There will be a full post about this book on Monday, October 29th, but I just couldn't wait to tell you how great it is, and to urge you to get it (at your local or online independent bookseller, or at the library) and read it! June is a middle-schooler ...
There will be a full post about this book on Monday, October 29th, but I just couldn’t wait to tell you how great it is, and to urge you to get it (at your local or online independent bookseller, or at the library) and read it!
June is a middle-schooler who loves to read, and who never gets into trouble — until her parents and then her school start banning books.
Check out the author’s website here, a shared review in The New York Times here, and the Publishers Weekly review here.
Many, perhaps most, of us know someone who deals with dementia. My first encounter with dementia was when I was in my early teen years, although that word was not commonly used then. We’d go over to visit my paternal grandparents, and Grandma would say, “Father is confused today.” We accepted this confusion as part of the package of Grandpa’s aging, although I never liked the fact that Grandma would say that with Grandpa there in the room.
Later, my dad dealt with increasing dementia, especially after breaking his hip at age 95 and experiencing the surgery, medication, and going into a nursing home that followed. It was heartbreaking to watch the deterioration of his memory – particularly the day he said, with tears in his eyes, “I forgot I had a home.” (As the effects of the surgery and medication wore off, shreds of memory returned, and that provoked those plaintive words.)
I am grateful that through all that, he always recognized me and called me by name. His face would light up as I entered his room at the nursing home, and he’d say with joy, “Beth!” The look of joy and love on his face still buoy me up, nearly eight years after his death.
Dementia is a difficult topic for adults to talk about, even now, and it’s even more difficult to know how to explain it to children. I recently read a picture book, The Remember Balloons, that does a wonderful job of giving an image that children can grasp, and that can open the discussion when a grandparent or other beloved person is struggling with the progress of Alzheimer Disease or some other dementia.
For older children, who are reading middle grade novels, one of my favorite books, Cynthia Lord’s Half a Chance, does the same.
I’d like to share briefly about both books, and would urge you to read them.
Title: The Remember Balloons
Author: Jessie Alveros
Illustrator: Dana Wulfekotte
Publisher: New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018
Genre: Picture book, fiction
Audience Age: 4 to 8 years
Themes/Topics: Dementia, remembering, families, love for grandparent
Opening Sentences:I have lots and lots of balloons, way more than my little brother. “This one’s my favorite,” I tell him, pointing to the balloon filled with my last birthday party.
Synopsis: James envisions balloons each filled with a memory. He has lots and lots, but his parents have more. Grandpa has the most of all, and James loves to hear the stories of each one. But one day, one of Grandpa’s balloons floats away, then more and more of them fly off, and Grandpa doesn’t seem to notice. James is distressed – particularly when the special silver balloon that holds the best memory shared by Grandpa and James disappears. James needs to find a way to deal with his distress and his sorrow, while somehow comforting Grandpa.
Opening Sentences:“Lucy, we’re going to love this place!” Dad called to me from the porch of the faded, red-shingled cottage with white trim. … … “I’ll buy you a new bike when I get back, Lucy.” … … Dad always promises me things before he leaves and then forgets by the time he’s home again.
Synopsis: Lucy and her family move to an old cottage on a lake in New Hampshire just before Dad, a photographer, leaves on yet another business trip. When Lucy learns about a photography contest, and finds out that her dad is judging it, she decides to enter. Through her photography that summer, she meets and gets to know the kid next door, Nate. He introduces her to the joys of the lake, and particularly the loons. She finds amazing subjects for her photographs, but her photographs of Nate’s grandma show what the family has been trying to deny – Grandma is slipping away from them into dementia. The family, and Lucy, have to find a way to deal with this, while Lucy continues to try to connect with her dad.
This book moved me, inspired me, taught me, and delighted me. I have reread it more than once. I highly recommend it.
For Further Enrichment: Cynthia Lord’s website is here.
Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Usually I would write a post about some of the things I am grateful for, and in a way, this post is about gratitude, for gratitude is important. But it’s a different kind of gratitude than the sort we usually think about on Thanksgiving.
As you know, I write for kids (and adults) and I’m working toward being published one day. There are many of us working toward that goal, and sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes I’m sure others wonder, as I do, if it’s worth the hard work, if we have anything to say in the increasingly difficult world kids live in these days.
Then, in the midst of all that’s going on in the world, in the midst of the work of writing something relevant, an affirmation comes that says, “Yes. Writing for kids is not only worth it, it’s of the utmost importance, especially in these difficult days.”
One of those affirmations came for me this week through a book – a middle grade novel that touched me deeply, inspired me, and spurred me on to dig deeper into my writing and work to touch the kids out there who need the kind of books I write.
That book was Jacqueline Woodson’s deeply inspiring and challenging Harbor Me. This is a powerful book for our time. It is a necessary book for our time. It is poignant, and moving, and true. If you haven’t already read it, I hope you will.
And so, on this Thanksgiving, my gratitude goes to Jacqueline Woodson, and other writers who write deep and true and real books that speak to our world as it is, and as it can be.
Title: Harbor Me
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: New York: Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, 2018
Genre: Middle Grade fiction
Audience Age: 9 to 12 years
Themes/Topics: working past our differences, Dreamers, immigration, race, friendship, empathy
Opening Sentence:We think they took my papi.
Synopsis: The book begins with the main character remembering – remembering the year when six of her classmates in the classroom for “special” kids embarked on a great experiment, begun by their teacher, but brought to life by the kids themselves.
One Friday, Ms. Laverne, the kids’ teacher, tells them to take their books and follow her. She takes them to the old Art Room, and says this is now going to be their room on Friday afternoons, their room to talk and just be – just them, no teacher, no monitoring, no one to keep them from saying whatever they want. As one of the kids says after she leaves, instead of an ART room, it’s now an A.R.T.T. room. A Room To Talk.
Gradually, the kids begin sharing deeply of what is happening in their lives. And the main character records it all on a small, handheld voice recorder. Esteban begins the sharing with the words We think they took my papi. His father has been taken, as they eventually learn, to a detention place in Florida, but the suspicion is that he will be sent back to Puerto Rico. The family fears being separated permanently, although they think surely, surely, the children who have been born here, like Esteban, will be safe.
It’s a time of fear and uncertainty for him, and for the others in the A.R.T.T. room who come to value him and care for him. One by one, they each share their story. They talk of race, and fear, and family struggles, and of their need to belong. They learn to listen to each other, to bridge the gaps between them, to empathize and to share from their hearts. They learn the importance of being a safe harbor for each other. The main character wonders if she can share her story, if she is brave enough, if she will find that safe harbor if she tells the truth about her family. I found myself yearning for her to be able to share and to feel the power of being supported by the others.
As I read this book, I realized how important it is these days that we all seek to be harbors for each other, to be sensitive to those who are in need of harbor, and to recognize when we, ourselves, need to rest and rely on someone else to harbor us for a while. We need to harbor each other, be there for each other, be aware of and aware for each other, be with each other. Be.
And yes, we need to write books that will speak to kids: books that will give them harbor in whatever storms they face, books that will uplift and challenge, but also books that will take them away to new worlds for a while, or will make them laugh uproariously for a while. Books are important. Writing is important. All the different kinds of books that kids reach for are important.
There are interviews with Jacqueline Woodson, about writing realistic kids’ fiction from an African American perspective as well as other topics, and more teaching information about Harbor Me at the Teaching Books website.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for some time will know that October 1 is a special day of celebration for me. It is the birthday of three people whom I admire, who have directly or indirectly provided guidance, example, wisdom, and strength. As is my custom when October 1 falls on or near a blogging day, today I want to celebrate those three very special people.
(Parts of this tribute were originally posted on October 1, 2012, but the post has been revised and expanded for today’s tribute.)
This delightful little girl reading a story to her doll has grown up to be a delightful woman who still has that lovely smile, and who now not only reads books but also writes them (she’s also an oral storyteller, poet, all-round wordsmith). It is as a writer that most of you know her.
Her name is Beverley Brenna, and I’m privileged to know her as a dearly loved cousin as well as one of my favorite authors. I’ve blogged about her writing often, and will include a few links at the end of this post. Today, though, I want to focus on another aspect of her life — her love of nature. In fact, it is that aspect that I will focus on as I reflect on each of the three people I’m honoring today.
Bev’s parents, who also had a great influence on my life, loved to go out and ramble in the countryside, searching for wildflowers (including rare wild orchids in Waskesiu — it is one of Uncle Arthur’s wonderful wild orchid photographs that adorns the cover of Wild Orchid); canoeing across Waskesiu Lake to Grey Owl’s Cabin; and through their own enthusiasm and example, teaching their three children (and their nieces) to share their love of the natural world.
This love of nature shines through in all Bev’s writing, since there is always an undercurrent of taking joy in nature and of environmental concern in her writings. Just one example from many I could have chosen is taken from the short story Finding Your Voice from Bev’s anthology of varied stories, Something to Hang On To. “Janine remembers how it felt to shout across the water and listen to her voice as it swept all the way to the sunrise and back.” Mmmmmm… that is so evocative and real.
* * *
October 1st is also the birth date of Julie Andrews, a woman whom I have long admired for her innate optimism, her resilience, her work ethic, her love of family, her imagination, as well as for her writing and her dramatic and musical talents. When she was growing up, her dad, Ted Wells, imparted to her his deep love for nature, and for noticing the amazing detail in the natural world around us. From her autobiography, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, “Throughout our childhood, he exposed us to the wonders of nature. One of my earliest memories was his taking me outside to view a large ants’ nest, which he had discovered under a stone while gardening. … we pored over this nest for a good hour or more.”
The book in which this early influence is most evident is The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, in which the children are urged to look closely, to notice every detail of what is around them, to really see beyond a surface glance. I have celebrated that way of seeing in my blog post about this book, which you may find here.
Ted Wells’ nurturing led to a lifelong love of, and delight in, the natural world for Julie Andrews. In one of the introductory passages in Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies, she mentions a game she played with her own children. It sounds much like the Look and Listen Walks I often exhort people to do, and would be a great way to get children to really notice and celebrate our world. She says, “When I became a parent, I would take my children into the garden and we would play games of ‘discovery’ — what colors, even in the winter, could we spot? What sounds? What smells?” What might you discover if you went into your back garden today?
* * *
The third person in this triumvirate of October 1 birthdays is former US President Jimmy Carter, who is 94 today. I first became aware of Mr. Carter when he was running for President back in the mid 1970s. (In a happy coincidence, I learned years later that he had announced his candidacy on my birthday in 1974!) I admired him from the get-go, but came to understand and admire him much more deeply when I began reading his books in the 1990s.
Most of his books, of course, are focused on politics or diplomacy, or on the Christian faith, but he has also written about his love of, and experiences in, the natural world. Many people know of his diplomatic efforts, his election monitoring around the globe, and his hands-on work with Habitat for Humanity.
Fewer are likely aware that he has climbed mountains such as Kilimanjaro in Africa; as a former farmer, he is still keenly interested in agriculture; and he and his wife Rosalynn are avid birders, often building in time in their international travels to go out with an experienced local birder to search for birds to add to their life lists. Reading his book Sharing Good Times opens one’s eyes to the many facets of this vibrantly active man’s life. It is from a poem in his poetry collection Always A Reckoning that I wish to quote, however. From his poem Light Comes in Turkey Country:
I know the forest on my farm best at breaking day when birdcalls seem to draw the darkness back that cages me.
Can’t you just feel that cage of darkness and the joy of being released from it by the songs of birds heralding the morning?
* * *
All three of these people have touched my life in a myriad of ways. One is our shared love of the world around us, in all its beauty and its potential. Through their writing and their way of being in this world, they have taught me more about how to be, how to care, how to be curious and eager to learn, how to live. I am grateful to each of them.
As promised, here are links to some of my blog posts about books written by Bev, and by Julie Andrews, and to interviews with them. I haven’t posted as much about Jimmy Carter, but I will share a few of my favorite titles, and urge you to discover his writing for yourself.
As a bonus for those readers who love Bev’s young adult novel Wild Orchid, which is set in Waskesiu in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, a photo of Bev, aged 9, dipping her toes into Waskesiu Lake.
Publisher: New York: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Children’s, 2017
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction
Audience Age: 9 to 12
Themes/Topics: empowerment, racism, feeling comfortable with who you are, lifting up your voice
Opening Sentences:Something sharp pokes me in the rib.
“You should totally sign up for a solo,” Soojin whispers from the seat behind me in music class.
I shake my head. The mere thought of singing in front of a crowd makes my stomach twist into knots.
Synopsis: Amina is a sixth-grade Muslim girl of Pakistani heritage, growing up in Greendale in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. She loves to sing, but is shy about singing by herself in front of others, no matter how many times her best friend, Soojin, urges her to. She doesn’t want to stand out.
Still, she doesn’t want to go to the lengths Soojin is planning in order to fit in. Soojin’s family is about to gain their American citizenship, and Soojin wants an American name. This starts Amina thinking about her heritage, her faith, and where she fits.
Another girl tries to become Soojin’s friend, and Amina wonders if she’s losing her best friend completely.
A visit from her strict uncle gives her more to think about. He puts great value on strict obedience to the rules and priorities of their Muslim faith, more so than Mama or Baba (Mom or Dad). He starts coaching her so she’ll excel in singing a passage from the Koran in an upcoming competition at their mosque. But she just can’t get the pronunciation right – and she doesn’t want to stand up there in front of everyone.
Amina is thoroughly muddled about where she fits, or if she fits at all. When their mosque is vandalized, she has to find out if she has it in her to speak out, to sing out, to make a difference, to show that she does fit.
For Further Enrichment: Find the author’s website here.