Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Bibi Belford

From Bibi Belford comes Another D for DeeDee, a heart-warming middle school novel. DeeDee has a lot to learn about friendship but is a sympathetic character with a good heart. Similarly, her family struggles without the Dad but make endearing attempts to stay united as a family. Belford draws on real-life situations she encountered as a teacher to create a funny and serious story that will resonate with readers.

DeeDee is the type of misfit kid I have long wanted to create. Trust doesn’t come easy for DeeDee. She’ll lie rather than face embarrassment. She’ll steal rather than ask for help. She’ll even betray a friend, rather than risk losing her status. If you met DeeDee in person, you’d probably find it hard to like her. But deep down, DeeDee isn’t a bad person. She’s just learned to be tough, because her learning disability and her Mexican background have set her apart. Belford does an incredible job of giving us insight into DeeDee’s heart, where we see her vulnerabilities. As with many “bad kids,” DeeDee needs the right circumstances to help her change. Number one is being diagnosed with diabetes, which requires her to be more honest with herself and others if she’s going to stay healthy. Number two change is a new neighbor. River offers to teach her how to skateboard and to help find her dad, but their friendship is tested when River starts attending DeeDee’s school. DeeDee begins to realize what is important to her, and that she must change if she wants to hold onto family and friends. Although DeeDee’s initial attempts to change are awkward and sometimes half-hearted, her true potential eventually radiates, and she’s a character that we can all root for to succeed. My one reservation is that by resolving all of DeeDee’s dilemmas in the conclusion, Belford has sacrificed a little bit of realism for the sake of a feel-good novel.

As with her first novel, Belford tackles many issues that impact young people. Through an entertaining story, she subtlety educates readers about the life of a diabetic. Belford credits two girls for increasing her own awareness. One day Belford passed out jellybeans as a reward to students who had completed assignments, only to discover that one of her students couldn’t eat sweets. A girl who loved Belford’s first book allowed the author to accompany her on visits to monitor her diabetes. Through the complex character of River, readers are introduced to the world of the hard of hearing students. A fellow teacher not only provided her with facts, but also gave feedback on her rough drafts of Another D for DeeDee. In addition, Belford had many discussions with a college senior who relies on a wheelchair for mobility and advocates for students with disabilities. Finally, Belford teaches migrant students. She also had a chance to talk with a researcher of immigration issues. Stories give us a glimpse into worlds that we may not otherwise experience. My wish for a future novel is that Belford would give recognition to documented immigrants; their road to citizenship can be hard for them too.

Bibi Belford has a gift for writing stories about characters who make bad decisions but learn from them how to love. She also the heart of an advocate and knows the power of words to give voice to issues. I look forward to future novels from this outstanding author.

By the time you finish Canned and Crushed, a middle-grade novel, the main character and the manic style will have won you over. Because finding a novel with a Hispanic protagonist had proved difficult during her teaching days, Belford drew on her experiences with children of migrant workers and with bilingual students to create a story about Sandro, whose father is an undocumented engineer working odd jobs while waiting for paperwork and whose mother is absent because she has taken his little sister to Mexico for medical treatment. Belford’s book covers a lot of issues, including unemployment, bullying, and prejudice, but contain so much charm and laughs that I enjoyed the ride.

Throughout the course of fourth grade, Sandro undergoes a transformation in character, which is largely what makes Canned and Crushed work. Initially, Sandro comes off as overwhelmingly cheerful and even a little pretentious. As I continued to read, however, vulnerabilities started to slip through his bravado and to reveal Sandro as a likeable and sympathetic character. Yes, he is a precocious eleven-year-old who is constantly explaining his large vocabulary to readers, but Sandro also likes to play soccer and to invent stuff, as well as a boy who gets in over his head when family and school life start to unravel. When his sister gets sick, he tries to raise money by convincing the principal to allow him to start a recycling program. At the same time as trying to juggle this responsibility, he’s also facing disciplinarian actions from his teacher and torment from a peer. This leads to some bad choices on Sandro’s part. How Sandro learns to turn around his life and to grow in self-awareness, despite extenuating circumstances, makes for a fast-paced story.

The manic style also left me initially uncertain of how to feel, but soon reeled me in and kept me hooked. Others have compared the blend of seriousness with humor to the likes of Joey Pigza and the Wimpy Kid series. For me, I find myself thinking of Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick. It’s not Belford’s style is anything like the latter, but that in both the character voice is so unique as to leave one both hesitant and impressed. To give you an example, consider lines such as: “So, you notice I’m standing in the hallway. Yes, I’m in trouble. You probably want to know why.” While it’s not unheard of for the narrator to address his readers, it is a more unusual technique. Once I got used to it, I found the style very personable and effective. Moreover, it seems the perfect style for a character whose point of view might not be completely reliable, but whom we need to thoroughly understand if we are to embrace him.

Given that I first encountered Canned and Crushed as a multicultural book reviewer, to wrap up my review, I’ll address how Belford’s novel works on the diversity level. Belford’s extensive experience in working with students of various cultures shows through in her compassionate portrayal of a dual-ethnicity family, where the father unintentionally ended up in America without the correct documentation. There’s no indication of the family trying to avoid this law, but rather the story is about issues that arise while they attempt to make their papers right. In addition, Belford also strikes a perfect chord in her exploration of how students of different cultures can like or dislike another, without race being the actual issue. When Sandro realizes that he’s being accused of prejudice, he acts just the way I’d expect the average young person to who is kind in heart.

As a first novel, Canned and Crushed has its flaws. At the same time, Belford has given readers a complex male Hispanic lead, something still too unheard of in literature. She’s also provided a lot of gentle lessons, as well as heart, to a creative story. I expect Belford to be around for a long time as an author in demand.

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

How would you rate this book?

BibiBelfordBibi Belford graduated with a B.A. in English and her masters in Bilingual Literacy. She worked as a playground supervisor for children of migrant workers and later as a literacy coach and reading interventionist for an elementary school in Illinois, before she retired and turned to writing middle grade novels. She’s also a mom of four grown children.

As a teacher and a mother, there was always something to do instead of write. When Belford finally got the time to write, she drew on those experiences to fill her fiction. Her students would always tell her that they couldn’t find any books they liked. Belford observed too that finding a book with a Hispanic protagonist tend to prove difficult. And so she wrote a story about Sandro Zapote, “whose father is an undocumented engineer working odd jobs while waiting for paperwork. His little sister has a heart ailment, and because his mom was born in the United States, she can take her back to Mexico for treatment.”

Find out more in my interview below and also check out my review tomorrow of her first novel Canned and Crushed. Save the date: March 24!

ALLISON: If you were to write the story of your childhood, what would be the highlights?

BIBI: My childhood was very strict, but because of the era, very free at the same time. After breakfast in the summer, we took off with our neighborhood buddies and roamed wherever we wanted to. During the school year, we rushed home, changed our clothes and disappeared for hours. We played baseball in the open fields, rode bikes on dirt roads with potholes, and invented all kinds of mysterious adventures that involved spying and treasure. We built our own ramps and sledding hills. We climbed trees and made forts with leftover lumber. When the six o’clock whistle blew, we hightailed it home for dinner.

BIBI: My father was a college professor and my mom stayed home with the kids, but she had a teaching degree. We were not allowed to say we were bored or they put us to work.

In today’s terms my family would have been considered low socioeconomic. I had two pairs of shoes. This year’s school shoes and last year’s school shoes. We drank powdered orange juice, called Tang and ate Spam. We helped pick fruits and vegetables and “put them up” which is nice way to say we ate our own canned produce because it was cheaper than canned goods from the grocery store. We didn’t own a TV until I was nine and most gifts I got for were used, but lovingly reconditioned by my mom or dad. One year they gave my brothers and me a huge chalkboard by painting the wall of the basement black. I made the mistake of saying I might want to be a doctor someday and that year I received a kid-sized microscope for my birthday. Weird!

ALLISON: Middle school is a time of transition from being a child to becoming an adult. How easy or difficult was that change for you?

BIBI: Well, here’s where having strict parents was not helpful. When other girls were wearing mini-skirts and listening to the Beatles, I wasn’t allowed to look or act like everyone else. I was very irresponsible and lost things frequently, so they made me carry a briefcase to school to stay organized. And my parents refused to let me quit playing a musical instrument, even though I begged them everyday. So, if you can imagine a very short, middle school girl with glasses, riding a bike to school everyday with a briefcase in the basket on the right and a clarinet in the basket on the left, you will get a good idea of the super nerd I was, back when being a nerd was not popular! Worst of all, I wore an undershirt instead of a you-know-what and at that time the Beatles big hit song was Ba-Ba-Ba-Barbara Ann. I won’t put in the details of the cruel song that kids sang when I rode by on my bike.

ALLISON: Why did you become a teacher? What is your biggest challenge in getting kids to read?

BIBI: I took a job working in a nursing home when I was in high school so I could get experience for my career as a doctor or a nurse. We were called candy-stripers. I quit after one week.

I realized I would never become a nurse or a doctor, so I decided I wanted to be a writer. I loved writing stories and my friends and I even had a little writing club. I graduated early from high school and my English teacher wrote a letter to the college I planned to attend, exempting me from basic college English, so I was able to start right out in the advanced level classes in January. I was in way over my head, but loved my professor and worked hard. The following year, I enrolled in journalism classes, but when I wrote an article that was published in the newspaper about the price gouging of the local grocery store compared to the stores downtown, the store manager called me and made me feel so bad, I knew I couldn’t be a newspaper reporter.

So…. that left me to fall back on the other thing I was good at. Teaching kids. In California, teachers had to have an academic major, so I got an English major and a fifth-year masters in Education. I also spoke Spanish, so I did my student teaching in bilingual classrooms and worked on migrant playgrounds while I lived there. I believe I’ve taught over 1,000 kids to read. The biggest challenge is finding the student’s strength and teaching them using that strength. So many times when a student is considered a struggling reader, they start to struggle with self-esteem. Building up both the self-esteem and the reading proficiency can be challenging.

ALLISON: You’re now in your sixties. What has been your favorite age—childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle age, senior? Why?

BIBI: Whew. That’s a loaded question. If I created people, I think I would do it backwards. Start them out old, and then as they learn and mature, give them more time to enjoy life by having them grow younger. I love the wisdom I have about life, but hate the wrinkles and the arthritis that goes along with it. I would definitely not go back to those middle school days, but my college days opened up whole new worlds. I learned to surf and mountain climb. I babysat for some famous people and became a nanny. Being a mother of four kids ranks right up there with the best years of my life.

ALLISON: What is it like to be retired but essentially starting a new career?

BIBI: At first I felt very isolated and unmotivated. I missed all my teacher friends and wondered if I made the right decision, but the rough draft was due to my editor in January, so that kept me going. I decided to volunteer at a school in Chicago two mornings a week and Fridays at my old school and that has been wonderful. It keeps me in touch with kids, allows me to share my expertise, and gives some structure to the week. I’m not great with the whole marketing, publicity thing, but I’m learning and that also keeps me busy.

ALLISON: What advice would you offer to other aspiring mature authors?

BIBI: The biggest thing people say to me is, “I’m writing a …” and I say, “Is it finished?” They always say, “No.” Until you finish the story, you can’t evaluate whether your character has completed an arc. You can’t edit or revise. Don’t get hung up on carving out the perfect writing schedule or space. Know your target audience. Then just sit down and write. Get a routine. I eat pistachio nuts and write outside when I can. I always read some inspirational material, either from a devotional, a writing magazine or one of my favorite writing books.

ALLISON: You write for middle-grade students. Any thoughts of writing for other ages? Why or why not?

BIBI: I originally thought I wanted to write for the YA market. I pitched a story about two girls from completely different backgrounds who both have self-injury issues and meet in therapy. However, it wasn’t edgy enough and I had not done my research on the market expectations. The girls were a little young for the YA market, but their problems were a little too mature for the middle-grade market. So, when the agents and editors I was pitching asked if I had anything else, I quickly summarized Canned and Crushed, even though it wasn’t half done. Now that I’ve been reading middle-grade and writing middle-grade, I really love that age and the range it offers.

ALLISON: What experiences did you draw to write Canned or Crushed?

BIBI: Most of the events in Canned and Crushed either really happened to me as a teacher, or are a combination of things that really happened. I really did have a student who spit down the stairwell from the third floor. I really did have a student whose father collected road kill. One of my neighbor’s sons was hospitalized for Kawasaki Disease. And one of my students had no insurance and missed two weeks of school because she went to Mexico for eye surgery and stayed with her grandparents. Of course, some experiences come from my children’s lives, but what happens in the family, stays in the family.

ALLISON: Both your current novel and your upcoming novel fall into the category of multicultural literature? What drew you to this type of literature?

BIBI: I actually wrote Canned and Crushed for one of my former students. I was walking in the fourth grade hallway and he came up to hug me. He had worked really hard for three years, learning to read in my reading program. I asked him what he was reading now that he was in fourth grade and he told me he couldn’t find anything he liked to read. I asked him what he wanted to read, and he said, you know, books with kids like me. I asked him if he would read a book if I wrote it, and he said yes. That’s when I started writing Canned and Crushed and one year later, I was able to read the chapters of Canned and Crushed to his fifth grade sheltered/bilingual class before it was published. He was pretty excited. And he did read it!

I think kids want to read about real people with real problems. When they relate to a character, they just might be able to triumph over life’s problems like the character, and be their own hero. I want to write books about characters whose stories just have to be told.

The second book, Crossing the Line, deals with prejudice, and how we all must “cross the line” to stand in the gap when groups are marginalized. My husband and I were biking along the lake shore and stopped to read a dedication plague to a boy named Eugene Williams. When we got home I started researching and my heart broke when I realized his death was the inciting event in the worst race riots in Chicago. And yet, here we are today and what have we learned? Chicago is a very segregated city with a lot of racial prejudice.

I wanted to write a book showing how friendships can bring about change. A group of fifth graders just finished reading the first draft for their literature circle book and they gave me their annotated copies. They all identified the theme as “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And many of them added, “We have the same problems they had in 1919.” I’m working on a companion book to Canned and Crushed right now, and it’s about a little girl learning to deal with her new diagnosis of diabetes and worrying she won’t be able to do the things she loves to do. One of my favorite girls at school had this problem and her mom told me that there’s a very high incidence of diabetes in Latinos, which I didn’t know.

ALLISON: What else do you like to do besides write?

BIBI: I would love to say something really grand, like scuba dive or rescue rhinoceroses, but I guess I’m a little boring. Read at the beach. Watch movies and eat popcorn. Sew for my granddaughter Hazel, the princess! Facetime with my grandkids: Hazel and Hank. Bike along the lakefront in Chicago. Go out to eat with Groupons. There’s sooooo many restaurants in Chicago.

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