Ten Mile River

tenmileriver27733946For me, a good novel is peopled by characters so real you feel you know them. This was how it was with Ray and Jose, the teenagers at the center of Paul Griffin’s Ten Mile River. The boys, who met and bonded during a stint in juvenile detention, have cobbled together a life on the margins in New York City. They steal food, grills, and cars, but they also share scarce food with a passel of mutts, wrestle and make jokes about body smells, noises and haircuts. Ray meets Trini during a trip to the braid shop for his weekly haircut. Though smitten, he introduces Trini to Jose and watches helplessly as they get together. Trini’s aunt Yolie, the big-hearted proprietor of the braid shop, offers the boys the closest thing to hope and normalcy they’ve seen for a while. Despite Trini’s urging and Yolie’s offer of honest work, the boys can’t quite extricate themselves from their thieving associates.

The narrative power of this slim volume is strong. I didn’t want to put it down; I devoured it in two sittings.

theorangehouses_Luckily, I had Griffin’s the orange houses to pick up next. In it, I met the unforgettable Mik Sykes, Jimmi Sixes, and Fatima. I swallowed this one in a single sitting/lying down. Mik can’t hear well and likes to let the world fade into the background. Jimmi is a mentally ill vet and street poet. Fatima is a refuge from a failed African nation with a talent for folding paper. Griffin brings them together in a powerful story of friendship.

If I were teaching high school English or facilitating a book group with young adults, I would suggest these books. Griffin is a skilled writer who has spent enough time with adolescents in tough circumstances to pick up the lingo, to see through their tough outer shells, and to examine their deepest desires.

I am glad I met Griffin at the recent Mississippi Library Association conference. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his work.

Mississippi Library Association Conference

MLA 09-7990I spent two very nice days this week at the Mississippi Library Association annual conference. Rick Bragg spoke on Thursday morning. He read from his latest book, The Most They Ever Had, a memior of the people in the milltown Bragg grew up in. I started reading it during the next break in the conference and finished it after I got home Thursday night. I really enjoyed it. He has such a way with words, managing to paint a complete picture through six or eight vignettes. One story of two women who met a seemingly impossible challenge (picking down and back on a very long row of cotton in one day) for two extra dollars was particularly good. I recommend this to people who are studying memoir or the use of detail to round out characters  or who just want a good read.

MLA 09-8001Nancy Opalko, children’s librarian at Oxford Public Library, introduced a panel discussion on greatstoriesCLUB, an American Library Association program aimed at putting books into the hands of underserved teens. Librarians can apply to launch a program (the deadline is Nov. 2) in their own community. Besides reading books with teens, some librarians expand the program to include visiting authors.

MLA 09-7994An author who has worked with several greatstoriesCLUB sites is Paul Griffin, a New Yorker who writes books for teenagers. He launched a “story jam” during his talk with a few lines about a librarian who received a letter containing a $100,000 donation and the promise of $900,000 more if the librarian agreed to meet the donor that night. The story was passed from person to person — with many zany twists — until a lbrarian wrapped it up in a most satisfying way. Griffin uses this exercise with teens in juvenile detention facilities to get them comfortable with storytelling as a bridge to writing. I am looking forward to reading Paul’s two books, Ten Mile River and Orange Houses.

MLA 09-7993Ken Waldman, who bills himself as the Alaskan Fiddling Poet, gave a talk on using poetry with kids. He incorporates music and movement into his very engaging presentation. In addition to his work as a traveling minstrel, he offers books, CDs, and cards. His talk prompted  an interesting discussion on the relative merits of rhyming in poetry. Waldman prefers to write without overt rhyme and encourages kids to write without thinking of rhyme as a constraint.

MLA 09-7986This was my first MS Library Association conference and I hope to return in future years. At lunch one day, I had a real treat. I had made plans to meet my friend Jackson S., a young reader who struck up a correspondence with me last year. He has found about a half dozen wolfsnails near his Hattiesburg-area home since he read Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator. I was happy to get his (positive) reaction to Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. He and his mom took me to lunch and we had a fun time talking about reading, writing and publishing.

Mara Villa, youth services supervisor, CMRLS Pearl Public Library

Mara Villa, youth services supervisor, CMRLS Pearl Public Library

Judy Card, youth services coordinator, First Regional Library

Judy Card, youth services coordinator, First Regional Library

Lainie Castle, Public Programs Office, ALA

Lainie Castle, Public Programs Office, ALA

Compelling Civil Rights Story

Jeffries_BloodyI have long been captivated by stories of the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in a rural Mississippi county with a complicated history of oppression, racism, protest, mass movement, individual courage, profound change, and unmet expectations. My sister Emilye Crosby, a professor of history at Geneseo College in Geneseo, New York, wrote a book about this history, A Little Taste of Freedom. A few years ago, shortly after her book was published, I attended a conference in our hometown with Emilye and met Hasan Jeffries, a young academic working on a history of Lowndes County, Alabama. About a month ago, Emilye gave me a newly minted, newly signed copy of Hasan’s book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. I devoured it.

jeffries57This book tells a complicated story, but it is one well worth digging into. The African Americans of Lowndes County, with on-site support from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed an independent political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. One of the SNCC organizers was Stokely Carmichael and the party’s symbol was a black panther. The work that went into party formation, voter registration, candidate recruitment, voter education, and campaigning galvanized African Americans who had for years faced terrible violence at any press for equal treatment under the law or push for economic opportunity.

The education efforts around local government could serve as models for engaging civics lessons today. Unfortunately, the lesson — completely learned  — includes the limitations of representative democracy, the human flaws of elected officials, and the endurance of economic inequality. Dr. Jeffries has written an important book. It provides context for decisions about whether to work within the two-party structure or form an independent party, how class and social stature affect people’s willingness to form alliances and take risks, and for the much better known, but perhaps as poorly understood, Black Panther Party that Carmichael later led.

A few weeks ago, Dr. Jeffries and Emilye were both in Mississippi for an oral history workshop and the three of us had lunch together. He shared stories of his many research trips to Lowndes County, how each one led to more information, a different group of people, and a different take on the same events. He will be back in Mississippi in October at The Fannie Lou Hamer Institute at Jackson State University. A reading/signing will be held Wednesday, October 7, at Lemuria bookstore in Jackson.

Wonky Log Cabin and More New Quilt

s quilt outside cb2-3This is my first wonky log cabin block. I have admired these in other places, but I hadn’t quite figured out how to do it myself so my friend Julie and I scheduled a wonky block get-together and I managed. I like the way it turned out and I’ve started the next one. This could be my next project.

s quilt outside cb2-2In the meantime, I worked more on my other quilt and took some (hopefully) better photographs of it. I should have known better than to try to get a good picture in the house on the floor in bad light. This time I took it outside and used natural light. Like I said, I should have known better. This photo also gives you a better idea of the size of the quilt. It’s still little bitty.

s quilt outside cb2 with wonkyI haven’t decided whether this is one long panel of a quilt with some long solid panels, too, or whether this is just a fraction of what will be a quilt that is all bits and pieces like this. Do you have an opinion?

Maybe I’ll figure out how to combine the bits and pieces and the wonky square??

s quilt outside cb2-4My boys are into their second week of Campbell Boys Camp for Boys (or CB squared). Here are some shots of them.

I just finished Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (my second time; we selected it for book group) and D and I are in the middle of The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas. N just finished Unwind by Neal Shusterman. He liked it and requested more. I’ve put holds on several of his others. G just finished The Ancient by R.A. Salvatore. Soon it will be time for the official summer reading.

s quilt outside cb2

New Quilt

s not white quiltHere’s the beginning of my latest quilt project. I’m not sure what I’m doing, but I wanted it to be random and organic. I chose all shades of brown, black, and white. As I go, I’ll be adding some purple, gold, and blue. Some of the people in my life may understand the significance. We’ll see how this goes. It was so much fun to spend a few hours in the sewing room this week.

In the meantime, I have been doing lots of reading. Some is research: A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South by Adam Fairclough. Some is for fun: SUM: Forty Tales of the Afterlife by David Eagleman. Some is for the boys: Max Quigley, Technically Not a Bully by James Roy and The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas.

My Son’s Kindle

kindle-imageMy 14-year-old got a Kindle (Amazon’s ebook) for his birthday. His Dad and I gave him half the cost and he came up with the other half. He had been eyeing one and saving his money (the original goal for his savings was an X-box 360). I asked if he would write about his new reader on my blog. Here is our interview:

What made you want a kindle?
* I wouldn’t have to rely on you to take me to the bookstore.
* I would have instant access to the books I wanted. (See Above.)
* I would get access to more books than what the bookstore carries. (Very Lacking in SciFi and Fantasy.)
* Cheaper Books.

How has it been to use?

It’s been great. It reads like paper and disappears in my hands.

What kinds of books have you bought to read on your kindle?

Mostly SciFi and Fantasy, though that’s what I bought at the
bookstore too. (there are other subjects)

In what ways is it different from reading a book?

* It is lighter than a normal book.
* There are no page numbers, just percentage complete.
* You can read and turn pages with just one hand.
* You can access Wikipedia and a Dictionary easily for reference.
* You can eat and read at the same time.
* You can collect a bunch of books in one place
* You can search your books and find books easily.

In what ways is it similar to reading a book?

It reads like paper. There isn’t much else that a book does. It’s
like a book with extras.

Would you recommend it to friends?

How do you think the kindle could be used in middle school classrooms?
At least as reading material. I think if you give it a bigger screen it would definitely be good for textbooks.

Comprehension Strategies for Wolfsnail

texas-librarianTexas Librarian posted an interesting article on Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator on her blog. The article lists comprehension strategies readers might employ to read and understand my book. I must admit that when I first read it, I felt a little like I was coming into the middle of a conversation — and that the conversation was taking place in a specialized language. I asked my sister, the one who is a reading specialist in a Boston elementary school, about it. She said the article details common reading strategies.  She directed me to three books, Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann; Strategies That Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis; Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller. I plan to get a hold of these soon.

What we’re reading

It’s been a while since I wrote about what we’re reading around here. I am still reading The Iliad to D, my fifth grader. It is much more exciting to read than I expected — though it does get repetitive. I am finding it very easy to read, perhaps that’s because it was originally crafted for oral performance. I find the line widths flow very nicely. On his own, D sped through a favorite from my childhood, The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill. He is now working his way through Lloyd Alexander’s Pyrdain books. A few years ago I read them to the boys during a summer. D keeps asking advice on pronunciations; I was just making them up as I went along so I decided to look them up. Sure enough, I found a website with a pronunciation guide. I was off on quite a few; D says he might not adopt the “correct” pronunciations because once he has begun to use a pronunciation, he tends to keep it. Of course, he’s not reading aloud so it is interesting to me that pronunciation comes up. I find that when I am reading a book that has difficult names in it, I gloss over the them.

G, my eighth grader, asked for Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game so I requested it through the library. It finally came in and he closeted himself for several hours, devouring it. He begged for a trip to the bookstore after a recent visit to the doctor revealed a light case of pneumonia at the tail end of bronchitis. I felt for the kid so we trooped off to the local chain store for another of Card’s books. When I asked where he had come across Ender’s Game, he said Boing Boing. I think he got turned on to that after I bought him a copy of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

N, the seventh grader, is sticking with the Legend of Drizzt books. He carries them back and forth to school each day and often reads them at bedtime. Richard is working on a star wars novel. I read Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter for book group and have mostly been sticking to magazines lately. I found last month’s Scientific American (the one dedicated almost entirely to Darwin) fascinating. I also read through my friend’s old stack of New Yorker‘s.

What I’m Reading

I’m reading Home by Marilynne Robinson, the first of my three Christmas books. I’m finding it strange to be so much in the Boughton household because Gilead, Robinson’s other novel set in the same Iowa town, was centered in the Ames household. I loved Gilead. It was written as letters from an aging father to his son from a late-in-life marriage. I’m finding Home a little repetitive, but it explores interesting relationships. Read a review here.

I can’t wait to dive into the others, The Secret Scripture by Barry Sebastian and Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. I heard both of these authors talk about their work in podcasts (Writers & Company from Canadian Broadcasting Co.) while I was laid up in bed. The only Sebastian book my local library had in stock was A Long, Long Way. I found myself completely absorbed in the world of WWI. (Yes, I did make some suggestions to the men in my life about my preferences.) Listen to Sebastian here.
Listen to Ghosh here.

Added Note: I gave Toni Morrison’s On Mercy to several family members, including one who lives close enough to borrow it. Clever, huh?

Books, Books, and More Books

Holidays around our house are always occasions for exchanging books. This year was no exception. All of us got books and/or gift cards for bookstores. In addition to the new books, my sister and I went through the two large bookcases in which my parents have stored our books from childhood. My parents are trying mightily to pare down their collection so the new books that come into the house will fit on shelves.

My sister went through the shelves first and laid claim to a fair bunch — including some Nat Hentoff titles that she had read in high school. She had tried to find the titles recently and learned they were out of print. My eighth grader expressed a lukewarm interest so she’s left them for him to read first. Since she’s flying home, she probably won’t be taking her stash on this trip anyway.

My pile included The Maude Reed Tale, Amos Fortune Free Man, The Pushcart War, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Shakespeare for Children, a compliation of the country’s founding documents, a collection of Edward Lear’s nonsense, etc. I had a good time thinking back to reading of favorites like Her Majesty, Grace Jones, All of a Kind Family, the Little House books, the Lois Lenski books, the Virginia Hamilton books, the Mildred Taylor books, etc.

The image at the top and the ones below are of my current knitting project. It’s a log cabin style light blanket. I began it a few weeks after my surgery and it has helped me get through the long hours on my back. I love the colors and the feel of the yarn.