Wishes and Plans: Exploring Life Challenges Through Books

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Somehow, I’ve managed to read three books recently that all feature a main character grappling with the challenge of having an absent parent. I didn’t choose these books because of this fact, but reading about someone’s life challenges that are so different from my own has made me a better person. In his recent Newbery speech, Matt de la Pena referenced an encounter with a librarian where she said that she loved his books but didn’t stock them in her library because she didn’t have those kinds of kids at her school. Those kinds of thoughts make me cringe because books allow us to escape to magical worlds and do things we could only dream of doing and they can also allow us to step into someone else’s shoes for just a moment to get a brief perspective on the world through someone else’s eyes. While it can’t make you an expert on the struggle that the character is going through, it does allow you to see that we all face challenges and struggles and we don’t always wear those troubles on the outside for everyone to see.

One of these books is Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, which I already mentioned on the blog. Two of these books that I read are upcoming releases from Farrar Straus Giroux. Barbara O’Connor’s Wish comes out in late August.   It features an 11-year old girl named Charlie whose mother is having trouble keeping her life in order and whose father is in jail. She goes to live with her aunt and uncle in a small town. Every day of her life since fourth grade she makes the exact same wish and wonders if it will ever come true. Charlie’s list of ways to make a wish is pretty impressive, and I can’t help but wonder how many ways there are to make a wish after reading this book. What did Barbara O’Connor discover that she didn’t even include in the book? While Charlie is with her aunt and uncle, she meets a stray dog who she names Wishbone. Along with her new friend Howard, they craft a plan to catch Wishbone so Charlie can have a pet of her own.

Woven into this tale of longing for a pet is Charlie’s struggle with finding a place she belongs and her desire to have a mother and father who care enough about her to give her a stable home filled with love. That struggle affects how Charlie interacts with those around her. She lashes out at anyone who ruffles her feathers, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I would act if faced with a similar situation. I can’t say that I blame her for writing mean things to her teacher, giving kids a shove, or insulting her aunt.  What I was struck with the most was how her Aunt Bertha handled every incident of acting out. She offered nothing but love and understanding. I must admit that my own reaction might be to jump at the negativity with a punishment, but Bertha just offered a heap of love.  One of the quotes that still stands out to me after reading wish is:

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own drama and challenges that we lose sight of what others are going through. Instead of being quick to judge or react, I want to slow down and remember that love is a powerful gift.  Barbara O’Connor has once again masterfully written a southern tale that can speak to us all.

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In Kate Beasley’s Gertie’s Leap to Greatness coming in October, Gertie deals with an absent parent as well. However, this parent lives in the same town and still doesn’t have any interaction with her.  How would that feel to know that your mom lived just a few streets away yet had no interest in seeing you or talking to you? It’s certainly very far away from my own experience of having a mom and dad who are always there for me, wanting to know where I am at every second, and still want to talk to me every single day on the phone. Gertie is a firecracker of a girl. She takes matters into her own hands and makes a plan to be the best 5th grader in the entire universe. Gertie wrestles with her absent parent in a different way than Charlie does. She thinks that if she does enough then her mom will notice and want to be a part of her life or realize that Gertie is so awesome that she doesn’t need a mother anyway. Gertie has something standing in her way: a new girl named Mary Sue. Both of them have what it takes to be standout students, but their battle for the top results in even more struggles for Gertie to deal with.

Gertie is a character that I just want to hang out with. She is full of wit and adventure and can take just about any situation and make the best out of it. She does all of this even with a gloomy situation hanging over her. I think about my role in education and how a student like Gertie might slide by unnoticed as having a challenge to deal with. She isn’t one to reach out for help because she thinks she has to handle it all herself. How do I recognize those students? What opportunities can I give to students that allows them to shine and be the star that they are?  I love how even the stern Mrs. Stebbins recognized the potential in Gertie and gave her a moment to shine.

I highly recommend all three of the books mentioned in this post. Check them out at your local independent bookshop or library and add them to your collection.

I love to read books that I connect to, but I also love to read books that challenge my thinking and open my eyes to new cultures, perspectives, or challenges that are different from my own experience. I hope that I’ll keep finding books in my path that enrich my life in this way. As I’m looking toward the new school year, I am thinking about goals and what I hope for the students and families in our library. Right now, I hope that we can all step into the shoes of characters that we connect with but more importantly step into the shoes of characters that give us new perspectives to learn from and enrich our lives. I want to work as hard as I can to offer a collection of books to our readers that gives the opportunity to do this.

 

The Power of Words: Personal Connections to Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale

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When I was in high school, my great grandmother was placed into a nursing home. Almost weekly, my mom and I went to visit her.  She had Alzheimer’s so our visits weren’t filled with conversations. I paced the halls of the LifeCare Center holding my great grandmother’s hand, even though she seemed to have no idea who I was or why I was walking with her. Over those many visits, I came to know many of the residents at LifeCare and their many quirks. It was strange how even as an introvert I was drawn to certain people who maybe were some of the most risky of residents. One of those residents was Florence.  She was from New York, and you heard her before you ever saw her. She shouted out, “Hey!” over and over.  The workers at LifeCare seemed to have reached a point where her repeated shouting of the same word was tuned out, but I always heard it. While it scared me, I was also intrigued by her, and I remember many instances where despite my fear of being hit, grabbed, or pushed, I chatted with Florence. I think more than anything she just wanted someone to listen to her, to acknowledge that she existed in the world.

As I read Raymie Nightengale, I came to the scene in the Golden Glen retirement home where Raymie encounters a resident who repeatedly says, “Take my hand”, and I was thrust back in time to my own fears, curiosities, and empathy from my many days in the LifeCare Center. I don’t know how she does it, but Kate DiCamillo seems to always write words that speak to my soul. Her words are powerful and link to personal connections or goals in my own life.  As I read Raymie, I closed the book at the end of every chapter, hugged the book to my chest, and said, “How does she do it?”.

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I know what we hold in our hands is the final version of a story that has grown and morphed many times. I know there are probably many moments of intense thought, hair pulling, tears, joy, and time spent in the writing chair. Many eyes have looked at these words before they reach the reader, but the final words on the page are powerful. They are concise, yet they bring out the complexities of 3 girls and many unforgettable characters who are very different yet are connected to one another at the same time.

I love Ida Nee and her tell-it-like-it is attitude of not putting up with any nonsense

I love Beverly who is rough around the edges but has a kind heart inside.

I love Louisiana who is innocent and naive as she wrestles with the challenges of poverty.

I love Mrs. Borkowski and her ability to brush off just about anything with a “Phhhhtttt.”

I love Raymie and her strength in making a plan to bring her family back together yet recognizing when she needs to help others along the way.

As I read Raymie, I took a pen and underlined words that spoke to my heart. It seems that no matter which Kate DiCamillo book I read, there’s a line that resonates with me that I tend to carry with me wherever I go. In Flora and Ulysses, it ended up being a line that inspired our library motto and blog title of expecting the miraculous.

There are many lines in Raymie.  I’ll leave them here without any interpretation for now.  These lines are still sitting with me, speaking to me, and finding their place in my life.

“She herself often felt to terrified to go on, but she had never admitted it out loud.” p. 2

“…this made everything she said seem ridiculous, but also possible–both things at the same time.” p. 10

“The sun is nothing but a dying star. Someday it will go out. Phhhhtttt.” p. 22

“Fear is a big waste of time. I’m not afraid of anything.” p. 79

“…stand as if you value yourself and your place in the world.” p. 82

“And I wanted to tell you that no matter what, I’m here and you’re here and we’re here together.” p. 154

I invite you to find your own lines that speak to your heart by picking up a copy of Raymie Nightingale starting Tuesday April 12th at your local bookstore.  My copy will be waiting for me at Avid Bookshop, and I can’t wait to hold it in my hands.  Even if this book isn’t the one that creates a personal connection for you, I hope you’ll keep searching for an author and a book that has lines that speak to your soul.

 

 

Read for the Record 2015

Each year, Jumpstart  sponsors a day for readers all around the globe to join their voices in reading the same book. A different book is chosen each year, and this day has become a day that we love to connect with other schools to read the book together.  This year the featured book was Not Norman: A Goldfish Story by Kelly Bennett and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones.  Jumpstart puts the book online during Read for the Record so that readers can easily access the book to read aloud.  I love having a large full screen version of the book for students to look at while we read alone and with our Skype partners.

Ms. Sandifer’s Kindergarten class started our day by reading the book with me on our projection screen.

I loved hearing the students make noticings about the images that weren’t included in the words.  We also had fun making predictions before we turned the pages such as when a tree branch is making a noise outside but we got to guess before we found out.  One student thought it would be a zombie!

Next, Ms. Kelly’s Kindergarten class (my daughter’s class) came and connected with Jennifer Reed and her 3rd graders in Newton, MA.  We had fun looking at a map before the call and learning that we were connecting with students over 1,000 miles away. Our students also got to introduce themselves to one another.

Jennifer’s students did choral readings of pages, while I read most of our pages with Kindergarten students joining in for words they recognized.  Students were amazed that Jennifer Reed and I know each other in real life and will get to see one another at the AASL conference in Columbus this November.

Finally, Ms. Choate’s Kindergarten class came to the library to enjoy a live Google Hangout with Kelly Bennett reading Not Norman and sharing the answers to several questions about being an author and getting ideas for writing.

This was a great addition to the event to allow many classes to enjoy hearing the author.  We wish there had been more interaction between students and the author, but it was fun listening in to her voice and ideas.

There’s still time to participate in Read for the Record.  You can read the book for free online today and count you and your family in the numbers toward the record.