Win a hardcover copy
of The LAST Day of Kindergarten!
To enter, leave a comment on this blog. Tell me something your child, your students, or you yourself learned during this kindergarten school year. It can be a few words or few paragraphs, whatever you like. (Be sure to check back to see what others have shared!)
On May 13 I will randomly pick an entry and email the winner to get mailing instructions.
Congrats to all graduating kindergartners and their people!
YOU DID IT! :)
In 2019 and 2020, I taught a few semesters of creative writing at Hennepin Technical College. The best part of the job was being witness to my students' growth. For some students, that growth went beyond a new understanding of elements like plot or description. They learned that the very process of writing can be transformative.
One student in particular discovered that writing can heal: "It helps you dig deeper within yourself," she told me. She continued to write after the class ended and has sent me some of her work from time to time. With her permission, I'm posting a couple of pieces here. They deal with sexual assault and its aftermath. Since April is both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Poetry Month, I thought this would be a good time to share her work.
Darling, You’re Not Alone
The definition of the word is unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person's will or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.
There is no word that defines what happens to the survivors when this word is finished.
How an agonizing pain tore my limbs apart piece by piece.
How I surveyed each piece of my body from head to toe.
How I wondered what made my attacker choose me, when did my words no longer matter.
How a world that was so full of bright colors became the same shade of gray.
My mind and spirit were shattered as if they were made out of glass. My solid foundation was nothing to this demon that was forced upon me.
My body gave up, stopped fighting the war within my mind. My body and I slipped away into a comatose state where I merely existed in the world. I was stuck in a crippling depression, stuck in time. I was standing still on the sidewalk on a busy day in the city, thinking I would rather die.
I would lie on my bed covered with several blankets to hide my body away. In my mind I was screaming, but my voice was a whisper lying that I was fine.
Bathing became a tortuous event that took all life and energy out of me. I couldn’t erase the unclean feeling. How does one clean something that is not dirty on the outside? I couldn’t stand to be touched, not even by my own hand. How could I be the mother I wanted to be if no one could touch me? My children’s bathtub toys all around the edge of the tub.
Somehow when I went to work I would shove it all away--my feelings of shame, disgust, fear, pain, numbness, anger, confusion, and loss. Others described my strength and courage as amazing, but some days I had no strength or courage at all. I crumpled against the floor where I would lie and cry. I’d let my fear consume me until I couldn't bear it and I would call out for help. The voices on the other end of the line would always greet me with compassion, empathy, and became my light in my darkest moments. It felt like those voices were right next to me, protecting me in my weakened state. Those voices walked me through the hardest parts of processing what had happened to me.
Healing from this word is not a straight line like a lot of people picture it. It’s rather a rollercoaster at night. Sometimes you see light and know what is to come. Other times it’s like you went backwards and you're in the dark again. In those dark moments, I could hear their voice replaying in my head. They encouraged me to keep going but assured me that it was okay to take a rest, too. Giving up, though, wasn’t an option, not if I wanted to get better.
Because of them, I found that my voice, too, had strength and power to help myself and others like me.
Do not lose hope, for those darker moments do get easier and they come less and less often. Things you felt you lost will come back. But you need to choose to heal.
I hope that you hear me when I say that you are not alone in the battle. If you need someone to be your light and voice on the other line, I pray that you reach out. Darling, you're not alone in the battle.
Your strength will shine even brighter than before.
I recently had the privilege of visiting with U.S. elementary students living in Europe. I offered them a couple of writing prompts (from my Weird Things collection, of course) and wow, did their imaginations take off! The students whose work is posted here went "above and beyond," according to their teachers. Enjoy!
The first group of students wrote in response to this snow globe.
by Linda Hayen
Before I approached Nancy about the Everybody Club book idea, I had found a couple of the original badges that Carissa made years ago. We used these as inspiration during the process of creating the book. As we worked on the book off and on from May 2013 until March 2020, more memories about Carissa’s club gradually came back to me. I knew there was more memorabilia somewhere; I just didn’t know where.
Then I moved. And I finally went through all of the boxes of Carissa’s things that had been sitting in the basement for 20 years. About halfway down a large box of school papers and projects, I found them: Carissa’s original documents for her club.
pin, motto, club colors, flag, membership card, and oath
club song, badges, and awards
Todd's attendance records
My first thought was that it was unfortunate I had not found these things earlier, but I quickly realized it was all good. In fact, it seemed like a sign from Carissa to keep going. And Nancy was happy and relieved that the book aligned so well with Carissa’s ideas.
We hope that the guidelines Carissa made for her own club so long ago will provide inspiration for lots of future Everybody Clubs!
Around the time The Everybody Club came out last spring, Linda moved to a new home. In the process of packing, she discovered a treasure trove of her daughter’s writings about the club that was the inspiration for our book. Here, directly from Carissa, is the Everybody Club’s motto:
I love that Carissa included the word “learn” in this motto. What a powerful word that is! It suggests growth, openness, positive change.
In the process of making The Everybody Club, Linda and I learned a lot. We learned that there can be many solutions to the same problem. We learned that sometimes we had to let things go. We learned that patience is essential. But the most important lesson we learned had to do with the book’s cover.
Almost as soon as the book came out, we realized we’d made a mistake. The white characters were much more prominent than the characters of color—which didn’t represent the theme of the book at all. The excitement of launching The Everybody Club was replaced with a heartsick feeling that stayed with me for weeks.
How could I have let this happen? (I say “I” and not “we” because I was the one with experience in children’s publishing. This was on me.) While there are no excuses, there are reasons, and I think it’s useful to fully explore those reasons in order to prevent such mistakes in the future.
First, the main image was pulled from an interior spread that included many characters. In its entirety, the image did show diversity, and I must have projected that idea onto the cover image.
I’m sure that decision fatigue also played a part. We went through so, so many revisions of The Everybody Club, feeling our way through the process—not only with creating the book itself but also with the byzantine maze of independent publishing.
But if I had done one simple thing, we could have avoided this situation. If I had made a conscious decision to see the cover through the eyes of our readers, all of our readers, I would have seen at a glance that the white faces formed an unbroken arc in the center of the cover, and that’s what the eye was drawn to.
I didn’t make that conscious decision, though. I took for granted that I could trust my instincts. In other words…white privilege.
White privilege says that a white person can assume that the world is a certain way, that this view is the norm, and that anything else can be measured against it. But, of course, this assumption is unfair, hurtful, and not rooted in reality. White privilege is a distorted lens. I knew that, and I should have consciously, intentionally, mindfully chosen a different lens. I didn’t.
Linda and I decided that it was necessary to replace the cover. We wanted to feel good about The Everybody Club, to have a clear conscience and to know in our hearts that we had put in our best effort. It hasn’t been easy. While Yana Zybina, the illustrator, readily agreed to make a new cover illustration, scheduling conflicts and illness caused many delays. Then we faced myriad challenges uploading the revised files to IngramSpark and KDP.
But we did it. Here, at long last, is our new cover.
Carissa got it right: Include Everyone, Learn, and You’ll Have Fun.
Once in a while, a project drops into your lap that is the perfect fit. That happened to me with Lilac Dreams, a book of poetry that was created as a memorial to its author, Sara Kovar.
Sara passed away unexpectedly this past February at the age of 70. She had written poetry most of her life. Although she’d shared some of her poems with friends and family, she had never seriously sought publication. Her husband, Pat, wanted to collect her work into a book and offer it as a gift to the people who had reached out to him after her death.
I didn’t know Pat and Sara, but they were friends of Linda Hayen, my co-author on The Everybody Club. Linda’s husband gave my name to Pat. After Pat and I talked on the phone, we decided to move forward. The timing was good for me (Covid having put a damper on other opportunities), but more than that, I was drawn to the idea itself. I found it touching that a grieving husband would want to honor his wife in this way.
During the process of selecting, organizing, lightly editing, and proofreading, I developed a relationship with her work. Certain phrases, images, cadences are now embedded in my mind—and they are every bit as useful and important as anything I’ve read in a college textbook or literary magazine. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to work so closely with Sara’s poems. Sara wrote poetry for more than 50 years, just for its own sake. And that’s enough.
With Pat’s permission, I am sharing some of the poems that I found especially meaningful.
The next poem, "We Will See Better Days, is as optimistic as "Nightmare" is bleak. It portrays a moment of hope inspired by a song. I think most of us have had that experience: a sudden surge of emotion brought on by hearing a particular song at a particular moment.
"I'll kiss the winters from your eyes..."
Lilac Dreams is divided into three parts, and each part opens with a collage of pictures relating to the poems that follow. Design-wise, this made the book a lot more complicated (so many decisions!), but we thought readers would appreciate this personal connection to Sara.
This one pulls back the curtain in a raw and powerful way. I wish I didn't relate to this poem so strongly, but I do.
I love the simple, vivid imagery in this poem.
I've reached an age at which it's all too easy to look back and see all the things I did wrong. This poem offers acceptance and peace.
Sara was a science fiction fan. (One of the poems in Lilac Dreams is a tribute to Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock on Star Trek.) As soon as I read this poem, I knew I wanted it to be the closing poem in the book. I don't know if she intended it to be about life after death or if she was sharing a pleasant daydream about traveling in space, but I love the sense of freedom and adventure and hope she conveys.
In "Summation," Sara wrote, "It is up to those we leave behind to provide meaning to our days." It has been a privilege to help Pat do just that.
This week I came across a short Mother’s Day piece I wrote 22 years ago,
when my kids were four and two. What I would give to relive this day!
The day was beautiful: blue skies, warm but breezy—a delight after nearly a week of cold, rainy weather. Bill hadn’t slept well the night before, so in the afternoon I took the kids out so he could nap. We went to the neighborhood park. Helena was unusually serene and content. Maybe sensing his opportunity, Louis was even more talkative than usual. When other kids approached, he introduced himself with lots of additional commentary:
I’m a big boy.
If a bad guy comes, I’ll punch him in the belly button.
Do you know, do you know I really love Godzilla. And I like the Rugrats too.
God’s got the whole world in his hands, right Mama?
“Do you always chatter so much?” one of the moms asked him.
Louis seems to think that the coincidence of being at a playground at the same time somehow forms a commitment between the participants. When it was time for us to leave, he said to the kids who just happened to be near him, “Well, bye, we’re coming right back, we’re going to the Dairy Queen and then we’re coming right back.” As if these other kids care. It almost breaks my heart, he can be so earnest.
Anyway, we did go to the Dairy Queen, then off to a different playground. Louis found a live worm and gently played with it. He wanted to take it home, but contented himself with giving it rides on the swing.
“I’m going to watch its antics,” he announced.
A father on a nearby bench smirked. Meanwhile Helena just swung happily.
Truthfully, I’ve never cared much for Mother’s Day. There’s something that rubs me the wrong way about being told whom to appreciate and when, and that I should expect appreciation myself. But on this day, I celebrated being a mother in my own way: blue skies, warm sand on bare toes, a little girl’s red hair blowing in the breeze, and a little boy digging a home for his new friend, the worm.
Years ago, after my elderly mother-in-law passed away and we were sorting her things, I came across this Christmas card. I couldn’t throw it away. I didn’t know who Joan was or how she knew my mother-in-law, but what I did know was that this woman had a story.
HOW ARE YOU? THIS IS LATE, SORRY. I HAVE HAD A LOT OF SICKNESS THIS LAST YEAR OR SO. I LIVE ALONE, SO IT'S HARD, BUT GOD KEEPS MY DAMAGED HEART BEATING. I WASN'T MYSELF UNTIL I LEFT BEN, NOW IT'S EASY TO KNOW WHO UNDERSTANDS WHAT LOVE IS.
This short note has affected me as much as anything I have ever read. I’ve often thought that I should write about it, gently tug meaning out of it and piece together my reflections. But I’ve decided that there’s not anything to add. Joan was writing straight from her heart in a way few of us ever manage to do.
This holiday season, may God keep all our damaged hearts beating, may we truly be ourselves, and may we find others who understand what love is.
But my silence isn’t acceptable, either. So for anyone who comes across my website or Facebook page, know this about me: I believe that Black Lives Matter. And to those who say “All Lives Matter,” let me gently suggest that you are missing the point. Please read this blog from parents.com—it offers some metaphors that are useful in understanding the issue. https://www.parents.com/kids/responsibility/racism/reasons-all-lives-matter-doesnt-work-in-terms-simple-enough-for-a-child/
One of my other fundamental beliefs is that stories matter. Stories allow us to make sense of the world, and always have. I want to share some books I’ve read in the last few years that have helped shape my own understanding of the challenges faced by people of color. These books weren’t part of any strategy or systematic approach—they are just books I happened to be drawn to at a particular moment. I highly recommend all of them.
This novel was first published under the title Push, but was reissued as Precious when the movie by that name came out in 2009. It is a harrowing account of an illiterate Black teenager in New York City who is abused in just about every way imaginable. The story is written in first person, stream-of-consciousness style. The book reads exactly like the narrator, Precious, would write it, with phonetic spellings and grammatical errors that improve somewhat as she slowly blossoms under the guidance of a gifted teacher. This is one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read—and also one of the most stirring. (The Kid is a sequel told from Precious’s son’s point of view.)
Born a Crime: Stories from
a South African Childhood
by Trevor Noah
Comedian Trevor Noah is way at the top of my most-admired-people list. I watch him on YouTube almost every day and was lucky enough to see him perform at Mystic Lake a couple of years ago. I depend on him to help me understand and tolerate these surreal times. Born a Crime is his memoir about growing up mixed-race in South Africa at the end of apartheid. I hesitated to read it at first because I’ve never particularly enjoyed books by comedians: what’s funny on stage often feels forced on the page, at least to me. But Born a Crime is exceptional. Noah is a natural storyteller and never lets his own facility with words get in the way of the truth.
A friend highly recommends the audio book, which Noah narrates himself. It might be just the thing to listen to on your summer walks or drives.
The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd
The Invention of Wings begins in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1803. A wealthy white girl, Sarah Grimke, is “given” a slave, ten-year-old Hetty, for her eleventh birthday. The story follows both of their lives for more than 30 years. The portrayal of Sarah and her sister, Angelina, is based on history (they were at the forefront of the abolition and women’s rights movements), while Hetty is fictional but every bit as believable.
I so appreciate well-written historical fiction. Facts and figures might not stay in my head for long, but I don't forget the way a book makes me feel.
The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
This critically acclaimed YA novel is particularly timely. Starr is a Black teenage girl who has her feet in two worlds: the poor community where her family lives and the affluent, mostly white suburb where she attends private school. When she witnesses the police shoot and kill her best friend from childhood, the schism between those two worlds challenges her like never before. The book was made into a movie in 2018.
The novel started out as a short story that Thomas wrote in college in response to the police shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009. I find that very moving—that a young writer would find her own voice as she expressed, in fiction, the voices of those who are too rarely heard.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Immortal Life got a lot of attention when it came out in 2010; it was made into a movie in 2017. It’s the true story of a Black woman whose cancer cells became an immortal cell line, used to this day by scientists around the world. It’s also about racism, discrimination, and the vast gap between medical ethics and the rapid advances of scientific technology. Skloot never sensationalizes, choosing at every turn to portray complexity and depth. The science is fascinating, the humanity humbling.
by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama is also on my most-admired list. Is there anything she can’t do? And yet she’s never arrogant or boastful, just honest and real. I loved getting the behind-the-scenes look at events I myself remember, such as Barack Obama’s nomination, election, and inauguration.
I should add that the documentary of Becoming, released in May, is just as good as the book. I recently watched it with my mom as a special treat on my birthday.
by Dalton Conley
This book may be less familiar than the others I’m discussing here, but even though it came out way back in 2001, I still think it deserves a large audience. Honky is Dalton Conley’s memoir about growing up white in a poor Black and and Puerto Rican neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s honest, insightful, funny, and revelatory. Conley is now a professor of sociology at Princeton; he’s written many other books and has a host of impressive academic designations.
Funny aside: I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten this book, but assumed it was from a Little Free Library or a library book sale. Just now I discovered a stamp that says “Perpich Center for Arts Education”—which is where my daughter went to high school. So evidently this is a school book she should have returned! Sorry, Perpich...
“The First Day”
by Edward Jones
"The First Day" is a short story I’ve used several times in a creative writing class I teach at Hennepin Technical College. I think it is one of the most exquisite stories I’ve ever read. The narrator is a young Black girl who is starting kindergarten. On that important day, she realizes for the first time that her mother can’t read.
“The First Day” is from the story collection Lost in the City, published in 1992. Lost in the City was a National Book Award finalist and also won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Here's a link of Jones reading the story.
I have been irritable much of the day. I don’t enjoy the work I’m doing, and there is nothing to look forward to. It’s Good Friday, but there will be no family dinner on Easter Sunday, no dyed eggs or coconut cookies topped with jellybeans to resemble bird nests. Instead we’ll be trying our luck at our first-ever family video call. We are still in the early days of the pandemic, still groping our way through this miserable low-hanging fog that never burns off.
Around five o’clock, I sleep my computer and head out for a walk, listening to the Cowboy Junkies on my phone. Almost exactly a year ago, I sat 15 feet away from the Cowboy Junkies at a show at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. I look back at that night with a sense of disbelief: people crowded together, drinking and laughing and eating, nodding and tapping their toes to live music, with no reason to give any of it a second thought. On this bleak day, it’s like remembering a jewel: a flash of sapphire, the glow of ruby.
I haven’t lived in this area of St. Paul very long and am still getting to know the neighborhoods. To the south is Summit Avenue, lined with well-tended Victorian mansions. To the east is the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a behemoth of faith risen from the hills. Today I head north. Older two- and three-story homes give way to ramblers. Later I will learn that this is the old Rondo neighborhood—a thriving black community that was torn apart in the 1960s when government officials decided to route I-94 right through the middle of it.
The music in my ears does little to improve my mood. There are few walkers and even fewer cars. The absence of activity takes on a heavy presence of its own.
I come to Carty Park, which covers an entire square block. The last time I was here, maybe two weeks ago, a half dozen teenagers were hanging out in the usual way—voices loud, no masks, no six-foot spaces between them. But the hard truths of the pandemic have been sinking in. Today the park is entirely empty, except for one man who is walking his dog. He angles by me, stepping off the path to avoid getting too close. He won’t even make eye contact. I feel rebuked, unclean.
The path curves toward the swings, and it occurs to me that I could sit there for a bit. I’m not tired, but for some reason the idea of sitting on a swing is appealing. I will sit and sway and check my email.
As soon as my hips settle into the black rubber U, I feel it—the urge to swing. Swaying won’t do. Forget email. I will swing.
After a few pumps of my legs, Margo Timmins’s voice pours into my head:
Sing me a song about life in America
Sing me a song of love
I smile at the aptness of the lyrics even as tears come to my eyes. A love of country wells through me unlike any I’ve ever experienced. What will become of us?
Sing me a song about life in your neighborhood
Sing me a song of love
I pump harder, higher. Before me are unbudded trees and silent houses. But I am swinging. I am a 55-year-old woman swinging in the middle of an empty park during a pandemic.
Tell me a tale about those who are dear
Sing me a song of joy
I’m swinging as high as I can go now. My ears are cold and I feel dizzy, queasy. But never mind.
I know what will become of us.
We will swing.
is a children's book author, editor, tutor, mom of two young adults and one feisty cat, and collector of weird things.
Letters for Kids
A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree