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?

Crossing the Cultural Divide

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For some reason, I’ve been reflecting on the three years my family spent living in Germany lately. Maybe it’s because the world seems so divided these days, or maybe because my kids are grown and I’m nostalgic for the family time we shared back then.

We took advantage of the wonderful opportunity to live overseas and traveled as much as our schedule and bank account allowed. In those travels, we met a great many people. People of different religions, races and cultural practices than us. Our kids played with other kids on playgrounds and swimming pools, even though they couldn’t understand a word of the other’s language. Verbal communication is important–we all know that. But a smile or an act of kindness transcends language barriers and reminds us that we are all sharing this planet together.

The older I get, the more I seek out friendships with people who come from different backgrounds than I do. It makes my life fuller and helps me view the world in a broader sense–and not merely from my own narrow cultural lens. It’s reflected in my writing as well. As I envision characters for my stories, they are much more diverse than they were a few years ago when I started writing.

I hope you have a change to share a smile with someone today, even if that someone speaks a different language. Like the proverb says, “All people smile in the same language.”

A Look at Childhood Poverty

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Several years ago when I taught fourth grade, I attended a training on childhood poverty. We were each handed a tool to measure how comfortable we were doing various tasks. The questions were things like, “Would you know how to cash a check without a bank account?” and “Could you organize a formal function for 300 guests with a seating chart?” I don’t remember what the exact questions were, but when I was finished and was told how to “score” my inventory, it revealed that I was solidly middle class. How could this assessment measure my social class? It simply looked at the tasks that I felt I could easily accomplish. I felt completely comfortable performing tasks that middle class Americans tend to perform on a regular basis, and because of this “comfort zone”, I was categorized as middle class.

Why is this important? Because most teachers in America come from a middle class background. It’s what they know. It’s where they are comfortable. It’s what they understand. Therefore, when planning lessons, assigning homework, holding conferences with parents and interacting with students, the teachers are viewing each situation through a “middle-class lens.”Through this workshop, it became apparent to me that the very way I perceive the world, react to situations, evaluate objects and behave are all tied to my socioeconomic level.

And this is fine if I’m teaching in a school where my students all have the same perceptions and experiences. But what about when we have students who live in poverty? When assigning homework and projects, don’t I make the assumption that my students will have pencils, crayons, paper and electricity? And to be honest, don’t we tend to assume that a student will have a parent to help them? Because we help our kids and our own parents helped us. This is where we can run into trouble.

The book, How to Steal a Dog, offers readers a glimpse into what life is like for a child living in poverty. Even though Georgina’s family has lost their apartment (after being abandoned by her father), life goes on for them. Her mom still has to work and the kids still have to go to school. They live in their car with no assurance of safety, no comfort, and no real hope that things will get better any time soon. Georgina’s teacher isn’t aware of her changed circumstances and makes incorrect assumptions.

I highly recommend this book. Read it yourself and read it with your kids. It offers a wonderful insight into what life is like for families living in poverty. Families who are hit with unexpected setbacks or tragedies that change their circumstances in the blink of an eye. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you think. Also, if you’re a teacher with experience teaching children who live in poverty, please reach out and let me know of your experiences.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: FS&G, 2007. Frances Foster Books

 

Continuing to Write When “Life” Happens

I made an interesting discovery yesterday while cleaning off the kitchen counter (which has been unusually cluttered lately due to my lack of emotional energy to actually deal with all of that “stuff”). I found my calendar. Now you would think I’d have noticed that it’s been buried under bills and other debris long before now. But when I saw the week it was opened to, it made perfect sense to me. It was opened to a certain week in July.

My older sister died on July 25. It was a Monday and the week was fresh and full of possibilities. But then she didn’t wake up that morning. The possibilities turned into responsibilities as I poured my energy into assisting my parents with everything that accompanies an unexpected death in the family. Since then, when I’m not working or helping my parents, my mind has just not been functioning properly to get any fresh words down.

So yesterday, I flipped the calendar to this week. The current one. Sure, maybe I’ve skipped a couple of months of my writing life, but I’m feeling determined this morning to get back on the saddle. It’s time to revise my completed manuscripts and then plunge into some new ideas. Please wish me luck, and hold me accountable. If you see me (even virtually on Twitter or Facebook) please ask me how my writing is coming. So much of life is a mental game and writing books is certainly no exception.

As I open my documents this morning, I’ll be thinking about how proud my sister was of the books I’ve written and how much she loved reading new chapters as I finished them. I’d like to think that she’s cheering me on still as I attempt to get my head straight to write again. I have to believe that I still have stories to tell and people who want to read them. Mary Beth, this one’s for you!

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What I Love about R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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Penguin Random House Books

I finished reading Wonder in March, but I can’t stop thinking about this book. I’ve recommended it to more people than I can keep track of. The ones who’ve read it get back to me and thank me for recommending it. The book is just that good. This book resonated with me for several reasons. First, I grew up in a family with a sister who had special needs. I also have a son with special needs. I’m a pediatric nurse who’s cared for children with the same kind of anomalies that the main character was born with. Finally, I taught elementary school for 4 years and high school for 1, and Ms. Palacio nails school dynamics beautifully.

If you haven’t read this wonderful book yet, here is a brief introduction: August Pullman has never been able to attend school due to his extensive medical needs. He was born with severe craniofacial anomalies, and has had many surgeries. At the opening of the story, his parents have decided to enroll him in a private school. Auggie is nervous about how the other kids are going to respond to him. The principal picks three kids that he thinks will help ease the transition for Auggie, but it doesn’t work out so well. (It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to give spoilers!) However, there is another student named Summer who befriends Auggie without prompting from anyone. Through the narrative, the reader becomes a part of the Pullman family as well as their extended family and friends.

  1. The story unfolds through multiple perspectives. Even though Auggie is an extremely observant kid, there is no way he could know the motivations and back story for every other character in the book. Palacio beautifully puts us inside the head of each character, and this is one of the reasons this book has such a huge heart. No one is a cliché, but a fully developed character with motivations guiding their behaviors.
  2. The book is written with humor. Even though I cried in many places, this book is not in the least bit depressing. The Pullman family relies on humor to get them through the tough times. I came to love this family so much. They made mistakes and they didn’t always agree. But they loved each other and it comes across so beautifully in the writing.
  3. The beautiful writing itself makes the book a pleasure to read. In the very beginning of the book, Auggie tells us, “the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.” He is perceptive and notices the way others react to him. He also shares at one point that if he had a magic lamp, he’d wish for an ordinary face. Being inside of Auggie’s head doesn’t feel like a pity party. But the frustration he feels that even his own family doesn’t seem to be able to allow him to be “normal” comes across beautifully. It’s gut wrenching, but at the same time it’s hopeful.
  4. Via’s experiences were the ones that resonated the strongest for me because this teenage character is able to put her family’s existence into words better than I’ve ever been able to. When it’s Via’s turn to tell the story, she compares her family to a solar system. “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun.” Wow.
  5. Another beautiful part of Wonder that was especially meaningful for me was the relationship between Via and her grandmother. In her early years, having her grandmother’s unconditional love and adoration helped to offset the dynamics of her nuclear family. My grandmother was exactly this for me. And just like Via, she died unexpectedly when I needed her support the most. Via’s grandmother shares a secret with her about why she feels the way she does. “I love Auggie very, very much,…but he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you.”
  6. This book is “real” in every since. Palacio doesn’t sugar coat anything. She allows Auggie to be resentful of “normal” kids at times. Via feels betrayed by her mom at times when she focuses so much attention on Auggie and his needs. The parents have arguments. Some kids are just plain mean, because let’s be honest, some kids just are. Perhaps the best part of the authenticity of Wonder is that is shows how acts of kindness that might seem small at the time, can have an enormous impact on someone who needed the kindness. In fact, this book started the Choose Kind movement through American schools.

To say that I recommend this book is an understatement. If you haven’t read it, you can go here for more information from the book’s publisher. If you have read it, please share your comments. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Picture Books that Get The Big Picture

As an author, a mom to a special needs son and a pediatric nurse, I am always on the lookout for books portray a realistic representation of the American demographic. We are not all “the same” and that is one of our country’s greatest strengths. One underrepresented group of kids that I’m particularly sensitive to are kids with ‘disabilities’ that make them look or act different from other kids. Here are some picture books for very young children that can begin to introduce characters with special needs in a positive light.

  1. Keeping Up With Roo by Sharlee GlennRoo cover

    I will admit that this book hits close to home. My older sister Mary Beth was always so excited to be an aunt. But each of her nieces and nephews, as they grew older, came to realize that she was different than other adults. This is what happens to the main character Gracie in this story when she starts school. When Gracie brings her friend Sarah home from school, she feels embarrassed about Roo’s behavior. Like all children who have a family member who is “different”, Gracie has to comes to to terms with her aunt’s differences and realize what is really important in life.

     

  2.  Susan Laughs by Jean Willis

    I love the fact that this picture book focuses on all of the things the main character images (1)Susan does that are exactly like every other kid in the world. It isn’t until the very last page of the book that the reader will discover that Susan is in a wheelchair. I took care of a beautiful, smart and sassy little girl who uses a wheelchair and I see her on every page. I highly recommend this book to parents of preschoolers. When you reach the end of the book, the illustration of Susan in her wheelchair provides the perfect teachable moment to discuss all of the similarities Susan has with your own child.

 

3. My Brother Sammy Is Special by Becky Edwards
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I love the way this book explores the complex sibling relationship that occurs when one of the sibling’s has special needs. Generally that sibling is parented differently, with a different set of rules and expectations. The author allows Sammy’s brother to express his resentment and frustration, but ultimately focuses on his love and concern for his brother. This book would be the perfect gift for any child with a special needs sibling.

4. Just Because by Rebecca Elliott

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What I love most about this book is that the younger brother Toby is too young to understand exactly why his big sister Clemmie can’t do the things that other kids can–but he doesn’t need to. In his innocent and accepting heart, he just loves her like she is. The author depicts the positive things these siblings can do together, even if it isn’t what most siblings can do. The writing is beautiful and the illustrations are enchanting. Children with siblings like Clemmie are going to be faced with many challenges as time goes on, but this book’s purpose isn’t to tackle the hard stuff. It’s to focus on the love and affection that is at the heart of the sibling relationship. And it does it beautifully.

5. A Friend Like Simon by Kate Gaynor51OijiofOVL._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_

This book doesn’t focus on the sibling relationship, but on the struggles kids on the autism spectrum have making friends at school. I love this book. I see so much of my own son in the character of Simon. This story is told from the perspective of a kid who is trying to be Simon’s friend at school. But it isn’t always easy. It takes more time and effort to get to know kids who are on the spectrum, but this book shows that it can often be well worth the effort. As a mom of a “Simon” myself, I appreciate the kids who make the effort.

6. The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

51j3FlqSA9LFor any parent of a quiet child that’s felt left out of the “popular group” at school, this book is a true find. The illustrations by Patrice Barton add to the impact of the words because Brian (the invisible boy) starts out gray and becomes more colorful as he begins to see himself as fitting in with someone–anyone. This book truly shows that it only takes ONE kind child to reach out to an “invisible kid” and make them feel a part of a class. Parents, I urge you to teach your children to be this one child. There are “Brians” out there in every classroom. I’ve taught elementary school, and I’ve witnessed the change one child can make.

 

This list is certainly not inclusive of all the excellent books out there. However, these 5 titles resonated with me in a special way. If you have other books to recommend, please comment and let me know about them. I’d love to hear from you!

**Please note that I am not the copyright holder for any of these books, and am using the cover images to aid in readers locating the books at their local stores or libraries. 

 

The Rest of the Story

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A few weeks ago, our pastor asked me to share a story or memory about my sister during her memorial service. I managed to pull myself together enough to share a story that took place at my grandfather’s funeral many years earlier. I’ve had people ask me about it, and share with me how much they enjoyed the story. So, in the words of Paul Harvey (who happened to be one of my grandfather’s favorites) here is “the rest of the story”.

September 12, 1981 was the day my childhood abruptly ended. It began as an almost idyllic Autumn Saturday. My mom had taken us to Stone Mountain Park for the Yellow Daisy Festival, and we had spent the morning browsing through rows of handmade crafts and funnel cakes.

When we got back to the house, my mom dropped us off the swim while she went grocery shopping. I was thirteen years old that day, but by the time the sun went down I felt about sixty. The sibling dynamic in my family had always been skewed because my older sister had been born two months early, leaving her with disabilities. I functioned as the oldest sibling, even though it was never acknowledged formally. On this fateful day, my sister Mary Beth had decided to stay inside while my younger brother and I swam. After about thirty minutes of enjoying our typical pool antics—cannon balls from the side, diving for rings, contests for holding one’s breath underwater, etc.—my sister appeared at the back door looking as if she’d seen a ghost.

“Some lady just called,” she announced in an unrecognizable tone, “and said that she’d ‘heard in passing’ that Grandpa died.” She looked as if she’d seen a ghost.

I swam to the side of the pool. “Grandpa Callaway?”

She swallowed hard, still pale and shell-shocked. “No. She said it was Grandpa Walter.” But this simply couldn’t be possible. My grandpa was a doctor who still saw patients every day. He was full of life. I’d spend the weekend before with them in the mountains and he’d been perfectly fine.

I was out of the pool and to the door within seconds. I didn’t even bother to completely dry off before rushing to the phone hanging on the wall of the kitchen. I punched in the numbers to my grandparent’s rambling old farmhouse in the mountains from memory. As the phone rang, I tried to think of a reason for calling. I surely couldn’t explain to Grandpa the real reason for my call.  But he didn’t answer the phone that day and neither did my grandmother. At that moment, I just knew. The woman on the phone had been right. With my mom gone, I had to become the adult and hold things together until she got home and could find out what had happened. Once you take on the role of adult, there’s no going back to the innocence of childhood. I discovered this on that day.

The funeral was held at the church my grandparents had attended for years-a white frame building constructed in the early 1900s. It was traditional in every sense of the word. The day of the funeral, the place was packed. People stood along the sides and the back of the sanctuary, and people even stretched out the doors into the churchyard. After all, Doc Walter had treated most everyone in the valley at one time or another, having been the only doctor around for miles. People came out in droves to pay their last respects to the Doc.

My sister, Mary Beth, taped her favorite television programs years before anyone had ever thought to make VCRs. Armed with a Kmart cassette tape recorder, my sister would record an hour long program—the first half on side one of the cassette tape, and the rest of the show on side two. Of course, this meant you couldn’t talk, cough, or clear your throat during the entire program without suffering her withering stare and flapping hands to silence you. But come hell or high water, those shows were going to be taped. Mary Beth also traveled everywhere with her trusty tape recorder. So it was no surprise to anyone who knew her that she had it clutched in her arms when we walked into the church for the funeral.

Mary Beth had decided that we needed to record the funeral-partly because my grandmother was too distraught to attend. This task was delegated to my father—a man who has the biggest heart and the best of intentions, but doesn’t handle stress all that well. He scurried around through the packed room and placed the Kmart recorder on the top of the organ. He asked the organist, who was rather elderly, if she would please be kind enough to push the “record” button and the “play” button down when the service began. She nodded her agreement as she pounded out the hymns that the family had requested be played.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan until the organist reached up and hit the “play” button only—just as the family had been seated. Mary Beth had placed the cassette in the recorder on the “B” side, which contained the second half of a Little House on the Prairie episode that she’d previously recorded. She must have really wanted to have a recording of Grandpa’s funeral pretty badly if she was willing to tape over that show—it was her absolute favorite.

When the blood curdling screaming started , no one else in the church knew what was happening. They simply looked around the church, bewildered by the terrified sounding young girl’s voice screaming, “Pa, help me! Help me Pa, I’m blind. I can’t see!”

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Photo credit NBC

But we knew! We knew the minute we heard the voice of Melissa Sue Anderson, who portrayed Mary Ingalls on the popular show—the organist had hit only play rather than both record and play simultaneously.

Try to imagine a quiet, simple, mountain funeral suddenly and most unexpectedly, filled with the loud screams of a panicked young woman. You could see people mouthing the word, “Pa”—attempting in vain to discover who this “Pa” person was. Surprised and startled looks spurred my mother to jab Dad in the ribs, and he promptly pushed and shoved his way as gently as possible through the people obstructing his path to the organ.

As unobtrusively as possible, he pushed the “off” button on the tape recorder and weaved his way back to the front row of the church—only to find his oldest daughter hyperventilating and flapping her hands wildly, and his wife fixing him with her penetrating gaze.

“You turned it off,” my mother informed Dad. “Now it isn’t recording the funeral at all.”

The look on his face was a mixture of bewilderment, incredulity and hostility. I could literally see the gears of his mind churning in circles as he realized that Mom expected him to find a way back through the throng of mourners to turn the recorder back on—the correct way this time, in order to spare any further outbursts from Mary Ingalls. But he got up and did just that. And now you know the rest of the story.