Monday, December 29, 2008

Aleutian Sparrow

Karen Hesse, known for the award-winning free verse book, Out of the Dust, used the same poetic style to write this poignant description of the effects of World War II on the Aleutian Islands. As a fan of historical fiction, I probably wouldn't have considered using poetry to tell the story of the displaced Aleut people. But Hesse, using the voice of the young girl Vera, paints a complete picture of displacement, suffering, and homelessness with sparse language and beautiful imagery.

Her poems speak for themselves:

"Leveling the World of the Aleut"

We hear the white people at the Institute talk. They say

whenever the fog clears over Attu and Kiska,

American fighter planes race out to the very end of the

Aleutians, releasing their bombs on the Japanese


I tremble beside Eva, imagining American bombs dropping

like deadly seeds on our emerald earth.

"Oh, Eva," I say, "the bombs are taking root in our place."


"The Value of an Aleut"

Pari and I want to go out and gather the dead grass,

To light a cooking fire outside the tent.

This is the Aleut way. On the chain there are no trees,

Driftwood is scarce:

We make fires from bundles of dry grass.


The man from Indian Affairs

Stitches his net around us:

Aleuts go nowhere without permission, he says.

Aleuts go nowhere.


And we submit.

We stay in a bundle at the Institute.

But our dreams are ravens

Flying west over Shoemaker Bay.


Aleutian Sparrow would be a great supplement for upper elementary and middle school students who are studying the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II or the Aleutian Islands. This would be an opportunity for Social Studies teachers, who want to integrate literacy practices into their classrooms, to point out Hesse's use of figurative language. The disconcerting image of bombs planting seeds in the first poem, and the metaphors of bundles and nets in the second, are examples of topics that could promote discussion and prompt poetry writing in the history classroom. Recommended for ages 10-14, this book is also available through Listening Library. Although I enjoyed listening to it, students who are studying Hesse's poetic devices should read the hard copy. (Simon & Schuster Children's Books, 2003)

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Food for Thought for 2009

Posting this blog on Christmas will be too late for this shopping season, but it may influence your shopping choices in 2009. My daughter Lori who is a communications major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, composed this video after reading, The Better World Shopping Guide. The book is a “comprehensive, up-to-date, reliable set of rankings on the social and environmental responsibility of businesses and corporations” (p.2).

Lori and I had an interesting discussion about her thoughts and intent in creating the video. “This is a purposeful message,” Lori said. “These are real problems and without the images, the words are just facts. Without the emotional impact that these images have, people will be less likely to take the message seriously and act on it.”

An article in the September, 2008 issue of Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, “Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization” defines remix: “To take cultural artifacts and combine and manipulate them into new kinds of creative blends. “ Although remix originally referred to using audio-editing techniques to produce a new mix of a recorded song, recently it has been “expanded to include music and sound as well as moving and static images taken from films, television, the Internet, personal archives, and elsewhere” (p. 22).

The authors note that “we remix language every time we take an idea, artifact, or a particular stretch of language and integrate it into what we are saying and doing at the time” (p.23). The article explores several remix practices and the art and craft of remix. The implications for literacy education are enormous. As you view the video, consider not only the facts that Lori presents, but also the literacy skills she needed to create it. Food for thought for 2009.

Lori recommends that you purchase a copy of the book yourself; it is compact and travels easily. But if you don’t want to purchase it, you could e-mail me at and I will send you a spreadsheet that she and two friends created condensing the information from the book.

Images for this video were taken from Google images; the text is from The Better World Shopping Guide, music is Love Come Down by The War.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Ideas and Images

"I write as a participant, to see what will happen." Patricia MacLachlan

Many of the recent quotes which headline this blog have come from SCBWI's journal, Ideas and Images. I thought MacLachlan's words were worth their own separate blog since she expresses my feelings as I write my first novel. Although I have a broad outline in my mind of the adventures Kate Dinsmore and Lillie Harris, my two main characters, will experience together--how their story will play itself out has yet to be determined. I have a feeling that these two girls will have a lot to say about their story - how it is written and how it will end.

For those of you who are either shopping for a last minute present for a friend who wants to write for children, or contemplating a new year's resolution of your own--consider this journal or a year's membership to the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. The journal is inspirational; the membership is a gift of encouragement and instruction.
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Help for Haiti

“Cupboards were nearly bare before the winds started whipping, the skies opened, and this seaside city filled like a cauldron with thick, brown, smelly muck.”- Marc Lacey

Storms heighten Haiti’s suffering, Charlotte Observer, September 12, 2008.

I used that quote this fall to demonstrate to teachers how image-driven writing should include specific nouns ("cupboards, seaside city, cauldron"); image driven adjectives ("thick, brown, smelly muck"); and figurative language ("winds whipped") to grab a reader's attention.

I didn't know then that I would be able to participate in an opportunity to help the people of Haiti. As followers of this blog know, I generally blog about issues related to literacy. Today I'm taking a detour to let you know what I did yesterday instead of write.

Covenant Day School, a ministry of Christ Covenant Church, announced last week that they were working with the church to provide volunteers, medical goods, and clothing to help fill up a 53-foot trailer. The school specifically helps a school in Gonaives and some of the Crocs, medical supplies, and school supplies were going directly to orphans there.

When I arrived yesterday afternoon, this is what the trailer looked like on the inside:

I had the opportunity to not only interview Della and her father, but I also spoke with Susie Austin who has traveled to Haiti several times. She is returning in February to give hygiene training in three areas: hair care (so they don't get scabies), oral hygiene, and using Clorox to disinfect the children's bedding. Bed wetting is a big problem because there is no indoor plumbing and the children are afraid to go outside at night (tarantulas and the dark are two common enemies). Shoes are extremely important because without them, the children frequently get worms (intestinal parasites) and sand fleas.

A high point of the afternoon was the delivery of donated Crocs. Volunteers of all ages helped to unload the FedEx truck.

The shoes came in lots of colors and sizes, and the volunteers who had been to Haiti were excited about seeing the children's faces when they received them.

By the end of the afternoon, the trailer looked a lot different than when I had arrived.

Click here for more information about ministry to the Haitians or here for specific information about helping orphans worldwide.Technorati Tags:
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Friday, December 5, 2008

After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away

If you have ever known a teenager who sullenly withdraws into herself, begins doing poorly at school, denies cutting classes, drinks, lies, steals, and "accidentally" OD's on Christmas Eve—then you might recognize Jennifer Abbot, the 15-year-old protagonist in Joyce Carol Oates' young adult novel, After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away.

After Jenna's mother is killed in a freak car accident in which Jenna is severely injured, she is left feeling guilty (the accident must have been her fault) and angry (rehab is painful, her house is sold to pay for the medical bills, her teachers and friends feels sorry for her) and powerless (she has to move to New Hampshire to live with her aunt- there is nowhere else for her to go). Her father, who abandoned the family years earlier for a new wife and family, is of no help and Jenna's bitterness towards him fuels the flame of her anger and despair.

In her loneliness, Jenna finds acceptance from 'Trina, a bulimic teen who befriends Jenna, but also uses her. A dramatic scene at a party gone bad shows Jenna the direction in which she is heading. Although the reader only sees him briefly, Jenna's one true friend is a young man nicknamed "Crow" who speaks words of truth that resonate in Jenna's heart. His own traumatic experiences (including his brother's death, living with a father who is an injured Vietnam vet, and his own accidents) enable him to come alongside of her and provides the exact help that she needs—a firm hand that pulls her out of her fears and self-incrimination and pushes her to move on with her life.

Oates use of symbolism is powerful. When you read this book, be aware of how birds and bridges are important in the story. I would recommend this to older teens (there are some sexual references in the book, although nothing explicit) and adults. Parents who are struggling to understand their own teen or the effects of peer pressure might better appreciate the iceberg underneath the surface of a teen's "whatever" fa├žade after reading this book. (Harper Tempest, 2006. Recorded Books)


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Monday, December 1, 2008

The Voice that Challenged a Nation

Award winning author Russell Freedman published this biography of African American vocalist Marian Anderson in 2004. I selected it as background to the novel that I'm working on and was not disappointed.

Anderson was born in 1897 and grew up in the ethnic neighborhoods of south Philadelphia. Her mother was widowed when she and her two sisters were young; her father was injured in an accident at the Reading Terminal Market where he worked as a front loader. (On a personal note, my German grandmother would take me and my brother and sister to the market once a year to buy delicacies from home. I can still remember the crammed rows of stands that sold sausages, chocolates, breads, and cheeses.) Anderson's church recognized her talents as a contralto when she was only 8 years old and helped raise the money that she needed for lessons. Her instructors included Guiseppe Boghetti who was moved to tears after hearing her sing, "Deep River."

In the 1920's Anderson began touring the country singing at black churches and colleges. She received a boost in her career when she beat 300 rivals and won the prestigious the Lewisohn Stadium competition in 1925. But her performances in the United States were mostly to fellow African Americans; and she knew that her career would never advance unless she had a wider audience. She decided to go to Europe to study Italian and German so that she could be better equipped to sing operas. During the 1930's Anderson was enthusiastically received by heads of state and famous composers in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, and Russia. Arturo Toscanini, a very well-known conductor, heard her sing and said, "Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years."

But when Anderson returned home racism and prejudice still haunted her. She frequently received third or fourth class hotel and travel accommodations and even into the mid 1950's was blocked from walking unto a "Whites only" train platform in the Deep South. The pinnacle of her fight against racism occurred in 1939 when her manager wanted to arrange for a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The hall was operated by the DAR (Daughters of the American Republic) who had initiated a "white artists only" policy in 1935. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and public outrage followed this act of outright racism. As a result, Anderson performed for 75,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial: establishing the Memorial as the "moral high ground" for protest rights. You can view a short video of this event at: . From that website you will find links to other historical videos, including her reminiscing about her hero, Roland Hayes .

Although Anderson did not begin her singing career in order to combat racial injustice, she tenaciously conquered many racial barriers. In recollecting the 1939 concert she said: "I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don't like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. …. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people."

When I listened to this book on CD, I wished an audio clip of her singing had been included. Middle school and high school students will appreciate reading this book and teachers should consider using it as a resource for Black History Month. I. Go to or for more details about Marian Anderson and her contribution to American history.

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