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I had a social media meltdown the other day.

Not a meltdown on social media, mind you. Thank goodness for that! This was a meltdown over social media.

I’ve been thinking about how I can reach more people with my blog. Discouraged, some days…okay, many days… over these idiotic numbers WordPress and Facebook feed me every time I open my account. Numbers of clicks. Number of likes. Numbers that represent to me — on the gray days — how few, instead of how many.

The solution, so they say, is more social media presence. More tweets, more pins, more posts, more videos.

I dutifully scroll through others’ pages to figure out how to do this thing better. Tink through Twitter feeds. Glaze over at Instagram accounts. And suddenly, everything seems utterly hopeless. All the pristine, perfectly-staged snapshots, the threaded tweets, the young media blitzers out there who have integrated every detail of their on-line presence to accumulate tens of thousands of followers. I am competing with this?

More accurately, I have no hope of competing with this. What’s more, it makes me feel mean in an Old Sneepish sort of way, this gazing at numbers. More often than not, social media is an overwhelming, soul-withering exercise for me. 

 

So, I have a melt down. I move rapidly from being overwhelmed by social media to sheer, existential doldrums. What is the point, anyway? What do I have to say to the world that’s worth hearing in the midst of our present, shattering noise-level of nonstop messages?

The gracious small voice that answers me, does so with a question: What do you give, when you give the gift of reading?

And I know the answer to that question. At least, part of the answer to that question.

The gift of reading, of loving books, is the gift of a magnificent doorway into a rich world. An expansive world albeit a much quieter world.  One that enhances our lives.

This door swings wide to reveal things we never even knew existed, acts as a portal connecting us to human thought across time and space so we can learn seemingly without boundary, be taught directly from the originators of ideas, the seers, the tasters, the handlers, hear the wrestlings of questioners, catch the insights of people remarkably unlike ourselves who may well have thought their thoughts in other languages and millennia. When we give the gift of reading, we put children in touch with ideas and know-how and experiences and insights and viewpoints far beyond our own limited ones. We give them rocket ships to the farthest reaches of knowledge, bridges to cultural landscapes we’ve never traveled, tête-à-têtes with powerful thinkers in areas of expertise we’ve never dabbled in. 

Reading serves as a gateway to empathy and understanding as we meet people utterly unlike ourselves, hear their stories, some so bitter, so intense, see life from their vantage point. This gateway frees us from hedged-in viewpoints, ushers us out of the small neighborhood of our acquaintances and into other communities,  other witnesses of the human experience. Sometimes these encounters rile us, frustrate us, push us to meet folks we disagree with. Sometimes they introduce us to a kindred spirit. Sometimes our new vantage points surprise us, stop us short with exquisite beauty, poignant insight, electrifying connections. When we give the gift of reading, we give access to a barrier-breaking range of human stories and voices — voices that sing and wail, remember and predict, challenge and commiserate.

Reading’s door is a passageway to a world of characters who become as dear to us as flesh-and-blood friends and who make us better people, be they a straight-talking lawyer from Maycomb, Alabama, or a house elf with a penchant for socks. What a gift these book-friends are. They understand us, articulate our pains and pleasures, amuse us, inspire us, accompany us throughout life. They are always there, unchanged by time, ready to invigorate a spare moment come what may. Reading transports us into imaginary and real places that mark us as intensely as human personalities. Middle-earth and Klickitat Street; Cather’s Nebraska and Dickens’ London. When we give the gift of reading, we open provocatively imaginative doorways .

That is part of what we give when we give the gift of reading. Teachers — blessed teachers — from ancient days to the present, keep making millions of copies of keys to that doorway so others can enter in. When we read with our children and grandchildren, when we spread books in classrooms and libraries, hospitals and refugee camps, prisons and shelters, we scatter pass-keys to rich storehouses.

 Here’s to pressing on.

As I step gingerly into more avenues in the hopes of spreading this love of books — which to be honest feels like stepping into busy traffic without knowing the rules of the road! — I invite you to follow me, say hello, help me do this thing better!

Facebook: Orange Marmalade Books
Twitter: marmalade_books
Instagram: orangemarmaladebooks

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the year of billy miller cover imageThe Year of Billy Miller, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes

It was the first day of second grade and Billy Miller was worried. He was worried that he wouldn’t be smart enough for school this year.

Bam! Kevin Henkes got me with those first two sentences in his engaging new novel. I read those lines, and then I couldn’t put it down. Because they rang so true — this is just what my young son might have secretly worried about…Do I measure up? — and immediately made me care about Billy.

Always brilliant at recalling and portraying the inner world of a child, Henkes nailsJollyGreenGiantBlueEarthMN2006-05-20 the squirmy fears that roil around a seven-year-old boy’s head in this charming, very-Midwestern, amble through Billy Miller’s second grade year. For starters, Billy worries that the lump on his head from a colossal fall will make him not smart enough to handle second grade. He also has qualms about still calling his dad “Papa.” Is that too babyish now? Henkes deftly sketches out all the ups and downs of Being Seven — the humor and hopes and energy, the connecting of dots which adults would never think to connect, loyal affection for family, major annoyance with know-it-all Emma Sparks, small moments whch feel diorama from artlessonsforkids at wordpress dot commomentous, small comments that can shape a boy’s day — flattening him, or firing him with deep satisfaction as the case may be.

The main characters in this novel — Billy, his father, mother, little sister, and sublime second-grade-teacher Ms. Silver — are warm and genuine. I wish they were all my neighbors. In fact, in the entire cast of characters, only one is negative –loud-mouth Emma. Billy is not managing extreme troubles here, either. Instead, Henkes finds plenty of material in deceptively simple matters.  It is a very relationally-driven plot, and I adored the cardigan-sweater comfort of Billy’s relationships with his parents and the loving commitment of his teacher. 

I have to say, it is a pleasure to meet a believable, yet really nice boy and a great dad, in this book. Billy is not angelic, but he is a good kid, and he happily identifies as being a good kid. He aims to please. He shrinks back from hurting people’s feelings. He gets really angry when his little sister wrecks his stuff, but he does not slug her. He does not say snarky things. It’s a boy’s story, but it doesn’t rely on boogers for humor. Billy’s dad is a stay-at-home dad, an artist who works out of his garage, and an exceptional father. His relationships with his wife and children are dear. I love all that about this book.

There’s a lot more I could say about Henkes’ precise crafting of sharp, clear sentences that read like a mellowvolcanoes day, the winsome humor, the incorporation of the arts in the plot, the quietly believable dialogue…but I better leave some gems for you to discover!

It’s over 200 pages, but written so a strong reader can take pride in tackling this thick book by about a third grade level. It would also make a captivating read-aloud for kids as young as 5. Parents and teachers — this is for you, too, and you’ll feel immensely cheered about the difference your words make in a child’s life. Highly recommended!

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all of the above cover imageAll of the Above, by Shelley Pearsall, illustrations by Javaka Steptoe

If you follow Washington Boulevard past the smoky good smells of Willy Q’s Barbecue, past the Style R Us hair salon, where they do nails like nobody’s business, past the eye-popping red doors of the Sanctuary Baptist Church, you’ll finally come to a dead end.

That’s where our school sits. Right at the dead end of Washington Boulevard. We know there’s a lot of people out there who think our school is a dead end. And that all the kids inside it are dead ends, too. They drive past our school, roll up their windows, and lock their doors. Let’s get out of this bad neighborhood, they say. Fast.

But they’ve got it all wrong. Because inside our crumbling, peeling-paint, broken-window school, we are gonna build something big. Something that will make all of copley middle school tetrahedronthem sit up and take notice…Something that hasn’t been built in the history of the world. By anybody. Just you wait and see.

Washington Middle School stands in an inner city neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, and there Mr. Collins teaches seventh grade math.  Or, he tries to.  Actually, it is clear to Mr. Collins that almost none of his students is even listening to him, and finally, he’s had about enough.  With an uncharacteristic outburst of frustration that surprises and amuses his class, Mr. Collins begins asking the troubled and trouble-making students what it would take for them to enjoy being there.  

A contest, one boy answers.  And that’s how it all begins.

Within days, an unlikely combination of students, led by an ill-prepared Mr. Collins, forms a sort of math club with one goal: to build the world’s largest tetrahedron and make it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

black-hair-salon-anthony-renardo-flakeNothing about this operation goes smoothly.  Conflicts between students, bad attitudes, opposition from parents, seem to doom it from the start.  When Mr. Collins appoints James — Mr. Uncooperative himself —  as club president, it seems like the final blow.  But surprising changes begin to take place.  Good ideas and increased energy slowly grow and unusual friendships form as the massive tetrahedron itself takes shape.

Then, wham! Disaster strikes. And their shattered dream threatens to drain all hope in both students and teacher.   

Shelley Pearsall’s novel is fast-paced and highly-engaging, with a number of well-drawn characters we quickly come to care about.  These students do not live tidy or predictable lives.  While two of them contend with death, gangs, neglect, and foster care,  two others have households with a strong, caring parent.  The novel is written from many points of view, and though the voices aren’t dramatically different, the variety of life stories creates a nice balance of wit, poignancy, suspense, and substance.  Without being simplistic, the book concludes on a note of hope. 

A running thread about Willy Q’s  Barbeque provides the author with opportunities to include recipes for some barbecued wings from seriouseats dot comdelicious barbecue sauces, cornbread and chocolate cake — a fun addition.  There’s also a tetrahedron pattern included so you can build your own monster structure, and an Author’s Note describing the real contests in various schools that inspired her to write the book.

Based on a true incident in Cleveland, I found this to be a compelling read, probably best for ages 10-14, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Pearsall’s books.

Here’s an Amazon link:  All of the Above

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It’s the beginning of a new school year.  In honor of all those teachers who give children in a myriad  circumstances the opportunity to learn…this blog is for you! 

Armando and the Blue Tarp School, by Edith Hope Fine and Judith Pinkerton Josephson, illustrated by Hernán Sosa 

Armando is a young Mexican boy whose family lives in a neighborhood near the city dump.  They make their living as pepenadores, trash pickers, sorting through stinking mounds of garbage each day to find bottles and cans to sell.  One day Armando spies a pick-up truck rolling into town.  It’s Señor David!  He has come back again!  Señor David pulls out a large blue tarp and spreads it on the ground.  He sets up a chalkboard and papers and paints.  Children gather on the blue tarp, and Señor David begins to teach, for the blue tarp is actually their school. 

Armando’s parents don’t believe they can spare him from the daily work, so Armando sadly watches other children attend the blue tarp school.  Finally he is allowed to attend half days.  He is such a happy boy… until one day a fire sweeps through the neighborhood, consuming many homes.  In a strange twist, however, when a newspaper sends reporters out to cover the story, a wave of generosity among its readers enables Señor David and the local families to rebuild their homes, and a school building…complete with a beautiful blue rug. 

This story is based on the work of David Lynch, a special education teacher from New York who began working in the Tijuana, Mexico neighborhoods in 1980, using a blue tarp spread on the ground as his first school.  A lengthy author’s note describes and documents with photos Mr. Lynch’s ever-expanding work, for which he has received UNICEF’s World of Children Humanitarian Award.  Great story.

Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and Susan L. Roth, with collages by Susan L. Roth 

Have you read Three Cups of Tea, the story of Greg Mortenson’s work in the mountains of Pakistan, building schools for children in these remote regions?  I read it a few years ago and really enjoyed it.  This is a picture book version of his story. 

It is told by the children of Korphe, the little village where Mortenson’s work began.  They tell how this stranger stumbled into their village, a mountaineer lost, sick, and in need of food.  After the villagers nursed him back to health, this stranger wanted to do something to help them in return.  And that something turned out to be building a school.  The process of hauling all of the building materials and school supplies into this tiny village perched among mountain crags, the construction of the school, the celebratory parade, and the enchantment of learning, are all narrated by the children. 

The book is illustrated with gorgeous collages made of artifacts and bits of colorful cloth gathered from the region and painstakingly assembled.  A “Korphe Scrapbook” at the end of the book has about a dozen color photos of the children, the town of Korphe, the spectacular region, school, and key individuals.  Great story about a country much in the news just now.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter 

This book, written in 2009, tells the story of a system of secret schools for girls operating during the reign of the Taliban from 1996-2001.  As you know, under the Taliban’s rule girls in Afghanistan were not allowed to attend school — just one of their many oppressive decrees.  

In a simply told story, of not so many words, echoing the quiet secrecy with which these schools operated, Nasreen’s grandmother tells us of their life in Herat, Afghanistan.  She tells of the fearful raids by Taliban soldiers, who stole away Nasreen’s father, and she tells of her courage in finding a school so Nasreen can learn the way she did in earlier days.  The school is behind an anonymous green gate.  With a little tapping, the door is opened a crack and Nasreen can quickly slip inside to a hidden room in a hidden house where Nasreen not only learns to read and write, but finds friendship and solace among other girls there. 

The illustrations for this book are each drawn in a framed square in the middle of a white page.  They are like a series of snapshots or paintings, documenting the story, drawn with a folk art style.  The pretty colors and patterns of the girls’ clothing and scarves contrast with the grim, menacing soldiers.  The beauty of the land before the Taliban contrasts with the dark clouded landscapes of their regime.  Again, a very timely book for our children.

The Year of Miss Agnes, by Kirkpatrick Hill 

It is 1948.  Fred, short for Frederika, is a 10-year-old native Alaskan living in a tiny community in the Alaskan bush.  Fred’s world is one of rustic living, ptarmigan stew, running traplines, watching her mother and grandmother make otter-skin mittens and caribou-leg boots.  Her school is a one-room, wood-stove heated affair, and to Fred’s sorrow, the teachers that fly in to her village rarely stay for long.  For one thing, they can’t stand the smell of the students, who eat dried fish eggs or oily salmon strips for lunch and help with the fishing after hours.  Fred has figured out that the nicest teachers who smile a lot last the shortest.  

But one day, Miss Agnes flies into the village.  And Miss Agnes seems to do everything a bit differently.  She speaks with an English accent and serves tea in little cups and saucers.  She washes the school windows until the room sparkles with sunlight and hangs artwork on the walls.  She pitches the dusty old textbooks and hands out gorgeous paints and colored pencils and crayons with names like magenta and periwinkle.  She has a record player and plays Italian operas while they draw, and reads stories about people named Robin Hood and Ebeneezer Scrooge.  She even teaches deaf Bokko and the rest of the class sign language so Bokko can learn, too.  

The transformation of heart and mind and life that Miss Agnes brings to Fred and the other children is like the blooming of the desert after a rain.  So lovely.  Such a joy to watch.  The question remains, though:  will Miss Agnes last more than one year?  Or will she fly away like all the other teachers? 

This is a short chapter-book, and one that I love dearly.  Makes a great read-aloud for children ages 5 and up.

Junkyard Wonders , story and pictures by Patricia Polacco 

Tricia has just learned to read, although all her friends have mastered that a long time ago.  Jody has a disease that makes him grow too fast.  Gibbie has Tourette’s.  Stuart…diabetes.  Thom has very poor eyesight.  And Ravanne will not speak.  Together, these children’s classroom is mockingly called The Junkyard by the other students in their school. 

However.  Their teacher, Mrs. Peterson, thinks they are all geniuses!  And she runs a most remarkable classroom.  A room where the kids sort themselves into groups by the scent of a little drop of oil she rubs on each wrist.  A room where she reads aloud wonderful stories called David Copperfield and Great Expectations.  A room where the kids learn to really care for one another.   One day Mrs. Peterson even takes them to a real junkyard, challenging them to pick out some bits of junk and

patricia polacco

then build something truly wonderful with them.  

This is the story of that group of kids, their joys and sorrows, the fantastic junkyard competition which meets with crushing opposition from the school principal, some intrepid parents, and a soaring surprise.  It is a semi-autobiographical account of author Patricia Polacco’s experiences with dyslexia and a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Peterson who changed her life.

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