Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Plays the Race Card

I am white.

Really, really white.

Haven't been outside without sunscreen since I was 12, my people weren't meant for sun we were meant for rain and despair white.

And like a lot of white people in this country I have never been a visible minority. Race discussions growing up were always about things that happened to other people in other times and in other places. They were theoretical and impersonal. And not having to think about what it means to be a racial minority is probably the biggest unacknowledged part of white privilege.

Now I am most definitely the minority. I am often the only white person in the room and now race discussions make me distinctly uncomfortable, because I'm never sure what I should or can say. It's no longer theoretical; it's my real world.

I have become almost entirely desensitized to the n word. In fact, I have a great speech where I use it liberally that I'm going to bust out the next time I hear a kid say it. It's lost all of its shock value for me, but maybe the shock value of a white lady using it will resonate with them. Or at least give them pause. Or get me fired. The possibilities are endless.

Last week I told a girl that it's not a good idea to leave her cell phone next to her computer and then walk away. "Yeah," chimed in another girl sitting nearby, "there're black people here." Which wasn't what I meant, and both girls knew it. It was said as a joke and taken as one, but not one I knew how to respond to.

And then Monday happened.

Monday was the third of our STAR sessions with the teen parenting group at a local high school. The second session went oh so well after the first, kinda rough one that I've already talked about. But today some of the girls were in a foul mood, we had more than expected and I hadn't reviewed the material in a long time. It was my fault for not coming prepared with everyday examples of enhancing narrative skills, but as soon as I asked the girls for examples of how they incorporate the things we had been talking about (telling simple stories, dialogical reading, having "conversations" with pre-verbal babies by asking questions and allowing them time to babble back) with their babies or other babies in their life, all hell broke lose.

"People don't do those things" said one girl, one of our more active participants.
"What'd you mean "people"" asked a new girl, "You mean black people, don't you. Black people don't do this and that's why our kids don't know how to read."

The first girl didn't necessarily mean black people don't do the things we've been encouraging the girl to do with their babies. She just meant that it's hard to keep all these little things in mind when you're tired, sleep deprived and just want a minute to yourself. But that didn't stop the white people do this, black people do that conversation from snowballing. And what it came down to, in this tiny room with a lot of black teenagers, one black adult and two white adults who should have been facilitating but had really just thrown their hands up and were wondering where to break in, was this: Black communities are broken because no one is raising their kids right (in this case teaching kids to read/giving kids the foundations to learn to read before they get to school). And the one or two people who do raise their kids right then have no choice but to send their kids to the same schools as everyone else and so they're back at square one. You can't count on schools to care and a mom's persistence only goes so far.

In my experience this isn't a black vs. white thing. It's the lack of resources and education that hurts communities and has kids starting schools at a disadvantage and forcing teachers to play catch-up, getting kids up to speed on what they should already know. But that's too fine a point to draw when, for the majority of the population in the U.S. and certainly in this city, being black does equal a lack of resources and education.

It wasn't a conversation that either myself or my co-facilitator knew how to curb. I caught one of the girls sneaking looks at me as I watched, eyes wide and ping-ponging back and forth, trying to take in as much as possible. She smirked and nodded when I made an explosion gesture with my hands. It was clear that the two well meaning white ladies weren't going to regain control of the room so we quietly handed out the give-away boardbooks, said good bye and snuck out into the hall with the sounds of this really intense debate about personal responsibility vs communal responsibility in the black community raging behind us.

So this is my problem, how do I talk about race or address the racial issues with kids who have lived every single day as a product of a racially divided city, with very clear views as to who belongs and who doesn't? Especially when I'm someone who does not belong.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater


Good job Maggie Stiefvater.

I admit, I haven't been too impressed by you in the past. Maybe it was the werewolves. Maybe it was the awful book design that led somebody to think green ink was an acceptable choice. Whatever the reason, I gave up on the Linger trilogy pretty quickly and fairy stories? No, I don't think so. I only picked up Scorpio Races once I heard the rave reviews. But oh boy I am glad that I did. You took an obscure myth and transformed it, breathing life into something that could so easily have been flat. You surrounded that myth with believable characters and managed to give us one of the most tension filled, slow burn love stories since Anne of Green Gables.

Can you tackle selkies next? Or maybe the Tam Lin story? Pretty please?

The Deal:
Puck lives on the island of Thisby with her two brothers. Their parents were killed about a year ago by the mysterious and deadly water horses who rise from the sea every November and since then it's been the three Connolly siblings against the world. But now her oldest brother is talking about leaving the island for good and the only way Puck can think to stall him is to announce her intent to ride in the Scorpio Races.

The Scorpio Racesare a tradition on Thisby as far back as anyone can remember, and lately an economy-saving tourist attraction. Water horses are more dangerous and harder to control than regular horses, but they're so much faster. Each year the men of Thisby risk their lives to prove their dominance over the beasts and be the first over the finish line.

Sean watched his father die in the races when he was only ten years old. Now, riding the horse his father was killed on, Sean has won the races 4 times and is heavily favored to do it again. Sean doesn't care much for the races though, he just wants a way to buy Corr, his water horse and only friend, from the island's richest man. Together they'll move to his father's house and never be indentured to any master ever again.

What Worked: All of it. No, seriously. If I truly had to pick a best, most-working part though, it would be the world of Thisby that Stiefvater built. The island atmosphere of tradition and insider vs. outsider gives us some of the creepiest, most suspenseful scenes I've ever read. Carnival scenes and food descriptions juxtaposed against blood letting rituals and sinister pubs gave Thisby extra dimensions and let me get an intimate look at a small community from my couch.

What Didn't Work: Okay, so the villain was a little flat. BUT I AM SO TOTALLY OKAY WITH THAT.

Anything Extra Special?: Like I mentioned above, the tension between Puck and Sean as their relationship grows from distrust and suspicion to mutual respect and then soft, butterfly feelings is exquisite. I don't throw around the Anne of Green Gables title lightly; that slow burn as Anne begins to realize how Gilbert feels for her and how she feels about him can send me into squees by just thinking about it. Puck and Sean are of the same variety and the few kisses they do get to share are made all the more satisfying by how much time they spent working up to them.

Would I Read It Again?: Yes. It's a long linger and super intense, so I'll give it time to settle, but this is definitely something that will make its way back to my bedside table.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods

Is Hurricane Katrina becoming it's own genre these days? In the past year I've seen two middle readers and one picture book dealing with Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. This partial list doesn't even take into account the plethora of adult fiction about the Hurricane. This seems odd since the storm was barely five years ago and it took much, much longer for children's books using September 11, 2001 as a backdrop to start appearing.

Today we're taking a look at the newest addition to the Katrina cannon, a middle reader from Brenda Woods called Saint Louis Armstrong Beach.

The Deal: Saint Louis Armstrong Beach is a little boy with a big name to live up to. Like his Grandaddy Saint and his other namesake, Louis Armstrong, Saint has the music in him. Nothing makes him happier than busking for tourists, dreaming of one day affording his dream clarinet, and playing with "his" dog, a neighborhood stray named Shadow. His former best friend MonaLisa is growing up too fast and refuses to talk to him anymore, which would hurt even if he didn't have a crush on her. When another friend, with a crush of her own, tells Saint that he has an extra short lifeline he becomes determined to live for 99 years, just to prove her wrong. Unfortunately for him, a tropical storm named Katrina is making the news and is headed straight towards New Orleans. His parents want to evacuate, but Saint can't find Shadow anywhere and he knows that he just can't leave without him.

With the storm waters rising, and time running out, Saint finds himself boarded up in an old cottage with his elderly neighbor and (finally) Shadow. Together they'll ride out the storm, for better or worse.

What Worked: Woods invokes the feeling of New Orleans really well with her descriptions of local music and food. While reading Saint... I found myself wanting to rewatch the HBO series Treme just to continue my immersion in the New Orleans world. Saint is a strong protagonist, very much caught up in his own world, and his choices always follow a certain logic even if they're not the best in terms of self-preservation. The interactions between MonaLisa, Saint and the other friend-- a girl named Jupi-- are cute and provide some much needed relief from the excellent building tension.

What Didn't Work: While I thought the build-up of tension before the storm was one of the books stronger attributes, Katrina itself fell flat. I didn't feel any real immediacy or danger while Saint was supposedly fighting for his life, for Miz Moran's life and for Shadow's life. I also wasn't crazy about the addition of magical realism in the third act. If there had been better foreshadowing, maybe, but as it was it popped up out of nowhere and took me out of the story.

Would I read it again?: Probably not. I don't regret reading it, but I think Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes covered the same material and covered it better.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Past Perfect by Leila Sales

I spent last weekend in New York, visiting a friend from undergrad. It was a much needed vacation and on the bus ride up there I finished Past Perfect, the new book from Leila Sales. When I got off the bus I handed Sarah the book and said "Oh em geeeeeee, you should read this now. While I'm here. Because it belongs to the library and I have to take it back with me on Monday, but also because you should just read it now." So in between awesome New York things like going to shows, really good takeout and staring a little too long at the ODB mural in her neighborhood, Sarah and I hunkered down to read.

Past Perfect hits a lot of my sweet spots; Leila Sales is a master of dialogue and in between all the general romantic angst of YA books there is some serious discussion of ice cream. A great model of female friendship, a cute but not too cute boy and some seriously pearl clutching swoony times on a trampoline all make this a sweet and addictive read.

But here's the best part: the book takes place almost entirely in a COLONIAL REENACTMENT TOURIST ATTRACTION VILLAGE! And most of what isn't in the Colonial Village, is at a CIVIL WAR REENACTMENT TOURIST ATTRACTION! I spent so much of my time in college and grad school dreaming of getting a gig as an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, it's not even funny. I love the idea of reenacting Civil War battles and I always, always wonder (just like Chelsea) who would willingly volunteer to play the loosing side. I mean, it always ends the same. Even if you truly believe that the South will rise again, it certainly didn't then.

The second best part of the book was the war. I freaking love a YA book with a good war in it. I think it started with Jellicoe Road, but nothing emphasizes the heightened reality of mundane moments that YA is built around like a war that is all consuming and ever important, but that the adults can never ever know about. This war, between the junior interpreters at the Colonial Village and their counterparts at Civil War Land, is a pretty good one. It's mostly based around sneaking anachronistic things into the enemy's camp, which is played for laughs, but there are serious moments too that ramp up the tension between our star-crossed lovers. (Of course there are star-crossed lovers, did you think there wouldn't be? Have you ever read YA before?)

As Sarah and I lounged around her apartment reading, we quickly adopted a shorthand way of talking about the book- "Oh Dan Malkin." "I know! So great, right?" "So Dan Malkin." or "Ezra!" "Right? Just wait, it gets worse" "Ezra, Ezra, Ezra." "Talent is a turn-on. Sa-woon". Her roommate couldn't participate in conversations with us because lines from the book became our reference points. Especially that one about talent. Sa-woon for reals.

Past Perfect succeeds at almost every turn; it's fun and infectious, well written, given to inside jokes and not thinking too hard (except about ice cream, which should always be taken very, very seriously). Which, really, is exactly what Sarah and I wanted from a book in our hunkering down, reunion filled weekend.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Scientific Analysis of Toddlers

I'm in the middle of performing a very scientific experiment on my story time kids. It's always seemed odd to me that story time at the library is all ages, or as it usually happens 6 months-4 years. That's just cray-cray. If I'm catering to the littlest ones, the big kids are bored and roll their eyes at me. If I'm reading longer stories for the more developmentally advanced, the babies aren't engaged and start crying. And now matter what I do, the 18-20 month olds run around and push all the buttons on the computers.

So my experiment: Babies come to both story times, they're always there. But I've noticed that older kids tend to come to the Thursday story time. I think it's because my home school families have settled on Thursday as their library day and those kids trend older. So without telling anyone, I've started structuring Tuesday story time like a baby bounce/lap sit and keeping Thursday as a more traditional older toddler and preschool story time.

Without (much) further ado, here are the outlines for this Tuesday's baby bounce, followed by Thursday's story time. As you can see, I'm also super getting into making new flannel board sets. If the grand experiment goes the way I think it will I'll be formally dividing my story times at the beginning of the new year.

TUESDAY BABY BOUNCE (I lost my script somewhere along the way, so this is my best recreation)

Song: Good Morning Dear Earth
Poem: Turtle
Book: Mice Squeak, We Speak by Tommie DePaola
Song: Old MacDonald
Flannel: 5 Green and Speckled Frogs
Flannel: Fall is Not Easy (from the book by Marty Kelley)
Song: Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
Song: Grand Old Duke of York
Rhyme: Big, Big, Big
Flannel: 5 Little Ducks
Rhyme: Where are Baby's Fingers?
Poem: Turtle
Book: Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler
Song: Turn Around (from Getting to Know Myself)


Song: Good Morning Dear Earth
Rhyme: Big, Big, Big (2x)
Rhyme: Patty Cake, Patty Cake
Book: Eight Animals on the Town by Susan Middleton Elya
Flannel: Inch by Inch (from the book by Leo Lionni)
Flannel: 5 Little Ducks
Song: If You're Happy and You Know It
Book: Shout! Shout It Out! by Denise Fleming
Song: Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
Song: You Are My Sunshine
Song: Wheels on the Bus
Poem: Turtle (2x)
Book: Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler
Song: Turn Around (from Getting to Know Myself)

Tuesday this week went really well. We had a record crowd (36!) and almost everyone paid attention the entire time. Thursday was not as awesome. I should have practiced Inch by Inch before I tried to do it, and as soon as I finished it Jeremy, a 2.5 year old, stood up in front of everyone and sang a song of his own invention- a mix between 5 Little Ducks and 5 Green and Speckled Frogs. This led to extended sharing time- Annie was sick last week, Caleb wants to read more books about Dinosaurs, Frannie thinks the flu is going around etc...

As much as I worry about loosing control of the room though, the moms and nannies never seem to notice. I get just as many compliments in the milling around time after what I consider a disastrous story time as I do after one that I think went smoothly. Thursday's story time highlight came when Sara's mom told me that she had noticed Sara humming the Turn Around Song. They found the song on youtube (bitchin' video by the way) and at the chorus Sara started spinning around. "I didn't know she could follow directions!"

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Family Story Time

Starting today on the second Saturday of each month I'm offering a Family Story Time at the library. It's aimed at getting parents who work during the day to come into the library with their kids and also at attracting neighborhood kids that are in daycare or preschool during normal story time hours.

I had one new kid today, an older sister of one of my regulars, but I was really happy to see a lot more dads than usual and some new moms with my familiar babies.

Since this was the first day of a new program, I pulled out all the stops and went pretty rapid-fire with things I know work. I'll leave experimenting with new material for weekday story times for now. I think I went a little long, by the last book attention and little bodies were starting to wander over to the toys and coloring in different parts of the room.

Here's what we did today:

Song: Good Morning Dear Earth (I start every story time with this song)
Poem: I Had a Little Turtle
Book: Silly Sallyby Audrey Wood
Flannel Board: 5 Little Ducks
Song: The Wheels on the Bus
Book: Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoesby Eric Litwin
Rhyme: Where are Baby's Fingers?
Song: You Are My Sunshine
Song: Itsy Bitsy Spider
Flannel Board: Go Away Big Green Monster (from the bookby Ed Emberley
Flannel Board: Fall is Not Easy (from the bookby Marty Kelley)
Rhyme: Big, Big, Big
Song: If You're Happy and You Know It
Book: Jazz Babyby Lisa Wheeler (This is the last book I read in every story time, I use it as a repeat-after-me)
Song: Turn Around (I end every story time with this song off Hap Palmer's CD Getting to Know Myself )

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sing, Talk, And Read (and eat and text)

I started co-facilitating my first workshop today. How professional am I?

The workshop is an early literacy seminar called STAR (Sing, Talk And Read). We're doing it with a teen parenting group at a local high school. Before going in today my two biggest concerns were that someone would mistake me for one of the students (it happens) and that the teens would be all too cool for singing kids' songs and making lots of animal noises. One of my favorite parts about my job is how frequently I get to act like a little kid, but the part of me that loves that is also the part of me that is stupid intimidated by teenagers.

I didn't need to worry about being mistaken for a student- public school kids wear uniforms these days. Also, the security guard thought we were lost. I don't think he'd ever seen two white women trying to walk into the school before. There were a few hiccups: we only had 25 minutes instead of the anticipated 45, the program is 6 sessions long and while we will be in the school for six sessions we won't have the same girls for all six sessions, and even though the program was designed as a sort of educational story time for both parents and their children, most of our participants haven't given birth yet.

It also took place during their lunch break. So while we were standing at the front of the room, enthusiastically enticing the girls to Sing, Talk And Read with us, they were picking at their dressing free salads and lukewarm chili dogs. Lunch time is also phone time and at the beginning almost every girl was holding her phone underneath the table, texting furiously. By the end of the session we mostly had their attention, though, and there was definitely a rousing version of Sodeo with the girls shaking their noise egg along to the beat.

My favorite part of the session was when we gave the girls a mini flannel board. Flannel boards are hands down the best part of story time and using pocket folders we made them each a portable one!

Demonstrated with my baby animals from the Monkey Face set.
That's a super cute pink bunny falling out of the pocket.

The reactions ranged from "Ooooh, I'm gonna do this with my little girl tonight" to "Mine don't work, I got the bootleg one" from a mom who didn't realize that even though it's easy to pull the felt pieces off the flannel board, they will stick when you prop the folder up. It's cool, I helped her figure out how they work and now she too can use it with her baby.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Story Time Favorites

I have a huge range of kids that show up for my story times. In any given program I may have a 6 month old and a 4 year old; it's not easy, or possible, to plan a full program that caters to both of those kids. There are a few magical books, however, that span the age range and are engaging for all of my story time regulars whether they're 8 months or the mother of an 8 month old. I use a lot of repetition from week to week and these books are kept in heavy rotation.

Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler
I use Jazz Baby as my last book in each story time that I do. The kids and their adults all know it now and are excited to see it every single time.The sparse text flows really well and interacts with the illustrations to form one integrated experience that I love. The rhythm lends itself really well to call-and-response so I usually do Jazz Baby as a "repeat after me" book where I speak a line and have the kids and their adults repeat it back.

Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberly
Everyone uses GABGM, and for good reason. There's nice tension in the build up to the reveal of the total monster and taking apart the monster piece by piece is enormously satisfying. I use a flannel version of GABGM almost as often as I use the actual book and get the kids involved by asking them to shout out what piece/color goes on or away next.

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin
Anytime a book incorporates a sung refrain, I'm on board.
Pete the Cat moves so quickly and there's so much repetition that by the end even my youngest sitters are mouthing along and the adults holding babies are swaying to the beat.

Who Hops? by Katie Davis
I'm constantly on the lookout for books that engage adults as well as children. I ask my adults to model good behavior for the kids in the room, and it's so much easier for them to stop talking to each other or on their phones if they're genuinely interested in what I'm doing at the front of the room. All of the books on this list are heavy on audience participation for that very reason.
Who Hops? is no different. It uses deceptively simple illustrations- eye catching for my littlest ones- while dropping some serious knowledge about a few of the animals who don't hop, fly, swim or slither.