Allison's Book Bag

Shane Burcaw was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy when he was only two. SMA is a genetic disease which is the number one killer of children under the age of two. According to Families of SMA, the disease destroys the nerves controlling voluntary muscle movement, which affects the ability to crawl, walk, control head and neck, and even swallow. Most individuals diagnosed with SMA do not survive beyond the age of 10, but some such as Burcaw have lived into adulthood.

According to Burcaw at Tumblr, “Basically, all of the muscles in my body are extremely weak, because I lack the protein necessary for muscle creation. My disease won’t kill me by itself, but it is progressively getting worse, so eventually (I’m hoping not for a long time) I will get sick and it will turn into pneumonia and my body won’t be able to fight it and that will be the end of the road. Living with this awareness of my uncertain future has really molded me into the person I am today.”

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Shane Burcaw, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, uses humor to entertain and educate others about the disease. Express-Times Photo www.lehighvalleylive.com702

Shane Burcaw, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, uses humor to entertain and educate others about the disease. Express-Times Photo | http://www.lehighvalleylive.com702

At twenty-two years of age, Shane Burcaw has accomplished more than many adults. He has graduated from Moravian College. He hosts a blog called Laughing at my Nightmare. He has written the story of his life in a book of the same title. He has also started a nonprofit to spread positivity and to raise money for families affected by muscular dystrophy.

Burcaw’s family and friends are a huge part of his life, which you’ll discover by reading through some of his blog posts. He has been in a wheelchair since the age of two and loves to laugh. In 2013, he made his first trip without his parents, when he drove from his home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania all the way to Disney World. Daily Mail reports that this was Burcaw’s first time being away from his parents because his disease makes him reliant on them for almost everything physical. Along the way to Disney World, Burcaw also made several trips to other cities to speak with readers of his blog.

WRITING BACKGROUND

Burcaw started his blog one summer afternoon, partly out of sheer boredom and partly out of an urge to write. He tells YALSA, “Looking back, I think I was battling a subconscious fear of being forgotten around that time in my life. I’ve been living with the reality that my disease will kill me someday since I discovered that truth in middle school, and leaving an impact on the world, making my time seem worthwhile, has always been crucially important to me.”

This latter thought, however, wasn’t at the forefront of Burcaw’s mind when he decided to write the first post. According to YALSA, he just wanted to make people laugh. As the blog began to grow, Burcaw discovered that readers cared about what he had to say. Moreover, readers from all across the world were emailing him to thank him for inspiring them! Although this hadn’t been his initial purpose, by accepting that humor and positivity are powerful concepts, Burcaw found he could help people.

In fact, Daily Mail reports, teen Shannon O’Connor is proof that his blog has had an impact. The two got to know each other when she started reading his blog after her mother died of cancer. When Burcaw asked readers to volunteer with his non-profit, O’Connor stepped up and now the two are best friends.

The idea for his book, Laughing at my Nightmare, came from Burcaw wanting to take his story to the next level. Burcaw wrote the book in college. He admits to YALSA, “Just like a typical college student, I procrastinated tremendously. I’m a fairly quick writer once I have an idea, so I told myself I could bang out a book in a few weeks once I set my mind to it. HA HA.” Although writing is Burcaw’s biggest passion, he soon discovered there were moments when it’s also the most frustrating and scary thing he could do. Indeed, He experienced many of those moments in the weeks before my manuscript deadline.

Bethlehem Area Public Library notes that one of Burcaw’s early concerns was that his publisher wanted it to be a young adult book. Burcaw worried that they might censor him to make the book appropriate. After several discussions with my editor, he realized that his editors wanted Burcaw to tell his story in his own way. As a result, there is a lot of swearing and sex and other mature topics that might not be the best for younger readers, but does honestly reflect Burcaw’s life. Burcaw believes teens will identify with his story.

Not all press has been positive. Bad Cripple argues that laughter is NOT the best medicine. However, Burcaw maintains, “The way I look at it is my message is not, ‘Hey I can be happy and so can you.’ ” He tells Daily Mail, “All I’m doing is saying, ‘This is my life, this is how I handle it.’ If I can give someone a new perspective because of that, that’s awesome.”

I’ll be back later in March with a review of Laughing at my Nightmare. Because I have spring break, March will be a little different for my posts. The first week I’ll post daily teasers and the second week I’ll post daily reviews. Save the date for my review of Burcaw’s book: March 9!

A Dog’s Purpose follows the fictional account of a special dog. This best-selling novel changed author Bruce Cameron’s life, earning him the reputation of “the dog book guy”. Dogs will die and tears will fall. However, dogs will also be born. As for those tears, they’ll flow from both sadness and happiness. A Dog’s Purpose is a creative and moving tribute to man’s best friend.

Let’s start with the fact that dogs will die and dogs will be born. A Dog’s Purpose tells the story of one dog who dies very early in the story but then starts his life all over again. This actually happens a few times. The first time our hero is born as a stray, another time in a puppy mill, a third time to a reputable breeder…. In the course of his many lives, our hero gets injured in a dog fight, is rescued from being left in an overheated car, is bought as a present for a girlfriend, and serves as a rescue dog. Each one of these scenarios allows for our hero to better define his purpose in life, while also providing readers with lots of adventure, heartache, and tenderness. I fully enjoyed coming home each night after work to immerse myself in this heart-warming dog tale.

One of the stories runs longer the rest, that of the boy Ethan who discovers Bailey as a puppy, and serves as the core of A Dog’s Purpose. The shared experiences between Ethan and Bailey probably most resemble those with which dog owners are familiar. Ethan learns how to house-train Bailey, confides in him when his parents start to struggle in their marriage, and even discovers the bliss of romance in the presence of Bailey. On his part, Bailey tries to figure out when newspapers are for bathroom purposes and when they are for humans to read. He also tries to determine why sometimes he gets left alone and other times gets to join Ethan. He even deciphers between which visitors to the home are good and which have more sinister motives, a skill that proves invaluable to Ethan. Bailey’s misinterpretations of human situations made me smile, as well as to ponder how my own dogs might view their lives with my husband and I.

What is most golden about A Dog’s Purpose is the theme. In older television shows such as Quantum Leap and Touched by an Angel, there’s always a reason for why Sam leaps into a certain person’s body and why Monica gets assigned to visit a certain troubled individual. Similarly, in A Dog’s Purpose, there’s always a reason for our hero to get reborn into a particular life. If Bailey hadn’t learned how to open a gate, he wouldn’t have met Ethan. If through Ethan he hadn’t learned to rescue from the pond, Bailey wouldn’t have become a rescue dog. As Cameron explores through fiction of the purpose of dogs, it should become clear how much we owe to our dogs. This should not only result in our love our own more, but should also make us more determined to value the lives of all dogs.

One might also begin to think about the purpose of humans on earth. Unlike Bailey, we journey through this life but once. Author Bruce Cameron said that when he finished writing A Dog’s Purpose, he felt as if had truly, and finally, accomplished something really important with his work. What are we accomplishing with our lives? Will we feel in the end, as Bailey did, that we have fulfilled our purpose?

Cameron has also said that when someone picks up one of his books they know that it will not be a depressing, dark, sad novel. If A Dog’s Purpose is an indication of the rest of Cameron’s work, I’d expect to any book with his name on it to be uplifting, insightful, bittersweet, and joyous.

TuckerBruce2011Author of the best-selling, A Dog’s Purpose, Bruce Cameron has always wanted to be a writer. Cameron reports that he actually sat down in fourth grade to write a novel and made it through twenty-six pages before his hand gave out. At age sixteen, Cameron was more successful in his writing pursuits, selling the very first story he submitted anywhere. This erroneously gave him the idea that writing would be easy, a misconception I asked him about in our interview.

 When Cameron graduated from high school, he eventually decided to attend an all-male liberal arts college in the Midwest, also an experience which I asked him about in our interview. At this all-male college, he served as editor of the literary magazine and the student newspaper, along with having other writing experiences.

With college behind him, Cameron became a freelance writer while also taking on various day jobs to pay the bills. In 1995, he started an on-line Internet column that would change his life. I also asked him about this in our interview. After a humble start of only six subscribers, at its peak, the Cameron Column had 40,000 subscribers. When Rocky Mountain News saw his column, he got featured weekly in their Home Front section. One of Cameron’s columns, “8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter,” actually proved popular he turned it into a best-selling book that also served as basis for a TV show.

This success landed Cameron agents and other kinds of support, all useful in publishing other books such as A Dog’s Purpose, a novel inspired by meeting a dog while taking a bike ride in the mountains who reminded Cameron of his very first dog. As he rode away, Cameron felt convinced that he has possibly met the reincarnated version of my long-lost friend. This sense stuck with him for years, and he found himself wondering what it would be like if dogs never died–What would that look like from the dog’s perspective?

With all these credits to his name, you can imagine Cameron is a super busy author. In fact, he was in the middle of a movie shoot when I first contacted him about an interview. I’m extremely grateful to both Cameron and his agent for taking time to talk with me through email. Needless to say, I kept my list of questions short!

PERSONAL

ALLISON: Who or what most influenced you growing up?

BRUCE: Well, my mother gave birth to me, which I suppose is probably the most influential event in my life. Honestly, though, my parents taught me a lot by example—they always had a book open. We had television in the house, of course, but my father would always prefer a novel over whatever was going on with the Beverly Hillbillies. I became interested in books so early in life that I plunged into adult novels when I was too young to grasp adult stuff. I’m probably traumatized by the experience, and just don’t know it. Certainly after reading a few thrillers I became convinced that women really aggressively liked to kiss international spies, so I put that on my list of potential careers.

ALLISON: You attended an all-male college. What was that experience like?

BRUCE: I promise you that when I was 18 years old, “all-male” was in no way part of my life plan. I was told that the school I was attending was in the center of a glorious triangle of three all women’s colleges. The implication was that if I turned in any direction except North I would be beset upon by affection-starved women. At that point in my life, nothing was more attractive to me then a female with no other options. However, one of the all-women’s college was so far away I never saw it. It really came down to a single school about a mile away where the women were not nearly as desperate as they had been portrayed.

WRITING

ALLISON: If writing is hard, what is your advice for those who pursue the field anyway?

BRUCE: Writing is a bit like running. It takes training, discipline, there’s a lot of pain involved, and sometimes there is an endorphin rush that makes you feel better than you’ve ever felt before. And, as is also true about running, most of the time one must be satisfied that one has merely finished the race. Only a select few, a lucky select few, race and get cash prizes. Whenever someone tells me they are writing a book, a screenplay, or anything at all, I wish them luck, and I congratulate them on the accomplishment. It can be very difficult. I rarely offer encouragement to pursue making lots of money at my craft. Not because I’m afraid of the competition – but because focusing on the dollars will just take all of the joy out of it. We do a terrible thing to our writers: we act as if commercial success is the standard by which anyone who has written something down should be judged. By that measure, many of the authors we think of as having produced classic works of literature would be, in their day, considered complete failures.

ALLISON: Regarding your internet column…. How did it change you?

BRUCE: My Internet column was an expression of my frustration that after years and years and years of trying, I had still not had more than a story or two published. So, I published myself: I sent out, to readers who had not yet encountered spam, weekly essays. At its peak, my column had 50,000 readers in 52 countries (if you count Texas as a country). Then advertisements for Viagra and Nigerian transfers came along and killed it off. By that point, I had amassed such a nice backlog of essays I was able to get a job working for the Denver Rocky Mountains news as a columnist. Anyway, if I had not started that column on the Internet, I would not be an author today.

ALLISON: Regarding your book…. If you were to give one reason a person read your book, what would it be?

BRUCE: I started writing humor books. “Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” started as a newspaper column and became a television show in a process that was entirely unplanned and remains mysterious to me to this day. It was as if I had spent 30 years writing and then had an overnight success. Humor, though, is a tough discipline. I mean, not only is it difficult to be funny all the time, but every single book is judged by the subject alone. People rarely run out and buy a W Bruce Cameron book because they thought his last book was funny. And, my true love was novels.

I had this idea: I thought that it would be really interesting to contemplate the life of a dog if that dog kept being reborn and remembered his previous lives. One day I sat down to write A Dog’s Purpose. When I finished, I felt as if I had truly, and finally, accomplish something really important with my work. Instead of telling jokes about it men not being able to put their socks in the hamper, I followed the life of a very special dog. It changed my life: now I am the “dog book guy.” But I don’t mind that at all. Dogs are optimistic, full of joy, and live each day as happily as they can manage. Someone who picks up one of my books knows that it will not be a depressing, dark, sad novel.

Imani’s Moon by Janay Brown-Wood is an inspiring, sweet, and fantastical tale of a Masai girl who is determined to reach the moon. The watercolor and graphite illustrations in this picture book are equally moving, vibrant, and delightful to behold.

Janay Brown-Wood grew up with her family being an integral being part of her life. She refers to them as her rock. This sentiment shines through in the close connection shared by Imani and her mother. Imani’s short stature–she is the smallest child in her village–opens her up to ridicule. At times the taunts causes Imani to doubt that someone as insignificant as her can do something as great as reach the moon. She finds encouragement in her mother who every night lifts her spirits with stories. Her mother also holds her tight and tells her: “It is you who must believe.”

Perseverance is often considered key to one’s dream. Case in point, Wood waited eight years to see Imani’s Moon in print. Along the way, ones even advised her to give up and to self-publish. Similarly, Imani’s Moon is the story of a young girl who perseveres even when others are telling her to quit. The other children in her village laugh at her ambition. Local animals jeer at her and act confused. What I most appreciate most about this magical tale is that when Imani does pick herself back up, her dreams don’t simply come true. Instead, her dreams require perseverance and effort. Every day, Imani worked at reaching her dreams.

ImaniMoon_Inside

There are a couple other aspects of Imani’s Moon that I wish to commend too. First, although the story is fantastical, it stretches belief in a plausible way. Of course, in real life, no one can touch the moon by ordinary means. Over time, I came to accept that Imani could, because one day she climbed the highest tree, another day she used wings to soar from a tree, and a third day she jumped higher and higher and higher…. There’s also the little detail about animals who talk, as well as the stories her mother tells of mythical heroes.

Finally, I appreciate how accurately Masai culture is depicted. The title page shows the straw-covered huts, penned cattle, and flat-topped trees of Africa. When the children tease Imani, they scoff that is no higher than “a lion’s cub knee” and warn her not to let “meerkats stomp on your head”. Imani’s mother wears the characteristic clothing and jewelry of the Masai. Leaves, berries, snakes, and monkeys are all a natural part of Imani’s world. Even the solution, which involves warriors and celebrations, is drawn from Masai culture. Wood also includes an Author’s Note that describes the Masai dance and folklore.

Imani’s Moon is a creative rendition of the moral, “Don’t give up.” I also enjoyed how each night Imani’s mother would share stories to her daughter, but then at the end of the book Imani herself has her own story to tell. Everything about this picture book is positive, including my praise of it. :-)

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

How would you rate this book?

JanayBrownWoodAuthor of Imani’s Moon, Janay Brown-Wood grew up in California, where she spent her childhood being surrounded by loving and creative family members. Through her school years, Wood could be found plopped with a notebook or computer jotting away stories, involved in adventures through books and movies, or somewhere stealing the show. She also participated in class performances, talent shows, sports, and leadership. Currently, Wood works as an Early Childhood Education professor and is married to her high school sweetheart.

Wood has wanted to be an author for most of her life. In her author notes written back in elementary school, Wood typically wrote: “I love to write stories. Mostly I write stories for kids around my age, but I can always make an exception. One of my goals is to become a wonderful and creative author, did you like my story?” After college, Wood began to actually pursue a creative field by joining SCBWI, attending conferences, taking classes to improve her craft, participating in a critique group, and just always writing stories.

Thanks to a critique partner who told her about the NAESP contest, Brown submitted Imani’s Moon, and that’s how she got her start. The inspiration came from a story that popped into her mind when she was in college. She started writing down this story about this boy who jumped to the moon, and her older sister reminded her about the Maasai tribe’s cultural jumping dance.

Imani’s Moon is the story of a young girl who perseveres even when others are telling her to quit. It’s the same kind of determination Woods has showed with her writing career. From the day she had the idea for the story until it was published took eight years, but Brown believed in the story.

Recently, Brown took time to answer my questions about family, mentors, childhood competitions, and of course her book. I’ll return tomorrow to review Imani’s Moon. Save the date: February 25!

PERSONAL

ALLISON: Family seems to be important to you. How did your parents and sisters influence you?

JANAY: My family is such an integral part of my life. They are my rock.

My parents ingrained in me the importance of education and working hard. They taught me to never give up, to keep pushing myself, and to keep trying my best. They served (and still do serve) as support for my sisters and I. My two sisters themselves are my motivators too. When I was younger and had decided that I didn’t like reading books, I watched my older sister read books as if they were the best thing in the world, which made me want to read more. Plus, both of them are highly creative people as well (my older sister works in fashion and my younger sister uses her creative mind to conduct biomedical research as a student), so I think we push and complement each other.

Then there’s my giant extended family that includes so many loving and supporting members. My family is huge and always overflowing with joy and love and support. It makes me smile just thinking about all of them!

ALLISON: As a child, you participated in a lot of competitions as a child. Which one is the most memorable? Why?

JANAY: I never was a very shy child, so I loved having the opportunity to be front and center. I remember doing talent shows and school shows (one year my class sang a song from Oliver and Company and made sausages out of panty hose and cotton. It was awesome!). I also recited poetry at a competition called Peach Blossom. I even would write my own poems and recite them too. But, a competition that really stood out in my mind was Odyssey of the Mind. I participated in it more than once. I had to work with a group and creatively solve problems, which sometimes included writing skits and acting them out with my team. This was memorable because, looking back, I realize that I certainly was coming into my own with regards to things that I love to do. I certainly hope Odyssey of the Mind is still around today. It really was a great program for young students.

ALLISON: Who served as a role model or mentor for you as a teen?

JANAY: I have had a number of role models, but as a teen, there is one that really sticks out in my mind. I have an older cousin named Jeanette Harris who is a professional saxophonist. When I was younger, we would go watch her perform so my childhood was colored with jazz and Latin-inspired music because that’s what she played. And she was amazing. She IS amazing. I remember watching her on the stage, doing what she loved, being creative and fearless and inspirational, and I told myself that I wanted to do what I loved too. As a teen, I watched her continue to follow her dreams of being a musician, and now she travels the world and plays for sold-out crowds everywhere. I learned from watching her that hard work and perseverance pays off. It might take some time, but you can’t let that stop you. This has been an idea that I have constantly been reminded of by many people in my life. Jeanette is truly is an amazing saxophonist. See for yourself, check out her band’s website: Jeanette Harris Band

ALLISON: Why did you choose to study and pursue a field in child development?

JANAY: My aunt Annette has a child care center, which I attended when I was young. So, I was always around children. As I grew older, I would go back and help her, and I realized I enjoyed working with children. When I went off to UCLA, I learned about the fantastic programs that serve children and became involved. I was fascinated by the developing human brain, and how so many aspects can impact the growing child. I became interested in learning more about how to support the growth of young children. All in all, it does not feel like I chose to study child development. Instead, educating others is just a part of who I am, and I was able to do that in this field. It wasn’t later until I realized that I enjoyed teaching adult learners about children just as much as I enjoyed teaching children. Today, I have the pleasure of teaching students about early childhood education at American River College.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: In one interview, you noted not yet having the privilege of meeting the Maasai people. What inspired you to set Imani’s Moon in Africa?

JANAY: Traveling to Africa is certainly on my to-do list, and I hope that one of my first stops will be the land of the Maasai. I am intrigued by their culture and I would love to go and learn more about them. I was inspired to set my book in Africa because after writing a few early drafts, I spoke with my older sister, Erin, who reminded me of the Maasai jumping dance. I did research, and everything fell perfectly into place.

ALLISON: In Imani’s Moon, her mama tells her of different heroes from myths. Which of these is your favorite? Why?

JANAY: I like the Anansi tales. This spider, also depicted as a man, is a determined trickster who often overcomes great obstacles. There are many different Anansi stories, and I have not come across one that I have not enjoyed.

ALLISON: What has been the most exciting part of about being published?

JANAY: Where should I start? There are a bazillion exciting parts! First, seeing Hazel Mitchell’s illustrations was mind-blowing. Her work lifted Imani right off the page, and is spectacular, so seeing her work for the first time is something I’ll never forget. Another exciting part is hearing people tell me how my words have touched them or their child. I cannot even clearly verbalize that feeling, when you know that your words inspired someone else to keep at it, to not give up, to not let others hold you down. It’s wonderful. It is also so exciting to read my book to eager listeners who ask questions and make connections as they listen. I love engaging children in thinking about literacy, so it is beyond exciting to blessed enough to be able to do this with my own work.

ALLISON: Do you have another book in the works?

JANAY: I do, I do! I have contract with Charlesbridge for a second picture book that is tentatively due out late 2016. I can’t tell too much, but I will say it is inspired by my fantastic family. More details to come!

Thank you so much for interviewing me. I hope everyone will read and enjoy Imani’s Moon. If you are interested in learning more about me, please feel free to visit my website, Janay Wood-Brown, and don’t forget to leave a comment on my blog! :-)

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March: Award-Winners Featuring Disabilities

March month will be a little different! Because I have spring break, the first week I'll post daily teasers and the second week I'll post daily reviews. After that, I'll resume a normal schedule.

Selections are all related to disabilities and came from the Dolly Gray Award or from my local multicultural committee list. As usual, I'll also feature a review for our local dog club. Enjoy!

  • Laughing at my Nightmare by Shane Burcaw
  • Girls Like Us by Gail Giles
  • Gadget Girl by Suzanna Kamata
  • Rain Reign by Ann Martin
  • Say What You Will by Cammi McGovern
  • London Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
  • Curious Incident of the Dog by Mark Haddon
  • So Be It by Sarah Weeks

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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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