Remembering Katrina

Katrina is burned into my brain. It is burned into many of our brains. And now for this tenth anniversary there are many considerations of what happened then, after, and is still happening. For children, there have been books. Quite a few works of fiction and some nonfiction.One of the best I’ve seen is Don Brown’s graphic novel Drowned City: Katrina and New Orleans. Simply outstanding in a heart-wrenching way.

Here’s what I wrote on the third anniversary:

In my experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, as time goes on there can be a tendency for the historical record of horrible events to become simplified — for certain iconic images and stories to take on the burden of representing all of it. So far I am heartened to see that hasn’t happened with Katrina. For example, two recent high-profile books have come out and everything I’ve seen about them gives me the imrpression that their creators have done things right. One of them is Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun and the other is Josh Newfeld’s graphic novel A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge which is featured in today’s New York Times and can be read in its original web version here.  Reading about them caused me to remember vividly sitting here that August and following what was happening in New Orleans, following the horrible aftermath, hearing from a friend who lost everything, and then being shown it firsthand by her when I visited New Orleans for the ALA convention less than a year later.  And because I want to be sure her story is remembered, here is what I wrote (and posted last year too) about that.

I got back early this AM and I cannot write about the convention
without first writing about New Orleans, a city I’d know before as a
tourist and convention-attendee. A place I know now as so sad, so
harrowing, so disturbing, and so full of the most remarkable and
courageous people I’ve ever met.

People like Pat Austin of the University of New Orleans who spent
three days after Katrina in a Baton Rouge motel parking lot in a tiny
Toyota with her sister and eleven cats. Pat who lost her house to a
levee breach, but who is totally and utterly and passionately
committed to her home — New Orleans. Pat, who wanting me to bear
witness, spend most of yesterday touring me in that same Toyota
through her beloved city. 9/11 made a New Yorker out of me just as
Katrina has made Pat more devoted to her hometown than ever.

Pat had shown me photos when I saw her at NCTE in November and again
when she stayed with me in March, but I have to say they and news
coverage had not prepare me for the magnitude of what I saw yesterday.
I think it is not possible to appreciate it unless one is in it. The
unsettled feeling I had around the convention center and the Quarter
(with so many places still closed and boarded up) was nothing compared
to the feeling I had yesterday on my tour with Pat.

She began by pointing out to me the miles and miles of destroyed cars
under the highway we drove along. They were being brought there from
all over, a dreadful Katrina automobile graveyard. I’d probably seen
them on my way in from the airport, but hadn’t known what I was
looking at.

She next took me through the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjoining
neighborhoods. Pat had taught there years ago and had been there many
times since Katrina and so was able to point out specific landmarks
to me. We drove around there for hours. The only analogy I could come
up with was being at Nazi concentration camps — that is, how the
vastness of the devastation really hits home when you are physically
seeing it rather than experiencing it in photos or film or in words.*
And seeing, so many months later, lace curtains in a window of a
collapsed home, a tricycle atop of pile of destroyed home stuff, the
official markings (which Pat translate for me) indicating the death of
people and pets, the ironic communications (”Baghdad”) and the
heartrending pleading ones (”donations needed for rebuilding”), the
signs (for lawyers doing claims, for people needing evidence, for
businesses specializing in demolition and rebuilding), the workers
(say a group having a lunch break in a playground), empty businesses
with signs as if they were open (strips of fast food places and other
familiar businesses) — all destroyed.

Worst of all was the horrible eeriness of emptiness. The sense of the
thousands who lived there, the ghosts of a vibrant and busy community,
of people who had worked to buy these homes, now uninhabitable. Mile
after mile after mile after desolate mile.

We then went to Pat’s neighborhood, to her house. She’d shown me the
photos back in November, but again there is no comparison to the
experience of being there. Of standing in her living room and seeing
the remains of her library stuck on the floor. Seeing the beautiful
chandelier which feels like the only thing the water missed as it
stopped a foot or so short of the ceiling. The sodden scratching
post. The waterlogged copy of Pat’s own children’s book (THE CAT WHO
LOVED MOZART
) placed by her in the newspaper holder in front to remind
those who came of those who lived there.**

After that inexpressibly sad experience Pat took me to her new home.
What a joy to see that she has a lovely new place that she is making
beautiful with new and old. (For example, she showed me a photo of a
plush toy Babar in the midst of her old home’s destruction and then
showed me a washed Babar on the new bookshelf next to his book.)

But I’m not done for then she took me to the wealthy areas near the
lake that were as destroyed as those in the poorer communities we’d
already been to. She took me by the infamous levee break, by the
university run out of trailers, by homes being raised on pilings as
now required by the local government, by churches being restored, by
well tended gardens in front of gutted houses, by a remarkable
Vietnamese temple all bright and restored among desolation, by FEMA
trailers and storage units in front of elegantly expensive homes, and
by more and more and more. She explained, she pointed things out, she
kept apologizing for overwhelming me. Yes, I was overwhelmed, but it
was important that I saw. I still feel that I don’t have the right
words to express all of what I saw.

As for the convention itself, it was sad too. As much as everyone
wanted it to be normal, it wasn’t. The exhibitions were quiet, much
more than other times. Maybe it was just me, but there was a subdued
quality to many of the events and receptions. Remembering New Orleans
before, it was hard for me not to notice the difference and so walking
from place to place, to event or reception, it was difficult to forget
what had happened there only months before.

Yes, there were happy moments, of course. Watching Shannon Hale in a
red dress dance in bare feet up to the dais to receive her Newbery
Honor was joyous as was Chris Raschka’s homage to Karen Breen as was
Lynne Rae Perkins beaming face. Oh, and Chris’s duet with Norton
Juster was great fun too. I (usually a curmudgeon about this sort of
thing) proudly wore my “I LIKE MIMI” button (done in the style of the
old “I LIKE IKE” button) to honor Mimi Kayden who received a life-time
achievement award. Bill Joyce had to rescind his invitation to enjoy
absinthe (evidently the W Hotel wasn’t willing to host something still
illegal), but the mint juleps weren’t bad.

But what I’m coming home with and still processing clearly is not the
ALA convention, but New Orleans. I sure hope they can come back; I
really really really really do.

* When I told this to my father he said it sounded even more liked the bombed-out cities he saw at the end of World War II, cities like his home of Frankfurt.

** The house was eventually razed (Pat showed me photos of that too) and, last I knew, Pat was gardening the land.

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An IBBY Wonderland

If you are interested in international children’s books (hopefully you all are!) and able to make it to New York this October, I urge you to consider attending the 11th Annual IBBY Regional Conference, “Through the Looking Glass: Exploring the Wonderland of International Children’s Literature,” October 16-18, 2015. Several years ago I was able to attend the IBBY Congress in London (it is every two years in different parts of the world — next summer it is in New Zealand) and it was fabulous. (You can read my impressions in these blog posts.)  And so I’m guessing that the regional conference will be a mini-version of that and equally awesome. Kate DiCamillo, David Almond, Paul Zelinsky, Leonard Marcus, Chris Raschka, Lois Lowry, and Susan Cooper will be there. Breakout session presenters include Betsy Bird, Marc Aronson, Jaime Campbell Naidoo, Padma Venkatraman, Sarah Park Dahlen, Susan L. Roth, Junko Yokota, Anrdi Snær Magnason, Margarita Engle, and Lisbeth Zwerger, (Oh, I’m doing one too .)  Hope to see some of you there!  (ETA Just saw that there are only 40 spots left so register today!)

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A New Online Annotated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I’m a fan of annotating books. Marginalia fascinates me. For decades I’ve introduced my 4th graders to the joy of close reading and annotating by way of Charlotte’s Web. And for my Alice in Wonderland unit I’ve depended very much on Gardner’s annotated edition. In fact, one year I had the kids do their own annotations for the book — they enjoyed doing that tremendously. And so I was delighted to see The Public Domain Review and Medium‘s cool project, an online annotated Alice. They describe it thus:

This collection celebrates the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It includes an annotated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, commissioned by Medium and created by The Public Domain Review with the assistance of twelve curators, listed below. New chapters will be published on Tuesdays and Thursdays for six weeks beginning July 28. We’re also inviting you to build and share your very own edition of the book on Medium, using the copyright-free text and illustrations we’ve gathered here, your own original art and remixes.

In addition to the annotations there are very cool “remixes” of Tenniel’s original art. Go here to see a list of the scholar curators. Highly recommended.

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The Martian, Book and Movie

I listened to Andy Weir’s The Martian last fall and, at first, wondered what it was all about, writing in a  goodreads update:

Just as I thought “this is getting claustrophobic” the other side’s story kicked in.

And once that happened, I was completely absorbed. My final brief review:

This was fun. Pretty much a roller-coaster. Almost predicable in that as soon as things seemed okay something else terrible happened, but somehow super-smart Whatley figured them out each time.

Now I’m evidently the last to know the movie is coming out this fall. The trailer has me quite excited. Love this sort of stuff!

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In the Classroom: Africa and Animals

Right now I’m listening to the NPR show On Being where they are talking with Katy Payne, “a renowned acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility.” Her comments about elephants in particular are so moving and made me think about the recent complicated responses to the killing of Cecil the lion.

I was completely disgusted and disturbed when first learning of Cecil’s death as trophy hunting seems a completely horrible activity to me. But as the media juggernaut continued it struck me that here again was the way Africa is perceived by those in the United States. (I was particularly taken by Goodwell Nzoua’s New York Times op-ed, “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions” and this CNN piece.)  And this is because we grow up with our media featuring mostly a handful of striking animals from one small part of a very large and diverse continent. As I wrote last year in my Horn Book article, “Books About Africa“:

The distortions begin with animals. From a very young age, American children are exposed to Africa almost exclusively through its fauna — in ABC and concept books, in cartoons, in toys, in Broadway shows…the list goes on. Stories full of appealing lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and other popular African animals make it easy for young readers to assume that 
wherever they go on the continent, there those animals will be.

And as we grow up it continues. Just a few weeks ago I was watching BBC-America and there were constant ads for a series on “Africa” that seems to only be about its animals. And so what bothers me isn’t the response to the killing as much as how it shows the way we focus so much on African animals (think also of zoos) and so little about its people. And how this results in the sort of media frenzy that happened with Cecil. How I wish we could be more balanced and that the media do a better job representing the continent so it doesn’t just become again and again about animals, war, and poverty.

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Barry Cunningham, Harry Potter’s Fairy Godfather

Last fall I was at FILIJ, a fabulous children’s book festival in Mexico City, along with many luminaries including Barry Cunningham, a legendary British editor who is now perhaps best known for having discovered Harry Potter. It was lovely spending time with Barry, a delightful fellow. Attendees constantly requested photos with him, something he did with good-nature each time. Barry’s own publishing house, Chicken House, continues to produce stellar books which are available in the US through Scholastic.  Now there is are a lovely BBC video and somewhat longer podcast featuring Barry relating the publishing beginnings of that Boy Who Lived.

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In the Classroom: First Week Read Alouds

I don’t go back to school till after Labor Day, but know that many others are going back now. Like other teachers, I think carefully about the books I read aloud that first week. My way of connect to kids is very much through books. And so I Iook for books that will relax them, see me as someone safe to be around, and consider that this is likely to be a good school year. Ideally the first book will be school-related, but not necessarily. There are many, but tend to be for younger kids. I’m far from my classroom right now (being on a Swiss Alp:) and so not able to browse through what I have there. Also, I have to love the books myself. I’m going to be establishing a tone and a way of engaging with read aloud books and so need to be at my best. This first week isn’t the time for me to check out a book I’m not so sure about.  So, as of this writing (a month to go for me) here are three books I’m considering:

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Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School by Adam Auerbach.  This distinctly amusing twist on the “being at a new school” trope was a big hit last year so it is top on my list to use again this year. Edda lives on Asgard, one of the homes to the Viking gods and when her father decides she needs some experience with other kids her age (there being none on Asgard), he sends her to school on Earth. The result is a gently humorous look at Edda learning how to bring her own self into a new and very different place. This is a book that is definitely one that can be best appreciated by my students — some of them have already studied the Vikings and others know about them. And Edda’s fish-out-of-water feeling is one they probably are all feeling on that first day of school. Not to mention, it is quirky and different — I mean, are there any other first-day-of-school books inspired by Wagner’s Ring series (as this evidently was)?  Though that it was doesn’t matter a wit; I don’t know Wagner’s operas firsthand, but do know that this little off-beat story is a great one to start my class out on their 4th grade year.

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Each Kindness Jacqueline Woodson. I fell in love with this book the fall it came out and advocated for its consideration for the Newbery that year. Since then I’ve been pleased that so many others agree. This is not a book I read aloud the first day. It is one I read at the end of the first week (or sometimes a week or two later) to start an ongoing conversation about kindness. It is a book that we refer back to all year.

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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. I always start reading aloud a novel that first day. It is definitely challenging to find time every day in my schedule to read aloud, but I do it. At our morning meetings I usually read a fun picture book and then a novel for the last 15 minutes of an afternoon period that is called Lab. This is an important element of my school’s philosophy — it is a time where kids can work on various projects, see teachers, etc. Taking 15 minutes out it for a read aloud is tricky for me. I love the idea of Lab, but also feel strongly that we need to have a read aloud period. So the latter trumps the former. I like to start with something that is new or not out yet and so am still considering what this year’s will be. I adored Jones’ book and would like to see how kids react to it. It isn’t long, something I think is very important as I think we teachers have to assume that no matter what the kids say to our faces that not every child in the class is going to be equally in love with a read aloud and so if they aren’t they don’t have to live with it too, too long. But I’ve got time to contemplate this decision. I do know I would like it to be a sure fire hit — not something that I have to abandon before we are done. I’ve done that very occasionally with read alouds the kids are just not warming up to, but never the first one.

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