Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Realistic’ Category

This is my second post about the 2018 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Now in its 23rd year, the festival is for anyone who loves to read or write children’s books.

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.

LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON

Laurie Halse Anderson is a New York best-selling author known for her children’s and young adult novels. In 2010, she received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 2010 for her contribution to young adult literature. I bought her book Speak with me to get signed as well as a title from her Vet Volunteer series.

This is her second time in Nebraska. A couple of years ago she visited Omaha and was greeted with lots of popcorn. The title of her presentation at Plum Creek was “Speaking up About Hard Things.”

Adolescence is hard; our culture often doesn’t know how to talk about it.

Anderson currently lives in Philadelphia. Her son is back from the military. He posted recently on social media about the need to listen to victims of sexual violence. This made her cry, because he obviously listened to her passion about this issue. She had five grandsons under the age of six; another grandson is on the way. Life is amazing for her now, but it didn’t use to be.

People who had known Anderson a long time ago and had tried to help her survive are surprised at her current life. As a child, she struggled with speech, attention, and reading. She loved being taken out of class by special education teachers to learn how to read. Once she figured out “the code of reading,” she read all the time and everywhere. On Thursdays, the library used to remain open a little late, and she’d stay to read books on her belly.

Silence poisons us and hurts our society. Identify those things which make you not comfortable and talk about them.

Adolescence was complicated for Anderson. Her family moved three times and she wasn’t happy in middle school. She was no longer a girl but growing into a women. She grew up in a culture of silence and wasn’t taught how to deal with periods. No one talked about changing bodies, relationships, race, or other uncomfortable issues.

Her dad grew up in a small town. He wanted to operate a gas station. Fighting in the war and seeing concentration camps changed his life. He saw firsthand what hate does and decided to live in love by becoming a minister. He wrote poetry and Anderson was inspired to write because of him. Then he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and began to drink. He became an alcoholic and lost his pastoral position. They were living in a parsonage and so they lost their home. Eventually, her dad figured stuff out, and he returned to the church.

The family continued to move, and Anderson hated high school. Their house was a dump. She was tall and didn’t fit in with her peers. In a three-week relationship with a guy, she allowed him to kiss her and he raped her. She didn’t talk about it because she was afraid her dad would shoot him. She values that her parents loved her, but the problem was that she was afraid they’d react out of love and go to jail. Instead she spent a year on drugs, but she had a gym teacher who encouraged her to pursue sports. He inspired her to stay clean and to do her homework. She started hanging out with people with healthier relationships.

Every author gets letters from kids who say they stopped reading at fourth grade, because the books are no longer fun or don’t connect with them. Those kids who aren’t reading at age 18 are another lost citizen. We do a disservice to young people when books don’t reflect their experiences.

Anderson read every book she could find, but not the books being taught in school because she didn’t see herself in those book. For 25 years, Anderson didn’t tell anyone about being raped. Even then, she only spoke up because she was a mother, but she was depressed.

When you’re surrounded by light, you don’t need candles. It’s in the dark that you need light. Even the “normal” kids are confused when they reach adolescence.

Her books are known as a problem novel, a term Anderson dislikes. To her, if a book doesn’t have problems, it’s a phone book. She prefers to call her books “resilience” literature, an ideal which she believes all kids need to learn this.

Her book Twisted was written in reaction to Speak. Only 27% are reported of sexual assaults reported; false reporting is only 2-7% which is the same as other crimes. Boys liked Speak but didn’t understand why the main character was so upset. Anderson said that society need to hear their reaction and to educate them. Guys might say “I pushed too far” “I took it too far” “It’s not rape.” Society needs to talk about boundaries. Her book Shout is a free-verse book that covers experiences of young people who have talked to her about sexual assault.

Her book Wintergirls is about anorexia, which has highest mortality rate in the US. A teen had her mom do a tattoo on her neck: “I am thawing.” Anderson said we all know adults who didn’t make it through their adolescence but are scarred today. We don’t want people to be scarred; we want them to be vibrant.

History is the study of gossip.

Anderson wrote Fever 1793 after reading an article about the fever epidemic in Philadelphia. She likes gross medical things and thought middle school students would too. While doing her research, she stumbled across a fact that changed her life: Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. In his later life he realized this was wrong, but he couldn’t change the situation in his lifetime, and so he released them in his will. Anderson began to research slavery and found a lot of things she didn’t know about the Civil War but hesitated before taking on the project of writing a book from the viewpoint of African Americans. She talked with her editor for six months about race before writing Fever 1793. He told her “Slavery is not the African American experience; it’s the American experience; We as white people owe our nation to learn more.”

Censorship is the child of fear and father of ignorance. Jesus didn’t just say NO; he told stories. When we engage with stories, we fill in the blanks and make connections.

Some of Anderson’s books have been censored. At first, she was hurt and then mad, but this wasn’t constructive and so she began to listen to what the censors had to say. She found out they were afraid. They don’t know how to talk to the kids. They believed if they didn’t talk about it, then bad stuff won’t happen. She’s tried to respect the fear and engage censors in conversation.

MEGAN MACDONALD

Megan MacDonald is the author of the popular and award-winning Judy Moody and Stink series. She is also the author of The Sisters Club and has written many picture books. I bought the first book in each of the series for her to sign. In her presentation, she shared a little about her life and a lot about the inspirations behind her books.

Her dad dropped out of school in eighth grade but was always a reader and instilled a love of reading in MacDonald and her sisters. Her dad’s nickname was “Little Storyteller” because he could turn anything into a story. The threat worked. One day MacDonald and her sister resolved to read all the books on the bookmobile. The sisters didn’t realize that the books were replenished every night and so there was no way to read all the books. Shed learned how to measure the value of a book from her sisters. If the last page made them made cry, the book was good. A family rule was no books at the supper table. Her dad made the threat he would rip out last page if anyone caught with a book.

As the youngest, MacDonald never got to say anything and so developed a stutter. Her mom tried to solve the problem by going to the bookstore to get a book about how to help kids who stutter. A bookstore person suggested Harriet the Spy instead, which inspired MacDonald to start taking notes. She didn’t want to spy on neighbors and so instead she spied on a local famous person. The guy had a big dog and the dog bit her. Her spying days were over, but she continued to journal.

At college, MacDonald picked creative writing to major. She wore her best turtleneck and black pants and tried to look the part. She met with the head of the English department. He told her to go home and rip up her poems. She jumped up to leave but he stopped her. He told her, “You’re a prose writer.” She ran home and looked up the meaning of prose in dictionary to find out who she was. Prose was defined as ordinary and dull. Somehow, she still became a writer. She realized it was okay to write about ordinary stuff.

MacDonald started with picture books. She was working at a public library and running its story time. Puppets were donated. She couldn’t find a story for the hermit crab and so she made up a story. The parents wanted to know where to find the book. She decided to write it down. Next, she wrote about tales from her dad’s life, from history, from illustrations. Some of her books became Reading Rainbow offerings and Sparks New Reader offerings.

Ideas can come from anywhere. MacDonald has a photo of her face down on the driveway. Her parents just wanted a nice photo, but she wasn’t having anything of it and threw a tantrum. This photo inspired the idea behind Judy Moody.

MacDonald wrote two drafts of her book. The first version was a set of random stories. Her editor suggested she find a common theme. Megan submitted a 300-page book. Her editor told her this was too long but suggested she write a series. And she did!

The illustrator took 200 tries to get the cover of Judy Moody right. Judy was too young. Too sad. Too scary. Then impish and just right. The publisher printed the artwork on a cover that looks like brown paper. McDonald’s editor didn’t want to tell her for fear she wouldn’t like it, but the idea worked because brown paper is what Megan grew up with.

Her books start out as an idea written down on whatever is handy. MacDonald wrote down Judy Muddy on a napkin. The idea turned into Judy Moody Becomes Famous. Judy Moody Gets Famous is her book that receives the most mail. Some kids think Judy should have gotten famous by doing something big. Others love that she was famous by a good deed.

MacDonald saved the napkin because the idea on it had turned into a book, but also because students kept telling her that she could sell it on Ebay for millions. She received a book made of napkins. Now she can keep a book of her ideas.

Yes, there is Judy Moody movie! She co-wrote the movie screenplay. The director wants action and so McDonald suggested a chase scene after Bigfoot. Judy Movie has an ABC gum collection: Already Been Chewed gum! The movie people made a gum board and labeled the gums and gave it to McDonald.

The idea of a series about Stink came from boy readers who wanted more about Judy Moody’s brother. The science stuff he likes is based on MacDonald’s interests. She was upset that Pluto was demoted from being a planet. In her town there is a zombie walk. She fed cereal to slime mold, the slime grew, and she took pictures that she sent to Megan. A nephew was the only boy at Shakespeare camp. And the list of ideas continues!

 

Talon Come Fly With Me by Gigi Sedlmayer is a quiet adventure about a young girl with special needs who befriends two mated condors. While the story suffers from a weak plot and simple writing, it’s also a heartwarming and informative one.

Nine-year-old Matica has a growth handicap that traps her inside a body the size of a two-year-old. It also causes her to be rejected by the residents in the remote village of Peru where she lives with her brother and Australian missionaries. Size however does not impact how she’s viewed by a local mating pair of condors. After a year of her watching them, Matica attempts to meet them face to face. She does this by visiting them in the same place day after day, until one of them becomes curious and flies near her. After this, she brings them dead lizards to eat. As a way of the male bird saying thank you, he flies up to her and allows himself to be touched.

Seldmayer could have easily filled a book with just the above drama, but instead strips her narrative to a few bare-boned chapters. She does the same disservice to Matica’s encounters with poachers, largely because Sedlmayer fails to integrate any tension, conflict, or surprise twists. Instead she relies heavily on a passive narrative laden with dialog. While this simplistic style might make the story more palpable for reluctant readers, it unfortunately left me at times bored.

After Matica has the opportunity to touch a male condor, her relationship expands to include his mate. When poachers attempt to steal a condor egg, the condor couple turn to Matica for help. She carries the egg home with her, where she keeps it warm. Every day the condors check with her to see if their baby has hatched. When the baby is finally born, Matica feeds it, cleans it, and even helps it to learn to fly. The second half of Talon Come Fly With Me is dedicated to Matica’s relationship with the baby condor, and here’s where Seldmayer’s admiration for these unique birds shines through.

Although Matica is a sympathetic character, a story from the viewpoint of the condors alone may have resulted in a stronger emotional connection for me. The condor family are the stars, and through Seldmayer’s detailed portrayal of them, I learned about their idiosyncrasies and their diminishing numbers. Talon Come Fly With Me is a pleasant way to launch one’s reading of nature books, after which one should turn to literary giants of the genre such as Jean Craighead George.

The Ginger Kid by Steve Hofstetter is the inspiring memoir of a misfit who became a popular comedian. I related to Hofstetter’s awkward adolescence and applaud his message to aim high. The Ginger Kid is a notable addition to the young adult nonfiction.

Steve grew up an unhappy teen. He was a shy poor redhead who spent most of school years being bullied. He had very few friends and his first date was with a girl who simply wanted the prestige of having a boyfriend. In addition to being a nerd, Steve didn’t excel at sports or academics. He also spent many years being the brunt of jokes instead of making others laugh. His family often wasn’t helpful either. His parents never got anything done on time and they often fought. Steve could have easily ended up a nobody.

The teen years weren’t kind to me either. I was shy and introverted. Although somehow I mostly escaped being bullied, I had a highly sensitive personality and so the smallest criticisms wounded me. My friends and I were on the fringe of our peers, perhaps because we were average in sports, academics, looks, and everything. Like Steve, one of my passions was writing, which didn’t win me any favor among my peers either. Being the only child of a single father made me different, which also negatively impacted my social acceptance. Unlike Steve, by the end of high school, I still didn’t know who I wanted to be.

In his high school graduation speech, Steve credited a positive mindset, hard work, and the right people for preparing him to face the world. One of those right people was a high school teacher. Mr. Mikkelson gave automatic points to those students who showed that they had read and understood the assigned material. In addition, he allowed Steve to choose baseball as the focus of his main economics paper, because he knew Steve would take the work seriously. Thanks to Mr. Mikkelson, Steve started to succeed in school as a student. Another one of those right people was his brother. David gave him this sage advice: “Most people live their life in the middle. They don’t go far down, but they don’t go far up either. The further you go toward this top line, the further you will also go towards the bottom line. You decide if it’s worth.” Steve kept this advice in his mind when he applied for improv, which taught him many life lessons, and ultimately helped him find his place in life.

Even as an adult, I still at times wonder if aiming high is worth it, and it helps to know that others have faced this quandary. One Sunday earlier this fall, my husband and I took our therapy cat to Home Depot on a shopping trip. As I walked into the store wearing a “proud pet mom” shirt and pushing a cat stroller, I experienced strong misgivings. I wondered whether everyone who saw me would dub me a “crazy cat lady”. Then I thought about Steve’s decision to always aim high. Sure, there were peers who ridiculed him and disliked him, but there were also peers who enjoyed his presence and who had his back. The reality is that no matter what path Steve choose, there would always be places where he didn’t fit but also places where he would. Similarly, when I take my therapy cat in public, there will be people who roll their eyes but there will also be those who will stop to say hello and even feel better because they got to pet Rainy.

Everyone gets scared and everyone experiences rejected. How one handles these feelings can make a huge difference in who one will become in life. Most of the readers of The Ginger Kid won’t end up becoming famous like Steve, but they might find themselves inspired to do improv or to follow some other dream that will positively change their life. Such is the power of a good book!

I always enjoy a new novel by Kathryn Erskine. The Incredible Magic of Being is no exception. In this middle-grade story, Erskine has once again given a fresh approach to the themes of diversity, family relationships, and of loss and grief.

As with many of Erskine’s characters, Julian has a unique way of looking at the world. Through chapter titles, narrative, and the Facts and Random Thoughts sidebars, Julian’s love of science shines in both serious and humorous ways. For example, the first chapter is called Black Holes and Messier Objects. In this chapter, Julian compares his sister to a black hole. Anyone who has met an explosive teen with sympathize. At the same time, I can’t help but laugh when Julian shares that his sister at times makes a noise like an orangutan, wears earbuds and sunglasses even inside, and has moods that spook him. And then I feel sad again when Julian compares himself to a Messy Object. This isn’t a reference to a messy room but to an object that gets in the way.

Family relationships are an integral part of The Incredible Magic of Being. The changing dynamics between Julian and his sister Pookie will feel real to anyone who has a sibling. The two used to be like magnets. Pookie would even read to Julian when he had nightmares. Now the two have drifted apart. At times, the two quarrel such as during the car drive to their new home in Maine. Pookie tells Julian to stop kicking her backpack. Julian’s mom takes his side, asking him to stop jiggling his feet and to instead take calm breaths. When she calls him a freak, Julian chooses to touch Pookie’s backpack and inwardly hopes that she won’t notice. At times, Julian still tries to connect with his sister. When their parents assign them both chores to prepare for the family’s new Bed and Breakfast venture, Julian asks Pookie to work together with him. Because she hates the Bed and Breakfast, Pookie refuses to do even her own chores,  and so Julian elects to do all the chores to keep the peace. The enmity continues until their neighbor has a heart attack and they need each other.

Despite the fact their neighbor could prevent their family from building a Bed and Breakfast by the nearby lake, Julian feels sorry for Mr. X who has lost his wife and is now completely alone. At first Julian acts like an obnoxious child in his insistence that Mr. X needs to have him as a friend. Just as much, Mr. X acts like a grumpy old man who has no time for anyone or anything because of his age and grief. Through a series of twists and turns, a magical relationship develops between these two strong characters of very different ages. For example, in Julian’s mind, Julian’s desire for a dog and Mr. X’s need for a companion can be met, if Mr. X adopts a dog but allows Julian to care for it. Except then Mr. X surprises Julian by asking that he teach his dog and himself water safety, something that Julian doesn’t want to do due to being afraid of water, drowning, and death.

There are many more features to The Incredible Magic of Being that I’ve left out such as the relationship between Julian’s lesbian parents. It shows the realistic struggles that every couple faces in attempting to stay connected, raise children, and find a meaningful place in the world. Then there’s the slightly paranormal undertone, which leads to a surprisingly revelation. I encourage you to read The Incredible Magic of Being and experience Erskine’s memorable writing for yourself.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is an atypical reading experience. Set in Russia in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the USSR has just ended and Russia is still in its infancy, One-Two takes you into the mind of conjoined twins Faith and Hope. The style is at first disconcerting, being told from an alternating first and second person, but in the end feels like the perfect choice. A psychological drama, the novel reflects on how difficult but also how important it is to remain human.

Faith and Hope do not have an easy life. Their own mother, aghast at the sight of them, signed their death certificate. The twins were handed over to one institute and then another as experimental subjects. When the scientists wearied of the twins, they were transferred to boarding school where they experienced some measure of happiness. The windows had no grids, the air smelled of moss and pine, and the twins felt like normal children for the first time. They even developed friendships. Unfortunately, due to a suicide by one of the boarders, their stay was short-lived. The next stop was an orphanage, where once again the twins were viewed as objects of curiosity and sunk into misery. Their one relief was a library and the news that successful operations were being performed to separate conjoined twins. But again, these comforts were short-lived. One-Two is a hard story at times to read, as there seems be no redemption in sight.

But I want redemption for Faith and Hope, who from start to finish I am rooting for. I like who the twins are. They value friendships from their peers, the knowledge to be found in libraries, and the kindness of strangers. They’re also self-aware and know when they are being cowardly or mean, but also how to be strong in the face of relentless suffering and pain. I empathize with the twins who wish for a different appearance, just as many of us are dissatisfied with our looks. Faith grows up knowing the story of the Ugly Duckling by heart, because she wants to undergo a similar transformation. She treasures artwork of a friend who depicts them as beautiful. Whether accurate or not, I find enlightening the insights into life as a conjoined twin. One teacher tells the class that anyone cheating will be seated at separate desks, and Faith laments how impossible that would be. Then there are the constant questions from bystanders of how the two function day-by-day with bodies that are conjoined. Perhaps the most bittersweet is how the twins at times encourage other and at other times wish desperately to be their own person. Finally, I feel abhorrence at their treatment. When the twins take a bus ride, passengers make comments such as they’ll never get used to them and they’ll one day turn into haggish toads. At the orphanage, when staff see them, the twins are told to cover themselves. And these are among the least cruel reactions.

The style is initially what I least cared for. The first person is used when Faith describes her traumatic childhood, and the second person is used when she talks to her conjoined twin. There are times when I wanted to simply stay inside Faith’s head and times when I wanted to know what her sister thought not what Faith said to or about her. At the same time, the technique serves to increase tension, and thereby creates a frightening foreboding. While narrating her story Faith occasionally presents philosophical truths that seemed too mature for her to know at the age being depicted. At the same time, her emotions swing from optimism to despair, and feel agonizingly real. By the novel’s end, I felt as if the author could not have chosen any other way to tell his story.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is one of those books that need to be reread due to its complexity. The twins manage to struggle past thoughts of revenge, suicide, and other dark emotions to hold on to the belief that their life has been amazing and full of miracle, and therein they teach us how to be human. Upon the initial reading one will grasp the essentials of the plot and the characters, but an additional reading will be needed to fully comprehend all the truths being imparted.


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2018

This month I’m reviewing Advanced Reader Copies! I’ll also have some major news to share. Keep watch.

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