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.
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.
In her poetry, Sara explored topics that are relatable to many of us. She wrote about children growing up, parents aging and dying, seasons changing. She wrote about specific memories—a picture in her grandparents’ home, a stormy spring day in Illinois, hearing her own voice on a recording made years earlier. She wrote about self-doubt and self-worth, depression, anger over an abusive childhood. She even wrote a tribute to her beloved cowboy boots.
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.
"Summation" is the opening poem and Pat's personal favorite. It's the poem that inspired him to put together this book.
"Nightmare" is among the last poems Sara wrote. It captures what many of us have felt about our country in recent years. The wind has changed...
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.
My sincere thanks to Pat Kovar for trusting me with this project.
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.
It’s difficult for me to express my thoughts about the egregious racial injustices that are imbedded into our history, culture, and institutions. I don’t know where to start, and in this moment I would rather listen than try to make my own voice stand out.
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/
There are many, many ways we can show our support for the change that needs to happen in our country. Reading books by and about Black Americans—and truly allowing ourselves to learn, to be transformed—is one of those ways. It’s important work. Let’s get busy.
One of the best parts of writing for children is getting the opportunity to share my books—and my love of reading—with kids in person during school visits. That is definitely its own reward. But when I unexpectedly receive a large packet of thank you notes in the mail, it’s icing on the cake! That happened twice this winter. I find these notes touching, motivating, and sometimes amusing. Well worth saving and sharing!
This first batch is from the second graders at Saint Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, Texas. (My visit was on January 15, 2020.) I did a writing workshop with this group. We talked a little about our amazing brains and then did several idea-generating activities. One of those activities was what I call "UN-meditating," in which kids simply put their heads down, close their eyes, and follow the trail of their thoughts. Instead of trying not to think, they consciously pay attention to whatever pops into their minds. And they might just come up with an idea they want to write about! It's simple and surprisingly effective, even with young kids.
"I loved the un-meditating! My brain had a Zap when I thought of my idea!"
"My favorite was un-meditating. That's because I really like peace and quiet."
This one is from a young writer who already knows a thing or two about voice!
"Thank you for teaching us the un-meditating lesson it was very helpful because if I'm angry I think of all the good things that I like in my life. And the good part about it is that I don't have to be angry any more!!! So Exiting! (while screaming in a high pitch voice)."
She ends her letter with, "I want to thank you from my classroom to wherever you are with an air hug."
Sofia, wherever you are right now, I'm sending an air hug right back to you!
"I liked the un-meditating to because I thought of things I never really thought of before."
That emphasis on "really" is intriguing to me. In the space of a few minutes, this student went beneath the surface and into the zone of discovery. I would love to know what those thoughts were!
We did a similar activity involving pictures. The idea was not to describe the pictures but to see what ideas the pictures might spark. I handed out a variety of pictures from my own files, mostly photos of my weird figurines or cool things I've seen on walks. But "weird" and "cool" are in the eyes of the beholder, I guess!
"I really loved the workshop. The only thing I did not like was the pictures because mine was creepy."
Some students wrote about the assembly instead of the workshop. I had shared a story about discovering some of my books from childhood decades later and still remembering them. I showed them the actual books and we all marveled at how tiny they were.
"Thank you for teaching me that books can bring back memorys like when you showed us the tiny books. I thought that was cool."
Look at that neat handwriting, the compact layout. Of course this student would be drawn to my tiny books. :)
I suspect this student was also thinking about the assembly. I told them how my son used to stand in his crib and shake the rails, crying plaintively, "READ! READ!" And then I asked them to tell me to READ, READ, because I missed those days.
These cards are from students at Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington, Minnesota.
(I visited them on February 7, 2020.)
What I love about this one is the picture of the Cyclops—with a tie! I did read my Cyclops story (Cyclops Tells All: The Way EYE See It) to the older kids, but I don't think this student would have been in that group. So I'll bet this student was remembering what I said about the writing process. I showed the students a messy, handwritten page that was the first draft of the Cyclops story, and possibly I waved around the finished book for a bit to emphasize that those scribbles had turned into an actual book. So maybe that's what this child was thinking of! You just never know what will stick.
And then there are the letters that keep a person humble.
"Thank you for visiting our school. It was a great pleasure coming to our school even though your an author. I really enjoyed you telling us most of your books."
Even though [you're] an author...most of your books...this young writer is adept with qualifiers!
I am still puzzling over this one. It's the only card that wasn't handwritten. It's not signed. It doesn't say anything about my visit. It just...IS.
I'm keeping it on my fridge. Someone, somewhere, has wished me well, and I'm not about to take that for granted. :)
I recently finished two years of service with Reading Corps, working with preschoolers at family child care sites. A key part of the curriculum was the Repeated Read Aloud, in which the tutors (or providers, depending on the day) read the same book every day for a week, focusing on different aspects at each reading. Over the two years I served, I estimate I read 39 books roughly 18 times, to five different groups of kids. Those are some high-mileage books! Here are my favorites:
Lunch is simple but brilliant. A hungry mouse slips out of his hole and devours a crisp white turnip, tasty orange carrots, sour purple grapes, and so on. Then he takes a nap…until dinner! Denise Fleming’s mouse has enough manic energy to keep readers entertained to the end. And since there’s a page turn between the color and the fruit or vegetable, kids get to test their knowledge and predictive powers. At the end, there’s a slight but oh-so-satisfying variation in the text: the mouse eats juicy pink watermelon, “crunchy black seeds and all.” Weeks after we read the book, one of my students noticed a picture of a watermelon on a rug and piped up, ”Look, a watermelon! With crunchy black seeds and all.” (THEME: food)
This energetic book crackles like bacon in a frying pan. A family is making a Korean rice dish called bee-bim bop (“mixed-up rice”). From getting groceries to gathering at the table, every step is shared in fast-paced, spot-on rhyme. In the few minutes it takes to read the book out loud, you’ll work up an appetite! There’s a recipe in the back, and a couple of my child care providers had a fun time preparing it with their kids. That’s something I’d like to do, too. Hungry, very hungry for some bee-bim bop! (THEME: food)
Kids need thoughtful, reflective books, too, and Grandfather and I is a wonderful choice. It tells the story of a child taking a slow walk in the woods with his grandfather. Scenes from the child’s busier, louder life are interspersed with scenes of nature. The refrain is calming: Grandfather and I never hurry. We walk along, and walk along, and stop…and look…just as long as we like. A recurring squirrel adds a welcome bit of playfulness. One of my students had intellectual disabilities and was very attached to this book. For kids and adults alike, Grandfather and I reminds us of how good it feels to step away from our overstimulating lives and just...be. (THEME: family)
Building a House
written and illustrated by Byron Barton
We read three books by Byron Barton: Building a House, My Car, and Airport. The kids loved the name “Byron Barton” because it gave us the chance to sing our Alliteration Song. (Often when we were reading other books, I asked kids if they remembered the name of the author, and inevitably someone would say, “Byron Barton!”) This guy is a master at turning complicated subjects into simple, relatable sequences. The illustrations have little detail but are bold and bright. Some of the content is out of date by now and will require explanation, but don't let that be a deal breaker. These basic books are so effective because they give kids a powerful message: Yes, the world makes a certain kind of sense; and yes, they are capable of understanding it.
(THEMES: Building a House: Construction; My Car and Airport: Transportation)
This one has a lot going in different areas, but it totally works. We watch as Jack builds with blocks and imagines elaborate scenes around what he is building: a robot, a hot dog stand, a ferry boat, a lookout tower, the tallest building in the world, and finally a rocket ship. With every new creation, we get to add a number of blocks to the ones already there, so kids can practice counting and addition. The pictures are detailed and silly, with lots of fun things to point out. Some favorites from my kids: tiny Jack holding a hot dog on the ferry; a giant octopus about to attack a fisherman in a boat; and a man flapping feathered wings by the lookout tower. (THEME: Construction)
My Friend is Sad
Let’s Go for a Drive
written and illustrated by Mo Willems
Oh, Mo Willems. You just can’t go wrong with Mo Willems. In My Friend is Sad, Gerald is sad because he misses Piggy. But Piggy doesn’t know why Gerald is sad and tries to cheer him up, first by dressing as a cowboy, then a clown, and finally a robot. Each time, Gerald cheers up momentarily, then goes back to being sad. Why? Because he saw all those cool things and Piggy wasn’t there! The kids love Gerald’s over-the-top drama and Piggy’s imagination and sprightly persistence.
In Let’s Go for a Drive, Elephant and Piggy methodically gather all the things they’ll need for a drive—among them a map, sunglasses, umbrella, and suitcase—and then realize they are missing the critical item: a car. Gerald has a meltdown, of course, but Piggy’s solution is to use all the things they gathered for a game of Pirate.
If you can get another adult (or older child) to read with you, these books make great readers’ theater. In fact, later in the week, when the kids were familiar with the story, I’d divide the kids into a Gerald group and a Piggy group and we’d read the story together that way. It’s all great fun—but there’s more to it than fun, I think. There is such a range of emotion in these books, with lots of opportunities to talk about how characters are feeling and why. And for me, it was eye-opening to see how even my youngest students reveled in the fairly sophisticated humor. Kids understand so much more than we realize!
(THEMES: My Friend is Sad: Friends; Let's Go for a Drive: Transportation)
Another vivid, energetic winner by Denise Fleming (author/illustrator of Lunch). This one is a romp through a farm, showing animals and the places they hang out and celebrating animal sounds in a big way. Throughout the book, Goose is chasing a butterfly. Even though Goose is usually easy to spot, the kids loved pointing him out and seeing how close he could get to that butterfly. A couple of my younger kids got so excited they’d run to the book and practically shout, “There’s Goose!”. There’s lots of fun rhyme, too, and the chance to introduce some less common vocabulary words (grain bin, rafters, etc.). Once the kids are familiar with the book, an easy confidence-building activity is to say an animal sound and let the kids guess which animal is making it, or name the animal and have the kids say the sound. This is a noisy one! (THEME: Animals)
In this silly book, a giant squid is very taken with himself and the fact that he’s bigger than all the other sea creatures he comes across. Then a whale sneaks up on him—and next thing he knows, he’s in the belly of the whale, along with all the creatures who’ve had to put up with his bragging. The squid thinks about it for a bit and then, undaunted, declares himself to be the biggest thing in the whale! The book offers good exposure to sea animal vocabulary (although I do wish there had been a fun fact section at the end, to give a little more content). One of my younger kids was scared of the shark, and a few kids didn’t like the picture of the whale swimming away with the squid’s tentacles streaming out of its mouth. But I think their responses just made the other kids like the book more. Even children appreciate a little dark humor at times. (THEME: Animals)
Flower Garden was published in 1994, and it makes me happy to think that over the years, so many children have experienced this book. It is pure loveliness. A girl and her father surprise the mom on her birthday by planting a garden box and hanging it in their apartment window. The text rhymes gently and the illustrations convey a variety of interesting perspectives. One of our favorite pictures showed only the girl’s feet and legs as she went up the stairs, a cat looking up at her and a fallen geranium blossom on a step. (Several kids insisted this was a strawberry.) Another favorite was a scene with the girl looking out the window and seeing her mother on the street below, just turning the corner. At the end, the family looks out the window; the newly planted flowers are framed against the city skyline; chocolate ice cream melts on a plate. I could just about taste that ice cream. This is a book that glows. (THEME: Spring)
In mid-May I was a presenter at the Young Authors, Young Artists conference in Rochester, Minnesota. My workshop was called The Question Session: Q & A Your Way to Great Writing. Over the course of three days, I worked with close to 270 kids in grades 3 to 5. I thought I’d share the highlights—and a few lowlights—of what it was like.
The gist of the class: Questions are a simple, effective tool that can help us enrich our writing. To get the ball rolling, instead of introducing myself in the usual way, I had the kids ask me questions. I told them they could ask me anything, serious or silly. They didn’t go for the silly questions the way I expected, but they did seem to appreciate the go-ahead to ask personal questions.
We talked about how questions help us access different types of information in our brains. The kids picked a writing prompt question (or made up their own) and wrote a quick first draft. Then we took a short break, which was also question-themed, of course. Everyone stood up and I asked a bunch of yes-and-no questions. For a “yes” we jumped twice; for a “no” we touched our toes. My questions ran the gamut. I learned that: almost every kid had bought something at a garage sale; only a few had broken a bone; about half of them liked pickles; about a third currently had a crush on someone; most could use chopsticks; and the vast majority had a secret. I was happy with how well this exercise went—the kids seemed to enjoy it and were sorry when the game was over. And yet it was so simple. (Witness the power of questions!)
At the end the kids could share their work if they wanted to. Many of them read work based on the question If you had a bazillion dollars, what would you spend it on? Every single child who had chosen that prompt talked about using the money to help people. Every single one. But you could tell that the older kids, the 5th graders, were already worried about college. Several of them said that after giving money to charity and buying some cool stuff for themselves and their families, they would put money aside for their college educations. So yes, even with a bazillion dollars and no need to have a job at all, the kids believed they should go to college—and they knew it would cost a lot of money.
Another popular prompt was If you could have any animal in the whole world as a pet, what would it be? One girl approached me as the kids were starting their first drafts.
“Can I create my own animal?” she whispered. “Sure!” I said.
When it was time to write second drafts, she came up to me again. “I made up an animal. Can I write from the animal’s perspective?”
“Of course you can!” I told her. “What a great idea!” Her face brightened. I’m sure mine did too. This is the power of creative writing: You get to say YES.
But sometimes saying YES comes with a price. An older girl chose the prompt What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?. She talked about how hard it was that she hadn’t seen her dad in three years.
I really hope that girl keeps writing.
Three dogs and a bunny
All three of my providers had small white dogs: Harley, Scooby, and Coconut. When I first started visiting Harley’s house, he would often sit beside me—occasionally even on my lap—during morning meeting. But as we all got used to each other and to our routine, Harley stayed out of the circle. I like to think this was intentional: he showed the kids what to do and then stood back and let them do it by themselves.
Scooby was a barker. He barked not just at me, but at parents who were dropping off their kids. There was no such thing as a quiet entrance into the house. But he quickly got it out of his system, and when he stopped, the whole house seemed a tad quieter than it would have otherwise. Which, in a house full of preschoolers and toddlers, was not a bad thing.
Coconut didn’t come inside the house, but sometimes wandered up to me when I arrived. Seeing him was a treat. (Just saying “Hi Coconut!” made me think of Russell Stover Easter eggs…or Almond Joys…mmmm…..)
At Coconut’s house was another pet, an incredibly soft bunny named Yasha. Yasha had a big cage on the porch, but he also had free rein of the house and often decided to attend morning meeting. (A few of my vocabulary cards have the slightest trace of a nibble.) The kids were very sweet and gentle with him—and protective, too, informing me that I could only use two fingers when I petted him. I adored Yasha. There is still some gleeful, pet-loving child in me who even now grins at the thought of a real live bunny running around in the house. I mean, how cool is that?!
What is it? What is it? What is it, do you know?
I think I liked the What Is It Bag almost as much as the kids did. This was a red bag that we used as a transition. Every visit, we put something in the bag—usually an ordinary household item—that had some connection with the book we were reading that week. We’d sing the little song that went with the What Is It Bag and then very dramatically pull out the item. Depending on what was in there, sometimes the kids got to feel the bag and try to guess what it was.
Usually it wasn’t too difficult to find something for the bag, but once in a while a little more effort was required. I made a mad dash to Home Depot just before closing on a Sunday night to get wood scraps and paint samples to go with our construction unit. I ducked into LeeAnn Chin and bought some frozen yogurt, then helped myself to a few sets of chopsticks. (The chopsticks not only went with our book, but could be used to make all the letters that had straight lines! Neat!) If I wanted to include something edible—snap peas, asparagus, and “Dinky Dipper” cones come to mind—I’d plan my grocery trips around my What Is It Bag schedule.
My favorite things to share, though, were personal. The homemade wooden blocks my dad played with as a child. The tiny little baby outfit both of my children wore when we took them home from the hospital. My odd figurines: a happy hedgehog holding bananas, a pig peeking out from under a barrel, a whole lineup of funny bunnies. For the mail carrier theme, I brought in a box filled with old letters—a decision that came close to being a disaster. Some of the rubber bands that bundled the letters together were so old that they let go at the slightest touch. As the letters got mixed up, a card came to the surface that I hadn’t noticed earlier. It was a hot guy in a Speedo—something a college roommate had sent me as a joke when I was all of 20. Whoops!! I stashed that one deep into the pile as fast as I could. I was a little flustered the rest of the visit. That card was beneath the dignity of Miss Nancy.
Singing, chanting, and Alphabet Yoga
At every visit, we sang our souped-up version of the Alphabet Song. This song was an incredibly efficient tool. It taught kids letter names, letter sounds, words that started with each letter, and motions to get kids up and moving. As the year went on, we developed some variations. We went around in a circle or mixed up the order of the letters. On Fridays, as a special treat, one group begged to do the song “upside down.” They lay on the floor and I held the cards upside down. (The “rain” for R went up!) Another provider would stand behind the kids like a puppeteer and move their arms and hands to make the motions—which cracked everyone up.
After the Alphabet Song, we got into the habit of doing Alphabet Yoga, in which we used our arms and bodies as “magic pens” and made the strokes of a letter we’d talked about earlier in our meeting. A few of the girls really got into these imaginary letters:
“I made a pink and purple and rainbow S!”
“My T has a black bow tie!”
“My m is green with lots of sparkles!”
In one group, the lowercase letters were treated as "baby" letters—we used our fingers to draw letters on our palms, and we spoke in falsetto. Let me tell you, it's pretty amusing to hear young kids speak in falsetto.
Some of the transition songs were actually chants. (“Letters. Letters. Letters have names. What is the name of thi-i-s letter?”) I enjoyed those as well. There is something very satisfying about speaking in predictable rhythms. And clapping, too! I think we’d all be better off if, a few times every day, we’d take a break from all our super-important business to sing a little, chant a little, clap a little, stretch a little.
About halfway through the year, my coach recorded me singing the Alphabet Song with one of my groups. Normally I don't care to see recordings of myself; my tendency is to be very self-critical. But what struck me when I saw that video is this: I looked happy. I looked like I was having fun. Seeing that video marked a turning point for me. I began to trust that in spite of my own doubts and limitations, my best self was coming through.
No such thing as perfect
If I’m doing the math right, I visited each group of kids somewhere around 100 times. No two visits were the same. And while some visits went better than others, I quickly learned not to expect every single aspect of a visit to go well. There were just too many variables. Tired kids, excited kids, sick kids, fidgety kids, frustrated kids, sad kids, late kids…my own mood, energy, and organization…the content of the lessons…the weather…the presence of other adults...the day of the week…holidays and birthdays. I did my best to be prepared, to have a game plan going in, but I still ended up changing things on the fly—or realizing after the fact that I should have changed things on the fly. But what gave me heart is the immutable fact of those 100 visits. I showed up and did my best, day after day. So did the providers, and so did the kids. And every one of us learned a whole lot during the course of the year.
One of the greatest privileges of being a Reading Corps tutor was to observe, up close, each child’s growth. It was immensely gratifying to see their benchmarking scores go from red to yellow to green. But my favorite moments were the breakthroughs that happened during sign-in. After weeks or months of making unrecognizable scribbles on the white board, a child would make a real letter—and I was thrilled beyond all reason. You made an H! Look at that fantastic R! I couldn’t help but clap and cheer. It reminded me of when my own kids were little, and how exciting it was when they rolled over or took a few steps without holding onto anything. The milestones were normal and expected, but still, when it’s YOUR kid, you’re so proud you just about burst at the seams.
Much of the growth wasn’t as obvious, though. It was only when I stopped to reflect that I could see it. Younger kids who were hardly talking in the fall were saying the vocabulary words in May. Journal pages went from simple drawings to elaborate stories over the course of the year. This kind of growth is like the changing seasons. There’s not much difference between one day and the next, but there is always a steady, invisible pull that takes us to the next stage. You wake up one morning and it’s spring.
At our initial training last August, we tutors were asked what we were looking forward to the most. We all said, “getting to know the kids.” At the end of our service, if we’d been asked what we would miss the most, the answer for all of us would be, “the kids.”
Oh, the kids.
The girl who wore a bear costume during sign-in and called the two t’s in her name Iowa and Niowa (later changing them to Skyah and Chase).
The toddler who was a ringer for Mr. Clean.
The boy who shouted, with movie-star grace, “I love you! I love you!” from the yard as I got into my car at the end of my visit.
The smart-as-a-whip girl who rallied her peers like a plucky character in a Disney movie when it was time to say the vocab words as fast as they could. (“Come on, guys! We can beat her. Let’s do it!”)
The identical twin boys whose beautiful Russian accent turned ordinary words into soul-stirring poems.
The three-year-old boy who made a dashing late entrance in sunglasses and a Spiderman outfit, improbably managing to look both comical and suave.
The sweet, sweet girl who wore frilly skirts every single day and filled her journal pages with tiny circles.
The always-active boy who felt my arm during a tutoring session and announced, as if it were a good thing, “It’s squishy!”
The girl who wrote my name on the whiteboard…followed by an equals sign…followed by a heart.
The boy who always tapped at the window as I was leaving, so I would wave goodbye.
You understand, what I’ve written here just now is the barest of impressions. Altogether I worked with two dozen kids, and every one of them made their way into my heart. I had a unique vantage point: I wasn’t responsible for them in the way the providers were, and I wasn’t with them all day or every day. I had the luxury and the privilege of simply…noticing them. Witnessing them.
Shortly before my last week in Reading Corps, I talked to a high school classmate who is an administrator in a large ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education) program. I asked her if she had any tips for dealing with the emotions of saying goodbye to kids, knowing you may never see them again. She said no. “You want to be attached,” she said. “And if you’re attached, there’s no way around it.”
A part of me wants to keep writing, keep writing…to linger over this experience as long as I possibly can. It’s like when the kids wanted to keep our greeting song going. After we’d gone through all the names (including a whispered greeting for any babies sleeping in another room), we’d sing for the pets, for the provider, for any other adults who were around, and then at the end we’d finally wrap things up by singing, “Our friends are here today. Our friends are here today. Y-a-y, friends!”
So I think that’s how I will end this. I am picturing all of the wonderful people I’ve met this year—kids, providers, coaches, fellow tutors, parents, helpers—and I am lifting my arms up.
Today I want to a little evangelizing: a great big shout-out to the Letters for Kids program!
Letters for Kids is a very inexpensive subscription program that connects kids with writers. Twice a month, a child receives a physical letter written by a children’s book author. Kids can then write back to the author if they’d like. Usually the featured author also offers a signed book as a giveaway prize.
This is brilliant.
Writers get a chance to speak directly to their readers–not just about the “writing process” stuff but about anything the writer wants to share. Kids get a sense of who the writer is as a person and are given the opportunity to respond. They will see that the writer’s own experience of life isn’t all that different from their own. And they will learn that their own thoughts and ideas have value.
As an added bonus, they’ll know the thrill of getting an important letter in the mailbox, with their own name on it!
I recently took part in this program myself and am so glad that I did. I’d spent the previous months slogging through some difficult and decidedly un-inspiring writing assignments. But in this letter, I got to write about the walks I take with my dog, a beagle named Dorie. I got to share all sorts of pictures and spend some time thinking deeply about the things that mattered to me a lot more than the other work I was doing…things like super-long shadows and an odd shoe in the snow and a broken jar of pickles on the sidewalk. Writing was fun again.
Letters for Kids is managed by The Rumpus, a coalition of sorts for literature enthusiasts. (Note that the site itself is for grownups.) From The Rumpus website:
We know how easy it is to find pop culture on the Internet, so we’re here to give you something more challenging, to show you how beautiful things are when you step off the beaten path. The Rumpus is a place where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how, and to invite each of you, as readers, commenters or future contributors, to do the same.
The Rumpus also manages a program called Letters in the Mail, which is like Letters for Kids except it’s intended for adults. All sorts of well-established and intriguing writers have contributed: Padma Viswanathan, Rick Moody, Margaret Cho, Marie Calloway, and Stephen Elliott, to name a few.
But back to the actual kids. If there are children in your life who like books–or who don’t, yet, but could use a little nudge in that direction–consider subscribing to the Letters for Kids program. Consider giving a subscription as a gift to your child’s classroom. Consider donating a subscription to an underfunded school.
Imagine how all those letters, over time, could create a world of possibility in a child’s mind.
August 25, 2014–I was delighted to be a Blue Ribbon Author at the state fair this year! The Alphabet Forest was started by author and illustrator Debra Frasier in 2010. It’s a spot at the fair that offers games and crafts relating to letters, words, and books. You could say it’s Midway for the Mind! A Minnesota author is featured each day of the fair.
My activity was based on my book, Baby Wants Mama. Since Baby is about a family sitting down to dinner at the end of a busy day, we made place mats, using fruits and veggies to stamp cool patterns. The kids had fun and I think a lot of the parents did too. How often do adults get the chance to play with food?
Here are some awesome-looking place mats (and proud kids).
Note Amy’s feet/wheels in pale pink. I believe those were made with key limes. The wheels on the bike were made with apples, and the sky was made with broccoli. Nice work!
In the morning, Karen Henry Clark was my assistant. I wish we had gotten a picture of us together. Karen is the author of a lovely adoption fairy tale called Sweet Moon Baby; she was a Blue Ribbon Author at the state fair last year. Beth and Brenda were my afternoon assistants. They helped wash hands, pass out paper, and restock veggies.
By the end of my shift, the fruits and veggies weren’t smelling all that great. (I blame the cauliflower.) But I was so transfixed by the wonderful mix of colors that instead of tossing them in the trash, I brought them back home with me in my cooler and gave them another day in the sun.
(To the left you can see my beagle, Dorie, slinking away from the table. She’d just swiped a carrot.)
On my computer, the pictures looked so pretty as thumbnails that I took a screenshot to share with you. A feast for the eyes.
And how about a blue ribbon for this celery rose!
is a children's book author, editor, tutor, mom of two adult children and one feisty cat, and collector of weird things.
My Reading Corps Service
Letters for Kids
A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree