Bookshelf: The Surrender Tree

Just look at all the medals on this book! I learned so much about a small sliver of Cuban history (1850-1898), a subject I had never really thought about or pursued, and it made me realize how much I don’t know of the suffering and triumphs in this world. The format, history in verse, drew me in, along with the beautiful writing. The short poems, rarely longer than a page, use spare details to paint pictures:

We bring wanted posters from the cities

with pictures drawn by artists,

pictures of men with filed teeth

and women with tribal scars,

new slaves.

And later, this description:

People imagine that all slaves are dark,

but the indentured Chinese slaves run away too,

into the mangrove swamps,

where they can fish, and spear frogs,

and hunt crocodiles . . .

Arching over these precise poems is the story of a girl hiding in caves and healing the wounded, and Lieutenant Death who hunts down escaped slaves. Reading this made me want more, and I have since become a huge Margarita Engle fan.

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Bookshelf: Girls with Guts

This is a book for all the girls who need to hear the words, “Girl, you are amazing!” It’s a book about being brave and using your gifts and not being discouraged or put in a box. I read the whole book with the author, Debbie Gonzales‘s, voice in my head, her cheerful, happy voice. The book gives a history of women in sports, and calls out some big names over the years, both athletes and political activists. I learned a lot, and it made me want to dive deeper into the stories of some of these amazing women who were brave pioneers, bucking the system in bloomers on the basketball court or pants (shocking!) on the polo field. There’s a lot here for educators and parents and kids, with illustrations that are each poster-worthy.

Debbie is a good friend of mine and an encourager by nature, and we have a lot in common. We’ve both been Regional Advisors of the Austin chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). We are both pretty cheerful, optimistic women that love to keep learning. We both had our first book published “later” in life, and we were both debut authors in fall of 2019. Even though Debbie left Austin for Michigan, we remain good friends and continue to encourage each other.

Debbie is not only a gifted writer, she’s a gifted teacher and educator. She makes education guides for tons of children’s books through her Guides by Deb business. She’s also a champion of young and old when it comes to learning the ropes in marketing our books. The Austin tribe of children’s writers and illustrators is a strong and supportive bunch of girls and guys with guts. When Debbie showed up in Austin alongside another good friend and talented children’s author Carmen Oliver (who will get her own post) for a joint book launch at our beloved Bookpeople, we were all there to cheer. There are many more races to run, and I look forward to more Debbie Gonzales books on my shelf.

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Bookshelf: Her Own Two Feet

I have no shame in saying this book is face out on my bookshelf. Writing it with Rebeka Uwitonze, the fact that we can call each other not just friends but coauthors, is a story I’ll tell again and again. You can find plenty of posts on this blog about living life with Rebeka, and the process of writing her story together. Yes, I love the story told in these pages. But I also love the story outside these pages. The experience of traveling to Rwanda multiple times to interview her parents and teachers and others who know her. The experience of making a video, sharing artwork kids have sent, facetime calls at 3AM, and Rebeka getting to come back to the US so we could go to the NAACP Image Awards together in LA. We’ve been able to do school visits together and sign books side by side with our left hands (because we’re both left handed).

Our lives will always be linked. Not just because Rebeka lived with us in 2012-13 while she went through one of the hardest experiences of her life, but because our names are side by side on this book. It will hold a place of honor on my bookshelf all my days not because it was my debut, but because it tells a story that changed both our lives, forever.

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Bookshelf: Mr. Nick’s Knitting

This is an oldie but a goodie, a picture book I read with my kids when they were little. You may only be able to find it at a second hand store or a library, but it’s well worth your time. The illustrations by Dee Huxley are charming, she captures emotion so well. And I love the story author Margaret Wild spins, of an old man named Mr. Nick who knits on the train, hedgehogs and kangaroos and sweaters for his nieces and nephews. All the while he sits next to his good friend, Mrs. Jolley, until the day she doesn’t show up.

I love Mr. Nick’s pince-nez and bowler hat, and Mrs Jolley’s purple hat and sensible shoes and overstuffed purse spilling yarn and knitting needles. But mostly I love the friendship between these two, and Mr. Nick’s creativity and dedication (He knitted during his lunch hour, and in the bathtub, while he cooked his dinner and while he listened to the radio.) so that he can help his friend feel better. It ends with a surprise (what has Mr. Nick been working on?) and a sense that we can all be connected, even when we’re apart.

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Bookshelf: Three by Annie Dillard

I love Annie Dillard, the way she writes, the way she opens my eyes to the natural world, its beauty and violence. I am still traumatized at her account of a small green frog deflating before her eyes, liquified from the inside out and then consumed by a giant water but. But she also grounds me in the real work of being a writer. She tells it straight. I love that the same woman who wrote these words in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when describing a creek that streams over a series of sandstone tiers,

I feel as though I stand at the foot of an infinitely high staircase, down which some exuberant spirit is flinging tennis ball after tennis ball, eternally, and the one thing I want in the world is a tennis ball.

also wrote these practical words in The Writing Life,

Appealing workspaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.

I love the words she chooses, and the pictures they conjure in my mind. I still have not read An American Childhood, sandwiched between these two greats. I love that I have more Dillard to discover.

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Bookshelf: Born a Crime

This book has been my introduction to a man who is quite famous in other mediums, from comedy to host of The Daily Show. I learned so much about south Africa and apartheid through the eyes of Trevor Noah, whose voice is irreverent and honest. It is told slant, of course, through the eyes of a kid who gets into lots of mischief/trouble, a kid born of a white father and a black mother. At a time when people were neatly slotted into categories based on the color of their skin (as they often still are), he found his way, seizing opportunity when he saw it. I love this powerful quote, when Trevor visits his dad for the first time in many years as an adult and realizes his dad hadn’t rejected him:

Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.

Noah has a knack for hitting on universal truths. Here’s another one:

 But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.

My book is feathered with blue page markers, and I really love this cover, too. When I was talking with Scholastic about the cover of Her Own Two Feet and they asked me for my vision, this was one of the ones I sent them. While mine turned out quite different, the blues and yellows are an echo of it.

 

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Bookshelf: Bedlam in the Backseat

I discovered this book before we took our kids on our trip around the world in 2007-08. Perhaps just as much as the idea of traveling around the world, I fell in love with this family. Author Janet Gillespie keeps it real traveling with her husband and four kids ages 8-16 around Europe. They aren’t always thrilled, it’s not always fun, but it’s definitely an adventure and she paints what she sees with authentic strokes, like this:

Our gondolier shouted to other gondoliers and occasionally burst into scraps of song. With his single oar he sent the gondola through the pink evening like a bird through the air and this swift silent flight put us all under a spell.  Billy, who sat in the bow with the curved beak of the gondola rising behind his head, was too overcome even to smile. Solemn as a little owl, he stared at the people who waved at us from bridges.

And then a little later, still in Venice at a museum with the four kids:

The gigantic canvases of Venetians eating and drinking left the younger members very cold, but fortunately we found paintings of the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula which had great appeal.

I love the honesty and humor. I convinced my book club to read this book and we still agree, it’s one of our favorites.

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Bookshelf: The Underneath

Full disclosure, not only is author Kathi Appelt an awesome teacher and an amazing writer, she is a good friend of mine. She helped me start the Austin chapter of SCBWI way back when, and she’s been in my life ever since. She taught me at VCFA and writers workshops, and she’s written alongside me at writers retreats. One of the things I love about Kathi is that she’s always learning.

But even if I didn’t know her, even if I’d never crowned her queen for the day with a paper crown and a toilet plunger scepter, this would still be one of my favorite books. I remember the first time I read it. My three kids were younger and one of them was pestering me just as I was getting to the last few chapters, so I hid. I squeezed between the couch and the wall and I finished the book, teary-eyed, and then I hugged it to my chest.

It has this great, gut-wrenching, heart-clenching first line: “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road. A small calico cat.” Okay, so that’s two sentences, but there is something so specific and tender and perfect about that second line that drew me in the first time and draws me in still. Draws me under the porch with the hound dog, into a setting that is palpable. I wish I could put it in your hands this very second but since I can’t, I may curl up and read it again.

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The Power of Sure

My good friend Natalie Green and I had a plan. Natalie’s official title is U. S. Director of Strategic Partnerships for Africa New Life Ministries, but unofficially her title is Connector. She does this well for so many people, including our family. Natalie initially connected us with Rebeka and in the years since, she’s connected us multiple times across the ocean via Facetime. Without Natalie, Her Own Two Feet would not have happened.

This was the plan. She was leading a team in Rwanda, and she would be in Kayonza where Rebeka goes to school on Friday, January 17th. Natalie would pull Rebeka from class and try to call between 4 and 7AM my time. I had my computer next to my bed, all set up to receive the call. Clay helped me figure out how to loop in our daughter Alayna who lives several miles away. We practiced how to record a Facetime call. We did all this knowing the call may not work out. The connection may be poor, the team may have an unexpected change of plans, Rebeka may be in the middle of taking a test and unable to go to the office for the call. So many things had to go right. And they did.

When the call came at 4AM, my brain was groggy, my hair messy, my eyes crusty and my heart bursting. It had worked! We flipped on lights and shook out the cobwebs. One of the first thing I noticed was Rebeka’s shirt. She got it when she was living with us in Austin, a shirt that said We All Have a Story to Tell. Yes we do!

We dialed up Alayna on Clay’s laptop so she could see Rebeka, too. We shared news, caught up on life, and squealed over our recent NAACP Image Award nomination and her passing the P6 national exam and being promoted to S1 (equivalent of 7th grade).

“Rebeka, what did you think about all those pictures and letters from that class?” I asked. Students in Morristown, TN had read and loved our book. They made dozens of handmade pictures and notes, and I made copies of all of them before sending the originals to Rwanda.

“I loved them,” said Rebeka.

“What did you do with them?” I asked, envisioning them hanging on the walls of her small home in Bugesera.

“My neighbors asked if they could have some . . .”

My gut clenched. Her precious treasures?

“And I said ‘sure.’”

Sure? I am storing these treasures with great care and reverence, displaying a few at a time in my kitchen. I couldn’t possibly part with them, or at least I couldn’t imagine doing that, until I heard Rebeka’s “sure.” She shared generously, happily, and immediately.

It has been my experience that this is the way Rwandans live. Generously. On one of my first trips to Rwanda I gave a package of Starburst to one of the kids we sponsor. As I gave them to him, I worried about the dozen or so kids clustered around that had not received anything. He slowly and carefully unwrapped a piece of candy, bit off one corner, and then passed it to one of the kids who took another careful bite and passed it to the next. They each got a taste of sweetness.

Rebeka makes me want to be not just generous, but immediately generous. Maybe her “sure” makes you feel that way, too. If so, I have a suggestion. The Food for Tomorrow ANLM campaign has a goal to make sure kids in school get a free, healthy lunch. Whether a one-time donation or monthly sponsorship, you can make a difference by helping children have a full belly during school, sometimes the only meal they’ll have that day. You should also know that when you buy our book, half the proceeds go to ANLM, to campaigns like Food for Tomorrow.

I love to imagine artwork drawn with great love and care by students in the US, a freewill offering sent across the ocean, being displayed in homes across Bugesera. There are so many more threads of connection because of Rebeka’s immediate generosity. Can one word change a life, a community, the world?

Sure.

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The Amazing Mrs. Proffitt

Sometimes superheroes wear two casts and big daisies on their heads, and sometimes superheroes are dusted with chalk, their fingers stained with marker, their secret bat cave a classroom where they share stories about girls in casts and daisies. The Amazing Mrs. Proffitt is a fifth grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher in Morristown, Tennessee who first contacted me via a direct message on Instagram September 13th, 2019. She sent pictures of artwork her 48 students had done in response to Her Own Two Feet, and my jaw dropped.

She’d picked our book out of all the hundreds of thousands of books and bought multiple copies for her class to read.

I sent a thank you note, bookmarks and Chance Comes Once bracelets to the class, she sent more pictures of excited kids, and a relationship was born.

A month later, on October 22nd, we set up a virtual author visit via skype. I could not wait to meet these kids! As soon as our call started and the students appeared on the screen, they all called out in Kinyarwanda, “Mwaramutse!” (good morning) and “Amakuru!” (how are you?). I was so shocked I couldn’t remember how to respond in Kinyarwanda! One of the students explained how Mrs. Proffitt posted Kinyarwanda words from the glossary at the back of the book all over her class so they could learn how to speak Rebeka’s language.

Taped to the screen are Kinyarwanda words and pronunciation.

My eyes filled up with tears. I would have never guessed, when Rebeka came to live with us back in 2013, that six years later students in another state would be inspired to learn her language after reading her story.

I had a few questions for the kids, like on the book cover, what did they think Rebeka was sitting on? They knew immediately. “A skateboard!” they said in an excited chorus. I asked them why that was such a good image, and one boy said, “So she could see her feet?” I hadn’t thought of that, but it was a good, creative answer. She could see both her casted feet stretched in front of her as she rolled down the driveway, again and again.

As the visit went on, Mrs. Proffitt explained that since her class was so large, most of the students sat at their desks and watched me on a large screen. Smaller groups rotated through to talk and ask questions via her laptop, and those were the kids I was seeing. I never heard a complaint. I never saw a push or a shove as students gathered in small groups around the laptop and a few minutes later went back to their desks to make room for more. They raised their hands, they waited their turn, and yet they were still kids. They jumped up and down with excitement and sometimes burst out laughing.

This was the best crowd shot, maybe not the best “Meredith” shot!

It takes a special kind of teacher to create that kind of culture in her classroom, and it takes a superhero kind of teacher to squeeze all the juicy goodness out of a book, doing art projects and  tying in vocabulary words and going above and beyond to bring in local media to do a story in the paper, and setting up an author visit so we could talk to each other.

One of the kids asked if there would be another Rebeka story, and I was taken off guard. I hadn’t ever thought about it. Rebeka and I consider her story told, at least for a while, until she lives the next chapters. I asked what they’d want it to be about and another student stepped forward and suggested the next book could be Medea’s story, Rebeka’s little sister. I was touched by how engaged they were with Rebeka’s life, her family, and my writer’s brain went into overdrive as I thought about what that story would be like. Not the story of having a disability in rural Rwanda, but the story of a young girl who helps her sister learn how to walk, says goodbye and stays behind as that sister travels to America, and later to boarding school. The sister with a shy smile and a kind heart and her own story to tell.

I don’t know if I’ll pursue that story, but what I do know is that the Amazing Mrs. Proffitt and her class inspired me and made my day a whole lot brighter. Marvel is fine, so is DC, but I prefer my superheroes coated in chalk dust, a smile on her face and a class of kids ripe for learning.

 

 

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