The dirty little secret about school libraries

One day when I was in 2nd grade, the librarian and my teacher Mrs. Zimmerman whispered, heads together, by the counter when it was time for my class to leave. And then–wonder of wonders–I was allowed to stay, gifted a few extra minutes of library time. The rest of the children lined up and it was back down the hall to SRAs and spelling. For a couple weeks I could only choose from the shelves for “our hall” with their picture books and early readers. And then I hit the jackpot. Mrs. Zimmerman worked me quickly through a set of readers (Eight books with captivating plots I like: “Up, up, up. How far is up?” Are ya kiddin’ me?!) and when I had finished them all … I could choose any book from any shelf in that library.

school library
By Jgjournalist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I chose Tom Sawyer. Not a great choice for a seven-year-old, but I read it. I didn’t follow much of the plot, mind you, but my bookish little self just knew Tom Sawyer was an Important Book. The next week I put my pretensions aside and was hooked on Rummer Godden’s Doll’s House stories. Then Lois Lensky. And …

All because I had a teacher and a librarian with a roomful of books who fed the book worm that was me.

School librarians in my state are a dying breed–and many of their libraries are going the way of the dodo. Dwindling resources mean tight budgets and school administrators must find savings in every line item. They privatize the cafeteria. Outsource custodians. Subcontract busing. And many districts do away with their media specialists, or make do with only one librarian for the entire district. One.

It may be penny-wise, but it’s pound-foolish.

school library
Chris Hearn@Flickr

Today’s school librarians are no longer the Marion the Librarians of the past who shush-shushed us and carded books. Good media specialists understand curriculum so well they find teachers books that support math, science, and history instruction, making an abstract concept come alive. Good librarians spend hours pouring over catalogs, checking forums, connecting with local bookstores, and attending reading conferences so that their shelves are stocked with quality books by well-respected writers and illustrators.

So who is left to run the library when all the librarians are gone? Part-time parent volunteers. Maybe a paraprofessional if we’re lucky. Or, in the case of my high school … no one. After twenty years as a librarian, our media specialist had an hour of teaching World History added to her day. Then two the next year. Oh, and try to run the libraries of five schools in addition to your teaching load. (Is it any wonder the poor woman retired after two years of this?) We have a grand remodeled media center with modular seating, comfy chairs, and carts full of laptops–but the books?

Oh, they are a sad, sad lot.

We’ve had no  systematic ordering in years. There may be some budgeting for library books at the building level, but if there is, no one has ever told me–or asked me what books my students are reading or requesting. Fiction is supplemented with donations. The non-fiction is outdated. Biographies end in the Bush administration. If I take my kids down to choose a Reading For Enjoyment book, there’s not a whole lot that reaches out and grabs them. Some take a Harry Potter or Twilight for the umpteenth time just to have something. (I say “take” because that’s what we do. There’s no check out process, no inventory that I know of–I have kids sign out their titles on a form I created, but, still. When kids return the books, I carry a few crates down to the library and put them on a cart where they sit until a student volunteer shelves them.

I try to excite my students about reading. Sing the praises of a good book. Lend them books I bring from home or have collected over the years for my classroom. But it’s not the same. A classroom is, well, a classroom. It’s where we work and test, day in and day out.

But magic happens in a library. A distinct hush that isn’t a classroom. Displays of Newbery winners, holiday books, mysteries. Posters on the walls. The sun warming a special nook, just perfect for reading. Student art in the windows. And “Do you know any good books?”

Then the special someone whose mission in life is to answer that one question springs into action–with a roomful of books to offer and all the time in the world.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:

The Sea Wave: review

The Sea Wave (NetGalley)
Guernica Editions/University of Toronto Press

Although a short 140 pages, Rolli’s The Sea Wave moves in and out, back and forth between two oversized stories: that of a young severely handicapped girl and her kidnapper, an elderly man. The twelve-year-0ld cannot speak and is confined to a wheelchair, yet her understanding of the world around her is keen, her mind, sharp. The elderly man who kidnaps her communicates (if it can be called that) by telling the girl stories the sea waveof his time in a cell by the ocean. Whether it’s real or imagined is anybody’s guess–but since all Story includes some element of Truth, it soon becomes clear that the man’s time in that cell damaged him beyond repair.

So we get the girl’s description of their journey as he pushes her wheelchair through the countryside–a rough ride where she takes a few tumbles, faces the fear of being abandoned, and begins to feels the painful grip of hunger and thirst. But as she endures the ride, she recounts the isolation she felt at home, the shame she sees in her parent’s eyes when they look at her, the disgust on people’s faces when they encounter her. I’m guessing more than a few readers will cringe when the girl uncovers their own discomfort on meeting someone severely handicapped–and the irony is that we come to love this girl’s spunk, even as we understand we’d never get past her handicap to know her should we ever meet.

The Sea Wave is marketed as a flash fiction novel–and perhaps the man’s nightmarish recollections mirror the intense imagery for imagery’s sake of that short short-story form. But the girl’s narrative, while brief, is complete enough to stand as a novella. However you want to categorize it, Rolli’s The Sea Wave is a powerful read.

Mrs. Quilts-a-lot

q3(Oh, don’t worry! It’s not me …)

I have a friend who quilts. A lot. She has a special gift with applique and her creations are one-of-a-kind. Even more impressive is that she’s a hand quilter, meaning she doesn’t use a sewing machine for piecing or quilting. Maybe, she says, she’ll machine stitch a binding. Otherwise, she makes the Real Deal–the kind of handmade love that most of us only know from Little House books. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, her quilts are loved and used, not simply displayed. (She’s even had to re-bind some of her family’s favorites that have started to fray.)

LOVE the blackbird “clothes pins” that added movement to the mural.

Now this friend of mine goes on weekend quilt retreats (which I never even knew were a thing!), she quilts with a local group in a church basement, she stitches with friends (definitely not me), and she organized her parish’s first ever quilt show this summer.

So what does this quilter do with a concrete retaining wall at the top of her driveway? Why she “quilts” it, of course!

The blank yellow quilt will be designed and painted by Denice’s young grand daughters.

Friend Denice (she also writes about her adventures on her blog Denice’s Day) spent the better part of the summer planning, sketching, and painting this mural–and of course you know she did it all by hand. No pattern, no how-to book or video. She just searched for striking quilts on Pinterest, fussed over colors, and pestered the hardware store guys for concrete painting tips.

The result is nothing less than spectacular. While she was working on it I’d see photos on her blog and listened to how the work was going, but nothing prepared me for the smile I felt when I finally drove up her steep–very steep–driveway and was greeted with this little wonder of color and light.

I think it should be in Art Prize, myself, but what do I know? Only what I like, I guess–and Denice’s mural is a work of art, plain and simple.

It was me all along (review)

It Was Me All Along (Blogging for Books)
Andie Mitchell
Clarkson Potter


It’s memories of family–weekday meals of tuna casserole or Sundays at Grandma’s with her special golumpki. It’s theIt was me all along comfort of ice cream after a bad break-up or chocolate chip cookies after an trying day at work. Food is the Saturday night entertainment of a new restaurant, the brats and beer at a baseball game. It’s Christmas and Easter and the dinner you request Mom make for your birthday  every year.

For those of us in the U.S. it’s rarely just a means of sustenance.

Andie Mitchell recounts how the emotional weight food carries played out in her own life. For Andie food was synonymous with family and happiness until her father started drinking heavily when she was seven. After his death food lost its place in her family life … but she still craved the taste of love and comfort and home. She found herself eating compulsively. Boxes of Little Debbies in a sitting. Cartons of ice cream. Super-sized drive-thru snacks. Like so many of us she also found herself on an unpredictable diet mood swing–watching and counting calories one minute, drowning her sorrows in Oreos the next.

Her story of recovery is one we know well, but usually fail to follow: moderation, exercise, portion control. That Andie lost weight after she followed her passion into a satisfying career should surprise no one. She found that when she was truly Herself, relationships, as well as her clothes, no longer fit.

Andie’s story resonated with me. I’ve gained and lost the same twenty pounds for a decade now. I admire anyone like Andie who has the discipline to lose half their body weight. Her relationship with food is more balanced now.

But what will stick with me after reading this weight loss memoir is the title. It is me all along.

Because in the end, a few pounds more or less is not going to be the deciding factor when it comes to happiness or contentment. In the end, all we’ve got is ourselves–and loving the little girl inside might just be more important than whether or not the woman on the outside is a size 4 … or a 14.

Why I’ll remember All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot seeIt won the Pulitzer. Was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Spent 118 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Wiser readers than I have written more eloquently about Anthony Doerr’s magnificent All the Light We Cannot See, so there’s no reason to write what you can read elsewhere, like here and here. But it’s a World War II novel that I’ll long remember, and not just for the beautiful writing. Here’s why.

Doerr showed us characters who are usually vilified–Nazis–as people who loved and sacrificed and suffered. Werner Pfennig wasn’t one-dimensional. He had  dreams, and the Nazis recognized his gifts and provided him with a means to develop them. He had doubts, but time and place carried him into waters he had no power to fight against. Werner used the cards dealt him, but he wasn’t a player.

And so I can come to better understand the ones who have been labeled our enemies today. Most Americans with open hearts already acknowledge that it’s not Muslims we should condemn, but the regimes that promote terrorism and distort Islam. But in coming to know Werner Pfennig, I must acknowledge that there are young Muslim men and women who, even while seeming to accept (who knows, maybe even carry out) violent acts of terrorism, are also just cogs in a wheel over which they have little control.

That’s powerful.

I’ll also remember how Marie-Laure continued on. Whatever her circumstances. While her world shrank for a time after her blindness and again after her escape to Saint-Malo, it eventually opened again for her–even wider. And when she suffered the deprivations of war, when her life was in danger, she persevered. Put one foot in front of the other. In the horrors of war, Marie-Laure found opportunity.

How spineless we twenty-first century Americans can be.

I’m guessing that those of you who have read All the Light also carry it with you long after reading. Those of you who haven’t read it yet, must.

Book clubs: the good, the bad, and the ugly

In a perfect world my book club reads fascinating contemporary works (but never the best sellers) with a few classics thrown in to make sure we’re well-rounded and culturally literate. Leaders rotate–everyone takes a turn–and prepare diligently: a review shared, a YouTube video discovered, an NPR interview served up. We are astute. Serious. Profound, even.

But in real life … not so much. (And this is one of those timea when reality trumps fantasy.)

The only book club I’ve been part of is one I was asked to organize several years ago for some teaching friends I work with. We set some ground rules (if you don’t read, you don’t share; everyone takes a turn leading; we agree on books together) and met once a month, give or take. We called ourselves Chicks on Books, maybe because it sounded snappy?! Here are the books we read over the year-and-a-half we were together:
+ Columbine by David Cullen
+ Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
+ Full Dark No Stars by Steven King
+ Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
+ The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
+ Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Jansen
The Immortal Life of Harriet Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Little Bee by Chris Cleave

book clubsHeavy on non-fiction, but that was fine by me–I need encouragement to read something other than fiction. The books sparked wonderful conversation, of course. As you can probably guess, teachers can talk about Columbine for days. Add a book to the mix and we’re set. And we deal almost daily with helicopter moms which are a subcategory of Tiger Mothers, after all. The author of Mennonite is a professor at a private college in our back yard, and so we were able to hear her speak at a local library branch. (Always, always go hear the author speak when you have the chance.) And more than a few of us had families who put the “fun” in dysfunctional (Not!) so between our own childhoods and those of our students, we had more than enough fuel to discuss The Glass Castle.

And like many book clubs, our was not averse to adding a little vino into the mix. Conversation was never an issue–in fact, we had to exercise self-discipline to ensure we talked about the book for at least forty-five minutes so we didn’t talk shop. Our tangents were wonderful, though. Just what I encourage my own students to be open to–reading isn’t about plot lines, conflict, and metaphor; it’s about letting a work touch our souls and inspire us.

So why was our little book club so short-lived? (I’ve heard of some book clubs that go on for decades …) I’m not sure. Some of it was family–half the members had young children. Some of it was plain ol’ time–during the school year we teachers find it difficult to do much more than eat, sleep, grade, repeat. When we first skipped a month, a couple members asked me, “When are we going to meet again?” And my reply would be, “Whenever someone organizes it!” I didn’t want to be the one to run the show and thought if the group was meaningful, someone would keep it going.

But after another missed month, the idea of planning book club again slowly fizzled out–kind of like a book whose pages we stop turning because it’s just not engaging. Or because it’s not what we expected? Or maybe we just got too busy and put it aside. Maybe I should be grateful that we got several chapters in.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll pick up the book club again someday and give it another go.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:


The Grand Tour: review

The Grand Tour (NetGalley)
Adam O’Fallon Price

Richard Lazar made his fame and fortune writing tales of his time as a soldier in Vietnam. But now Richard is washed up. He hasn’t The Grand Tourpublished in years, he tends bar part-time, he’s living in a trailer outside Phoenix, and his daughter won’t speak to him. Add to that copious alcohol consumption in his off hours, and you’ve got the picture.

But a call from his agent changes all that. (Or most of it anyway.) Americans are weary of U.S. troops in the Middle East and Richard’s “f***-it” attitude resonates with readers. There’s a big advance and a book tour planned.

Now nineteen-year-old Vance Allerby, president of the Washington Area Richard Lazar Auxilliary, wants more than anything to be a writer. He’s also been designated Richard’s driver at the first stop of the tour and it doesn’t start well. At all. Richard stumbles off the plane after a little too much Ambien and vodka, then proceeds to drink more at dinner, barely making it through his first reading at Spillman College.

Vance’s life is in just as much disarray as Richard’s. He’s dropped out of college, tends rather co-dependently to his mentally ill mother, hasn’t heard from his father in years, and he’s spent every waking hour in the past few months working on a manuscript titled Infinite Galaxies of Sorrow. 

But against all odds these two team up for the book tour. The Grand Tour is not a buddy story, though, but more of an I-can’t-stand-you-why-do-I even-care tale of two misfits thrown together by Fate. But they do–care, that is–in their emotionally unavailable ways and so the novel’s real strength is in watching Richard and Vance come to terms with the mess they’ve made of their lives. And how they each help the other tidy up and get on with the business of living and loving.

I didn’t expect to like The Grand Tour as much as I did, and if pushed I had a few quibbles about the plot towards the end. (Rikers Island? Really?!) The novel’s title and epitaph is a line from a George Jones tune by the same name. Listen. Read. It’s an evocative pairing well worth your time.

A week in the life …

polkaMy favorite place to walk in Our Fair City is an urban park set just outside of downtown–I think of it as a little Central Park, although I’ve never been. Riverside Park has winding paved paths curving around and through lagoons, wetlands, and a spectacular tree canopy. I watch the geese, roller bladers, bikers, and disc golfers as I walk, and truth be told I even caught a couple Pokemon here this week–but I wasn’t so fixed on my screen that I couldn’t notice this tiny treasure: a polka dot feather!
Our house is within city limits, but just. The area probably has more undeveloped land than other other part of the city–which is a blessing to those of us who enjoy city living with suburban style, but a curse when it comes to fighting off developers. Right behind our house are nine acres that the neighborhood association has fought to keep free of apartments. This week I took meeting notices and a site plan around to 24 neighbors who border the property and would be most affected by yet another proposed development. Three hours of chatting and hoping to get people bring questions and concerns to a meeting with the developer next week. Community organizing is what makes a good city great.

lalaSo there’s this nugget of sweet baby to snuggle. Her big brother calls her Lala, his version of ‘Alexis’. We don’t know her real well yet, since we just met a couple weeks ago, but I. am. in. love. That big brother keeps me busy on Grammy day. This week we went to the library–he played in the play kitchen while I chose 2 books for him to keep in his special library bag at my house. Not that he stops long enough to read, but a grandma can hope! We got out of the library without a tantrum (or, I should say, just a tiny one!) because the kind librarian came to my rescue, trading Jonas one of the kitchen toys for a sticker. Whew! Then it was back to my house for some time in the wading pool and lunch. Little man is a petite thing who couldn’t get enough macaroni and cheese for lunch–at one point he was scooping with his fork while he shoveled handfuls in between.

csa2I swear we have winter nine months of the year. Not really, but still. Our Great Lakes growing season is short and that makes CSA produce that much more of a treat. “Our” farmers Deane, Linda, and Tory of Chimney Creek Farm are the best local food ambassadors. Each year they host a spring open house where share holders can visit the woodlot pigs they raise (and we’ve eaten!), as well tour the hoop houses and fields. The fall brings a pumpkin share where everyone can pick out their own pumpkin. These farmers have gotten me to try turnips and kohrabi–and last week’s share allowed me to indulge my passion for pickled beets. This week’s bounty was summer at its peak: zucchini, green pepper, garlic, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, melon, plums, apricots. It’s like Christmas when I open my bags and spread out the goodies.

hall2And then there’s this. Yearbooks arrived and I met the driver to sign for delivery, and then stayed to begin to put my room back together again. *sigh* But as much as my heart sinks a bit each time I think about summer’s end, there is something energizing about starting out fresh again with a new batch of kids, clean cupboards, and a clear desk. Until the first week of September!

This is a book blog, right? So you must see what I’m reading: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H. P. Woods. I’m about halfway and it’s an magrudersoriginal story which gets high marks in my book. Kitty finds herself stranded on Coney Island. Her brother dead, mother disappeared, Kitty herself kicked out of her hotel room for reasons unknown. She’s befriended by freaks from the amusement park shows: a giant, a man with no legs, a she-man, and a confidence man. The plague has broken out on the island and the police are rounding up victims and quarantining them. And of course because we humans fear the unusual, the freaks are to blame for the crisis. I love an unconventional storyline and getting lost in a turn-of-the-century freak show gives me a peek into a world I know nothing about.


Did you ever have a family: review

Did you ever have a family
Bill Clegg
Gallery/Scout Press

We know from the outset that June Reid loses daughter Lolly and her fiance, as well as her ex-husband and boyfriend Luke in a horrific accident on the eve of Lolly’s wedding. Any mother, of course, would be devastated and June is no different. But far from losing control in her grief, June becomes an automaton after the tragedy, disengaged even from mourners who try to comfort her. Then, almost before the casseroles have had time to cool after did you ever have a familythe wake, June sets off across country, alone. Where, we don’t know–she has only the clothes on her back and the keys in the ignition. And memories.

The night of the accident had ended badly. June and Luke argue. Lolly confronts June with childhood disappointments. It’s messy, as families who fall apart and reassemble themselves often are. There’s unfinished business between them all–and then because of the tragedy there’s no chance to make it right

I expected a novel that begins with four deaths to be profoundly sad. But it wasn’t.

What follows is a slow unraveling of the years that preceded–each of the victims had suffered some sort of betrayal (either their own or another’s) and endured the consequences: adultery, divorce, estrangement, even prison. Author Bill Clegg gives us their stories and shows us people whose painful experiences became the proving ground for building new–and more satisfying–lives.

There are many back stories to keep track of–even the housekeeper at the motel where June finally settles has a story here–and that might be off putting to some readers. But follow them all, and I think Clegg will reassure you that some sort of resolution can usually be found on the other side of hardship.

Those of us who have become separated from family, those who have lost trust in a loved one or have experienced betrayal (myself included) will find a kind of quiet hope that life opens more doors than it closes–that life might never be perfect, but it can certainly be better.

Bill Clegg’s novel Did You Ever Have a Family will stay with you, it’s that good. Read it when you’ve time to sit with the characters and listen.

How does your garden grow?

gardening with abandonWhen I bought my house twenty years ago, one of the things I loved most was the little perennial garden that ran along the driveway from the front steps to the side. It had been professionally designed and planted and the owners left me the garden schematic beautifully plotted out on parchment-thin paper, shaded with soft penciled colors. That first summer I watched and waited and didn’t make many changes. I had hostas and needle leaf coreopsis and Russian sage and cranesbill.

But after that I got brave. (Brave for me, that is!) I made a trip to the garden market every spring and chose maybe one or two new perennials. Because I have a notorious brown thumb, many didn’t survive. But I managed to coax along some balloon flowers, stargazer lilies, sedum, and black-eyed Susans. My Shasta daisies were stunted by earwigs and every chrysanthemum I planted lasted only a season or two. It was trial and error, with the tendency towards error.

I’m a cautious gardener, you see. I like order–but not necessarily rows–and my garden is pleasant and neat… but rather tame.

the meadow
The meadow

This spring my husband decided to start gardening himself by growing a few annuals from seed. (I always supplement my perennials with potted annuals: marigolds, petunias, geraniums, etc.) Then I asked for a salad bowl–you know, those potted mixes of tiny romaine and leaf lettuces, some baby kale–so I could have salad at the ready. He thought he might try some perennials, just because. The result was three portable greenhouse units crammed with flats and seedlings, moved from window to window, inside to outside. I’ll admit the chaos was a bit alarming for me, someone who loves order and plants methodically.

Now you must also know that B is an all or nothing type of guy. He lives large, takes risks. Doesn’t always plan, but lets life unfold. He’s reaped a lot of highs (and lows) with this approach to life. His garden just sort of happened and there’s nothing small scale about it.

B gardens with abandon and I’ve come to love the beauty in what I once saw as disarray. There’s a lush jungle of pots upogarden2n pots on our deck, and riots of roses and morning glories along the fence. He started a meadow a few years back and this year it has come into its own–a tiny patch of intentional wilderness right
in our yard, complete with a grotto of phlox for my Blessed Virgin.

I still putz in my side garden, swapping out plants occasionally, dead-heading when I remember, and filling in spaces when I get some inspiration. It’s nice.

But B’s garden space is a tangle of color, exploding with annuals and perennials. It’s gorgeous.

And my heart is richer for it.