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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Stopping by the Diner

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Stopping by the DinerMy dad has a passionate hatred of olives on, in, or even in the general vicinity of his food. He’s convinced their mere presence contaminates anything else on his plate. So when he eats at his favorite small-town diner, he’s always careful to tell the server that he wants his dinner salad without the black olives they usually include. Except this time the brand-new teenage server plopped it down in front of him complete with a generous helping of his much-loathed food.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I asked for the salad without olives.”

She thought a moment, said, “No problem,” reached out to scoop the olives out with her bare hand, and walked away holding them.

Here are the answers to the three questions you’re now asking: No, he didn’t eat the salad.

No, we haven’t stopped laughing yet.

No, he didn’t call over the manager to rat her out. But the next time he went in, he pulled aside one of the more seasoned servers and asked her to make sure the young woman understood there might be a different way to handle the situation.

There are different ways to handle a writing revision as well. Revision is the least favorite part of the writing process for most young writers. So having different approaches on hand is a good way to keep students coming back to this all-important process.

The common approach is to simply work one’s way through the first draft, making corrections and taking out the “olives” as you go. But this isn’t always the best tactic. Some seasoned writers recommend that for a second draft, you go back and start fresh, rather than merely fix what’s already on paper. It sounds counter-intuitive—don’t you lose what was good about the original, along with what wasn’t working? But the truth is, this more radical approach can give young writers permission to “color outside the lines” of their original drafts. Having writt‚en the first draft still informs the new version in an important way, but it doesn’t limit it. Sometimes this approach can elevate the writing to a whole new level.

As my dad might say, once his food has been touched by olives (not to mention someone else’s fingers), he simply can’t eat it. The only answer is to start with a whole new salad.

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True Story

Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.

At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty. My pen slowed. Something about those words bothered me. The crux of his speech was that as writers for children, we are tasked to be honest and not withhold the truth.

After the applause pattered away, the air in the ballroom seemed charged. Everyone was eager to march, unfurling the banner of truth for young readers! If we had been given paper, we would have started brilliant, authentic novels on the spot.

The keynote’s message carried over into break-out sessions. Panelists admitted to craving the truth when they were kids, things parents wouldn’t tell them. Participants agreed. We should show kids the world as it really is! The implication being that children leading “normal” lives should be aware of harsher realities and develop empathy. Kids living outside the pale would find themselves, maybe learn how to cope with their situations.

I stopped taking notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a broken world. By age four, I’d experienced scores of harsher realities. At seven, I learned the hardest truth of all: that parents aren’t required to want or love their children. I spent most of my childhood fielding one real-world challenge after the other. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alcoholism, homelessness, and domestic violence.

Christmas Day when I was 11 with my sister and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delving into stories where the character’s biggest challenge was finding grandmother’s hidden jewels, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek normal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane families weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Henry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tumbled from her spaceship, lived a normal life with her family on Asra, climbing trees on that faraway planet like I did on Earth.

In a family of non-readers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read constantly, but decided to be a writer at an early age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried treasure, not things I had to keep quiet about; books where kids felt protected enough to embark on adventures.

My mother and stepfather regarded me with odd respect, as if unsure what planet this kid had come from. So long as “story-writing” didn’t interfere with schoolwork (it did), my mother excused me from chores. Only once did she declare reading material inappropriate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Story magazine and was deep into story about an abused boy when my mother caught me. She thought I was learning about sex. I was outraged by the injustice: punished for reading about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fiction was light and humorous. Yet some brave writers tackled serious subjects. My colleague Brenda Seabrooke wrote a slender, elegant verse novel called Judy Scuppernong. This coming-of-age story touches on family secrets and alcoholism. The format was perfect for navigating difficult subjects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More followed, until I’d told my own story. My agent submitted my book Nobody’s Child. One editor asked me to rewrite it as a YA novel. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some people said that by telling my story, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I never will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I wanted to know why. But by then everyone involved was gone, taking their reasons with them. If I were to fictionalize my story to help another child in the same situation, I couldn’t make the ending turn out any better.

In the fantasies and mysteries and books about animals I read as a kid, I figured out I’d probably be okay. When I looked up from whatever library book I was reading, or whatever story I was writing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was broken. There were woods and gardens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, people who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror …one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writers will flash the great mirror of truth in bolder works than mine. I’m content to shine my little pocket mirror at small truths, no bigger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.

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Big Surprise!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Skinny Dip with Sarah Aronson

Sarah AronsonSarah Aronson’s most recent books, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (The Wish List #1, Beach Lane Books) and Keep Calm and Sparkle On! (The Wish List #2) are at once lighthearted and serious—stories that are fun to read and encourage working for causes that matter to the world. Sarah is widely known in the children’s book writing community as an enthusiastic and effective writing instructor. Thanks, Sarah, for taking a Skinny Dip with us in December!

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

This is an easy one! My favorite and most influential teacher during those first years of school was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Dan Sigley.  

It was a year that began with mixed emotions. At that time, I didn’t really feel passionate about books. Oh, I liked books, but theater was my favorite story medium. I had also just returned from 8 months in York, England. I went to school there and was introduced to new settings (that you could visit) as well as writers like Charles Dickens. I read Enid Blyton. More important, I watched my friends take the 11 plus exam, effectively tracking and dividing them for different kinds of futures.

The PearlMr. Sigley awakened my creative spirit in many ways. He got me hooked on books in three distinct ways. First, our class read and performed Romeo and Juliet—unabridged! He showed me that even if I didn’t understand the individual words, I could infer meaning in a text! Second, he tirelessly handed me books—he was determined to make me a reader. The book that did it was John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. That ending blew me away! It made me think! This was what I wanted from books! A chance to think about injustice and relationships and family … and how I could make it better. Last, he taught us how to make books—from writing to illustrating to binding. This first home-made book, The Adventures of Prince Charming, connected the dots. Books were like theater. Books were unique for each reader. I loved getting into the heads of my characters. I loved holding a book, too.

About the time Head Case was released, Mr. Sigley moved to the house next to my parents, so I got to see him many times and thank him for everything he taught me. He was a gentle, creative man. He was the first person who held me accountable and awakened my imagination.

All-time favorite book?

The word, favorite, is my least favorite word ever! Here are the books I keep on my desk—they are the books I love. They are the books I reach for when I’m stuck. These are the books that have taught me how to write.

  • The Story of Ferdinand, The Rag and Bone Shop, Sandy's Circus, What Jamie SawOliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
  • The Rag and Bone Shop (Robert Cormier)
  • Monster (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Clementine (Sara Pennypacker)
  • Bunnicula (James Howe, Deborah Howe)
  • What Jamie Saw (Carolyn Coman)
  • The Carrot Seed (Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson)
  • The Story of Ferdinand (Munro Leaf, Robert Lawson)
  • Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
  • Blubber (Judy Blume)
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria (Peggy Rathmann)
  • Charles and Emma (Deborah Heiligman)
  • Sandy’s Circus (Tanya Lee Stone, Boris Kulikov)

What’s your favorite part of starting a new project?

When I am in pre-writing mode, nothing counts! (I am one of those weird writers that deletes her first discovery draft!!!) I love writing without expectations! It doesn’t feel like work. It is all disposable!

ShoesBarefoot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

You have to ask? I write books about fairy godmothers! I like shoes. Always shoes. I love shoes and boots and would even wear glass slippers if I didn’t think I’d trip and break them.

When are you your most creative?

First thing in the morning. Best advice I can offer: hide your phone. Be a word producer—not just a consumer. Get out of bed and create. Get someone to make you a coffee. Journal every morning. Or doodle. Get the pen to the paper. Find a way to transition from the real world to your imaginative state. The world and social media can wait!

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

In the winter: chocolate

In the summer: peach

But the gelato place around the corner makes Greek Yoghurt gelato. It’s sweet and sour and tangy! Yum.

(File under: this author has problems with favorites.)

Book on your bedside table right now?

I’m crying over Matylda, Bright and Tender, by Holly McGhee, recommended by Olivia Van Ledtje, also known as @thelivbits

Sarah Aronson's elephantWhat’s your hidden talent?

I can turn anything into a writing lesson.

Also: I can draw an elephant from behind.

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Young people give me hope. They value kindness. And the environment. They stick up for one another. They exhibit a strong sense of goodness and a willingness to speak out against injustices.

That is what I have seen and learned from readers—to kids and teens—even the shy ones who wait until they can email me to ask a question. Our young people are growing up in a time where there are no barriers to information. Yes, there is a lot of misleading stuff, but the good stuff is at our fingertips, too. I could complain a lot about phones and the internet, but technology is also equalizing. We live in a time when we can interact with just about anyone. There are so many ways to learn.

In young people, I see motivated kids like Nora (from The Wish List). They want to make the world better. They believe in goodness. They are not afraid to speak out. They support each other. That gives me hope.

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Thanksgiving Tea

The week before Thanksgiving I was part of a wonderful Thanksgiving-themed Storytime. Excellent books were read: Otis Gives Thanks by Loren Long and Thankful by Eileen Spinelli. We sang through There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Turkey by Lucille Colandro, and Simple Gifts by Chris Raschka. All was going swimmingly—beautiful children, rapt and smiling. They were very young, but you could tell they were read to regularly. They knew how to sit on cushions, raise their hands, use their inside voices, etc.

And then I decided to “tell” an original story about setting the table for a Thanksgiving Tea. I pulled out #1 Son’s tea set from when he was three and very into tea parties. I gave it a good wash—quite dusty as he has used larger tea cups for years now—and packed it into a “story box” with a few other props.

We will set a beautiful table together, I thought. I will invite them to pour the tea for one another…to imagine what they’d like to eat…we will give thanks for all the goodness in life…. Warm cozy feelings flooded my storytelling heart.

I placed a small end table in front of them. They all stood up and gathered around. This was unexpected—the standing—but it made sense, of course. They would be right there and able to see the story unfold. I smiled, opened my story box, and began.

This is our Thanksgiving table for tea… They stood still stock still, staring at the table in front of them. I love the innate drama of telling stories!

This is the tablecloth, ironed so smooth, that covers our Thanksgiving table for tea…. I spread a colorful sunflower napkin. Immediately they all were touching the napkin, rubbing the table with the napkin, pulling the napkin to one side and then the other, wiping their noses on the napkin. I suggested we put our hands at our sides.

Nope.

I suggested we put our hands behind our backs.

Ha!

So I continued. I’m semi-unflappable.

This is the light, that shines in the middle…. A quick glance at my fellow storytime leader confirmed that we might not want to light the candle as planned in my ridiculously cozy vision of this story telling. This was an excellent choice as instantly there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of little hands all over the unlit candle. They passed it around, grabbed it from one another, blew on it. I insisted we put the light in the middle as the story said.

When it was reluctantly placed there and we imagined the cozy flame, I continued through the story. They continued touching the candle and adjusting the cloth.

But things didn’t really fall apart until I brought out the small plates of “all different colors” with their “matching cups for our Thanksgiving tea.”

These were rearranged, stacked and unstacked, clattered together, passed around, dropped on the floor, sipped from, and licked. My fellow storyteller flinched with every clatter, but I knew what those dishes had been through and although they are pottery, they are the magical sort that somehow does not break.

When I placed the teapot and cream and sugar “that match the cups and plates, all different colors” on the table, frenetic pouring and common cup swigging ensued. Clearly they understood the concept of teatime. A small skirmish broke out over the cream pitcher and its imaginary cream. Heaps more sugar than the wee sugar bowl could possibly hold was sprinkled around all over the cloth and on each other. A thousand or more children managed to gather around that tiny table and “manipulate” the props.

WHAT A FEAST! I cried. WHAT A TREAT! WHAT SHALL WE EAT FOR OUR TEA?! 

“Cereal!” was the first answer. Then ‘taters and pie and popcorn and candy and turkey and more candy and toast and goldfish and jelly and macaroni-and-cheese and cupcakes and milk and apples and buttered noodles and bananas and hotdogs and meat and corn-on-the-cob and hot chocolate and watermelon and more candy. Marshmallows, too. For the hot chocolate. But also just to eat.

All of these things we pretended to place and plop and sprinkle and slop on the wee little plates and in the wee little cups as they were moving, no less. It was chaos—everything constantly being passed and clattered and exchanged and grabbed.

WE GIVE THANKS FOR THIS FOOD AND DRINK, THIS TABLE, AND OUR FRIENDS! I yelled above the mayhem. AND NOW WE CLEAN UP!

Half of the group immediately went and sat on their cushions. The other half did indeed “help” put everything back in the storybox. My storyteller partner and I heaved a sigh of relief as I put the lid on. Nothing broke. No one was crying. There was no blood.

“Now we have a craft!” we said. Which was, curiously, a much calmer activity. Except for the glue sticks—small battles erupted over those. More than one child used them as chapstick. Perhaps this made for a quiet ride home.

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The Kindness of Teachers

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

I loved first grade.

Fifty-one years later, I still have vivid memories of my teacher, Miss Follett. She played the piano every day. She read to us from her giant book of poetry. She showed us photos of her trips to exotic places, like Alaska and Hawaii.

At Halloween we screamed in terror and delight when she hobbled into our classroom dressed as a witch. At Easter we followed “bunny tracks” throughout the school till they led us to a chest filled with panorama sugar eggs that Miss Follett had handmade, one for each of us. On our birthdays we sat at the special birthday desk that was decorated with crepe paper streamers and balloons. Miss Follett would light the candles on the plaster of Paris birthday cake and the entire class would sing.

Miss Follett was also serious about learning. That was fine with me. One of the reasons I wanted to start first grade was because I desperately wanted to read. Words were all around me; I wanted to know their secrets.

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty

I also remember Humpty Dumpty, Miss Follett’s form of behavior management. The Humpty Dumpty cookie jar sat on the corner of Miss Follett’s desk. If our class was very, very good, Humpty Dumpty might (mind you, might) be magically filled with cookies for us. No one ever wanted to do anything that would displease Humpty.

When I became a children’s author, Miss Follett attended one of my publication parties. It was a proud moment for both of us. When I autographed her book, I included doodles of my favorite first grade memories.

Years passed.

This last spring I came home from running errands to find a large box waiting in front of my door. When I removed the layers of bubble wrap, I discovered Miss Follett’s Humpty Dumpty cookie jar inside, along with this note:

Dear David,

Now that I am moving to senior housing and need to downsize,
it’s time for Humpty to find a new home. I thought
he might enjoy living in your studio.

Your First Grade Teacher
Rosemary Follett

Miss Follett did indeed teach me to read. But she taught me a lot of other things as well. She taught me that adults can be both serious and playful. She taught me that art and music and poetry make life more beautiful. She taught me that the world is full of fascinating places, and that I can go visit them. She taught me that you are never too old to use your imagination.

And she taught me that teachers never stop caring about their students.

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Biography: How to Decide
What Goes into the Soup Pot (and What Doesn’t)

It is cold up here in the north country, so lately my thoughts have turned to creating a steaming pot of soup. For soup, you have to hit the highlights; the chicken, onions, a carrot or two. If you toss in too many ingredients, nothing will stand out and the result will be a muddled mess. You must also have a special ingredient. The quick taste that says, mmm, what is that? A dash of nutmeg? A spoonful of caraway seed?

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the short profiles in Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, I realized they required a similar focus. I needed the highlights; birth, family, education. The profiles also needed that special something to stand out.

Other than biographical assignments in school, I hadn’t written many biographies. But often it is in the doing that we learn. When I researched and wrote my (looking for a home) picture book biography Step by Step: The Story of Elizabeth Kenny’s Fight to Treat Polio, I learned a few lessons.

I had been fascinated by Sister Kenny ever since my father’s stay at the Sister Kenny Institute after his stroke. Who was this brash woman who had founded the institute famous in Minneapolis? Not just Minneapolis, for in fact, she was once voted the most influential woman in America, beating out Eleanor Roosevelt.

Researching and writing the life of someone famous can be daunting. I didn’t have the space to write about everything in her life, and I didn’t want to bore young readers with uninteresting facts.

The Minnesota Historical Center’s Gale Family Library held her secrets in the form of letters, cards, and photographs packed into boxes. Seeing Sister Kenny’s handwriting helped me to imagine her sitting at a desk composing a letter. The photographs let me look into her simultaneously kind and determined eyes. It was an odd sense of the past, her past, coming to life. And yet, since she died in 1952, I knew more about her fate (and legacy) than she did.

Sister Kenny eventually became the sample chapter I included in my proposal for Bold Women of Medicine. The Chicago Review Press Women of Action Series introduces young adults to women and girls of courage and conviction.

As I sifted through these lives I wondered, what spurred these women on to a life in medicine?

Within the framework of the women’s lives (birth, education, career, and family), I began to see patterns leading them to medicine. My goal was to keep the story moving forward.

Sister Kenny (photo: State Library of Queensland)

For example, Sister Kenny realized success with one patient inflicted with cerebral palsy, causing paralysis. She said, “Although my special life’s work had not yet really begun, I always think of this period as my starting point.” Discovering each woman’s motivation helped me to create a tighter focus. In other words, I limited the ingredients I placed into my soup pot and at the same time found that special something.

What factors influenced Sister Kenny to practice medicine? Was it an event, a person, or a need to be helpful? I am a linear thinker (sometimes a hindrance) but in this case, point A of a woman in medicine’s life often led to point B. Sometimes I had to backtrack much like you do when following a hiking trail, and often when I backtracked I discovered another, more intriguing part of her story.

Research is a tricky beast no matter what the subject is, and the most difficult part of research is knowing when to quit. Not everything from your fridge must be a part of your dinner.

I searched for anecdotes that would interest a young reader. What happened in Sister Kenny’s childhood that shaped her interest in science? What character traits did she possess that led to success or failure? What impact did she have on history? Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough says, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface. You have to know enough to know what to leave out.”

I read as much as I could on each woman, until I found the story and pattern with which to begin. Each of these women lived full lives, and in the cutting of some of their life events I strengthened the flavors, highlighting their powers of hope, education, and perseverance. And as I write this on a cold day, it’s time to pull out the pot and figure out the best ingredients for my soup!

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Pie Season

Jackie: This is gratitude season and that is a good reminder. Many of us have plenty to be grateful for and we often forget that while waiting for the next good things. It’s also Pie Season. It is the one time of the year at my house when we have no holds barred on pie. Everyone gets to have a favorite at Thanksgiving. Pie for dinner, pie for breakfast (the best!). So Phyllis and I decided to find some pie books.

How to Make a Pie and See the WorldOne book that I wish I had written is Marjorie Priceman’s How To Make Apple Pie and See the World (Penguin, Random House, 1994; paperback, 2008). This is a delightful story of gathering the ingredients for apple pie and then making the pie and sharing with friends. This book can be used to teach math (fractions in the recipe), geography (of course), and pie-making. And, more importantly, it’s fun. The language is lively and original. After preparing for the trip by finding a “shopping list and walking shoes,” get on a boat. Go to Italy for semolina wheat, then to France. In France, “locate a chicken. French chickens lay elegant eggs.” “Make the acquaintance of a cow” in England. The cow and the chicken accompany our intrepid pie-maker for the rest of the book as she gets bark for cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sugar cane from Jamaica, salt from the ocean, and “eight rosy apples” from Vermont.

Phyllis: There’s so much to love in this book (which I, too, wish I had written): the sources of our food which we often take for granted, the friends the little girl makes as she travels the world, the resilience of finding what you need (and, in a twist at the end, making do without the ice cream), the treatment of animals who give us milk and eggs, the humor of the art, which shows the pilot dropping the little girl off in Vermont by means of a parachute, the interconnectedness of what we eat. It makes me want to bake a pie her way, and it also makes me grateful for the grocery store and farmer’s market.

Gator PieJackie: Another long-time favorite of mine is Gator Pie by Louise Mathews with illustrations by Jeni Bassett (Dodd, Mead, 1979). Alvin and Alice are gator friends who live in a swamp. One day they find a lovely pie. They decide to share, but before Alice can cut two halves another alligator comes up and demands a share. Now Alice must cut the pie in thirds. And Alvin is not too happy about sharing. It gets worse—Alvin thinks he’ll get a quarter of the pie, then an eighth and finally one one-hundredth. Then he gets a brilliant idea. And he and Alice get to share the pie themselves. The illustrations make this book delightful. The subject matter makes it perfect for talking about how fractions work.

Phyllis: Because we are often looking at older books (I remember reading this one to my now-grown kids when they were little), we sometimes have problems putting our hands on those books. Some reside on our bookshelves, some are available through interlibrary loan, some we find online, and on occasion, if one of us has a copy but the other can’t find it, we read the story to each other on Skype. This time, because Gator Pie hadn’t yet arrived at my local library from another library, I watched a YouTube video of a young boy reading with his father, who helped his son when he wasn’t sure of a word. At one point, the boy grins at his father and says, “Excuse me, I drooled.” I love thinking that a book about a pie was so delicious that it made the boy’s mouth water, but I love more seeing the tender interaction between child and parent and book. This is why we write, for those connections.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieJackie: Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley (Clarion, 2009) features Edna Lewis, African American chef who wrote several cookbooks “teaching people how to prepare food in the southern regional style.” This book focuses on Edna’s childhood and imagines Edna and her family gathering the foods of the season: wild strawberries and fresh greens in the springtime; honey, cherries, and blackberries in the summer. The round fruits—peaches and tomatoes—fill summer baskets and boxes. Corn for cornbread, watermelons, butter beans (“’We’re rich as kings as long as we have beans,’ says Mama.”) and muscadine grapes finish out the summer. Back to school season means apples for pie and apple crisp. This is a book to remind us to savor the foods of our area. Reading it will make you hungry—and make you want to get out bowl and spoon, flour and fruit, and cook something.

Phyllis: Which you can do with this book, because it ends with an author’s note and some mouth-watering recipes. It’s a book, too, rich in family and language. Mama says, ‘Better hurry! You’ll need to outrun the rabbits to get the berries.” Daddy says to fill as many baskets as they can because the larder’s empty. When Auntie helps Edna and her little sister gather wild greens, she says, “A fresh crisp salad to nourish the heart and soul as well as the body.” Brother helps gather cherries and blackberries. When the family gathers round to find the perfect melon, Granny says, “Melons are just like friends. Gotta try ten before you get a good one.” Sassafras roots tossed up by the plow will flavor root beer. Watermelon rind will become pickles. As Edna surveys the cellar packed with good things, she says, “You can never have too much summer.” When I look at the wealth of squash and onions and garlic and potatoes piled high on my counter from my CSA farm share, I agree with Edna. And you can never have too many books as delicious as this one.

Enemy PieJackie: Finally, we want to look at a charming book that uses pie to solve a problem–Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and illustrated by Tara Calahan King (Chronicle, 2000). When Jeremy Ross moves into the narrator’s neighborhood, things start to go bad. Jeremy laughs at the narrator when Jeremy strikes him out in a baseball game, Jeremy didn’t invite him to a party at his house. Jeremy Ross became the top—and only name—on the new “enemy list.” But Dad has the answer, Enemy Pie. What goes into Enemy Pie? Dad won’t tell. The boy brings his dad weeds, no need. He brings earthworms and rocks, used gum. Not in the recipe. Dad says the other important part of Enemy Pie is that the boy has to spend a day with the enemy. Dad says, “Even worse you have to be nice to him. It’s not easy. But that’s the only way Enemy Pie can work. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

So the boy spends one day with Jeremy Ross to get him “out of my hair for the rest of my life.” By the end of the day, when it’s time for Enemy Pie, the boy tries to prevent Jeremy from eating it. By then he doesn’t want him to eat the awful pie. But Dad was eating. Then Jeremy took a bite. Would their hair fall out? It turned out that Enemy Pie was delicious!

This is such a sweet book, with a wonderful pie-making Dad, and a boy who learns that enemies don’t always stay enemies.

Happy pie-baking to all. I’m eager for fruit pie. What’s your favorite Phyllis?

Phyllis: Pumpkin is luscious, but one of the best pies I ever tasted was on a road trip in Canada—bumbleberry pie, which I think might be made of all the fruit pie fruits in one.

However you slice it, we love pie and pie books. We hope your houses are rich as kings in books and pies this season.

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It’s All About the Heart

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Little Prince

Originally this installment of Teach it Forward was going to offer my take on how to foster independence and promote stamina in the classroom. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot from teachers about these two topics and the challenge they present. The struggle to create a classroom filled with autonomous students who can sustain purposeful learning seems to be universal. As I captured my thoughts about how to help teachers, I came up with a list of creative strategies that worked for me over the years. Along with my repertoire of ideas, I sprinkled in lots of encouragement and upbeat advice such as “Look for what you want to see in your students… the rest will follow.”

frustrated student

However, after sitting with my words for a few days, I realized that my attempt to simplify such a complex undertaking would likely only make matters worse for teachers. How could one brief article adequately address something so perplexing and yet so essential as fostering independence and stamina in the classroom? The answer to this predicament came from a wise colleague who recently chatted with me about the distress teachers face when it seems impossible to develop self-driven and engaged learners. She suggested we all do a bit of soul searching by starting with the heart, not the head, to find the answers to these questions:

  • What are my beliefs about how my classroom should operate?
  • What is my “why” for being a teacher?
  • How do the kids know that I care, that I am passionate?

remembering the heartThe Little Prince reminds us of the important role the heart plays in understanding what lies below the surface. We must be willing to be vulnerable with our students if we want them to be vulnerable with us. As mentioned in the column “Food for Thought” a few months ago, I believe reaching the heart is a prerequisite for reaching the head. Before we can enable students to be independent learners for extended periods of time, it is crucial to convince them that what is invisible to the eye is what matters most.

It starts with the first of four components from Culturally Responsive Teaching (Teaching Tolerance), referred to as The 4 Rs, which is relationships.

From there, we strengthen connections with students by bringing realness, the second of the 4 Rs, into our lessons.

Next, we consider the relevance of what we teach to make sure students see the “why” of what we are asking them to do.

And, finally, we infuse rigor, the fourth and final “R,” into our teaching as we strive for high expectations of all kids.

Which favorite teacher comes to mind when you think of The 4 Rs? I easily return to 6th grade and fondly recall my very best teacher, Mrs. Frett. Although I cannot remember one standard or learning objective that she taught me, I can easily recall several meaningful conversations we had more than 40 years ago. Her secret was simple: she focused on our hearts before going after our heads.

In the words of beloved poet and writer, Maya Angelou, “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

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Predictable Pattern

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Skinny Dip with Mira Bartók

Mira Bartok

Mira Bartók, author and illustrator, recently ushered The Wonderling into the world and it is already on several best of 2017 book lists. Congratulations, Mira, and thanks for sharing your responses with our readers.

When did you first start reading books?

Age 4.

The Arrival, Shaun TanAll-time favorite book?

The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

Lunch: grilled cheese sandwich, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk!

What’s your leasst favorite chore?

Vacuuming.

What’s your favorite part of starting a new project?

Reading all kinds of books and taking random notes, and also going to museums to sketch objects and paintings that relate to what I’m working on.

Barefoot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Soft, comfy socks.

When are you your most creative?

When I’m not promoting a book, and when I turn off all electronic devices. And my brain is usually exploding with ideas when I’m either in a museum or walking in the woods. 

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint chocolate chip.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, M.T. AndersonBook on your bedside table right now?

There are several: M.T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand, two volumes of fairy tales by 19th century Scottish writer George MacDonald, the first Redwall book (I still haven’t read the series!), and a new short story collection called The Age of Perpetual Light by a  brilliant young writer named Josh Weil.

What’s your hidden talent?

I think I sightread piano music pretty fast. 

Your favorite toy as a child …

A little stuffed pony named: PONY. 

Favorite artist? Why?

South African artist William Kentridge. Because his work is avant-garde yet accessible, personal and political, and intellectual and emotional.

William Kentridge

A Universal Archive, copyright William Kentridge

tarantulaWhich is worse: spiders or snakes?

I love them both! I worked in a zoo and handled everything, including tarantulas!

What’s your best contribution to taking care of the environment?

I’m not sure which is my own best contribution but I know that composting and recycling every day is super easy and really helps. 

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

It’s hard to feel hopeful these days but when I see the little littles of the world experience wonder, it give me hope. So I suppose I feel hopeful because of them.

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Mighty Jack

Mighty Jack and the Goblin KingWe are thrust into the midst of the action, which never stops until the epilogue. This is how Ben Hatke tells a story.

We don’t know what’s going on. There’s no setup. Instead, we quickly learn that Jack is climbing some vegetative matter to find the ogre who kidnapped his sister Maddy and take her home. His friend, Lilly, no sidekick, is climbing alongside him.

The villains of the piece are rats, giants, and that ogre. They have control of a nexus point that exists outside of time and space, a connecting link between worlds. It looks like the tower of a castle built on an asteroid. The place has lost its luster because of the giants’ nefarious choices, among them the need to feed a human child to the machine that blocks the bridges between worlds. It’s satisfying to discover these plot points throughout the story.

Jack and Lilly are split up when Lilly falls from the vine (a rat is responsible). Jack vows to come back for her but he is compelled to find Maddy.

“This is not earth,” illustration from Jack and the Mighty Goblin King by Ben Hatke

The adventure takes off in two directions. Lilly is seriously hurt by the rats … and saved by the goblins who inhabit the lower reaches of the nexus point. The Goblin King demands that Lilly will be his bride. She has other ideas. In the “trash from all worlds,” she finds a Shelby Mustang. She will find a way to take it with her. Lilly is a hero in the truest sense of the word.

The goblins are the most endearing characters in the book. They are funny, resourceful, knowledgeable, and they care for Lilly. Their language is not exactly English and it suits them. Now we know how goblins communicate.

There are unanswered questions. Why can’t Maddy talk? Where did the magic seeds come from that give Jack and Lilly short bursts of needed power? Why is Jack’s mother’s house being foreclosed? These are the intriguing bits that encourage the reader to fill in the story, becoming one with the storyteller.

Hatke’s artwork is so much a part of the story that the book couldn’t be read out loud without showing the frames of the graphic novel. His brain creates exotic settings that invite lingering to absorb their oddness. His villains are dastardly, fearsome, inviting us to defeat them. The goblins are other-worldly but a little cuddly. (Just a little.) The color palette is spacey where appropriate,  convincingly subterranean when we’re in the goblin’s habitat, and quite richly appealing when the vegetation transforms. And that Shelby Mustang!

The book is filled with surprises. A turn of the page often brings an unexpected turn of events. Even the epilogue, often used to wrap up a story and tell us about the future, leaves us with a  sense of urgency: what will happen next?

There is a first book, Mighty Jack, which I have not read. It most likely creates the world in which Lilly, Jack, Maddy, and Phelix the dragon (!) live, but I’m very glad that a reader doesn’t have to first read that book to enjoy this one. I always hated going to my cousin Sig’s house, reading his comic books, never knowing where the stories were coming from or how they would end because they were published episodically. 

This is storytelling at its very best. Appealing, fun, hold-your-breath storytelling. I could have revealed that this is a re-telling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story but it is so much more than that. Ben Hatke’s powers enchant his readers once again.

(Please be advised that this might have a PG13 rating because of some violence and one swear word. You’ll know best if this fits for your family.)

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
a graphic novel by Ben Hatke
color by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore
published by First Second, 2017
ISBN 978-1-6267-226-68

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Art and Words, Words and Art

“Jungle Tales,” by J.J. Shannon, 1895

Thirty years ago, I bought a poster of “Jungle Tales” by J.J. Shannon (1895) at the Met in New York City. I took it to my favorite framer, but when it was ready, I was horrified to see they’d cut off Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Children’s Bookshop at the bottom, framing just the image.  No one thought the words were important.  The framer ordered a new poster and framed it intact. “Jungle Tales” has been hanging over our den sofa ever since. I love the painting, but I also love the place names. In my mind, the two can’t be separated—art and words, words and art.

Like most kids, I wrote stories and drew pictures. I enjoyed words with illustrations—magazines with photographs and cartoons, comic books, middle grade fiction with inside line drawings. The experience was never hurried—I pored over the images and made connections between the art and the words. This was a world I never wanted to leave.

Sancho, the Homing Steer, by Candice Sylvia Farris

I planned to be both a writer and an artist, but after high school I realized I’d need formal art training. College of any kind was out of the question. I could teach myself to write and that was the path I chose.

Still, art remained a large part of my life. I watch children’s book illustrators work, envying those who can draw and paint and see results at the end of the day. In a writing session, I may produce one decent sentence, if that. To improve my craft—a daily struggle even after all these years—I start journals, but falter in the practice. New projects seem wrenched from me. Words, words, where are the words?

Two years ago, I was asked to write a picture book based on a character created by an illustrator. I agreed to try, though I was uncertain and nervous. I hadn’t written a picture book in more than ten years. And I’d never written a picture book based on a character. The editor sent me the illustrator’s sample sketches. I studied them, just as I’d once pored over the art in comics or mystery books. I photocopied the samples and carried them around with me.

preliminary sketches for Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

Instead of having to visualize a character in my head, the way I usually wrote picture books (or anything), I could see the panda girl and her range of emotions, and appreciate Christine Grove’s sense of humor. I knew the kind of story this character needed. And I wrote it, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten (2017). When I was asked to write a sequel, the illustrations from the first book inspired me. Amanda Panda and the Bigger, Better Birthday will be out next summer.

Amanda Panda Quits KindergartenA few weeks ago, Christine Grove sent me a new character. “What do you think?” she wrote. I printed out the character and carried it around with me. A month later, I had a new story. Art came to my rescue. It gave me the words I hadn’t been able to pull out of my head. 

I don’t know if this new story will become a published picture book, but I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t stray from art again. I’ll collect magazine photos, doodle, photocopy books (Pinterest doesn’t cut it for me), and paste the images into those fallow journals. Visuals will help me find the words. Art and words, words and art.

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Cloth and the Picture Book:
Storytelling with Textile Techniques

Author and illustrator Debra Frasier was invited to lecture on this topic to the Western North Carolina Textile Study Group, and the public, in mid-November 2017. This is the bibliography that accompanies Debra’s presentation, with book selections by Debra Frasier and Vicki Palmquist.

If you would like to invite Debra to give this presentation to your group, please contact her.

Download a print version of this bibliography.

Books are listed in order of appearance in the presentation.

INTRODUCTION TO THE PICTURE BOOK FORM

Spike: Ugliest Dog in the Universe  

Spike, Ugliest Dog in the Universe
written and illustrated 
by Debra Frasier
Beach Lane Books, Simon & Schuster,
2014.

Collaged worn blue jeans with other textiles and papers.

THREE HISTORICAL INSPIRATIONS

Stitching Stars  

The Lady and the Unicorn, as seen in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, France.

The Bayeux Tapestry, written by David M. Wilson, “The Complete
Tapestry in Colour with Introductions, Description and commentary by David M. Wilson,” Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Stitching Stars, The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, Lyons, Mary E, African-American Artists and Artisans series, 1993, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, historical overview of late 1860’s, slave life, and Ms. Powers’ works and history.

A QUIRKY SURVEY OF TEXTILE TECHNIQUES 
USED IN ILLUSTRATIONS
FOR CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS

QUILTED INSPIRATIONS

Alphabet Atlas

 

The Alphabet Atlas
written by Arthur Yorinks
illustrated by Adrienne Yorinks
Winslow Press, 1999

Machine quilted, collaged continents

Hummingbirds  

Hummingbirds
written by Adrienne Yorinks and Jeannette Larson

illustrated by Adrienne Yorinks
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2011

Nonfiction combined with mythic, all quilted

Patchwork Folk Art  

Patchwork Folk Art, Using Applique & Quilting Techniques
written and illustrated by Janet Bolton
Sterling/Museum Quilts Book
Sterling Publishing Co, 1995

Not a children’s picture book but an excellent introduction to narrative in patchwork collage.

Mrs. Noah's Patchwork Quilt  

Mrs. Noah’s Patchwork Quilt
A Journal of the Voyage with a Pocketful of Patchwork Pieces
written by Sheri Safran
illustrated by Janet Bolton
Tango Books (England), 1995

Presents a how-to along with the story of Mrs. Noah’s quilt, and a back pocket includes patterns of quilt pieces appearing in the illustrations.

Tar Beach  

Tar Beach
written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold
Crown Publisher, 1991

Based on one of Ringgold’s quilts held by the Guggenheim Museum. The story arc and quilt borders all carried over to the picture book so, in this case, the book is inspired by the quilt.

Quiltmaker's Gift  

Quiltmaker’s Gift
written by Jeff Brumbeau
illustrated by Gail de Marcken
Scholastic Press, 2001

In which the creation of a quilt changes the heart of a greedy king. Each page features a different quilt block that fits into the context of the story.

The Keeping Quilt  

Keeping Quilt
written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
Simon & Schuster, 1988

A quilt made from a family’s clothing is passed down in various guises for more than a century, a symbol of their enduring love and faith.

CLOTH AND THINGS IN THE SEWING BASKET

Pat the Bunny  

Pat the Bunny
written and illustrated by Dorothy Kunhardt
Golden Book, 1940

Spiral bound with a small trim-size, this classic book uses actual bits of fabric to “feel” and “lift.”

Wag a Tail  

Wag A Tail
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt, Inc, 2007

Collaged papers and cloth, with buttons and “pinking shear” edging throughout.

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf  

Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991

Burlap, kite tails, string and bits of cloth are used in the collages.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat  

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat
written and illustrated by Simms Taback
Viking/Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1999

The main character—a diminishing coat—is actual cloth and is collaged with other bits of cloth curtains, rugs and clothing, and then all adhered to a painted surface.

Mama Miti  

Mama Miti
written by Donna Jo Napoli
illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010

Nelson has combined cloth with painting for both landscapes and clothing.

Hands  

Hands
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt Brace & Co, 1997

Ehlert has used actual objects: work gloves, apron swatch, sewing tools, scissors, pattern tissue—in this ode to making things as a child.

PAPER TREATED AS CLOTH

Paper Illusions  

Paper Illusions, The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave
by Barbara and Rene Stoeltie
Abrams, 2008 (English edition)

Lavish photographs of life-sized paper costumes made to match Renaissance period cloth using painting, folding, gluing, stitching to create the illusion of cloth.

Mole's Hill  

Mole’s Hill: a Woodland Tale
written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
Harcourt, 1994

Inspired by Woodland Indians ribbon applique and sewn beadwork, the paper is often dotted and pieced as if stitched and beaded. An author note describes this handwork and how it inspired her approach.

Seeds of Change  

Seeds of Change
written by Jen Cullerton Johnson
illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler
Lee & Low Books, 2010

Distinctive Kenyan-styled flower print dress patterns are used as the inspiration for paintings of dresses and mirrored in landscapes.

STITCHING

Fabric Pictures  

Fabric Pictures
A Workshop with Janet Bolton, Creating a Textile Story
written and illustrated by Janet Bolton
Jacqui Small LLP, Aurum Press, 2015

Not a children’s picture book but an excellent workshop-in-a-book on creating narratives with applique.

Baby's First Book  

Baby’s First Book
written and illustrated by Clare Beaton
Barefoot Books, 2008

Hand sewn felt, vintage fabrics, buttons, and stitched lettering collaged for a baby’s compendium of subjects. ALL items and backgrounds made of cloth.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves  

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
adapted by Joan Aiken
illustrated by Belinda Downes
A Dorling Kindersley Book
Penguin Company, 2002

Downes uses fine fabrics appliquéd with rich embroidery, incorporating a consistent running stitch to outline and embellish.

CLOTH AS SUBJECT

Cloth Lullaby  

Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois
written by Amy Novesky
illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016

The illustrator uses woven lines, [similar to some of Bourgeois’ later drawings] to create a textile sensibility in the illustrations amid the early years, and then the same vocabulary is used to visually describe the sculpture of her adult artist years.

Pattern for Pepper  

A Pattern for Pepper
written and illustrated by Julie Kraulis
Tundra Books, Random House/Canada, 2017

From Herringbone to Dotted Swiss, from Argyle to Toile—a visit to a tailor’s shop becomes a compendium of fabric patterns with each fabric sampled in the hunt for the perfect pattern for Pepper. Oil paint and graphite on board.

THREE-D CLOTH AND FELT

Pocketful of Posies  

Pocketful of Posies, A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
collected and illustrated by Salley Mavor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

64 traditional nursery rhymes are illustrated with hand-sewn fabric relief collages, including dozens of figures.

Felt Wee Folk  

Felt-Wee-Folk, 120 Enchanting Dolls
“New Adventures”
by Salley Mavor
C&T Publishing, 2015

This is a how-to book for creating characters and scenes as pictured in Pocketful of Posies.

Pride & Prejudice  

Cozy Classics
Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice
by Jack and Holman Wang
Chronicle Books, 2016

Entirely illustrated by felted 3-D characters that are set in an environment, superbly lit, and photographed to tell classic tales in one word page turns. Several classic titles are included in this series.

Roarr Calder's Circus  

Roarr, Calder’s Circus
a story by Maira Kalman
photos by Donatella Brun
designed by M&Co for
the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1991

Using bits of Calder’s spoken text from the film of his hand manipulated circus, Kalman expands the language and characterizations. Calder’s circus characters of wire and cloth are photographed and then collaged across the double-page spread.

THE DYED BOOK

We Got Here Together  

We Got Here Together
written by Kim Stafford
illustrated by Debra Frasier
Harcourt Brace, 1994

Shibori, a resist dyeing method, is used to pattern Japanese gampi tissue paper (long fibered tissue) as ocean and rain, in both pipe resist and braided resist techniques, respectively. Shibori tissue paper is combined with Japanese dyed sheets in collages on illustration board.

SPECIAL GUEST

Catharine Ellis  

Catharine Ellis, self published, three titles:

Cape Cod: The Present, Blue, and Mapping Color (written by Nancy Penrose, illustrated by Catharine Ellis). Find Catharine’s resources and publications here.

(Each of these chapbooks is illustrated using photographs of natural dyed fabrics, sometimes additionally stitched on the surfaces, while abstractly defining the text.)

What are your favorite books illustrated with textiles? Send us your recommendations.

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A Picture and a Thousand Words

As a reporter and editor for decades, I often heard people accuse my colleagues and me of “bias,” of having a particular slant on a story—usually a point of view that the accuser disputed. It was a common charge, especially if the issue was controversial.

But in truth, reporters are no different than anyone else. Everyone comes to a subject with some kind of bias.  If you know what a certain beach is like, then you are likely to associate other beaches with that experience; if you’ve never been to the beach, then you can only imagine what the smells, the sand, or the sea is like.

If you are pro-candy, you will read about candy differently than someone who doesn’t like it.

When you write nonfiction, these different reader perspectives matter. If we want to be thoughtful about a subject or apply those all-important critical thinking skills, it helps to acknowledge our natural biases—not to judge, but simply to understand that our experiences affect how we see things.

Tommy: the Gun that Changed America (hardcover on the left, paperback on the right)When I speak to junior high students, I often hold up a copy of my book Tommy: The Gun that Changed America and ask them what they think it is about.

“Why would I write this,” I go on, “and why, especially, for young people?” Then I might show them the paperback version, which has the same title, of course, but no gun on the cover.  “What do you make of that?”

From there, we can actually start talking about guns—what role they play in our society, what makes them interesting to readers and how they generate strong feelings—without having to debate the Second Amendment.

Because we live in such a visual world, I spend hours tracking down the right photos, cartoons, and documents to help tell a story. And even if these images don’t make it into the book, they influence my writing by reminding me what the world looked like and how people felt in that time period.

The images that do make it into my books can change the reader’s experience, challenging the biases they bring to the story.

Bonnie Parker

Bonnie Parker (photo: Missouri State Highway Patrol)

Consider this photo of Bonnie Parker, a key image in my next book, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend, due out in August 2018. It’s a crucial picture, the first time she became known to the public. What do you think about her when you see this? What do you think she’s like?

Now compare it to the glamour shot below, taken just a few years before. Does it change your perspective at all?

Maybe one way to make student research and nonfiction more engaging is to consider our assumptions and biases by bringing images into the process. Some ideas:

Bonnie Parker (from the collections
of the Dallas History and Archives Division
of the Dallas Public Library)

  • Ask students to make assumptions about a book from the cover. Then compare to what the story is inside. Did their perspective change?
  • Pull out a single image and try to guess what it means to the story. Then, read that chapter (or picture book) and test it.
  • Ask students to search for a photo separately from their research on a subject. Did the photo enforce or change their point of view?

What other ways can you address how a reader’s experiences can impact understanding?

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Pickle Voice

When I was a kid I got lost while participating in a summer recreation program. I was terrified. So the first thing I did when the group leaders found me was to laugh.

I was laughing out of pure relief at being found. And because even as a kid, my emotional stress relief valve was set to “humor.” I’m hardwired in such a way that I often laugh even while I’m crying.

I got in big trouble that day for laughing, and I continued to get in trouble whenever other people thought humor was an inappropriate response. Which led me to believe that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I needed to use a serious tone. Humor, I had learned, would likely get me into trouble.

Guess what? None of those oh-so-serious things I used to write got published. The writing felt lifeless and artificial; it wasn’t reflective of who I really am. It wasn’t until an editor encouraged me to pursue the “hidden funny story” that she found buried in a manuscript of mine that I let humor back into my work.

That reworked story, complete with lots of “funny,” went on to become my first published book.

I think that what we mean when we talk about “writer’s voice” is a writer’s personality showing up on the page. It emerges through many diverse writing choices, ranging from word usage to tone to rhythm. It’s a tough concept for students to grapple with. Yet editors say it’s a major factor in what they look for in a publishable piece, and writing programs include it as a key component. We can’t ignore voice just because it’s hard to teach and learn. So how do we help students find their voice, especially given that some of them may have been told that the voice that comes naturally to them should stay lost?

I use an activity that encourages students to play with voice. I first choose a group of things that exist as a collective, within which the different components have “personality” without being controversial. Examples are the four seasons—winter and summer have different personalities; or it might be colors—we can assign personalities to green and pink without coming to blows over it; or you could even use food flavors. Then I have students write about a simple topic using contrasting choices from the group. In other words, I might ask them to describe the town they live in, first using a dark chocolate voice, and then using a pickle voice.

It sounds odd, but I’ve seen it have surprising results. Somehow playing with voice in this way can set students on a path to finding the writer’s voice that was lost inside them all along.

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Revision Letter

Lynn Jonell's Page Break

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Skinny Dip with Susan Yutzey

Susan Yutzey

Susan Yutzey

Susan Yutzey worked as an Ohio school librarian for many years, serving in local, state, and national leadership positions. Now retired, she continues to be a tireless advocate for school libraries and librarians.

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

Ms. D’Angelo was my seventh grade teacher. I was a new student at Edith A. Bogart Elementary School and Ms. D’Angelo made me feel welcome. From encouraging me as a left-hander to position the paper the way I felt most comfortable to serving as my piano accompanist at the annual talent show as I sang selections from my favorite musical “Gigi,” Ms. D’Angelo was always my role model.

Nancy DrewWhen did you first start reading books?

My first book was a gift from my grandmother—The Little Engine that Could. From that point on, I remember reading every Nancy Drew book, relishing my Saturday mornings as I devoured The Secret of the Old Clock, The Mystery of Lilac Inn, The Secret at Shadow Ranch, and all the rest. To keep track of my books I created “checkout” cards and attached them to each book. Playing librarian at the tender age of ten should have been my clue that twenty-nine years later I would embark on a career as a school librarian.

The Poisonwood Bible Barbara KingsolverAll-time favorite book?

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Your best memory of your school library?

The library in my high school was a two-story library with shelf after shelf of books and periodicals. From the second floor to the first floor was a winding staircase. During the two years I was a student at Northern Highland High School, I was secretary of the Library Council. The officers of the Library Council had their yearbook photo taken on that winding staircase. I also have fond memories of Mrs. Enos, the school librarian, and her assistant Mrs. Holmstrup who provided a supportive environment for students and encouraged independent thinking and action.

Turtles All the Way DownBook on your bedside table right now?

I seem to being going through a British mystery phase so on my bedside table you’ll find Friend Request by Laura Marshall. I just finished reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. I usually have two books going at the same time so my nonfiction read is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

What’s your hidden talent?

As an elementary school student I discovered that as a left-hander, I could write backwards. I would write my name or a phrase backward, hold it up to a mirror and there it was—able to be read by anyone! It was great for passing notes to friends.

Graeter's Ice CreamFavorite flavor of ice cream?

Graeter’s Ice Cream is a Cincinnati-based creamery. My favorite flavor from Graeter’s is black raspberry chocolate chip.

What’s your best contribution to taking care of the environment?

Walking wherever and whenever I can and recycling plastics and paper in our neighborhood recycling program.

Susan Yutzey, library advocate

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The Sameness of Sheep

Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”

I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either). The age argument took the wind out of my sails. I understood the reasoning—create older characters to get the most bang for the middle-grade buck by snaring younger readers. Better yet, stick the character in middle school.

The true middle-grade novel is for readers eight to twelve with some overlap. Chapter books for seven- to ten-year-olds bisect the lower end of middle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, straddle the gap between MG and YA. If my characters are twelve, I hit the middle grade and tween target and everybody wins. Maybe not.

At our public library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG novels off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main character. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turning twelve in the next chapter. While the characters and stories were all different, there was a sheeplike sameness reading about twelve-year-olds.

It worries me. Publishers contribute to pushing elementary school children as quickly as possible into middle school. Where are the middle-grade books about a ten-year-old character? An eight-year-old character? Ah, now we’ve backed into chapter book territory.

Charlotte's WebSupposedly, kids prefer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Reading about a character who is two or three years older might generate anxiety in some readers. And they may disdain shorter, simpler chapter books.

In the past, before publisher and bookstore classifications, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main character in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern saving him. Fern is eight, a fact mentioned on the first page. Does anyone care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s richly-depicted barnyard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recently, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” barrier with his terrific middle grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Betsy Bird compared it to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Billy is seven and starting second grade, a character normally found in a briskly-written, lower-end chapter book. Yet Billy Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird praises Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Billy a second grader because that’s what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader … To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a bigger challenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the characters are seven and six. This hefty MG explores the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Neri chose fiction rather than biography because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] story was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writing a lengthy, layered book about a first and second grader.

We need more books featuring eight-, nine-, ten-year-old characters that are true middle grade novels and not chapter books. Children grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “middle” stage, find themselves in books with characters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of seasons, “the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barnyard and into middle school.

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Mouse Books

We have mice. Hopefully just one, but it’s a brash one, scuttling around the kitchen during breakfast this morning.

This happens in the fall at our house. We’ve certainly tried to find where they might be getting in, but they say a mouse only needs a dime-sized hole, and we obviously haven’t found it. Caught two a couple of weeks ago.

They’re small. Cute, even. Which is good, because otherwise I’d have the heebie-jeebies. And I (mostly) don’t. It’s just a To-Do on the list—and I’m not the one who To-Do’s it even.

But it has me thinking…. We might not want them in our houses, but mice are beloved characters in kids’ books. Certainly at our house they have been. Ralph S. MouseThe Mouse and the Motorcycle…all of Kevin Henke’s wonderful mice picture books…The Brambly Hedge CollectionMrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHA Mouse Called WolfStuart LittleThe Tale of Despereaux…Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series…Avi’s Poppy and Ragweed books…Bless This Mouse…. And these are just some of the books in which mice play the starring role. Plenty more have mousy “minor characters.” (Think Templeton in Charlotte’s Web, or Mouse in the Bear books by Bonnie Becker.)

I’ve written many Red Reading Boots columns about our favorite mice books. (I just looked back—many!) I look at the shelves in my office, which have been stocked with all of the family favorites I’m allowed to take from the #1 Son’s and Darling Daughter’s shelves, and goodness! It would appear we’ve raised them on mice! #1 Son had imaginary mice friends who accompanied through the trials and tribulations of early childhood—and no wonder! Did we read anything else?!

What is it about mice that are so appealing for storytelling? Is it that they’re the presumed underdog because of their size? Yet in story after story, they prove themselves to be intelligent, resourceful, and courageous—their size even advantageous. Certainly this is a theme worthy of putting before children.

Is it because they are so wee and dear (fictionally!) and lend themselves to illustrations? Some of my most favorite illustrations have mice in them (see the above list for starters!) Their little clothes! 

Or is it because we like to imagine parallel universes in which the smallest animals create homes and villages and worlds from our bits and bobs? Hidden away in the hedgerows, the rafters, beneath the floorboards…all these stories running along beside use.

It might be this last thing for me. When I’m on walks I often see tiny hollows, small pockets, and inviting dime sized (and larger) holes in the walls and hedges and trees. When I see these, I’m immediately furnishing a home for tiny ones inside—scraps artfully repurposed, cozy built-ins, winding passages….

I’m fully aware that other rodents could star in such scenes, but it’s always a bitty mouse with large ears and eyes and flickering whiskers that comes to mind. Perhaps it’s because of what I’ve read over the years? Certainly could be. There’s something about mice that fire our imaginations, I think.

I’m on the hunt for new mouse books. What do you have to recommend?

 

 

 

 

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Tiny House, Cozy Cabin

A few months ago, my husband and I sold our home of 30 years and decided to live full-time in our cozy cabin in the woods. We left behind greater square footage, a quaint and sometimes bustling village on the waterfront, and a home with lots of family memories.

But it was time for a change.

Time for more simplicity.

Ever since our kids left home, we’d been juggling life between our house and cabin, leaving us feeling fragmented and burdened. Something had to go. The decision wasn’t easy. A comfortable, well-appointed and spacious home? Or a tiny house / cozy cabin with a spacious outdoors? We opted for less house, more nature.

Mary Casanova cabin

On these 60 acres, the aspen and maple have nearly shed all their leaves. Winter is coming, and we heat our cabin with hand-split fire wood in our woodstove. Mornings start with coffee by the crackling fire, then we head out to feed three horses, clean stalls and paddock, gather eggs, and hike with our dogs to the river.

After breakfast, I like to tidy up my home before getting to my writing desk, which is in the loft. In a tiny space, cleaning takes minutes. Of course, moving into this smaller home first meant downsizing our possessions. We went on a crusade to rid our lives of clutter. We donated, trashed, recycled, and gifted away everything we could.

With less to manage and maintain, we lower our stress and free up more space for things that matter to us.

The cabin’s cooling a bit as I write this.

Time to stoke the fire and grab a good book.

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Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer and her books are respected and loved by children, parents, educators, librarians, editors, and writers. She began her career as a novelist, turning to picture books later in her career. Celebrating the release of her newest picture book, the charming Winter Dance, we were curious about how she writes these short books so we asked! And this long-time teacher of other writers provided heartfelt answers.

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer (photo credit: Katherine Warde)

If You Were Born a KittenWhen you sit down to write a picture book, what has inspired you?

Sometimes I begin with an idea I want to share.  If You Were Born a Kitten, for instance, comes out of my very impassioned belief that the miracle of birth is hidden from most young children in our society—from most of us, really.  I wanted to celebrate birth in a way that would show it both as miracle and as part of our solid, everyday reality. 

Sometimes the concept comes from something I read or something someone says to me. Winter Dance came from an editor’s saying, “What about celebrating the first snow?” 

But the actual picture book begins, always, with language.  I can’t even begin to flesh out my idea until the opening line is singing in my head.

The Longest NightDo you know the ending of your picture book before you begin to write?

I always know the end of a novel before I begin to write, and if a picture book is a story, I know the end of that, too. So when I began writing The Longest Night, I knew before I put down the first word that the little chickadee would bring back the sun. When I write concept books, though, like How Do I Love You?, I have to find my ending in the playing out of the language.

Do you write with a specific child in mind?

I write always for a child, and in the case of picture books for the adult who will be sharing the book, but I have no particular child in my heart … except maybe the small child I was so many years ago.

Do you envision the illustrations while you are writing?

I envision space for the illustrations, which is a very different thing. I don’t think what the illustrations will depict, specifically, and I certainly don’t think about what they will look like. That’s the artist’s territory. But I make sure I have created an active changing world for the illustrator to take hold of.

How much do you consider the level of the reader’s vocabulary when you write a picture book?

Honestly? Not at all. Because picture books are usually read to a child rather than by the child, I never consider vocabulary. Sometimes a totally new word is, in itself, a kind of enchantment for a child. Think of Peter Rabbit for whom lettuce had a “soporific” effect! No, I’ve never used the word soporific or anything like it, but isn’t it a wonderfully resonant word? 

I should add, though, that there is one basic rule I use with all of my writing.  I believe the best word in any piece of writing for any audience is always the simplest one.  Sometimes, though, that best word might just happen to be soporific.

Winter DanceDo you ever begin a picture book feeling at a loss for how to write it?

Yes, and when I do I always stop, set it aside, give it time. When it begins to sing to me—if it begins to sing to me—then there will be no more loss.

Winter Dance, my newest picture book, actually began with an editor’s committing to a picture book I had written about spring.  For a complicated series of reasons the text the editor contracted had to be altered substantially, and during that process, my drafts got farther and farther away from anything the editor wanted.  I mentioned earlier, it was the editor who finally came up with the idea that I write about the first snow instead.  Great idea, but first I had to find my fox, and I had to discover that foxes mate in winter so he would have a reason to rejoice over snow.  And then, of course, I had to find the song to carry him through.

What is the word length you aim for in a picture book?

A maximum of 450 words.  Even that can be too long for some books. 

You were best known for your novels for middle grade and teen readers. What influenced you to try a different book form for a different reader?

The truth is I always wanted to write picture books. In the beginning, I simply didn’t know how to write them, even though I had read them endlessly to my own children and to various foster children in my home. Picture books are a bit technical to learn, and I had no one to teach me. In fact, I started out trying to write picture books and discovered I didn’t know what I was doing. So I moved on and found it easier, not knowing what I was doing, to muddle through a novel. 

The other piece, though, was that my first editor, at a time when we  writers were owned by our first editors, said to me when I showed him what I thought was a picture-book manuscript, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer.” Now, he could legitimately have said, “Marion, that’s not a picture book.” Because it wasn’t. But even when the publishing world opened up and I did learn and began publishing successful picture books with other houses, he refused to alter his vision of me as only a novelist. So I have him to thank for my career getting established in novels. Picture books are so much fun, if he had been open to younger work from me, I probably would have been off playing with picture books much sooner.

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Thank you, Marion, for sharing your thoughts about picture books in such an instructive way. We’re always happy to learn from you.

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.

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A Vehicle for Change

Fallout ShelterI’d heard my mom talk about “duck and cover”: hiding under her school desk from a potential nuclear attack. And I’d participated myself in tornado drills during my own school days, lining up in a basement hallway with our arms covering our heads.

None of that prepared me for a lockdown drill. I was on one of my regular gigs as a visiting author when the teacher pulled me aside and prepped me on what to expect. Except it turns out there’s no prepping for the feeling that comes over you when you’re locked into a dark room with twenty-some kids crouching under desks, recognizing that you’re practicing in case someday, one of them decides to show up to school with a gun hidden under a peanut butter sandwich. It ranks as the most unsettling moment I’ve experienced during a school visit.

I’m certainly not alone in wishing we could find the way to permanently erase the need for lockdown drills. The one suggestion I can offer is something I know from firsthand experience: writing can provide a valuable outlet for young people who are grappling with life’s harshest realities. When I go into a school, I might be there for only a day or a week. And yet even in that very brief chance to work together, I’ve had students who’ve used their stories to share all sorts of sad and scary realities from their lives: pain over their parents’ divorce, bullying, betrayal by a friend, death, abuse, and fear. These students follow a long human tradition of using art to shed light into the dark corners of our existence.

And because I’ve seen what a difference it can make for a young person to share their own dark corners, I also believe that we could use art as one of the vehicles of change we’re looking for. As much as I understand the unhappy necessity for lockdown drills, I can only hope that we also remember to give students enough time to sit at their desks with the lights on, writing and creating the kind of art that illuminates us all. Maybe somehow giving them those opportunities will prove even more important than teaching them to crouch under their desks, waiting for the darkness to come and find them.

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Pigs Galore

This past September, after years of writing and teaching the writing of realistic YA fiction, I was pleased to launch into the world a set of four early chapter books. Not surprisingly, the challenge of telling a story in 1000 words instead of 60,000 was huge. It was not the only challenge.

Instead of focusing on a teen girl in turmoil, I was now writing about a talking pig. An athletic one, to boot: Gracie LaRoo, the youngest member of a championship synchronized swimming team. I can just hear the younger writer me: Anthropomorphism? You’re really gonna go there?

While developing Gracie and while writing her stories I was keenly aware she was joining a crowded field. There are a lot of pigs in children’s literature, and many of them have reached one-name celebrity status. Okay, Piglet, Freddy, Wilbur, Babe, and Olivia only ever had one name, but since their arrival on the scene have they ever needed more than that?

Character is everything in literature, and I was delighted to discover some fine new and new-to-me pigs. Like almost all the books I read and reread, my list can be divided into two types of books: farm pigs and pigs-as-people (i.e., full-blown anthropomorphism).

Pigs Might Fly  

Pigs Might Fly
written by Dick King-Smith

(Mary Rayner, illus; Puffin, 1990)

I loved this novel by the author of Babe: The Gallant Pig, and not just because the protagonist Daggie is a swimming pig like my Gracie. There’s a lovely balance of realistic farm life and talking-animal whimsy. Like most of the farm-story pigs, Daggie appears destined for the breakfast table. How can he avoid that fate? Daggie is a wonderful character; his delight in cooling off in a stream on a hot day is visceral. And does he ever fly? You think I’d tell you?

Adventures of a South Pole Pig  

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig
written by Chris Kurtz

(Jennifer Black Reinhardt, illus; HMH, 2015)

An outdoor survival story with a female protagonist–what’s not to love? Okay, Flora’s a pig, but still. Perhaps because the novel begins on a farm, I had no hesitation in accepting that what happens later in the story is precisely what would happen were a pig shipwrecked at the edge of Antarctica. One warning: the shipboard rats are very frightening.

 

The Pirate Pig

 

The Pirate Pig
written by Cornelia Funke

(Kerstin Meyer, illus; Yearling, 2015)

Funke is of course the imaginative author of many middle grade and YA novels. This story about a treasure-sniffing pig who is shanghaied into labor by two evil pirates is great fun; also, how can you resist a pig pirate named Julie?

Poppleton Has Fun  

Poppleton Has Fun
by Cynthia Rylant

(Mark Teague, illus; Harcourt School Publishers, 2006)

Animals of all types abound in stepped-reading sets and series, and pigs are especially well-represented. I pored over many and quickly tossed some aside. Thanks to Newbery winner Rylant’s deft characterization and pitch-perfect language, Poppleton emerges as the best, and in this book he quilts and takes a nice bath. Fun, indeed.

 

Did I miss your favorite pig? Please comment!

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On Growing Older … Old

Growing OlderWhy is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?

To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door. But old … ah, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance. Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-our-society word … death.

I am approaching my birthday month. It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to. I will be 79 next month.

Can you name the number?

Forty didn’t trouble me a bit. I had a friend, several years older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age. It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.” And she was right! I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident … and still young.

Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare. As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all. Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security and Medicare, and for the self-employed that is no small thing. I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me. Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal. (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.” That’s what Medicare is, and it works! It works better than any other pay-for-care system this backward system offers.)

When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party … at my request, I should add. It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me. Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.

“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.

She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”

But this is 79! And yes, I might as well name the number. Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!

It’s the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix. Not that I’ve given up trying. I walk vigorously two of three times a day. I do Pilates three times a week. I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene. Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.

From time to time, bits fall off.

And my mind? That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about. I can still produce a workable manuscript. I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too. But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.

My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.

Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement. Who is ever prepared? After all, old has never been something to aspire to … despite the alternative. A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.” And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.

I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be. I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all. I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings to a room.

I want to use these years to live. Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those. We all have enough of those.

I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully. And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.

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