Thursday, May 24, 2012

Do I Really Have to Read That?

They were an arm's reach away from the candy at my table.  The four of them were a perfectly synchronized team, eyes never wavering from the Jolly Rancher bowl, waiting for my attention to be diverted.  

I've always loved a challenge.  "Are you guys in high school?"  I smiled at the shortest one, but she right away deferred to the group leader who had her hand hovering, one step closer to the bowl, poised and ready.  The Hudson Book Festival was in full swing and there were plenty of shiny objects to steer them away.

The leader nodded quickly toward the two on the end.  "They're in seventh."  She elbowed her second in command and edged ever-so-slightly closer.  "We're in ninth."

I decided I'd better make my move, seeing as I was quite obviously on borrowed time.   

"What kind of books do you like?"  I tried to make eye contact with the Alpha.

She gave me a you-must-be-crazy snort and spoke for the group.  "We don't like books."

Then what are you doing at a book festival?  My inside voice shouted.
I wanted to grab the leader's iPod and surreptitiously download an audio book, but I knew there was no time.

Reinforcements were needed.  I searched out Walter Dean Myers on the other side of the room, wondering if I could beam an emergency mental message over to him.  Maybe he could leave his table and perform an intervention of sorts.

As the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, his platform is straightforward and no-nonsense.  "Reading is not optional."

Even though it seems like such a simple statement, it motivated me to try harder.  Getting a book in a child or a teen's hands is a duty that belongs to all of us--as teachers, as parents, as writers ... as interested and interesting people.  Walter Dean Myers says that "people who read well earn more, have more rewarding lives, and pass on their skills to their families."

I decided to try again with the Alpha.  "I'll bet you have a book--one book--that you liked." 

One of the seventh graders rolled her eyes at her.  "You don't like nothin', unless it's about love."

My books are realistic fiction.  Maybe that wasn't their thing. "How about fantasy?  Have you read Watersmeet?   I pointed toward my friend, Ellen Jensen Abbott, a couple of tables down.  "There's even a sequel.  And I think there might be some love."

The other seventh grader did a quick candy scan of Ellen's table.

I pointed next to me.  "How about Danielle Joseph?  She has a new book out.  And her first one was made into a movie.  Definitely some love in that one."  

The movie part got a half a raised eyebrow.  

Then the leader gave an almost imperceptible nod and they moved on.  

I sighed.  I didn't know how they'd done it, but my candy bowl was completely empty when they left.  But then I had a silver lining moment.  What the ReadingRebels didn't know, was that I had purchased those Jolly Ranchers the day before at the dollar store.  Who knew how old they were?  Maybe there'd be time for them to read when they were on their respective couches, recovering from their triple root canals.

I couldn't be sure, but around 3:30 that afternoon, I thought I caught another glimpse of them.  One of the seventh graders had something under her arm.  

And I think it might have been a book.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Don't Be Afraid to Tell it Like it Is

Rudolf Nureyev once said, "Any artist is the bringer of light."  It's a good thing for me that there are many different kinds of artists.  In a family of musicians and artists and writers, it was pretty apparent when I was about five that drawing wasn't to be my destiny. 

 I'm sure my cousin, Jon Kiphart (second from the left), will be thrilled to see my creative interpretation of him doing "jazz hands".

My mother was an incredibly talented artist, and she always appreciated and celebrated anything my brothers and I created.   I just found some of my writing my mom saved from the fall of 1968 and the summer of 1969.  So much was changing in the world, but not in my corner of it.  


I hated keeping that diary.  My teacher made us all do it, and even then, I would rather have been off by myself making up my own stuff, rather than sticking to the nonfiction details of the day.  The Vietnam war was in full swing and the Civil Rights movement was Front Page news, but I was writing about making "dezines" and flowers and seeing a film ... and some girl named Jeanne who was bugging me while I was trying to write and read my "Happy Hollisters" library book.  (I've never been one to confront someone or make waves, so per usual, I got back at Jeanne in print.)

On a personal note, my Aunt, Patricia Kiphart, died on May 4.  She was the first one on the left in my drawing at the beginning of this post and, in case that didn't quite capture her good side, she's the first person on the left in the photograph below.  

My brothers and I loved her and our mom thought the world of her.  My artist/writer brother, Tim, could have done a much better job with her portrait, and I hope he doesn't mind that I'm sharing some of the wonderful words that he wrote about our mom's beloved big sister:  

"She was my Aunt Pat, and I really loved her.  There was (and is) something wonderful about every sibling in that family; they were all extremely smart and nice and 
really funny.  After having lived almost fifty years and experiencing countless other families, I think the Conway brothers and sisters are the only
set of aunts and uncles I've ever come across where there
wasn't one person who didn't love being around any other.
My family, the Haywood five, loved seeing them every time.  
Patricia always told it like it was.  
And then she'd hand you a five spot."

Auntie Pat, thank you for all those five dollar bills, and for teaching me to tell it like it is.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Homelessness is in Your Own Backyard

Twelve-year-old Emily Kassing from Dallas, Texas is the kind of person you don't hear about everyday.  After reading Also Known as Harper, she got to thinking about the issue of homelessness.  She wrote to tell me that she had discovered that there were 5,600 homeless men, women, and children in her own community!  This affected her so deeply, that she felt that she needed to do something, and that "everybody needs to help make homelessness go away."  

So Emily did just that.  She conducted a coat drive for homeless people in her city.  Emily impressed me so much, that I felt like others needed to hear about her!  She and her parents kindly agreed to an interview on The Backstory.  

Please tell us a little about your project.

EMILY:  I sent out letters to everyone in my neighborhood ( I just stuck letters and a garbage bag in 300 mailboxes) to let them know I was trying to help give encouragement to the homeless in my community.   I mentioned that I read your book and was inspired to try to help...because of reading "Harper."  I invited them to collect coats and put them on their front porch a few days later and I would collect the bags .

 A week later I went and collected all the white trash bags I saw.  My goal was to collect 100 coats. I collected 97! 

I donated them to the Homeless Shelter in Dallas, called the Stewpot. I really think all the children who are homeless, along with their parents, would love the coats: especially this winter. 

 My family and I had a complete tour of the Stewpot and learned all about the homeless services they offer and just how big and sad the situation is.

How did you come up with the idea?

EMILY:  After I read your book, I realized that homelessness is real. It is really happening everywhere...and to children...that could be just like Harper.  It really broke my heart.  So I really wanted to help them.  This is one thing I wish I could change about the world.

What did you enjoy most about your project?

EMILY:  My favorite part about my project was... collecting all the coats!  My family and I really had no idea if we would get any coats; it was really a gamble.  

The Saturday morning came to start driving around, and my sisters and brothers came with me.  When we saw the first white garbage bag, we all screamed.  It was a joy to drive up and see all the bags on the front porch of houses. It was so awesome and humbling to see that so many wanted to help the homeless.  I also received some letters with the coats encouraging me.. It was so rewarding.
If others wanted to do a similar project, what advice/tips might you have for them?
   * I think an adult should help you.
   * I think you should read "Also Known as Harper" so you can get a glimpse of what homelessness is really like. You can feel for the people who are in that situation.
    * Before you send the letters, make sure you know where you will be sending the coats.  I think it helped that people knew about my desire to donate.
    * If you have siblings~ ask them to help if they can.  Many hands made light work.

I want to thank Emily and her parents so much for their time and for agreeing to this interview.  Emily has a forever place in my heart, and is a living example that nobody is too young to make a difference in the community.