Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 9-11’ 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

bookofjoeFor dog lovers, The Book of Joe is quirky little book with lots of personality. It’s written by Vincent Price of Hollywood fame who starred as a villain in dozens of macabre horror films. Far from being scary, however, The Book of Joe is a light-hearted and humorous account of Price’s life with pets.

An orange-brown-black haired mutt who came into an empty moment in Price’s life is the star of this memoir. Price referred to him as “all dog”. At one moment, Joe could dutifully put up with hauling and yanking of a five-year-old boy (Price’s son), and in another moment Joe would eat shoes and fetch empty cans and cartons from the garbage. Joe also had a tremendous sense of responsibility to the humans he loved, while at the same time no lack of playboy when it came to the female dogs. Joe had other contradictory traits too. For example, Price tells about Joe’s stubborn refusal to use a dog door. “Four months of pushing, shoving, pulling … nothing worked. Then one day he bored of the silly game and used the dog door.” The Book of Joe will regularly put a smile on your face!

Not all is perfect about this unusual and touching book. For instance, it falls into the trope that a dog always dies in a dog book. Price gets the cliché out-of-the-way in the first chapter by putting it in the first chapter, but I’m not sure that it’s any better than having it at the end. Spoiler Alert…. At least the dog who dies isn’t our hero Joe! Then there’s the numerous digressions that Price makes, some which are about other pets, but some are simply about his personal life. I do admit though that these ramblings grew on me and added to the endearing flavor of the book. Finally, there’s some mature content in this otherwise family friendly story.

For older readers, The Book of Joe is a quick and entertaining read that they should appreciate. It’s enhanced by line-drawings and witty remarks. The memoir has been out-of-print for years, but now is being reissued with a portion of the proceeds going to the Fund for Animals, a network of animal sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centers.

In the book The Trainable Cat, authors John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis discuss not only how cats should be trained but why cats need to be trained. The Trainable Cat was the first selection of the online Companion Animal Psychology Book Club, newly-formed this fall by Zazie Todd. Besides discussing the book, members had the privilege of asking questions of author Sarah Ellis. I’m taking a different approach to my usual reviews, by sharing highlights of the discussion by some of the three-hundred members.

animal-book-club-tinyTo start the discussion of The Trainable Cat, Todd asked this question: “Right at the beginning of the book, the authors say, ‘we aim to show you how training can improve not just your relationship with your cat but also your beloved pet’s sense of well-being. That’s not to say that the training won’t be fun–it will, for both of you–but the distinction is that you will be producing a happy and well-disposed pet, not a circus star.’ What do you think of this approach to training?”

Of all the questions posed, this one elicited the most responses. Participants liked how the authors give readers an insight into how cats themselves view the world. The unique feline perspective is why training for cats must be different than that for dogs, although there may be some overlap in techniques. Respondents also appreciated the focus of the authors on training cats for the sake of the bond between cat and owner and the psychological health of the cat, as opposed to the teaching of tricks. People domesticated cats and so we have a duty to train cats to cope with the world we’ve placed them into. Cats should be taught how to handle touching, grooming, being crated, and visiting the vet without being unduly stressed. Moreover, because these days many of us rightfully keep them exclusively indoors, we should help cats live an enriched life that’s comparable to the one that they formerly led outdoors. A few participants debated over whether tricks were okay to teach too. Several felt that although training shouldn’t be about “bells and whistles,” the latter was still an acceptable way to enhance a cat’s life.

Next, Todd turned to questions about specific chapters. Chapter three has a set of nine key skills to practice training. About this chapter, Todd asked, “What did you think of these skills? Were there any you found particularly easy or particularly hard (to do or to understand)? If you’ve had chance to try some of them in practice, please share your experiences.”

The consensus was that we all applauded how the authors had structured The Trainable Cat. The authors first present key skills. Then as new training skills are introduced, the key skills are used as a reference. In this way, the content builds on itself, and complex training tasks can be understood as edible chunks.

The Trainable Cat not being my first book about teaching cats, I shared that I’d already been working on teaching my cats how to do obedience and agility. Since starting to read The Trainable Cat, however, I’ve also begun to try marking and maintaining a behavior. Basically, instead of rewarding my cats after each compliance, I’m using praise and the sound of a clicker to let them know when a behavior has been correctly performed. After they have been compliant for a random number of times, I treat my cats with food. Because they don’t know when I’ll reward them, I’ve been better able to teach the maintenance of a behavior.

Chapter four is entitled ‘How cats adapt to living with an alien species (us!)’. Todd posed the question, “What are the main points you’ve taken away from the book about how cats perceive us and our world?” While respondents referred to different examples, we all seemed to agree that this chapter made us think about how cats are socialized. Many pet owners are fully aware that puppies need socialization, but don’t always consider the fact that kittens do too. Case in point, the amount of exposure that kittens receive from men or from women might impact how well they accept either gender. Just as importantly, the amount of exposure that kittens receive from adults or from children could equally impact how they accept people of different ages. The authors dedicate several pages exclusively to how to prepare a cat for the arrival of a baby. For me, being well-aware of how many families will give up a cat because an adult or child in the household doesn’t get along with the cat, his chapter alone is worth the book’s purchase for anyone in the role of educating cat owners.

Chapters five to eleven build on the key skills described in chapter three. Topics covered include: introducing cats to other cats, introducing cats to pets, crating cats, grooming cats, examining cats, and keeping cats safe when outdoors. About these chapters, Todd asked the general question: “Which sections did you particularly enjoy and/or find particularly useful?”

Of all the questions posed, this one elicited the least responses, perhaps because everyone found it difficult to single out any one topic. Personally, there were sections from which I learned more from than others, but I also think the book works best when absorbed as a complete package. Thanks to The Trainable Cat, I’ve started to develop a whole new training mindset. I’m beginning to generalize my training efforts to include behaviors that my cats need. For example, when Andy and I bring home new purchases, I place them where our cats might discover them but I also allow them the freedom to discover these purchases on their own cognizance. If our cats indicate a dislike or fear of something, such as small spaces or loud noises, I help them gradually bring up their confidence. Or if our cats act in a displeasing way, such as growling over and stealing food, I teach them to wait.

At three-hundred pages, with minimal illustrations, The Trainable Cat can feel overwhelming if one is starting out. Even so, I highly recommend that all cat owners take the time to read, study, and apply The Trainable Cat ideas. Your cat(s) will thank you!

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.

This fall I read two books about animal rescue. Me, My Ferals, and I by Christine Booras is a heartfelt story about community cats, while Dogtripping by David Rosenfelt is a humorous story about shelter dogs. Both will resonate with anyone who cares about the plight of homeless pets. You might also pick practical tips on what to do, should you be inspired to become an animal welfare advocate.

meferalsiOctober 2008, Christine Booras saw a stealthy shadow moving, small and dark, and peering through the door of her Tai Chi studio. That glimpse, which turned out to be a confident cat, changed Booras’ life. Booras set out to investigate the wooded area behind the building where she paid rent and discovered not just one adult cat, but several, and kittens. As anyone who has ever tried to find foster or adoptive homes for animals knows, there can be a lot of dead ends. Booras persevered and found homes for the kittens, but this led her with the dilemma of what to do for the adults. Like that of many dedicated to animal rescue, her home was already overflowing with animals.

In the chapters that follow, Booras shares not just her journey into the Trap-Neuter-Release world, but also allows readers a glimpse into her own personal life. The latter at times interrupt the flow of her story and other times help me feel connected to Booras. Over all, the chapters of most interest to me were those which focused on the community cats for whom Booras felt responsible. I appreciate how vulnerable she allows herself to be when sharing of her early mistakes with learning how to trap, create feeding stations and protect them from weather, and handle newcomers to the community including that of other wildlife. She inspires me with the depths to which she researched feral cats, knowledge which she used not only as a caretaker, but also to request a proclamation of Feral Cat Day and assist others with their own colonies. The saddest parts are those moments when Booras discovers members of her colony that have been killed by cars or other hazards, but comfort lies in the fact that many cats knew love and even found forever homes because of her passion.

Me, My Ferals, and I took Booras over three years to write. New adventures kept happening. Even her epilogue, while recognizing how far we have come in caring for homeless animals, notes that there’s still a long way left to go. Until there stop being more animals than there are responsible homes, there will always be a need for animal welfare advocates.

David Rosenfelt describes himself as a “RV half-empty” guy. Then he poses the question of: How the heck did he get himself in this situation? By situation, he’s referring to being part of an eleven-member traveling group with three RVs and twenty-dogs. The traveling group consisted of friends and readers of Rosenfelt’s books who had volunteered their time and money. The three RVs had with refrigerators that were stocked with food and stoves and microwaves with which to cook the food. As for the dogs, they were a small portion of the dogs that Rosenfelt and his wife had rescued from shelters and were now being transported from California to a new home in Maine.

Rosenfelt blames Tara or rather her guardian, Debbie Myers, for their being in rescue work. In 1992, at the end of a movie date, Rosenfelt asked Myers about going out to dinner. She declined because she needed to administer medication to her dog. Despite that unlikely but real reason, the two hit it off. On their third date, Rosenfelt met the dog Tara. When Tara died, the couple found comfort by volunteering in a shelter. This comfort was short-lived, due to the realities of how easy it is for pet owners to request euthanasia for their pet. After one family casually dropped off their grown dog, in exchange for a puppy, Rosenfelt and Myers not only rescued the dog but bailed out of the shelter system. “If we were going to make a real difference, it would have to be another way. And it wasn’t long before we found one.”

Throughout the book, the couple’s road adventures are clearly identified in italics while their rescue escapades are in plain style. Even so, I still at times found myself confused by the narrative. Compassion and humor infuse what could otherwise have been a maddening account of all the reasons that people find to relinquish their animals. There were times though that I found the Rosenfelt’s self-deprecating style grew tiring and I wished for him to take a little more pride in his rescue efforts.

Yet I also enjoyed learning about how two animal lovers unwittingly find themselves in charge of rescuing dozens of dogs. Just as much, I loved discovering all the quirky ways of Rosenselt and Myers. He for example had no problem with making a fool of himself to promote animal adoption, while she had no problem walking out of a shelter with several more dogs than the one they had come to save. I also appreciated how much their story illustrates that it takes a village to bring about change. Eleven people took the road trip with the couple, but just as many or more offered their support along the way.


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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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