Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Turtle in Paradise, a 2011 Newbery Honor book by Jennifer Holm, takes readers to Key West, Florida in 1935.  Main character Turtle had lived with her mother, a housekeeper, until her mother got a job working for Mrs. Budnick, and Mrs. Budnick can’t abide by noise - and children are noisy.

So Turtle is sent to live in Key West with her Aunt Minerva, her mother’s sister, and her sons Beans, Kermit, and the perpetually pantsless Buddy.  Turtle arrives before the letter announcing her arrival, causing stress for Aunt Minnie and an education for Turtle, thanks to Aunt Minnie’s words about her sister.  “This is just like Sadiebelle.  She never thinks.  As if I don’t have enough already with three kids and a husband who’s never home.”

Turtle is introduced to the Diaper Gang - that’s Kermit, Beans, and his buddy Pork Chop - and eventually earns her way into the local crowd.  She tricks the ice cream man into a free cone (“The nickel was in the bottom of the can, mister.”), befriends Nana Philly (“She’s meaner than a scorpion!” Buddy says.), and finds a map that leads her and the whole gang on an adventure.

I’ve been to Key West a couple of times, and I enjoy everything that makes it unique, especially its history, so Turtle in Paradise already had a foot in the door of my good graces when I began reading.  But meeting Turtle and her family, getting to know life on the island during the depression, and seeing how even Turtles with extremely hard outer shells can eventually show their soft sides once in a while was what won me over in the end. Turtle in Paradise was wonderful - as warm as Key West at the end of March.

I enjoyed getting to know Turtle and her conch cousins, but the more I read, the more I pictured all the places mentioned in the book that are still there today.  I’ve been to Sloppy Joe’s, where Slow Poke’s former first mate got bit by a shark - a shark named Margaret.  I’ve walked Duval Street where crazy old Mr. Alvarez once ran naked.  I’ve been to the beach at the end of Duval Street where kids can make a cut-up for lunch.

But I hadn’t been to Curry Lane or Francis Street or Pepe’s, where a writer by the name of Papa used to hang out.  Which meant it was time for a literature-guided tour of Key West.  Here’s what I found:

Curry Lane, where the whole Curry clan lived. It's easy to see why Mr. Edgit and Turtle couldn't find it. I drove right past it twice.

This is one of the houses on Curry Lane.

Another house on Curry Lane.

Another house on Curry Lane. Just to be clear, the Diaper Gang traveled with a wagon, not a golf cart.

The corner of Curry Lane and Frances Street where Turtle tricked Jimmy the ice cream man into free ice cream with the old nickel-in-the-bottom-of-the-cup trick.

The Diaper Gang cools off on a small beach at the end of Duval Street.  At one end of  Duval - or close by anyway - is Mallory Square where we found something other than a small beach.

Although we didn't get here, there is a beach at the other end of Duval Street. (Picture from here.)

Pepe's has been a restaurant in Key West for a very long time. Now located on Caroline Street, it used to be on Duval Street and was frequented by Slow Poke and a writer who went by the nickname Papa.

Durty Harry's is the location of the original Sloppy Joe's, where Slow Poke's former first mate was bitten by a shark - a shark named Margaret.

The current Sloppy Joe's is just down the block from the original. It appears to have outgrown its original space.

And finally, here's what I'd imagine a Twenty-first Century Beans would look like if the Diaper Gang didn't have any babies. Or Kermit when we was told to get inside and take a nap. Or Buddy knowing he lost his pants again - except, of course, that this young lad has his pants. Thankfully.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Reading Recovery and Comprehensive Literacy K-8 Conference - Spring 2011

Thank you to everyone who came to my sessions in Little Rock! You were an encouraging bunch and engaged in the all the sessions. It was a great time and my pleasure to share books and reading ideas for your classrooms.

I'd love to hear from you. Please take a moment and send me an email or leave a comment with feedback about the sessions. What was good? What did you enjoy? What would you have liked more of? All your thoughts are welcome, and it helps me make the sessions better in the future.

Again, thanks everyone. Hopefully we'll see you again at the next conference!

Monday, March 14, 2011

What's Embarrassing Anyway?

New column in the local newspaper today. I was facing a looming deadline when struck with the idea of asking the kids for their help. Um, well, yeah. The column got done, but I made a curious discovery. Or at least I pondered something probably already known.

Anyways, continue reading below or check the newspaper or the newspaper's printable version.

This is a transcript of an actual, recently completed conversation:
Me: Kiddos? I have an article to write. Do you want to help me?
Daughter: Why?
Me: I need ideas.
Daughter: Snakes!
Me: Snakes?
Daughter: I don’t know. That’s what’s on TV right now.
Me: Wha...?
Daughter: Zac gets bit on the butt.
Me, after muting the offending television: Seriously! Quit looking at TV for a second why don’t you?
Son: Hey, I was watching that! What’re you doing?
Me: I’m talking to you.
Son: You are? About what?
Me: My newspaper column. Weren’t you listening?
Son: Um, TV?
Daughter: Texting. You could make a texting article.
Me: I don’t think I could get enough words with texting.
Daughter: Why? LOL. BRB. [giggles]
Me: I don’t think I know what all the things mean.
Daughter, incredulous: Laugh out loud? Be right back?
Me: Yeah, I know THOSE two, but...
Daughter: ASAP? C’mon, Daddio! [Seriously. She called me Daddio.]
Son: [no response]
At this point my writer’s block was becoming an entire neighborhood of emptiness, and I figured kids should be able to provide content for a parenting column. I decided it was time to pull out the big guns. Coercion.
Me: Eh-hem, here’s the deal. I have taken pictures of the floors in your bedrooms. I will describe them in great detail if you don’t help me write this article.
Daughter: What do you mean, describe them? You took a picture of our bedroom floors?
Me: I took two. 
Son: [no response]
Daughter: What are going to do with them?
Me: Describe them.
Daughter: Okay. [shrugs]
Me: Okay?
Daughter: Just not the underwear.
Me: All right. I won’t mention the underwear.
Son: [no response]
And that was it. My last, best grasp at getting help, voluntarily or involuntarily, had disappeared like yesterday’s homework under a pile of fingernail products, torn art projects, and laundry. But how can the threat of public embarrassment bring absolutely zero results?
This is a room meant for human occupancy, yet items pointy, slimy, and sticky threaten every bare-footed step. Personal effects purchased to provide the necessities of life - clothing, comfort, nourishment - and once neatly organized by loving hands, now lay discarded. Clothing, some torn and some stained and all dirty, is piled randomly. Stuffed animals, half-whiskered and half-clothed, are planted face down. Remnants of snacks past now permanently meld spoons to bowls.
And when I threaten to publicly portray the slovenly practices of my children, all I get is “Okay.”? Is a ruinous room not embarrassing? Is the disastrous not distressing?
I took a writing break after that last paragraph when, coincidentally, my wife exited the boy’s bedroom. “I swear stuff just multiplies in there. It wasn’t that long ago we cleaned under his bed the last time.” Upon looking in the boy’s room I found him lying on the floor, calmly assembling some new creation, surrounded by - and oblivious to - the mysteriously multiplying “stuff.”
That’s when I realized that messy bedrooms don’t embarrass kids any more than right turns embarrass drivers. It’s just part of being a kid. And it’s why kids' bedrooms have doors. Doors parents can keep closed.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

I’ve confessed this before, but I’ll say it again. I didn’t want to read One Crazy Summer. Maybe it was the mother who abandons her children. Maybe it was set in an era of history which never held much interest for me. Maybe I was just looking for another book with laughs or adventure.

But now that I’ve read the book, and the cover has more medals (four) than main characters (three), I’m ready to state the truth. I should have read it long before I felt obligated to do so by the 2011 Newbery committee.

Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are sisters who live in Brooklyn with their father and grandmother. One Crazy Summer opens with the five of them in John F. Kennedy airport, the three children preparing to fly to Oakland, California for a four-week stay with the mother who abandoned them when Delphine was four, Vonetta was barely walking, and Fern not yet taking a bottle. Seven years ago.

Their mother, Cecile, is there to pick them up when they arrive, but things are suspicious from the start. Not bothering to help with their bags, Cecile greets her daughters with “Come on,” turns, and begins walking, the gap between mother and daughters growing steadily. At the airport exit Cecile realizes the girls have fallen behind. He second sentence to her daughters? “Y’all have to move if you’re going to be with me.”

That first night at Cecile’s house includes directions to their bedroom, a demand to stay out of the kitchen, dinner from a Chinese take-out, and a visit from three strangers in black t-shirts and jackets with black berets over their Afros, speaking phrases like “Seize the time” and “For the people” and “The time is now” and words ending in tion, ism, and actic.

The next morning Cecile says, “If you girls want breakfast, go’n down to the People’s Center.” At the People’s Center Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern get not only breakfast, but a personal introduction to the Black Panthers. The sisters quickly become part of summer programs at the People’s Center. Yes, there is poster making, lessons about revolution and revolutionaries, and politics, but there’s also free meals and helping the community. The People’s Center provides the mothering that Cecile won’t - and Delphine can’t - provide.

While this story offers readers like me a look into the world of the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s, at it’s core One Crazy Summer is about Delphine and the conflict between her eagerness to mature and her need to be a child. The more I read, the more I liked all three sisters, and the more I longed for them to finally receive what they came all they way to Oakland to get.

And it’s this emotional investment that makes the conclusion (and Rita Williams-Garcia's entire book) extremely satisfying.