“This might seem rude, but…”

uglyI have talked a lot on this blog about acknowledging differences and asking questions. I was thinking about that as I read Ugly by Robert Hoge, a memoir for kids about Hoge’s experience growing up with a facial deformity. This passage, in particular, stood out to me:

“Some of the best talks I have ever had started with someone asking, ‘This might seem rude, but can I ask about your face/nose/scars/bumps?’ Wherever those conversations ended up, they started as honest exchanges. Acknowledging someone’s differences can be about saying you’re not scared to talk to someone about the things that make them who they are.”

A lot of kids have been afraid of me in my life. When I was a kid, it was confusing to have my peers be afraid of my prosthesis or of my little arm. I wasn’t scary, was I? As an adult, I understand why it might be surprising, uncomfortable, or even frightening for a kid to see someone like me. And I go out of my way to be approachable, to be unscary. I’ll never look just like everyone else, and I’m okay with that.

I promise: I’d much rather be asked a rude question than have someone be afraid of me.

Robert Hoge’s memoir shares his journey to being okay with how he looked. It can be hard to read about how his mother initially rejected him, about the taunts he received from other kids, and about being perceived as ugly, but I hope readers, young and old, come away knowing that they don’t have to be afraid of someone who looks different. They can ask honest questions. That it is possible to be comfortable with what you look like even when you stand out.

You can listen to Hoge talk more about how important it is to be comfortable with how you look in his TEDx Talk:

This is not a love story

thisisnotalovestoryI’m not sure what I expected when I started reading Judy Brown‘s memoir, This is Not a Love Story.  Probably an expose on the level of her novel, Hush, which was about sexual abuse in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.  Certainly I figured it would be some kind of tell-all since Brown has now left the ultra-orthodox community. What I found in the book was not either of those things.

It was a family story.  A sibling story. An autism story.  It was perhaps a love story after all, even if the title claims otherwise.  It certainly explores the love between mother and child as seen through the eyes of eight-year-old Judy.  Her mother refused to send Nachum away, no matter how difficult he was.  Even if that’s what ultra-Orthodox families usually did with special needs children.  She would not give up on one of her children.

The ultra-Orthodox community is always in the background of Brown’s story with Nachum’s autism diagnosis taking the leading role.  Young Judy worries that her brother’s issues will ruin her marriage prospects. She makes deals with God to make her brother normal.  The background details might be different for her, but the story is one that many families can relate to.  She said in an interview with Salon:

“When it came to autism, there were superstitions and things that God knows how many other mothers had to deal with. There are universal things that just go through it. What may be surprising to readers is to see so much of what they empathize with, the parts [in which] you can see a little bit of a reflection of yourself. You don’t expect that in this weird place. That’s the way it is.”

I think that’s the strength of the book. It brings you into the ultra-Orthodox world so completely that you stop thinking about the religious details, and you see the real story, the real people who live that life. For whom that life is normal.  The empathy you feel for each person in this book may surprise you, and that’s exactly why I am recommending this book to you.

I look forward to what Judy Brown writes next, no matter what it is about. I have a feeling she can make it real.

Read excerpts of This is Not a Love Story here and here.

You can also read more about Judy Brown’s experiences inside and outside the ultra-Orthodox world in this series of essays for the Forward.

On Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown_Girl_Dreaming-200If you are a regular reader of this blog or you landed here searching for information about Brown Girl Dreaming, I probably don’t need to explain to you how stories can change lives.  Maybe you are a reader who has long been drawn to the power of story.  Maybe you’re a parent looking for books to instill that appreciation in your kids.  Or maybe you’re a librarian who has made connecting people with books into a career.  Whatever the case, I think you know what stories can do.

Brown Girl Dreaming was a story I had to read twice to really appreciate.  The first time I flew through the pages looking for familiar elements that I so rarely see in books.  You see, I spent my childhood learning the days of the week by their religious obligation, standing quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance, and sitting out of school holiday celebrations just like Jacqueline Woodson did.  Like other minority experiences, it is one that is not often reflected in books, especially books for kids.

For readers who have never had the experience, let me tell you how it feels to read a book about a person who shares something that sets you apart from most people: it is thrilling. I tore through Brown Girl Dreaming looking for what we shared.  There was much we didn’t share–Woodson is African-American and grew up in the 1960s; I am Caucasian and grew up in the 1980s–but so many of her words and feelings might have been mine when it referenced our shared childhood religion.

In the world of children’s books, we have been talking a lot about the need for books to reflect the diverse experiences, cultures, ethnicities, abilities, etc. of young readers.  I have always believed that, but Brown Girl Dreaming made me feel it.

My second time through the book was slower.  I wanted to read it again to see what others who don’t share my religious background were seeing.  In that reading, I saw an exquisite coming-of-age memoir that was about so much more than religion.  It was about the power of stories to shape who we are. Woodson wrote about the stories her family told, the stories she read, and the stories she wrote as a child, and how they all became part of her.  She concludes her memoir by describing herself as a person who believes in many things, who carries many worlds inside of her because of those experiences of listening, reading, and observing the stories around her.

If there is one idea I can share with others, it is the one expressed in the final poem: “When there are many worlds, love can wrap itself around you, say, Don’t cry.”  Seek many worlds for yourself.  Listen, read, observe.

Links of interest:


The Value of Travel (& Reading)

“Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethno-centric self awareness walloped.” – Rick Steves in Travel as a Political Act

I really haven’t traveled as much as I’d like.  The most exotic place I’ve been in the last 7 years is Seattle–not a huge cultural shift from Minneapolis.  I sometimes daydream about really getting away to someplace that might rearrange me a bit, but my travel plans are likely to stay vicarious in the near future.

For me, no vicarious journey illustrates Steves’ quote above better than Ariel Gore’s memoir of her time as a teen in China and Europe, Atlas of a Human Heart.   As a mother, it is hard to imagine allowing my sixteen-year-old to drop out of school and travel to the other side of the world by herself, but, in all honesty, I lost myself in her adventures and wondered if I hadn’t been rather rearranged by them myself.

What travel experiences (or books) have left you feeling differently about the world?  

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!

Where have we been?

“You know where you’re going if you know where you come from.”

Michele Norris was talking about her book, The Grace of Silence, with Kerri Miller on MPR with the words above.  She spoke of how her parents, who were among the first African-American families in their South Minneapolis neighborhood in the 1940’s, passed on their hopes and dreams to their children instead of their angst.  This sounds lovely, but it also meant that there was much that didn’t get discussed in Norris’ family.  Her memoir, which I have yet to read, explores the un-talked-about aspects of her family, the way race has played a role in her family’s story, and the way the way we talk about race is changing.  I am excited to read the book, and I hope to join in the conversation around the book that is going on as part of the One Minneapolis One Read program.

I wrote some time ago about how we can use books like Let’s Talk About Race to open a discussion about diversity with kids, and this photograph of a display at a Hennepin County Library Branch shows that there are many books that bring alive African-American history for kids, including Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson.

You might also use All the Way to America by Dan Yaccarino or Grandpa Green by Lane Smith to share family history stories, and don’t forget to share your own mini-autobiography on the Hennepin County Library’s web site.  Your life in 50 characters or less.

Share your story with the community, and share it with your children.  This is how we determine where we are going to go from here.  The stories of our parents and grandparents may not be easy to talk or write about, but one of my favorite writers, Jonathan Safran foer, who took on a fictionalized version of his family history in his book Everything is Illuminated, offered this advice:

“I was always writing from a position of loving my family so I knew I couldn’t betray them. The worst that could happen was that the execution of my writing wouldn’t be as good as my intentions. So if you have good intentions — to be forthright and honest — you can’t really fail.”


Disclosure: I am not affiliated with MPR, Hennepin County Library, or One Minneapolis One Read. I have not (yet) read Michele Norris’ book. Amazon links are affiliate links. I may earn a percentage of purchases made through those links.

Reading Silence

Christopher Hitchens, National Book Award Finalist for God is Not Great, recently wrote about his journey into voicelessness in this Vanity Fair article.  He said, in part:

“Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs. In common with everybody else, I have played versions of the youthful “Which would you rather?” game, in which most usually it’s debated whether blindness or deafness would be the most oppressive. But I don’t ever recall speculating much about being struck dumb. (In the American vernacular, to say “I’d really hate to be dumb” might in any case draw another snicker.) Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I “was” my voice.”

His words reminded me of another National Book Award Finalist, Stitches by David Small, a graphic memoir in which Small loses his voice after a surgery as a young teenager.  Small takes readers into his family and the way that secrets and silence played such a huge role in his life long before he found himself all but silent.   It is a powerful story that is ultimately about finding one’s own voice and the perspective that temporarily losing such an important aspect of our identity can bring.

This video gives you a glimpse into the book:

Perspectives on Normal, Part 2

Recently I explored what normal feels like to people with learning disabilities.  Now I’d like to get a little closer to home and explore what normal looks like physically.  For those who don’t know me personally, this post will probably make more sense if I preface it:  I don’t look normal.  Most days I wear a prosthetic arm on my right forearm.  Some days I don’t.  Either way, people tend to look at me a little differently than they would a normal thirty-something Minneapolis mama.  That’s okay with me.  You get used to stares and questions.  They’re just part of your life.  (See Fake Arm 101 for more about this)

Double TakeStares and questions are very much a part of Kevin Connolly’s life.  He was born with no legs.  His memoir, Double Take, chronicles his experience traveling the world taking photographs for what became The Rolling Exhibition.  His photos of people staring at him are particularly poignant from my perspective, but within in the context of his book, I believe they become near-universal.  Connolly takes his experience of difference and puts it right beside yours.  Have you ever been the tallest/shortest, biggest/smallest, the most whatever in a group?  Then you get it.  That’s what I got from his book, at least.  There was an inclusivity in his story that isn’t always present when the subject has anything to do with disability.  Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy is another memoir that did this for me.  I would recommend these books to anyone looking for a good memoir.

Too Late to Die YoungI recently finished a memoir of quite another sort.  Harriet McBryde Johnson, author of a teen novel I highly recommend: Accidents of Nature, tells her life story in Too Late to Die Young.  She has a neuromuscular diease that confines her to a wheelchair and keeps her dependent upon others for assistance with bathing, dressing, etc.  Her memoir has some very interesting elements, particularly her interactions with animal rights activist Peter Singer, but she never manages to make her experience universal.  She never seemed to be trying to say ‘I’m not so different from you.’  Rather her message was more ‘I’m different from you, and that’s okay.’  Both are good messages.  Both are messages that need to be heard.  But, to be honest, if there’s a message that I’ve been trying to get out there it is in the Not-So-Different camp.

Johnson writes, “For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are.  Those disabled later in life adapt.  We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them.  We enjoy pleasure other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own.  We have something the world needs.”

What is it that the world needs from someone like Johnson, Connolly, Grealy, or myself?  That answer does not come easily to me.  For Johnson, it is merely that such people exist, the we accomodate our differences, that we live within a world that does not always know what to do with difference that is so important.  “Living our lives openly and without shame is a revolutionary act.”

I don’t feel like a revolutionary.  At least not most of the time.  But there are moments.  Moments when people forget how different I am.  Or when they get over their surprise at my actual abilities.  Or when they don’t stumble over the words hand or arm in my presence.  Those are the moments when I feel like I’ve accomplished something important just by existing.  I guess I differ from Johnson in that I believe that’s what everyone is doing.  We’re all revolutionaries.

Perspectives on “Normal”


My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir


What if every day brought personal challenges that everyone around you grasped easily?  You lag further behind.  You feel anxious, self conscious almost constantly.  Imagine years of this.  This was Samantha Abeel’s life for thirteen years.  For thirteen years, she had no idea what was wrong with her.  Why she couldn’t grasp the seemingly simple mathematical concepts that her classmates picked up comparatively easily.  By the time she was diagnosed with dyscalculia, she was years behind and suffering from daily anxiety induced stomach-aches.


Learning Disabilities: What Are They?


I had never heard of dyscalculia until I was assigned to review Robert Cimera’s Learning Disabilities: What Are They? for Library Journal a few years ago.  I was surprised to learn that dyslexia had a mathematical counterpart, and Cimera’s book was full of valuable information for parents and teachers about ways to help kids with learning disabilities be successful.  I learned a lot, but My Thirteenth Winter made it all real.
Samantha’s story takes us from the beginning of her education through college.  We are there for the frustration of trying to learn what just won’t make sense to her and also for the elation of finding her identity in writing and poetry.  We also see the loneliness of college life and the overwhelming academic hurdles.  Throughout it all, she had support, and she comes to accept herself as she is without allowing her disability to hold her back.


Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal


I highly recommend this slim memoir to anyone with an LD or those who work with those who do.  In addition to being an inspiring story, this is also an inside look at special education.  Teachers who want another perspective will want to start here.  And perhaps move on, as I did, to Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney, in which a man who grew up in special ed with various labels attached to his file explores his and others’ lives outside the mainstream.  I’d been interested in this book since it first came out.  I actually wrote a blurb about it for the catalog of the company for which I used to work.  But I didn’t around to reading it until recently.
This memoir is about more than just Jonathan’s life or even the lives of the people he visits.  It’s a real exploration of identity.  The labels we take on and the ones we have imposed on us.  He starts with learning disabilities, but he talks to a girl who is deaf-blind, another who has Down Syndrome.  He even talks to a FtM transgendered individual.  It’s a fascinating story that would make a great discussion starter for teens or adults.