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Miriam Franklin is the author of Extraordinary, a novel about friendship. Besides reading children’s literature and writing, she loves to teach. Franklin currently teaches language art classes to students in home schools, in public schools, and community groups. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two daughters, and two cats. To find out more, check out my interview. 🙂

Here’s one important lesson I’ve learned: If you quit when you feel discouraged, you’ll never find out what you could have done if you’d stuck with it instead. Or, even better: The ONLY way to fail is to quit!

ALLISON: Do you view the jar as half empty or half full? Why or why not?

MIRIAM: When I’m writing, I try to create main characters who view the jar as half full. I think it’s important for readers to see characters who overcome difficult challenges or learn to accept changes in their life with a hopeful and positive attitude.  I hope this shows readers that while dealing with unexpected changes isn’t easy, it can make you a stronger person in the end.

ALLISON: Both of your novels are set in middle school. How does middle school differ from when you attended? How is the same?

MIRIAM: My elementary school was from kindergarten up to sixth grade, and junior high was seventh through ninth, so I was the oldest in sixth grade instead of the youngest. In junior high, when the bell rang the halls filled with seventh through ninth graders which was intimidating for a tiny twelve-year-old, especially when kids were retained more back then and it wasn’t uncommon to see a big sixteen-year-old in ninth grade!

One thing the same is that at this age, kids care a lot about what everyone else thinks. Your social status is determined by who you sit with at lunch, so the same problem about how you choose your friends and how you accept others still exists.

ALLISON: Your main character, Pansy, wants to become extraordinary. What were some of your goals in middle school? What were some of your failures?

MIRIAM: I’d had the same group of friends since kindergarten, and we moved from New Jersey to North Carolina in middle school, same as Sunny, the character in CALL ME SUNFLOWER. I spent most of junior high trying to find a place I fit in. It seemed like all of the kids at my junior high knew each other from elementary and as an introvert who’d always taken friends for granted, it wasn’t easy.

I didn’t worry too much about grades, but I should have since daydreaming during math class brought a D in algebra that I managed to hide from my parents. Each subject was written on a separate slip of paper and I just didn’t show them the last quarter grade! (Haha, I don’t think they ever found out about it, either)

I was determined to find something I was passionate about, but I discovered there weren’t many offerings for beginning dancers or gymnasts at age 12. Finally I enrolled in ice skating classes at the end of eighth grade after spending 6 weeks with a broken ankle…and not only did I find something I wanted to do every day, I found my first real friends since I’d moved to NC, and I found a place I fit in.

ALLISON: You and your husband once ran a toy and gift store with her husband. What were the highs and lows of that experience?

MIRIAM: The best part was getting to go to the Toy Fair in New York where we spent a couple of days looking at the latest toys and gadgets. It was so much fun poring through catalogs and choosing things that we thought would make our store unique. We rented an old house and my mom painted murals on the walls. It was like a dream come true watching the place come together and filling it with hand-picked toys and gifts. The low point is when we realized we couldn’t make a living from our small shop that most people didn’t know about and after a year, Creative Earth Toys and Gifts had to close its doors.

ALLISON: You have two cats. Do you think you’ll ever write a book about pets? Why or why not?

MIRIAM: CALL ME SUNFLOWER actually features Stellaluna, my black cat! There’s another cat in the story as well, a stray Sunny adopts when she moves in with her grandmother. I’ve also included dogs in another book I’m working on. I’m a big animal-lover so I’m guessing they will find their way into my stories!

ALLISON: Pansy’s best friend gets sick and becomes disabled. Is her story drawn on experience? Tell us about your inspiration.

MIRIAM: My niece, Anna, was actually the inspiration behind EXTRAORDINARY. She suffered a brain injury similar to the character in the book, although she was only around two when it happened.

ALLISON: Extraordinary is your seventh or eighth book, but your first published. What happened to those other books? How did you persevere?

MIRIAM: Some of those books were early attempts that were part of learning and improving my writing craft. Others I’ve continued to rewrite over the years and one of them turned into CALL ME SUNFLOWER, which will be published in May. While I received many rejections over the years, I’ve also received encouragement and I could tell my writing was improving so I kept at it even though at times it was rough! I knew I had stories I needed to tell so I tried to focus more on the joy of writing and less on the publishing process.

ALLISON: You home school language arts to students. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

MIRIAM: Read, read, read! The best writers are also avid readers, and they pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work in a story. What makes you keep reading? What makes you connect to the main character and care about what happens to him/her? Keep a journal about books you read, making note of strengths and weaknesses. My oldest daughter started doing this in middle school, and she has an overstuffed notebook she calls the “All-Book Binder” where she rates her favorite books/series. (HARRY POTTER has remained number one!)

Also, write, write, write! Expressing your personal thoughts through a journal or diary is one place to start, and a way to discover your own unique writer’s voice. You can keep a notebook that you carry with you so you can jot down story ideas, characters, and settings when they pop in your head. Pay attention to people around you, the way they talk and their mannerisms. Take note of interesting expressions when you hear them, and collect newspaper articles as well that might inspire you to write a story.

extraordinaryExtra Ordinary is a delightful debut novel about friendship. The main character of Pansy, who is quiet and fearful but also exuberant and determined, won my affection. I also admire the author, Miriam Spitzer Franklin, for creating a sweet but realistic story about disabilities. Just as what lies at the end of Pansy’s year isn’t exactly what she had expected, so I too was surprised at plot twists in Extra Ordinary, and both are good things.

But there are also those children who persevere despite challenges, always accept the differences in others, and are full of spirit and heart. I wanted to write about a girl who considered herself average, and didn’t realize her own gifts that made her extraordinary.

–Miriam Spitzer Franklin, An Interview with Miriam Spitzer Franklin

I relate to Pansy. Until fifth grade, Pansy had allowed her fears to rule her decisions. Consequently, she’d already piled up a heap of broken promises to her best friend. The last of them had led to a major fight, the last that two girls would have. You see, the summer that two were to attend camp, Anna developed meningitis and became intellectually disabled. At the start of fifth grade, Pansy learned that Anna would have a surgery that maybe would heal her. Or so she thought. And this belief led Pansy to decide fix her broken promises. Not only would she cut her hair as promised, but she would learn to roller skate, and to take on all the other challenges that Anna would have. Some of them are funny such as brushing off the fact she accidentally wore misshapen shoes. Some are inspiring such as Pansy giving up weekends to pile up points in the class reading competition. I too have often allowed fear of the opinions of others, the unknown, and even plain hard work deter me from a goal. Through her awkwardness and failures, but also her courage and successes, Pansy learns that venturing out of her comfort zone can lead to new friends and experiences. It can also give her the confidence to speak up for others. And thus, while I never felt as if the author were leading my hand and teaching me the lesson of being brave, Pansy served an endearing example of how to live an extraordinary live.

Having seen and read numerous stories about characters with special needs, there’s a part of me that both expects and braces for that miraculous end. We naturally all root for the main character, and so part of me wanted Anna to acknowledge Pansy’s efforts to change. I also wished for Pansy’s sake that Anna would make a full and speedy recovery after her surgery. In all honesty, however, part of me also was ready to be disappointed if those things happened. After all, I’ve taught students with special needs for over ten years, and I know that the improvements are sometimes miniscule at best. Certainly, none of them could hope that a surgery would suddenly remove their disabilities. And so, I felt happy to see Pansy and Anna’s brother struggle with hopes and doubts all at the same time as they anticipated the surgery. I also view the end as a satisfying one.

First-time novels tend to have missteps. I saw one definite blunder. In chapter four, Pansy is wearing kneepads during her skate in a park. In chapter seven, she complains that her knees are stiff from her falls, but she’s found a solution: kneepads! Please do correct if I’m wrong, but wasn’t she already aware of that solution? The other error might not really be one. When Pansy’s new best friend is introduced, the description of her suggests that she’s your typical snobby, pretty, rich girl but instead her sidekick is. Even if I simply misinterpreted, I’d still have preferred Pansy’s new clique to have been average girls.

Those few little flaws certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying an extraordinary reading experience. I’d taken a break these past few months from reading books for young people. Extra Ordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin reminds me of why I’d been such a fan of children’s literature.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles is a sympathetic and unflinching novel about two cognitively-challenged young women. Their developing friendship is what most struck a chord with me. The violence perpetrated against them isn’t sensationalized, but rather felt realistic and true to the theme that life can be cruel. Winner of the Family Schneider Award, Girls Like Us is an absorbing and powerful story about voices often not heard in literature.

Told in alternating viewpoints, each chapter reveals the perspective of the two girls on the situations unfolding them. At first, Biddy and Quincey seem to have little in common except that they’re both graduates of their high school’s special education program. Biddy is white and is always shyly hiding behind her fat exterior. Kind-hearted and sensitive, she also remains scared to step out her front door, especially when men are around. In contrast, Quincey is mixed race and always has her defenses up. She also bluntly express what’s on her mind and faces the world with her fists up. When the two are assigned to live together, with Biddy serving as housekeeper to an elderly lady and Quincey working at a local grocery store, slowly everything changes.

Initially, their perspectives are totally antithetical. Take for example how they view their living arrangements. Biddy views Miss Lizzy’s house as something that came out of a storybook. She feels like a princess going up into a castle. She’s also excited to finally have her own room. In contrast, Quincey describes the house as being about “as big as a hummingbird’s nest” with only a shower instead of a tub. She decides though to make the best of the situation, as long as “that stick of an ole woman be leavin’ me alone.” A pivotal moment happens when Quiney learns that Biddy can’t cook. She convinces Biddy to let her cook and then to hide the truth except, when Biddy actually has to deliver her first meal, Biddy can’t bear to start the relationship of with a life. Quincey thinks this confession will get them fired, but instead earns them praise for being able to work together.

Many other relationship-changing events happen, but the one that binds them together is the rape of Quincey by a co-worker. All along Biddy has been slowly coming out of her shell. The arrival of Stephen, the son of a friend of the family, forces Biddy to rethink her fear of the men. The need to buy dry corn for a mother and her ducklings drives her out of the house and into town. All along Quincey has also been opening herself up to friendship. She buys night lights to help Biddy sleep without nightmares. She also invests in a television for the girls, because Biddy will like the cartoons and maybe learn a few more songs. Then comes the evening when Quincey doesn’t return at a normal hour from her job, Biddy wanders the streets looking for her, and the girls end up bringing comfort to one another with revelations of what happened in their most horrendous experiences.

Giles took ten years to flesh out Girls Like Us. She drew on her experiences as a special education teacher to write the story of Biddy and Quincey. In my interview with her and elsewhere, Giles states, “I just flatly believed those girls voices needed to be heard.” The result is a hard-hitting and unique story.

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

How would you rate this book?

A fellow blogger at Bookshelf Fantasies started a meme back in September 2012 called Flashback Friday. Her reason? Like many readers, she tended to focus on the new, new, new, and ignore the old, old, old. With her new meme, she decided to “hit the pause button for a moment and concentrate on older books that are deserving of attention”. Below is one of her posts, which she graciously allowed me to feature here.


How crazy is it that a Google image search came up with all of these different graphics and book covers for Flowers for Algernon? That’s not even counting the various stage productions with their posters, playbills, and other paraphernalia. Clearly, this is a book that has staying power.

I first read this book many moons ago when I was a senior in high school, very keen on all of my AP classes and avidly interested in intellectual pursuits. (What a geek, I know…) Written as a series of diary entries, Flowers for Algernon tracks Charlie’s progress from low IQ to the upper limits of genius. What totally gobsmacked me in reading this book was that Charlie’s new-found intelligence enabled him to predict and track his own downward trajectory. Prior to the operation, Charlie leads a fairly contented life. After the operation, Charlie is elated by his mental powers but ultimately is plunged into despair as he realizes that he is destined to lose everything he has gained. Flowers for Algernon raises an interesting question: Would you rather be blissfully ignorant, or achieve intellectual super-abilities but only for a short time? If gaining a terrifically high IQ also brought you the certain knowledge that your intelligence would soon plummet to below average levels, would you still want the high?

It’s been quite a while since I’ve read Flowers for Algernon, but I still remember the impact it had on me. I found it thought-provoking, moving, and disturbing—and I think the fact that it’s still widely read and that the stage version is still frequently produced is a testament to the power of this book.

What’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow book lovers at Bookshelf Fantasies and share the wealth.

My Thirteenth Winter is a gutsy memoir by Samantha Abeel, who grew up with the learning ability known as dyscalculia. In being a memoir, My Thirteenth Winter covers Abeel’s recollection of significant events from her childhood right through to her young adult years. This is both good and bad. On the downside, unless one is famous, it can difficult to capture reader interest page after page for what is essentially one person’s tale of their life. On the positive side, My Thirteenth Winter helped me in a way that few books to understand how learning disorders do not end with high school graduation but are lifetime struggles.

Abeel makes heart-wrenchingly clear in her introduction how momentous the impact her disability has been on her life: “I am twenty-five years old and I can’t tell time. I struggle with dialing phone numbers, counting money, balancing my checkbook, tipping at restaurants, following directions, understanding distances, and applying basic math to my everyday life. I also struggle with spelling and grammar and remembering combinations of movements in athletics and dance.” Subsequent chapters also exemplify how challenging dyscalculia can be. In second grade, despite seeing her teacher model time with a big clock, Abeel couldn’t understand how hours, minutes, and seconds worked. Nor could Abeel understand fractions, even after her teacher explained it by using a candy car. Perhaps, Abeel’s saddest story is about the time her teacher handed out worksheets with math problems and promised ice-cream to anyone who could finish them correctly and on time. Being a school teacher, I know how common these motivational rewards still are. The idea is if only all students try harder, practice more, or put in extra effort, everyone will pass. That day, Abeel was not only the last to finish, but no matter how hard she tried, she never could get all the problems right. Thankfully, her teacher took pity on her and let her join the class in eating ice-cream. Except Abeel only felt worse, because she knew that she had been unable to keep her part of the deal. As is clear from the quote I gave at the start, Abeel continued to find it a challenge throughout her whole academic life to learn those basic skills that most of us take for granted. Dyscalculia impacted other areas too, because it’s more about one’s ability to learn sequential skills than about one’s ability to calculate. For that reason, Abeel also struggled with grammar, reading, driving, and music.

Because of her learning disability, Abeel often felt frustrated, confused, and alone. Yet she actually had a benefit that many special education students don’t. According to a 1992 article, which appeared in the Learning Disabilities Association newsletter, some students can be gifted and disabled. “These students are struggling to stay at grade level. Their superior intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses caused by an undiagnosed learning disability.” Abeel spent most of her academic years battling physical sickness caused by her anxiety over her lackluster school performance. As Abeel observed, however, she still remained one of the fortunate ones. Others who were only disabled and not gifted: “They had been ridiculed from an early age…. For the fact that they talked differently or they looked different or didn’t learn to read as quickly or answer questions in class. They were class clowns, behavior problems, because that way they were in charge of the laughter, they were in control of the inevitable criticism.” As bad of a struggle that Abeel had, imagine how much worst it was for others who couldn’t compensate for their weakness. The contrast is similar to the one I felt when struggling to fill out immigration papers to stay in the United States. As frustrating as a I found the whole process, at least I could speak English, knew North American culture, and had the ability to spend money on endless phone calls.

About halfway through her school years, Abeel qualified for special education. Immediately, she started being pulled to a resource room for small group support. Her reaction surprised me. It’s also one that those in power might take more heed to: “I looked around and I feel heartened by the realization that no one else in this room gets it either. That we all struggle with math and it’s OK…. Here, after all those years of fear and withdrawal, I can finally start raising my hand in class again.” More good news was to come. Abeel discovered an aptitude for writing. Her parents, peers, and teachers began to compliment her literary talent. Pieces of hers were published in the school paper and even in a national magazine that published student work. Writing not only served as an emotional outlet for her, but it also gave her a much-needed ego boost.

Although struggles with dyscalculia crippled her again in high school and college, Abeel’s disability has also blessed her with a unique view of the world. Through struggling to learn, Abeel has learned the power of persistence. People are often stronger than they realize. Abeel’s problem-solving skills have been stretched, in that she has never been able to take the simplest tasks for granted. Her years of learning to cope by observing the smallest facial gestures, emotional reactions, and patterns of behavior have helped Abeel develop  observation skills. She uses these to reach out and help others. Last, Abeel has learned to see people as beautiful individuals waiting for their gifts to be recognized; to view everyone as learning disabled and gifted. My Thirteenth Winter is a powerful memoir.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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