Saturday, March 21, 2015

Fish in a Tree

Volume Four in the Books That Matter Series


A wise person once said, "Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid." This message is at the heart of Lynda Mullaly Hunt's new book, Fish in A Tree.

Who doesn't remember sixth grade and all the trials and tribulations that came with it? For Ally Nickerson, sixth grade is intolerable because of her inability to read, but everything might change when Mr. Daniels becomes her new teacher.

Just like Ally, math was my strong area and I struggled with reading and spelling. I remember being in first and second grade, sitting in a circle, where each student had to read one line in whatever story we were reading. I used to dread having to sit there, waiting for my turn. I would count the sentences to figure out which one I would be asked to read. I would practice it over and over in my head so I would be ready. I had no idea what the other students were reading to the class because I was focused on getting all the words right in my own sentence. And it would never fail, as the student next to me read the sentence I practiced, I would realize I counted wrong. My stomach would lurch and then it would be my turn and I would have to read in front of the class. And always, there was at least one challenging word in the new sentence, the one I hadn't practiced.

It didn't help that I was in the lowest reading group. They never told you that in school, but just as Jeff Kinney stated in a Diary of A Wimpy Kid, you could always figure it out based on the cover of your book. The title of my reading book was Bears. The other group had Balloons. Their cover showed hot air balloons floating high in the sky. I suppose you can guess what my cover had on it. Let's just say that bears hibernate in the winter. It didn't take a genius to figure out which group had the higher expectations and which one didn't.

Fortunately for me, however, my learning disability was caught in second grade. In third grade, I had a teacher who saw past what I couldn't do and saw what I had the potential to achieve. She encouraged my love for writing. She was the first person to teach me about first drafts and not to worry about the spelling, which allowed me to use vocabulary that was much higher than my grade level because I didn't have to worry if the words were correct. She was the one who showed me how to make revisions to my story and correct the spelling at that point. She was also the one who promised to help me turn my work into a real book. Like Mr. Daniels (the new teacher who Ally encounters in Fish in A Tree), my teacher believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. And just like the scene in the book when Mr. Daniels is out of school one day, my teacher was out on the day I was supposed to read my story in front of the class for a critique. And after all these years, I could still relate to the way Ally felt that day when the substitute did things differently than the way Mr. Daniels would have done it.

My third grade teacher helped me discover that my writing could be more than just a hobby. I could turn my work into real books. With her help, the guidance of my other teachers who saw my potential along the way, and of course the support of my family, I decided to go into the field of education and inspire others the way my teachers did. I understood what it was like to struggle in school. I know what it is like to want to prove yourself, and not just to others. In fourth grade, a friend learned that I only had to complete half of the homework assignments. What she didn't know was that the shortened assignments would take me double or triple the time to complete. I remember how my friend questioned it and how it made me think twice about it as well. So I started completing the full assignments because I wanted to prove to myself (and no one else) that I could do everything everyone else could do.

I was surprised that after so many years that Fish in A Tree could take me back to my own struggles and triumphs from those early years of schooling. Ally Nickerson's character was accurate to my own feelings in school and Mr. Daniels was true to the teachers who inspired me.

Over the years, I struggled with questions about my own writing. I wondered if my stories were good enough, if I had something worth saying, if I was capable of even writing something people would want to read. I know these concerns are normal for writers but I also know these questions are something more for me. They come from that young student who used to practice sentences before having to read in front of the class. So when rejections come in, they hurt, as all rejections do, but they also take me back to the place that maybe I am just not good enough.

But as Lynda Mullaly Hunt says in her letter to readers, "Things will not always be easy; sometimes we do fail. But it isn't failing that makes you a failure. It 's staying down that does."

So with that in mind, I continue to write, revise, and submit. Because I am a writer, and just as my teacher said all those years ago, someday my stories will be turned into a real book.

If you know a student who is struggling in school, Fish in A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the book for them. It is not just for students either. Teachers and parents would benefit from reading this book as well. Thank you Lynda Mullaly Hunt for another moving book with a powerful message.

Friday, February 15, 2013

One For The Murphys

Volume Three in the Books That Matter Series


"Be someone's hero." For twelve year old Carley Connors, this is a pretty tall order. Let's face it, for anyone this could be a huge expectation to have looming overhead. Though if you look at it closer, you might see that the potential to be someone's hero is all around you.

When I heard Lynda Mullaly Hunt talk about her middle grade novel, One For The Murphys, I knew I had to read it. But it was sold out at the conference store. Then, my book headhunter told me that she had read it and that I had to read it too. So I went to a nearby store and bought the book.

Carley Connors is twelve years old and a foster child who has just been placed with the Murphys. Told in first person, readers get a point of view told strictly from Carley, which is an important fact to keep in mind when first meeting the Murphys. In the beginning, Mrs. Murphy appears as a Leave It To Beaver mom for the current day. Mr. Murphy is a firefighter and hence the reason Carley must sleep in a firefighter themed room complete with a fire truck bed and a sign above it that reads: "Be someone's hero." Daniel is the oldest of the three Murphy boys and the only one of his brothers who dislikes having Carley in his life. Adam and Michael Eric are the two younger boys who offer some comic relief.  Then, throw in a musical loving girl named Toni, who goes to school with Carley, and you have the makings of a great cast of characters.

One of the interesting things about Carley is that she thinks of words in a different way than most people. For example, when she fist introduces herself to readers she is looking at a hospital bracelet with her name on it. "Carley Connors. Thirteen letters. How unlucky can one person be?" Later, there are chapters titled "Lettuce Pray" and "Pals Spelled Backwards." This play on words is fun but also offers some great insight into Carley's character.

But the thing that stands out the most about this story, the one that still remains with me now even though it has been ten months since I have read it, is the message to "be someone's hero." It resonated with me to the point where I wanted to use this message with the students in my classroom. So I asked them to name anyone they thought was a hero. Of course, super  heroes and fictional characters were listed right off the bat and all of those went into one column on our list. Then, there were professions in another column. The students listed police officers, firefighters, military, doctors, teachers, utility workers, and so on. The next column was for specific individuals who work in these professions. Someone's parent might have been a firefighter, teacher, or doctor. The list grew from the abstract and fictional to the concrete and real. Normal, everyday people can be heroes. And in return, you might be that person for someone else.

This is my opinion For What It Is Worth. If you are looking for ways to "Be Someone's Hero," consider donating to Big Brother, Big Sisters. Visit bbbs.org  for more information.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Wonder

Volume Two in the Books That Matter Series


Wonder. It's a great word. In the noun form, an online dictionary defines it as "a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable." Nothing can sum up this next book better. And that's why R.J. Palacio's debut middle grade novel is so aptly titled, Wonder.

August Pullman is ten years old. It's the first thing readers learn about him. And even though, Auggie also states that he is "not an ordinary ten-year-old", he goes on to tell readers all the things he likes to do that just about any American kid his age would also like to do. But the reason, he is not ordinary is due to a facial deformity that causes other children to be afraid of him. So when his parents decide to enroll him in school for the first time in his life, Auggie must face a new challenge: the fifth grade.

But Wonder is not Auggie's story. Not entirely anyway. He is the main character and the true inspiration of the book. But Palacio structures her work so that readers can follow this year of Auggie's life through not only his eyes, but those of his older sister, her boyfriend, his sister's former friend, and two other fifth graders at Auggie's new school. This change in point of view offers a look into the way other people view August and how he impacts their lives as well.

My mom first recommended this book to me. Then, a former student was reading it and told me that I should read it too. Finally, a member of my critique group--the same friend who recommended The Fault in Our Stars, who from here on out will be known as my book headhunter--highly recommended it. So after these three glowing reviews, I read the  book and I was amazed  by the unexpected beauty that I found on the pages within the cover. And even though this is a fictional story about make believe characters, there is a truth to its message. It is like Mr. Tushman says in the book, "...someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God." Then, he added, "Or whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in." And that, my friends, is the true wonder of this book.


Thanks for reading Volume Two in the Books That Matter Series. This is just my opinion For What It Is Worth. If you are an educator, student, or parent who is reading this and you are looking to do something that could help children who feel a little like Auggie, I strongly recommend starting Unified Sports, a registered program of Special Olympics, at your school. Because as August Pullman states, "Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world."

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

Volume One in The Books That Matter Series


It's amazing how books have a way of coming into people's lives just when they need them the most. Hazel, the main character of The Fault in Our Stars, would probably laugh at this as it bears striking resemblance to an affirmation hanging in her boyfriend's house: "In the darkest days, the Lord puts the best people into your life." But in my opinion, both are true.

When a friend of mine told me about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, I knew I had to read it. But when she told me how she almost stopped reading it because the subject matter hit too close to home, I realized that books have a way of finding the right people at the right time. And I am very thankful that this book found its way to her and in turn to me.

Being a teenager is tough, being a teenager with cancer is horrible, but being a teenager with terminal cancer describes Hazel, the sixteen year old main character from The Fault In Our Stars. But as Hazel describes, "You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice--" And that is exactly what John Green has done with his book. He took a depressing, grim subject matter and turned parts of it into a lighter universal story about teenagers, allowing readers at times to forget that these characters had cancer.

Now, I don't want to be one of those people who goes on about fictional characters when real children and teenagers are facing cancer each day. But maybe that's why John Green wrote this story. He had worked with teenagers who had cancer and had wanted to write about it. But as he states in the beginning of the book before the novel begins, "Neither novels  nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species."

So yes, this story is fictional and the characters made up but the subject matter is so strong and true that there is something much deeper at play here. In my writing, I tackle tough problems people face in life, often making my books too heavy. My friend, the same one who recommended this book, gave me some sage advice. She heard somewhere that for every dark moment in a book, there must be something light. It is a balancing act, one that John Green has mastered with his blend of a heavy storyline and a sense of humor that keeps the plot feeling like one about teenagers and not always one about terminal cancer.


If you are looking for a book with a powerful message, I strongly recommend The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It will make you laugh and cry, leaving you thinking long after you read the last word.

And that's my opinion For What It Is Worth. Check in soon for Volume 2 in The Books That Matter Series, which will feature a middle grade novel with another strong message. If you want more information about childhood cancer or are interested in donating to organizations that help children with cancer, please visit one of the following sites:

For St. Jude's Children Research Hospital: stjude.org

For The Tomorrow Fund Clinic:   tomorrowfund.org

For The Jimmy Fund:    jimmyfund.org