Facing the Darkness

My son, who is in middle school and attends the school where I teach, recently participated in the school district’s UIL One Act Play competition.  Our school district has several middle schools, and students from all schools gathered on a Saturday in December to perform their plays.  One school performed a play that tackled the difficult historical subject of Nazi Germany and the Hitler Youth.  The student casts from all the schools did an amazing job, but the play about Hitler’s Youth and the extermination of not only Jews, but of Germans with disabilities, was one of the plays that won a place in the UIL competition.  Although my son was disappointed his school’s play did not win, he had a great time and he conceded that the students from this winning cast performed the play well.  Later, as I talked to some friends about the One Act Play competition, many expressed concern that middle school students were permitted to perform a play with such a controversial subject matter.  I listened as these adults declared that they thought the drama teacher should not have been allowed to choose that particular play, that they would not have allowed their own child to perform if that play was chosen for their school, and that the subject matter was too dark, too mature, and too depressing for children that age.  I have some other friends whose children were actually in the play in question, and as they posted proud pictures of their children on social media, they were met with comments from others that questioned the appropriateness of the play for middle school students, questioned the motivations of the drama teacher who directed the play, and even seemed to question the mothers’ parenting choices by allowing their kids to participate.  The main consensus from the parents I spoke with about the play, and the ones commenting about the play on social media, seemed to be that learning about the horrific events Hitler instigated and endorsed would destroy the innocence of these middle school students and ruin their view that the world is a happy and safe place.

I disagree.

Middle school students, although they are not yet legal adults, are part of our communities, our country, and our world.  Keeping these young people in the dark about what’s going on is not helpful, and in many cases is a moot point.  The thing is, they already know.  They have smart phones, they learn things in school, they watch the news, talk to their friends, eavesdrop on adults, or see it on social media.  So protecting and sheltering them from the ugliness of the world, whether current or historical, doesn’t do anything except make adults feel better.  The safest way for kids to learn about difficult topics is to read about them, talk about them, or even perform them. Literature is a safe way for students to confront these issues and to learn from the ways the characters or historical figures take action to promote change.

Speaking of promoting change, young people must be taught to recognize situations in which change is needed. If students are shielded from current or past injustices as an effort to maintain their perceived innocence, we also lose an opportunity to teach them to recognize injustices in their own world.   While reading literature that addresses issues surrounding justice and equality increases empathy in kids, it’s not enough.  Kids need to learn what to do with all that empathy they feel. Young people need to be more than just tender, considerate and tolerant. They need to be good citizens.  As parents and teachers it’s our duty to instruct children on how to be good citizens, and we can do that by allowing kids to learn in multiple ways – reading, discussing, debating, performing.  When kids read books, or perform plays, or discuss articles that deal with persecution, inequalities, or injustices that have been (or are being) done to certain groups of people, they are learning how being a good citizen can impact the lives of others and make lasting change that ensures the rights of our society are accessible to all.  They learn that with rights come responsibilities.  One responsibility we can inspire in our kids is to recognize inequalities and use their rights as citizens to seek justice.

Most adults, if asked, would probably say they want kids to grow up and be productive people who give back to their communities in some way.  Allowing them to learn about events and issues that happen as a result of our less desirable human motivations – fear, greed, hate – is a step toward molding these young people into the good citizens adults want them to become.  I want my students, and my own children, to know the truth about our world.  And the truth is, it’s a wondrous place that still needs a lot of work.  Dan Rather recently wrote, “It’s one thing to curse the darkness. It’s another thing to light a candle.”  We curse the darkness when we shelter kids from the events of our world.  Allowing and encouraging kids to learn, question, and discuss the issues that citizens in our country, in our world, and in our history have faced increases the likelihood that they will go out and make positive changes not only for themselves, but for all people.  These kids are going to grow up. Every effort should be made to inform them, prepare them, and empower them to be citizens who actively work to make the world a better place.

So, let them debate current issues.  Let them read the stories. Let them watch the news, discuss the articles, and make informed opinions.

Let them perform in the play.

Let them light their own candles, and watch as the darkness is eliminated, one flame at a time.

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A Veteran’s Day Book List

On a recent trip to my local warehouse grocery store, I had an experience that got me thinking about veterans and what they have sacrificed for our country.  I completed my shopping and was waiting in line to show my receipt on the way out the door when an elderly man, who was sitting alone at a table in the snack bar area of the store, could be heard shouting out a woman’s name as if he were in some distress.  I asked the employee as I handed her my receipt if the man was okay, or if he needed assistance, and she informed me that the staff had already checked on him and apparently his wife was shopping while he waited for her in the snack bar.

As the employee was telling me this, the man shouted out his wife’s name again, and he was rocking back and forth with what seemed like anxiousness, so I decided to check on him myself.  I approached the man and asked him if he was all right, or if he needed the store’s manager to find his wife, and he looked at me with some confusion in his eyes but replied that no, his wife was shopping and would be done soon.  It was clear from his body language, tone of voice, and general aura of confusion that he was experiencing some form of dementia. As I asked him again if he was sure he didn’t need anything, I noticed his ball cap, which indicated that he was a WWII Veteran.

As I reached out my hand for a handshake I told him that I could see he is a veteran, and I thanked him for his service.  His eyes cleared a bit, his face lit up in surprise and he smiled at me as he thanked me warmly for noticing, just before he resumed shouting for his shopping wife.  As I left the store that day, I thought about our older veterans and how many of them won’t be around much longer.  I sincerely hope that someone, somewhere, knows this man’s story.  Knowing the stories of our older veterans is so important, especially for today’s children, who have not lived to see the kinds of war our country has experienced in the past.

My own children do not have any older family members who have served in the military, at least no one that they live near and spend time with on a regular basis.  How can I show them the importance of appreciating the older veterans in our town, and in our country?  Their schools hold very nice assemblies for Veteran’s Day, but I needed more.  And what do I turn to when I need to teach children about life experiences neither they, nor I, have had?  Books! My librarian and teacher friends were glad to help with recommendations, and my own search at the public library turned up some great selections, so I’ve made a list below that includes picture books and middle grade books suitable for kids from early elementary to upper middle school age.  It’s difficult to narrow down the choices to books that only address the experiences of older veterans, since war affects so many, including civilians, so I’ve included some titles that showcase diverse experiences.  This list is by no means all inclusive – it is only meant as a starting point for anyone looking for books to help start the conversation with kids about veterans and war.

Picture Books

proud-as-a-peacock

Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion by Jane Barclay and Renne Benoit (illustrator)

Tundra Books, September 2009

grandad-bud

Granddad Bud: A Veterans Day Story by Sharon Ferry

Authorhouse, August 2010

the-wall

The Wall by Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler (illustrator)

Clarion Books, April 1990

in-flanders-fields

In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield and Janet Wilson (illustrator)

Doubleday Books for Young Readers, October 1996

veterans-heroes-in-our-neighborhood

Veterans: Heroes in Our Neighborhood by Valerie Pfundstein and Aaron Anderson (illustrator)

Pfun-omenal Stories LLC Second Edition, December 2013

tuskegee-airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen Story by Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly (illustrator)

Pelican Publishing, September 2002

Middle Grade Books

mares-war

Mare’s War by Tania S. Davis

Knopf Books for Young Readers, May 2009

striped-pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

David Fickling Books; First American Edition, September 2006

paper-wishes

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, January 2016

port-chicago-50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

Roaring Brook Press, January 2014

sachiko

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson

Carolrhoda Books, October 2016

the-war-that-saved-my-life

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Dial Books, January 2015

This Veteran’s Day, let’s all find a veteran, young or old, and thank them for their sacrifice.  If you know an older veteran, ask them to tell their story.  If you know a civilian who has been affected by war, ask them about their experiences.  They may not want to talk about it, and that’s okay, but they may also appreciate the opportunity to share. Passing this information, these stories, on to future generations is how we learn from history, and that’s important for people of all ages to remember.

A Gift of Stories by Emily Visness

Nerdy Book Club

As a special education inclusion teacher who co-teaches in middle school language arts and history classes, I work with students who face many challenges.  One challenge is getting them to see past the “work” of learning and see the fun in the stories that surround them through their learning in school.  A love for stories is something I’ve had my entire life, and I have my Gramma to thank for that.

My Gramma was an interesting woman who, when described to someone else, could almost seem like a fictional character herself.  The stories she told of her early life on a Canadian island were filled with adventure, mystery, and fun.  She made the characters of her relatives come alive in the sharing of her memories – her stories.  As a child, I heard these stories over and over and I now feel as if I really knew my ancestors, even…

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Something Wicked This Way Comes…

Feeling scared is fun for many people, including myself.  Even as a child, I loved the thrill of a spine-tingling story.  Growing up in New Mexico surrounded by Mexican American culture, I was exposed to tales of La Llorona and the Chupacabra, as well as all the usual chilling tales passed from one generation of children to the next.  My friends and I played Light As A Feather Stiff As A Board at slumber parties, and one time we all swore with our whole souls that we actually lifted our friend above our heads with each of us only using two fingers.  There were nine or ten of us, but still!  We KNEW it worked, which completely freaked us out.  Especially when our friend’s mom popped her face up to the window from outside wearing a werewolf mask – our screams could probably be heard three streets over.  When my best friend and I were about ten years old, I convinced her to watch the old Disney movie starring Bette Davis, The Watcher In The Woods, and to this day she still has not forgiven me.  She says I scarred her for life and that I am sick and twisted – and she is absolutely right.  I do love love love a scary story!

Movies, books, folk tales, legends – the scary ones are so much fun for kids.  The mystery of What If and the thrill of the unknown can spark a child’s imagination like nothing else.  I realize that some children cannot handle scary stories – heck, some adults can’t handle them – but there are opportunities to expose kids to scary stories in a safe way that allows them the thrill without guaranteeing they’ll be sleeping in your bed for the next several years.  With my own children, I started out with fun Halloween picture books and as they got older, we moved to small chapter books.  We watch the silly family Halloween movies every year, and my twelve-year-old recently watched the Netflix hit Stranger Things.  They’ve learned to enjoy spine-tingling stories in the safety of their home with me to guide the way, and so far they don’t seem to be permanently damaged!

For myself, I enjoy a horror story that has a slow build and a great plot with deep character development.  I’ve never been a fan of slasher movies with lots of icky violence because the plots are so poor in those stories. Formula-writing is definitely not a favorite of mine, which many authors of horror or paranormal fiction seem to use. In other words, I need it to be a great story, not just a scary story.

Whether you’re introducing kids to scary stories or reading them yourself, this time of year is the perfect backdrop for your scary reading life.  Here are some suggestions for all ages:

the-elementals

The Elementals by Michael McDowell

Valencourt Books, June 2014 (original publication 1981)

the-little-stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, May 2010

 

room-on-the-broom

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Puffin Books, August 2003

old-haunted-house

At The Old Haunted House by Helen Ketteman and Nate Wragg

Two Lions, August 2014

scary-stories

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell

Scholastic Inc., October 1989

nightbird

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Yearling, March 2016

Have fun reading, and leave the light on!  You never know what lurks in the dark…

 

The Magic of Middle-Grade

My family, like many families, enjoys watching movies together.  My kids are at that “sweet-spot” age where most family movies are enjoyable and appropriate for both of them – the oldest isn’t too old (or too cool) to have fun watching, and the youngest isn’t too young to be scared or not get the jokes.  Recently we watched a few movies together that are movies based on books and/or remakes of movies that were popular when I was their age, in addition to some cult classics that have yet to be remade.  Watching these movies, and feeling the nostalgia of my own childhood when remembering the original films or books, made me realize what it is I love so much about middle-grade fiction: the magic of possibility.

Kids in middle school still believe. They believe they’ll grow taller, run faster, be a famous sports star, or singer, or actor, or scientist – their world is full of possibility and nothing is out of the question. Although most would never admit to it, they are still hopeful that adults are wrong, and there really are superheroes, mythical creatures, ghosts, hidden treasure, and mysteries to be solved.  The possibility of those things being real was what I loved best about being a kid, and now it’s what I love best about middle grade fiction.  The movies from my childhood that have been remade for today’s children evoke that same sense of possibility, and there are many middle grade books that do the same.  Here are a few of my personal favorites, in all genres, that, to me, showcase the magic of possibility –

 

the-imaginary-2

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold and Emily Gravett

Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2015

the-one-and-only-ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

HarperCollins, 2012

the-screaming-staircase

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co.) by Jonathan Stroud

Disney-Hyperion, 2013

out-of-my-mind

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

doll-bones

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Doubleday Children’s, 2013

salt

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013

the-marvels

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2015

wolf-hollow

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016

These are just a few examples of excellent middle-grade fiction that show readers what can be possible – whether or not it’s factual or realistic isn’t the point.  After all, maybe there ARE invisible dragons who befriend children in the forest.  Maybe there ARE friendly giants who bring dreams to humans each night. Maybe there ARE geniuses hiding in plain sight.  Maybe there IS a hidden tunnel that leads to pirate treasure. Maybe there ARE ways to travel to other dimensions with the help of a telekinetic friend.  Maybe there really IS a school for witches and wizards, and the admissions letter is about to arrive.

Maybe the impossible is, well, possible. 

Banned Books, Again!

The second half of my banned books photo series was featured last week on Facebook and Instagram, but in case you missed it, here they are!

Day 4

not-old-enough-yet

Inappropriate? Sexually explicit? Unsuited to age group? Contains profanity? Unnecessary violence?

Yup. These are excellent Young Adult books that someday my son will be old enough to read. At twelve years old, however, it is my opinion that he’s not quite ready for the mature situations addressed in these books. That is my parental choice to make, but not a choice I’m allowed to make for other people’s children.


In a few years I’ll grant him the freedom to read all these shocking books – he’ll learn from and enjoy the amazing stories contained between their covers. For now, though, a little peek will have to do…

Day 5

racial-insensitivity

How can a book written by a black woman about one black girl’s hair and a historical novel depicting life in the oppressive 1800s South be considered racially insensitive?

Instead, readers could label these books honest, eye-opening, revealing, educational, relatable, or valuable. Readers don’t need a single narrative – they need many stories. Libraries, like public schools, must offer something for everyone, even if a book makes readers uncomfortable.


Often when we’re uncomfortable, we learn and grow. Or, we could just enjoy a really good book.

Day 6

religious-viewpoint

Banned for religious viewpoint? In other words, banned because these books have Muslim characters. However, the Holy Bible is on the top ten list this year of most challenged books, so maybe some people just don’t like any depiction of any religion.


It would be great if, instead, these books were read and appreciated for depicting brave female characters overcoming what is, to most Americans, unimaginable adversity. My kids will definitely learn from the powerful girls in these books!

Day 7

scary-stories

What was that noise?

Was it the rustling sound of someone sneaking up behind you? Or was it the sound of parents challenging a book because they deemed it too scary?

Happy October and last day of celebrating our freedom to read! Here’s hoping, over the next year, you read freely, bravely, and rebelliously (maybe not a real word, but whatever). There was that noise again…I’m not scared, YOU’RE scared…

Thanks for joining us in our celebration of Banned Books Week! 

Banned Books!

This week I’ll be sharing a photo series that celebrates banned or challenged books – check out Facebook or Instagram for daily updates, or check back here on my blog where I’ll be posting several days’ worth a couple of times this week.  

Day 1:

picture-book-photo

Happy Banned Books Week! This year’s BBW is celebrating books by and about diverse and marginalized people, so why not start with some picture books that are sure to broaden a child’s empathy and worldview in truly horrifying ways – such as celebrating a win in civil rights and accepting people for who they really are. It’s shocking, really.

Day 2:

 

globe-photo

ALL kids can learn an important lesson from a brave librarian in Afghanistan who happens to be Muslim – and that lesson is NOT teaching children to pray to Allah against their Christian parents’ wishes.

Maybe, just maybe, the lesson is that a person who is dedicated to something important, like the preservation of their culture’s literature, can find creative ways to work for a greater purpose. But hey, that couldn’t possibly be this book’s message…could it?

Day 3:

library-photo

Not all books are formally challenged or banned – some are victims of soft censorship. Dis-inviting authors from school visits and deciding not to order a book for a school or classroom library based on personal beliefs is a violation of children’s right to read freely.

Books with transgender characters or characters fighting addiction may be the mirror or window desperately needed by a child. How dare school district administrators or librarians act as gatekeepers and deny them that opportunity?