Apartment Life

brownstoneSeveral months ago, my daughter decided that jumping rope was her new favorite thing to do. Since most of my family’s favorite things to do are not even close to strenuous physical activity, I was happy to encourage her interest in jumping rope.

The problem? It was winter, and we live in an apartment.

It didn’t take too many thumps on the floor for us to declare, “No jumping rope inside.” But I admit I had a vision the apartment life in The Brownstone by Paula Scher in which the residents of an urban apartment building shuffle living spaces to create just the right sense of harmony. It isn’t easy when you have hibernating bears living below tap dancing kangaroos or a jump roping eight-year-old.

I’m happy we live on the first floor with no neighbors beneath us. I’ve lived in all  sorts of apartments as a child and as an adult, and I can tell you from experience that it isn’t easy to live so close to a kangaroo when you’re a bear. These days, I’m just trying not to be the kangaroo to anyone else.

Fortunately, it’s spring, and we can finally send our jumping roping eight-year-old outside.

Whether you live in an apartment with kids or not, The Brownstone is a humorous look at problem solving and getting along with whoever you happen to live near. Recommended.

More about The Brownstone:

Reading Sad Stories

What is it about tearjerkers that always pull me in? Books like The Secret Hum of a Daisy, The Thing About Jellyfish, and Counting by 7s are among my favorite recent children’s novels. Each book explores loss and grief in a way that feels very profound to me, though I have not experienced such loss myself. Not like the kids in those stories anyway.

No one I have been close to has died–a fact for which I am quite grateful. But my childhood was marked by regular losses, of a sort, as my family moved again and again for the first twelve years of my life. It wasn’t death, but it was a real grief that I felt as I left behind friends and familiarity for an unknown place with people who didn’t belong to me.  I feel like I spent my childhood saying goodbye and searching for a sense of home. Not so different from the kids in those books.

freeverseFree Verse by Sarah Dooley struck a particular chord with me. In the story Sasha lives in a mining town. Everyone in the town is affected when there is an accident in the mine. They all know how dangerous it is, and yet the miners go to work every day regardless. That’s the job.

That was my dad’s job for most of his life. He called himself a miner, but he didn’t actually extract anything from the earth. “Tunneller” would perhaps be more accurate as he and his crew dug mostly sewer tunnels several hundred feet underground. No less dangerous than any other sort of mining, I assure you. But that was the job.

Sasha has lost everyone she loves. Her father to the mines. Her mother to the wider world. Her brother, most recently, to a fire. As she finds a new family and a new sense of home, it isn’t easy for her to make sense of the choice to work in the mine when you have a family. Her cousin Hubert tries to explain, and I felt like my dad would be nodding in agreement if he heard Hubert’s speech about how proud he is of his work.  It’s work that matters. It’s work that not just anyone can or will do. “The equipment, the training–it’s not some dumb hillbilly job,” he tells Sasha.

Still Sasha asks, “But if something bad happens to the guy in your job, where would his family be?”

Hubert doesn’t have an easy answer to that. Neither did my dad, I suppose, though I admit we didn’t talk much about it.

Perhaps that’s what draws me to these stories. I may be a grown up who has never experienced the loss of a loved one like the kids in these books, but there is a part of me that will always be trying to sort through difficult questions and find a sense of home for myself where the answers–never easy–at least feel like they fit.

Each of these stories offer a bit of hope that we can find what we will find our fit if we keep trying. If we keep letting new people into our lives, if we listen to their stories, and try to understand, we’ll create a sense of home.  These are the stories, Free Verse especially, I wanted to find as a kid to get me through the goodbyes and the questions.

Crocodile Stories

It seems to be a general rule that every story in which an amputee character gets any page time at all will also feature a crocodile. Or maybe a shark or a tiger. It doesn’t matter what wild animal one chooses, and it doesn’t matter what the truth of the story is. What matters is surprising people.

No one expects much from a less than fully limbed person, and I can speak from personal experience when I say that it can be rather draining to live a life in which people don’t expect you to be able to tie your own shoes or do much of anything for yourself. I surprise people on a near daily basis by my ability to accomplish the most basic of tasks.  In a world of such constant underestimation, there is an almost irresistible pull to really surprise people, to shock them into considering their assumptions, to change the story they’ve told themselves. That’s where the wild animals come in.  No one ever expects a crocodile.

While it is perhaps something of a cliche for an amputee character to make up some wild story about their limb loss, I can’t deny that it happens. I laughed when I read  the scene in A Time to Dance when Veda responds to rude people with a crocodile story. I’d have done much the same if I were her. I did much the same many times as a teen. I am, and always have been, happy to answer questions asked kindly, but there was a time in my youth when rude questions, comments, or staring were almost certainly answered rudely or with a crocodile story intended to shut down the conversation by surprising people.

In The Doldrums, Adelaide tells a crocodiledoldrums story with the words “chewed it clean off” when a man stares at her prosthetic leg. The man is so surprised he leaves the cafe without his coffee.  Later she finds that the story works initially with the other kids at her new school, but it quickly gets out of hand.  A word of advice: if your goal is to shut down the conversation, a crocodile story will only work with adults.  Kids will just be more interested and probably call you “crocodile girl.” That is exactly what happens to Adelaide. It isn’t exactly a winning strategy for getting people to leave you alone, and it definitely won’t make you any friends.

However, I have found that it is often the people who don’t react quite like everyone else who make the best of friends.  Adelaide’s crocodile story makes Archer, a wannabe adventurer, jealous. “It’s an odd thing to be jealous of a girl whose leg was eaten by a crocodile. Few people would be jealous of that. But Archer was few people. And it wasn’t so much the loss of a limb as it was the entire story.” That, of course, is the beginning of a real friendship, or at least, it becomes a real friendship when they eventually get past Adelaide’s story and Archer’s jealousy.

It has been a very long time since I told a crocodile story about myself. These days I am much more focused on keeping the conversation open, but there are times when I am tempted. Especially considering the real story of my limb difference is so boring. Of course, I’ve learned that the boring story is the most unexpected of all.  The truth is, I’ve gotten so much more surprise from “I was born this way” than I ever did from any wild animal story I told as a kid.

 

My Newbery & Caldecott Award Picks

I may say this every year, but it always seems true: It has been a good year for children’s books.  As usual, I am more excited about the Youth Media Awards announcement on Monday than I am about the Academy Awards or the Grammy’s or any other honor. Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, etc. These are the awards that matter in my world.

drumdreamgirlmarketstreet_bgThere are so many great picture books this year, but there are two, in particular, that I really want to be honored in some way on Monday.  Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, which I blogged about here, is a personal favorite. It’s a quiet story, but full of warmth.  Dream Drum Girl by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael López is a book for dreamers of any age. I am rooting for both of these to pick up a Caldecott Medal or Honor.  But I realize that the competition is tough.

thingaboutjellyfishechowarthatsavedThe Newbery is a harder to predict for me as I haven’t been able to read as many of the eligible titles this year.  Of what I have read, three stand out: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, and The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  I think all three of these might make you cry a little, if you’re like me anyway, but they all offer a bit of hope too.  No matter how the awards shake out on Monday, I hope you’ll read them and share them.

I’ll decline to mention any Printz hopefuls due to potential overlap with the Walter Award (my service on the Walter Award committee means that my opinions on these books are confidential), but I am looking forward to returning to my usual endless chatter about teen fiction in 2016.  Stay tuned! ;)

Homeschooling never ends

thisismyhomeI quit school after sixth grade.  I’d already already attended five different elementary schools and one middle school in six states, and the twelve-year-old me felt like I’d seen all that public school options had to offer. I was pretty sure I could do just as well educating myself as many of the schools I’d experienced. Probably better in the case of the last school I attended.

So I spent the summer between sixth and seventh grade convincing my parents to let me quit, to let me take charge of my own education.  It took all summer, but it worked.  That was how we became homeschoolers. It was a wonderful and empowering experience for me, and while I have chosen public school for my daughter, I still strongly support homeschooling as an option. It has become much more mainstream in the years since my family homeschooled, but it’s still really rare to see a homeschooling family in a children’s book.  That’s why I was really excited about Jonathan Bean‘s new semi-autobiographical picture book, This is my Home, This is my School.

I completely agree with what Jonathan Bean says in the author’s note: “Homeschooling never ends.” The mindset behind my family’s decision to homeschool has stayed with me. I still look for opportunities to learn wherever I am, to explore my community, and to take on new projects. I hope that no matter where my daughter attends school, she picks up on the values that I still hold from my homeschooling experience.

Read more about This is my Home, This is my School:

Moving isn’t easy

Moving isn’t easy. I should know.  I moved twelve times before I was twelves years old. I considered myself quite the expert. I knew how to pack boxes and say goodbye, and I knew what to expect on the first day at a new school. I can tell with certainty that it was never easy. I never wanted to move. I never wanted to leave friends or belongings behind. I never had a choice.

yardsalelennyandlucyThere were many times when I felt like Callie in Yard Sale or Peter in Lenny & Lucy, and I don’t remember having  books like this back then.  I had to find my own way.

I’ll be honest, books like these still affect me deeply. They tell a story that I can feel in my bones: moving can feel like more than you can bear, but you will bear it. You’ll lean on your family or you’ll find some other way to cope. But you will be okay.

If my childhood taught me nothing else, it is that you will begin to feel at home anywhere if you try.

My most recent moves have been by choice. They’ve been less about emotional upheaval, and more about the usual physical upheaval of packing and unpacking. This last move was only a half a block from old to new, so the disruption of life and routine was minimal. Still, in any move, it takes conscious effort to feel at home in the new space, to create new habits, and to find the comfortable feeling that makes us happy to be there.

I am happy that books like Yard Sale and Lenny & Lucy exist. I hope they are shared widely with a wide variety of readers. I think they will resonate with anyone saying goodbye, settling in, or trying to adjust to a new set of circumstances. They certainly did for me.

Books In My Mailbox

I have been getting a lot of books in the mail lately, but most of them are for my work on the Walter Dean Myers Award committee, which means I can’t blog about them.  Committee work is confidential! But here are two books I received from the publishers that I can talk about:

noahNoah Chases the Wind by Michelle Worthington (Redleaf Press) is about a boy who sees the world differently than most kids. He feels deeply and wants to understand the world around him.  He asks questions, explores the world around him, and uses his imagination.  An author’s note mentions children who experience the world in a unique way due to sensory processing challenges or autism, but I think that many curious young readers will relate to Noah’s gentle adventure in this picture book.  I hope to see more books that help young readers value the perspectives of kids who experience the world differently than they do.  Perhaps this book will help teachers or parents talk about differences with preschoolers or primary graders.

pabloandjanePablo and Jane and the Hot Air Contraption by Jose Domingo (Flying Eye Books) is an unusual book that is part graphic novel, part seek-and-find to make one big adventure.  The story begins with Pablo and Jane going to explore the old house on the hill that everyone says is haunted.  They don’t find any ghosts exactly, but they do find a creepy old lab with a hot air contraption that zaps them into the monster dimension.  The travel around the monster world, and on each spread readers have to find the missing parts Pablo and Jane need to fix the contraption and get back home.  You may remember my fondness for seek and find books from this post about another Flying Eye book, and this book ratchets up the wacky adventure in a way that will hook kids who love scary, weird books with lots of details to pore over.

Thank you to Redleaf Press and Flying Eye Books for the review copies of these books.

On safe spaces and speaking up

jacobseyepatchLast weekend, I visited a Sunday School class at my church to talk about disabilities.  I gave my usual explanation of my prosthetic arm and read Jacob’s Eye Patch, which has become one of my go to picture books on the subject of differences.  I love that way it makes it clear that questions and curiosity are okay. Instead, it puts the focus on how and when you ask questions or express curiosity about people’s differences.  The kids seemed to get that. They all agreed that there are times when they don’t want to talk about themselves or be in the spotlight, especially about something different.

Then I asked the kids if they had any questions for me about my prosthetic arm or about how I did something.  “Anything,” I said.  “This is a safe space where I encourage questions.” Hands went up slowly, shyly.  Still more kids asked their questions quietly when other things were happening in the class.  For some people, curiosity doesn’t care for the spotlight any more than differences do.

As I left, I said, “If you think of a question later, I’m around on Sunday mornings.  You can always ask me.”  It’s true.  I am a walking safe space.  I wasn’t always this way, and in all honesty, I don’t always feel up to it even now.  There have been several times, usually on a bus ride home after a long day of work, that I’ll purposely avoid potential questions that I don’t feel up to answering right then.  That, of course, is why Jacob’s Eye Patch hits so close to home for me despite my having no personal connection to eye patches (other than the obvious pirate connections that plague both Jacob and me).

The truth is that when I was a kid I didn’t want to be the person who always had to answer questions, explain myself, or have patience with rude comments.  I was more likely to tell some sarcastic story about a car accident or animal attack than answer any real questions.  I’m not proud of that, but I think that it’s probably true for a lot of people with disabilities.  Even for those of us who have been born with our differences, it can take a while to get comfortable with the reality of our story.  I’m not sure exactly when the shift to purposely creating a safe space for curiosity happened for me, but I think part of it started, or at least started growing, in sixth grade when my reading teacher took me aside to invite me to share my perspective of life with a disability to the class as we began a unit on challenges.  At the time, I declined the opportunity to speak up.  I didn’t like the idea of drawing attention to myself as different at that age, and I didn’t have anything important to say on the subject of “challenges.”  Or so I thought.

To start off the unit, my teacher booktalked related titles from our school library.  I don’t remember any specific book titles from that booktalk, but I do remember that they all seemed to have the same theme: life with any kind of disability is really hard.  I remember feeling irritated by this, but I still didn’t think I had anything important to say on the subject.

When the class discussion started rolling, I sat quietly, listening as my fellow students spoke of the characters in the books we were reading for the unit.  I thought: Is that how they think of me? Did they pity me like that?  Was I as “inspirational” to them as the characters in those books?  Was that okay with me?

Eventually I did raise my hand to speak.  I don’t remember what I said.  What stands out to me all these years later isn’t so much that I said the perfect things.  It’s that I was given space to speak and that I was allowed to stay silent, to listen, until I had something to say. I felt valued but also respected and that was so important to my feeling safe enough in that class to speak up.

onehanded-300x442To be honest, I haven’t really stopped speaking since then.  Now that I know the power of sharing my perspective, I have made it an integral part of my personal and professional life.  Last summer, I was invited to be part of a book discussion group at a local public library as they read One-Handed Catch by MJ Auch.  In the group of middle schoolers, I shared how my experience as a congenital amputee compared to Norm’s experience with an acquired amputation in the book.  If the kids took away nothing else from what I had to say, I hope they realized that there is no single disability experience.  There’s not even a single experience of being one-handed!

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED Talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I’m still grateful to that sixth grade teacher who invited me to share my story and let me speak my truth even when it differed from the narratives presented in the class reading material.  She fostered in me an appreciation of safe spaces and open discussion and that has shaped so much of my life now, both professionally and personally.

So, thanks Mrs. MacDonald from Lewis-Palmer Middle School in Monument, Colorado.  I hope you know that you had a positive impact on at least one of your students.

The Great Good Summer

greatgoodsummerThe Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon begins with God and ends with wonder, which may or may not be the same thing, I suppose, depending on how you decide to read this story.  In the middle, though, is a story of family, faith, and questions that will pull you in no matter where you stand on the God/not-God continuum.  At least it did for me.

For some people, religion means having answers and Truth with a capital T.  For others, that’s what science is for.  Most, I’d venture to say, are somewhere in the middle of those two poles.  I have long held that it’s the questions that are the interesting part, but everyone is different. For Ivy and the rest of her community in Loomer, Texas, church is a way of life.  Ivy has never thought of it any differently or questioned her faith at all until this summer.  Her mother has left with a preacher named Hallelujah Dave.

Her mother was as constant in Ivy’s life as God was, and her absence calls everything into question.  As Ivy starts looking at the world with questions rather than answers, she finds that not everything is as she thought.  Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Murray, has statues of Buddha in her home.  Ivy wonders as she looks at the statue, “Is there something holy or magic here that might help me find my mama, or even help me know if what I’m about to do is right or wrong?”  And she makes a new friend.  Paul Dobbs is the local “science kid,” and he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in God.  At first he and Ivy butt heads over their differences, but he turns out to be one of the few people who will really listen to Ivy and try to help her.

One thing leads to another, and Ivy and Paul are off to find her mom and bring her back.  They are on the same side through thick and thin (despite some squabbles along the way).  When they set their sights on what was ahead, it didn’t seem to matter that they believed different things.  It wasn’t about that.

You might think that a book that begins with God and spends so much time talking about faith would be preachy, and with most books, I would say you’d be right.  But there’s something about Ivy that keeps the preachiness at bay in this story.  Maybe it’s her questions.  Or maybe it’s her sincerity.  I don’t really know.  Whatever the case, the story didn’t feel, to me, like it was trying to change my mind, and I appreciated that.

This story is not about changing minds.  It’s more about considering why people believe the things they do, why they sometimes question long-held beliefs, and what it means to listen to yourself.

In the end, Ivy seems to find a place where it’s okay if truth doesn’t have a capital T.  At one point she says, “My fingers find the little cross I wear on a chain around my neck.  It was Mama’s when she was a little girl, and it’s been mine since Daddy got her a new one.  I love it, even though the gold has worn off in places and you can see a sort of unshiny silver underneath.  Which I guess means it’s fake, but that doesn’t really matter much to me.”

I spent most of my life with a capital T Truth, so I related to a lot of Ivy’s experience of faith and questioning.  These days I identify as a Unitarian-Universalist, a religion in which truth is never capitalized and sometimes it’s in quotation marks.  So I appreciated Ivy’s feeling that it was what you do with ideas that mattered more so than what one believes or doesn’t.  That resonated with me a lot.

I could quibble with parts of the the story that I didn’t agree with, but I will leave those things be.  We won’t always agree with everyone or everything around us, and that’s okay.

When Ivy finally finds her mom and speaks her piece about feeling like her mother abandoned her, they are in a car.  Ivy listened to her mother’s explanation and apology. “I still don’t turn to look at her, but I listen.  I think Paul’s listening too.  I mean, really, what choice do we have?”

We’re all in this together.  If I can teach my daughter any one value, it is that.  We are all in this together.  We have to learn to listen to one another, to connect, and to move past our differences.  What choice do we have?

 

Punky Brewster was my hero

punkytv

Here are five reasons that the eight year-old me loved Punky Brewster:

  • She could take care of herself. When the show began, she was living in an empty apartment on her own. She got what she needed, and she was making it.  On her own terms. She was living the dream.
  • Punky didn’t let anything get her down or anyone tell her what to do.  She never seemed afraid of anything. When you’re eight years-old, it doesn’t get better than that.
  • She dreamed big.  Punky’s dreams of being an astronaut were eye-opening to me.  The eight year-old me didn’t even know that was an option.
  • She made up her own name.  As eight, I hadn’t yet discovered a reason to be dissatisfied with my given name–I didn’t decide that Mindy was too juvenile for me until I was ten–but it was still beyond awesome to see a kid create her own name with pride.
  • punkyFor all Punky’s wild fashion choices, big dreams, and unusual family situation, she still lived a life I could imagine.  I grew up in a world where people lived in apartments and worried about rents going up just like Punky and her neighbors. I didn’t often see that world on television, and while I didn’t think too much about that back then, I definitely noticed it.

Unfortunately the show doesn’t quite stand the test of time.  Upon recent viewing of a few episodes, I have to agree with this article that Punky wasn’t the feminist ideal I thought I remembered.  There is an option, though, for those of us who loved the idea of Punky and want to introduce that nostalgic version of Punky to our kids. Joelle Sellner has turned Punky into a graphic novel with a few updates and changes that are enough to turn Punky and her story into one of empowerment.

I’m glad Punky’s back, and I’m really glad she’s better than ever.