Thursday, June 29, 2017

Death and Espresso

I spotted this tiny cemetery shortly after I moved to New Hampshire. It's in Portsmouth, right on Route 1, a major artery for this state. It was right outside of a Taco Bell, and the Taco Bell had seen better days.I remember thinking how sad it was: we spend a finite number of years on Earth, we work hard, hopefully we have a decent life, and when we finally shuffle off this mortal  coil, we end up.  .  .within view of stoners getting their late night snacks.

That Taco Bell has since closed, and now the building is a Starbucks. Maybe that sounds nicer than a Taco Bell, but it still makes an odd picture; people going through the drive thru, sipping coffee (or those stupid unicorn concoctions) and rushing off to another destination while just a few feet away, are reminders that we're all living on borrowed time.

Anyways, I decided that I wanted to find out more about this tiny resting place, so I stopped there one morning. It does have an official name: the Whidden Graveyard.

Whidden is an old New Hampshire name, and this little graveyard is a family plot. According to my research, the name was first recorded in this state in 1662

Most of the headstones are in nice shape, either because they have been maintained or replaced. There was only one that I wasn't able to read. And the Whidden name must come with good stock, because most of the people laid to rest there had long lives.

I chuckled when I saw this stone, because when I first looked at it, I thought it was flipping me off:

But I guess it's just pointing the way  most of us hope to go.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

All the Rage

I was in the mood for another intense, problem-centered YA book, so when I went to my local library, this cover caught my attention:

Romy Grey used to be one of those lucky girls- she's pretty, her best friend looks like  model, and she goes to the parties thrown by the local golden boys. But one night during a party, she ends up with the boy she has a major crush on, outside, alone.  . .with nobody to see or help her. Afterwards, when she tries to tell everyone what he did, the usual accusations come flying at her: she was drunk, she threw herself at him, you should have seen what she was wearing, etc. 

Romy gets used to the kids at school calling her a liar. She gets used her best friend's betrayal. She gets used to the hurt on her mom's face. She even gets used to hating her own body, and wishing she didn't have one. But when her former best friend mysteriously disappears, she has to decide if she could ever get used to knowing she might have been able to help solve the case. 

In all honesty, the conclusion to this story seemed a little rushed and I wished it had been a little more shocking to me, but stories like this are necessary now more than ever. Brock Turner, the college swimmer who was found guilty of raping a girl, was released from prison three months early because it was feared that a longer sentence "might have a severe impact on him." This development enraged us last year, but eventually the media outlets moved on to other stories, and now it's old news. 

Courtney Summers has brought the conflict in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak into the age of Facebook, hashtags and sexting. Readers who are looking to continue a discussion of the themes in Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why would find this a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A List of Cages

"What keeps you trapped? What keeps you from living the life you want? What keeps you from being free?"

This YA novel is told in the alternating POV of Julian and Adam.

Julian was a foster child in Adam's home after the sudden death of his parents, but the two have not seen each other since Julian left to live with his uncle.

When Adam is assigned to help Julian at school, part of his new gig as an assistant to the school's psychologist, it seems like a chance for a happy reunion. But Adam doesn't know that Julian is hiding. Hiding the welts on his body, hiding from the daily torment of kids at school by ditching class and sitting in a hidden room, hiding his dyslexia from his teachers, and hiding his feelings from himself.

A book that laces the horror of one teen's reality with the romance, friends and stability of another teen's life.

A good pick for fans of Eleanor and Park.

Friday, June 23, 2017


I read Cat Winters' book In the Shadow of Blackbirds a few years ago, and I enjoyed it, so when I found this book on our shelves recently, I decided to give this one a go, too.

Both stories take place in the early 20th century, amidst World War I and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. The description for The Uninvited says that Ivy sees ghosts, so I purchased this book for our horror collection. But upon reading it, I realized that it's really more of a historical fiction romance story, with a supernatural element in it. I don't think I'd really call it a horror story or a ghost story. In fact, throughout most of the book, I kept thinking "So when are these ghosts gonna show up?" It does have a good twist in it though, kind of like The Sixth Sense.

After that, I was kind of in a "book hangover," and I needed to read some more about WWI. This book is a collection of short stories that are inspired by objects from that era. The end material has photos of the actual objects that are featured in the stories, as well as a brief description and explanation of each. It would work well as a crossover book for a young reader who loves historical fiction, but avoids non-fiction texts, or vice versa.

These stories were very informative. One story mentions a soldier who has a "Fray Bentos" face; I didn't know what that meant, so I did a little research. World War I helped give birth to the plastic surgery industry; soldiers were returning from war with their faces and bodies ravaged by shrapnel. They wanted to try to integrate back into society, but that's very difficult when you're a reminder of war and death, so doctors sought a way to help these soldiers restore their appearance. Harold Gillies is considered to be the father of plastic surgery. There were also a number of prosthetics and 'masks' available. For example, a soldier who lost an eye could have a partial mask sculpted that contained a glass eye, and was attached to wire spectacles. Wearing the facial prosthetic was as easy as putting on a pair of glasses!

Also, some soldiers had prosthetic noses sculpted out of tin (they were painted a flesh color). The soldier is described as having a Fray Bentos face because Fray Bentos corned beef came in a tin container. Fascinating stuff!

Reading these books about WWI got me thinking about the people in my family who served in that war.

I know two of my ancestors served in WWI. The first one I know of was my great-grandfather, Stephen Mawn. He enlisted 5/29/1918 and was discharged 7/17/1919. This photo was taken in France, where he was seriously injured by mustard gas.

And my great aunt, Claire Ledden, was a Red Cross nurse in the Army Nurse Corps. She was killed in an accident when she was only 22 years old. I brought her photo into a college English class that I taught years ago, (we were discussing the origin of Veterans Day)  and I was so happy when one of the students said my face resembles hers.

Most of the sources on her list her cause of death as simply "accident." Years ago, my grandmother told me she thought it was a train accident, but I could never confirm it. While doing some more research online, I stumbled across a WWI discussion forum in which someone was inquiring about her, and one of the respondents is her 3rd cousin! Not sure if that makes this person a relative of mine though.  .  .anyways, this person states that she was walking on some railroad tracks at night, and was struck by a train. (The train was moving without lights, in order to avoid detection.) Very tragic. She was buried in France until her family raised enough money to have her body brought back to Pennsylvania, where they resided. 

I get very excited about genealogy! Connecting with other people, whether they are family members or people in an online forum, to discuss these people and their contribution  to a historic event is one of the reasons I wanted to study history.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Beauty and the Beast, no, not that one. . .

If I told you I recently watched Beauty and the Beast, you'd probably think of:


You might even have a vague memory of this:

You might not be aware that there is a film version of this classic tale that was produced just three years ago. 

It came up on my Netflix, and I was intrigued because I had not heard of it before. The reason why is because it's an import: a Franco-German film to be precise. It's available in original French, or dubbed over in English.

It opens using the metafictional set-up of someone, in this case an older Belle, reading the story in a book (to her children), and the viewers see the book's pages and are invited 'into' the story.

This adaptation follows the more traditional approach (no anthropomorphized candelabras or clocks). Belle has two sisters, and they both demand expensive gifts from their merchant father when he goes to town. Belle asks only for a rose. When he loses his way in the woods, he spies a castle with a magnificent garden. He plucks a rose, angering the castle's master, who demands that he say goodbye to his family and return for imprisonment as punishment. If he fails to return. his family will be killed. Belle agrees to go to the castle in his place. I was a little bummed to see that this version has no Gaston- he's always been one of my favorite characters.

**spoilers ahead!**

The basic framework of the story is the same, but there are some departures from the story most of us are familiar with. For example, this Beast has some bloodlust. When he was a human, he was an avid hunter. He breaks his promise to his bride to stop hunting, and kills a golden deer. It turns out that his bride the Princess was actually a forest nymph, and the golden deer was her in her other form. The Beast killed his own bride, and his unborn child. This transgression is what led him to be transformed into the Beast. The Beast's backstory is revealed  to Belle (and to the audience) through dream sequences.

The cinematography in this film is gorgeous, and in that way it rivals the newest Disney adaptation. The Disney films always seemed to have a theme regarding materialism: the Beast is selfish and superficial, and all his faithful servants are turned into household goods while the castle's lavish appearance deteriorates. This film focuses more on the relationship between humans and nature: the Beast commits a crime against nature, his castle contains a small pool of water that heals people, and the castle's interior resembles an enchanted forest. All this, plus the tradition of Belle wanting a rose as her only gift.

I'd recommend watching if you're a fan of Beauty and the Beast, or of fairy tales in general. I think this version is a worthy addition to our Beauty and the Beast repertoire.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Pink Flamingo to the Rescue

I've been doing some soul searching lately. That term has always sounded kind of hokey to me, but it is the best description for the process of introspective questioning and reflecting.

I've been trying to figure out how I can best channel my passion and my knowledge for children's literature into a career path that will make a real, positive contribution to others. I decided to pursue an advanced degree in Children's Literature (as opposed to Library Science or ELA education) because I enjoy studying, analyzing, critiquing and theorizing about literature. It's not just about reading it or shelving it, or figuring out how to align it to the common core, it's about seeing those picture books, middle grade novels and YA books as part of the world's literary tradition. Using theories such as Structuralism, psychoanalysis and Queer theory to view these texts in different lenses and consider them in different contexts.

But unfortunately, there are very few career paths for Children's Literature Scholars. We end up teaching (in schools or colleges), in libraries or in publishing. I figured out very quickly that the publishing world was not for me; it's fascinating and I loved learning about it, but I doubt I'd ever feel at home in it. I wanted to work in a library because it would give me the opportunity to connect with young readers, get them excited about reading, and put books in their hands that might help them become whoever they are going to turn out to be. The problem is that many positions in school libraries have not evolved as much as they should now that we are in the era of Learning Commons rather than information archives. Many school libraries do not receive the funding and support needed to make the transition, so they become outdated very quickly, which leads to even more budget cuts, because nobody is going to invest more money into something they view as antiquated. Library Media Specialists are struggling to change this mindset, and paraprofessional positions come with even more limitations.  .  .

Anyways, lately I've been trying to figure out if a school library position is the best fit. Like, "Am I really making any difference?" or am I just scanning barcodes endlessly? 

This morning I walked in to find a nice little note on the desk, from one of sixth graders:

She didn't even know that I have a thing for pink flamingos. 

And two days ago, another sixth grade girl brought me a jar of home-made jam:

It doesn't solve the underlying issues, nor provide answers for my essential question, but it does act as a balm for the end-of-the-school-year weariness.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Quiet Power

I asked a colleague recently if she had attended a large school function that was recently held, and she answered no. I had not attended either, and the reason she gave for her absence was "I am never bored by myself, but I am often bored at large gatherings of people." This description applies to me very well, too. Ever since I read Real Friends, Shannon Hale's new middle grade graphic novel, I've been reflecting more on my own introverted tendencies.

In our collection, we have the young readers version of Susan Cain's Quiet, which is titled Quiet Power.

I found the book to be a little bland. I love the idea, and the little illustrations were humorous, but it seemed like most of the narrative was giving examples of kids who consider themselves to be introverts, and how they have learned to cope with situations that might make introverts uncomfortable. For example, many introverts struggle with the standard of class participation because they do not like being the center of attention. The examples provided describe how some students have learned to either 1) raise their hands as soon as they have something to contribute, that way they can get it out of the way and won't have feel pressure mounting to say something as the minutes tick by or 2) wait until there is a lull in the discussion, and then raise their hands.

Most of the suggestions seemed pretty obvious to me, but it's still worth bringing them up for a young reader, who needs to understand that there are usually multiple ways to solve a problem.

Personally, I wish the narrative had more information on what makes people have different personalities. These past few years, I've become more interested in reading everything from astrology to Myers-Briggs personality types to birth order theories. Maybe some of that would have been difficult to understand for middle grade readers, but I think at least an introduction to the ideas might have provided suggestions for further reading/research.

I found much of the book to be very repetitive, and I fear a lot of young readers will get bored with it.

One point I am glad that I read was regarding a spectrum; on one side is introverts, and the other is extroverts, with most people somewhere in between.

I definitely consider myself an introvert, but there have been periods of my life when I acted very extroverted. When I was in highschool, I had a great group of friends. I wasn't 'popular' but having those friends gave me comfort, assurance and confidence, and I did act more extroverted than usual, even when I wasn't with them. 

And also, both times I was in grad school. Going to grad school allowed me to pursue my passions, so I was always eager to share ideas in class, get together with my classmates to work on projects (or get a drink in Boston after an exceptionally challenging project was completed) and ask questions of my professors. Also, I almost always had candy with me, so if I didn't know someone very well, I'd just ask her/him if they'd like some, and it was always a good ice-breaker.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Punky Power!

I was super excited when I got home from work today and discovered that my latest Amazon purchase had arrived. I bought the Punky Brewster graphic novel adaptation! For those of you who are too young, or not cool enough, to know who Punky Brewster is, here's a quick description:

Punky Brewster was a kids show that ran from 1984-1988. Punky Brewster is an adorable little scamp whose mother abandoned her at a grocery store, and subsequently ended up finding a new home with a grumpy middle-aged photographer Henry Warnimont. Her precocious nature and youthful energy won him over very quickly. She was portrayed by Soleil Moon Frye (yes, that is the actress's real name), and her sidekick was her dog Brandon.

She always wore the most colorful outfits, which of course led to a line of children's clothing and footwear. I remember having Punky Brewster sneakers:

I had to own this graphic novel, purely for nostalgia. I was also curious to see how the story, which is all 80's, might be updates or preserved for young readers in 2017.

I was glad to see that overall, Punky's story is preserved pretty well. There are some mentions of digital cameras (which kinda makes sense since Henry is a photographer, and now almost all photographers use them), and email,  Margaux uses her cell phone to snap a selfie, which rings true to that character, but the technology updates do not detract from the charm of the story.

The artwork doesn't quite capture the cheekiness of the show, but it will appeal to readers who enjoy books by Raina Telgemeier and similar graphic novels.

It's also good reading for 30 something women who want to reclaim a piece of their childhood.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

M' Lady

I've been in the mood lately for novels in verse. Novels about basketball, soccer, the Titanic, the Donner party.  .  .I decided to keep the trend going and today I searched for a new one. I found one that I remember adding to the collection a few years back because it was a donation, but it never really enticed me.

The cover is a little plain, and even though I try not to judge a book by.  . .well, you know.  .  .it just didn't draw me in. But I decided to give it a chance anyways when I saw it on my running list of novels in verse in our collection.

I've never been really into the Arthurian legends, but I always strive to have a general knowledge of the classics, and most of the time even if I don't enjoy them, I can at least appreciate them. I remember bits and pieces of Le  Morte d'Arthur from high school, and of course I know Disney's The Sword and the Stone, but The Lady in the Lake and Merlin and Lancelot always kind of run together in my memories when I search for that knowledge, so I figured I might as well try to refresh my memory a little.

This book was an easy read- it's in verse and all the sections are fairly short, but I was also relieved to see that it's written in plain English- much more accessible than Middle English. The story isn't anything especially creative; Elaine lives with her father and two brothers in a soldiers' camp. She develops a school-girl crush on Lancelot, but of course he is bewitched by Guinivere, who is already married to Arthur. So no big surprises here, but this would be a good book for a young reader who is interested in the Arthurian legends, but isn't ready to read the original texts.

It's also a good read for adults who like to giggle and say "m'lady".

Monday, June 12, 2017

Marriage at Sea

Another Saturday at my summer job. It was super busy due to the speedboat races, so it's only appropriate with all the boat talk that my reading materials should also be boat-centered. And what better boat than the most famous ship of all time?

Usually I make a point to watch Titanic in April (the anniversary of the sinking) but I didn't get around to it this year, and the Titanic has always been one of my favorite parts of history. It's wholly tragic, but it proves that truth is always stranger than fiction.

I've been meaning to read this book since we first added it to the collection a few years ago. Every time I picked it up and started, I'd either get distracted or I'd end up giving it to a student or staff member who wanted to read it.

Allan Wolf's novel in verse is based on real historical figures; some are the well known ones such as Margaret Brown aka Unsinkable Molly Brown, and others who are not, such as Jamila Nicola-Yarred, a Lebanese immigrant girl traveling with her young brother. Of course there are some liberties taken, and Wold provides thirty pages of notes, explaining which liberties he took with which characters' stories. He also makes some brave narrative choices, such as having a rat narrate several of the poems; they're pretty much just about finding food though. I guess rats don't have the rich interior lives I always imagined.  .  .There are also several poems narrated by the iceberg itself, and the personification of gigantic lumps of frozen freshwater injects new vitality into a story that everyone already knows.

As I was reading, I couldn't help but notice the theme of marriage that connects the poems, like a red thread that runs through a tapestry.

"Marriage without struggle is like an unfired clay pot. It is easily made, but it will not stand the test of time." That line is what first got me thinking about this theme, because it relates so well to a conversation I had recently with a friend at work. That quote is from one of the sections focalized through the ship's captain EJ Smith. As he thinks those words, he is talking to the ship's first class passengers, a parade of mistresses and unions arranged for material gain. "Thank God Eleanor and I were born poor so that the concept of fidelity was allowed to take root in us."

And yet John Jacob Astor's poems are equally thought provoking in regard to this thread. Millionaire Astor divorced his wife Ava and to compound that scandal, remarried within a year. Madeleine was pregnant soon after. He criticizes society's priority of "appearances" rather than actual happiness, and muses: "I divorced a woman who despised me; I married a woman who adored me. Society calls that common? I call that common sense."

The ship's builder, Thomas Andrews, writes that his only mistress is Titanic herself, and that his wife is very understanding.

Harold Bride, the wireless operator, receives birthday messages during his morning shift, and one of them is "To a long life and a pretty wife."

Michel Marcel Navratil, a tailor who assumes the name Louis Hoffman, in order to flee with his children away from his wife.

Jamila Nicola-Yarred wonders if her mother has already found her an American husband.

And as the grand ship begins her long descent for the ocean floor, little Frankie Goldsmith watches as a man hands his wedding ring to a woman in the life boat, with the direction "Give this to my wife."

I wouldn't have expected such a strong theme of marriage, but it makes the book a thoughtful read for any adult who enjoy historical fiction and/or novels in verse.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Booked: a Beacon for Wordsmiths

I try to read a good variety of book, both for my own good and also so I can provide reader advisory to kids at school, but I've never been good at reading the sports books. I've never read anything by Mike Lupica or Tim Green. I did manage to read Kwame Alexander's The Crossover, a novel in verse about basketball though. I decided since I liked it, I could also get through Booked.

Booked is another novel in verse, but this centers on soccer. I've never cared for soccer, but I like novels in verse, and Alexander create wonderful rhythms with his words. Speaking of words, Nick Hall, the soccer star protagonist, has one of the most extensive vocabularies I've seen in a children's/YA novel. This is due to his father, a linguistics professor, who makes him read the dictionary. Here's a list of all the words and terms I learned from reading this book:

verbomania: a crazed obsession with words

malapropism: the amusing and ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound

futsal: indoor soccer played with five players on each side

cachinnate: to laugh loudly

mewling: weak crying, whimpering

ragabash: worthless, rubbish

codswallop: something utterly senseless, nonsense

logorrhea: excessive use of words

limerence: the state of being infatuated with another person

flummoxed: bewildered or confused

onomatophobia: fear of hearing a certain word

farrow: a litter of pigs

sweven: dream or vision while sleeping

nutmeg: a soccer trick in which the ball is dribbled between the player's legs

rapprochement: reestablishment of harmonious relations

twain: two

callipygous: having beautiful buttocks

incompossible: incapable of coexisting

hellkite: an extremely cruel person

gadfly: an annoying person

wordbound: unable to find expression in words

yobbery: hooliganism

zazzy: stylish or flashy

His best friend Coby is even more obsessed with soccer. Coby happens to be half Singaporean and half Ghanaian, so score a point for diversity! #weneeddiversebooks

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Thirteen Reasons Why Not

Last night the Portsmouth Public library hosted a panel discussing the recent controversy and hype surrounding the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why, based on the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher.

I know I've been writing a lot about this story, but ever since the series was released in March, it's been like a runaway train, that's hauling explosives in the freight cars.

I was very glad that the Youth Services department organized the event, because even though it has garnered so much attention, most of the people speaking out for it or against it are doing so in very passive ways, like via Facebook posts. It was good to discuss the story's content in a more formal setting, where people were actually listening to each other instead of just 'liking' or responding to comments.

So I went to the panel because I'm passionate about children's and YA literature, and because I've always been interested in psychology and because I have very strong feelings about censorship and gatekeeping. I guess I'm kind of a nerd. And I took two pages of notes on my laptop during the discussion, so I guess I'm a huge nerd.

I admit that it annoyed me when people would chime in by prefacing their comments with "Well, I haven't read the book or watched the show, but.  .  ."

It's like


There were some really interesting points and valid ideas that I hadn't thought of before. The first thing which I wrote down is a quote from one of the speakers, who is the Executive Director for the state's chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). He said "there's no us or them" when it comes to suicide. It's not about adults vs. teens, or people who support the show vs. those who criticize it. Anyone can be affected by suicide. So, let's just accept that we're all in this together and stop drawing lines between ourselves.

The historical and literary point that I found really interesting is the origin of the suicide contagion theory. Johann Wolfgang  von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was first published in 1774. Napoleon considered it one of the greatest works of literature to that date. The plot centers on a love triangle involving a young, sensitive artist. When he realizes that he will never be able to have the woman he loves, he decides that dying is the only way to resolve the conflict and end his pain, and he ultimately does take his own life with a pistol. Sorry for the spoiler.

The popularity of the novel led to 'Werther Fever' which consisted of a flurry of merchandise such as prints and perfumes, but there were also a number of young men who referenced the work in their own suicides. They would dress in the character's clothing style, and would sometimes even have the book at their side when they were found.

When I hear school administrators or guidance counselors talk about "the contagion", I roll my eyes because they make it seem like it's a stomach virus that's sweeping schools across the nation. It is a valid concern, but it's important to note that the people at risk for the contagion are already at risk. The book or the TV show isn't introducing a new idea to them- that seed has already been planted. That's pretty much what I already thought.

I was glad to see so many parents with their teens in the audience. I especially appreciated the comment made by one father in attendance, who summed up how quickly information, and misinformation, spreads now thanks to texting and social media. He said he heard about the TV show from a Facebook post (the post was telling parents not to allow their children to watch the show), and that night he asked his daughter if she knew what TV show it was. She responded "yeah, I've seen a couple episodes.  .  ." When he checked the Netflix account, he realized that she had already watched nearly the entire series. So the idea that parents/teachers are going to find out about something in time to keep the kids from knowing about it is kind of absurd.

Although we are getting better at recognizing the diversity and scope of mental health issues, there is still a stigma. The same speaker I referenced above said this is apparent because we often discuss physical health freely: "Oh, I got that stomach bug that's been going around" or "My allergies are killing me" are frequently shared, but we hesitate to share something like "I've been very depressed lately, and I think I might need to talk to my Dr. about it". Even with that, many general practitioners do not screen for issues such as anxiety or depression, or if they do, it's often in the way of a generic question. In fact, he said that the number of people who complete suicide within 30 days of seeing a primary care physician are astounding.

The last point that piqued my interest regards the process of watching the series. More than a couple people commented that they hadn't finished it yet, or they had to stop watching because it was so upsetting or intense. That wasn't my experience at all. I watched the episodes one right after another. Maybe it was different for me because unlike most of the others, I had read the book, so I already knew what was going to happen. I'm not sure.

I'm not usually a fan of audiobooks because I'm such a visual person that I prefer to see the words, but one of the Youth Services librarians who was involved in organizing the event said that he listened to the book, and it was very powerful because there are two narrators: Clay and Hannah. As you listen to the Hannah's voice, it's like she's speaking to you, and it draws you into the story.

If you watched the show or read the book, (or listened to the audio version), how did it impact you?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tin Foil, Bad Teeth and Easter Eggs

I finished reading this yesterday:

The story was okay, but what interested me more is the story behind the story. This book provides a somewhat fictitious backstory for James Hampton. Hampton is an artist not many know by name, but he created a work of assemblage art that is now displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Hampton, who was a janitor, would scavenge his materials from people's trash cans and discarded furniture, using burned-out lightbulbs, old cardboard and scraps of tin foil to create his vision of Heaven:

I love finding out about hidden artists. People who create in order to express their own truth, or just for the sake of being creative, rather than seeking celebrity and money.

The other thing that amazed me happened just this morning. I've mentioned my 6th grade Scary Stories class more than a few times, and today I showed them an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? that I hadn't ever used before. This episode, "The Tale of the Ghastly Grinner" centers on a kid named Ethan who wants to become a comic book creator. An extremely rare comic book which introduces a super villain known as the Ghastly Grinner falls into his possession, and he unwittingly brings the supervillain to life. His classmate, an awkward, nerdy girl named Hooper Picalaro ends up being his sidekick in the battle. But before the viewer even knows anything about the villain or what is to come, we meet Hooper:

With that first glimpse of the character, one of the kids remarked "She's wearing a cape?", because of the way her sweater is fastened around her neck using only the top button.

He thought he was just making a wisecrack, but afterwards I told him how impressed I was by his observation. It's an entire story about comic books, good guys and bad guys, and the power of creativity, so it makes perfect sense! I wonder if it's just a coincidence, or if it was intentional. Based on the way she is introduced, we would never think of her as being a superhero(ine), but after Ethan defeats the Grinner, she ends up having to save Ethan.

I shared with the class how much I enjoy watching these episodes with them and talking about them because since they are watching them for the first time with completely fresh eyes and no knowledge of the endings, they tend to notice things that I don't.

And as I was watching the Ghastly Grinner in action, I couldn't help but notice his unsightly smile:

But another cool thing about this character is that he appears in other episodes of the show in subtle allusions.

In "The Tale of Station 109.1", one of my favorites because it features Gilbert Gottfried and a young Ryan Gosling, there's a poster of the Grinner on the bedroom door:

And in "The Tale of C7", Jason's little sister Lisa is seen reading a Ghastly Grinner comic book:

Who doesn't love a 90's, cult TV show Easter egg?

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Doll's Eye

If only Hadley had done a little bit of horror reading.

For example, if you find a mysterious dollhouse in an attic, remain calm. DO NOT PLAY WITH IT. This is a lesson I learned when I first read-

And also, if you find some dolls that look really cute, but seem a little obsessed with YOUR EYES, then it's probably best to get rid of them. I learned that when I read-

If Hadley had read these two books, then maybe she wouldn't have ended up in her own doll-centered horror story:

This is why books about Creepy Dolls are so vital- they educate us! If you don't learn how to take precautions and interact properly with questionable antique playthings, you might die.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some Girl Power beach reads

I picked up this graphic novel because it reminded me of Newsies. It is a newsie, an orphan, but it's a she who disguises herself as a he because she is worried that people will not buy papers from a girl. It seems like it would take place in the late 19th or early 20th century, but it's actually kind of a futuristic story. It takes place while the world is at war (a Grand War) and Blue meets a genius inventor who has created flying war machine. The inspiration is historical, the execution is steampunk, and the drawing style is manga-inspired. Definitely not three aspects that would be expected in one combination, but Blue's feminist ideals and the classic tenets of friendship and loyalty make this an enjoyable and accessible read.

This collection of poems, shorts stories and cartoons is a delightful little read. With contributing authors such as Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, Rita Williams-Garcia, Libba Bray, and more, you know you're going to be getting some genuine sentiments mixed with humor and just a tiny pinch of bittersweet. I think my favorite portion is the one titled "A Public Service Announcement About Your Period from Sarah T. Wrigley, Age 12 3/4."

"Because tampons and maxi/mini pads come in pastel boxes that are covered in hearts or flowers or stars- What do our periods have to do with Valentine's Day and a florist's shop? When I am the President of Periods, I'm going to design cool boxes: skulls. Jet packs. Wonder Woman. Bikes. Pizza. An octopus wearing a monocle. I mean, if you could choose between a weird pastel flower or an octopus wearing a monocle, which would you choose?"

I'd been meaning to read this book since we first added it to the collection. Early women's rights pioneers have always been one of my main historical interests. This middle-grade non-fiction book is a brief biography of journalist Nellie Bly, and focuses on her name-making piece of writing in which she pretended to have amnesia in order to be admitted to Bellevue Hospital. Gathering her observations from within, she was released into the custody of "friends" (actually her employer, who had arranged this with her) and exposed the conditions and treatment that patients endured, prompting reform efforts by physicians and public charities.

This is one of the most beautiful books I've read in a while:
Mimi moves to Vermont from Berkeley, CA. It's the winter of 1969, and Vermont is White. White with a capital W because not only is the ground covered in snow, but her predominately white new town is utterly confused by her family: a Japanese mother, a black father, and an intelligent young woman who wants to talk more about space missions than anything else. It's beautiful in the casual way it depicts multi-cultural families; they're not a sideshow, they're just ordinary people. But this historical fiction novel in verse is beautiful in its writing:

"The snow glows lilac 
as we step on its crust, 
guided by faint starlight."

It's June, but those words make me long for winter again.

I had to save the best for last:

I didn't read this graphic novel- I devoured it. The same way I devoured Smile some years ago. I was so hungry for another graphic memoir that rang true to my spirit and experiences that I read it in one sitting. I wanted to read it all, and yet I dreaded that each page I read was bringing me closer to the end.

Author Shannon Hale recounts her elementary years, and the trials and tribulations of friendship.  Throughout her life, she's heard the same exasperated sighs from her parents, siblings, schoolmates: "you're too sensitive" "Why don't you just get over it?" etc. She cried a lot. Eventually she learned the lesson that all us "sensitive" kids do at some point:

"Sometimes if you stare really hard and don't blink, you can dry out tears."

But rather than try to train yourself how to not cry, isn't it better to find people who don't make you want to cry?

Saturday, June 3, 2017


Another documentary I watched this morning.

Obviously, any program which recounts the Sandy Hook school shooting is going to be heart-wrenching.

I was relieved to see when I viewed it that it's exceptional in its simplicity. No music, no commentaries from 'experts', no dramatizations and no newscasts from that horrible day.

This documentary is not about the shooter, whose name isn't even mentioned by anyone. It's not governed by political activists on either side of the spectrum, and it's not ruined by the media.

It's just an opportunity. An opportunity for the families of the victims to share their stories, grief and healing. An opportunity for viewers to see how the town has honored the memory of those that were lost, and to witness the strength and resilience of people who've had their lives touched by unspeakable horror.

Friday, June 2, 2017

All Summer in a Day

The seventh grade is currently reading dystopian literature, and yesterday morning I read Ray Bradbury's short story "All Summer in a Day" for the first time.

The story takes place on Venus, where it rains constantly. The sun only appears for two hours every seven years, so the children in the story have no memories of it. One student, Margot, moved to Venus from Earth, so she is the only one who does know what sunshine is like. She describes it as "a penny" and "a fire in the stove", and the other children tease her and ostracize her because they believe her to be lying about her memories.

On the day the sun is scheduled to appear, the children lock her in a closet. They go outside with their teacher and enjoy two hours of "summer" and forget about their classmate. When the rain returns, and the retreat back inside, they remember what they did to Margot. Flushed with shame, they let her out of the closet.

Obviously, this story is sad because Margot, the one who cherished the sun, misses out on the opportunity to enjoy it. We know that she will have to wait at least another seven years for it to come again. But I kept thinking about the teacher- did she notice that one of her students was missing? Was she concerned? Did she know about how the other children treated Margot? And how is she going to deal with the realization that this girl was denied the right enjoyed by all the other children under watch? She was denied her moment in the sun, not just the idiom, but the actual experience.

As I read the story, all I could think about is how it could be a metaphor for depression. Margot getting locked away in the closet could represent those who struggle with depression, and how they do not get to enjoy "sunshine" like other people. Or, Margot could be a personification of depression, and the classmates are other aspects of a person; the "bad stuff" gets locked away so that we can go out and "play" (interact) with others every once in a while, but it doesn't really go away. When we come back from playing, we have to go unlock the closet and realize that she's still there waiting for us.

There are different ways to assign roles in this interpretation, but one role we might not immediately consider is the teacher's. Have I been that role before? Have I ever stood by, enjoying the sunshine, while someone else is locked away? Not because I'm cruel, but just because I'm oblivious?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Babies Behind Bars

The most recent documentary I've watched:

I found this one by browsing around on Netflix. This documentary focuses on a women's maximum security prison in Indiana, where a new program called Wee Ones allows some pregnant inmates to retain custody of their babies by living in a special dormitory with them. Only about a quarter of the pregnant inmates will be admitted to the program at any time due to space, and the women who are selected cannot have any records of violence; most of them have been incarcerated due to drugs, theft or public nuisance crimes.

Although the subject is grim, the film is inspiring to watch. Women who give birth in prison face a set of circumstances I cannot even fathom: no loved ones to help support them, leg irons on their hospital beds, and saying goodbye to their babies just 24 hours after giving birth. Obviously these people have made poor decisions in their past, but the Wee Ones program allows them to reclaim a part of their life and their personal identity, and gives them an opportunity to reflect on their past while committing themselves to parenthood.

Critics of the program question why these women should be allowed this privilege since they are supposed to be being punished, but the babies in the Wee Ones program thrive, so there shouldn't need to be further justification. Many mothers, especially ones from the working class, are only given eight weeks to bond with their newborns before they must return to work; obviously, the prisoners are denied most freedoms, but they receive months, or years of uninterrupted time with their babies. With all the attention from their mothers, the nannies (a privileged position that is filled by other inmates with excellent records) and even the guards and staff, the babies inside the prison have a more extensive support system than some other babies.

I'm a big fan of Orange is the New Black (who isn't?); my husband complains that the show has become too predictable because almost every episode focuses on one inmate's experiences prior to her arrest and incarceration. Personally, I prefer those parts of the show. I don't think those parts are included so that we feel bad for jailing the women, and decide to be more lenient in our justice system; those parts are necessary in order to humanize them. Criminals should be punished for offenses, but should they be completely dehumanized- stripped of their experiences and past memories just so that we find it easier to  see them the way we want to see them?

This documentary, and the women who share their stories in it, reaffirm that everyone has a story.