn’t kind to Maya.  Though Chloe makes up her mind to smile at Maya the next chance she gets, Chloe finds out that she won’t have the chance because Maya won’t be coming back to class.  The story ends with Chloe’s wistful regrets.

The Hundred DressesIn this way, Each Kindness is very different from the story it echoes, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.  Chloe does not experience the kind of closure that Peggy and Maddie find after Wanda moves away.  As an adult reader I appreciate Chloe’s less-than-happy ending, but I am hesitant to say that children will enjoy this conclusion.  I am not sure what to do with the first person narration from Chloe’s point of view, and I think that Maddie’s reflections on her behavior toward Wanda are much more insightful.   The steps Maddie takes to set things right prove cathartic.  Also, much is revealed about Wanda in the course of The Hundred Dresses, whereas Chloe learns nothing about Maya—did she have siblings?  Who were her parents?  What kind of strange food did she eat at lunch?  Why did she go away?

Unfortunately, Maya is forgettable as a character, and while Woodson’s point may be the lesson Chloe learns, I am unsure of the lesson a young reader will take away from the story.

Yet I think Each Kindness has potential, particularly as a concise variation of The Hundred Dresses.  As part of a larger character education curriculum or as a one-off lesson on kindness, this book subtly raises the issue of bullying from the bully’s perspective.

Discussion Points* for Each Kindness:

*I thought up these questions with 7-8 year olds in mind.  Please share your adaptations for younger or older children and/or the highlights of your discussions of the book.

  • Chloe is observant.  When the principal introduces Maya, Chloe notices that Maya’s coat is open, her clothes are “old and ragged,” and she wears broken “spring shoes” in the winter.  When you meet someone for the first time, what are some of the things that you notice?  What would you like other people to notice about you?
  • “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”  What does this saying mean to you?  Do you agree or disagree?  How would you change the saying to be about people?
  • Chloe and her friends whisper and laugh about the strange food Maya brings for lunch.  What kind of food would be strange for a kid to bring to school for lunch?
  • New clothes and toys seem to matter a lot to Maya’s classmates.  Why do you think they prefer new things?
  • Andrew seems to be taunting Chloe when he says she has a new friend and Chloe tells him that Maya is not her friend.  Chloe’s best friends are Kendra and Sophie.  How many friends should a person have?  With your school friends, how does it work if someone makes a new friend?  How does it work if someone does not want to be friends with someone else?
  • What are some kind things that you have done for others?
  • What emotions do you think Chloe feels…when it is her turn to drop the stone into the water?  …when she decides to smile at Maya? …when she learns Maya has moved away?

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I Swear: Thoughts about Bullying, Lane Davis’ novel, and a New Year’s Resolution

In the past I have posted a booklist on the topic of bullying, reviewed The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso, and shared my thoughts on how books can help to open up dialogue on this sensitive topic.

This year, with No Name Calling Week coming quickly (January 21-25), I am thinking yet more deeply about why the issue of bullying is something I take so seriously as an educator, a parent, and as a human being.  Some life lessons came hard and fast over the past couple months and I think I’m still reeling.   Between the experiences I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, cyberbullying, slut shaming and the limits of free speech are all on my mind.

Particularly when verbal bullying is involved—as I have learned firsthand—too many people, including teachers, school administrators and parents, are uncomfortable with the word “bullying.”  They are reluctant to identify problematic behaviors for what they are, downplaying the victims’ feelings, giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the victims are crying “wolf.”  In a culture in which people are so quick to defend their right to free speech, what happens to the rights of others to be free from verbal violence?

Last fall, I read I Swear, the debut novel from writer/actor Lane Davis.  Narrated alternately by four friends, the novel explores the fallout of a bullycide tragedy:  Leslie Gatlin, after enduring years of relentless bullying and systematic humiliation, kills herself in her parents’ garage.  Jake, perhaps Leslie’s only friend, is the last person to see her alive.  Jillian, Jake’s twin sister, is best friends with Macie Merrick, the mastermind behind the schemes, pranks, and cyberbullying that targeted Leslie. Katherine and Beth, Leslie’s classmates, each played her own part as well.  With Leslie’s parents pursuing a wrongful death suit, everyone is forced to confront an uncomfortable reality:  even if the truth comes to light, will it bring justice?

While all the expected characters round out the cast—the queen bee and her sidekicks, the wannabes, the love interest, and the bystander-turned-heroine—Davis does a remarkable job developing the standard players and in the right hands this fascinating novel could become a powerful screenplay.  As the events unfold, the narrators reflect on their reasons for going along with Macie’s cruelty to Leslie—what is it about Macie that compels both girls and guys to crave her approval?  How can any teenager be expected to find his or her own voice when so many others—peers’ and adults’—are quick to speak for them?

Unfortunately, some of the Macie Merricks we knew in high school are now adults who continue their vicious, brutal behavior in the workplace or other communities, always managing to come out on top because they’ve crushed the people in their way.  Recognizing this, Davis ends the story with all the complexity and ambiguity that suicide demands—and the novel is all the more successful for it.

As a teacher and parent, I swear, I will be vigilant in raising awareness of the realities of bullying.  To this end I’ve decided to study—concurrently with my library science work—character development.  I hope to integrate my background in morality and social justice and my extensive reading of young adult literature with strategies for teaching character and values.  I am excited to see what comes of it all.  My official New Year’s resolution is inspired by One, presented here by author Kathryn Otoshi:  I am only one educator, but one student, one classroom, one school at a time, I will help build communities that foster compassion and respect.

Upcoming:  a few more recommended titles on bullying.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

One of the projects in my high school creative writing class was a photo journalism assignment with a twist:  after taking pictures of an event, we sifted through the images and selected one or two to serve as the inspiration for a short story.  The only caveat was that the story had to be completely removed from the actual event in the photo.

Reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, I kept thinking of that creative writing assignment and wondering if Riggs went through a similar process to come up with the plot and characters for this novel.   From authentic, vintage photographs culled from the personal archives of several special collectors comes an unexpected, well-plotted and highly unusual story peopled with fascinating characters.   This imaginative cross-over novel begs for a sequel.

When he was a child, Jacob believed the bizarre stories his Grandpa Portman told him about horrific monsters and he was enthralled with the strange photographs he shared of the levitating, invisible, and freakishly strong children with whom he’d once lived.  As time passes however, Jacob loses interest in fantastic tales and his family grows stronger in their opinion that Grandpa is losing his mind.  Then a shocking family tragedy occurs that sets Jacob on a path to visit the remote island where his grandfather once lived and uncover the secrets of the children’s home where the stories and photos originated.  Jacob’s discoveries will leave him doubting all he ever knew about his family history and believing in things he never dreamed possible.

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The House of the Scorpion

housescorpionI finished reading my first book of the New Year:  The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.  I found this book at one of my favorite used bookstores and couldn’t pass up such a great deal ($2!).  The House of the Scorpion, first published in 2002, is a Newbery Honor Book, a Printz Honor Book, and a National Book Award winner.

In some ways, this novel is a typical coming-of-age story in which the protagonist must reconcile his childhood experiences with his discovered identity and his hopes for the future.  However, this story comes with surprisingly intense themes—biomedical ethics, socio-economics, and geo-political borders—relevant to contemporary readers regardless of how long ago they were teenagers.

After reading, I’m pondering the following questions:  in a future where cloning is more than a mere possibility, what separates humans from animals?  When it comes to science and human life, where will we draw the line between what we can do and what we should do?  In a world of unfairly distributed wealth, what is a government’s responsibility to its people?  What is the people’s to their government?

In The House of the Scorpion, main character Matt is harvested from the womb of a cow after being cloned from the skin cells of 140-year-old Mateo Alacrán, known as El Patrón, the drug lord who controls the borderland between the United States and Aztlán.   When he is six years old, after spending his whole life in a small shack with his caretaker Celia, Matt discovers his true identity at the same time that he learns clones are less than animals, less even than the eejits who have computer chips implanted in their brains so that they are little more than zombies.   As he grows from a boy to a man, Matt demonstrates that he is intelligent, talented, empathetic and sincere.  But with his genetic code the exact copy of a ruthless, power-hungry man who hoards his wealth while his workers waste away, how can Matt ever prove himself to be human, let alone his own person?

This novel would make an excellent whole class read for a course on ethics or morality, and would also provide interesting discussion points for Mexican American history and politics.  Books with similar themes:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel, and Across the Universe by Beth Revis (science and ethics); Red Glass by Laura Resau, Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, and Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (culture, identity and self-discovery, geo-political borders).

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