Reflections on Sandyhook

This blog is supposed to be about books I want to share with other people. I didn’t want a forum for what’s wrong in literature or the world. I don’t want a site of accusations and blame. But as a parent, as a past teacher of first graders, as a colleague of teachers, and as a human being, I can’t ignore the sorrow of Newtown.

As countless people have already said, Sandy Hook is every parents’ worst nightmare. We all ache for the overwhelming loss for the families and friends of the victims. We can share in carrying their grief, but cannot take it away. (Grief, even when all-encompassing, has helped me feel connected and reminded of love’s depth.)

As many people have already said, we need to remember the victims rather than allow sick minds to feel they have found an avenue for a distorted sort of fame.  In the cycle of the liturgical Christian church, tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 28 is the day to remember the Holy Innocents, who were slaughtered by Herod. We don’t know the names of those long-ago victims, but we can remember the names and lives of these innocents:

Charlotte, age 6; Daniel, 7; Olivia, 6; Josephine, 7; Ana, 6; Dylan, 6; Madeline, 6; Catherine, 6; Chase, 7; Jesse, 6; James, 6; Grace, 7; Emilie, 6; Jack, 6; Noah, 6; Caroline, 6; Jessica, 6; Avielle, 6; Benjamin, 6; Allison, 6; Rachel, 29, Dawn, 47; Anne Marie, 52; Lauren, 30; Mary, 56; and Victoria, 27.

My friend Ellen tells me that we will have more in our life of what we are thankful for. To those of you who knew any of the victims, I am so sorry for the suffering you are now experiencing. I am also grateful for the joy and love these children and adults brought to the lives of those that now mourn. Reading about the individuals shows shows some of the harmonies they add to the music of the spheres.

In a sermon the Sunday after the shooting, the Rev. Allison Thomas didn’t propose specific solutions to the problems of violence in our society—something we can put on a ballot is necessary, but perhaps doesn’t go deep enough. She asked us two questions.

How can I bring the peace of God to the world? How can I make unconditional love incarnate? Whether or not you frame these questions within a religious context, I think it’s important for us to engage these issues on a deep enough level to heal from the depth of the wound rather than find closure in a scab.

A Love-in-the-Mist seeding has popped up.

My short term solutions are to remember the victims; to everyday thank someone for what they’ve added to my life—especially trying to remember the people who are not often thanked; and to follow the example of those people who engage in random acts of kindness and beauty. And I’ve made buttons to wear when I’m out and about.

Talk to others. How can we help make the world we want for everyone’s children? I’d love to hear how you honor the innocents.

MAY YOUR NEW YEAR BE FILLED WITH COMFORT AND PEACE.

More Christmas Books for Children and a Blatant Ad

Our tree last week

Middle grade Christmas books: not so many. I did see some in early chapter book series—a Magic Treehouse episode, etc. But when asked about middle grade Christmas books, the bookstore clerk sent me to the table of adult Christmas fiction and suggested I might find something there. The Christmas Pony (by Melody Carlson and published in 2012 by Revell) has a title that would be appealing to a child. It has an eight-year-old protagonist/narrator. So far, so good. I bought it and enjoyed it. It has a sweet G-rated romance (the narrator is eight), but the book wouldn’t make the top of a kid’s must read list.

Back to the tried and true. If you have not read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (by Barbara Robinson and published by Camelot Printing in 1973), go get it. I just reread it and it more than holds up. The Herdmans are “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” They had a cat so mean, the mailman wouldn’t deliver. Sunday school is about the only place where the other kids have peace—until a child claims he gets all the dessert he wants at Sunday School. One thing leads to another, the Herdmans bully their way to all the good parts in the Christmas pageant. And the story that’s the same year after year takes on new meaning for the narrator. The reader’s funny bone is tickled until a twist at the end touches the heart.

Do not forget other tried and true stories that periodically are released with new art—A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry have endured through the years since they were first penned.

I started this blog hoping to get some people interested in my book The Pig and the Dragon and then I got so involved in the books I’m reading, I kind of forgot. And now it’s less than a week before Christmas, but here come the blatant ad of the title.


The Pig and the Dragon is a middle grade fantasy that is told with two points of view. A pig who adopts a dragon has to figure out how to teach what she doesn’t know. She goes on a dangerous quest to find out dragon secrets. The dragon, who struggles to fit in as a farm animal, must choose between life as he’s been taught and the unknown. I wrote it in the hope that children and parents would read it together (but it works individually too). One reader described it as being between Charlotte’s Web and Eragon. Go to The Pig and the Dragon page of this blog for a link to order. End of blatant ad. Thanks.

A Christmas Tree for Pyn, written and illustrated by Oliver Dunrea and published by Philomel in 2011. Although it’s a picture book, it’s geared for a bit more mature child. Pyn’s papa is “a bearlike mountain man who did not soften for anyone. Not even Pyn .” One of the things that always intrigues me is the significance of names, especially those names that are supposed to be a secret. The names in this story aren’t secret, but the change and the heart of the story are revealed in their use.

Red Sled, written and illustrated by Lita Judge and published by Atheneum in 2011, is not strictly a Christmas book, but what a neat find under the tree. The only words are sounds like the “Scrinch  schrunch” of footsteps on the snow. It’s a great book for a young child to “read” the illustrations. You’ll enjoy listening to the story. If I can part with my copy, it’s going to my new great-nephew. And, this is important, pay attention to the bear! In weeks to come, I’ll be pointing out ways bears show up in literature. See what you notice. This is a quiz! Leave a comment for your grade.

 

Have a blessed holiday.

Our tree this week

‘Twas Less Than a Fortnight Before Christmas . . .

A number of years ago, when I walked into my favorite children’s bookstore, I was greeted by one of the book lovers who worked there with, “This is the book this Christmas!” She showed me a copy of . . .

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, written by Susan Wojciechowski, Illustrated by P.J. Lynch, and published by Candlewick Press in 1995 or ’96. Jonathan Toomey, a skilled woodcarver, is called Mr. Gloomy by the village children, who have no idea about the great loss he has suffered. One day a widow and her seven-year-old son come to Jonathan to see ask him to carve a nativity set to replace one they have lost. It’s impossible for me to read this story without realizing a tear is rolling down a cheek. This is one of the books I have purchased in multiples to give away. If you haven’t read it and you’re looking for a non-Santa Christmas story that will touch your family’s hearts,  I don’t think you can go wrong with this book. The illustrations are also beautifully done.

Moving right along to the present Christmas (actually, Advent) season: When I walked into my favorite children’s bookstore this year, I asked if there was a Jonathan Toomey comparable book this year. The short answer is no, but there are apparently more Christmas books than ever.

At the neighborhood B&N, I counted eight Night Before Christmas picture book versions of Clement C. Moore’s famous poem, plus A Pirates’ Night Before Christmas, A Dinosaur’s Night Before Christmas, and . . .

The Soldiers’ Night Before Christmas, written by Trish Holland and Christine Ford, illustrated by John Manders and published by Golden Books in 2006. Sergeant McClaus is the St. Nick figure who calls out as he leaves, “Happy Christmas, Brave Soldiers! May  Peace Come to ALL!” The illustrations are a good, and fun, fit. If you have a loved one in the military, is a book for a family read together.

 

 

 

For a more historical, and musical, note look for Christmas in the Trenches, written by the folksinger, John McCutcheon, illustrated by Henri Sorensen, and published in 2006 by Peachtree Publishers. This picture book is based on the “unofficial Christmas Truce” in WWI. The number of soldiers who participated may have been as high as 100,000. This is another “miracle” book that will touch your heart. The copy I have also comes with a CD of John McCutcheon singing the song of the same name (that he wrote in 1984), his reading of the story, and “Silent Night.” You can also find photos and videos relating to the 1914 Christmas on youtube.

Chinaberry (Chinaberry.com) is a mostly catalog-based business that grew out a love of children’s books. They offer selected books and other family-friendly items as well. I’m lucky enough to live close to their outlet so have recently been there twice, and each time was given a copy of Christmas Farm, written by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Barry Root, and published by Harcourt in 2008. It’s a gentle story about Wilma, who wants to grow something besides petunias and sunflowers. She decides on Christmas trees and orders dozens of five-year-old seedings, which her five-year-old neighbor, Parker, helps plant. We follow them through ten years of Christmases. It’s a tender story. If you would like one of the copies, please e-mail me. I’d be happy to share Chinaberry’s generosity.

Just got our tree today.

Questions for next week—What color should a sled be? What’s your favorite middle grade or young adult Christmas book?

Peace on Earth

Have you ever placed a religious symbol or a political sign in a window? Did you ever experience a rock coming through that window in the dark of night?

At first I was just puzzled. What happened? Was there an earthquake? With the knowledge of what did happen, I was scared. If I looked out the window, would they shoot? Who would do something like that? Should we put our sign back up?

The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, written by Janice Cohn, D.S.W., illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, and published by Albert Whitman & Company in 1995. Although a picture book, this historically-based story is for all ages. Isaac has a menorah in his bedroom window. As part of a series of hate-motivated vandalism in an American town, someone throws a rock through Isaac’s window. Isaac wants his family to take down the signs of their Hanukkah celebrations so it won’t happen again. The family decides not to although Isaac still struggles with whether to return his menorah to his bedroom window.

Within the book’s story, we hear about Danish bravery during the Nazi occupation of WWII and about the Macabees in ancient Israel. The American town pulls together and counteracts the hate with support. Many, many homes of different faiths put up menorahs in their windows, some of which were also broken. As Isaac’s mother says, “. . . hate can make a lot of noise. Love and courage are usually quieter. But in the end, they’re the strongest.” The people of Billings, Montana were more enduring than the “haters and bullies” and an example of how good people can stand together in peace.

This is my grandmother’s chair that I’m planting with succulents.

 

 

 

 

The table came to me from one of my college teachers who had survived a Nazi concentration camp. I’m also planting it with succulents. The cups are from a Muslim friend. As other parts of this piece come together, I’ll keep you updated.

 

 

 

How about playing a new car trip game? How many “Coexist” bumper stickers can you find? (No socking anybody’s arm when you see one.) Can you identify all the symbols?

 

My local Barnes and Noble had more than enough picture books to read one for every night of Hanukkah. There were baby board books including one “Animotion” book with those moving pictures that are soooo much better than the ones when I was a kid. I still like ‘em.

I read two stories about the history of Hanukkah thinking I’d write about my favorite, but they each had their own tone and I thought they both would have their own audience. The Story of Hanukkah, written by David Adler, illustrated by Jill Weber and published in 2011 by Holiday House has a bit more settled feel. Macabee! The Story of Hanukkah, written by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by David Harrington, and published by Kar-Ben Publishing in 2010, is rhyming and rollicking with the repeated line, “Sometimes it only takes a few.” I think it would have strong boy appeal.

I don’t know why they wouldn’t line up in a straight row like I wanted. Sometimes I long for the days of scissors and paste.

 

If you are a fan of Jane Yolen, Mark Teaque, and/or dinosaurs, check out How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? (Scholastic, 2012).

 

Also Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, written by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, and published by Holiday House in 1989, is still on the bookstore shelf. It was a Caldecott Honor Book. Goblins terrorize a small village and are especially intent on destroying anything to do with Hanukkah. Only Hershel is brave enough to attempt to best the eight goblins by himself. If you haven’t seen this book, find it. There’s a reason it’s still with us 20-plus years later.

HAPPY HANUKKAH!