Category Archives: Literature

Miss Rumphius…anew

Yesterday, I learned about a loving husband who planted four and one-half miles’/ 400 acres’ worth of sunflowers in honor of his deceased wife, whose favorite flower the stately giant flowers had been.

Referring to his wife as the “Sunflower Lady” of the neighborhood, who brought happiness to those she met, the husband credited his wife as the inspiration for the planting of her favorite flowers. He cited how, before her death, she had suggested raising and selling sunflowers to generate money for cancer research and patient care, as a way of paying back the goodness she had received during her multi-year battle against multiple myeloma.

Before even reading the news story, just as soon as I read the headline (Husband Plants Four Mile Stretch of Sunflowers in Tribute to Wife Who Died of Cancer), I immediately thought of the “Lupine Lady,” author Barbara Cooney’s great-aunt, a.k.a. “Miss Rumphius,” who made three promises to her grandfather, including the pledge to make the world a more beautiful place.

Miss Rumphius did that by scattering lupine seeds, near and far, since the purple wildflowers were her favorite, and she wished to share her joy in beholding the flowers with everyone who lived in the neighborhood or visited the vicinity of her beloved house by the sea.

Although every day is a wonderful day to ponder the beautifully written and illustrated Miss Rumphius, as a librarian, I shared Ms. Cooney’s story in honor of Earth Day. Students liked that the main character was a librarian, mostly, I think, because they thought I took special delight in that work role connection with Miss Rumphius.

I liked that the students responded to the story with a multitude of ideas about how they, individually and collectively, could make the world a more beautiful place, including by simply smiling.

In terms of the sunflower planting in the news story, I like that the sunflowers stand tall, in silent testimony that death does not have the final word. Faith, hope, and love do.

If you would like to read the news story, here is the link: Sunflower Tribute

The more I reflect on both stories, the more I wonder if the “Sunflower Lady” knew the “Lupine Lady,” given that both women lived the charge to leave the world a more better place; both using flowers to make a loving statement.

Did the “Sunflower Lady” read Miss Rumphius when she was a child? As a mother, did she read Ms. Cooney’s inspirational story to her own children?

…I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer to any either or both questions were a resounding Yes!

What do you think?

Bethany Hamilton’s bio inspires

For the past few years, our elementary school has recognized not only Women’s History Month, but Individuals with Disabilities Month each March.

Among the many life stories about individuals with disabilities that student read, one of the titles within the Defining Moments: Overcoming Challenges series was hands-down the students’ favorite.

That title was Bethany Hamilton: Follow Your Dreams!

I suspect students related to that particular biography, in part due to their familiarity with Ms. Hamilton’s life story, from television and film.

But not only for that reason.

Knowing that Ms. Hamilton lost an arm in a shark attack, and yet still continues to surf, unembittered, captured their empathy, as much as their imagination.

Quite simply, they wanted to know more about her.

But not only about her.

Using the interplay of the series title, as well as the title of Ms. Hamilton’s individual biography, students reacted to the biographies of other inspirational individuals honored during the month of March.

“Defining moments,” “overcoming challenges,” and “follow[ing] your dreams” …

In the end, students concluded that everyone has one or more challenges to overcome, and that biographies like Bethany Hamilton’s give others the strength and confidence to face and overcome their own limitations and adversities, past, present, or future, in pursuit of their dreams.

Without a doubt, Ms. Hamilton’s life story–not despite the shark attack, but because of her response to it, made a deeply personal impression—one that will not soon be forgotten by her admiring young readers.

Anne Frank’s diary: sheltered writing; unsheltered evil

This past week, on August 4th, when I read that Anne Frank had been captured by the Nazi’s on that date in 1944, I recalled her diary entries, and that this beautiful, sensitive teenage writer dreamed of becoming a playwright.

Although everything about her death is nauseatingly tragic, including the fact that she did not live to realize her dream, it is heartwarming and ironic that death could not silence her pen—she became the published author she dreamed of—albeit not as a playwright.

Her writing, not in the form of a play, but as a series of diary entries that provide an autobiographical account of the drama of her last days when she was sheltered by a Dutch family, continues to be read today, in a multiplicity of formats and languages.

Her writings exposed–and continue to fight– the kind of evil that led to her capture and death because it humanized Nazi-victim statistics by enfleshing one of its victims with whom we can identify and empathize: an innocent teenager.

The fourth and fifth graders who have read her biographies, particularly the version: Who Was Anne Frank?, have been deeply touched by the story of her life, and receptive to learning more about the Holocaust.

Since the future is in our children’s hands, it is good that they be sensitized to the atrocities of the past in order to recognize and combat them going forward.

Anne Frank is a compelling author and biographical subject.

As a human race, we are fortunate that she wrote, that the Nazi’s did not confiscate her writings, and that her father permitted her writing to be published for our edification and humanization.

As long as her diary is read, Anne Frank continues to have a potent author’s voice, for which I am exceedingly grateful.

title giveaway

As a student of marketing, I learned that headlines need to entice–but not to mislead or to deceive.

In the world of literature, book titles act as instant headlines.

Consciously or unconsciously, I think, readers feel cheated out of their investment (whether time, energy, or money) when texts come up short compared with titles that promise or suggest more than–or—even worse— different from—what the text actually delivers.

Wearing both my marketing and teaching hats, I am a title-connoisseur of sorts.

I was thinking about book titles this week, following a Twitter trend inviting tweets in which one word in a book title was changed such that the revised title would give the plot away.

A devotee of mysteries, I personally, I “hate” when the title of any genre gives the plot away!

As an elementary library media specialist, during story time, I often “hid” a “too-revealing” title from younger students, unless the point of my previewing activity was to have students predict various story elements, including the resolution.

With fifth graders, there was one title I purposely called attention to before sharing its video version. That title was the one associated with a historical fiction Newbery honor book.

My Brother Sam Is Dead

Over the years, many tears were shed by fifth graders when Sam died. Tears that I would never want to deprive students—or myself—from shedding.

At the same time, when caught off-guard, some fifth graders were not emotionally equipped to protect themselves from the shock of seeing Sam’s death. They had not chosen to read the book; I had chosen to share the video version. I felt I owed them a chance to “be with” the title before watching it come to fruition.

…Enter me, before airing the video, referring to the title.

My Brother Sam Is Dead

“What do you think happens to Sam in this story?” I would ask.

Preparing students ahead of time, I hoped, removed the “shock” of San’s death, without depriving students of their heartfelt reaction—a reaction which led students to deeper debates and discussions about the decisions of conscience required by those who fought for or against our War for Independence.

My Brother Sam Is Dead

It’s all in the title. What’s your favorite? Are there any that give away the story’s resolution? How do you feel about such titles?

words worth memorizing

To follow up the last post which spoke of the literary interventions being undertaken in public schools to combat HIB, here’s an interesting, if not controversial challenge and thought.

While I’m not suggesting that we go back to McGuffey readers, there is something to be said about filling students’ heads with memorable, character-building messages to counterbalance the purposefully “dark and edgy” messages being fed to them by some “with-it” recreational children’s litter-ature today.

I can just imagine that pooh-pooh’s that this post will conjure. No matter.

While kids have always been “just kids” and generation gaps written about in Socratic times could have been written about today, if you have taught for a number of decades, I’m confident that you would agree that there is in schools today a growing blatant verbal disrespect for peers, as well as for authority, that exceeds past disrespects.

Although I’m not accusing the “tell-it-like-it-is” trash talk that characters spew forth, even in beginning series books, as being totally responsible, I am suggesting that what students fill their heads with often comes out–not unexpectedly– through their mouths.

Why not fill students’ heads with character-building thoughts?

For example…(although not necessarily in these exact 19C. words):

“Keep a watch on your words, my darling, for words are powerful things. They’re sweet like the bees’ sweet honey; like the bees they have terrible stings.”

When I was nine years old, many decades ago, my fourth grade teacher forced us to hand-copy and memorize those opening lines (as I now recall them), as well as the rest of the lines of a rather lengthy poem,  “Words of Beautiful Truth.”

(Making students memorize poems. Teachers did that then; they don’t now. For lots of educationally sound reasons, totally apart from character education and development, maybe they “should” now and again.)

If you want to read the entire poem, you can find it online (as I was amazed and delighted to do when I searched by its opening lines this week).

It is one of the selections that appears in the 1887 compiled volume of Little Poems for Little Children: Suitable for Memorizing for Recitation at School and at Homehttp://archive.org/stream/littlepoemsforli00camp/littlepoemsforli00camp_djvu.txt

Interestingly, in introducing the collection, the compiler, Valeria J. Campbell, offers persuasive thoughts to teachers about the benefits to their students of having them fill their minds with “choice things,” such as the selections in the compiled volume.

At the time that I was a “little” nine year old child, I had no idea of the lasting impact a “little” poem that I was forced to hand-copy and memorize by my fourth grade teacher would have on my character development.

True, the title I remembered (“Words of Beautiful Truth”) differs from the title of the poem as it appears in the 1887 internet compiled volume (“Keep a Watch on Your Words”).

Yet, as an adult who often hears both sets of those words echo in my mind and heart, I continue to surprise myself, not only that I remember the words–at least the first stanza–pretty much verbatim, but that the entire “gist” of the poem, which I joyfully read and remembered–is something I have “permanently” learned–if not always perfectly practiced.

Want to stop HIB?

Why not make memorable for students the idea that words can hurt and that they should refrain from using them to harass, intimidate, and bully?

Why not provide opportunities for students to memorize anti-HIB poems?

Can’t hurt. Worth it if even just one fewer child or adult is stung by mean words.

What do you think?

fairy tales, repurposed

Not just in the month of October, but especially then, given its designation as “Respect Month,” it was my joy and responsibility to share with students age-appropriate literature about fighting harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

Although the HIB concepts are sophisticated, using familiar fairy tales, like Cinderella, made it possible to engage four and five year olds in conversations about the topic, enabling them to identify HIB character-types such as bullies, targets, bystanders, and upstanders.

Especially gratifying was one kindergartener’s assessment of the HIB Cinderella character-types.

Her conclusion: An upstander (defender) and a target (victim/bullied person; e.g. Cinderella) could be the same. You don’t have to wait for someone else to stand up for you. You can stand up for yourself.

If only life were that simple with no fears, no threats, no constraints. But, why not strive for that reality?

In view of Malala’s recent birthday which (connected with the previous post), and her efforts to end violations and maltreatment (HIB, I would say), having stood up to her would-be assassins and detractors, Malala herself seems to fit–if not the glass slipper–then the victim/upstander bill!

Although fairy tales were not the only literary genre that I explored with students in connection with Respect Month, alluding to fairy tales as part of the discussion presented an opportunity to informally assess students’ prior knowledge of this genre, which provides so many literary allusions.

I, for one, was always grateful to parents and guardians who introduced their children to stories from this amazing genre, as well as to neighboring genres of folk tales and nursery rhymes.

Familiarity with such foundational genres, starting before they even enter school, sets students up for reading success–as well as for learning strategies for real-life anti-HIB success!

Was there a piece of literature that gave you the confidence to stand up for yourself or for someone else? I hope so! …Even (especially, now?), as adults, we need to be assertive in protecting ourselves and those for whom we are responsible and love.

Malala’s life story

One of my favorite genres for students’ book reports is biography, especially when the subject of the biography or autobiography is “someone of enduring significance,” to quote a fourth grade teacher, or “someone whose life is worth reading about/worth imitating” (to quote me).

I’m so pleased that biographies of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai are available for our children.

Malaya is one gutsy young woman advocate for the education of girls and boys around the world.

What an inspiration!

How challenging I have found it to be: trying to convince our students how blessed they are to be able to—no! ..to be required to—go to school. What a protection from the many child abuses, deprivations, and neglects that befall their school-age-mates, especially their female school-age-mates around the world is mandatory education for our children.

Of particular interest to me, as revealed in a news interview that was shared on her website, was Malala’s revelation about the impact that reading a particular biography has made on her life.

In this regard, would it surprise you to learn that one of the fewer-than-a-dozen books Malala counted herself privileged to read before the assassination attempt on her life was Martin Luther King’s biography?

According to her interview, Malala credits Dr. King’s biography with informing her peaceful, yet determined, activism on behalf of childhood education, particularly for girls.

Today, on this July 12th, when Malala celebrates her eighteenth birthday, an age when American girls who have enjoyed freedom to have formal schooling might still be reveling in their recent high school graduation and looking forward to starting college or a job training program, Malala’s life story is reminding the world that girls in other parts of the world have not been as fortunate.

But their misfortune doesn’t have to continue. If you believe in the humanizing power of books and education, you might see what Malala is doing to help them, and how you might help them, too: http://www.malala.org 

If you feel inspired, you might even support her very worthy literacy advocacy cause, including her challenge to governments to invest in books–not bullets!

Happy Birthday, Malala!

May the next chapters of your life’s story continue to challenge and to edify us all, as you work to bring opportunities for schooling into the daily lives of all the children of the world, especially into the lives of all the girls and young women.

Books and life. Thank you for showing us how they go together, Malala!