Something about the light…

Maybe it was the strange glow of the gloaming last night, as if the day was giving up the last of itself before darkness engulfs the world. It was an in between time. A time of possibility. Stillness. The breath before the unknown.

For whatever reason I saw it and it drew me outside for a moment in the bustling time before bed. Some days slip away unseen, but this one glowed red like the ember of something smoldering. Like the sudden, searing news of tragedy that hit unexpectedly close to home yesterday. Like the anger that’s been building from the news over these past days (months, years). The petty discontents of work and life.

Another image loomed in my mind. A calm place far from this, of another more hopeful time when boys and problems were small. Along a different border.

What if…?

And so it sprung forth like Athena, full grown from her father’s head. I pulled my laptop to me and words rushed out. What I thought would be a small scene that would release me from the grip of the gloaming stretched and breathed. Over two thousand words later I came up for air.

There.

The boys were on their way. The journey begun.

And now I could rest.

I closed the screen of the laptop and turned out the light, stretching in the stifling air of the sudden summer. My cheek rested on the cool side of the pillow. But sleep would not come. Instead more thoughts flooded in. Like I’d encountered all the pieces of this puzzle in my life and the relevant ones were threading back to me, disparate, but inextricably linked as though they’d been waiting for this story, this escape.

Minutes ticked by and my head pulsed with the flood of ideas. Wrestled with a code I knew I’d write but couldn’t yet read. Eventually I flipped the lamp back on and pulled my notebook from the drawer of the bedside table. Again words poured out. Instead of a scene, this time it was the map of how the story would unfold. Things they would say. Allusions to another epic journey. Questions about motivation and universal truths. Through it all the parallels piled up. Isn’t it funny how those pieces fit? News. Novels. Family memory and legend. As if those characters were fated to fill those roles.

It’s a summer story. Now I’m ready for summer to begin. There are hundreds of miles and thousands upon thousands more words to go.

Still bits seep out in the light of morning. Breadcrumbs in my notebook to lead the way.

Two ravens stand sentinel.

#IMWAYR It’s Monday. What are you reading?

Project LIT Book Club Edition

If you read my post last Wednesday, you know I’m in the middle of previewing books for our maiden season with Project LIT book clubs. I’m also madly reading because summer book orders are due soon. Here are several titles I’ve read in the past week.

 

Come Juneteenth by Ann Rinaldi

This story, new to me, of how the slaves in Texas waited an additional two years before learning of their freedom. The author invites us into a family for a decidedly gentle look at the slave experience. Sis Goose, although technically owned and a slave, has been raised since infancy as a member of the family. She is genuinely loved by her adopted parents and siblings, each in their own way, yet not one of them reveals to her that she is legally free.

The characters feel real, although the slavery feels whitewashed. Still I found it compelling enough to read in a single sitting. Because of a romantic relationship and pregnancy as well as passing allusions to “men visiting the quarters” this may be best for middle school readers, though a few of our 5th graders could handle it.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

When I opened the pages of this book I realized I’d read it before. This mostly gentle story of one Brooklyn girl uncovering what happened on September 11th had left a warm impression with me. Through the first half of the novel I found myself nodding at the messages of acceptance (of others and ourselves), friendship and community, of home being more about our families than our surroundings, and about schools being places to gently probe challenging issues. In it readers can be exposed to poverty, mental illness (likely PTSD), racial or religious intolerance, and one event that has shaped all our modern lives in ways that leave them feeling as though it is possible to survive, even thrive under the weight of them if one has family and friends.

I think many of our readers could read this if they chose to. There is one scene where the 5th grade friends look up a video of the towers falling. Some may be concerned that the mention of it could give readers the idea of searching out video themselves. After thinking about it, I don’t think they will. The characters are so moved by viewing the video, the author conveys the heaviness with which it presses on them. One wishes she could unsee it. I think the effect is that readers will understand the gravity of the event and can witness it at arms length without actually watching people jump from the towers.

Best of all, while the challenges aren’t magically removed in the end, the author does leave readers with a sense of hope. She leaves us with the idea that knowing the truth, while hard, can make room for us to heal.

Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

This author of Shooting Kabul has once again written a compelling story that, through the experiences of one young Syrian girl, introduced us to the many people and groups who are part of the tangled conflict in her homeland. I must admit that although I’ve known, in a distant sort of way, about the tragedies unfolding in Syria, nothing in the news made it feel as real or as personal as this book.

A young girl is separated from her family during an attack as helicopters drop barrel bombs on her home. The story, which spans about three days, traces her journey to be reunited with them. In the process she meets other children affected by the years of war, encounters rebels, Christians, government forces and a gang in the dangerous streets of the city that has always been her home.

More than anything this story puts a human face to the suffering. I would be comfortable shelving it in my book room for 4th and 5th grade readers, though I would undoubtedly get some pushback for the scariness of the bombings. In some ways it is no more brutally honest than the opening pages of Charlotte’s Web or the travels of Edward Tulane.

Like Vanessa by Tami Charles

This book is most appropriate for readers a little older than mine. At first I didn’t know if I could find a way into the story of a girl from the projects who wanted more than anything to win a beauty pageant. But just under the surface was the truer motivation–she wanted to believe she was worthy of being loved. Abandoned by a mother she could barely remember, invisible to her gruff and constantly working father, Vanessa feels unlovable. It takes her alcoholic grandfather, devoted cousin who’s hiding his own secret, and a new music teacher to show her she is lovable, worthy, talented, and beautiful.

Vanessa’s cousin hides that he is gay because he lives in a community that is intolerant of who he is. Race is an overt issue in the novel. And a local drug-running gang leader is killed (offstage) in a drive by shooting. All of these mature issues make the story real, but best for readers who have already encountered challenging books-or life stories.

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Although I am an outsider to both basketball and rap, I devoured this story of brothers, of perfect partnership and the forces that pull us apart, of seemingly perfect families with hidden fractures. And of finding our way back to each other.

This will definitely find a home in our section of sports fiction, though I’ll add it to a text set on family relationships when my 4th graders begin their social issues unit. I’ll book talk it to readers who think they can only read books with the fewest pages. The white space around the edges of the page will make it non-threatening and the verse will pull them in. I’ll book talk it to readers who don’t think they like sports books to show them that sometimes the basketball on the cover is just a way of getting at life’s other conflicts–sibling rivalry, jealousy, poor judgment in a moment and regret that lingers. And I will play a recording of Kwame Alexander reading…because who could resist?

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

This novel of feeling alone and out of place, then finding one’s people and oneself is about as middle grade as they come. Two tweens, each facing a life-shifting crisis, forge an unconventional friendship through an online Scrabble game. Her father, as old as her friends’ grandparents, is in the hospital after a sudden heart attack. His parents suddenly announced they’re divorcing. Neither saw it coming. Both are left with big feelings and nowhere to turn. Turns out once they discover they have each other, they each find others closer to home.

I loved the message that it’s OK to be who you are, even if you’re considered a little quirky by others. And while you’re busy trying to avoid judgment…maybe don’t jump to judging others. Friendships change as we grow. It happens, but it isn’t the end. My realistic fiction section is saving a place for this one.

 

There are two more books waiting on the seat of my car, then it’s time to stock up with another batch. Some of the Project LIT titles weren’t available in my local library so I’ll need to track them down. I’m still looking to read:

 

  • Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (grades 5+)
  • Sunny and Patina by Jason Reynolds (gr 5-6)
  • The First Rule of Punk by Celia C Perez (grades 3-6)
  • Rebound by Kwame Alexander (grades 5-7)
  • The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (grades 5-6)
  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (grades 3-7)

I’d already read and loved Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (grades 5-6), Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, and Amina’s Voice by (grades 3-7). Those will find homes in our book collection also.

Do you have recommendations of other titles that address issues in a way that honors young readers’ ability to think and their age? I’d love to hear from you.

I Always Wondered When I Read Historical Fiction…

I’ve read countless books about World War II and the Holocaust. Some as early as high school, many since. I always wondered how ordinary Germans, everyday people, could allow such atrocities to occur. Obviously (to me) Jews were equally human. How could anyone be convinced to treat others with such inhumanity on the flimsy claims that they were somehow less-than us?

In books about the Civil Rights Era, how could people have been as callous and ignorant as to think that the color of one’s skin made one somehow better? What arrogance was that to think one life was more valuable than another?

It wasn’t until adulthood that I encountered the existence of American internment camps during World War II. “What?” I asked were they thinking to rip Japanese Americans from their homes because they looked different or because their parents or grandparents might have come from Japan? How could they have thought that herding humans into structures barely worthy of being called barracks in the middle of the desert, behind barbed wire could in any way coexist with our beloved Constitution guaranteeing due process of law to all? I read stories of families trapped in these camps and the sense of isolation, the loss of purpose, agency, independence, liberty to come and go.

Surely I would have done differently. I would have stood up. Spoken out.

In a college course on moral philosophy I learned the concept of moral luck. If we knowingly drive with faulty brakes and cause harm to someone we are morally culpable. Some of us may already be driving with faulty brakes, whether we know it or not. We have the fortune of not being tested. Since we haven’t yet harmed anyone, we haven’t yet fallen into a moral morass. Think of it another way. Those who lived in times and under a government that committed atrocities, like rounding up and imprisoning others in camps without due process or humane conditions, had the bad moral luck to live in such a set of circumstances. We judge them because they faced that moral test and fared badly. We had been fortunate, with the good moral luck not to need to know how we would have handled the complicated circumstances around events like the Holocaust or Japanese American Internment.

Until now.

In the past few days I read a tweet that said essentially, “If you asked yourself what you would have done during the Holocaust, look around. You’re doing it now.”

It was a gut punch.

The news that’s been gradually coming to light not only about children sometimes literally ripped from their parents’ arms at the border and taken has been difficult to hear. As a mother I’m horrified. As a citizen I’m outraged. Learning that the government, our government, plans to build tented camps on or near military bases in which to house children who have been forcibly separated from their families, has left me feeling helpless. And guilty.

Between the end of school, my kids sports events and school concerts, and…life…I haven’t found the time to fully research the situation and figure out where to turn, who to contact, what to yell to the rafters.

All those times I asked myself what German mothers were doing when other people’s children were being enslaved and murdered, I never thought that they were grocery shopping and fitting in laundry so their kids could have a clean uniform for the next day. I never considered that mothers in Seattle and Iowa were paying bills, and nursing sick babies or ailing parents.

Of course those are all things that need to be done. I’m doing some of the same things.

But I also know that I should be standing up. Speaking out.

What will it take to spur me to action? All of us? Because just as moral luck is real, so is the power of many. It has felt doable to join in marches and rallies for science, for women, against gun violence. Others organized those events and gave shape to the actions we could take. Am I waiting for others to be the first to speak out. First is exposed. It’s risky. Yet why should that matter if I believe strongly and firmly, as I do, that taking children from families and placing them in modern internment camps is reprehensible? I could shout it out into the universe, but who will hear? Who do I need to listen? Who has the power to make this stop?

I know, to make lasting change we must go to the ballot box. We will. I will.

But these children can’t wait for midterm elections, or the next presidential election. Who has the power today to stop this abhorrent practice?

If Tweeting and blogging aren’t enough? If notes to my democratic Congresswoman and Senators won’t shift the balance? Must we camp outside of Congress? Must we march to the very gates of these camps? What are we, am I, willing to risk?

Shouldn’t it be everything?

Because one life isn’t worth more or less than another.

These are the events by which history will judge us. The ones by which we will someday judge ourselves.

What do we do?

I’ve said to my son many times, “I will always love you, even when I don’t like your choices.” Today is flag day. I will always honor the ideals on which our country was founded. That doesn’t mean I will always agree with or respect the choices made by the people who represent that country now. It is because I honor the ideals and principles on which it was founded that I must oppose those choices and actions. Maybe that’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism. I hold you to a higher standard because of my love.

This I Believe…Kids Need Books that Look Like the Real World

I’ve discovered the Project LIT Community.

For half this year I’ve been thinking about how capable young readers are of encountering and grappling with challenging topics and issues in books if they’re handled with care.

For half that time I’ve been engaged in a debate with others who think these books are too hard or too dark for our readers.

Meanwhile, in our quiet suburban town with less diversity than we’d care to admit, the children in my school this year have dealt in real life with: the death and terminal illness of parents and caregivers, moving away, ugly divorces, blended families, abandonment, addiction, racism, economic struggle, surgery, heart conditions, and a deadly tornado that caught some in their cars within sight of home but unable to escape witnessing its fury. Those are just the real life issues that I know about in our school community of over 300 children.

They are loved and cared for at home by two parents, single parents, step parents, grandparents, uncles, two moms, and probably a few other arrangements of loved ones.

We have students with emotional challenges, academic challenges and physical challenges…and gifts.

They are loved and cared for at school by all of us. They are our kids.

Our kids impress me every day with their insight and energy, their consideration and carelessness. They are barely five, turning seven, already nine, and passing ten.

They are not carefree vessels to be filled. They are not incapable of understanding. Rather, some of them understand too much. And others, sensing it, wonder.

I am committed to building them a collection of books able to reflect back to them each of their experiences. A collection that can open windows for them to experiences beyond the sheltered ones some adults are sure they live. Stacks of books that act as glass doors, not only revealing the many truths of the outside world, but inviting our kids into the world in meaningful ways.

Childhood is not separate from life. It is the earliest part of life.

Childhood is not the free-est time in our lives. It is the most controlled.

Children are not incapable of thought. They are sometimes shielded from it.

Children do not need to practice now things that will be useful to them as adults. They need to strive now to build the skills that will serve them well throughout their entire lives…including now.

Starting with agency.

I feel strongly that books are a safe place to encounter both the great injustices and the great humanity of the world.  True, some conversations inspired by these books could be difficult–for us as adults. But if our kids trust us enough to broach the subject, we must trust them enough to listen to what they ask and what they share. We can be gentle without sugarcoating. We can be honest without being brutal. Most importantly, we can convey to them that we care and that we will be there for them as they step, however  tentatively or boldly, into issues and books.

And so I read…and read…and read to find the volumes that will speak volumes to my kids. As I turn the pages I think of them. Their faces drift in my mind’s eye. Their stories fill my heart as surely as those of the characters.

So next year, in collaboration with others in our school I will invite readers to join us in reading the kinds of books that open these doors. And we will sit together and talk about the books, about their feelings, about what they thought and what they will do now that these stories are a part of them. We will establish our own chapter of Project LIT Community. I’ve already reached out to our middle and high schools. I proposed that we invite older readers to have the same kinds of conversations, and then to join our elementary readers as mentors and fellow readers to share conversations together.

And so now I read.

 

 

 

On Monday I’ll share several that I’ve read this week, previewing potential titles starting with the ones selected by Project LIT Book Clubs.

That Face

Some of you may be sitting on a beach or your porch already with an ice cold lemonade and a good book. (In which case, I wish you well.) We have two more weeks of school after this one.

That means we’re in our end of year state-mandated universal-screener reading-test window. (Takes your breath away doesn’t it, when you say it like that?)

We already know tons about our readers…from reading alongside them and talking to them about books, reading what they’ve written about books and more. This test is a formality. A hoop we have to jump through. And so we do what we can to make it as painless as possible. Where some schools spend five days assessing across grades K-3, we spend two…or if everything goes smoothly, one and a half. For our Ks and 1s they’re pulled from their day for no more than 15 minutes. The 2s and 3s spend closer to an hour.

But no matter how we try to streamline and de-emphasize it, this morning I’m in a room full of third grade faces above their Chromebook screens. Shoulders are hunched dutifully. Eyes are dull.

The eyes. Her eyes.

From across the room, one pair of eyes looks at me sadly.

She came to us as one of nearly ten new third graders this fall, an unusually high number for us. Several of our new friends were far below grade level in reading when they arrived. So, on one hand, I already know that they were likely to struggle with grade-level text. I didn’t need this computer exam to tell me. On the other hand, I know something this test doesn’t. More than one of those readers who began in mid-first grade books in September are now meeting grade level. Others are very close.

Across the year their attitudes toward reading have shifted dramatically. Once stormy or grey, these days they’re more often sunny and welcoming.

But not today.

Today those sad eyes watched me from across the room. Telling me she felt less than today. Yesterday she celebrated successfully reading chapter books. Today the computer showed her she was not enough.

You and I both know that any reader who grows two years in one is more than enough.

We know that our enough-ness should never come from which books we can read.

But this throw-away-test, the one the adults in our building care very little about, made her feel uncared for.  So now my own eyes are downcast.

I will never again presume that as long as we minimize the minutes children have to spend on them, or brush them off with a breezy attitude, that they do not harm children. If it’s meant as a screener for reading success (or difficulty) and I already have a preponderance of evidence related to a child’s reading success or difficulty, why must I use the tool indiscriminately? Alas, this particular testing is mandated by law in my state. To whom can I appeal?

I believe the legislators were well-intentioned, but then, they aren’t reading experts. Or teachers at all. Why do they suppose that they must legislate that we do our jobs without understanding with any nuance what those jobs are? Most of us are here (many extra hours and heaps of emotional capital) because we care deeply and are absolutely committed to ensuring our students meet with success.

And they haven’t had to see those eyes.

Tomorrow and all the days until the end of our year (basically July), her teacher and I will do the work of building her back up. Reminding her of how tall she stands and how far she’s climbed through her own efforts. We’ll help her to see for herself that she is more than enough. But no matter the shine we put on it, we can never fully erase the dent that test put into her confidence and self-worth.

I’m so sorry, kiddo.