On Wonder

I recently finished reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio aloud to my daughter, which might seem like a surprising choice to some since the book is, arguably, inspiration porn that perpetuates the idea that the people who look significantly different deserve accolades for simply existing and anyone who befriends such a person is a hero.

Frankly, that’s exactly why I chose to read it with her rather than let her find it on her own, which she likely would, considering how popular the book has become. This way we could take the story slowly to parse out what I see as the problematic elements of the story as we read. I have complicated feelings about this book as I expect that many other people in my position—people who are used to being stared at because they have a significantly different body—share. It isn’t easy to read about Auggie’s award for “bravery” at the end of the book when readers are well aware that he has done nothing to deserve it.  It really isn’t easy to watch Auggie accept the eventual popularity he gets at school, which is more condescending than it is kind. As I found reading with my daughter, these aren’t easy things to talk about either.

But in my world, it’s necessary to talk about them. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been given inordinate accolades or given apparent hero status for simply existing. Or how often my long-term partner has been seen as saintly for being with me. So when I read Wonder the first time, I read a book that portrayed ableism, especially internalized ableism, in a way that was painfully affecting and emotional. I admit, I thought it was obvious to readers that August should not have been given the award and that the mascot-like relationship he has with his peers at the end of the book was not healthy friendship. When I finished the book that first time, long before it was published, I was optimistic about the way that this book could share parts of my experience in a way that I hadn’t been able to communicate before.

Unfortunately, the book couldn’t seem to communicate it either. Or perhaps the message that I thought was there never really was. Even on re-reading it now, I’m not really sure. I still found it difficult to read at times in how realistic some of it was. The character of Miranda, in particular, felt real to me in the worst way. I have known people who feel like they deserve some sort of “credit” for befriending people who are different. I have known many, many people who feel that protecting people, the way that Miranda seeks to protect August, is love/kindness/friendship. I truly hope that no one finishes that book thinking that that’s what friendship is. That that’s what August wants from the people in his life. But I’m worried that that’s exactly what people have been getting from this book.

I love that the book has inspired so many people to Choose Kind. I only wonder if people are confusing being inspired by someone for being kind to them when the two actually have very little to do with each other. I love that the book created a place for my daughter and I to talk about healthy friendships, bravery, and other important but not often discussed topics.

I may not like the truths that this book captured about the way we treat people who are different, but that doesn’t make them any less true.  I don’t know that my thoughts about this book or about disability/ableism are fully formed or off base. Here is what I do know: one insensitive thought or action does not define you. Via isn’t a bad person for what she thinks about August. Jack isn’t evil for what he says about August. You aren’t a bad person for double-taking or staring at someone like August (or at me). You aren’t a bad person for being curious or expressing curiosity—even if you express it kind of rudely. That moment isn’t all there is. There is always more to the story. Kindness is being open to the stories you haven’t heard yet.

Choose kind, but know that sympathy isn’t kindness. Pity isn’t kindness. Special treatment isn’t kindness. Know that this book is mostly showing what not to do when it comes to kindness. For me, the book gets at a deeper truth than simply “choose kind.” It shows how the kind choice isn’t always obvious. And sometimes our instincts about kindness are wrong.

To close, here is Stella Young talking about inspiration porn:

On being the new kid

catchingI started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.

Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”

“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock.  My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.”  I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”

Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”

Read more about Catching a Storyfish:

  • Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
  • School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”

 

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.

Everyone’s Favorite Beatle

Blackbird-Fly-200x300“I wondered who his favorite Beatle was. Probably Paul.  Grown-ups always seemed to like Paul the best.” — Apple Yengko in Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Apple’s favorite Beatle is George, but “Blackbird” written by Paul is her favorite song.  Maybe because she would like to fly away from her life in which she isn’t pretty enough or American enough for the girls at school.  Whatever the reason, it’s worth a listen now no matter who your favorite Beatle happens to be.

I have admitted my pop culture ignorance on this blog before, but I’ll share it again for those who missed it: I would not have recognized a Beatles song until I was in my twenties.  But I have since become a big fan.  As Apple says, “Once you listen to the Beatles, you can’t go back.” I’m not sure I have a favorite Beatle, but I do think most of my favorite Beatles songs are on the Blackbird Fly playlist.

If you have ever felt like music just might save your life, Blackbird Fly is for you.  Share this book with middle schoolers who appreciate realistic stories about fitting in and making friends.  If Apple’s enthusiasm for the music doesn’t make Beatles fans out of the kids who read this book, I don’t know what will.

Thursday 3: Kid Picks

Kid PicksI spend a lot of time on this blog talking about children’s books that I like, which are not always the ones that kids are most drawn to.  I tend to like (and have something to say about) books that are more serious or on Big Important Topics.  But children’s books are not all serious or factual.  There are plenty of “just for fun” books.  I just don’t often have a whole post worth of stuff to say about those. ;)

So I thought I would let my focus group of one (my seven-year-old daughter) share some books that she liked and what she liked about them.

Here goes:

No Dogs Allowed (Series: Ready, Set, Dogs!) by Stephanie Calmenson – Best friends, dogs, and cute adventures all come together in this chapter book aimed at 2nd/3rd graders.  What my daughter liked about it: Girls transforming into dogs.  The whole concept made for interesting conversation and really seemed to capture her imagination.

Welcome to Normal (Series: The Quirks) by Erin Soderberg – Everybody is quirky, but nobody is quite like the Quirk family.  They all have a “quirk” that makes them special and makes it hard to fit in.  What my daughter liked about it: The quirks.  Who wouldn’t want to imagine having some sort of special power?

Jelly Bean (Series: Shelter Pet Squad) by Cynthia Lord – This is a heartwarming story about a girl who loves animals and wants to make a difference.  It is worth noting here that this is an early chapter book by an award-winning author.  That’s unusual–and pretty awesome! What my daughter liked about it: Jelly Bean is sooo cute!

annikarizI guess the take-away here is that a book about cute animals or some kind of special ability is really the way to go for my kid.  ;)

While I’m on the subject, I’d like to give a special shout out to Annika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills. Thanks to that book, my daughter has gotten really excited about math and puzzles, especially sudoku.  We are looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Izzy Barr, Running Star.  I hope it has a similar inspirational effect! :)

What are your kids (or students) reading?

 

September Book Pick: Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

floraKate DiCamillo has won a Newbery Honor for Because of Winn-Dixie, the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, the Geisel Honor for Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride, and more.  So when she publishes a new book, the kidlit world pays attention.  Flora & Ulysses has only been on shelves for about a week, and it already has four starred reviews  and a spot of the National Book Award long list.  That’s a good start, I must say.

I’d heard some of the buzz about the book, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to read it until I happened to catch Cathy Wurzer’s interview with Kate DiCamillo on MPR.  The author read the first several chapters of Flora & Ulysses.  I listened as the story began with a vacuum cleaner, then we were introduced to Flora Belle Buckman–a natural-born cynic–and the squirrel who may or may not be a superhero.  I found myself laughing out loud while listening to the program at my desk via headphones, and as soon as it ended, I went in search of a copy of the book.

It was, indeed, quite funny.  But it was also pretty serious, in a way.  Philosophical too.  I mean, how many children’s books talk about Pascal’s Wager?  No matter where one falls on the believer/nonbeliever spectrum as far as Pascal is concerned, this book sets out to remind readers that it is worth it to believe in love, to be open to wonder, hope, and poetry.  I was quite charmed.  I hope you will be too.

Find this book at your local library or at an independent bookstore.

Did you miss last month’s Book Pick: Hello, My Name is Ruby by Philip Stead

Monday Morning Music with Colin Meloy

It isn’t very often that my love for children’s books overlaps with my interest in music.  It does happen, of course.  Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler of The Magnetic Fields is the most prominent example.  I blogged about his latest book recently in a post with an embarrassing break-up confession, if you’re into those kind of posts.  There is also John Crossingham from Broken Social Scene, who wrote the fabulous nonfiction book Learn to Speak Music.  I blogged about that one here, with help from a few Minneapolis musicians who offer their advice for young musicians. Now, it seems, it’s happened again. Colin Meloy, of The Decemberists, has written a children’s fantasy novel that delves into an imaginary world just outside of Portland, Oregon.

Wildwood is not my usual reading material.  I rarely read fantasy–I recently admitted to a childhood dislike of Dr. Seuss–but ever so occasionally, I will enjoy a quasi-realistic fantasy story.  You know, the one that starts in a familiar place (like Portland, for example) but have some mysterious element (like an Impassable Wilderness) and a kid who finds him or herself along the way.  That’s Wildwood in a nutshell.  I liked it. :)

But this post isn’t supposed to be about the book.  It’s supposed to be about the music.  Yes, the book has a soundtrack.  Actually, a lot of children’s books have soundtracks these days, so of course, a book by a musician would have one.  What interested me about this particular soundtrack was that it starts and ends with Led Zeppelin.  Do kids know Led Zeppelin?  My guess is no.

In the spirit of last week’s parenting guest post about introducing kids to the world beyond children’s music, I love this.  What better way to get kids to appreciate classic rock than to associate it with a book they loved?  Here you go:

 

Curious about Wildwood?  Here’s a video that showcases the lovely art by Carson Ellis:

 

And, for good measure, here is The Decemberists for your viewing pleasure:

Even Just Grace likes zines, or Zinefest 2011

Just Grace is the eight-year-old heroine in series of children’s novels.  In Just Grace and the Snack Attack she finds zines,

“At first I was disappointed because it seemed like the whole present was just a piece of paper. But after we looked at it together and she explained it, I was a lot more excited.  Augustine Dupre said that the little paper was called a zine, and that zines were popular with people who liked to draw comics and tell stories.  People just like me.”

The book also includes a several page-long how-to section for a beginning zinester.  Speaking of how-to’s, you can pick up a copy of the How-to Encyclopedia created by local zinesters at the Twin Cities Zine Fest this weekend.  More info here.

Don’t miss it.  Zinesters know DIY.

Not to mention, I’ll be selling zines there.  :)

Now Available: Sparrow Road

I mentioned Sparrow RoadSparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor in my recent post about addiction and recovery in books for kids and teens.  Since the book is on library/bookstore shelves as of this week, I wanted to make sure that this book doesn’t get overlooked.  The addiction/recovery aspect of the book is actually a small part of the story.  It is also about a girl finding her artistic voice, making unexpected friends, and learning about family.  It is a really lovely book, perfect for thoughtful girls who dream of writing one day.

My colleague and fellow Books in Bloom contributor, Lindsay, posted a great review of Sparrow Road today. She said, in part, “All of O’Connor’s characters contain hidden depths that the reader gets to unravel throughout the story to see the finished work at the end.”  If Lindsey and I aren’t enough to convince you, Sparrow Road also got a starred review in Kirkus.   Find out more on the author’s web site.

What Fairy Tales Can Teach Us

Weetzie BatI loved Weetzie Bat from the very first moment I met her.  It was assigned reading in my Young Adult Literature class, and I still loved it.  I was twenty years old reading about magic, family, and love in a book that pushed all of my boundaries, and I knew right away that I had found something that was true for me.

Weetzie Bat taught me about family.  Missing Angel Juan got me through break-ups and reminded me of how it feels to move past fear.  I discovered that magic of fairy tales through these books, and I am grateful.

Somewhere along the way, I parted ways from Ms. Block’s writing.  Her more recent novels have delved into the world of vampires and werewolves–not my thing.  The poems in How to (Un)Cage a Girl were mostly misses for me save the “Forty-five Thoughts for my Daughter and my Virtual Daughters,” which is less for teens and more for moms.

House of DollsThen I found House of Dolls.  Block’s first book for younger readers has gotten mixed reviews, but I must agree with Booklist‘s starred review:

“What at first seems to be about the perrennial war between familial generations is expanded into a message about the global forces of pride and avarice that plunge innocents into devastation.  This is powerful, haunting, and–just when you don’t think it’s possible–inspiring, too.”

I recently wrote a blog post about talking to your kids about human rights, and I am reminded now of the power of fables and fairy tales in explaining these terrible things.  Perhaps the next time you are trying to explain war to a child, you will think of these words, spoken by one of the dolls in House of Dolls:

“War is being blinded and locked in a box, unable to see, hear, or touch you, my wildflower.  War is being reminded that you are completely at the mercy of death at every moment, without the illusion that you are not, without the distractions that make life worth living.”

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