New adaptation premiers on PBS November 24th.
New adaptation premiers on PBS November 24th.
Ten days earlier had been our first day of school. At 8am I had opened my classroom door to a bunch of energetic nine-year-olds who quickly discovered the chocolate ladybugs I’d placed on each of their desks for good luck. By mid-morning, I’d led a discussion on classroom rules, helped them stow away school supplies, and taken them on a tour to see where the all-important bathrooms and water fountains were.
That is from Normal Service Will be Resumed, an article I wrote for the UK’s Times Educational Supplement about my 2001 class of NYC fourth graders’ first day of school, September 11th. Soon ladybugs started coming from all over the world and ever since they’ve been a theme for my classroom. The first anniversary was very tough (you can read something I wrote at the time here), but it does get better as time goes on.
15 years later there are several worthy new 9/11 books for children and young adults. Of the ones I’ve read it is Gail Polisner’s The Memory of Things that resonates most for me personally. She captures that eerie, heavy, time-standing-still, feeling I recall so vividly. (My goodreads review is here). In her Nerdy Book Club post of today she writes of how hard it was to get the book published. That some editors weren’t even able to read it. I suspect I wouldn’t have a few years ago, but as time goes on I’m able to handle a bit more and then a bit more of it. I admire Gail being able to write this book — while I’ve written about the day, I don’t think I could write a whole book. I’m struggling right now with a young college student (I believe she is from China so her view of 9/11 would be significantly different than someone in this country) who is doing a paper on teaching the day as history and wants to interview me. Her interest is in this as history, but it is still too raw and real for me to discuss it that way. But of course it is for young people and Gail has done a wonderful job providing a tight view of the day for someone their age.
Every day when I read of something dreadful happening — bombs, war, illness, famine, assault, and more — I consider how amazingly resilient we are as a species, able to move on and live our lives in full whatever the circumstances.
The following is a brief, but amazing interview of the young Maurice Sendak just after he won the Caldecott for Where the Wild Things Are. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended.
On facebook Sharyn November posed the following three-part question:
I think about this all the time in terms of the diversity conversation. First of all, as a child, I had one major way I could see myself in pretty much all the books I read — by being white. So I want to start by noting that privilege I had as a child reader. And certainly the books I read were pretty much all featuring white protagonists. So while they may have seemed very different from me (more on that below) we shared that whiteness and all that afforded. But in other ways, the child-me almost never saw herself in the books she read, nor did she want to especially.
Here’s my response to Sharyn’s question:
I moved constantly as a child (faculty brat), was shy, and my family always seemed way outside the norm of the various communities we lived in — often small towns where everyone else seemed to have lived there for generations. I always thought of the kids I knew there as “having been born in the house they lived in”. (My parents were German refugees with strong accents, didn’t do religion of any kind, and we were living mostly in the south and midwest where none of the kids I knew had parents like that. Or we lived in Germany. First time went to a German school not knowing the language so major outsider status. Second time went to a Defense Department School where all the kids lived in what was called “The Golden Ghetto” — Bonn’s American embassy community — and hated the Germans. My family, on the other hand, lived in German communities and had German friends. So always way outside the dominant community.) Alone and with my younger sister we were constantly creating imaginary experiences for ourselves in our games — running away, living in what we thought were more conventional families, fantasy lands, rich (we weren’t), etc. Often based on stories we read — going to Neverland, Oz, or Wonderland. And so, seeing myself in books would have meant outsiders exactly like us. As a child my favorite books were the Alice books and I loved to imagine myself as Alice in those fantasy lands. At around eleven I fell madly in love with Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young as the outsider main character was a lot like me personality-wise and got to go to boarding school something I was dying to do. Around then I also saw myself a bit as Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, probably partly because of her personality and partly because of her outsider academic/scientist parents — closer to my own family than others I’d come across in books.
But just as I could immerse myself in one of the imaginary worlds my sister and I created (some with toys and some just talking), so I did in the books I read. As a child, my favorites were those where I did find the main character to be an avatar, one I could be too. And so I read imagining myself that character. Generally they were the sort of people I wanted to be rather than who I was — not so shy, active, etc. (I totally remember feeling I was absolutely IN Looking-glass land everything I read that book.) Loved Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames as I would have loved to be them though they were nothing like me. I can’t recall running across books with families like mine and suspect I wouldn’t have like them particularly as I wanted to be in somewhere new and different from that. That is, the last thing I wanted is to be reminded of my real life — I wanted to be enveloped in a different one. As for books with situations like mine — not sure I would have liked it particularly in a book because it probably wouldn’t get it right (German refugee agnostic lefty parents?).
Having come from a sort of German-Jewish family that is rare in the US, I have always chaffed at being stereotyped as a more conventional Jew. And so books of that sort did and do little for me in terms of seeing myself in them. And knowing this I keep in mind that this many well be true for some of my students. They read for so many different reasons — some to see themselves, some to see others, and some to become something different from themselves.
We start school this coming Wednesday and, as always, I’m spending a great deal of time thinking about what I will do to make my students feel at ease and ready to go those first few days. Some of my fellow 4th grade teachers do ice-breaker activities and last week I thought that perhaps this year I’d finally give one a try. But after looking them over, I think not; since I personally hate participating in ice-breaker activities myself, the idea of leading one isn’t feeling great for me. My inclination is to do what has always worked for me in the past — a read aloud ice-breaker: the just-right first-day-of-school book. Read-alouds for me are fun (I read aloud a picture book at the start of most days all year long), help kids relax (and me too). We talk about them, laugh about them, and they seem better ice-breakers for me than the sorts of activities that work so well for my colleagues. So that said, here are the ones I’ve got in mind for next week:
Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School is brand-new and a charmer. Love the switch of the school being as worried as the kids. Bet my students will feel the same way.
I have Kenny Brechner to thank for drawing my attention to Jared Chapman’s Steve, Raised by Wolves, in his PW post of last year. This is a charming wry little book with a very awkward young protagonist who definitely struggles at first to figure out the rules of school.
I think I also have Kenny to thank for Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School by Adam Auerbach. Here’s what I wrote about it last year:
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.
Kenny’s most recent suggestion is Sophie’s Squash Goes to School. Indeed last year’s class and I loved Sophie’s Squash so this is an attractive option. But, unlike the others, it feels just a bit young for my 4th graders. Maybe I’ll read both books to them on Friday when they are feeling relatively relaxed, more comfortable in the classroom, with me, and with all the newness they are dealing with.
I had to read and reread PW’s piece about KinderGuides, because I thought it had to be a joke. But evidently it isn’t. So then I figured I’d put my fingers in my ears and say “lalala” so as to pretend they didn’t exist. Until today when Allison Flood’s sharp piece, “Children Don’t Really Need a Picture-Book Version of On the Road,” in the Guardian forced my irritated fingers out of my ears and on to my keyboard.
According to their website, this is a series that will
introduce some of the most iconic works of classic literature to young readers. Through visually-stunning illustrations and simplified, educational content we explore these timeless stories and the cultures that spawned them.
Without a smidgen of irony they plan to make these classics fit for children by creating for each a
condensed, simplified version of the plot, as well as a section devoted to exploring the life and cultural background of the original author. In addition, parents and teachers will also appreciate the key word definitions, a breakdown of the book’s main characters, a fun quiz, and a kid-friendly analysis of the important takeaways from each story.
Really? Really. I’m speechless…..
Okay, I’m back. There are those retro-cool illustrations, you see. Perfect, I’m guessing for the coolest of the cool hipster parents. Probably will be prominent in home decor stores as much as in those with kid stuff.
Each KinderGuide also features a different artist whose illustration style has been uniquely paired with that story, giving each book a distinctive artistic spirit, while also elegantly working together as a cohesive series.
As for the titles, they are really, really adult ones. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and On the Road adult ones. With Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the pipeline.
What exactly do these offer that are so special, so unique that are not available in books actually written for kids? And what exactly are they going to say about “the cultures that spawned” the Capote and Kerouac? The culture of women being used by men in 1960s NYC? The culture of beatnik sex and drugs in the 1950s? Serious, serious depression? As for the bios, what are they putting in them — Capote’s Black and White Ball or the mass killings of In Cold Blood? Kerouac’s drug habit? Seems completely nuts to me.
If you want NYC or road stories or guys spending time in holes — there are plenty of wonderful ones written FOR KIDS already out there. Some classics or about-to-become-classics. Instead of Breakfast at Tiffany’s for kids how about Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s Eloise? Instead of On the Road how about Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? Instead of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle how about Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole?
Whatever. Hipster parents will go gaga over these no doubt.
I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead‘s historical novel, The Underground Railroad. It is a remarkable work, worthy of all the accolades. I had been eagerly awaiting it having been a fan of Whitehead’s earlier work (especially The Intuitionist and John Henry Days) and it is everything the critics say it is, monumental, original, and brilliant. Working off historical facts, Whitehead has created a profound work of fiction. Like others it makes me think of the magical realism of García Márquez as represented in his One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is intense and is taking me time to read it as I have to take breaks as I go. But it is worth it — I can’t recommend it enough.
I also recommend Kathryn Schulz‘s New Yorker essay, “The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad” where she considers Whitehead’s novel and Ben Winter’s alternate history novel, Underground Airlines within the context of history, historians, and how it is all playing out today. Most powerful to me was her thoughtful commentary on our current way of considering this particular past. She concludes:
One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.
Powerful, powerful stuff.