Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Diversity, Racism and Other (less deep) Thoughts

Over spring break I was determined to write two whole blogs! Spring break ended a month ago, and this is the first of those blogs. Clearly, I was not successful. I actually nearly finished it, but never managed to publish it.  And now it’s been a month, so some of what I wrote seems irrelevant, and it had to be reworked.

My blog is mostly about books, but it’s also a little bit about my life.  Naturally, as a writer and a mother, what’s going on in my life informs what I write about. Before spring break, Henry was having some behavior problems at school, or more specifically, in the on-site after-school care. It seemed like such a shock to me, because I’ve had very little experience with school misbehaviors.  Our older kids aren’t exactly angelic at home, but for the most part we’ve always been able to count on them to behave well publicly, and certainly have never had any trouble with them at school.

Henry, not currently naughty
I was pretty stressed for a while because, keep in mind, these behaviors are going on at my place of work. Firmness, consistency, love and prayer – these are what finally worked.  We’re not sure what triggered the behavior, but my husband pointed out a time a couple weeks prior when he got nailed in the head with a soccer ball. It hit him so hard that it literally knocked him backwards and off his feet, and his head hit the floor a second time. As children of the 70s, it didn’t occur to us that he might, in fact, be concussed. Retrospectively, we are blaming this for that tough stretch. He is mostly back to his normal acceptable level of mischievousness, but there were a couple incidents last week that have me back on alert. We are at the school much more than just during school hours, so he gets confused about what’s allowed when school is in session and what’s allowed when it isn’t. Time to remind him of the boundaries.

I was getting myself out of bed and off to the gym before work consistently three or four days a week.  Now that it’s light in the morning, I’m only going twice a week and trying to run at least three days. Frankly, the runs are exhausting because it’s not just that I’m running, but battling a rambunctious overgrown puppy every step. I need to get one of those hands-free waist harness systems, and I think it will make it an easier prospect. Once I make it a routine, I really enjoy working out, but if I ever want to lose those 20 pounds that five kids put on me, I have got to stop eating so much. I really enjoy eating, don’t you? Are there even people who don’t?

To help me along in that regard, I gave something up for Lent. We’re not Catholic, but I always like to give something up just for the exercise in self-denial. The really brave thing would be for me to give up coffee, but I’ve never had the guts to do it. This year, I gave up the mini candy bars that our attendance secretary keeps in a bowl on her desk. I figured that I generally ate around ten of them a week, and over time, those calories really add up. I was really happy when Easter was past and I could eat them again, but I’m trying to limit myself to one a day.

I toyed with the idea of giving up commercial shampoo and conditioner, but figured that would be cheating since I was already planning on giving them up. That’s right, I have taken the “No ‘Poo” challenge. It has been at least two months since I started washing my hair with a baking soda solution and conditioning with diluted cider vinegar. My hair seems a little on the dry side, and I had an ill-fated attempt to remedy this with olive oil. I was trying to quit styling products too, but had to concede to a bit of gel. I finally started using a bit of conditioner on my ends too. Overall, my hair seems just as clean, does NOT smell like salad dressing, but there’s definitely more static than normal. My husband asked me point blank last week, “Why are you doing this?” I couldn’t really come up with a good reason, so I think I may switch back to regular hair products. It takes less time and preparation, and I do love how they smell. It’s nice to know, though, that if necessary, you can keep your hair clean and presentable without store-bought stuff.

Now for books . . .  my Caldecott and Newbery predictions were a mixed bag. My Newbery pick, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” did not win, but it was an Honor book and won so many other awards this year, that I feel vindicated. The winner was “The Crossover,” by Kwame Alexander, which was definitely on my radar, but didn’t make my final list. I read it over spring break, and because it was in verse, I was able to zip through it in about an hour of total reading time. It was not a book I would ordinarily gravitate to, and it took me about a third of the book to really get into it. It was a good, compelling story, relatable to middle grade kids, and a lot deeper than I had imagined.

I still feel that “Brown Girl Dreaming” was a better book, but I think the Newbery committee chose “The Crossover” because it exhibited the less typical point of view of a male athlete. The other Honor book was “El Deafo,” by Cece Bell. I find it interesting that all three winning books were in a non-traditional format. Both “The Crossover” and “Brown Girl Dreaming” were written in verse, and “El Deafo” is a graphic novel. Plus, two of them are about non-caucasian characters, and the other about a girl with physical challenges. The hue and cry for more diversity in books seems to be making a difference, which is a good thing for everyone.

With the Caldecott, I completely missed the winner. I hadn’t even heard of it! My winning pick was “Viva Frida,” which did win an Honor award, and I successfully chose two of the other Honor books, “Sam and Dave Dig a Hole” and “Nana in the City.” Nana was probably my favorite, visually. The illustrations were so warm and inviting, it was like the book was reaching out and hugging you. The actual winner, “The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend,” was unknown to me, but of course I did know of Dan Santat, it’s author/illustrator. I immediately tried to find a copy at any bookstore in town,  or on Barnes and Noble and Amazon on-line. Nothing! I had to wait for it to be in stock, and it finally arrived the day before spring break. I tore open the box eagerly and read it, sharing it with a colleague as well. We both loved it. It’s a sweetly heartfelt book, with a clever premise, and later, when I read it to my classes, it was universally loved.

I heard an interesting tidbit about Dan Santat. I follow him on Twitter, and just a couple days before the Caldecott was announced he tweeted about how an elderly white woman refused to sit next to him on a plane because he was Asian. I wonder if she ever realized just who it was she offended. I wonder a lot of things . . . how can people think that way? Don’t they realize it’s the 21st century? Why haven’t such prejudices died? I was discussing the topic with my daughter yesterday, and we just don’t get blatant racism. I realize people are raised with some preconceived notions about races other than their own, and I know that I’ve had to work at getting past mine. But seriously feeling that you are better than someone because they have a different skin color? It just does NOT compute. The most prevalent brand of racism in our town is against Alaska Natives, which just infuriates Emma.  She doesn’t look native, but she is, and people will make ignorant comments in front of her.  Trust me, she does not stay silent about it, which makes me proud and glad, and also a little sad that this battle is still being fought.

As for my own recent pleasure reading, I’ve managed to peck away at a few books, but I think I’ll just cover a few of them here, and save the rest for another blog. I was feeling nostalgic, so I did a fourth re-read of “The Hunger Games” and am partway through a “Catching Fire” re-read too. They’re just as good as ever. My moods, and even what’s going on around me, very much dictate what I read. One of my students was appearing as Jane in a high school drama production of “Mary Poppins,” so of course, I had to read the book. I had never read it before and was surprised at how it differed from the Disneyfied movie version. I enjoyed it, but Mary Poppins was nowhere near as sweet in the book as Julie Andrews played her. In the book, there were four kids, not two, and many more increasingly bizarre adventures that make the tea party on the ceiling seem quite tame.

My decision to read another book, “How I Live Now,” by Meg Rosoff, was inspired by my husband and I renting the movie. We really liked the story, but it left a lot of unanswered questions, so I borrowed the book from one of the middle schools. After reading it, some questions were still unanswered, but I definitely had  a more complete picture. Part of the story involved an incestuous relationship between a pair of underaged cousins, which for some reason didn’t bother me. Perhaps it’s because the two cousins in question had never met, because there had been a nuclear event and war that made survival the most important concern, and because it was handled more as touching love story than torrid affair. Also, the writing was great. It very much had a "stream of consciousness" feel and sounded just like a teenage girl would sound. I liked it so much that I had to order a copy for me to keep.

For my next blog, I will cover several middle grade novels – “Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms” by Kathleen Rundell, “The Greenglass House” by Kate Milford, and “Under the Egg,” by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Until then, happy reading!!!

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