Shootings, Riots, and Stolen Scoops of Corn

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I was eating lunch with relatives and the drift of the conversation was that charges of racism in this country are overblown.

Our own family history says otherwise.

Earlier in the week I had been reading some of my dad’s recollections about visiting his grandpa in Ozan, Arkansas in the 1930’s. Dad was a teenager at the time.

Great-grandma asked Dad to take two bags of corn to the miller. One sack would be ground fine as cornmeal and the other would be ground as cracked corn for the chickens.

I’ll let Dad tell what happened next: “I got in line with my sacks. The miller had a huge barrel next to his grinders, and he would dip his scoop into each customer’s sacks, dumping his share in the barrel. Some white farmers came up and he just took a little corn, but if the customer was black, it was amazing how much that scoop could hold.”

Of course, I’d heard and read stories of racism before. But Dad’s memory of African Americans being cheated at the miller’s was a fresh slap. It was the pettiness that really got to me. Dad’s story showed me that, in every way possible, white Americans had a systemic pattern of stealing from African Americans.

The true purpose of racism is to advance economically at the expense of someone else.

What worries me is the children who went hungry because of “how much that scoop could hold.” Imagine dinnertime in Ozan all those years ago. Parents always eat less so their kids won’t go hungry. But there would always be the day, or days, when that missing corn meant that children would go hungry. (If you don’t know the devastating effect hunger has on children’s educational, physical, and moral well-being, check out this article by Feeding America.)

Generation after generation of “scoops” have been stolen off the tables of African American families. And any time African Americans try to get a fair deal, there is a backlash.

In 1920, Tulsa, Oklahoma, had one of the most wealthy and successful African American communities in the country. My Dad, growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the 1930’s never heard about 1921 Tulsa’s ‘race riot.’ (For some reason, Tulsans thought that if you didn’t put it in a book, no one would ever find out.) Let’s call the 1921 ‘race riot’ for what it was, the indiscriminate murder of 300 African Americans and the burning of 35 blocks of businesses and homes. Whites taking their ‘scoop.’

Backlash isn’t ancient history. You can see it clearly today. Everything from questioning Barrack Obama’s citizenship, to black men and women pulled over for ‘driving while black,’ to black men and boys being shot by vigilantes and police officers.

Racism is an insidious part of our American belief system. Not only for white Americans like my family who have slave-holding ancestors, but people who come to this country and adopt its customs without taking a closer look at our ingrained prejudices.

It would be nice if my great-grandparents, God-fearing Christians, had tried to stop the large and small thefts against African Americans being committed in their community.

They didn’t.

Like most people who go along with graft, they fell into the trap of believing that they were entitled to special treatment. To more cornmeal, to the best parts of a slaughtered pig, to the better acres for farming. That somehow it was okay that the cornbread on their dinner table was subsidized by hard-working African Americans.

The protests we have seen on the street and yes, even in the football stadium, are showing us the justified anger of African Americans.

And those protests are not enough. The next step should come from the rest of us. It’s time to pay back all of those families robbed in so many ways during the 200+ year history of this country. Scoop by scoop we need to make this right.

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

It happened a few years after 9/11. Highlights, the children’s magazine, was having their annual writing contest. The theme was: “Write a children’s story set in the future.”

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The reason I write for children, the reason I read children’s books, is that children’s stories are stories of hope.  A children’s primer that I have from the mid-1800’s, which shows a couple grieving over an empty bassinet, says something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith have lost their child. They are grieving, but perhaps God will give them another child.”

Grim, I know. But even during an era when the purpose of a children’s book was to prepare children for a hard and unpredictable life, there was always a drop of hope.

I wasn’t thinking grim thoughts years ago when I learned about the Highlights contest. I plopped down in front of my computer, excited to travel to distant worlds or explore some facet of scientific discovery.

I sat.

And sat.

And sat.

I, who grew up with Star Trek and all of the subsequent science fiction stories. I, who still read science fiction and thrill at new concepts, couldn’t think of one story set in our future that ended well, or at least had the hope of filling the bassinet again.

It occurred to me, sitting in front of an empty screen, that we will never see or know peace if we can’t keep an image of peace in our minds.

So every September 11th I try to fill the bassinet with hope. I draft a story about a peaceful world set in the future.

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Not all butterflies and kittens, but a story that brings me a little closer to understanding who we are. I write stories about how we, humans of all faiths and backgrounds, can, hope by hope, drop by drop, build a better world.

Join me. Write about a peaceful world on September 11th.

Here’s what you do. Sometime during the day or evening set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit down and write about a world without war. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news?

You don’t need to be a “writer” to join me. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can join the Facebook event.

 

Hunger is…

This week I’m giving over my blog to some talented writers.

The students at McDonald Elementary School in Seattle has been studying hunger. Here are similes and metaphors from Ms. Roughton’s 3rd graders.

“Hunger is like walking through a desert with no end.” – S.

“Hunger is like a river with no water.” – anonymous

“Hunger is like a stray cat sitting on the streets having no food to eat except litter.” – M.

“Hunger is like when you take off on a plane when you are sick.” – W.

“Hunger is like the rain falling down on a fire.” – W.

“Hunger is like an empty table at dinnertime.” – S.

“Hunger is like a sickness with no end and no medicine.” – G.

“Hunger is like a dinosaur roaring in your stomach.” – O.

“Hunger is like a fruit tree you can’t climb.” – J.

“Hunger is like a fire without a flame.” – E.

“Hunger is an apple out of reach.” – E.

“Hunger is like a hamster that has no home in winter.” – S.

“Hunger is like a hiding place that does not hide you.” – L.

“Hunger is like a school without a cafeteria.” – B.

“Hunger is like a puppy at a puppy mill.” – G.

“Hunger is fear following you around.” — M.

“Hunger is your empty plate you have every day.” – M.

The Toilet Paper Superhero

You can sit down to a writing prompt and go to all sorts of fun and weird places. Recently, a friend sent me this prompt: “Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

My first thought was ugh, now I have to get all personal and deep. But then I remembered the toilet paper.

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My dad always bought in bulk for his newspaper office, and one day this massive package of toilet paper arrived. This was long before Costco and bulk buying for the average citizen. All of that toilet paper in the back corner of my dad’s office was as good as a circus side-show to me and my friends. (I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade.) No one in my small town had ever seen so much toilet paper in one place outside of the Vasey Brothers grocery store.

Looking back, it’s possible my dad had misordered for his small company.

But for me, it was a sign from Jesus. I went to church with my family every Sunday. I knew that if something extraordinary appeared in your life, that meant that God had a hand in it. Not just God, but Jesus, who actually came down to earth and dealt with people.
So I started thinking about why Jesus could possibly have brought all of that toilet paper into my life.

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At the time I was a huge fan of the Superman real life adventure series. The one where a broad-shouldered man in a cape jumped off tall buildings and flew through the air. (One of the worst disappointments in my young life was that our small town didn’t have a phone booth.)

My best friends at the time were Cathy and Christy M., identical twins who loved fooling people by trading places. One of my claims to fame was that I could always tell them apart. We spent every day after school together, either at their house or at my dad’s workplace.

I decided that all three of us would become superheroes. We would jump off the top of buildings, just like Superman, and fly around and save people. Working for Jesus was somehow muddled into the plan, although the details were sketchy.

The first thing we needed to do was open the gigantic package of toilet paper and spread the rolls on the ground below the roof of my dad’s building, just in case we needed a couple of tries at flying.

Maybe at the back of my mind there was a worry that I didn’t have the kind of superpowers that enabled me to fly. Maybe not. I’d been recently experimenting by jumping off the couch onto pillows. Every fifth time or so it did feel like I was getting extra lift, maybe from Jesus, before I crash-landed.

I was sure that all of that toilet paper was a sign that I would finally get to fly. All I needed to do was convince the M. twins to jump off the roof with me.

“That just won’t work.” Christy was always the spokesman when they disagreed with one of my plans. Cathy wasn’t quite as eloquent.

“But we have to try,” I said. “For Jesus.”

“We’re not jumping off the roof.” Christy crossed her arms and got a hard look in her eyes. She wasn’t budging.

This was the beginning of the end. About a year later I was no longer best friends with the M. twins. They decided to find a best friend or friends who were a little bit more grounded in reality.

I remember exactly where I was was standing, next to that wall of toilet paper of course, when Christy turned me down. And I remember the shock of discovering that three kids who believed in Jesus could have such differing opinions on how to proceed.

So maybe my brief almost-stint as a toilet paper superhero was a bit personal and deep after all.

Your turn. Where will this prompt take you?

“Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

Two Americans

I’ve been on the road doing a lot of school visits. Here are two Americans that I met:

American #1

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I met a young girl who comes to school every day for breakfast. She doesn’t have access to a shower at home and washes in the school bathroom. Her clothes are dirty, her long hair uncombed.

I was in this girl’s classroom to lead a writing workshop. I gave the kids a choice of writing  either a story that was sticking in their heads or a story from a prompt I provided. This girl chose to do a spin-off picture book, playing with the beginning, ending, and the characters. Her story was first grade brilliance at its best.

Okay, I’ll be honest, I know picture book authors who can’t come up with a first draft that solid (myself included).

One problem that many children face is that they are so focused on basic survival that schoolwork and learning can’t be priorities. We are hardwired that survival always comes first.

But at least until school is out for the summer, this girl has a place to eat breakfast and wash her hair. Her school. This girl has a principal who is actively aware of each challenged child. This girl has a teacher who supports her learning and helps to gather resources as needed.

At least for one year, this girl has the freedom to learn.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. The family may move, change schools. This girl may get a different teacher who cares less. I don’t know.

What I do know is that if this brilliant little girl falls through the cracks, that’s a loss for our country. We will have thrown away the life of a loving and motivated child. No Kickstarter campaign is going to save her. Your tears won’t help her. As a country we need to change the way we do business. We need to pull families out of poverty. But to do that, first we have to admit that there is a problem. Which leads me to…

American #2

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I met American #2 while speaking to adults. When book clubs, service organizations, and nonprofits invite me to speak, I’m sure they have no idea how weepy I get when I talk about the difficult conditions our children grow up in.

I don’t cry on school visits, even when children tell me very sad stories.

But there is something about talking to fellow Americans about childhood hunger that I find overwhelming. How did we get to this situation where 51% of American children are raised in poverty? How did our country produce this huge learning gap, where my children are practically guaranteed a road to college and other children will not even graduate from high school.

My ‘adult’ speech is about self-deception, how an entire country can tell itself the wrong story. We tell ourselves we’re the greatest country in the world, but how can this be true if we are failing our children?

One group was wonderfully open to my message. But a member of the audience did come up to me afterwards and say, “Well, what about obesity? How could so many American children be poor if there’s an obesity epidemic among children?”

Sigh. I don’t always think on my feet. What I should have done was ask this person why they were asking the question.

Instead, I answered the question at face value. Good food is expensive, and parents make hard choices between soda ($1) and milk ($4), between expensive vegetables or a cheap starch that will make the hunger pains stay away a little bit longer.

As I was driving home I thought about what had prompted the question. We’ve gotten to the point in the United States where it is acceptable to challenge any fact, no matter how solid the study or reputable the source. Climate change, the birthplace of our first African American president, even the moon landing, have all been targeted as fiction.

I’m not quite sure how we got to this point where nothing is real. Where no statement is fact and any fool can question basic math. Let me repeat. 51% of American children are living below the poverty level. Even if I didn’t know the numbers, I see the truth of this when visiting schools and food banks.

In town after town I come across young children who just need a little help to have a decent life.

For us to change the life of American #1, we are going to somehow have to open the eyes of American #2.

Any ideas on how to do that?

What About Maddi’s Story?

A few weeks ago I visited an elementary school in northern Washington State.

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The school held a food drive and collected 1600 food items before my visit.

I spoke to three assemblies and then led two writers’ workshops. At the beginning of 5th grade workshop, I asked the kids if they had questions about Maddi’s Fridge that didn’t get answered at the assembly.

One girl shot her hand up straight in the air. “Why don’t you do a second book, this time tell Maddi’s story.” What she meant was, tell Maddi’s Fridge from Maddi’s point of view.

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I answered her by suggesting the class read Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, a middle grade novel told from the point of view of a boy who has an empty refrigerator.

I went on to the next question. The girl’s hand went straight up back in the air. After answering a few questions I called on her again.

“What I’m asking is, why don’t you write Maddi’s story?”

The reason I love school visits, the reason I love to teach, is that I am given so much more than I bring when I walk into a school. I am given the gift of looking at the world in new and thoughtful ways.

The girl was asking me why Maddi didn’t have a direct voice in her story.

At this point I need to back up and let you know that the school I visited, the school that brought in 1600 food items for their local food bank, has a school-wide Title 1 program. In this school 29% of the kids come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of 4. An additional 11% of the kids are in families that earned less than $44,000 a year for a family of 4. (If you wonder how such a student body could bring in so many food items, read my blog post “What if the Poor Aren’t Stupid.”)

Many children in that school were already familiar with a grim statistic. Over half of American children are raised in families living below the poverty level. Some of the kids I was speaking with were living with empty refrigerators and empty cupboards.

Why didn’t I write Maddi’s story from her point of view? Why was Maddi’s story told by Sofia, a girl who had plenty of food in her refrigerator?

The simple answer is that I wrote a story based on my own experiences. I was an observer of a horrific event, the indifference our prosperous county pays to the hungry children in our midst. My childhood anguish when I found out that my best friend’s family had no food was still paramount in my mind as I wrote Maddi’s Fridge years later. I wrote from my point of view.

Maddi

But what about Maddi?

There has been a lot of discussion in the KidLit community about diversity in children’s books. Maddi’s Fridge has been mentioned frequently as a diverse book because it has a character living in poverty. (Remember, that’s now 51% of our children.)

But Sofia tells the story. Is that right?

What a difficult and complex question.

Maddi’s Fridge is my first book and I wanted to, was driven to, tell that story through my own eyes.

However, one story is not enough. There are 12.5 MILLION stories of childhood hunger happening right now in the United States. Why aren’t these stories showing up in the books we are reading. Not just books about hunger, but mysteries, sci fi, romance, adventure, fantasy, etc. Why are some groups so hidden from our collective consciousness? Why are so many children underrepresented in the books we read? Not only as characters, but also as viewpoint characters?

That fifth grade girl was telling me that she wasn’t in Maddi’s Fridge. Yes, she felt a connection with the book, but what about the Maddis of the world? Don’t they have the right to tell their own stories?

I am very proud of Maddi’s Fridge. It pushed into an area that was rarely explored by picture books and has touched the hearts of thousands of children and adults.

But that young girl’s question was a reminder to me, a reminder to all of us who write stories, to pay attention to the stories we tell. Who have we hidden? What voices have we unwittingly silenced?

Lessons from a Dying Dog

best picture of Cora ever

One of the sad things that happened this past November was that our dog, Cora Bear, got very ill. We took her to the break-the-bank dog diagnostic hospital and found out that she was riddled with inoperable cancer. We brought her home and promised ourselves that we would not let her suffer, no matter how much we loved being with her.

She did fairly well for a few days, perking up to go for walks and to tell Simba, our naughty cat, to stay off of the dog bed. One evening Cora laid down and was reluctant to get up. I slept on the floor next to her in case she needed me. This was not long after the Paris attacks, and as I heard Cora struggling for breath a few times during the night I wondered about those of us who commit violence.

Here I was lying on the hardwood floor next to a dog, remembering all of the joyful and really bizarre moments that this one precious dog life, this one heart, had brought to our family. Just days before, a few sick individuals had picked up guns and purposely stopped heartbeats, without even wondering who those souls were.

My thoughts ranged further as I lie on the hard floor. It would be easy to make terrorism a story of bad guys versus good guys, but that is exactly how war entraps us. Someone hits us and we hit them back harder; they hit back harder still and the fight escalates, like four-year-olds on a playground. What is the saying? If we all went by the law “an eye for an eye” the world would be blind.

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Tal Afar January 18, 2005 Samar Hassan, five, screams moments after her parents were killed by US soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town. Her brother, Racan, eleven, was wounded in the shooting. Later, after being treated in the US and returning to Iraq, Racan was killed when insurgents bombed the family home in retaliation for the boy’s trip to the US.

Our country, an extension of each one of us, has a reputation for attacking other countries. In my lifetime some of the countries include Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan (twice). If you want to see all of the times we have attacked, click here. We always have reason for attacking, but the bottom line is that we kill tens of thousands of people. The survivors — family members — want to hit back.

War is a contagion, a virus that spreads soul to soul.

Cora, our dog, is gone now.  As sad as our family is, we know that she had a good and full life.

Many families in Beirut, Charleston, Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, to name just a few, cannot comfort themselves with that thought.

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A small minority of people in every society are susceptible to the propaganda that so easily slithers out of the mouths of government leaders and hate groups.  These individuals, these killers, have sick minds that latch onto any ideology that allows them to harm other people. Whether they are “domestic” or “international” terrorists, they are all incredibly similar — failed human beings who cannot see the joy in life, cannot pause to rejoice in the heartbeat we all share.

So how do we counter this obscene violence by individuals who don’t have the capacity to live in peace?

We can limit their access to weapons. And I’m not just talking about the US problem with gun control. The world has a problems with gun control. Groups and individuals are making fortunes selling arms.

To protect your family, contact your representative and demand gun licensing laws. Support organizations like Moms Demand Action, who are desperately trying to save our children.

To protect our country, we need to dig. Where are the guns and weapons coming from that are fueling these conflicts all over the world? Who are the manufacturers? How are these weapons transported to ISIS and other terrible organizations?

Peace is not the lack of response to aggression. Peace is a very active response. Let’s find out who is profiting by selling guns and stop them.