Unity

I know I’m not the only one who’s hurting over recent events in our nation. I’m certainly not the only person praying for our country to figure out a way to come together and stop allowing differences of opinion to lead to a loss of civility. One of the best things about America is our diversity, and yet we’ve become increasing divided.

I wish I had some answers. I wish I could fix things that aren’t working. I wish I had a way to level the playing field and give all kids opportunities. One thing anyone who knows me can tell you is that I love kids. Working with kids is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and all I’ve done as a career and as a volunteer in my community. Some days at work, my precious little patient “J” takes my hand. It melts my heart into a puddle and I yearn make this world a better place for him. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such sadness for my country.

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Even though I don’t have the answers, I’m encouraged that my community is having a service of unity this evening. Maybe, just maybe, if all communities around the country begin listening to each other and addressing issues we can start to see changes. Little changes, when multiplied around the country, can become big changes. I look forward to doing whatever I can do locally to make this community a welcoming place of opportunity and acceptance for anyone who lives here.

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Review: The Hate U Give

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Copyright (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)

This novel gave me more insight into race relations in America than anything I’ve read up to this point. One of the best descriptors I can apply to The Hate U Give is “real”. It is raw, it is gritty, it is sad, and it is even funny in places. But I didn’t find it to be sensationalistic or gratuitous. For parents of younger readers, there is a fairly large amount of language, including multiple F bombs—but staying true to form, it is “real” language for the characters in the novel.

The book condemns police brutality, but not police at large. I appreciate the way Ms. Thomas creates a compelling and likable character who also happens to be a police officer. Having a character like Uncle Carlos creates balance in the narrative, making it clear that not all police officers are racist. I found Starr’s family to be compelling and well developed as characters. Every one of them reminded of someone in my own family. Some of Starr’s high school friends might be a bit stereotypical, yet truthful enough that you’ll likely also see similarities to your own high school friends—we all had at least one that wasn’t great for us, but we found him/her hard to “drop” from our life.

I am not a fan of rap music and know very little about the late Tupac Shakur. However, the meaning of the acronym THUG LIFE really made me think. As a pediatric nurse and certified teacher, I’ve spent my life working with young children. I see kids that seem broken, cynical and filled with rage because of the environment they live in. Some of this has already occurred by the time they enter our public school system in pre-K. As adults in our society, we need to work together and listen to each other in order to find real solutions to the causes of suffering. This was a book that was hard to read in many ways, but it was also a book that I needed to read—and I’m glad I did.

***Spoiler alert*** If you haven’t read The Hate U Give, you might not want to continue reading.

Starr’s life is abruptly changed during what should have been a routine traffic stop. Not only does she see her childhood friend gunned down, she isn’t sure for a long while that she won’t be shot herself. It is just her, her dying friend and the armed police officer who just shot her friend—alone on a dark street, until other first responders arrive on the scene. During these moments, the police officer aims his gun at Starr. The terror she feels during these tense moments comes through to the reader. Her internal monologue as she remembers the rules her parents taught her about interacting with police accompany her increasing anxiety as she watches her friend Khalil breaking those rules one by one. I found myself as the reader silently pleading right along with Starr for him to keep his hands in sight, don’t move, don’t argue, etc.

After the shooting, the police officer testifies that he mistook a black hairbrush in the door of the car for a gun. Khalil opened the door while the officer had walked back to his car to check on Starr. The officer saw this as an attempt to go for the gun and shot him in the back 3 times. The horror of the situation is palpable. Yet, Ms. Thomas creates a scenario that is very plausible.

At first she and her parents want to keep her identity a secret. Her parents want to protect her, as she has already suffered enough. Eventually, they help her understand that sometimes speaking out against injustice is worth the heat you’ll have to take for it if you ever want things to change. One of the best things about this novel is the transformation of Starr, as she becomes stronger and more certain in her beliefs. She also reflects on her own biases, and owns up to feeling ashamed of her friends from her old neighborhood once she starts making friends with affluent kids in her private school. My heart ached for her in the scene where she denies to her two best friends that she even knew Khalil when they ask her if the guy that was shot was her old friend. Any one of us who can remember the angst of our teen years will relate to Starr’s feelings in many ways—especially the way we tended to blame ourselves for things that were never actually within our control in the first place.

Starr’s parents particularly resonated with me. They are torn between wanting to stay in the neighborhood where they were raised and protecting their children from many of the pitfalls that are so common there. Garden Heights isn’t a particularly safe place to live. There are gangs, guns, drug dealers and looting going down. Hearing gunshots sounding at night is a common occurrence there. After Starr’s best friend is killed in a drive-by shooting, her parents decide to move all three of their children to a private school in the suburbs. Eventually, it becomes clear that it isn’t safe to remain in the neighborhood, and the family makes the painful decision to leave. We feel the pain and shame Starr’s father battles over his feelings that he’s selling out and abandoning his home to the gangs. It’s heartbreaking.

The most gut wrenching part of reading The Hate U Give is the realization that this story is the reality for thousands of young black men in America. Garden Heights was a fictitious neighborhood in an unnamed city and state in our country, but it could have been anywhere. For the young boys growing up in this neighborhood, there existed a lack of hope—a lack of the promise of a bright future awaiting them. This lack of hope is mirrored in real communities across this country. Starr’s father was able to leave behind the life of gangs and crime, but he makes it clear to Starr that it’s nearly impossible to do. He was only allowed to leave (without being killed) because he took the rap for a gang leader who was facing his third conviction and would have been sentenced to life in prison. Through his character, as well as Devonte and Khalil, it isn’t hard to see why young men in their situation might make bad choices, even knowing the potential consequences. Starr’s half brother Seven was probably my favorite character. The scene at his birthday/graduation party where he confronts his mother was so beautifully written, yet so painful to read. I found myself rooting for him the whole story, and would have been completely devastated if Ms. Thomas had allowed him to die (which I feared in at least two scenes!).

I hope this book creates honest discussion within communities. It is a discussion we need to have in our country, no matter how difficult it is to openly talk about. Of course, I’d love to hear what you thought of this book.

A Touch of Whimsy

I’ve read some articles recently about how “no one wants their parents’ stuff” anymore. It might be true. Most young people don’t entertain with fine china and crystal. Life is more casual than it was in previous generations. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have registered for china and crystal before our wedding. We never use it, and it brings me no satisfaction stored in a cabinet. I’m certain my two young adult children won’t want it, so it will likely be hauled off to a thrift shop one day.

I try not to become too attached to “stuff” in general. As we are in the process of evacuating for our fourth hurricane, I can’t help but be reminded that stuff can be destroyed in moments. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things collected by my parents and grandparents that I wouldn’t miss–things that I’m drawn to for the joy they bring me.

My grandmother had a wonderful sense of whimsy. She didn’t collect expensive, delicate objects but rather she was drawn to folk art and chunky wooden things. These egg cups were a childhood favorite of mine, and I still love them. They don’t get used, but they sit on top of my kitchen cabinets and the sight of them brings a smile to my face.

Whimsy at its finest!

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The wooden buckets are for salt. They also have spoons and knit caps to keep the eggs warm.
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From their perch high atop my kitchen.

Another strange acquisition of my grandmother came from her time in China back in the 1930’s. She picked up this “puzzle”. How many babies are there? Two or four? I spent many hours as a child turning this over and over trying to be certain of my answer.

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Strange, but oddly captivating.

One of my favorite collections of my grandmother is her Figgjo Flint Norway pieces. I loved drinking from the mugs–sitting next to my grandmother on a porch swing while she sipped her coffee. I’ve been able to add a few pieces to the collection through Ebay, and I’ve given some away to cousins who share the same special memories.

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This milk pitcher has Norwegian Folk art covering it.
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Flip side of milk pitcher.

Do you have any objects from your parents or grandparents that you enjoy? I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for sharing.

The Downside of STEM Designation

We’ve all heard about the shortage of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an official list of “approved” STEM fields. You might find it interesting which careers make the list, and which ones don’t. Here are a few careers that make the list which might surprise you: psychology, communications, anthropology, urban planning, and international relations. The focus to bring more women into STEM fields is meant to help young women. But does it? Why does it matter if a career is designated as a STEM field? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. It matters for students seeking scholarships. Scholarship money is designated for these specific careers by the NSF. A Google search of STEM scholarships creates more hits that I could count. The opportunities for scholarships multiplies dramatically when a student is entering a STEM field.
  2. It also matters for potential immigrants wishing to expedite the process of becoming permanent residents. This quote is from a Congressional Research Service document titled Immigration of Foreign Nationals with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Degrees. 

“STEM visa” is a shorthand for an expedited immigration avenue that enables foreign nationals with graduate degrees in STEM fields to adjust their immigration status to legal permanent residence (LPR) without waiting in the queue of numerically limited LPR visas.

3. For those in education, it certainly matters when applying for grants. I found numerous programs awarding grants to increase STEM funding for schools.

To be perfectly clear, I’m certainly not opposed to STEM programs in schools, STEM scholarships or recruiting foreign graduates of STEM fields to our country. What concerns me is the false message it sends to young women: STEM fields are the ones that are empowering and are more valuable to society than fields such as nursing. This simply isn’t a good message for our daughters. We are being led to believe by reports (based on the NSF list) that only about 25% of STEM professionals are women.

To me, this begs the question, “Why is nursing not considered a STEM field?” Obviously there isn’t engineering involved, but what about science? My bachelor’s program in nursing required, 2 Biology courses (with labs), 2 Chemistry courses (with labs), Anatomy, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Microbiology, Pharmacology, numerous Psychology courses, Anthropology, Sociology, Statistics, and more. I wouldn’t have survived a shift in the pediatric ICU without putting the Math I learned in college to good use in calculating drug dosages or IV drip rates. To pull the correct dose of medication from a multidose vial requires the use of ratios and formulas that wouldn’t be possible without a good working knowledge of math. I would love to have someone explain to me how a psychologist or urban planner has a higher knowledge of math, science or technology than I do as a nurse.

But, if we include nursing as a STEM field, it throws off the numbers, doesn’t it? We couldn’t believe that women don’t have opportunities in STEM professions because the percentage of women in STEM careers would change dramatically if we included nursing into the NSF list of STEM careers.

In an article for PBS News Hour, Dr. Denise Cummins brings up some interesting points. Surely nursing has more intrinsic value to society than many other professions which garner higher pay and prestige. She points out that as more men enter the profession of nursing, things have started to change. In 2011, the percentage of male nurses increased to 10% of the profession from the 3% in 1970. This revealed a gender gap within the nursing profession with the average female nurse earning 16 percent less than the average man in the same job. The problem, it seems, is that women tend to undervalue ourselves and have traditionally been willing to settle for less.

According to Dr. Cummins, “When men move into traditionally female-dominated professions, the salaries and status levels of those professions rise because men demand—and get—more for the work they do.”

This leads me to believe that we have a bigger problem in society than can be fixed by pushing young women into the fields that society considers “important” and is therefore well-paying. We need to encourage young women to find a career they feel passionate about, have aptitude for, and will offer the flexibility needed to juggle the demands of potential future families—then empower them to negotiate higher salaries and have a better sense of their own worth in the workforce.

The bottom line, in my opinion, comes down to funding. Hospitals are largely private “for profit” institutions in our country. The bigwigs controlling the purse strings of these corporations don’t want to pay nurses the salaries commensurate with their education and expertise. Yet they have no problem paying their executives huge salaries. Leaving nursing off the list of STEM careers allows hospitals to justify the chronic under-staffing (which favors cost saving measures over patient safety) and lower salaries.

Do you think nursing should be considered a STEM field? I would very much like to hear your opinion on this. Please take a moment and comment. Thanks!

Hoping It’s the Highlight of my Summer!

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Copyright Highlights Foundation

I’m all set to attend my first ever week long writing workshop, and this is a big one. I will be traveling to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania to participate in a “Summer Camp” for writers. I’ve sent in a writing sample and will be paired with a mentor for the week. There will be time for writing, honing my craft, networking with other authors, and a little bit of fun! I will blog again about my experiences there, but I know I will learn a great deal about writing books for young people.

Here are some pictures of the facility:

I’ll update the blog once I’ve arrived. Wish me luck! 🙂

Book Sale Next Month!

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Christopher Nolan’s upcoming summer blockbuster movie, Dunkirk is being released next month.  Over 40 authors from the Facebook Second World War Club have joined together for the “Dunkirk Week WWII Epic Novels Sale”. From July 21-27 (the opening week of “Dunkirk”), we will discount a selection of our books to 99 cents to bring you more riveting tales of WWII from around the world.

This is a great chance to discover some awesome WWII stories. To find out more, go to:http://alexakang.com/dunkirk-book-sale/

The Power of Language

A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.

Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.

When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese AmericansHe makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.

It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Tenacity the World Doesn’t See

I recently read an article that gave valuable insight into why life for a person with high functioning autism (frequently still called Asperger’s Syndrome) is so challenging. It’s one of the best I’ve read to help us “neurotypical” people empathize with those on the spectrum. If you know a single person on the autism spectrum, please take a moment to read this (click hyperlink above). I forwarded it to several people that I especially wanted to read it, and I hope they did. If we can change the lens we view people with ASD through, our interactions with them can become more positive, and hopefully there will be less misconceptions on our part for their actions.

Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it’s easy to get frustrated with someone who gets upset by so many things that “shouldn’t” bother him. We think, It’s not that loud, it’s not that bright, I can’t even hear anything. It’s tempting to want to say, “Just do it.” Whatever “it” happens to be at the moment. Go there. Do that. Say this. But what me, and anyone else that loves a person on the spectrum, sometimes forget is how much tenacity, sheer will, and courage it takes to just get through a plain old day. Like so much of autism spectrum disorders, this tenacity is invisible. The world doesn’t see it, because the world doesn’t see what it takes for someone on the spectrum to cope with his or her challenges in the first place.

If you’ve read my previous blog post What I’ve Learned in the Asperger’s Trenches, you’ll know I have a son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in preschool. He’s almost 21 now, and even though it’s been a long and sometimes painful journey to get to this point, we still celebrate the milestones he reaches–even though some days each tiny step forward is followed by a big leap backwards. Life is tougher for him that I wish it was. But I wanted to write a post acknowledging exactly what it’s taken for him to get to where he is today.

I chose the word tenacity for the title of this blog because it represents one of my son’s character traits that has been a part of his personality for as long as I can remember. He actually has many of the same personality traits as terriers: intelligence, loyalty, bravery, and especially tenacity–an absolute unwillingness to give up on something he’s set his mind to do. But it’s the trait of tenacity that’s helped him persevere through the worst times.12743546_10207121592136251_7231589288252981407_n

This trait showed up at an early age in my son. His preschool teacher observed that he was very rule oriented and thrived on structure. She used this to set goals for him, and by God he was going to make that goal no matter what. It continued on into Boy Scouts. He joined a troop when we moved back to Georgia (from Germany) that had some boys who ostracized him, at one point even informing him that he couldn’t stay in their patrol. I’ll admit, I suggested he find another troop, but my son wasn’t having it. He called the scout master and asked if the other scouts could decide who stayed in patrols. When he heard the answer was no, he said, “Good. I’m staying in my patrol then.” He wasn’t going to let anyone keep him from his goal of becoming an Eagle Scout. Which he accomplished beautifully.

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Fritz and Zoey. Photo courtesy of Ms. Mechelle Lang.

When he started playing the saxophone, he was in one of the lowest “chairs” in his middle school band. This didn’t seem to bother him until the kid next to him started annoying him throughout the entire class. I made a comment that if he moved up to a higher chair, he wouldn’t sit next to that kid anymore. Once my son latched on to that concept, he started practicing the saxophone like his life depended on it. By the end of the year, he wasn’t only in the top chair he was awarded the Outstanding Woodwind Player in his band at the final concert. In high school he was nominated for the Governor’s Honors Program for music.

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Yamaha Alto Sax. Image from Wikipedia

When he started looking at colleges, his first choice was Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Known for extremely competitive acceptance rates and challenging course work, it was nevertheless where he set his sights on going. Not only did he get accepted, he was accepted “early action” which affirmed his decision to go there in the first place. But it hasn’t been easy, to say the least. At Georgia Tech, sheer tenacity has kept him hanging on through some of the most challenging years of his life. When he mentioned the possibility of transferring to a less rigorous school, my husband and I fully supported his decision to do so. But ultimately, he has stuck it out at Tech and will be a senior in August when the Fall semester begins. Seeing him walk across that stage to receive his diploma will be an absolutely overwhelming moment of emotions for me, representing a culmination of years of overcoming obstacles.

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Photo copyright: The Georgia Institute of Technology

If you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, I’d love to hear from you. We’re definitely all in this together. My best advice is to take each day at a time. Don’t look ahead too far into the future, but celebrate the small successes of today. I’d love to celebrate your child with you and cheer for him or her to reach every single goal.

 

Wolf Hollow: What Does Evil Look Like?

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Image copyright: Dutton Books for Young Readers, Penguin Group (USA)

Wolf Hollow is a book that I couldn’t write about for quite a long time. It required some time to think about first–to marinate in my brain for awhile due to its themes. The writing is amazingly descriptive and beautiful. It evokes the same beautiful rural imagery of books like The War that Saved My Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Because of Winn Dixie. And like those books, it also deals with some very adult issues that kids face on a daily basis in this world.

In Wolf Hollow, the main character Annabelle comes from a loving home and is surrounded by a large support network. Even though the novel is set during war time, she lives a relatively peaceful life until a new girl moves to town to live with her grandparents. Enter one of the most unlikely villains you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature. Betty isn’t your typical school-yard bully. She isn’t Nelly Olson on steroids. She is sadistic. Cruel. Manipulative. Dangerous. Dishonest. Evil. She poses a threat to anyone who comes between her and whatever she takes a liking to at the moment.

How could a young girl be evil? Ms. Wolk brilliant shows readers this as the narrative unfolds. Her writing is gorgeous, and makes the reader feel as if he/she is right there in the thick of it all. The story will force a reader to face prejudices and ask the question,”What does evil look like?” Kids and adults alike will root for Annabelle and Toby (a veteran of WW1) who appears to suffer from PTSD (known as shell shock back then) and keeps to himself.

Betty makes it her mission to torment Toby. Her methods are calculated and terrifying to read about. You will ask yourself, “How could a little girl be this cruel?” Almost as frightening as the fact that Betty would do some of the awful things she does, is the fact that people so readily believe her side of things. She’s like a spider, craftily spinning her web and waiting for an innocent victim to wander into her trap. If J.K. Rowling had written a book about a middle school aged Bellatrix Lastrange, Betty could have been Bellatrix’s best friend–they are cut from the same cloth.

Wolk’s perfect pacing builds to a momentous climax. I won’t spoil the ending, but be prepared that it will make you think. It’s not easy, and certainly not your typical fairy tale happily ever after. But when are endings ever that way in real life?

A Review of Pax

Sometimes I wish I could start every new book with a completely blank slate–zero expectations. Occasionally it works out that way, especially if I’m browsing the shelves in the library and something happens to catch my eye. Usually though, there’s been enough buzz generated about a book by the time I read it that I’ve built my expectations fairly high.

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Copyright HarperCollins Publishing

This was definitely the case with the book Pax, a middle grade novel recommended for ages 10-14 by the publisher. The story is set in an indistinct time and place (though I assumed it was America due to the baseball references). All we know starting out is that there is a war brewing. We don’t know who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys” and honestly that seems to be the point the author is trying to make. In fact, Vola (a wounded veteran from a previous war) asks the MC Peter, “Do you think anyone in the history of this world ever set out to fight for the wrong side?”

Peter is twelve, his mother is dead and his father is emotionally unavailable with anger issues. His dad signs up to fight in the war and Peter is sent to live with his equally anger prone and emotionally zipped up grandfather. On the way to deliver Peter to his grandfather, Peter’s dad insists that his son’s pet fox be dumped by the roadside. He can’t risk having him underfoot at his father’s place. To Peter’s credit, he is heartbroken to abandon his pet (he rescued Pax as a tiny kit) but does it anyway–unable to bring himself to defy his father and ignite his temper.

The book alternates between the Points of View of the boy and the fox. There are some scenes depicting violence that cause death and injury to some animals. Some of the scenes in the novel seemed too contrived to be believable. I enjoyed the perspective of Pax (which means Peace in Latin) especially, as it brought back memories of one of my favorite childhood films, The Fox and the Hound. The author’s note at the end describes Ms. Pennypacker’s research with wildlife biologists to get aspects of fox behavior correct.

Overall, it was a good read. For a short book, it packs a big punch. If you’ve read Pax, I’d love to hear your opinion about the book.