Archives For Memoir

Books read in Grade 12 as part of the Memoir Class

My school district recently purchased a class set of the March Trilogy, the graphic novel memoir that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis (5th District, Georgia) in America’s struggle for civil rights including the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The comic book-style illustrations are engaging and some may mistake the memoir as something for children. Lewis’s experiences in the 1950-60s, however, were marked by violence, so the memoir is recommended for more mature audiences (grades 8-12).

The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, prepares audiences about the violence and language in the memoir by stating:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

The March Trilogy is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist, Nate Powell. Their collaboration project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. The comic book has been reissued by the original publisher, Fellowship of Reconciliation with a new editorIsrael Escamilla.

Cover of the comic book that inspired John Lewis’s “March”

The 1957 comic book is also available as a PDF by clicking on a link available on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMV) website. The About page on this site has the following purpose statement in bold:

 This website is created by Veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement (1951-1968). It is where we tell it like it was, the way we lived it, the way we saw it, the way we still see it.

Under this explanation is the blunt statement: “We ain’t neutral.”

The decision to publish the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as a comic book in the late 1950s is a bit surprising.  At that time the genre of comic books in America had come under scrutiny. A psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made public his criticisms that comic books promoted deviant behavior. That claim in 1954 led to the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency along with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). That Authority drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval.

In 1958, the Friends of Reconciliation published the 16-page comic book as a challenge to CCA restrictions. An artist from the Al Capp Studios, creators of Li’l Abner, donated time to illustrate the book. Benton Resnick, a blacklisted writer, wrote the text. He concluded with a promotion for the “thousands of members throughout the world [who] attempt to practice the things that Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good.” The Friends of Reconciliation’s religious message passed the scrutiny of Senate Subcommittee.

The comic book also received Dr. King’s approval who called it “an excellent piece of work” that did a “marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions during the Civil Rights Movement. Now in reproduction, the comic book has been widely circulated to support international struggles for civil rights, including Egypt’s Tahrir’s Square.

Teachers can use this primary source comic book as a way to explain how nonviolent protests held throughout the South contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the first frames in the book holds a proclamation:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes found a new way to work for freedom, without violence and without hating.”

Several frames later, there are illustrations showing Rosa Parks’s arrest when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. These events are narrated by a fictional character named “Jones”. His role is to introduce the reader to the 29-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, a preacher from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King will become the charismatic leader who planned the bus boycotts in Montgomery.

In the comic book, several frames show how protesters rehearsed for confrontations during protests. King wanted protesters to practice the tenets of non-violence the same way that Mahatma Gandhi had used non-violence in liberating India from the British Empire.

The “Montgomery Method” that Dr. King promotes in the strip is based on religion; God is referenced as the motivating force.  An explanation of the different steps to follow the method of non-violence begins with the statement that God “says you are important. He needs you to change things.”

In the concluding pages, the comic book also has suggestions for activists that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. Some of these suggestions are remarkably timely, and they could be used in class discussions:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don’t act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don’t argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

This comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story can be used to prepare students for the graphic novel memoir by Congressman Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is not directly named in the 1957 comic book, he participated in many of the events and his memoir March provides another point of view to major events.

In Lewis’s recounting, March: Book I is set up as a flashback in which he remembers the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.  The second book, March: Book 2 (2015) highlights the Freedom Bus Rides and Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech.  The final book, March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marchesMarch: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.

In receiving these awards, Lewis restated his purpose that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

“It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

He could just as well have been speaking about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They may belong to the genre of comic books, but they also are serious records of our history.

Today marks the 200th birthday of American writer (poet, essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist) Henry David Thoreau. I remember my first encounters with Thoreau were traditional, his essays read in my high school English class. Soon after, my choice of for a quote under my yearbook photo (a serious decision made after much deliberation) was his:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

“That’s a rather depressing sentiment,” my Aunt Rita had commented.
“It’s what I believe,” I had replied.

Therefore, I was surprised to discover that although I have taught his essays and discussed his literary impact on American Literature,  I have not yet written on this blog about Henry David Thoreau.  This post will correct my oversight.

In 2013, I created a Livebinder for my seniors who were reading the Bill Bryson book A Walk in the Woods. A Livebinder is a digital file cabinet where anyone can upload or link materials for others to use. The about page explains their purpose:

“We created LiveBinders so that you could do with digital information what you do with the piles of papers on your desk – organize them into nice presentable containers – like 3-ring binders on your shelf. With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents – to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere.”

The materials on Livebinders can be accessed on all digital platforms, so that students could access it on their own devices. My Walk in the Woods Livebinder allowed me to place the link Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” explained in its republication in The Atlantic magazine

“In May 1862, the magazine published ‘Walking,’ one of his [Thoreau] most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.”

I still remember the opening phrase from the essay, “I wish to speak a word for Nature…”.
A student had grumbled, “There’s a lot more than one word here…”
His was an understatement. This particular Thoreau essay runs about 20 pages; a total of 12,188 words.

I did not require my students to read the entire essay, although I encouraged them to try. Instead I had them peruse the text until they found a passage that seemed interesting. They had to choose a quote, much like I had for my yearbook photo, that they found particularly profound and then write an explanation on why this quote was interesting or meaningful. . I still remember some of their choices, and their reflections on why they chose a particular passage such as:

  • Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
  • In short, all good things are wild and free. 
  • When we should still be growing children, we are already little men

I learned that Thoreau’s sentiments spoke to their frustrations of growing up, or being talked at by know-it-all adults. Many of my students were vocational agriculture students who wholeheartedly agreed with Thoreau’s attitude towards ditching the classroom and getting outside:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.of having to spend time indoors.”

Using Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” was my attempt to complement Bill Bryson’s memoir of his hiking on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Bryson’s writing was more accessible to the students than Thoreau’s 19th Century prose which is stuffed with allusions of all types. Unlike Thoreau, Bryson makes background instruction unnecessary.

Another accessible text for students was the picture book I placed on the Livebinder, the charming  Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B.Johnson.

Thoreau reimagined as a bear, enjoying Nature!

In this tribute to Transcendentalist philosophy, Johnson cast the naturalist Thoreau as a bear who hikes his way on a route (actually taken by the author), stopping to engage with several of his famous American neighbors (Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson) also as bears. Henry’s bear companion chooses to work in order to take the train, setting up a story that implies money cannot buy the experience of nature. Students found the message profound, and unanimously agreed that a bear was the perfect choice for Thoreau.

I also placed links to a number of other essays by famous (British) writers on walking:

…and some (American) song lyrics on walking:

I asked students to find their own walking songs to share in class.

There was also an audio essay from the series “Engines of Our Ingenuity” based on an invention (using clay) that Thoreau used to make better pencil out of inferior graphite. Who could have been more inspired to make a better pencil than a writer who used pencils in his writing?

I had hoped that students would be equally inspired to see the connections that Henry David Thoreau had to their lives, to see how he had inspired Bill Bryson and others to take walks in nature. How he promoted Nature as a way for students to gain knowledge about themselves and the world around them…. To encourage others to spend time in the kind of thought that “transcends” or goes beyond what they may see, hear, taste, touch or feel.

My hope was that my students could have Thoreau explain the importance of self-knowledge, “… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

40 years after choosing that yearbook quote, I have not shifted in that belief.

Stress: That tension we feel mentally or physically when we must deal with demanding circumstances.

Not all stress is bad. Some stress is good for problem solving. Too much stress, however, is unhealthy.

For the past year, I have worked ( painted, cleaned, packed) in order to downsize, move, and place my house on the market. That stress was physically demanding…and is ongoing.

This March, my mother’s five year battle with Alzheimers/dementia finally consumed her, and she passed away shortly after we relocated her to my sister’s home. That stress was emotionally demanding.

How much stress is too much?

I researched a test for stress that was developed back in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe.

That same year, in April of 1967, the Beatles released the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

How are these two events related?

Reports about the The Beatles at that time indicate that they were frustrated by the screaming crowds at their live performances. According to their producer, George Martin, the Fab Four “wanted to spend more time in the recording studio.” Paul had asked his fellow band members, ‘We need to get away from ourselves – how about if we just become sort of an alter ego band?”

It was stress, the demanding circumstances of touring, that drove The Beatles into the studio. In this case, stress proved to be positive force for making music.

That same year, psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe released the results of their research using surveys of more than 5,000 medical patients. The patients were provided a list of 43 life events they had experienced within the previous two years. They labeled each event as a Life Change Unit (LCU) and assigned each LCU a different “weight” for stress. Adding up the weights gave a patient a score; the higher the score, the more likely the patient was to become ill.

Holmes and Rahe scaled the top 5 LCUs and their weights (_) as:

  1. Death of spouse (100)
  2.  Divorce (73)
  3. Marital separation (65)
  4. Jail term (63)
  5. Death of close family member (63)

While most of these LCU events are associated with negative stress, there are a few on the list that could be seen as positive stress creating events such as taking a vacation, weighted at 13.

One example of positive stress associated with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the release of the album as an outstanding personal achievement for The Beatles, a positive LCU, weighted at 28.

From November 1966 through April 1967, The Beatles spent over 400 hours in EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London. This dedicated studio time gave them the chances to experiment and try innovative recording techniques.  They had the time to work together and share what McCartney described as “a huge explosion of creative forces.”

Within the album’s catalog, there are songs with explicit references to life changing events, both small and large. A few examples are listed with their weights according to the Holmes and Rahe stress test.

They included a song that referred to everyday stress:

“Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.”

A Day in the Life

Being late could contribute to stress or trouble with boss (23) and maybe change in responsibilities at work (29).

They included a song that referred to a LCU event such as a son or daughter leaving home (29) with a heartbreaking narrative:

Wednesday morning at five o’clock, as the day begins.
Silently closing her bedroom door,
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more,

She goes downstairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief.
Quietly turning the backdoor key,
Stepping outside, she is free.

She’s Leaving Home

And they included a lighthearted address to the worries of aging:

“When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a valentine,
birthday greetings, bottle of wine?”

When I’m Sixty-Four

Stress from aging could be measured on the scale as retirement (45) or change in social activities (18).

In 1967, The Beatles met the challenges or the causes and effects of stress on their lives through their music. They wrote songs abot the stress in everyday life, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

That same year, Holmes and Rahe laid out their rating tool to measure the cause and effects of stress on their patients’ health.

I determined my own personal stress level after totaling the Holmes and Rahe scale weights for my mother’s death, my downsizing, and my hip replacement- all within the past two years. I was relieved to see a total of 141 because that score leaves me into the lowest category with “a low to moderate chance of becoming ill in the near future.” To provide sense of their scale, Holmes and Rahe highest score is a 600.

Perhaps the best way to deal with personal stress of any kind is the suggestion that comes from the lyrics in Sgt. Pepper as well. The album may be 50, but the advice from The Beatles is timeless:

“Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends.”

A Little Help from my Friends

The advertisement for the 55th Annual Mark Twain Library Labor Day Weekend Book Fair read,

“A large collection of Art books, Environment & Nature, Baseball books, many handsome sets and thousands of CHILDREN’s books..”

I want to make a correction to this advertisement.
There are 300 less children’s books at this book sale because there are 300 books in my car.
By next week those 300 books will be distributed into classroom libraries in grade 4-10 for independent reading.

The Mark Twain Library Book Sale in Redding, Connecticut, claims to be “the oldest – and one of the largest – in New England:”

The history of the sale begins with its namesake, Mark Twain in 1908. When Twain (Samuel Clemens) moved to Redding in 1907, he had more books than would fit in his new home so he donated over a thousand to start the Library. When Twain passed away in 1910, his daughter Clara donated more books for sale, and 107 years later, the Book Fair is still one of the library’s principal fundraisers.

This oldest book sale is also one of the best run in the state.

The sale is held in easily accessible Redding Heritage Community Center. As one entered, volunteers provided maps that detail the book table layout, from mystery selections to travel guides to a table marked ephemera.

The fiction tables in the adult section were organized by author (which made fast finding for copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Of course, having the hardcovers and trade paperbacks grouped together could be part of a sociological study in recent popular reading trends as evidenced by multiple copies of the The Stieg Larsson Trilogy/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (the fascination apparently over). There were wide aisles to accommodate the “book sale bump”- a result of patrons trying to read titles while carrying overloaded bags or boxes.

The volunteer help was outstanding; students (middle-high school aged) manned tables to tally books or straighten shelves. Rather than shy away, they approached shoppers with retail-like patter, “Would you like a box to place your holdings?” They checked book prices book-by-book and reloaded bags once they finished counting. Their adult supervisors handled several cashier’s tables. Outside, there were boy scouts who sold baked goods and (predictably) asked if patrons needed help carrying books to cars.

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

One large box filled with a variety (40+) of Star Wars related books. I am anticipating renewed interest with the December (18th, 2015) release of The Force Awakens.
10 neatly stacked copies of Jeanette Walls’s powerful memoir of her homeless parents in The Glass Castle for a Grade 12 English course.
5 copies of Under the Same Sky ( 2005) by Cynthia DeFelice which deals with migrant Mexican workers on an upstate New York farm; ideal for a small book group or lit circle. (Good story; horrible book cover).
Multiple copies of books from R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series and from Rick Rioden’s Percy Jackson series.

IMG_0697

Selection of high interest titles

Final price for 300 good quality, high interest books for independent reading libraries in grades 4 through 10?

$313.00.

Thank you, Mark Twain Library Book Sale Library volunteers. As your founder stated, “We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.” (see post)

I know that greatness of a nation starts and continues with the practice of reading.
Your efforts will be felt in many public school classrooms in Connecticut not so far away.

 

 Anne Frank: The Diary of  Young Girl transcends the labels of genre. anne Frank book

Yes, as the title suggests, it is a diary, but it is also a memoir, a narrative, an argument, an expository journal, an informational text, and much more.

Yet, these genres listed are treated as separate and distinct in the reading and writing standards of the Common Core (CCSS). The standards emphasize the differences between the literary and informational genres. The standards also prescribe what percentages much students should read (by grade 12 30% literary texts/ 70% informational texts), what genres of writing they should practice (narrative, informative/explanatory, argumentative) and the percentages students should expect to communicate  in these genres by grade level.

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

Distribution of Communicative Purposes by Grade supported by the Common Core

In the real world, however, the differences between genres is not as clear and distinct as neatly outlined in the standards. The real world of Nazi occupied Holland was the setting that produced the defiant Diary of Anne Frank.

On June 12, 1942,  Anne Frank received a red and white check autograph book as a birthday gift. This small volume was soon filled by Anne as a diary, the first of three separate volumes, as she her family and friends hid in the secret annex.

A diary is a daily record, usually private, especially of the writer’s own experiences, observations, feelings, attitudes.

Anne’s narrative in these diaries provides a sequence of events and experiences during the two years she spent hiding with others behind the bookcase in the attic where her father had been employed.

A narrative is a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.

In June of 1947 Anne’s father Otto Frank published The Diary of Anne Frank, and it has become one of the world’s best-known memoirs of the Holocaust.

A memoir is a written account in which an individual describes  his or her experiences.

In one entry Anne explains she is aware of what was being done with Jews throughout Europe and those who resisted the Nazis. She refers to radio reports from England, official statements, and announcements in the local papers. There are expository style entries throughout the diary that help the reader understand how much she and others knew about the Holocaust:

“Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews….If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed.” October 9, 1942

“All college students are being asked to sign an official statement to the effect that they ‘sympathize with the Germans and approve of the New Order.” Eighty percent have decided to obey the dictates of their conscience, but the penalty will be severe. Any student refusing to sign will be sent to a German labor camp.”- May 18, 1943

Expository writing’s purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe.

Finally, there are excerpts taken from the diary where Anne makes a persuasive argument for the goodness of people, even in the most awful of circumstances:

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.  If we were to start by adding to that goodness instead of stifling it, by giving poor people the feeling that they too are human beings, we wouldn’t necessarily have to give money or material things, since not everyone has them to give.” March 26, 1944

A persuasive argument is a writer’s attempt to convince readers of the validity of a particular opinion on a controversial issue.

Anne’s opinion about the goodness of people during the horrors of the Holocaust is a remarkable argument.

The Diary of Anne Frank gave rise to other genres. Anne’s diaries served as the source material for a play produced in 1955 and then as a film in 1959.

The genre of The Diary of Anne Frank, however, should not be the focus, or the reason for its selection into a curriculum or unit of study. Instead, it is the quality of the writing from a young girl that makes the diary a significant contribution to the literature of the 20th Century.Screenshot 2015-06-11 18.50.33

Novelist and former president of the PEN American Center, Francine Prose revisited the diary and was “struck by how beautiful and brilliant it is.” Prose’s research on Anne Frank as a writer culminated with her own retelling, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, in which she makes a strong case for the literary quality of Anne’s writing:

“And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how rarely people have really recognized what a conscious, incredible work of literature it is.”

In an interview on the PBS website, Prose was asked, “Do you think there is something about Anne Frank’s voice that continues to resonate with young people today?” Her response,

“I do. Because the diary was written by a kid, it is almost uniquely suited to be read by a kid. Salinger and Mark Twain certainly got certain things right about being a kid; but they weren’t kids when they wrote their books. The diary works on so many different levels.”

When selections from The Diary of Anne Frank were first published in the “Het Parool” on April 3, 1946, the historian Jan Romein also recognized how Anne’s young literary voice rose above the inhumanity that caused in her death at 15 years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In his review, he writes:

“… this apparently inconsequential diary by a child… stammered out in a child’s voice, embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”

Romein’s review elevates the “apparently inconsequential diary” as testimony in making a legal case against the Nazi regime. It is that power in Anne’s voice that makes her diary a powerful text to offer students, whether it fits the percentages in a CCSS aligned unit of study for an informational text or not.

Her entry on July 15, 1944, written 20 days before she and her family are betrayed to the Nazis reveals yet another genre:

 “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

For there is poetry in that entry as well.

This morning I had to slow down in the children’s books section of the Friends of the Westport Library Summer Book Sale. I slowed to sort through the extensive offerings of books on tables in the big tent. I also slowed to keep an eye on three-year-old Pearl, my niece’s daughter, in the smaller tent. That slowing down resulted in a great payoff in picture books.

I shopped on the first day of the sale, Saturday, (7/19/14), prepared to haul away several bags of books for the classroom libraries. A check of the travel section did not disappoint. I quickly located seven copies of The Places in Between, a memoir by Rory Stewart who walked his way across Afghanistan in 2002. This memoir recounts how he survived:

 “…by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers…Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion-a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.”

This memoir is an assigned text for the Honors Grade 10 summer reading, a non-fiction selection to meet the World Literature focus. The seven copies would retail for $74.90; I got all of these copies for $13.00. There were other trade fiction paperbacks that I added: Little Bee; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Things They Carried. There were also multiple copies of different episodes in the Bone series for students who enjoy graphic novels.

After shopping for the classroom libraries, the browsing through the children’s books tent felt like a bonus sale. Here was an opportunity to get books into Pearl’s hands, and the Westport donators did not disappoint. The tables were piled high, and the aisle wide enough for patrons with small children in tow.
The books were in excellent condition, so much so that my niece commented, “Look, these pop-up books can still pop-up!”
I located copies of books from the classic picture book canon, and we ended up with a small pile including:

  • Make Way for Ducklings  by Robert McCloskey.
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.
  • Shrek by William Steig
  • Linnea at Monet’s Garden By Christina Bjork
  • Miss Rumphius  by Barbara Cooney
  • The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.

We had to stop and read some of the books to Pearl to keep her engaged and were particularly grateful for the large areas roped off outside the children’s book tent. This space lets patrons check their selections before heading to the check-out tent. This space is critical for some of the patrons who stock up like I do with multiple bags and boxes.

Pearl and her mom enjoy "Make Way for Ducklings"

Pearl and her mom enjoy “Make Way for Ducklings”

In total, we spent an hour collecting books at the sale and fifteen minutes at the organized check-out tables. As they are every year, the volunteer who counted my five bags full was pleasant and well-trained. She was curious about where I taught, however.

“You are putting these into classrooms…where?” she asked.
I explained these were going to a middle/high school in Northwest Connecticut.
“Oh, I don’t know that area well…I guess I lean more to the New York area,” she offered.
“When possible, so do I,” was my response.

Totals spent? $96.00 for the classrooms, and $13.00 for Pearl who left the sale toting her “summer reading” picture books. From emerging to life-long readers, the Westport Book Sale offers a chance to stock up on picture books and memoirs and all the other genres in-between.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of PAN AM #103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Elizabeth "Liz" Marek

Elizabeth “Liz” Marek

My friend Elizabeth Marek, Liz, was on that plane. She was killed along with 270 other people that evening when a bomb planted onboard the plane exploded before it crashed into a small Scottish town. Her sudden death left an enormous hole in the lives of my family. She was smart, quick-witted, and loved film and theatre. Her most outstanding quality was her laughter. There are not enough synonyms to describe Liz’s laughter: she chuckled, she chortled, she guffawed, she cackled, she giggled,she tittered, she sniggered, she snickered. She would make us roar/hoot/howl with laughter, crack up, and roll on the floor, Liz supplied the laugh-track of our youth.

That laugh track came to a sudden and uprupt end four days before Christmas. The priest who eulogized her spoke about the “not so silent night” of December 21st, 1988, the night our world became a little quieter.

My world also became a great deal smaller. Suddenly, I knew someone who had been killed by terrorist for a reason that was not clear. Some ideologue had chosen the plane my friend was on to make a statement, to get revenge, or possibly to demonstrate power. Regardless, the bombing connected me and my family to terrorism in a personal way.

Much speculation has been given to level on connection each person has to another in the world. One theory postulated by Frigyes Karinthy is that there are six degrees of separation that separate any two people in the world. This theory suggests that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. The idea was central to a 1990 play by American playwright John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation where one of the characters states:

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.

The accuracy of this theory has been tested using multiple social media platforms, and speculations have been made that there are even fewer than six degrees. In 2011, Facebook’s data team, using 721 million users with 69 billion friendships, averaged the distance of 4.74 between users. With this one social network platform, 1.19 billion monthly users out of a world population of 7.2 billion (as of September 30, 2013) are connected.

Sadly, my connections to other cataclysmic events have also continued. I live less than a five minute drive from Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, site of last year’s (2012) deadly school shooting. My family knew some of the victims there as well. The press coverage touched us all in our respective homes across the United States. We watched film footage of the famous flagpole in the center of town, the familiar Edmond Town Hall, and interviews with people we knew. We again felt the world become even smaller as our connections expanded.

These two horrific incidents are not the only ways that my family and I can measure connections with others in the world, but they illustrate how interconnected we are on our small blue planet in the larger universe. As 2013 comes to a close, the levels of human connection remind me of what author and scientist Carl Sagan had to say about humanity on Earth in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam……To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

On this 25th anniversary of the bombing of PAN AM#103, I imagine that we are more connected to each other than ever before. I know that Liz would agree that we should deal more kindly with one another.

Christmas storyThe holidays are here and network television takes full advantage of our want to replay our favorites, to stir memories, or to remind us of our childhood. Perhaps no film is more nostalgic than the 1983 film A Christmas Story based on a novel by Jean Shepard, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Director Bob Clark and writer Leigh Brown also collaborated on the screenplay for this time piece of the 1940s that highlights one family’s battles with Oldsmobiles, coal-burning furnaces, and spotty electrical wiring. The film is also a timeless story of a young boy’s obsession for toy, a Red Ryder B.B. gun, for Christmas from Santa Claus, the guarantor of all secret wishes.

The casting of actor Darren McGavin (The Old Man), actress Melinda Dillon (Mother), and the young Peter Billingsley, as the bespectacled Ralphie, was perfect, but it is the voice of Shepard himself narrating the story that makes the movie so memorable. The viewer sees the events through Shepard’s eyes and hears his emotional range as he reflects on this one momentous Christmas season. In recalling his youth, he is at turns indignant (“Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?”)  terrified (“Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes. He had yellow eyes! So, help me, God! Yellow eyes!”), and determined (“No! No! I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”)

The visual laughs abound in the story: Flick’s tongue stuck frozen to the flagpole, Miss Shields’ morphing into a witch, and the camera closing in on Santa’s boot as he shoves Ralphie down the slide into a soft pile of cloth snowballs. But it is the language, Shephard’s script, that gives the film its enduring appeal. Long after December, I have heard people quote lines from the film such as:

  • Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian.
  • It… It ’twas… soap poisoning!
  • Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!
  • But those who did it know their blame, and I’m sure that the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive.
  • You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

Not only are the lines marvelous in construction, but the vocabulary in Shepard’s recounting is of the highest caliber, with many words worthy of an SAT rating, for example:

“We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.”

“Over the years I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. My personal preference was for Lux, but I found Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor – heady, but with just a touch of mellow smoothness.”

“Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

“Mothers know nothing about creeping marauders burrowing through the snow toward the kitchen where only you and you alone stand between your tiny, huddled family and insensate evil.”

When a word is not suitable, Shephard turns Shakespeare-like and creates his own:

“Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots.”

Shephard also preserves the language of a different, perhaps more polite, time when a more conscious effort was made to create substitutes for profanity. The actor McGavin peppers the “Old Man’s” frustration with all things mechanical: nincompoop, dadgummit, keister, and for cripes sake, as well as more colorful expletive sound-a-likes: You wart mundane noodle! You shotten shifter paskabah! You snort tonguer! Lame monger snaffa shell cocker!

The script is also filled with a myriad of examples of figurative language guaranteed to please any English teacher. Here is an opportunity to teach students the power of similes:

“My kid brother looked like a tick about to pop!”
“Randy lay there like a slug! It was his only defense!”
“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.”

Shephard’s metaphors are also exceptional. These are constructions of “dictional elegance”, the rare combination of the sacred and profane:

“In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

“Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year revolved.”

“First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”

“Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty.”

122208lampleg

My personal favorite metaphor of all time centers on the infamous lamp, a prize won by Ralphie’s father who in one hilarious sequence, digs wild-eyed through packing material in a large wood carton. He uncovers a tribute to all things burlesque:  a glass leg adorned with a fishnet stocking and a fringe shade covering the upper thigh. As Ralphie stands, slack-jawed in admiration staring at the lamp, his alarmed mother shoves him back into the kitchen. Ruefully Shephard intones:

Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.

So, during the next 24 hour marathon showing of A Christmas Story, when you tune in for the memories, to watch the exceptional acting and the period piece visuals, pay attention to the language that makes the film so unforgettable. You may even develop an appreciation for Ralphie’s theme essay on “A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.

Poetry. Sheer poetry, Ralph! An A+!

radio

Many WABC recordings are available on the NYRadio Archive website at http://www.nyradioarchive.com/wabc.html

In the midst of preparing lessons for back-to-school, I learned that August 20th was designated as National Radio Day. The convergence of radio tribute with my preparations for the start of school seemed appropriate. As I grew up, the music and chatter from an AM radio served as the soundtrack for school mornings, after school hang-outs, and evening homework sessions. The dial on our small transistor radio was fixed to one station and one station only- 77WABC. Like so many school children in the greater New York area, the echoic memory center of my brain imprinted the voices from three radio personalities from this radio station: Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram, and Cousin Brucie Morrow.

Harry Harrison’s morning program announced the weather and those oh-so-important school snow cancellations. Between songs and commercials, he would flirt with all the mothers rushing to get children out the door. “Come over to the radio,” he would coo, “I’ll zip you up!” There would be a sound-byte: <<<<ZIPPP!>>>> followed by a chorus of recorded female voices, “Thanks, Harry!” Political correctness was not in vogue during my youth.

After school hours were given over to Dan Ingram, a DJ who mastered artful repetition. While important geometric theorems, irregular French verbs, and the names of specific geographic land masses have left my memory, hearing a song from the 1960s-70s brings a clear recollection of the lyrics and stylized vocals of lead and background singers. He played (and over-played) The Beach Boys’s Good Vibrations, The Association’s Windy, The Carpenters’s Close to You, or The Monkees’s Daydream Believer; a mere three bars of the introduction is enough to trigger a flashback to a particular time or place.

Now that I teach, I try to use the powerful bond of audio recitation in order to help students memorize. I now recognize the success of WABC radio was in its formula of redundancy; if Ingram wanted an audience to know a song or product, he would play that musical selection or commercial unapologetically, sometimes 10-12 times during his show.

Finally, there was Cousin Brucie Morrow in the evenings. His contribution was his role in introducing  me, and thousands of other screaming pre-teens and teenagers, to the Beatles. As I would do my homework, the distraction by “All My Lovin'” necessitated a sing-a-long, “A Hard Day’s Night” needed a little dance, and “Penny Lane” was cranked loud enough for everyone -even the parents-to enjoy. Cousin Brucie’s patter was fast; his commercial promotions were smooth. His jester-like laugh was often the last sound heard before falling asleep.

The combined power of these three personalities was evident in the collective of fans who listened to 77WABC. There is a dedicated website WABC Music Radio  that offers a collection of audio clips, biographies, playlists, interviews and photos for those feeling nostalgic. A quick listen to two audio clips can flood a fan with memories:

WABC intro
The Most Music WABC

Thousands of schoolchildren grew up in this shared atmosphere of Motown soul, pop, hard rock, and surf music. The same, however, cannot be said for students today who have complete control over their individualized radio diet. They can personalize their own music selections through radio Internet stations such as Pandora, Rhapsody, Last.fm, iHeartRadio or Spotify. There are subscription radio formats such as Sirius and XM radio. There are the non-profit stations for National Public Radio and colleges, and all of these options have crowded out the once dominant commercial AM radio stations.

The range of choice for radio programming today is mind-boggling; students can tailor music to meet their every mood or occasion. Yet with this choice, the collective experience of sound, that audio community has vanished.  As one of the few options available, 77WABC developed a congregation of devoted listeners. We knew the personalities that shared songs with us. We knew their routines, their cliches, and their schtick. We knew the songs they played, over and over and over. 77WABC radio was a shared soundtrack for growing up, a sharing that does not exist today.

So, Happy Belated National Radio Day and thanks, Dan. Thanks, Cousin Brucie. Thanks, Harry…(but, I’ll zip myself up.)

Stephen King scares me. I have read only a handful of his books: Christine, The Green Mile, Carrie, but those have left a residue in my brain. My fear, created by the gruesome images in his fiction, would probably please him: he likes to tell stories that unsettle the reader.

I have, however, become a fan of his non-fiction book On Writing. While I am not as rabid as Annie Wilkes of Misery, I push this book on as many readers as possible. When I mention King’s name, however, I recognize the same uncomfortable flicker in their eyes. King scares them.

“No, really,” I urge, “this is nothing like the Stephen King books you don’t like. This is the Stephen King book you will like.”

On the surface, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is King’s memoir mixed with writing tips. The book is divided into three parts; the second part has two subsets of witty literary criticism.

In section one, the reader learns about King’s childhood, the history of his writing career, and the inspiration for several stories. He discusses his addictions, his stories, and his marriage to Tabitha, an author and his chief literary critic. In the second section, King discusses the craft of writing, first through the use of a “toolbox” of grammar  and then with application of these tips in various works of literature. The third and final section of the book covers his near death experience in June of 1999 when he was hit by a motorist on a side road in Maine.

We assign this book to our juniors who are taking the Advanced Placement English Language class, a course in familiarizing students with rhetoric and argument. The critical commentaries he offers in his “toolbox” section are especially helpful in helping students develop a style of writing.

He lectures the reader in a voice that is informal and wise. He gets the respect that English teachers struggling to impart the importance of subject-verb agreement crave to have from students. Plus, he swears; he swears a lot:

“You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semeste rin Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one. Relax. Chill. We won’t spend much time here because we don’t need to. One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or not.”

Some of his other observations include:

“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word — of course you will, there’s always another word — but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”

“Bad grammar produces bad sentences.”

The adverb is not your friend. … Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.”

I have had some success in locating used copies of the book in its various editions. There are hardcovers and paperbacks in the secondary markets of thrift stores and library book sales, but I need to look close at the book spines since they are different in size and appearance. Our class set is a mish-mash of all editions.  The most frequent edition’s cover art is a picture of the cellar door, and if there was a book cover design that was dead wrong for the contents, this cover gets my vote. The cellar door may mean entrance to the “foundation” of writing, but the cream colored clapboards, bright window, and potted plant are an odd chice for King. The cover art with the letters of rejection nailed to a wall is macabre, perhaps a better choice for King and the contents. My favorite cover, though, is the most recent and centers on a photo of King working at his desk.

Cover simply did not match content!

Cover disconnect from content.

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall; blood red title.

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content-King writing On Writing

Last week, I offered this book to my own book group, an adult group of educated readers. Our discussion led to the question, “What is good writing?” We failed like so many others to come up with a definitive answer, but we did appreciate KIng’s four pages of suggested titles listed at the end of the memoir to read as examples of good writing. This list brings me to a major point in On Writing, King likes to read. This is repeated many times in the text:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

“If you want to be a writeryou must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

King’s dedication to the craft of writing is inspiring; the final paragraph captures his passion:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

On Writing has changed how I write. Because of On Writing, I hesitate to add an adverb (see? I consciously did not use “frequently hesitate”). I hear his voice say “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs” when I craft sentences,

My favorite part of the “toolbox” deals with his disdain for the passive voice. King tells the writer to “energize your prose with active verbs. … good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”  My students tell me they write in write in passive voice to sound smart, so I need to counter with a clear example of why the use active voice is more powerful. King provides me a hilarious example:

“Everyone’s entitled to his/her opinion, but I don’t believe ‘With a hammerhe killed Frank‘ will ever replace ‘He killed Frank with a hammer.’”

“But how do you know when you are using passive voice?” my students ask. I offer my new “tool” to test, a tool I found on a Facebook post.

“If you can put ‘by Zombies’ after the verb, then you have passive voice,” I respond.

“Frank was killed…by Zombies?”

“Passive voice. To make the sentence active, you would have to write, ‘The Zombies killed Frank’. Much clearer, don’t you think?”

Passive voice and Zombies? I think Stephen King would enjoy that discussion.