Thursday, May 31, 2012

Words that speak to truth

Up til now, Alysa and I have written about all of the great books we are reading. But I want to change that today.

I also am a huge blog consumer. I read biking blogs and literacy blogs and educator blogs and survivor blogs and parenting blogs and more. Earlier this week at one of the blogs I list on our short blog list to the right of the blog page, I read an entry that stopped me. It is because of Lee Wind's entry that I am changing reviewing only books.

What he wrote-- or linked to-- is that important. Read this post.

Now read this one.

Yep. Real-life important stuff. Like how to learn from and with our own children. How to listen into them, even when it is so wicked difficult we forget to breathe. 

I consider myself lucky in that when I did figure out I was gay, I was mostly accepted. I didn't experience bullying much, and my family seemed to take it okay. I did experience a decent amount of homophobia in college but that is another story.  Yes, it still was a struggle but nothing like what this kid writes of. I was lucky to grow up in a family where acceptance was key to life, no matter what. For the last few years, I have followed lots of stories about the losses gay youth and young adults experience. The suicides pain me deeply. When I read stuff like this, I realize how far we have to grow as a community.

I am gonna stop writing and let you get to the links...I really think these are the beginnings of honest conversations. I can tell you that it was within my own family, just earlier this week. Deep breath in, I learned more about the pain my family members carried in those early years. See where this all takes you. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mary's Penny by Tanya Landman

My partner works her buns off at her parent's farm. She grew up there, she feels a tremendous connection to the land, and she would love some day to live there again. When I watch her work (or work beside her as is more frequently the case), I see how hard she works and how much she gets done. Routinely she outworks me by accomplishing at least twice what I get done. Relentless and never resting, she is always on the lookout for jobs to accomplish on that beautiful piece of land.

Mary, the main character in Mary's Penny, reminds me of Laurie. Smart, hard working, and ever-invested, Mary figures out how to to outwit her brothers without even trying. Greater she proves again to her father, the witless dud, that girls can do what they set their minds to. Granted, of course, the father and brothers love Mary, but set in a time long ago (or not so long ago) when girls were seen as unworthy for many tasks, she was just a worker. Mary finds how to accomplish the father's task with ease and grace, and he adequately offers the prize to her.

This is a lovely, simple retelling of a common tale from years' past, but Tanya Landman brings new words and ideas to the table. The illustrator, Richard Holland, brings new light into this common story as well with his brilliant drawings. I loved this book, smile when I see the cover, and am scheming over who to share it with next.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

I happened to run across this book at the library of the college where I teach. I was drawn by the private high school, snobbish boys finding their way idea, and I loved the idea of a sailing theme drawing richness into what the book might be for me. I used to teach at a private all-girls' k-8 school in San Francisco, and I so grew from the experience of teaching in that school culture. The school was established more than a hundred years ago, and the cultural history continues to be so rich. To this day, I treasure going to the school's website and seeing who I might know and who might still be connected to it. I grew up in far different waters within my family; I know the only way I could have ever been a student at a school like the one I taught at was through a full scholarship. I remember when I was exploring colleges that my mother wanted me to try to attend the small, private, liberal arts college she attended. Believing the possibility impossible, I didn't even try. Teaching at Burke's offered me a beginning chance to understand a culture that I had never known. I had hoped to unpack this a little in this book, but I hadn't realized how boys might too be looking to understand how they fit and jibe with a culture.

A short synopsis of the book: Jason gets booted out of his first private high school and his rich father donates a ton of money to get him into a different one for Jason's senior year. Jason knows a few folks at this new school, but he seeks distance from them and the partially tragic/ partially heartbreaking past that trails him. He has no idea how the past will follow him. The story takes him through finding and losing friends, making friends by bullying others, and discovering how his heart leads him into truths and loss that he doesn't believe he knows how to carry. Sailing offers him an out while the ocean remains a calming resource that helps him find his way.

I really enjoyed this coming of age story. I appreciated the author's rhythms within the text, and I really liked the way she writes. She is not overly dramatic in her work, and she seems to encourage us to add in just what we need to in terms of emotional engagement. What I most appreciated was how she writes with this idea of a truth source not yet available to the main character, like it is just out of his reach if he will only get out of his own way. Sounds quite familiar to me at least.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

Every once in a while, children’s authors nail a story. Their work ending in the final sentence, the images floating through the reader’s head come to a sad close, and us, the reader closes the book slowly, wanting more and knowing the end really has come. Bittersweet, yes? This is exactly how I felt about this book. 

I usually fly through books. I read so much, I gave myself permission years ago to read what I want and how I want in most of my reading. I mean, the book is there to fill us, to inform us, to change us, yes? I give myself permission to read quickly, to skim. Not this book. I noticed about a third of the way in that I was taking my time. Granted it might be because I was in between teaching courses, but still, it surprised me. And I am so glad I did. I recently read The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk--totally awesome read, on my top books of all time list--and in The Lions of Little Rock, I continued digesting Newkirk's stance on reading. He spoke of how we have to bring this deep trust to the works we read, that we have to slow down and really journey with the author by trusting ourselves as readers. Well, I found by doing this that I got to know and connect with the characters more, I found myself more compassionate toward some of the characters whom I didn't like, and I found myself more peaceful in the read (as in slowing down). 

This book centers on two teen girls, one African-American and one white, in 1958. They became friends at school. Because of the utterly awful racism that was occurring, the girls weren't allowed to be friends. Of course that doesn't stop them, bad things happen, and still they follow what is true about each other and themselves and eventually teach the adults around them how to show up in one's truth. The author writes a compelling story of these girls, their personal issues, their family struggles. That would be enough for a story. But the addition, the centering on racism and hatred, catapults this story into great possibility. The author stays true to the historic tensions that have been well documented, but she also took liberty to synthesize those times through the lens of high schoolers. What might it have been like to witness older brothers and sisters not able to attend school because of segregation and the need to desegregate? I can only imagine, and I am glad this story opened my lens of looking into the Little Rock 9, racism in the late '50's, and what might have been truth for some people then. Skin color matters not; who you are inside is gold.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

We March by Shane W. Evans

When I taught kindergarten and when I was a reading specialist, I was always searching for books that invited young readers into life experiences in gentle and genuine ways. I can guarantee you if I had found this book then, it would have been in my classroom within the week. As it is, my graduate students (all of whom are teachers) may just be seeing this one next week at our first class session.

Based on the March on Washington in August of 1963, this is a picture- rich exploration of what it was like to walk, breathe, and hope for civil rights for African Americans. The illustrations literally lift off the page in welcome and truth. They are bold, stark, and brilliant. Few words are included on each page; sometimes only two words grace a two-page spread. And the entire simple concept serves as a threshold into understanding the power in each moment of that miraculous day. The tension of the times is palpable within the book. I believe that this will become a key text for young readers who seek to make sense of a direly important time in our country.

I was 5 months old when the March on Washington occurred. I have heard my mother tell stories of that time in my family's history, of relatives and friends of my family marching, of folks pushing back in Texas, my birthplace, and in the South, where I lived for the first 10 years of my life and where my family has extensive and continuing roots. At my first teaching job, I grew speechless listening to a fellow teacher speak about her experience walking with Martin Luther King to Selma. This book serves as a critical re-centerer for me, for my teaching, and for my parenting. Racism continues here in the Northwest, like it does everywhere, and books like this one are yet another important gemstone that keeps me focused on the reasons why brave people took the risks they did for social justice over almost 50 years ago. It also reminds me how I must continue to "march" for social justice in my teaching, parenting, and living.

***Still in conversation with Alysa about her writing here. She tells me her friends don't read (sound familiar, middle-school and high school educators?). She still wants to write for the blog but I had another idea. What if in between her entries which may be more spread out than we originally agreed to if I sort of interview her or write up a few sentences on a review? Just thinking. Will let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hannah's Way by Linda Glaser

The inside cover of this book reads "After Papa loses  his job during the Depression, Hannah's family moves to rural Minnesota, where she is the only Jewish child in her class. When her teacher tries to arrange carpools for a Saturday class picnic, Hannah is upset. Her Jewish family is observant, and she cannot ride on the Sabbath...."

One of the things I most love about picture books these days is how authors and publishers are smacking home runs in the subject departments. I mean seriously, what a superb tension to write about, in a community that most of us can identify with, and with questions that all of us, young and old can connect with. Children (and we adults at times) are always trying to find bridges between tensions and joys in our lives.

I love the illustrations in this book. The illustrator, Adam Gustavson, is new to me, but I loved how he portrayed the aloneness in the main character's eyes. I really enjoyed the teacher in this book, but hey, I am a teacher and am immensely committed to the craft of teaching so I am an easy sell. I loved, loved, loved the ending.

When I read this book at the library, I found myself shaking my head, surprised again at the treasures around me. Books: filled with gifts for all of us.