Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 6-8’ Category

Reyna Grande is the author of The Distance Between Us, a novel about family. Born in Mexico, Reyna was two years old when her father left for the United States to find work.  Her mother followed her father two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. When Reyna was ten, she and her siblings entered the U.S. with their father as undocumented immigrants. Reyna become the first person in her family to graduate from college and today she is well-known speaker and author. To find out more, check out my interview.

ALLISON: Tell readers something about yourself that they won’t learn from reading The Distance Between Us.

REYNA: I love gardening. I especially like creating butterfly gardens. My daughter and I raised monarch butterflies for a while and it was the most amazing experience. I think every child should have a chance to witness the transformation of a butterfly with their own eyes. It’s powerful. One of my favorite quotes, that I actually have framed and hanging on my wall, is: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” It inspires me.

ALLISON: You were born in Mexico. What is a favorite memory from Mexico?

REYNA: One of my favorite memories that I didn’t write about in the book is the time when I went on a pilgrimage with my grandmother, Abuelita Chinta. We went with the group from our local church. The procession walked to the churches in nine different towns. It was long and tiring to walk there, especially since I was only eight years old, but the people at every town would welcome us with a delicious meal cooked over an open fire. I can still taste those meals–pork in green chile sauce, rice, beans, and hot oatmeal drinks we call atole served with a piece of sweet bread. The pilgrimage was one of those times when we ate very well! I went there to pray for my mother’s return. I don’t think my prayers were answered, but at least I still have the memory of the food I ate.

ALLISON: When you returned to Mexico, you found yourself almost a stranger. Have you taken your children to Mexico? What has been their experience?

REYNA: I take my children almost every year because I want them to know the place where I came from, so that they can have at least a small connection to the place and the family I have there. I hope that by seeing the poverty I came from will help them appreciate what I’ve been able to give them in the U.S. They enjoy going to my hometown but they also complain about the lack of luxuries that they are used to here–like running water!  Over there, they have to boil their bath water on the stove, then put it in a bucket and throw the water on themselves with a small container. On the other hand, they very much love the food that my aunt cooks for them and they like the freedom that children have over there–such as being able to walk around the neighborhood, to go to the store by themselves, to play in the street with other children, things that here in the U.S. children don’t get to do because parents tend to be over-protective and their isn’t as much a sense of community as there is in Mexico.

ALLISON: You concluded in your memoir that despite the strain immigration put on your family, the hardship was worth it. What would you tell young people about overcoming challenges?

REYNA: I would tell them to do everything they can to overcome those challenges because otherwise, their lives would get worse instead of better. If you find yourself in a hole, try to climb out of it–you do that by making the right choices. Focus on school, on your dreams, on your future. If you make bad choices out of desperation, you only dig yourself deeper.  Remember, things don’t always have to be that way–they can get better, they can change. You just have to keep focused, stay strong, and above all, don’t lose hope.

ALLISON: You gave a special tribute to a teacher who changed your life. Have there been other mentors in your life? If so, what has been their influence?

REYNA: I had another teacher at UC, Santa Cruz who was very important to me. Her name is Marta Navarro, a Spanish and Chicano Literature teacher, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She–like my former teacher that I write about in the book–also encouraged me to keep writing. She introduced me to more Latino authors, and she was always available to talk whenever I needed someone to listen. I’m still in touch with her too, and she even came to my wedding!

ALLISON: The Distance Between Us is based on your adult memoir. What process was involved in rewriting it for young people?

REYNA: I didn’t want to water down the story for young readers so I did my best to stay true to the original. Mostly what I did was to put the book on a diet–meaning–I trimmed off all the extra stuff, details, backstory, inner thoughts, and only left what was essential. I cut out about 100 pages. I took out my  crazy uncle, and also some details about my love life that was inappropriate for young readers.

But by cutting 100 pages, it gave me some room to expand on things that young readers would find interesting, such as the border crossing. In the original, my border crossing is only one chapter long. In the young reader’s version, it is three chapters. I added more details so that young readers could really have a chance to experience that moment in my life that was very traumatic but also life-changing.

ALLISON: You’re open in your memoir about both the highs and lows of your family’s life. What has been the reaction of your family to your memoir?

REYNA: My siblings have been very supportive of my writing and they really loved the book. My mother didn’t read much of it because she said it was too painful. My father passed away before the book was published. My aunts from the Grande side got mad at me for writing about how mean my evil grandmother had been. But, that is how she was, and I wrote the truth of my experience living under her roof. I don’t feel guilty about what I wrote, and I understand that since she’s dead, my aunts would rather I had honored her memory by writing more positive things–but unfortunately, I had nothing positive to write about because all my memories of her are unpleasant and painful. Writing memoir is very tricky because you are writing about your family and they might never speak to you again if they don’t like what you wrote! Ultimately, if you write memoir, you have write your truth and no one else’s. You aren’t writing to please anyone. You are writing so that you can heal from the wounds of your experience.

ALLISON: You wrote The Distance Between Us to provide an awareness. What would like people who are not immigrants to understand? What books would you recommend a person starting out in their awareness of diversity to read?

REYNA: I would like for non-immigrants to remember where they came from. Everyone here–except for native Americans–came from somewhere. Perhaps it was a great-grandparent or grandparent who immigrated, who went through the trauma and heartbreak that new immigrants go through. If people honor the memories of those who came before them–their ancestors–I think it will make them more compassionate and understanding towards new immigrants. The U.S. has a history of discrimination against specific immigrant groups. Even those who managed to assimilate very well into American culture (like the Irish) at one point or another were heavily discriminated. I think it’s time that we accept that we are a multi-cultural society. We have people from all over the world who live here, and that is a beautiful thing!

Recommended Reading:

1) Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

2) The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

3) Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin

4) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

5) A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez

6) Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

The Distance Between Us is a young reader’s edition of an adult memoir by Reyna Grande. Her memoir weaves the universal story of a family’s resolve to reach their goal against all odds. By the same token, her memoir raises the question of how much should one be willing to sacrifice to obtain the impossible dream? The Distance Between Us also makes clear how arduous the road to a better life can be, while at times also offering hope and inspiration.

Reyna grew up in a poverty-stricken area of Mexico and her family’s goal was to have their own home. Unfortunately, her Papi couldn’t find a job in the weak Mexican economy. For that reason, he’d left two years ago for the United States. All that Reyna had as a child to remember him by was a glass-framed photo. Now her Mami is also readying herself to flee across the border so that she too might help earn money and the family could more quickly build a house in Mexico. Being left behind was hard enough for Reyna and her siblings, but little could anyone have imagined exactly how much more painful their lives would become. Reyna’s grandparents took care of her and her siblings, but only from a sense of duty, and so the children regularly starved, outgrew their clothes, and lived in squalor. That was only the start of the misery. When their mother eventually returned, she brought with her the news that their father wasn’t going to return: they had divorced. Never again was life the same, for their mother now acted as if burdened by her children, instead of sheltering them with love. When their father eventually smuggled them into the United States with him, he controlled their every move. He feared deportation, but also believed that his children owed it to him to invest their entire being into toiling for success. For a time, life was as miserable or more than it had been in Mexico.

After Reyna graduated college, married, and became an author, she couldn’t help but wonder if the sacrifices had been worth it. Sure, from the moment, she’d settled into the United States, Reyna lived in an apartment instead of shack with one room. There were glass windows, solid walls, carpeted floors, and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. Surrounding her were paved streets instead of dirt roads, and lawns with lush green grass and flowers of all kinds. In contrast to the stores in Mexico, Kmart was the biggest store she’d ever shopped at. For the first time, she got to see the ocean. If the family got sick with even a simple toothache, they could see a doctor and get treated. Despite the embarrassment over her struggles to fit into an English-speaking environment, there were so many more opportunities. Such as a good education. And a well-paying job. Yet the cost to getting these had been very high. Not only had her parents divorced, but her father had become abusive and her mother had kept the youngest sibling with her, and the children had become rebellious. Each family member would have to answer for themselves the question of whether the price had been worth it, just as we all need to decide how much we’re willing to lose for what we most wish for.

In her forward, Reyna Grande expressed the desire that her book would bring more awareness to the controversial subject and would encourage readers to not let anything keep them from becoming the person they want to be. Although The Distance Between Us tells a story as much about poverty as it does immigration, it should serve as encouragement to press on when life gets tough.

About a year ago, I posted a request on BlogPaws for contributions to a spay/neuter series I hoped to run at LAA Pet Talk. One of the respondents was Deborah Barnes. We entered into a correspondence that still lasts today. Not only did Deb allow me to reprint several of her articles, but she sent me copies of two of her books to review, and helped me become a member of The Cat Writers Association. When she began working on a third book, just released this November, she invited fans to submit stories of their cats, and I had the privilege of two of mine being accepted. It’s an honor to know Deb, who is an advocate for cats and especially for spay/neuter, and to introduce her to you.

Deb resides in South Florida with her fiancé, Dan, and feline family of seven. She is the author of three cat books and hosts the award-winning cat-related blog, Zee & Zoey’s Cat Chronicles. She’s also the Vice President of the Cat Writers’ Association and was awarded 2013 “Writer of the Year” by Friskies Purina. In addition, she is the secretary of the nonprofit, Pawsitively Humane of Miami, Florida, and her freelance work has appeared in various publications including the popular Cat Fancy magazine.

ALLISON: How did adolescence change you?

DEB: I was extremely shy as an adolescent. I wasn’t very athletic, I wore thick glasses, and I was always the shortest girl in my class. This made me an easy target and I was bullied all the time. I was always picked last for any group activity, and I was even told to my face I wasn’t pretty. I took it to heart and it hurt me deeply. My cats and reading became my refuge and, it wasn’t until I went to college and had a fresh start, that I began to realize the words of bullies were only words. They weren’t truth and I blossomed. I discovered not only did I like myself, but that I had talent, worth, and value. I believe these life lessons made me stronger, more fair-minded, and empathic. I also learned to venture outside of my comfort zone and know that with enough faith, effort, and perseverance, anything is possible if you really want it.

ALLISON: Why the leopard print clothes?

DEB: Many people think the character, Peg Bundy, of the television show, Married with Children started the leopard print craze, but truth be told, it was me! I’ve been fascinated with big cats my whole life – especially leopards and cheetahs – and wore leopard prints clothes any time I could find them. But back then, even though I was a huge cat lover, I had never heard of the Bengal breed. Once I caught wind of this cat, which is in essence, a leopard shrunk to housecat size, I knew I had to have one. I got my Bengal, Zoey, in 2008 and she helped to inspire my first book, The Chronicles of Zee & Zoey – A Journey of the Extraordinarily Ordinary and my blog, Zee & Zoey’s Cat Chronicles. I’m featured on the blog and book in leopard clothes, and it just took off from there. A brand was born and I’m officially known as the leopard lady in the cat world!

ALLISON: What have been your biggest challenges with pets? Your greatest rewards?

DEB: The biggest challenge is having to say goodbye, especially those times that seem unbearably cruel and unfair. I had a beautiful Golden Retriever, Bailey, and I adored her to the moon and back. She was less than two years old and died of cancer. I also lost my beloved cat, Harley, when she unexpectedly died at 10 years of age after experiencing a severe seizure. It’s those moments that really challenge the heart and soul. But I’ve taken those instances and tried to find the good in it. That’s how Purr Prints of the Heart – A Cat’s Tale of Life, Death, and Beyond was born. I wanted to help others with the grieving process and offer comfort and hope to them. As far as the greatest rewards, that’s simple, each and every day I’m blessed with another day to share with my pets is a great day. They never fail to make me smile or feel appreciated.

ALLISON: What’s the perfect number of cats for a family to have?

DEB: There really is no correct answer for this. I currently have seven cats and have always had more than one cat. While not all cats become best friends, more times than not, they at least can get along (with a proper feline-enriched environment). I think companionship is important for them. My cats snuggle together, play together, and groom together. They’re never lonely that way. But how many cats a family should have depends on the size of your living quarters, your financial ability to take care of the cats, and how much time you can devote to them. I think 2 to 3 cats in most households would be ideal.

ALLISON: How long have you been blogging? What inspires your ideas? How do you find time?

DEB: I started blogging in 2010 and quite honestly didn’t even know what a blog was back then. I had attended a writing conference and it was recommended I start a blog about my cats to compliment my first book , The Chronicles of Zee & Zoey – A Journey of the Extraordinarily Ordinary. Like the show Seinfeld, I’m inspired by the everyday moments of life and my cats provide endless material for me – a bug walking into the living room, for example, can become an entertaining post. As far as finding the time, when I first started blogging it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it is today. I was able to maintain a schedule of posting several times a week but now, with a full-time day job as well as working on writing my third book, it’s a struggle to find the time to post once a week. On week days, I get up at 5:30 a.m. so I have a couple of hours before I leave for work to concentrate on my writing. On weekends, I typically get up around 7:00 a.m. and I never allow myself to sleep in. That way I’m certain to have as much time as possible to work on my writing, as well as to do my household chores and errands. As far as designing the blog – I knew from the moment I was going to start a blog what my vision was going to be. I wanted the blog to be completely different to any of the cat blogs I had seen elsewhere, and I wanted it to mimic the concept of Zee & Zoey’s book – meaning, I wanted the reader to enjoy the ordinary act of reading, but in an extraordinarily beautiful environment.

ALLISON: What have you learned from writing?

DEB: I’m not much of a talker. I’ve always preferred writing as a means to communicate and I’ve learned that the written word can be a powerful tool to inspire and move people. I’ve been told that I have the unique gift of being able to express concerns, sentiments, and ideas that others have, but that they didn’t know how to convey. I’m not afraid to speak honestly and I like to question the world we live in. By doing this, I’m able to inspire provocative conversation. That way, I able to educate people and to move them to action for the better good of cat care, especially when it comes to spay/neuter.

ALLISON: You’ve won several awards from BlogPaws and Cat Writers. What does that feel like?

DEB: Being recognized by your peers is extremely humbling and emotionally rewarding. When I was awarded the 2013 Cat Writer of the Year Award by Friskies Purina at the Cat Writers’ Association annual writing contest, it was completely surreal and the whole thing was a blur to me. I was so new to it all back then and was in awe of the talent around me. To be recognized for my own talent brought me to tears, and even to this day, I often wonder how I’ve gotten this far. When I was younger, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be an author, let alone an award-winning one. But regardless of winning or losing, being a member of such esteemed groups as BlogPaws and Cat Writers drives me to be a better writer.

ALLISON: What does life currently hold for you?

DEB:  I just finished my third book, Makin’ Biscuits – Weird Cat Habits and the Even Weirder Habits of the Humans Who Love Them. It was released on November 15th and I’m so excited about it!

Front row – Left to Right: Jazmine, Peanut, Rolz, Mia. In Deb’s lap, Zoey. To Deb’s far left, Zee, and to her far right, Kizmet.

Front row – Left to Right: Jazmine, Peanut, Rolz, Mia. In Deb’s lap, Zoey. To Deb’s far left, Zee, and to her far right, Kizmet.

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Last week I posted part one of two about my seventh year of attending the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. In that post, I noted that it was special in a couple of ways. For the first time I had the opportunity to attend the sessions for students, and for the first time I had the opportunity to attend the adult sessions with my group of writing ladies. As usual, at the end of the day, I walked away with a bagful of signed books and dozens of typed pages of notes. This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for older readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.

TRENT REEDY: WORDS IN THE DUST

trentreedy_signTrent Reedy’s two favorite things are the Midwest where he grew up and books. Reedy started his presentation off by talking about the power of story. A story shows the struggle of people to survive. Life is one event after another.  Authors shape life into a story arc. Events are arranged into problems and solutions. Even nonfiction can be shaped into a story.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a dorky skinny kid with long nose….

Reedy grew up in the small farm town of Dysart in Iowa. He remembers it as a great place for kids, “a safe island in a sea of corn and beans”. Together with his friends, he had fun riding around on bikes and running around in forts. Sometimes, he browsed books on wire racks at grocery stores, but most of the books stocked were Harlequin Romances.

Did anyone enjoy middle school? If so, there are the doors. 😉

“When you’re a writer, you read differently and find things work or don’t work like you think they should.” Teachers helped Reedy discover reading, but not in an expected way. For a prize, a teacher gave him a book by Ann Martin called Me and Katie by Ann Martin and about an older sister who struggles to adjust to life with her irritating younger sister. Reedy learned through ridicule (as we learn many lessons) the difference between “boys” and “girls” books, but he continued to love the book.

During high school, Reedy decided he wanted to become a writer and he attended University of Iowa with this goal in mind. At the same time, he wanted to relieve his father of some of the stress of being a pipeline worker at Northern Natural Gas, and so he joined the Iowa National Guard.

Hoping to get back in time for college, Reedy accepted the first job offered him, that of Combat Engineer job. He now calls that decision, “the stupidest way to enlist”. Combat Engineers deal with landmines and plastic explosives. One needs to know what they’re doing, but Reedy was not a “Cowboy Commando” or “Super Soldier”. Despite his stint as a Combat Engineer, Reedy did graduate college and even served as a security guard at Dillards.

My whole life changed. I had lived in Riverside, Iowa, for nine years and never had to leave. Now I to say goodbye to family. I left an envelope of letters with my brother. These are the “If you are reading these letters….” Those are tough to write.

trentreedy_girlThe call to return to duty upset him. “Maybe it was easier to be angry than to be scared.” He was mad to leave home. He was also disappointed to hear his lead officer tell his unit that they were there to help. Reedy simply wanted revenge for 9/11. But when he got there and saw the kids and the moms, he couldn’t keep up the anger. There are thousands like those kids and the moms and they aren’t to blame.

His unit rented an Afghan house. It wasn’t designed for sixty soldiers with equipment. The temperature was 90 degrees and very hot. The unit would return from combat, take off their army wear, and their uniforms would be sweated through. Life wasn’t easy. They would maybe get three minutes of a shower every three days. If the well was dry and there was no water, too bad. For food, they’d get two sodas, glob of lasagna, and a little bit of corn.

One day I admired my tan, it began to itch, and I realized it was just dirt. The Taliban would threaten us daily. I had spent my whole life measuring time by crops, but in Afghanistan it was gun, filth, and fears.

Reedy talked about one simply tried to hold onto “who you were, who you are, and to stay that way until you can leave”. There was no time for anything but combat and sleep. There was no room to unpack. The arrival of a truck, despite food being spoiled because the refrigeration had gone out, changed Reedy. The truck was carrying mail too. His wife had sent him a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. Reedy needed that book. He needed something more than dirt, guns, war. He needed hope and beauty. The book “was a glorious reminder of friendship and that we can still find hope in the most challenging times.” As long as there were kids who could have friends, he could survive. And if he never made it back, it’d be okay. “It’s hard to live without music, art, literature, beauty.”

One day Reedy saw two kids playing. One had a box with a string and he’d drag it along. The girl just had yarn. “My parents were poor, but we had more than string. This is when I started to take this war to heart.” He saw a girl with a cleft lip and knew his unit had to help. They collected money to provide for her transportation to a doctor and for the surgery. She became the symbol for Reedy of all Afghans face, especially the girls and women. “The best moment was seeing her smile. I grew up being teased for my nose, but nothing like this girl must have faced. I promised her that I’d do anything I could to help her.”

Our leader called out “Dismissed”. One word and the total control of army was over. I could do whatever I wanted. I was free and alive.

When Reedy returned to Iowa, he set about keeping his promise by writing a book. He spent four years on it. Writing about an Afghan wedding was one of the toughest parts. Afghan weddings are detailed and he couldn’t find a common source. Then there was a scene that his writing instructor, Rita Williams Garcia, told him to cut. It was a violent and tragic scene, but Reedy felt the girl who inspired it deserved to be remembered, and so kept it. Words into Dust was also hard to write, because so many events from war had inspired it.

One day you’re feeling down. You think you’re going to spend the rest of your life grading papers. The kids will never get what “adverb is”. (It has verb right in it!) Then you get the call.

After finishing his manuscript, Reedy struggled to find a market. It was considered unlikely that a white Iowan could write from the viewpoint of an Afghan girl. Reedy himself wished that the girl could write her own book but, at the time he wrote Words into Dust, there was 90% illiteracy for females in Afghanistan. An intern gave his book a chance.

Reedy wrapped up his presentation by talking about the inspiration behind a few of his other books. Stealing Air is based on small towns. “In books there are always rich kids. Or they’re from cities. For us, rich is having a power glove for a Nintendo. I try to bring out small town experience in my books.”

If You’re Reading This was harder for Reedy to write than Words in Dust. “If I move events around, I worry that I’ll mess up everything. For each version, there’s a dozen revisions. There are also many versions where everything IS switched around.” By version six, Reedy was so frustrated that he started to swear. Finally, by version nine, Reedy started to feel as if things were working okay. There’s a letter at the end that Reedy wrote to his father.

trentreedy_msIn talking about his books, Reedy reminded aspiring writers in our audience that writing is in the revision. He showed a breakdown of how many edits his editor sent him, even after the book had already received multiple revisions. “The writing process is long. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s about the process and not about you.”

Reedy next referred to his opening line about how story is power. “This is the way I deal with things, through stories. I hope my stories will help others deal with situations in their own lives.” Reedy is a firm believer that books matter. They might be about different people and places, but there’s always “power in art, literature, and beauty”. Afghanistan taught Reedy that life isn’t just about the basics or survival. Without inspiration, we die inside. Books matter.

LINDA SUE PARK: LONG WALK TO WATER

Back then no one was talking about multiculturalism and so my parents thought they were doing the right thing, I’m glad that I can speak English as my first language but regret that I don’t know Korean. It’s harder for adults to learn and I can still only speak a little Korean. Before I traveled to Korea I learned the most important question “Where’s the bathroom?”

Linda Sue Park’s parents are from Korea, but she was born and raised in Illinois. There weren’t any other Asians in her childhood neighborhood but, because her family wanted her to do well in America, the family never talked Korean. Even so, they did eat Korean food and celebrate Korean holidays.

lindasuepark_babyphotosFor example, birthdays are big events. When Koreans celebrates a birthday, they wear special traditional clothes, attend a party, and play a game call The Fortune Game. In the latter, several objects are put on a table. Whatever object the birthday person grabs predicts their future:

  • pen—writer
  • book—teacher
  • spool of thread—long life
  • money—rich
  • cake—greedy and lazy

Park’s mom has told her that she grabbed the pen but there is no proof other than her word.

Where do I get ideas? For me the answer is complicated. Some books are a mix of ideas. Others do have that one Eureka moment.

After hooking her audience with a brief bio, Park turns to a discussion of her book Long Walk to Water. Her husband is a journalist and does stories on all kinds of people. He told her about Selba, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and said she should meet him. Her husband was right. “I was blown away by this guy. I even started telling strangers about him. I don’t usually do that but that’s how impressed I was.” After several years, she had a DUH moment. Instead of continuing to share Selba’s story to each new person she met, with a book, she could tell his story to multiple people all at once. Her husband had already written about him for an adult audience, but Park could reach young people.

Selba had been in school. His class heard bombs. The teacher said run away, but not home, and so they did. The boys became The Lost Boys of Sudan. It was a perilous journey. 5000 people died along the way. “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you would not have made it.” Every day was about finding food. Even clothing was traded for food.

lindasuepark_lostboysPark emphasized that everything she wrote in A Long Walk to Water is true. She then talked about how at one point, American visas were issued for many of the refugees. These were all halted, however, after bombing of Washington Memorial. All visas issues for those not already in the US were revoked. Park told of an especially devastating moment when a plane on its way to the US was ordered to go back. Since that time, there hasn’t been a new program put in place for the refugees.

Park’s husband has visited Sudan. He saw how the boys would go with cattle, stay with them, and then return at the end of the day. Some boys have education. The girls would instead walk four to eight hours to fetch water. They rarely had education. The building of wells is bringing about change. The girls are now getting to go to school too. UNICEF says the best way to combat illiteracy and poverty is to teach girls. They will educate others. Selba is the one bringing in the wells.

When The Long Walk to Water first got published, it received some good reviews but didn’t really make a splash. Then New York redid its curriculum. A librarian added Park’s book and it began to do well. This excited Park. She’d hoped people would see Selba has a hero. And they have. But the book has also inspired young people to help.
lindasuepark_wellsThe Long Walk to Water is a concrete example of how a book can help change the world. Building a well costs over $15,000. Young people have raised over one million to bring wells to Sudan. Many schools do $5000, which is a third of the cost. Over ninety of the wells in Sudan have been funded by students who have read the book. The most popular fundraiser is a walkathon, which helps students understand what the girls feel in having to walk. A quarter of a million people are using the wells.

Currently, Linda Sue Park lives New York. Like many women, she has a lot of jobs: wife, mom, grandma, writer, speaker, teacher of writing, pet sitter. This makes her always tired, but she’s also grateful for everything she has. “I have an awesome life: books, babies, and puppies.”

LOUIS SACHAR: WAYSIDE STORIES, HOLES, FUZZY MUD

I started writing Wayside Stories back in 1970, before students I talk to were born, and even many of their teachers were born. It’s good the book has been around so long, but it makes me feel old.

Louis Sachar was the lunch speaker at Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. He jumped quickly into talking about one of his most famous series, which was inspired by being a schoolyard supervisor. Back in his college days, Sachar’s favorite authors were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He enrolled in a class where he would study the original Russian, but found the language too much of a struggle. While trying to figure out what to take instead, Sachar encountered a school girl in the middle of Berkeley campus handing out slips of paper that read: “Help. We need teacher’s aide. Earn 3 credits.” He thought it started easier and so volunteered. Long story short, he loved the experience. “It was my favorite thing to leave the heavy world of campus and be with joyful kids.” After a time, the school needed someone to be a noon supervisor, and was willing to pay. The teachers wanted to take a break, but all Sachar had to do was hang out with the kids, and so he applied.

louissachar_signAfter Sachar graduated from Berkeley, because he’d always been interested in writing, he wrote a kids’ book. His first attempt took him ten months. The students where he had worked had called him “the yard teacher”. He turned himself into the character of Louis the yard teacher and featured some of the students. Then he set about trying to get the book published.

A small company accepted Wayside Stories. The book didn’t do well initially because the company had small distribution. He didn’t make much money from it or see it on many shelves, but had faith that felt it would do well if it would get noticed. Sachar received some fan mail and a “Book of the Year” award from New York schools. Then the company went out of business and the book went out of print.

I don’t outline. My best ideas come as I write. I try to get a page written, then take a break to play bridge. For a while, I feel there’s nothing getting done. But after a year I end up with something that works. I don’t talk about my books while writing them because then they become cemented and I want to be open to change.

Sachar didn’t give up, but went on to write There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. The book came about because a friend told Sachar about something that had happened to him in fifth grade. He knew Sachar wrote for kids and so was telling him about his childhood. When this friend was new to San Diego, a teacher brought him up to the front of the class. The teacher asked “Why don’t you sit over there?” but the class said to not sit next to Donny. Sachar’s friend said that was okay with wherever he sat, but the teacher agreed with the class. Sachar changed the names, but put the incident in a book. Editors told him that no teacher would act this way and it wasn’t believable and so wanted to cut the incident. But the story was true and so Sachar kept it.

A lot of publishers rejected There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. One editor expressed an interest but didn’t think there was enough to the story. Sachar asked to see her and she eventually bought the book despite not feeling it would do well. She took him out to lunch and invited another author. Sachar asked the author if she had ever taught. Proving how small of a world we sometimes live in, and how contacts can matter, it turned out the author’s mother had been a character in Sideway Stories. The mother was giving out copies of his book every year to her students. Eventually, the book got republished.

Among his fan mail were letters from a school in Texas. The students told him that their teacher had read his books and liked them. A handful of girls even wrote a letter saying that their teacher was attracted to him and she was single. Louis called up the school. The school was excited to have him visit. Girls made him cookies. The aforementioned teacher invited a group of colleagues to go out to a local restaurant. A counselor came along. Sachar and the counselor hit it off. They visited. He put her in a book. Eventually, he married her.

The idea for Holes came about from living in Austin. As much as Sachar and his family liked it there, Austin is very hot in the summers. And the summers are long. They start in May and they drag into September and October. One day Sachar had to do yard work and he got to thinking about a new character. He’d written close to twenty books about school and didn’t want to do another with that setting and so he put his character in a prison-type camp. About the same time, he took a trip with his daughter to Alcatraz, without telling anyone that the setting fit in perfectly with what I was writing.

What got me started was the excitement of kids and joy of youth. I didn’t seem as little darlings but as real people. I also didn’t have much trouble tapping into my feelings as a kid. Now I struggle. I like writing about kids because they still have the whole world open to them. Lately though, I have a more pessimistic view and that makes it hard to write to kids.

Five years ago, Sachar started to write Fuzzy Mud, when the question for him had become: “How can I write another children’s book?” The main character for Fuzzy Mud kept him going and inspired. In a world where everyone is jaded, her friends call her goody-goody, but she still tries to do right. She goes to a private school where kids are taught to be virtuous and is made to memorize ten virtues. She’s largely ignored but, as things turn scary, she draws on an inner strength. “Despite all the bad in the world, there’s still energy, good, and virtue. I started out trying to write a scary book, but then I kept going because of her.”

MATT DE LA PENA

The thing about growing up in my neighborhood is that everyone looked out for everyone but there were no education values. Working hard and being loyal were the values. We didn’t hear the message of education.

mattdelapenaMatt De La Pena grew up on border of Mexico in National City. A reluctant reader in high school, Pena read only three books as a student. One of those was House on Durango Street, which he felt was about his neighborhood, and he reread twelve times. “We need an invitation early on to people, community, and language that feel authentic.”

Pena was the first in his family to attend college, but he felt guilty about this success, as if he were selling-out for going to college. While being interested in what the teacher said, he often also thought about his family who weren’t getting to hear the lectures and about how real life was happening back home. When he’d first visit home, his uncles would ask him about college, but their eyes told him that they were waiting to see if he’d judge them.

Hispanics have the highest drop-out rate in the country and it’s taken time for them to see education has a good thing. Having an insider helps the family see the positive.

In college, Pena fell in love with books. Mostly he read books about the African-American and then Hispanic experience. One favorite was a short story collection called Drown, which focuses on the Dominic Republic, by Junot Diaz. Pena also fell in love with writing. His professors collected his work and sent it to five graduate schools. He got accepted by two for Masters in Fine Arts.

Pena going to college has been a mixed blessing. There are both losses and gains. Pena shared a story to explain. Pena was born when his dad was still young. His dad was a high-school dropout. He worked in the zoo as a sanitation person. He moved up to cleaning The Tiger River enclosure. He’d pick up whiskers and mail them to his girlfriend for good luck. He got to do behind-the-scenes tours and showed Paul Simon around. “Man, that dude is short,” his dad later said. (Subtext: His dad is tall.) “You know I shook his hand. He had the softest hand I ever touched.” (Subtext: His dad’s hands have calluses from hard work.) After Pena introduced his dad to books, his dad got his GED, then an education degree from college, and now he teacher in a migrant community. A migrant worker thanked Pena’s dad for giving him education but Pena pointed out, “My dad’s hands are soft in contrast.” Yet on the flip side, his dad now loves books. The first book he read was 100 years of Solitude, which he’s read five times.

I didn’t start out being a writer. But I used to always write poems. People might not be born to writers but they have an interesting way of looking at the world. Those often make good writers.

After Pena shared his background, he talked about his books. Balls Don’t Lie, which was made into a movie, had several inspirations. Pena used to play pick-up basketball and it a rule to never write a story about basketball. The vow lasted three weeks. Pena “learned about the world by play outside the rules. There’s a weird class system. In gritty San Diego, one sold jewelry or sold drugs or one worked at a gas station or in security. He wrote about “powerless powerful men.” Pena’s mom was a foster kid. The family doesn’t know what kind of white she is except that she’s French. In Balls Don’t Life, he explored: “What happens when a kid is moved from place to place without any control?”

Mexican White Boy is the most autobiographical. It raises the question: “Who is the most mixed?” When Pena was growing up, no one would acknowledge being mixed. Now almost everyone will say that they’re mixed. “The world is changing and people are now owning it. The highest growing demographic is mixed.” Pena expanded by using an illustration of his grandmother, who he believes made the best Mexican tortillas. She passed out tortillas based on family rank. “I’d get the first because I looked so light skin.” Pena believes that mixed is: “interesting and complicated” and likes to talk about “brown and brown racism”.

We Were There was inspired by Mice and Men. It’s also written as part of Pena’s evolution in going from writing about mixed kids to featuring mixed kids. It. “When I visited prisons, 97% of them were brown. When I visited the festival, 97% of them are white. This book was a chance to explore group homes.” With most of his books, Pena starts with character but with this one he began with plot. He knew there was going to be a crime. The character didn’t come later until when Pena was giving a presentation. “There was a young girl who left to go to bathroom. She was going to miss my presentation. Another girl took her seat. I thought maybe the young girl would protest. She stood in the back. A guy gave the girl his seat. I stopped and complimented him and asked him questions. Now I knew the character’s name was Miguel and the fact that he would give up his seat.” The guy became the heartbeat of the book.

mattdelapena_marketplaceAfter writing a few books about mixed groups, Pena took a different direction. He discovered that many copies of his books exist in underprivileged schools but not in urban books. One librarian told Pena that she loved his books but didn’t carry them because they didn’t have “those type of kids” in their school. So, he began to start featuring mixed kids without addressing the issue of mixed kids. “Diverse books aren’t just for diverse kids but are for everyone.”

Perhaps the book of Pena’s that most excited everyone is Last Stop on Marketplace, a picture book that won the Newbery. It took Pena five months to write and six months to revise. In that time, he rewrote it  100 times. He thought it needed to be big and tried forty different endings, but then returned to the small one. The surprise ending was intended: Kids would ask him as an author why would he come to their school and so the book is about the grandson seeing that he’s important in the world.

In ending his presentation, Pena encouraged aspiring authors to write what they can feel. To explain, he shared how a reader who liked his book about basketball but yet his favorite parts aren’t the basketball parts. “If you can’t access the feeling right away of a topic, then you shouldn’t be the one who tells the story. You can research a ton but it’ll only work if you feel the topic.”

Five days. Ten magazines. Your intrepid blogger is here with reviews of pet magazines! This past Christmas holiday, I read three highlighting both dogs and cats, four about just dogs, and three about just cats. If you live in the Lincoln area, the majority of these magazines are available at your local pet store and/or bookstore. Read on to see what I thought of the magazines.

ABOUT DOGS AND CATS

Animal TalesAnimal Tales | $4.99 per issue, $19.97 for a 1-year subscription (6 issues) | 60 pages
http://www.animaltalesmag.com/

Animal Tales is the only magazine I read that is aimed at children, ages 6-12. Because of this intended audience, the magazine is naturally stylish and colorful, right down to the text and backgrounds. All three sections are on the lighter reading side. One of the bigger sections, Picture Perfect, is filled with photos, polls, giveaway offers, and even a poster. The smallest section, Animal Facts, contains news, a questions and answers page, and a relatively informational article about hippos. A third section, Features, is mostly nature trivia: animal record breakers and unusual animal pals. However, there is a how-to article about pursuing a career as a dog-walker, along with a human interest story about a puppy who saved a kitten. While some of the content covers wildlife, the majority focuses on dogs and cats. Fun and educational magazine, especially for younger audiences.

Animal WellnessAnimal Wellness | $6.95 per issue, $24 for a 1-year/6-issue subscription ($12 digital) | 100 pages
http://animalwellnessmagazine.com/

Animal Wellness highlights mostly dogs, but also includes a ten-page back section on cats. Content is varied. In the Columns section, there are tributes to those pets who have changed an owner’s life and to pets who have died, along with write-ups on rescued pets and rescue groups. Also, in the Columns section is a round-up of pet news, articles from their archives, and short book reviews. At least half of the magazine is dedicated to a Features section. In the December 2015/January 2016 issue, three articles are about diet, three are about diseases, three are about seasons and/or holidays, and the rest are on assorted topics. Unless about diseases, the bulk of the articles in the features section contain a short introduction, with the rest of the content being designed with detailed checklists and sidebars for an easy read. A few articles seem most suited to a select audience, but the majority are thorough with broad appeal. As the title suggests, this magazine is best suited to those owners who are primarily interested in their dog’s health. It’s also ideal for those who have both dogs and cats.

FetchFetch | free with Pet Plan policy and online, otherwise $4.99/issue or $10/1-year (4 issues) | 60 pages
http://www.gopetplan.com/fetch-magazine

Fetch isn’t what I expected, in that it’s a publication of the PetPlan insurance company. Despite being one of the shorter magazines, content is reasonably diverse. There are three sections: Features, Expert Advice, and Interviews & Numbers. About a third is news, another third consists of items written by veterinarians, and the final third are features. Of the features in the December 2015 issue, two are of relevance to only those interested in PetPlan, one feature being about the expanded layout of the company’s building and the other being about pets who have benefitted from their owners having pet insurance. The magazine has several perks, including an inviting layout that is generous with its use of color and white space. To some degree, Fetch is an advertisement for and celebration of PetPlan insurance. At the same time, it offers much educational content.

ABOUT DOGS

The BarkThe Bark | $16 for a 1-year/6-issue subscription ($12.99 digital) | 100 pages
http://thebark.com/content/magazine

The content of The Bark magazine is divided into three sections: all of which seem to have a mix of longer articles and short filler content. What struck me first was the high number of reviews. There are reviews of authors, books, comics, films, and even plays. And the reviews aren’t just skimpy paragraphs, but full in-depth articles that could run to several pages. One is about a Hungarian movie called White God that I now want to see thanks to Bark’s review. Following the reviews, I noticed the high number of human-interest essays, at least in contrast to other pet magazines. The theme of “journeys” with pets apparently struck such a chord with readers; there is a plan to have a series of them. The rest of the content seems similar to that of other magazines, except sometimes with a unique take. For example, an article about separation anxiety examined that of the owners rather than the pets. Most pet magazines are very practical. Bark in contrast is a celebration of all things dogs. The design isn’t as pretty as other magazines, but I love the quirky content. The Bark is one of my favorite pet magazines.

City DogCityDog | free online, otherwise $4.95 per issue, $18 for a 1-year/4-issue, 40 pages
https://issuu.com/citydogmagazine

For the general reader, City Dog suffers from the same flaw as Fetch, except worse. In its meager forty pages, almost a third showcases products, another third contains regional content, and the remaining third are general-interest features. City Dog is about living with dogs in the West, so I can’t really fault its emphasis on regional information. However, I can fault the fact that over half of the articles are written by the editor. In addition, the magazine name seems like a misnomer, because those articles with regional content are more about sights to see in the West than about the dogs. I didn’t care for it, but it’s available free and so you might just check it out for yourself.

DogsterDogster | $5.99 per issue, $24.95 for a 1-year subscription (6 issues), 90 pages
http://www.dogster.com/

Dogster is divided into seven sections. Each issue starts with Obsessions and Confessions. These two sections contain news, tips, as well as responses from readers to questions and polls. I bookmarked several items in the August/September 2015 issue to learn more about. The next section is Help Wanted, which contains medical advice from the renowned Dr. Marty Becker, and practical advice from other high-profile experts. The fourth section is Mind & Body, and the fifth section is Sit Stay Go. Together, these sections cover what seems to be the most popular content in pet magazines, that of health and obedience. Who’s That Dog? is the shortest section, with just two breeds spotlighted in this issue As for the final section, For the Love of Dogs offers the most variety of content; in the August/September 2015 issue, there are articles about entertainers and their dogs, dog heroes and rescued dog, quizzes, and product reviews. While I enjoyed my issue of Dogster, and wouldn’t hesitate to read another, I was surprised by how many articles provided little new information for me as a long-time dog owner. At the same time, the content is solid and would make a good subscription for less- experienced owners.

Modern DogModern Dog | $5.95 per issue, $16 for a 1-year/4-issue subscription ($9.99 on iTunes), 130 pages
http://moderndogmagazine.com/

Modern Dog is the biggest of the ten pet magazines I surveyed. As with Dogster, it has numerous sections. The shortest sections are The Goods (dog products), Breed Profile, and Body and Soul. The longest sections are Features and Living. Both of them contain an appealing mix of short and long articles. Unfortunately, the topics and approach varied so much that I often wasn’t sure why an article had been placed in a particular section. In the Winter 2014/2015 issue, there are articles about dog personality, training, health, as well as info about volunteering with your dog, entertaining your dog, handling emergencies, and even making dog-related crafts. The quality of the magazine’s content varied widely. One especially weak article is about dominant and submissive dogs. After a short introduction, the second paragraph tells how to recognize dominance in your dog, and the third paragraph tells how to recognize submissiveness in your dog. That’s it. The author fails to explain what to do with this awareness. One especially strong article is about how to bond with your dog. It covers the ancient bond, the innate desire of dogs to work with humans, how being rescued can impact closeness, the signs of a weak or strong bond, and what to do to strengthen the bond. There’s even a quiz and more than one checklist. Despite the uneven quality, Modern Dog offers something for everyone.

ABOUT CATS

CatsterCatster | $5.99 per issue, $24.95 for a 1-year/6-issue subscription ($14.99 digital), 80 pages
http://www.catster.com/

Like Dogster, Catster is divided into seven sections. Each issue starts with Obsessions and Confessions. These two sections contain news, tips, as well as responses from readers to questions and polls. A few gave me ideas for future Lincoln Animal Ambassador articles. The next section, Help Wanted, actually contains some of my favorite articles in the magazine. Topics vary from inappropriate urination, making mealtimes more inviting, how to build a “cat palace” on a budget, and ways to keep your cat happy. The fourth section is Mind & Body, and the fifth section is Life with Cattitude. If you compare the table of contents to Dogster, you’ll notice that this is where the two magazines diverge. Instead of articles on how to engage your cat’s mind, the majority are about designing your cat’s environment. While I enjoy the articles, I’d prefer to see even more like the one about toys for cats. While dogs and cats are certainly different types of animals, cats have a lot of curiosity and intelligence and I wish magazines would recognize this. Who’s That Cat? is the shortest section, with just two breeds spotlighted in this issue. The final section, For the Love of Cats, includes articles about authors and their cats, cat heroes and cat rescues, quizzes, and product reviews. Like Dogster, Catster proved interesting and entertaining to read, and I’d be glad to read more issues.

Modern CatModern Cat | $5.95 per issue, $18 for a 1-year/2-issue subscription ($6.99 on iTunes), 80 pages
http://moderncat.com/

To my disappointment, Modern Cat runs only 80 pages, compare that to Modern Dog’s 120. Furthermore, while every other magazine I surveyed publishes at least four issues per year, Modern Cat only publishes two. Is there really so little to say about cats? Even worse, did you notice the messed up math? Magazines always offer a price-break to subscribers, but Modern Cat asks subscribers to pay fifty percent MORE. Well, let’s get to the content. The shortest sections in the magazine are The Goods, Breed Profile, and Body and Soul. The last contains only four articles, two of which are basically infographics; when it comes to health content, both Modern Cat and Modern Dog have room for improvement. The longest sections are Features and Living: as with Modern Dog, both sections contain a pleasing mix of short and long articles; unlike Modern Dog, there seems to be a more clear-cut division between the two sections. In the Fall-Winter 2015/2016 issue, the Living section contains inspiring stories about cats, giveaways, product reviews, and crafts. In contrast, the Features section provides information on cat personalities and how to harness aggression when introducing a new cat to your home, toys for your cat, and reasons to adopt senior cats. Unfortunately, just as with Modern Dog, the quality of the magazine’s content varied widely.. Modern Cat is a newer magazine than Catster, and perhaps over time its content will become more solid.

Your CAtYour Cat | $8.95 per issue (Barnes and Noble), £66.80 for a 1-year/12-issue subscription (£19.99 on iTunes), 90 pages
http://www.yourcat.co.uk/

Your Cat hails from England, contains five regular sections, and seems the most serious in content. In Every Issue is the shortest and lightest in fare: there’s news, reader responses, cat show news, and a Golden Oldie. The Features section provides the most how-to information: there’s information about how to keep your cat calm during firework season, as well as an article on how to clicker-train your cat. Caring for Cats features abundant stories about cat rescue. What stood out to me immediately is how much more international Your Cat feels. While rescue groups from England were highlighted, ones from Cyprus and Afghanistan also receive coverage. Finally, ten pages of Caring for Cats provides advice from experts. In the November 2015 issue, some topics include: how to handle a multi-pet household, a course in insects that can pose risk to cats, and information about a disease (Feline Pandora Syndrome) that most effects indoor cats. Kitten Corner offers a mix of light and serious—all specific to kittens! For example, there’s information on how to care for kittens, their cost, and even an ongoing series from a breeder’s perspective. And, whereas all other general audience magazines I surveyed ignore fiction, this magazine’s Curl Up & Read section offers multiple fictional cat stories. There are also essays and puzzles. The design isn’t as pretty as some other magazines, and I disagree with the magazine’s philosophy that cats are happiest outside, but Your Cat is one of my favorite pet magazines. However, note that because it’s published in England, it’s expensive to get in the U.S. You can pay $8.95 per issue at Barnes and Noble, or you can save about $10 by subscribing. Either way it will cost about $100 per year, but at least you get twelve issues for that price and not just four or six as with the other magazines I surveyed.

CONCLUSION

Ever since I wrote this article last January for Lincoln Animal Ambassadors, I’ve kept my eye out for pet magazines. Already I have another stack collected, which I’m working my way through this summer. In the near future, I’ll review them too.

In the meantime, what have been your experiences with the magazines I reviewed? Are there ones you’ve read that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs

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Cat Writers’ Association
Artists Helping Animals

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