Reading Life 31

Flight by Sherman Alexie

One reviewer compares Alexie's "anger" to that of James Baldwin, and though I get where this reviewer might be coming from I really don't because I don't read this novel as a manefestation of Alexie's anger but that of the main character, Zits. And though Alexie often writes autobiographically and from a place of experience (so I can assume that there is a piece (large or small, whichever) Alexie in this 15-year-old near mass-murderer who travels through time and is a body changer of sorts), in this case, I feel, this is not a book of anger but a story of hope. Near the end of the book, Zits is taken into yet another foster home, but this time the foster-father doesn't sit across the breakfast table reading the paper but actually looks at the boy, speaks to him. His foster-mother sets out the boy's schedule for the boy and promises to pick him up from school at 2:45, and the boy is thrown off by her statement: will you really be there? he wants to know. She promises that she will, looks him in the eye, as a matter of fact, leans her face a mere few inches from his even, and says her word is solid. The boy thinks, "Promise. What a good word. What a hopeful word." His reaction to her "I promise"?: "'Whatever,' I say, because it hurts to have hope." And so as violent and as angry this boy might be in all of his lives, throughout time and history, the novel is about a boy who wants to be loved, to be hugged like the last time his own mother hugged him before her passing. A wonderful work.


Reading Life 30

The Poet Slave: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Sean Qualls
Though the ending of this biography in poems is on the weak side, the whole is a fairly amazing book. I must say that Engle did most certainly deserve the Pura Belpré Award. In this book, we meet various characters, the focus of whom is young Juan Manzano, El Pico de Oro (the Golden Beak) who is slave to La Marquesa de Prado Amena, a woman who believes the world revolves around her, whose Spanish skin is as dark as the very Cuban slaves she owns. But Juan is "special," the child of her old age, she calls him. And to do a great and kind deed, she announces one day that both Juan's mother and father can, for 300 pesos, purchase their freedom, and any and all of their yet unborn children too will be born free; but this boy who has an uncanny ability to memorize and then to recite practically anything he hears (including opera, poetry, and words in languages strange to him), he will remain in her stable, if you will. It isn't long before the marquesa grows tired of the boy, who is growing older and no longer such a novelty. Especially when he begins to compose his own poetry and desires to learn to read and write, though he must do so on the sly. The woman, this slave owner, sees nothing wrong with punishing Juan for anything she feels is a misdeed on his part. And the punishment in harsh, to say the least. Like I said, the ending is a bit of a let down, but only because Engle finishes too quickly, it seems. A great work, though!


Reading Life 29

This Migrant Earth: Rolando Hinojosa's Rendition in English of Tomás Rivera's …y no se lo tragó la tierra

I knew this version of the Chicano/migrant laborer classic existed, and it's about time I got hold of it because I am a huge fan of both Rivera's work and of Hinojosa as consummate writer. So when around a week, week and a half ago I got my very own copy of it in the mail, I relished it. Took it slowly, because though it's a shortish work, it's deep (in the original Spanish, and in this rendition (which is to say, it's not a translation but, as Christopher Myers does visually with his picture book Jabberwocky, something completely new yet connected to the old). It's pure poetry, how Hinojosa re-envisions an already poetic book. It's about the language, too. How each section of the story I can hear as though it were being spoken. I imagined myself even speaking or acting parts of it on a stage. My personal favorite that I was able to do this with was the chapter titled "With This Ring," in which the narrator is talking to someone "off stage," but there never the less, about his ultra-horrible experience staying on with Don Laito and Doña Bonny: how the old man's laugh exposed both gold-capped teeth and rotten ones, how he wiped his hands under his sweating armpits and then without washing begin to knead dough for pan de dulce, how the old woman fixed dinner for the boy out of rotten meat, how they stole, how they killed and made him dig the hole to bury the Wetback in after. It's a beautiful retelling of a classic. Would that Arte Público would rerelease it.

Traveling Life 5

So, is TxLA exciting every year or what? This year I had a presentation to attend to, an entire hour and twenty minutes all to myself, and I'll tell you what, though my students and my wife would both state rather emphatically that I usually have to trouble talking for that long, and longer, I was still iffy. I mean, this talk (titled, by the way, "The Bilingual Book Club: Bringing Parents into the Literary Mix" and sponsored by the Children's Round Table (thanks to Elva Garza of Austin for her kind introduction), the Texas Association of School Librarians, and Young Adult Round Table (otherwise known as YART)) was more formal than I'm used to. And, I kept wondering, It's the last slot for presentations on the last day of the conference and there are publishers downstairs all trying to sell off, in some cases give away as much of their stock as possible. Who's going to show, so really, René, should I be too worried? I mean, if it was me having to choose between cheap and or free books and this guy talking for an hour and twenty minutes, I'd go for the books, much like I did right after my presentation. But, you've got to know librarians--and I'm beginning to better and better--I should've expected the huge crowd that I got. What a bunch! these librarians. Each of them an educator and true to that spirit--they love books, they love their libraries, but one thing they love more than anything, they love their kids with books in their hands, so show up they did. And they didn't even let me finish my talk. They had questions about and answers to and suggestions for getting this kind of book club started. It was amazing how many librarians were open to giving of their space, if necessary, their books (which means part of their always dwindling budgets), their energy to such a project. Simply, it involves creating book clubs that include both child and parent who are Latino (though the same would work, I think, with any other group that speaks a language other than English, and whose parents as a result, in part due to this language barrier, don't participate in their child's academic life as it unfolds on campus but who never the less care deeply about their child's academic and language aquisition success). Small groups, maybe three or four kids and their parent(s)/guardian/older sibling, read the same title: the child in English, ideally (or in Spanish depending on the child's level), the parent in Spanish (or, again depending on a parent's grasp of the language, then in English). But the idea is to get kids and parents to talk books in the home. We teach the parents a smidgen of academicese (that is, how we talk about books from within) so that they can use it in the home. Imagine a child sitting at the table as his mother is fixing supper, and over her shoulder the mom asks the child, "So, mi'jo, what are you reading today?" And the boy says this book or that one. "Oh, really?" Mom says. "What is it about?" Or, "Who's the story about?" Or, "Where does the story happen?" (summary, main character, and setting, respectively) Or any number of other bits of information we classroom teachers and TEKS are always after. Anyway, these Texas librarians are awesome! Every single one of them! Even those who weren't at my presentation. Thanks for pushing books!


Traveling Life 4

This morning I'm headed to the 2008 Annual Texas Library Association Conference being held in Dallas TX. I always so look forward to this event when I get to go because I get to hang out with Adrienne W., Tracy now-Lerner, et. al. from Random House, with writer friends (Terry Trueman, Robert Lipsyte, Libba Bray, Sarah Cortez, and others), with librarians (too many to mention but all very cool), meet new librarians, and score some autographs (hopefully I'll be able to get to Kevin Henkes' signing on time today so that I won't disappoint Staci's daughter). I've got my camera with, so I'll make sure to post some shots from TxLA soon after I get home later.


Reading Life 28

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen
Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Recently, I was complaining to my editor's very cool assistant by way of email that I was experiencing some troubles with my lawnmower. Oh, it had been a longish winter, much of it spent with my wife and me weeding, but when I pulled the machine out of the shed a couple weeks back, either I flooded the thing so it wouldn't start when I pulled, or I'd overfilled it with oil (I can never tell if I'm right at the full line or not so to be on the safe side, I spill some more in), or it could've just been in mower-hybernation still. I'd asked her a day or so before to please please please send me a copy (if one was available) of Graham McNamee's short novel, Sparks (about a boy who's mentally slow but who learns to deal with his learning disability in his own way, but learns, more importantly, that friendship is gads cooler than being "cool"--not as hard pushing a book as his Acceleration, but still good) and Caroline asked if I'd be interested in a copy of Lawn Boy by Paulsen. This is Paulsen at his best in this format, the short short novel, or the long long story (he's done this before with The Rifle, for example, and The Tent (this second one is awesome!)): it's the story about a boy who inherits a rider mower from his long-deceased grandpa. The machine is old but well-kept, and has two speeds: turtle and rabbit. Our hero decides to mow the family's yard, which he gets done quickly, then is hired by a neighbor to do his yard (and so, the lawn boy earns more than enough to buy the inner tube for his ten speed bike he was in need of), then another neighbor hires him and another and another, and the boy's lawnscaping career hops to rabbit gear. And it only speeds up from there. The boy meets Arnold, a hippie throw-back who drinks unsweetened tea that tastes like it's sweetened, who works from home as a stockbroker. So the man brokers a deal with the boy: do my lawn and I'll invest the money I would pay you into the market. And the boy gets rich, fast and filthy. He even owns a prizefighter, Joseph Powdermilk, whose ring name is Joey Pow! It's a funny story and worth putting on one's shelf to pull and then put into the hands of reluctant readers, who themselves might know the lawnmowing business. You never know, you might just make a thousandaire of one of your young readers. Put all kinds of ideas into his/her head. That would be cool.

Jenny Downham's novel is good. It's the story of Tessa Scott, a girl who at 16 is dying of leukemia, and she's got a list, much like the recent movie The Bucket List. Hers includes sex (which at times verges on the near graphic), drug use, breaking the law, and driving (though without a license). Initially, the items on the list involve only the physical, the egotistical. Eventually, they turn more spiritual (not to be confused with godly, because at no time does Tessa look to God; as a matter of fact, in leaving instructions to her baby brother Cal, she tells him to avoid getting religion). Spiritual, in the sense that she looks to love: first love, the love of family and friends, for family and friends, love for Lauren Tessa, her best friend's yet to be born baby girl. She holds her mother's hand tight, she leans on her father's shoulders the more, she embraces him like a mother would and lets him cry on her shoulder, tells her brother "I love you," and in her final moments so wants to hear those same words, "[l]ike three drops of blood falling onto snow," from her mother, who long ago abandoned them for another man. It's a moving story, and Downham handles the girl's passing well, without letting it get out of hand emotionally.


Traveling Life 3

Yesterday, I flew in and out of San Antonio for a talk at the San Antonio Area Association of Bilingual Educators (SAAABE) where I met with Mr. Ornelas and Mrs. Pacheco who'd organized the event, a day-long conference attended by San Antonio's best. My part was the easiest: I got to talk for 45 minutes on the need to enlist the much-needed help of parents in the home and on campus, as literacy and language advocates. Never mind them just fundraising or making copies (though those are great ways to participate), we need parents to become active in children's academic success, face to face, day to day. And ours, as school educators, is to teach them the language of academia and academic success for use in the home. In other words, kids should know to expect to hear in the home what they're hearing in the classroom (and vice versa). For example, in an ELA class TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) requires a reader to identify, say, main character, plot, and setting. It's not enough for me to send a note home (in English and Spanish) asking parents to check their child's home work for proof of understanding when the parents may not know themselves how to identify main character, plot, and setting. That home work assignment will likely be futile. So we need to, in mini-workshops with parents (held on campus (best place for this would be the library), but why not better yet at a community's church, the Y or Boys' and Girls' Club or other community center, at a book store, or in one family's living room or porch) let them in on this traditionally private (ours) and specialized (academic) language. Show them how to use it to help their children reach for that academic success we all wish for every student. Anyway, it was awesome talking with these folks, and cool to listen to an elemetary school's rondalla (Esparza Elementary School). Those kids were great playing and singing. What futures these kids have as a result of participating in a music program.


Writing Life 19

Publishing News! Though I'd heard word from both Nick Kanellos and Marina Tristan a couple of weeks ago they were interested in a chapbook series of detective mysteries, I got the terms directly from NK today via email: it'll be a three (chap)book deal in bilingual format, with the possiblity of adding to the series later. It's about a boy named Micky, a 5th-6th grade detective, a sort of Encyclopedia Brownskin, since he's Mexican American. So that's cool news.


Writing Life 18

I just got back from the TEEN BOOK FESTIVAL LIVE! held in Fairport NY, and organized by Stephanie Squicciarini et al., and what fun that was. In spite of a layover in Cincinnati for about three hours (what do I have to complain about? at least it wasn't the eight hours Roz Monette spent in Chicago O'Hare), when I arrived the weather was a crisp cool. Loved it! I got to see Terry Trueman that first night when I got into the hotel. He dropped by while I was flipping back and forth between boxing on ESPN (Estrada v. Whitaker; Estrada by unanimous decision) and HBO's John Adams, and eating, even that late at night chicken strips and fries. We chatted some, then he left me to my dinner. Terry's the author of Stuck in Neutral, Cruise Control, No Right Turn, Inside Out, 7 Days on the Hot Corner, and most recently, Hurricane.

So, the following morning we were bus-limoed to Martha Brown Middle where awaiting us was a crowd, no lie, of easily 400 students, teachers, and parents (oh, and we can't forget the very cool Star Wars folks in character from the 501 Legion's Garrison Excelsior and the Rebel Legion's Echo Base). So we step off the bus limo and the kids are calling out Terry's name, or Libba's, or Alex's, right. The authors are asked to stand in front of a group of cheerleaders, who do a cheer, pyramids and flips and flops included, about reading. Then we're whisked down the red carpet, led down a hallway and up the stairs, where all the other kids who we didn't get to see outside were hanging out. I've never seen this many reading-crazy kids in my life. Would that they'd be like this the world-over.

Others at this function included, in alphabetical order: James L. Barry (the illustrator in the bunch), Libba Bray (fellow Texan and whose first book, Great and Terrible Beauty, side by side against all of mine and all of Terry's stacked one atop the other, easily outshadows ours--I'm telling you, she writes huge books, and go figure, kids in Fairport/Rochester (and I'm sure the country, if not the world over) are reading mammoth-sized books), Lola Douglas, Ellen Hopkins (who just returned from Sydney AUS--how I envy her for that), Jeff Kinney (who is proof positive that working on the computer and the internet do lead to more than just carpal tunnel and thick glasses--check out his daytime job at http://www.funbrain.com/), Roz Monette, Sara Ryan, Alex Sanchez, Todd Strasser, Terry Trueman, Timothy Zahn (who was reason enough to bring out the Star Wars folks), and Lara Zeises (note the very close resemblence to Lola if you visit the tbflive.org site). Oh, the one guy I missed seeing, who had to cancel due to bad weather on his route over: David Lubar. I'd even carried copies of his Hidden Talents and Punished! for him to sign. Well, I'll have to hound him for autographs at another festival or conference.

Here are just a few shots of what all went on at TBFLive! Read the Book!!!!!!!

A view of the lovely Fairport from behind the hotel.

Jeff Kinney and Ellen Hopkins

Terry Trueman signing.

Timothy Zahn signing, being guarded by a Stromtrooper.

Terry on the phone, Libba Bray (peace to you), and Timothy, on the bus limo.

Alex Sanchez, always smiling.