The literature section in the library beckons to me. I speed toward the back of our Trumbull Library for a gulp of the grown-up eight-hundreds, then head into the children’s room for a look at what’s new there.
This week I’ve found two great books, one in each section, but neither is new. I can’t believe I’m finding them just now.
So first, the book I found in the children’s room. I read about this one in Sutton’s FAMILY OF READERS. It’s called A KICK IN THE HEAD, AN EVERYDAY GUIDE TO POETIC FORMS, written by Paul B. Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka. It’s a rollicking look at poetry forms that I think teachers would love, and kids, too. It’s so clear, so appealing; you can’t help wanting to try your hand at a couplet, or an acrostic, or maybe even an epitaph.
In the adult section, I found THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE, edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen. Inside, seventy-one writers write about books that mattered to them. We’ve all read about writers’ literary choices, but this one really spoke to me.
Anne Lamott remembers wanting Pippi Longstocking to be her best friend, and says, “Oh, Jo—thank you, God, for Jo.” Jeff Benedict remembers THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD; Claire Cook says that Nancy Drew changed her life; and Sara Nelson talks about MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, a book that still has a place in my own library.
How could I not love those writers’ essays? I nodded over their choices…agreeing, of course, agreeing.
I sit at my desk with the children’s letters spread out in front of me. Some of them I keep for a long time. I tack them up in my office and stare at them when I think I’ll never get to the next sentence, or the next paragraph, when I think someone is going to tell me that I’m not a writer after all. The letters give me strength, they make me smile. Here are a few…
Dear Ms. Patriticia Rielly Giff:
…I want to tell you about my self. I love ice cream vanilla to be egsakte. I am trying to find all of your fine work of books.
…How many people have died in your family since you were born? You do not have to talk about it if you do not want to.
Dear Patricia Reilly Giff:
I like your book Dance with Rosie. I am similar like Rosie because I like to dance.
I am a big fane of your work.
Your lovely friend, M.
Dear Mrs. Giff:
I liked the Candy Corn Contest. I would like to
read a nother book bye you. How old are you?
Am I not blessed? And isn’t the spelling wonderful!
This is especially for Mr. Hughes’s classes because they’re reading PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS and sent me happy messages. I hope they’re reading the book slowly, because it took me more than a year to write it!
I want to tell you how I got to the “pictures.” I didn’t think of doing the book that way until I was almost finished writing. Instead Hollis just thought about the Regans in flashbacks.
All that thinking, all those flashbacks, made the story as heavy as the pancakes I cook.
I wasn’t happy with the whole thing.
But one morning I was thinking about my dad. He painted beautifully. In an instant, I thought about doing Hollis’s memories as pictures.
I didn’t stop for breakfast; I was still in my robe. I printed it all out…threw every chapter on the floor separately…and grabbed a red pencil. I circled every one of the memories…tossed them out of the chapters…and into “pictures” of their own.
And then it was lunchtime. I ate double; I ate triple; I had solved the problem…and I was on to the next.
That’s the way a book works for me. Don’t think I begin at chapter one and sail right through. I go back and forth, adding a chapter here, a chapter there, typing up pieces, reading them (spilling tea on them) and beginning again.
I want to tell you how thrilled I am that you’re reading my book. After all, why do I write? It’s to share my life with you. Don’t think books are totally fiction. The author hides in them, happy to tell the reader about her mother…Josie Cahill was mine; happy to tell about a house upstate New York…that was mine, too; happy to write about a family like the Regans. Can’t you guess it’s like my family?
“The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby.” These are Abilene Tucker’s thoughts as she travels to Manifest: a town with a rich past and a bright future.
I read these words on a sunny day, a happy day. Feet up, I sat outside, turning the pages, making excuses to myself for not pulling the weeds that waved their heads at me, for not working on my own book. And cooking? Forget cooking.
Who could work, when right in my hands were the doings of Shady Howard, the bootlegger, Mr. Underhill, the undertaker, and that spy called Rattler! Who could work when Abilene was wending her way into my heart, and refusing to leave!
I congratulate Clare Vanderpool on her exquisite MOON OVER MANIFEST. I heard the Newbery announcement with tears in my eyes: I love the book, I admire the writer.
If you haven’t read MOON OVER MANIFEST yet, what a lovely experience you can anticipate.
So, hurry up, Clare, we want to read more of your work!
I open my e-mail and recognize the name in an instant. “Do you remember me?” he writes.
Of course I remember him. He had a great smile. I remember all those kids who were in my first class, a fifth grade, at P.S. 136, in St. Albans. He’s no longer a boy; he’s’s a grandfather.
A day later, a second boy from that class writes, too.
How grateful I am to them both. They remember me!
I was twenty-one that year, assigned to teach three blocks away from my house. I knew that school. I’d attended kindergarten there, and my old teacher was still there. I didn’t dare call any of those teachers by their first names.
I wonder if every teacher feels the same way about her first class. I remember all of them: the two who waited on my front step to walk me to school every morning, the girls who patted my dress in approval, the boys who were willing to do anything for me, from emptying wastebaskets to washing the blackboard. One of the boys, always dear to me, told me he called me, my Miss Reilly.
I’ve kept that first plan book all these years and went through it today, smiling at their names. Was it possible that I taught everything that was written every week in my neat new teacher’s handwriting? I’d zipped right through the discovery of America and in ten months we’d fought the civil war and learned about the important cities in the South. Ah, but I loved teaching Social Studies, and close to my heart was what one of them said years later: “I became a Social Studies teacher because of you.”
I taught sewing to the girls. We made aprons. I pulled out out huge uneven stitches and gave them a little head start with stitches of my own. But where were the boys? They were next door at Mrs. Rizza’s, doing something called construction. I have no idea of what construction was. Maybe the boys do.
I’ve listed their heights and their vision results. There’s a note reminding me to encourage Virginia to wear her glasses.
I know we didn’t have a library, but the book bus pulled up regularly and I still come across the books from my own childhood, marked Miss Reilly, that I shared with them.
Standardized tests were far from my thoughts. I wanted the kids to be happy, to be involved. I hope that happened. I’d love to hear from all of them. But in the meantime, thank you, Shelly, thank you, Frank. It was a joy to hear from you.
The holidays are over when the kids (and teachers) go back to school. But not quite. There are still cards to look through, Christmas messages that warm my heart. There’s always one from Alaska. Dawn and I keep in touch each year, ever since the fall I spent speaking in the Bering Strait School District.
That year, Jim and I flew in small planes to stay in some of the villages with magic names like Teller, Nome, St. Michael., Stebbins… One village was Brevig Mission where we were told the first outsiders brought diphtheria. All the village adults died, but many children lived. The minister Brevig founded an orphanage there for them.
In another village, Teachers dressed us warmly in parkas and mukluks. They took us out in an open boat on Norton Sound to look for a whale they believed had been caught in a net.
In Shishmaref, we were introduced to Herbie Nayukpuk who ran the Iditarod and came in third more than once.. Herbie showed us his dogs, beautiful creatures with faces like masks. Dawn made us a moose dinner that tasted like my mother’s pot roast. We had muktuk beautifully arranged around a hill of salt.
In Unalakleet, Roz treated us to crimson tundra berries and made sure we had jars of it to take home. Her wishes will appear any day now; they always do.
The wonder of that visit to the villages, were the children who met us at each runway. They knew my books, they knew my characters, they talked about my plots. They held my hands, and when I left, they presented me with woven baskets with their names inside. “Remember me,” they kept saying. I still keep those baskets in my office where I can see them every day.
I tuck Dawn’s card up in my office, too. When the writing is hard, I look at the picture of her family and open those baskets to read the children’s names. I do remember them. I still write for them.
We have two feet of snow outside and our pond crackles with ice. The view from my window reminds me of the tiny village my father built under our Christmas tree every year. It was a marvel with cotton snow, a mirror lake with two skaters, and a train with a red caboose that ran endlessly in a circle.
This year’s blizzard arrived the day after Christmas just as the one did in 1947. I remember that blizzard of my childhood more for missing my father than for the wondrous snow that piled up in front of our house in St. Albans, New York. That year, my father was a police captain in New York City and was called back to work because of the snow emergency instead of enjoying his vacation with us. My mother, sad herself, substituted for him, putting games together, taking us sledding, reading to us. I still feel that joy when he finally came home to us! I wrote LILY’S CROSSING with that Christmas in mind. Set in St. Albans and Rockaway during the summertime, Lily’s longing for her father who was overseas was my memory of that wintery Christmas.
Yesterday I received such a poignant letter from a child, commenting on NORY RYAN’S SONG. It wasn’t Nory’s struggle in Ireland for food during the Great Hunger that she wrote about; she was sad because Nory’s father was away for so long. It’s so hard, she said, when your father has to work all the time.
I think of all the children whose fathers are away this year, fighting overseas, or called away on business, or policemen and firemen working during emergencies. Sometimes as adults we’re not always aware of the quiet grief that children experience and often don’t express. I hope my books give them some measure of comfort.
I was terrified. I had a half-hour to think about the question, with fifteen minutes to answer. I’d face two principals and a speech teacher in an otherwise empty classroom. What I said would decide if I’d be licensed as a New York City teacher. My hands were damp, my heart pounding. I wanted to be a teacher; it was what I’d always wanted.
So the question: Joseph is always in trouble. But recently, he’s become friends with John, a fine student. Both have benefited from the relationship, but John’s mother is upset. She wants the friendship discouraged; she wants them separated. What should the teacher do?
I wrote furiously, my head bent over the paper. What to say? What possible answer? Who knows what I wrote? Who knows what I said all those years ago?
Whatever I did say hardly impressed those principals. I could see it in their faces. It was a miracle I passed the exam. Barely.
I thought about that question through my teaching career and think about it now. I still don’t know what the teacher might have done. The only answer I was ever able to come up with was to make that child who was always in trouble look good. As simple as that. How many times I’ve thought of my mother saying that everyone has something.
So many kids I taught would never be great readers, would never want to read. Many of the kids never knew how to make friends. But still they had something. Could I say that maybe finding that something is the most important thing a teacher can do? Sometimes you have to dig deep. Sometimes that something has to be coaxed, teased out, so that others can see it. And maybe finding that something can change not only a child’s life, but the perception of others in dealing with that child.
What do you think?
This is for my daughter Alice and all the women who haven’t a moment for themselves.
I remember: three children, teaching full time, my husband a New York City Detective with long, unpredictable hours. The house was never the way I wanted it, dinners were never inspired. Life was a rush.
It was then I began to write. I carved out twenty minutes for myself, made lunches, laid out the kids’ clothes, signed homework, all the night before.
Twenty minutes. That’s all I had. I dragged myself out of bed twenty minutes earlier, and left everything out on my desk all day: typewriter (yes, it was a long time ago,) paper, pencils and—
I remember those first days, feeling my muscles relax, feeling the joy of those mornings. Self-doubt would come soon enough. I’d never write anything worthwhile, I told myself. But then, no one ever had to know what I was doing except Jim and the kids.
After awhile, a word would please me, a sentence, a character.
Twenty minutes. Those minutes changed my life. I wrote through sorrow, through joy, through anger, through worry, and often, through fatigue. I wrote and never stopped. It was something that belonged to me, that belongs to me still.
My daughter Alice writes beautifully, but I don’t think her heart is there. Where her heart may be is in drawing, painting. She’s wonderful at that and deserves those twenty minutes. So under the tree tonight one of her gifts is a table easel, pencils and pads, acrylics and water colors. I hope she’ll find a spot to draw, maybe that table in the corner of her family room.
Maybe she won’t use this box of supplies now, maybe it will stay in her closet until she’s ready for it. But I hope it won’t be long.
All of you who might be Alice’s age, all of you who might be my daughters, find that tiny scoop of time, give it to yourself, no matter what you do with it.
I’d love to hear that you’ve done it. Let me know. Happy Holidays!
I’d love to give books for Christmas. I can’t do that anymore though. My children say it looks tacky for someone with a bookstore to do that. It’s almost like recycling presents, they say.
So I think about it, grumbling, as I go from counter to counter in the department stores thinking about other possibilities. (As if anything could be satisfying as a book to read in December with snow outside and a fire inside.)
So if I could give books to young readers, what would I give? The first four were written in my class, all for middle grade and up. I’ve seen them at every stage, I love them and kids will, too.
Ann Haywood Leal: A FINDERS/KEEPERS PLACE
Michaela MacColl: PRISONERS IN THE PALACE
JAME Richards: THREE RIVERS RISING (Listed as one of the top books of the year by School Library Journal)
Laura Toffler-Corrie: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF AMY FINAWITZ
For books I wish I had written for the same age group, don’t miss these.
Kathryn Erskine: MOCKINGBIRD (National Book AWARD)
Jewell Parker Rhodes: THE NINTH WARD
Clare Vanderpool: MOON OVER MANIFEST
You might want to buy two copies and keep one for yourself to read. Mmmm, that fireplace, mmm, that snow outside.