Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review: Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins

I've lived in Greensboro, North Carolina for almost 30 years and believe it to be one of the finest and prettiest places I have ever been in the U.S. Greensboro still has many of the charms of a gracious southern city and it much honors its past on a regular basis.

The city's bicentennial celebration has just begun and there are countless meaningful and fun activities planned for the upcoming year. The Battle of Guilford Courthouse was a famous revolutionary battle that is celebrated through re-enactments on a routine basis. Religious tolerance dates to large settlements of Quakers and Moravians in the 1700s and the founding of the only Quaker college in the southeast when Guilford College was founded in 1837.

But for all its religious tolerance, Greensboro was always a social product of its time and segregation was the law of the land for generations until 1960 when the actions of four brave African-American college students from NC Agricultural and Technical College sat down at the Woolworth's counter in downtown Greensboro and created an act of civil disobedience that literally changed the course of history. How that action changed the city of Greensboro and also set off a chain of similar actions that resulted in the repeal of the Jim Crow laws throughout the south is one of our city's finest moments.

In Freedom on the Menu, Carole Boston Weatherford tells this story from the perspective of a young girl and her family who were allowed to shop at Woolworth's but never allowed service at the lunch counter. Jerome Laggarigue's dark, impressionistic paintings are both emotionally evocative and suggest the time capsule nature of those historic days.

The author has posted a lesson plan on her website for grades 3-5 that will help educators and students explore the history of the Jim Crow laws and the social calls to action of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King that emboldened those four young men to sit at the lunch counter and ask for a seat at the table of social justice.

Not only is this an important chapter of Greensboro, North Carolina, but it is an important chapter in the history of our country. Although it has taken another 48 years for the United States to evolve to a place where an African-American has a real shot at being elected President, it is a long awaited and important indication that our citizens truly believe in our U.S. Declaration of Indpendence from the British written in 1776 which states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Review: Angel

Easter Monday seems an appropriate day to review a YA novel about angels. In ANGEL, 14-year old Freya has spent years in treatment for mental illness stemming from a "visitation" when she was a young child in which an angel appeared in her bedroom and told her that she was special and foretold an important role for her in the future when she was older. After the visit, Freya spends years in and out of mental institutions struggling to cope with her belief in angels.

Just when she gets her life back on track and is navigating the social morass of high school popularity, a peculiar girl named Stephanie begins school and does everything she can to convince her classmates that angels are real. With Stephanie's appearance, Freya finds her carefully constructed world starting to crumble as she longs to believe but is held back both by her hard-fought struggles to be "normal" and by her desire to fit in.

With the exception of the angel theme, the plot of the book is a fairly conventional tale of a teen girl coming of age and dealing with the social and family changes that come with the territory. There are two sub-plots involving her brother and father that also feature in the culminating drama of the story.

What is so interesting about this book and is certainly a credit to the author, Cliff McNish, is that by the end of the book, the reader is left quesitoning whether angels are indeed real. The plot drives the book so it is a fast read. But there is enough character development that the reader cares about Freya and Stephanie and what happens to them and cheers for the predictable comeuppance of the snotty, manipulative and cruel "popular" girl.

Perhaps the greatest success of this story, however, is that for all it deals with the realm of fanstasy, it posits some important questions about how we treat each other here on earth. It's not a religious book, but it is a spiritual book -and one that makes some terrific suggestions about actions and consequences.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Poetry Friday: Good Friday

For such a solemn day in the Christian world, it seems appropriate to focus on poems of death and resurrection. Our culture is much more removed from the "business" of death than in most of the history of mankind. In previous centuries, the rituals of death were integrated into the daily lives of people. Certainly in the United States, we have sanitized the process and relegated it to hospitals, funeral homes and churches.

Today, we commemorate the most famous death of all - the one that can be said to have changed the course of human history. Whether you are religious or not, Christian or not; the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has profoundly impacted civilization.

Children no longer understand death to be a natural part of our life process, but are surprised and even traumatized by death. Most have not been raised on farms; many have never had a pet; some still have all those they love still present in their lives. They have not experienced the death and rebirth cycles of nature and do not understand that death and life are two sides of the same coin. For adults, it is always good to be reminded that the daily deaths we experience are the prelude to rebirth.

Today is an opportunity to begin to teach children how to understand death in a larger context outside themselves and their own experience. I've chosen one of Emily Dickinson's poems for today. As good poetry always does, its emotional impact can be felt on many levels.

Afraid? Of whom am I afraid?

Not death; for who is he?
The porter of my father's lodge
As much abasheth me.

Of life? 'T were odd I fear a thing
That comprehendeth me
In one or more existences
At Deity's decree.

Of resurrection? Is the east
Afraid to trust the morn
With her fastidious forehead?
As soon impeach my crown!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Review: Georgia's Bones

Written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Bethanne Anderson, Georgia's Bones focuses on one aspect of Georgia O'Keefe's development as an artist. The story begins with Georgia's fascination with "common things" as a young girl growing up on her family's farm in Wisconsin. Even as a very young girl, O'Keefe was drawn to simple shapes and forms she found in nature. Leaves, acorns, bones, feathers, rocks - anything that had form and shape. She was also drawn to the open space of outdoors which was appropriate for the daughter of farmers, but her family must have been mystified as to where O'Keefe's determination to become an artist came from.

This story is told in three basic vignettes: Georgia as a young girl on the farm; her move to New York City to become an artist; and an eventful visit to a friend in New Mexico that changed her art and her life forever. Bryant's prose is succinct but purposeful in sharing a moment or perspective in O'Keefe's life and then moving the story forward. But the highlight of the book is Andersen's illustrations that beautifully evoke the world that Georgia O'Keefe made for herself. Andersen captures the vastness of the New Mexico landscape and the simple purity of the stripped-away bones that O'Keefe found there.

Although this book does not address the uniqueness of Georgia O'Keefe's artistic vision, the strength and starkness of what she painted certainly implies it. Because the story focuses on a slice of O'Keefe's artistic development, it would be difficult to get a sense of what a transformative artist she became from this book alone. If this book were shared with children in a larger context of O'Keefe's life or within a unit of study of American artists, it would have greater resonance. Even as a stand-alone, however, it portrays Georgia O'Keefe's artistry in such a way as to invite further investigation.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Review: New Biography of Willa Cather

Although it is Poetry Friday, I'm going to talk about a fiction writer today as I just finished this terrific new biography of Willa Cather by Milton Meltzer. As a lover of books, I am also a lover of writer's biographies. To peek behind the curtain and learn how writers use their personal experiences to create their characters and sense of place is a fascinating study.

Meltzer is an award-winning author who has written more than 100 books for young adults on American history, historical figures and artists. He is a confident writer who weaves together Cather's biography personal life, travels, worklife and emerging prominence as a woman and Pulitzer Prize winning author into a compelling and easy-to-read narrative.

In keeping with a book intended for young adult readers, Meltzer devotes the early pages to a lengthy treatment of Cather's family's move to Red Cloud Nebraska from Virginia where Cather was born in 1873 and spent the earliest years of her life. When she was nine-years-old, Cather's family moved to frontier country on the western plains of Nebraska.

It was surprising to me that even on the frontier, a person could be exposed to art, literature and music. Many of the new settlers were educated people from the east who had come to create new communities on the frontier. Doctors, lawyers, newspaper editors, teachers and other educated people were able to see traveling speakers and musicians on a regular basis. Every town of any size had an Opera House where performances and lectures were regular and varied.

The people she knew and met during this period of her life would provide Willa Cather a deep well of inspiration that she would draw upon regularly during her writing career. Cather apparently always left people with the sense that she was going "somewhere." She had a strong presence and sense of direction that was clearly different from many of her Nebraskan neighbors.

The 160-pages of this book fly by. Many of the historical photographs are formal portraits showing Cather in her roles as successful managing editor for the largest women's magazine of the day, working at her writing or traveling with a friend. Meltzer deals frankly with Cather's lifelong female friendships. He does not shy away from the suggestion that they are lesbian in nature but does not go into detail. At a young age, Willa determined that if she married, she would not be free to develop her writing. So, she rejected marriage to pursue her art - a choice she saw as neccessary to achieve her goals. It's interesting to see the many formal portraits taken over her lifetime as that is so uncommon in our time. The advent of easy snap shot photography has resulted in far fewer trips for most of us to the photographer's studio.

But as Cather moved into the 20th century, it's fascinating to see the changes in clothing, cars and other technology in the background of the photographs. Meltzer does an excellent job of bringing to life the creation of each of Cather's major works and detailing how the people in her life and the places she visited played their supporting roles. As a significant American author, Cather's
My Ántonia, Death Comes to the Archbishop (my favorite), and her Pulitzer Prize winning novel One of Ours, are often taught in middle school and high school literature classes. Like many of the books I read then, I find that now I am able to give her books a far richer reading than I did in middle school and high school.

I highly recommend this biography of
Willa Cather and look forward to searching out and reading more biographies by Milton Meltzer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Voki Fun - Talking Avatars

Well I am feeling mighty pleased with myself now that I have my own talking avatar or Voki. Just click the arrow for play and you'll hear my voice welcoming you to the blog. It was fun and easy to create. Check it out. There is lots to choose from in customizing your Voki. But the voice is yours. You can record your message over the telephone as I did or upload an audio file. It's one more way to add some personality to your blog and make readers feel welcome.

Many thanks to Sue Waters at The Edublogger for highlighting this nifty item. The Edublogger is an online magazine that publishes "Tips, tricks, ideas and help with using web 2.0 technologies and edublogs" for the Edublog community.

Although I am dismayed at the general decline in the amount of time people spend reading, I do love technology. However, at the end of a long day at the computer, the last thing I want to curl up with in front of the fire is a piece of hardware. I want to read print. However, when it's time for technology, I like to think I'm as game as the next gal. Explore what is out there that you can make your own. It can be a lot of fun.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Reading is Fundamental Needs Your Help

The president's 2009 proposed budget eliminates funding for the book distribution program for the country's most at risk 16 million children.

Please ACT NOW and help RIF build support by sending an e-mail to your members of Congress asking them to sign the RIF Dear Colleague letter. More Info.

This is important, so please help spread the word. You can check the list at the website of all members of Congress who have signed on to fight for funding. RIF has made it very easy to find and send either email or letters to your Congressional representatives. It will only take a couple of minutes of your time, but could make such a difference. Thank you.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Poetry Friday: The Moon is La Luna

The Moon is La Luna: Silly Rhymes in English & Spanish is a delightful introduction to poetry and Spanish for little ears. It was also one of the many wonderful books submitted to the Cybils Awards this year. Some samples:

Grande is big.
Pequeño is small.

And nada is nothing at all.

The sea is el mar.
To float is flotar.
If you miss the boat,
You won't get too far
If you try to float
'Cross the sea in your car.

Written by
Jay M. Harris and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, the poems engage readers in word play while the amusing illustrations demonstrate what could happen if you used the wrong word. For example:

In Español, papá means "dad."

("paPA" is how it is said.)
But papá (said "POP-a") doesn't mean "dad."
It means "potato" instead.
So watch how you say it,
Unless you would like
A potato to tuck you in bed.

The idea of being tucked into bed by a giant potato sends little ones into gales of laughter. Introducing inventive word play when children are highly attuned to rhyme is a wonderful way to train their ears to listen to the differences between English and Spanish. I highly recommend this book to "little" ears of all ages.

The Poetry Friday Round-up is at The Simple and the Ordinary today.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Who Made the Morning?

In the dual interests of full-disclosure and shameless self-promotion, Who Made the Morning? is now available from my publishing company, New Day Publishing.

It is the story of Little Brown Bird who goes on a journey to discover the creator of the beautiful morning and to thank him. That's the story line in a nutshell. Those familiar with
Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman, know the general plot. It is a happy little story that shares the joy of creation.

Intended for children ages 4-7.