Allison's Book Bag

As a full-time writer, Sharon M. Draper loves what she does. She gets to write, travel, read, sleep late, go to the beach, or do nothing. No two days are ever alike. She feels blessed. When researching her life, I found it interesting to learn random things from Fireside Musings about her such as she loves Hagen Daaz ice-cream and can’t swim. If she were stranded on a desert island, according to Fireside Musings, she would bring building tools, a satellite telephone, and the complete works of Shakespeare! As for the coolest thing to most recently happen to her. Out of my Mind was on the New York Times Bestseller List! I reviewed it on August 6. Now I’m excited to post an interview with Sharon M. Draper, wherein she shares from her personal life as well as talks about Out of My Mind.

AUTHOR BACKGROUND
SharonDraperALLISON: If you could share only one thing from your childhood with readers, what would that be?

SHARON: I was an avid reader as a child. I went to the library every single Saturday and checked out the maximum number of books, which was ten. I’d take them home and read them, then go back the next week and get ten more. I really did read most of the books in our small branch library. Seriously. All that reading probably got me started as a writer.

ALLISON: People tend to love or hate their adolescence. Which describes you?
I was an awkward adolescent. Because I was studious and I guess kinda nerdy, I was left out of the more socially mobile crowd, but that turned out to be a good thing. My best friends stayed true and loyal. We are still close friends even today. Adolescence can be survived!

ALLISON: A challenge from a student started you on the path of literary recognition. What was that challenge? What was “One Small Torch” about? And where might one find a copy?

SHARON: One of my students, a young man who did not like to write very much, challenged me to do some writing for a change, instead of just assigning it. So I entered a short story contest and I actually won! The story was called “One Small Torch”. You can read it today as chapter one of Forged by Fire.

ALLISON: You have received many honors for your writing work. What the first one you received? And what was that like? What was it like to visit the White House? And to represent the United States in Moscow?

SHARON: I’ve been blessed to receive many, many awards and honors. I am always a little awed, and always very grateful for the recognition of my writing. I guess the first really big one was to receive the New Talent Award by the American Library Association for Tears of a Tiger, my first book. The White House is awesome. The food there is unbelievably delicious, by the way. I’ve been to Moscow twice—it’s fascinating. I love to travel, but the best flight is always the one that brings me back home.

ALLISON: You have written stand-alone books and series. Which is your preference? How has the process differed?

SHARON: Some books need to be continued, and some say it all, and there is no need to further the story. Out of my Mind, for example, begins and ends with the same words, which literally brings it full circle. There is nothing left to say. But Panic, on the other hand, just begs to be continued. And so I shall.

ALLISON: According to some interviews, realistic fiction is your favorite genre to write. With fantasy being so popular among young people, have you ever been tempted to write it?

SHARON: Nope. I don’t think I’d be very good at it. I have no interest at all in even trying. I’ve always believed one should focus on what one loves, and the result will be wonderful.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: How did you come up with the idea of Melody to have a Medi-Talker? Why did you wait until halfway through the book for this to happen?

SHARON: Many real children with disabilities use electronic talking devices. It is a wonderful help to those who have all their words and thoughts stuck inside. Modern technology is making these devices better every day.

ALLISON: Your daughter has a disability. Has she used the Medi-talker? Or other technology which has opened up her world?

SHARON: My daughter tells me to remind people that she is not Melody (even though she loves the attention.) But I do know lots of young people who do use such a device.

ALLISON: Several reviews have criticized the end as negative. Do you view it this way? Why didn’t you opt for a more positive end?

SHARON: The end is realistic. A child like Melody will not get “cured,” or change in any way. Her life will be difficult for the rest of her life. But as long as she can maintain her optimism and spirit, she can survive.

ALLISON: Some individuals with disabilities have made the statement that they would love if an author would write a book with characters who are like them and that would help others understand them. Your now having written a book about a girl who has a disability, what advice would you offer to other authors hoping to do the same?
SHARON: The world is full of characters and writing possibilities. But never write a story to “teach a moral” or to “make someone understand.” Write the story so the character soars and the reader can see the humanity of that character. The understanding will come effortlessly.

ALLISON: What are your favorite books which portray individuals with disabilities?

SHARON: I think Wonder is a really good book, but I’m not an expert on the topic. My next book will be about a different character is a different situation living in a different century. I’m not aware of other books about this time and place. I simply become an expert on what I’m doing at the time.

Counting books. We all grew up with them. Now here comes one from Rene Saldana Jr. called Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers. In it, Mateo’s birthday is full of excitement with many things to count in numbers in English and in Spanish. The full-spread illustrations are photorealistic, while the accompanying bilingual text is minimal. Together, the pictures and words create a story easy enough for young readers to independently enjoy.

Through the artwork alone, readers will figure out most of the story details. Mateo is having a birthday. So we learn from the balloons. It is on Saturday at 3:00. So we learn from the birthday invitations and the time on the analog clock. About a dozen children will attend. So we learn from the birthday hats placed on the table and the surprise gift boxes being filled with marbles, spinning tops, and toy cars. Because of the piñata, we can also guess that this is a Latino birthday. I mostly enjoyed the photorealistic illustrations. For the one page, where a hand is shown holding a digital camera, I initially felt confused about what was being pictured. Also, at times such as when bubbles were being blown and the piñata was being broken, I might have preferred a little less realism and a little more whimsical art. Over all though, the artwork is lavish, beautiful, and draws one through the story. I also liked the unifying use of a piece of piñata candy being repeated on most pages.

The text nicely complements the artwork, with Spanish first and English on the bottom. The vocabulary is simple enough, with even longer words being that which one might find on a primary word list such as birthday, children, and happiest. Most pages have only a short phrase, or perhaps a sentence, with the longest text being only four short lines. The one exception is the piñata song, which is eight quick lines.

Some ideas are introduced, which will perhaps be unfamiliar to English audiences, such as the piñata. I also wonder if the wrestling masks are unique to Latino culture, because they are not a known part of birthdays to me. Some reviewers raised the question about why there wasn’t a note at the end explaining these aspects of culture. Initially, I felt inclined to agree with them. Then I started to doubt this view, feeling it to be ethnocentric. Caucasian Americans don’t complain that children’s books about OUR culture don’t explain the references. Why should we complain when books about other cultures don’t? Latino readers will probably have grown up being acquainted with the various aspects of Mateo’s birthday celebration and appreciate a story to which they can relate. As for me, my questions spurred me to search the internet and to discover a whole history exists behind the origins of piñata, not all of which are Spanish.

Counting books. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one. Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers is an excellent addition, with the wonderful hook of a birthday. Anyone with small children or young students will do well with this picture book in their book stash.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

This past spring, Rene Saldana Jr. had his first picture book published. Titled Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers, it is a bilingual counting book that follows a boy on the day of his birthday fiesta. According to his bio blurb, Saldana has broken enough pinatas that he has stopped having them for himself, but he still loves throwing fiestas for his children. I’ll review his book on August 26. Save the date!

AUTHOR BACKGROUND

Born and raised in Texas, Saldana still lives there with his wife, their children, and their pets. A perusal through his blog will reveal that he grew up loving to read. As a child, he most liked a character named Wet Albert. Later, in high school, The Count of Monte Cristo became the first novel he couldn’t book down since his elementary school days. Although he always enjoyed books, it wasn’t until college that he gave himself the permission to consider becoming an author. Even then, he viewed himself more as one in training rather than an actual writer. Now he is both a teacher of creative writing and a successful published author.

You can read more about his reading, writing, and teaching experiences at his blog:

BOOK BACKGROUND

Next month, I’ll be back with more reviews of Latino holiday picture books. For now, a little background about pinatas. According to Wikipedia, their origins seem to be Chinese. In the shape of a cow or an ox, the Chinese piñata was used for the New Year and meant to produce a favorable climate for the upcoming growing season. The pinata was decorated with symbols and colors, filled with seeds, and then hit with sticks. After the piñata was broken, the remains were burned and the ashes kept for good luck.

In the 14th century, the tradition came to Europe, where it was associated with the Christian celebration of Lent, and became a celebration known as the Dance of the Piñata. The Spanish initially used a plain clay container, before starting to decorate it with ribbons, tinsel and colored paper.

Later, in the 16th century, the tradition was brought to Mexico. Ironically, a similar tradition already existed here. The Aztec tradition commemorated the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, a deity of war. Priests would place a clay pot decorated with colorful feathers. When broken with a stick or club, the treasures inside would fall to the feet of the idol as an offering.

Pinata, Wikipedia Commons

Pinata
Wikipedia Commons

According to Go Mexico, the pinata was also used in Mexico for Christian celebrations. In this case, the original piñata was shaped like a star with seven points. The points represented the seven deadly sins, while the bright colors of the piñata symbolize temptation. The blindfold represents faith and the stick is virtue or the will to overcome sin. The candies and other goodies inside the piñata are the riches of the kingdom of heaven.

Over time, the piñata has lost its religious significance and become popular in many types of Mexican celebrations, including Christmas and birthdays, the latter of which is the focus of my review book. Each participant, usually a child, will have a turn at hitting the piñata, which is hung from above on a string. The participant is blindfolded, given a wooden stick, and then spun a number of times. As the participants works to hit the piñata, another moves it to make it harder to hit. There is a time limit to any one person’s attempts, which is marked out by the singing of a traditional song:

Hit it, hit it, hit it
Don’t lose your aim
Because if you lose it
You will lose your way

You hit it once
You hit it twice
You hit it three times
And your time is up

ONLINE SOURCES

Most of the online sites I browsed provided information similar to that which I’ve given above.

  • However, San Benito History expanded upon the symbols of the pinata and the occasions when the pinata is used.
  • Pinata History explained the folklore associated with the pinata.
  • And Kidzworld provides instructions on how to make a pinata.

Of possible interest too is a review of Dale, dale, dale: una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers by Latino Author.

Through Advanced Reader Copies, I am becoming a fan of historical fiction for young people. Each offering to date has engaged me, while also transporting me to another time and place. For that reason, I happily accepted Gayle Rosengren’s request to review her debut novel What the Moon Said and am now delighted to recommend it to you.

A couple of aspects of the plot make What the Moon Said original. First, Esther’s family is highly superstitious. The mom has taught the family to not step on a crack and to hang up horseshoes. She has also convinced them to believe in signs. It’s hard not to, when so many of them come true. When the mom dropped a spoon at supper, company did come. When she dreamed about a wedding, a neighbor did have an accident and die. And the day after seeing a ring around the moon, their family does experience hardship in the form of the dad losing his job. When Esther is told to stop hanging around with a new friend, however, Esther begins to question her family’s beliefs. Could a mole on her friend’s face really mean Bethany has been marked by fairies? And no matter what, how does she walk away from the only friend she knows? Or for that matter, tell Bethany the reason that they can no longer be friends?

Second, Esther’s mom is not an affectionate person. She does not easily praise the family and rarely hugs or kisses them. In contrast, other moms showed affectionate to not only their husband but to their children. What’s worse, is that if Esther attempts to embrace her mom, she is essentially rejected. Her mom will stiffen, pull away, or even criticize some mistake that Esther has made. Actually, Esther perhaps wouldn’t mind her mom’s demeanor, if she were the only one treated like this. However, to her, it seems as if sometimes her mom will offer praise or other forms of attention to Esther’s sister and brother. This latter issue doesn’t ever seem to be resolved, but the first is in an effective and convincing matter. Through challenges which the family and their neighbors faces due to the Depression, Esther begins to develop a understanding of what love is.

Another way in which What the Moon Said engaged me is through Esther’s character. She has this quirk, which I relate to, of being able to use her imagination in almost every situation. It gives her an indelible hope. When the family must leave the city to live on a farm, Esther initially cries at the thought of leaving behind everything which is familiar to her. She wonders if there will be even be ice-cream shops, libraries, or theaters? Pretty quickly, Esther instead begins to daydream about rolling green fields, an apple orchard, and a splashing brook. In her mind, she sees a big red barn, a fat brown cow, two prancing gray horses, and dozens of chickens. There’s even a snug white house with green shutters. Of course, reality is never as pleasant as one’s fantasy. Yet I enjoyed and connected with Esther’s penchant to turn the more miserable aspects of her life into endurable and even pleasant ones.

What the Moon Said has a strong sense of place. In my interview with her, Rosengren made clear that research helped this happen. For example, she mentioned how originally her story had the teachers giving out candy canes for treats. Her research revealed that candy canes, however, didn’t exist until the 1950s! From everything I have read about the depression, the struggles which Esther’s family undergo in trying to keep a job, affording clothes, and keeping themselves fed ring true. Although I know in my heart that life isn’t always kind, and one must deal with that reality, I wanted to protest right along with Esther at the unfairness of their family having to continue to move, leave behind friends, and even for a time stay in different homes to survive. Rosengren has written an honest and heartfelt novel about the Midwestern life in the 1930’s.

What struck me most about What the Moon Said is its strength of story. Rosengren could have set her tale in any other time and place. While her story is certainly richer for having been set in a specific locale, I would have been no less engaged. The more reviews I read, the more I’m learning how important of a skill this is for an author to have. Bravo to Galyle Rosengren for creating a terrific story and for making the Depression come alive to me in the process.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

If you read any biography or interview of Gayle Rosengren, chances are you will hear the phrase: “Like Esther….” Esther is the main character in Rosengren’s debut historical novel, What the Moon Said. Apparently, Rosengrew drew a lot on herself to create Esther. For example, the two grew up Chicago but eventually moved to Wisconsin. They were also avid readers, loved to imagine, and enjoyed school. Both also wanted dogs and horses, but for a time couldn’t have them. (Actually Rosengren never did get her horse.) Finally, both are superstitious.

GayleRosengrenRosengren herself went onto attend college in Illinois, where she majored in Creative Writing and was the editor of the literary magazine. Never outgrowing her passion for children’s books, Rosengrew worked as a children’s and young adult librarian at a public library for several years. Along the way, Rosengrew also had stories published in magazines for children. And eventually she wrote What the Moon Said, which I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: August 22!

The idea for What the Moon Said came from the difference between her mother and her grandmother. The first was super affectionate while the second, though kind, was not given to hugs or kisses and statements like “I love you”. Rosengren’s grandmother’s many superstitions and the Esther whom she imagined had yearned for proof that she was loved combined to “grow” Rosengren’s idea into a full-fledged novel.

As part of writing What the Moon Said, Rosengren read books about the Depression for the major events that were happening around 1930, the year in which her novel takes place. She also read books about Rin Tin Tin, superstitions, and life on a Wisconsin farm. While participating at a writing retreat, Rosengren met an editor who loved her manuscript and worked with her to heighten the tension. Now Rosengren has the fortune of writing full-time in her home, where she lives with her husband and a slightly neurotic rescue dog.

AUTHOR BACKGROUND

ALLISON: You liked school. What are your most memorable school moments?

GAYLE: Here are some early ones: Seeing my first “story” in print in second grade in our elementary school newspaper; and wondering in kindergarten why the clay had to be so hard!

A later one–wearing glasses to school for the first time and being amazed and thrilled at the difference they made in how everything looked, but also remembering how it stung when a boy in my class called me Four Eyes.

ALLISON: What is the funniest moment you experienced as a librarian?

GAYLE: I did a Banned Books display and all the books in that display–Huckleberry Finn, Are you There God? It’s me Margaret, Bridge to Terabithia, Anne Frank, Charlotte’s Web, and more, FLEW off the shelves the moment the display was taken down!

ALLISON: You have always wanted to be a writer. What drew you to this field?

GAYLE: As a girl I loved reading so much that I wanted to write stories other kids would love too. What other interests do you have? Reading of course, but also movies, traveling, and spending time with my family and friends. Someday I hope to take some watercolor classes and also learn how to quilt. There never seems to be enough time to do everything I’d like to do.

ALLISON: How difficult was it to get published in Cricket, Ladybug, Jack and Jill and Children’s Digest? What was that experience like?

GAYLE: It was not as difficult as getting my book published but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. Those magazines are /were the best around for children and they had high standards. It was a great learning experience in writing fiction and especially tightening it to fit a given number of allowed words; writing cover letters and queries; and equally important, receiving rejections and developing the resiliency every writer needs in order to survive them. I was very excited to be published and encouraged to continue down the writer’s path, but perhaps most important of all, my publications were credits to include in queries and cover letters and elevated me to a more professional status in the eyes of the editors and agents I corresponded with. I think magazine writing is a terrific first step for new writers.

ALLISON: You worked as a copy editor. How did you get that position? Why did it interest you?

GAYLE: I was working in the reference library of a children’s publishing house and began helping the editorial department out when they were especially busy. I started as a freelance proof reader and then moved up to freelance copy editor. I was offered a position as a full-time copy editor when the company unexpectedly changed hands and the position was eliminated. I was very disappointed.

Writers nearly always work with other writers to have their work in progress viewed with more impartial eyes and receive feedback on any problems that the author may have overlooked. So really we all edit all the time, including the self-editing we do on our own work repeatedly before sending it out to an editor. Editing is just a different level of writing. And as a writer, copy editing work was way more appealing than my far less creative work in the corporate library.

ALLISON: What would be your favorite pet outside of a dog?

GAYLE: I imagine a horse might not be considered a “pet” by some people, but it would by me, and if I could I would definitely add one of these beautiful animals to my “family”.

ALLISON: How about favorite animal?

GAYLE:Elephant. No hesitation or thought required. I love everything about these huge but playful, intelligent, loyal and affectionate creatures.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: If you traveled back in time, what would you like most about the Depression? The least?

GAYLE: I think I would most like the way families banded together to survive during this difficult time. But, like Esther in my book, I would least like saying goodbye to friends, or seeing people in soup lines or their furniture and personal items piled on the sidewalk when they were evicted from their homes. So horribly sad!

ALLISON: What superstitious do you hold to?

GAYLE: I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t been able to shake free of most of the superstitions my grandmother (Ma in the book) planted in me as a girl. Whether it’s being careful never to bring an open umbrella inside the house or put new shoes on the table, or whether it means tossing salt over my shoulder when I spill it, and never telling a dream or killing a spider before breakfast, these behaviors are so deep inside me that I can’t seem to root them out. Even though I know intellectually that there is no real power in superstitions, I find it much easier to close the umbrella, put the shoes on the floor, toss the salt, and keep the dream to myself and let the spider crawl away (until after breakfast) than not. Why tempt Fate?

ALLISON: How do you impart a sense of place in your writing?

GAYLE: Through all of the senses–visual descriptions of flora and fauna and buildings and objects of course, but also through sounds: of animals, machines, feet crunching on gravel or slurping in mud; through smells: of newly plowed fields or exhaust from cars or meals baking or pigs in a sty (ugh!); through touch: describing the scratchy texture of a towel or the sharp splinter that pierces a bare foot: and through taste: the sweet-tart juice of raspberries warm from the sun, the spicy taste of gingerbread, or sugar cookies melting on the tongue.

ALLISON: What kind of revisions did you make to What the Moon Said based on new research or editor suggestions?

GAYLE: At the suggestion of my wise and wonderful editor, Susan Kochan, I added more superstitions to the original draft of What the Moon Said and increased their significance to the plotline in order to create more tension in the story. A smaller change she also suggested was to soften Ma’s character a little so she wouldn’t seem quite so mean. Both suggestions were right on the mark. (Thank you, Susan!)

A correction I made when I researched something that I previously hadn’t, was to change the Christmas treats the children received from their teachers from candy canes to gingerbread men. Somehow I thought candy canes had always been around–or at least as far back as the 1930’s–but when I checked to be absolutely certain, I discovered that candy canes weren’t around until the 1950’s! This near bungle taught me not to take anything for granted, and I researched all kinds of other details afterward to make sure they were correct. Writing historical fiction is full of potential pitfalls for those who don’t respect the facts of the times, and this added an extra layer of work, stress(!) and responsibility to my writing.

ALLISON: What’s next?

GAYLE: Next is Cold War on Maplewood Street. It’s also being published by GP Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Young Readers and will be released in August of 2015. This is middle grade historical fiction set in Chicago during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Like What the Moon Said, it’s a family story at its heart, but in this instance the family is mostly absent, leaving main character Joanna on her own to struggle with the very real threat of nuclear war, the strange behavior of a creepy new neighbor who might be a kidnapper or a spy, her love of horses and her feelings for a boy in her class who just happens to have one(!), and the shocking (and exciting) things she’s just beginning to learn about romantic relationships thanks to a certain book she and her best friend Pamela have gotten their hands on.

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September: Classics

I'm excited to review a few books I grew up reading which have stood the test of time to become classics. I'll also continue to include reviews I write for our local multicultural group and for our local dog club. Enjoy!

  • Are You My Mother? by PD Eastman
  • Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
  • Little Bear by Else Minarik
  • Ellen Tibbets by Beverly Cleary
  • Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
  • Henry Reed by Keith Robertson
  • Pinballs by Betsy Byers
  • My Skeleton Family by Cynthia Weill

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Thirty days. Minimum average of 1666 words per day. A total of 50,000 words. I am a NaNo Winner for two years in a row and my novel in its second version.

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