Monthly Archives: August 2008

Remembering Katrina

The third anniversary of Katrina is prompting some reflections and reminders. Last November New Orleans’ resident, April Bedford, presented her husband’s story (as he was at their home for days) to my class and our 3rd grade buddies. The latter have an ongoing relationship with a school in New Orleans and later last school year they crafted blog posts about these connections.

I attended the ALA convention in New Orleans in June 2006 and wrote the following child_lit post after I got back.

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 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
) 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.



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Take the CLAT

Go take Roxanne‘s and my CLAT Level III: Children’s Literature Application Test (from the September/October Horn Book). Then come back and let us know how you did.


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Imaginary Books

What do the books Fifty-Three More Things to Do in Zero Gravity, Dust Thou Art, A Moral Dustbin, and Unburnt Boats have in common?  They only exist in other books.  To see more titles (and add more), go to The Invisible Library.   (Thanks so much to John Crowley for this intriguing site.)

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School Wars

One way to navigate this new era of “giving” is by asking a simple question: Would these folks [Gates and other educational philanthropists] send their own children or grandchildren to their “reinvented” schools? Is a steady diet of memorization, work sheets, and testing the sort of education the children they love receive? Of course not. If affluent children enjoy beautiful campuses, arts programs, interesting literature, modern technology, field trips, carefree recess, and teachers who know them, I suggest that we create such schools for all children. What’s good for the sons and daughters of the billionaires should be good enough the rest of the children, too.

Another worthy article from GOOD Magazine: “School Wars” by Gary Stager (whom I know many, many, many years ago when doing a degree in computers and education at Columbia University).

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Holden’s Relevance

Anne Trubek, in GOOD Magazine, on Why We Shouldn’t Still Be Learning Catcher in the Rye.

Why is The Catcher in the Rye still a rite of high school English? Sure, J.D. Salinger’s novel was edgy and controversial when teachers first put it on their syllabi. But that was 50 years ago. Today, Salinger’s novel lacks the currency or shock value it once had, and has lost some of its critical cachet. But it is still ubiquitously taught even though many newer novels of adolescence are available.

Now I’m a big fan of classics, but I think she has a point.  There are many, many, many wonderful books that could be used in schools in place of this particular teen-angst book.  Don’t get me wrong; I was a huge Salinger fan in my teen years. But that was decades ago. There are so many truly terrific books that would probably resonate with larger numbers of kids than Holden’s story now does.  Trubek, at the end of her piece, recommends several worthy candidates and I can think of quite a few more.

Via bookslut.

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My Trip to Peru: The Andes

So I zipped back to Lima and then flew off (or perhaps more accurately UP) to Cuzco. (And at a much more reasonable hour than the Iquitos flight, I have to say.) It was a clear day and we had snow-covered Andes all around us. Now Cuzco is at 12,000 feet and we were all anxious about altitude sickness. I was taking prescription medication (Acetazolamide) on the recommendation of my doctor, but others were reluctant because of potential side effects. (I did experience some tingling in my fingers, but on the other hand, next to no problems with the altitude unlike others in my group.) So as soon as we got out of the airport we stocked up on coca candies (I sucked them dilgently, but couldn’t stand the taste — sugar and straw to my mind) and drank the tea provided at all the hotels. But most importantly we left Cuzco immediately and headed for the Sacred Valley, “only” 8,000 feet or so, to acclimate.

What a contrast to the Amazon! Cool, crisp, and dry. I loved it. Our guide, Juan, was fantastic. The experiences were just great. So many, it is hard to even list them all. Let’s see:

August 16th: Flew in from Lima and visited the ancient city of Pisac. Gave us a taste of walking in altitude. Unfortunately I was getting sicker and sicker stomach wise (no doubt a residual effect of the Amazon) and trying to soldier my way through it and so am a little blurry on details of the day. Fortunately, I was fine the next. Our hotel was lovely, lovely, lovely. Perhaps my favorite of the trip, an old hacienda where Simon Bolivar stayed.

August 17th: This was one overstuffed day. We first went to the lovely town of Ollantaytambo. We visited a home there (with lots of guinea pigs running about — more on them later) and peeked down lanes that were still as the Incas had designed them. Then we climbed up the glorious Ollantaytambo ruins. Spectacular! Then we went rafting in the Urubamba River. So, so, so cool. No pictures because I had never rafted before and purposely left my camera behind. And then we went to a market (I think at Pisac) where we also saw a funeral. And then we went to a bar and played a fun game and drank chicha (local beer brewed since the time of the Incas — really). And then we went to a dinner at a local family where we had guinea pig. (See, told you they’d come back.) I only took a teeny taste to be polite, but the others loved it and said it tasted like, what else, chicken. (There’s a glorious painting of the Last Supper in the Cuzco Cathedral where guinea pig is being served.) And then we collapsed into bed.

August 18th. We visited a local school where the tour organization had donated money to build several classrooms. Very moving experience. Then we took the train to Aguas Calientes where we stayed at a hotel literally on the train tracks. From there we took the bus to Machu Picchu and stayed till 6.

August 19th. Early morning back to Machu Picchu so we could hike a tiny bit of the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate. Gorgeous. (Back in NYC I’m amazed how fluid my running is. Nothing like hiking at 8 or 9 000 feet to make NYC seem easy.)

August 20 -23. Cuzco. What a beautiful city. Amazing ruins, wonderful colonial houses, fascinating. In particular, seeing the glorious Inca walls with their amazing way of putting together stones. One was twelve sided.

Here are a few photos, but go find professional ones if you want to really get a taste of things. Or better yet, go in person. Machu Picchu really is one of those places like Petra or the Grand Canyon that is best experienced first hand.

The requisite animal photo, this time me feeding llamas.

Little girl in market doing her math homework.

The ubiquitous coca leaves.

With my trusty locally-procured walking stick. (Felt like Gandalf striding up those Inca steps.)

The view out my hotel window. Two little girls flying kites while a little boy lay on his back in the grass playing an Andean flute.

Fourth grader Monica at the school we visited. She showed me every page in every notebook!

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. I now understand what a cloud forest is.

This is the point where those who have done the four-day Inca Trail trek first see Machu Picchu. So we took a few shots pretending to have done so too. Mine is pretty tame; others in my group are crawling up the stairs.

On the road to Cuzco. Beautiful or what?

Can you find the twelve-sided stone?

Our terrific guide Juan holding a typical Cuzco bread (with a heart on it).


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My Trip to Peru: The Amazon

At 2AM a couple of weeks ago I received a wake-up call at my hotel in Lima. Yes, it was time to get up; my flight to Iquitos was at 4:55 AM and it was necessary to get to the airport hours ahead, we’d been told. And rightly. When we got there at 3:30 AM the lines were massive! We barely made it on the flight. Whew! (When I asked our Lima minder why the flights to Iquitos were so early she mumbled something about birds. Pressed, she said it was because vultures went for the garbage in Iquitos, somehow causing problems with planes. When we told our Amazon guide this he was furious. It had nothing to do with vultures, he told us, and everything to do with politicians more interested in the Andes than in the Amazon. But I digress.)

We arrived in Iquitos around 6:30 AM and found our guide who told us we were lucky to be there. The bad fog had made it very possible the plane would have been unable to land (no air controllers in Iquitos!) and gone back to Lima. I wondered about this until I met a group a few days later who had gone back to Lima in similar circumstances.

We boarded a rickety bus and careened through early-morning Iquitos. Looks like a wild and crazy place! But we left no dust as we headed for the river and the Amazon Queen. This was a quite comfortable and large ferry that took us to the first of three jungle lodges. All of these lodges were part of Explorama, an impressive organization of eco-sensitive tourist lodges. We spent our first night in their original lodge which was very pleasant. (The shot below is from their website, but gives you a nice sense of how peaceful it is at night with all the kerosene lamps.)

We then went on to spend several days at the more remote Explornapo lodge. Among the highlights was the Amazon Canopy Walkway. It gets high (122 feet) and is quite amazing. (The photo below is Explorama’s and much better than anything I could take. In fact, I couldn’t!)

Here’s my photo. (I was too busy trying not to freak out to take photos! Wonderful, but scary too.)

During our time on the Amazon we did all sorts of cool things and saw wonderful things too. I’m not much of a photographer. I’d rather just experience something than have a camera interfering. So I took only a few. Here are some of them:

The Amazon Queen

The more typical river ferry.

Hanging out with some river folk (and a pet monkey).

And the most common form of transportation along the river. (This shot is because I fell in the mud right around those canoes!)

Our guide Ari during a village visit.

Ari with a bunch of kids during a school visit.

The walkway to the toilets (or I’d call them latrines); not quite as romantic at 3 AM, I can tell you.

With a sweet baby sloth.

Giant water lilies. (We saw pink dolphins too, but I didn’t try to photograph them. Just do know that they were pink, pink, pink! I also saw amazing birds, butterflies, monkeys, and more, but didn’t try to photograph any of them either.)

What was all around me all the time I was there. (Let me tell you, the boat ride at night — scary and amazing!)

Self-portrait in hammock.

This only scratches the surface of a wonderful place. If you are adventurous I highly recommend it!


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Way, way, way up

I’m writing from Cuzco, Peru at around 12,000 feet above sea level.  Machu Picchu was as amazing as everyone says.  So were many other Inca sites we visited, not to mention the people here today.  I fly home tonight and plan on posting more (complete with a few photos— not many so as not to bore you and because I’m not much of a photographer) next week.

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In Peru

Just a quick post to say I’m in Lima after several wonderful days in the Amazon jungle.  Stayed at a series of lodges run by the excellent Explorama outfit.  (Mostly in the more remote ones.  They were really magical.) When I’m back I’ll post some of my photos, but do check out the links.  These were started by a Peace Corps volunteer and are ecofriendly and all around terrific.  Saw amazing birds, butterflies (my beloved blue morpho among them), monkeys, pink dolphins, snakes (fortunately only far off), bugs, and tons more. Walked in the forest canopy, went on many walks in the jungle, visited villages and schools, a clinic, a healer, and much more. 

Tomorrow I’m off to Cuzco and Machu Picchu.


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I’m off to Peru for two weeks. See you soon!


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