Darius Is Great— More than Okay!

I have just finished reading Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, and rather than launch into the next in my TBR pile,I made a book map. Truly—I couldn’t part with Darius; that’s how terrific this book is! With each location from the novel, I added a quote.I only wish My Maps allowed links to information about the sites marked. Maybe that will be an upgrade? Regardless this is a young adult novel that begs to be read. I loved it!


Home Is a Mug of Coffee

Brewing…that’s what I’ve been doing since I read this piece by Candace Rose Rardon.  When I was teaching, I’d periodically ask my students to go into something they’d written to look for other story “starts,” moments, ideas they’d included that could be lifted and brought into their own spotlight. Reading Rardon’s piece validated the worth of that for me.  Even though I am not the author—I only wish I could write and DRAW with her craft—I can find lots of moments in her writing that inspire me.  By the time she arrives at the theme: “Here—always evolving, never-the-same-place-twice here,” I’ve already jotted four other ideas of my own for personal essays, but I have to decide which one for now, and as I tell my students, the ideas aren’t going anywhere.  That’s why we pin them down with a pen; so we can return to take them out for a spin.

In Chapter Four, “South Indian Filter Coffee,” Rardon describes the day she asked her host in Duwali, a place that counters the Northern Indian tradition of all things tea, to teach her how to recreate “…the creamiest, sweetest, richest coffee I had tasted yet.”  During that rendered-with-love lesson, the host says, “‘You are noting every little thing,'” and Candace responds, “You don’t want to miss a single moment of what you are doing.  It’s like when you are living the retired life, you can look back and read and say, ‘Oh my God, I did so much.'”  At this point, I’m already imagining the writing directions I could follow, and this is one of them.  I am living “the retired life,” and have boxes of past notebooks and writing to look back on, but I haven’t gotten to them yet.  Why is that?  Because I am still writing forward, not reading backward.

Memories provide a rich source for writing and that, undoubtedly, too, were I to review what I’ve already written, I’d find I’d rewritten.  Someone has said that writers often rework the same story repeatedly, hoping for redemption.  True for me at least, the same themes would emerge.  A couple of years ago, my older sister sent me a small package with a note tucked inside:  Trish, I think if anyone in the family keeps this, it should be you!

The miniature dictionary confirms it.  This is who I was at nine, and I haven’t changed all that much.  Even then, my love of words anchored my life, defined me.  What keeps me hopeful is that in the “retired life” that spirit knows no bounds. As long as I am able to read and write, I will find stories to tell and to receive, and that will be my ever-evolving here, my life.


Candace Rose Rardon | Longreads | October 2018 | 12 minutes (3,184 words)

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Our Freedom to Read

banned books

This is Banned Books Week: Celebrate Our Freedom to Read.  See Shelf Life, my monthly YA vlog, for the Banned Books edition.

“I need to schedule a conference with you, ” the message in voicemail declares.  This is not an unfamiliar request although this particular mother has caused some of my colleagues some distress.  In our small public-but-feels-like-private school and community, names can’t help but trigger associations.  I am teaching her eldest daughter in my eighth grade class, and she is a wonderful child, a voracious reader, insightful and mature, and an exceptional student overall. In my room full of students, I have not worried about motivating her.  (She memorized and performed Sarah Kay’s poem “If I Should Have a Daughter” to a crowd of admiring parents and peers, just to prove my point.)

When her mother arrives for our conference, she is carrying a book from our classroom library and clutching three-by-five cards.  “I’ve come to talk about this book I found ______ reading,” she says.  “I don’t think it’s appropriate.”   She proceeds to read from her cards carefully quoted sentences with accompanying page numbers in support of her judgment. In each example, there is profanity, words many of us as parents would like to believe our children have never heard and certainly have never used.  I have been the mother of an eighth grader myself, however, and I’m certain that such beliefs are naive.

In Alan Gratz’s recent book for middle grade students, Ban This Book, concludes that what a child reads should ultimately be determined by parents.  I would like nothing better than to have my eighth grade students share what they are reading with their parents.  I respect this mother for her vigilance; after all, isn’t paying attention one of the greatest acts of devotion?  What I try to convey to this concerned mom after acknowledging the indisputable evidence of profanity is twofold:  first, I will be more careful, more sensitive when I recommend books to her daughter understanding her position, and second, that I will not remove the offensive novel—or any of the other numerous texts, both fiction and non-fiction—that sit on our library shelves.

I bear a responsibility to all my students and their parents.  It is an onerous one at times.  My opinions about book choice are mine alone, and yet I am placed in a precarious position of helping young people choose.  I take my role seriously.

In the wake of this conversation, a couple of things happen. First when I tell my administrator, she says we must send a letter apprising parents of the range of content on our shelves and asking for their guidance regarding their child.  In addition, when we are reading something as a whole class that might be problematic, she wants us to forewarn the parents.  After the letter has been sent, most parents say nothing, giving their tacit approval to whatever selections their child makes, but a few request careful oversight and a few are adamant in support of their child reading ANYTHING and EVERYTHING he or she desires.

Later that week during our Friday “week in review” class discussion, I mention a parent’s request a few days ago and ask my students what they think about being told what they can and cannot read, where they think my responsibility lies, what they think about their parents’ concern.  These are 14-year-olds, most of them, and they are at a difficult juncture.  Their parents and society are telling them, as one of the titles in our library says, they’re Too Old for This, Too Young for That.

As usual, these kids astound me.  They get it, why their parents are concerned, how they want to protect them from hurt or harm.  What they also say is that they aren’t reading the way that mom did, looking for profanity, counting how many times a character says the f-word; they’re reading story.  As I type these words, I still get chills.  One young man opines:  “You know, Ms. Emerson, I don’t think any of us is ever reading the same book because, well, we aren’t the same.”

Wisdom, that.  And isn’t the benefit of reading difficult texts shared understanding, an invitation to talk?  Someone else, an author, has given us an opportunity to think, to question, to grow—together.  I want each of us to be part of that grand conversation.

We used to conduct a yearly Read-with-Me-Tea with seventh grade students.  My colleague and I would determine a theme, say survival or the quest for identity, and the students would select a partner, high school age or older, with whom to share the text they’d chosen from an array of text choices—a lot like the “speed dating” done in some classrooms now.  After the pairs had completed them, everyone gathered for an informal “tea” when students and their partners discussed their books with others in the class who had done the same.  It was pretty awesome, I have to say.

I would often open the tea telling the group that when my son was in eighth grade, we went through a rough period.  It seemed like our conversations began and ended with what he needed to do, how he needed to be.  Fortunately we had the love of story in common, so even when our tempers were frayed, we could find comfort in book talk.  Sharon Creech and Robert Lipsyte, Walter Dean Myers and Melba Patillo Beals, I’ve always known, saved us from ourselves.

One year, as a young man and his father were departing, the father stopped and said, “You know, Trish, it was sort of shocking to realize that my kid was reading stuff like this (Amaryllis by Craig Crist-Evans), and then we had these great talks about it, about war and family trouble, and I got to learn what he was thinking and feeling.  It was…amazing.  So thanks.”

His words were delivered out of his son’s earshot.  His son had already gone ahead.

On Not Being a Reader…Yet

Blueberry picking: that’s what comes to mind when I read Pernille’s heartfelt plea that we honor each individual child’s timetable, that we put our rigidity aside.

Just last week, my husband and I drove to a nearby local farm to pick blueberries. A friend had urged me to give it a try—being a recent convert to this berry, something about the texture, I wasn’t immediately spurred to action—but on this blue-skied, sunny day, we set out. Arriving early, we had a grove of picking almost to ourselves. The young volunteer who led us to our row said, “Pick all the blue before you move on in that direction,” and she pointed down our row into an unending line of green bushes. So we begin, and there’s A LOT OF BLUE! When I’m directed to do “all” of anything, I take it to heart, so I’m gently lifting canopy branches to discover clusters of unseen blue, blue, blue. Then I realize that, despite these bushes having been planted at the same time, nurtured with the same attention, feasting on the same sun, soil, and air, all of the individual berries are not blue. There are some still deep red, some hard green nubs, some so ripe they’ve fallen to the ground ahead of pickers, all by themselves, just ready to get scooped up—or squashed if we’re not careful.

You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Why can’t we learn more from the lessons nature provides? The volunteer tells us that, at some point, a mechanized picker will roll down the rows and shake whatever lingers off the branches, but until then, the joy of hand gathering what’s ripened in time will continue in waves.

Isn’t is wonderful what nature allows, an ongoing unfolding to elicit wonder rather than concern, in the fullness of time?

Pernille Ripp

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She tells me she doesn’t want to go to first grade.  That she no longer wants to be a first grader.

This child who loves school.

This child who loves her teachers.

This child who has been beaming since the day she realized that after kindergarten came first grade, another year to learn, another year to grow.

And yet, here she is, declaring that for her school is no longer where she wants to be.  So I ask, what changed?  Why not?  And she gets a little quiet, sinks a little bit into my body, snuggles up as if the secret is hard to carry and tells me quietly, “I don’t know how to read…”

Because in her mind, all first graders know how to read.  Because in her mind all first graders know how to look at a book and automatically unlock all of its secrets just like that. …

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WRITE OUT: My Map Experiment

When I was thinking-on-paper about this map-making experiment in my journal, I wrote:  “Don’t let learning the tech eclipse the writing!”  I stand by that, no matter what, but for today, this is primarily a technology lesson, not a writing one, so forgive me.  I had so much fun!  I would definitely encourage students to play with this.  Once Tour Builder is out of beta, it will also be a terrific vehicle for creative expression.

Write Out: Place-Based Making

Where were you last Sunday?  Did you know that the National Writing Project initiated its “open summer online adventure, … [a] collaborative project…with multiple entryways for you to engage with historical and natural spaces….As with any open project, where your interest takes you is where you should go.”

The idea is to use open spaces to connect the very interior life a writer lives with the great space that exists all around us.  Granted, the idea is to explore nature and history, those designated environments spared the march of progress, of development, those areas set aside for preservation and to use these as inspiration.  And these spaces are worth our attention, however…

Emma Marris, a conservationist, talks about our definition of nature and asserts, “Nature is everywhere—we just need to learn to see it.”  She broadens the definition: “Nature is anywhere that life thrives.”  While acknowledging those “Edenic representations” that cause us to draw  reverential breath, citing Yellowstone, and the Great Barrier Reef among others, she makes the case that National Parks are carefully managed, concluding, “It takes a lot of work to make these places look untouched.”  She goes on to say that we humans “love these places a little too hard.

In addition, she argues that kids don’t want that “look-but-don’t-touch” experience.  While adults may happily hike along trails for five hours, a kid wants to “find a spot, hunker down, tinker with it, just work with it.”  So what are we doing to our children when we define nature as wild and untouched when humans have influenced every place on the planet?  Furthermore she points out that so many places of touted beauty are far away and too expensive to access easily.  This relegates appreciation to the elite—a definite problem.

She concludes saying that to guarantee that our children, and this means all of them, urban as well as rural, develop a sense of connection to and meaningful relationship with nature, “we cannot define nature as that which is untouched.  We have to let children touch nature—Because that which is untouched is unloved.”

Her ideas both humble and hearten.  When she argues that, if you want a wild space, all you have to do is stop mowing the lawn, she summons laughter from the audience.  When she cites the elevated train line in urban Philadelphia where a full-fledged wild meadow has established itself “floating above the city” and a vacant lot in Chattanooga where plant species and insect life abound, her point is clear.  Nature is everywhere if we choose to see it.  When we heard Marris talk on TED radio, my husband said, “Nature is like the sun; even if we can’t see it, that doesn’t mean it’s gone away.”

I am reminded of the poem by Marcie Hans:


by a million
wings of fire-
the rocket tore a tunnel
through the sky-
and everybody cheered.
only by a thought from God-
the seedling
urged its way
through thicknesses of black-
and as it pierced
the heavy ceiling of the soil-
and lauched itself
up into outer space –
–Marcie Hans
I am one of the lucky ones; the Pacific Ocean is my front yard and Oregon’s Yaquina Head bounds my view to the north.  I no longer have a young child to plunk down in the backyard with a trowel and time to explore, but that, I’m convinced, is at the heart of fostering stewardship.  My adult child creates oases of nature in New Orleans, spends weekends laying sod and visiting the lovely city park.  He pays attention and has developed what Marris calls “a meaningful relationship with the landscape.”
During the Write Out, I urge everyone to go outside.  Find any place where varieties of life thrive.  Touch and be touched—and maybe…write about it.

The Way of Experience


Readings converge, as they so often do.  I’ve just previewed a novel-in-verse Every Little Bad Idea, a debut by author Caitie McKay.  The poem above immediately sprang to mind and triggered a connection with an excellent analysis of neuroscience research in Sarah-Jane Blakemore’s fascinating and readable Inventing Ourselves The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

McKay uses the good-girl-chooses-bad-boy trope when she writes about high school junior Skyler Ann Wise, smart and focused on her future —that means college— who has thus far avoided the pitfalls of normal high school life: parties, excesses, dating.  “Skyler Wise/ the ultimate prize./ Untouchable in every way.”  Her life has been carefully designed to avoid history repeating itself; her mother had Skyler in high school, after following a  “little bad idea” of her own: “From the very start/ your dad/ was a very bad/ idea.”  This mistake and subsequent abandonment when Skyler was a little girl is at the heart of their life together, but real love joins them.

As the novel begins, Skyler, urged by her best friend Layla, succumbs and attends her first party.  There she meets Cole, and the magnetism of first love pulls them together and her well-orchestrated life apart.  This story unfolds predictably— the growing deceit between mother and daughter, the deepening bond between Skyler and Cole, the rift between friends, the criticism from valued others.  Miss Anders, Skyler’s English teacher, who sees Cole drop Skyler off from her apartment building across the street and says: “You’re just such/ a good kid./ And he’s just/ not./ I always thought/ Miss Anders was/ the cool teacher/…But now, I think/ it’s me and Cole/ against Miss Anders.”

What is unique and effective is Skyler’s work in the NICU at the hospital.  She wants to become a doctor and is given a position to support these most fragile newborns despite her youth. “My new job is to hold/ the babies/ who are too tiny and weak/ to take home.”  The trust and respect she’s earned, her relationship to these infants adds dimension to Skyler’s character.

In Inventing Ourselves, Blakemore discusses the differences between the parts of the brain that are activated in teens as compared with adults in highly charged emotional “hot” situations.  There is no “hotter” context than first love.  Skyler’s mother is operating on her stored experiences, on her history.  Many novels depend on this brain difference.  When in the throes of love, her mother’s admonitions means little to her daughter, just as it is highly unlikely that the poet’s reference in “The Romantic Age” (above) to Romeo and Juliet, “Remind her how that one turned out,” will yield any instant wisdom.  Though there are some heartening conclusions in Blakemore’s book regarding helping adolescents avoid risky behavior such as drinking, smoking, and unhealthy eating, she avoids the topic of love altogether.

Fortunately for young adults there are authors like Caitie McCay who are prepared to wrestle with the conflicts that love engenders.  Her verse and the first-person narrative enable her to do so in an engaging way for a teen audience.  Love will remain fodder for young adult authors, and in its demise, a saner and more experienced teen.  As McCay writes:

Mom Says It First

I’m sorry, baby girl,

I know I need to

let you fly.

I know I need to

keep an open mind.

I know I need to

let you make

your own mistakes.


I’m sorry, momma.

I know I need to

be more honest.

I know I need to

be more careful.

I know that I need

you now more than