Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 9-11’ Category

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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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.”


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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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