Allison's Book Bag

Born in Illinois, Cammie McGovern moved to Los Angeles when she was seven, and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three sons. Though McGovern kept a journal as a child and as a teenager, she didn’t start writing for publication until long after she graduated from college. Now she’s the author of three adult novels and one teen novel, Say What You Will. The latter I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: March 26!

PERSONAL

After high school, McGovern attended a college with a great literary reputation but that offered no creative writing classes. McGovern tells Sandra Bornstein that in her second semester of her senior year, she convinced a theater professor to let her do an independent study on playwriting. That was when she fell in love with writing.

McGovern confesses to Sandra Bornstein that when she graduated college and moved to New York, she pretended to be interested in other kinds of careers but at night secretly stayed working on stories and plays. After four years, and some mixed success with plays and screenplays, she realized that her true passion was fiction. McGovern applied to MFA programs, ended up being accepted to University of Michigan, and loved it.

In 2004, sometime after getting married and becoming a mother of a child with disabilities, McGovern started a center called Whole Children. Originally, the idea was to create a small center that would run after school gymnastics classes for kids with special needs to work on their motor skills issues and socialize at the same time. It grew very quickly, in part McGovern feels because it answered a need no one recognized at the time, that of offering affordable therapies for kids with disabilities. Sandra Bornstein notes that within a few years, the center was serving close to two hundred kids and their families in classes that ran year-round. Indeed, in the space of ten years, the center has continued to grow and now serves over 700 hundred kids from preschool age to adults with a huge variety of classes. McGovern calls it a community of friends.

Along the way, McGovern also wrote three novels for adults. Eye Contact is about a boy with autism who witnesses a murder that takes place during school hours, in the woods behind his elementary playground. His mom, and others at the school, all have to read his clues to figure out how much he knows and what he’s trying to tell them. It’s being used by teachers and librarians in discussions about bullying and tolerance of kids with special needs. In About Cammie, McGovern shares that another novel of hers that might be of interest to young adult is The Art of Seeing, about two sisters and how their relationship grows and changes when the older one becomes a movie actress, secretly suffering from a condition that threatens her eyesight. For it, McGovern admits she might have drawn a few details from her sister’s life, Elizabeth McGovern who currently starring in Downton Abbey and has fine eyesight.

BOOK BACKGROUND

www.gazettenet.com  Cammie McGovern with her son, Ethan, at her home in Amherst June 10.

http://www.gazettenet.com
Cammie McGovern with her son, Ethan.

McGovern’s newest book, Say What You Will, is targeted specifically at young adults. According to About Cammie, the idea for Say What You Will came two sources. First, as the parent of a seventeen-year-old son with autism, McGovern understands the loneliness and isolation that kids with disabilities can feel. Moreover, when her son hit puberty, he showed typical rebellion, desire for independence, and interest in romance. On the theme of sex present in the book, McGovern stresses that she didn’t want to back away from that issue, because that’s also part of the disability experience.

A second inspiration came from the daughter of one of the mothers who helped start Whole Children. The girl was born with severe cerebral palsy. Her parents were told she would probably never learn to walk, talk, or even roll over. “Maybe because her problems were so different than my son’s …. I became really fascinated by the long and amazing journey this girl took. She not only learned to roll over, she was walking independently by the time she was eight, and has since gone on to defy all the doctor’s initial predictions.” McGovern notes that even as the girl sat in her bouncy-seat at meetings, it was clear that she had more going on than doctors might have realized. For example, her laugh always came just as the moms in the room were sharing a joke, as if she’d understood everything we were talking about. This got McGovern thinking about what life might be like for her down the road, as a teenager with a disabled body but a mind that was sharp. If you’re curious, you can see a shot of McGovern’s son and the girl who partly inspired the character of Amy at the 2:41 mark.

As to why McGovern writes books about kids with disabilities, About Cammie reveals that McGovern has always been interested in this topic. Many of her favorite books growing up centered around characters with disabilities. Even many of her early stories were about characters with various afflictions. Apparently, her first “novel” started with a “screech screech” sound effect of the main character walking in leg braces across the floor. McGovern surmises that she empathized with them. “I was a watchful outsider for most of my childhood, much shier than I am now. I assumed they were all smart and funny underneath their facades of difference just as I was smart and funny underneath my shyness. Now, of course, I realize that’s silly. Children and teens with disabilities are as varied as children and teens without disabilities.”

Her experience with Whole Children, obviously however, helped directly inspire Say What You Will. Here and Now notes that by being surrounded by teens with disabilities and “seeing how much they wanted relationships and love as much as their typically developing peers, it felt like time to write a story about that”.

McGovern does emphasize that while her story will feel real, the experiences of others with autism and with cerebral palsy could very well be different from that of her characters in Say What You Will. She shares with Sandra Bornstein that her hope in writing about Matthew and Amy was to “in part, to demystify the experience and let people know–yes, people with disabilities are funny, tough, silly, anxious, ambitious–all the same qualities that everyone else has”. She also hopes that more books, shows, and movies will feature characters with disabilities at the center.

FirebirdIn Firebird, ballerina Misty Copeland shows a young girl how to dance like a Firebird. The illustrations are lavish, while the text is poetic. The picture book is a must-have for any lover of ballet. Especially as a read-aloud, coupled with Misty’s Dear Reader note, Firebird should also serve to inspire anyone in pursuit of a dream.

The lavish artwork cannot fail but to draw one’s attention to Firebird. Indeed, the fiery red and orange, cool blue and purple, and splashes of white are my favorite part of Firebird. The full spreads of collage, with their slanted geometric shapes, and textured paintings pulsate with energy. Each scene, whether depicting the quiet conversation between two dancers or the dynamic action of ballet, moves the story forward towards the climatic end of the Firebird stage. Award-winning, Christopher Myers, was the perfect artistic choice.

Firebird_Inside

As for the text, I must admit took me a few reads to grasp its essence. Once I did, however, I appreciated the unique setup of a young girl confiding in the successful Misty Copeland. The disheartened African-American confesses to doubts that she’ll ever soar to the same heights as Copeland: “the space between you and me is longer than forever”. Copeland responds that before she reached stardom, she too: “was a dancer just like you, a dreaming shooting star of a girl with work and worlds ahead”.

Besides the creative structure, I also must commend Copeland for not falling back on a feel-good message. Instead she acknowledges that for an aspiring ballerina to reach one’s dream, there will be lots of practice and sweat, lots of learning how to fly before one spreads wings. Indeed, it will take not only a thousand leaps, but a thousand falls, and a lot of switching of worn-out slippers. This is a worthwhile message for young people to hear, whatever their dream.

As I noted above, I didn’t immediately grasp that the text was a dialog exchange. Actually, I also ended up having to read the book aloud to gain its rhythmic and lyrical sense. Perhaps, this is why some purchasers considered the text too difficult for young readers, while others ironically considered the text too simple for older readers. In addition, although the Dear Reader note at the end from Copeland makes clear that her story is inspired by both that of her own experiences and that of African-American women before her who struggled to find black role models in ballet, I kind of wish that more of those stories had been incorporated into the main text. This would have enriched my understanding of the actual text. Because of these drawbacks, I recommend that an adult introduce this picture book to younger readers.

Misty Copeland came to ballet late at the age of thirteen, but went onto make history by becoming a soloist at the American Ballet Theater only a few years later. She is only the second African-American soloist in ABT’s history and the first in more than two decades. For this reason, Copeland feels she has a message to share, to inform young people that they too can find their wings. I applaud her for presenting that message in a lyrical and inspirational format in Firebird, a picture book that will surely win many hearts.

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

How would you rate this book?

Misty Copeland is ballet’s first breakthrough star in decades. The only African-American soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, she’s also featured in a commercial for Under Armour; she’s danced with Prince on tour; written a bestselling autobiography; and is developing a new TV show. Her life, she tells CBS News, has gotten “absolutely insane, but in the best way.”

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Copeland is an unlikely ballerina. One of six kids, she had an itinerant childhood in California as her mother married and remarried four times. Dancing became her escape in life.

When Copeland reached her teens, a teacher recommended she take ballet classes at the local Boys and Girls Club in San Pedro. Less than two years later, she entered and won her first competition at the L.A. Music Center.

Then at age eighteen, Copeland moved to New York to join the American Ballet Theatre. She shares with CBS, “That’s when I looked around me, and in a company of 80 dancers realized I was the only black woman. I felt completely isolated and alone.” She thought about quitting the company, but didn’t because “I had a responsibility to represent so many dancers that had come before me that aren’t recognized even to this day.”

In April of 2012, Copeland’s big breakthrough came when she was given the lead in Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” Her picture went up on the facade of the Metropolitan Opera. Landing a principal role with American Ballet Theater fulfilled a goal for Copeland, as well as being a huge step for the African-American community, which is why she continued to dance even when six stress fractures resulted in her left tibia.

WRITING BACKGROUND

American Ballet Theatre's Firebird, CBS News

American Ballet Theatre’s Firebird, CBS News

In her new children’s book, Firebird, Copeland seeks to inspire other young African-American dancers. The book is dedicated to her mentor Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American ballerina to tour the country. Wilkerson was pretty much chased out by the KKK in the 1950’s when touring the South. NPR reports that the KKK were threatening that she couldn’t perform in their theaters or stay in the hotels. As for the touring company, they were trying to have her blend in and not notice that she was a dancer of color.

Copeland herself has also experienced racism. According to NPR, she hears from critics that African-Americans are too muscular or aren’t lean enough. Usually they say, “Oh, they have flat feet so they just don’t have the flexibility that it takes to create the line in a point shoe.” When they meet Copeland in person, they’re usually surprised at how much she looks like a ballerina. Her mission is to help young females, who often feel broken from rejection, see a broader picture of what beauty is.

In Copeland’s picture book, she tries to show these girls by example how to reach soaring heights through hard work and dedication. By Copeland obtaining a principal role with the American Ballet Theater, she herself has proved how capable she is. That it doesn’t matter what body type she is or what color she is. She is a star.

MusingMondaysWhat are you reading right now?
What do you think of it?
Why did you chose it?

This past year, I’ve been reading books about personality types that potentially describe me. For that reason, I expected to like The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron better than I did. When Aron focused on the psychology behind highly sensitive people, I found myself bogged down by the theories. The subtitle of Aron’s book is “How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.” When Aron instead offered practical tips of how to adapt or thrive as a sensitive person, then I better appreciated her insights.

In her preface, Aron writes that, “What matters most, however, is that I am HSP like you. I am definitely not writing from on high, aiming to help you, poor soul, overcome your syndrome.” The irony is that one of my problems with her first few chapters is that Aron tries too hard to convince readers that being highly-sensitive is perfectly normal. By stressing how highly-sensitive people are not fearful, shy, introverted, or any of those apparently negative traits, I actually began to wonder what exactly we are. By stressing how special but also misunderstood our trait makes us, I begin to wonder if maybe we are a little abnormal. By stressing how culture does NOT view highly-sensitive people in an objective way, I begin to wonder if I too should feel biased against this trait.

Aron follows-up in subsequent chapters by stating that it doesn’t matter whether we know if we grew up sensitive. Instead what matters is “that it is your trait now”. Yet her first few chapters are so full of psychological principles, it’s hard to dismiss the impact of our upbringing on who we are today. After all, she notes that there are typical signs of highly-sensitive babies: Were you difficult about being dressed, put into water at bath time, trying new foods, or noise? In general, did changes prove a challenge to you? If so, you were probably highly-sensitive and needed a certain reaction from your parents to grow up unscathed. Aron even suggests that as one reads her various profiles of childhood, one might experience an emotional response. Memories might return that cause unease, to the point that one should write them down and analyze them.

After the first few chapters, Aron follows a chronological path. She discusses how one can reframe their youth, handle social relationships, thrive at work, and develop deep relationships. Here is where I found myself feeling more comforted, more reassured, and more awake. One can reframe their youth, which might have included a lot of avoidance of new situations, by teaching oneself to slowly become more comfortable with change. This might mean starting with what is safe, asking the support of a friend as one ventures into the unknown, accepting that one will feel uncertain, allowing ways to retreat, and being proud of whatever progress one makes. One can also better handle social skills, instead of slipping into shyness or introversion. In doing so, however, one should recognize one’s own strengths: talking seriously, listening well, and allowing silences. One can thrive at work too. Here, Aron shares from personal examples of how she found ways to live out her passions, without having to take on duties that required being extra stress or arousal. Finally, one can develop deep relationships. Highly-sensitive people will need to recognize that their arousal levels will vary from others as will need for alone time and time-outs during conflicts. At the time, they often bring to the table positive thoughts and reflective listening.

Years ago, my husband started me on the path of enjoying the music by Jewel. In particular, he turned me onto her song, “I’m Sensitive.” He felt it described me. The Highly Sensitive Person didn’t completely convince me that I should embrace my sensitive side, but it did successfully offer me lots of ideas of how to make the most of my particular personality.

SixWordSaturday

Spring break over; I’m happy-sad

The break started with an agility trial. It’s been months since we could attend one, due to my husband injuring his foot in the fall. All went well! Our dog qualified five out of six times, as well as taking home some first and second prize ribbons

Then onward to the break! Most of it, I spent feeling too tired for anything productive. I read and reviewed books. I tried out some new software, with my favorite being Aeon Timeline. I also snuck in sleep, magazines, and walks.

As part of the week, my husband and I also fostered a cat. She’ll leave us today, which makes me sad. I hope for her the best future ever! Maybe someday her story will appear here. :-)

Now it’s the weekend before school starts up again. I’m excited about the special projects planned for the fourth quarter, but also looking ahead to summer. I’m getting older and enjoy the rest now more than the hectic pace of work.

How about you? What was your week like?

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April: Advanced Reader Copies

Every few months I reserve slots for reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. In April, I'm honored to feature the sequel for The Ridge by Nick Hupton as well as the newest book by Bobbie Pyron who also wrote A Dog's Way Home. As usual, I'll also feature reviews of books for our local pet club. Enjoy!

  • Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
  • Jenny and the Birthday Club by Esther Averill
  • Close Your Hands Open Eyes by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Ridge by Nick Hupton
  • Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron
  • Lucky Strike by Bobbie Pyron

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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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