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.

toilet paper

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.

superman

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

American

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

American

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.

crenshaw

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.

A Happy Dance for School Visits

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits lately.

Lois at Queen Anne Elementary

And I’m going to do the happy dance to celebrate –right here on my blog.

These are some of my favorite moments over the past few weeks:

A little girl holding her dad’s hand while walking that last block to school. She sees me walking behind her and shouts “It’s Lois Brandt!” The dad turns around and gives me a raised eyebrow – I’m not a rock star he recognizes – and then looks slightly embarrassed as the little girl continues to jump up and down all the way to school chanting. “Lo-is Brandt, Lo-is Brandt.”

I worked with grades K – 5 and never saw two stories that were alike. Each child had a unique and personal story to tell.

I loved the first grader, when I was reading Maddi’s Fridge to an assembly of about 400, who shouted, “Don’t do it, don’t put the eggs in the backpack!”

eggs for Maddi and Ryan

I love kindergarteners because when you listen to their stories, you see the world through fresh eyes.

I love 1st graders because they are beginning to understand the “real” world, but they still believe in magic.

2nd graders love truth, stories, and (bonus!) hold up their hands before speaking.

3rd graders, WOW, the stories pour out of them. And they are totally okay when I say “don’t worry about spelling.” (Except for one third-grader, see below.)

4th graders love to read and write books. When you ask them to write, they bend their heads low and fall into their own stories.

5th graders are beginning to worry about acting cool, but then their excellent stories burst through the ice and shower the reader with insights that are fresh and real.

I love teachers’ lounges where teachers are joking with each other and talking about trouble-making kids in a positive way — how kids see the world differently and that’s okay.

I loved almost being knocked over by kindergarteners when I showed them that I had a picture of my cat, Simba, on my travel mug.

Simba

Simba

I love the kids who hold up their hands and can’t remember what they were going to say. They are so involved they just want to participate, but haven’t quite thought the next part through.

I loved the kid that told me that I should be writing words to Vin’s illustrations, not the opposite.

I loved the little boy who sat apart from the class, but when I asked him a question he came and joined us. His story was about how much he loved the author of Maddi’s Fridge. : )

I loved the kid who raised his hands several times, and each time I called on him he said “you’re the author.”

I loved confiscating a spelling dictionary from a third-grader.

I didn’t love it when the librarian suggested I highfive 300 kids as they left assembly. So many colds going around — even the teachers are sick.

Okay, I did love high-fiving 300 kids leaving assembly. Germ theories be damned. All of those smiling kids, many stopping to tell me about the stories they are working on.

smiling cow

I loved the kid that spotted that the cow on the milk carton changed its expression. (Vin Vogel, you sly devil!)

frowning cow

This is a sampling of the small moments that remind me that being a children’s writer is, hands-down, the best job in the world.

Does Having a Bigger House Make You a Better Person?

I have in the past blogged about our attitude towards the poor. This post is about our attitude towards the rich.

Several months ago I met a couple for the first time. Their son had asked my daughter to the prom and I immediately checked out their family through mutual friends. The entire family got rave reviews. When I met the parents I was not disappointed. This was a funny, educated, and socially active couple who volunteered extensively in the community. Exactly the type whose son you might reluctantly agree wouldn’t necessary be a bad person for your daughter to know (still getting used to the whole dating thing here).

The couple asked us over to their house to see the prom “afterparty” setup. At a joint driveway I was confused as to which house had which number. To the right was a small log cabin, in front of me was what we call in our area a “McMansion.” I began walking toward the McMansion when the couple called to me from the back door of the log cabin.

It was about twenty minutes later, as we were in the house talking, that I realized I was disappointed with their house. As soon as I was aware of this feeling I was mortified by my unreasonable reaction. These were two people who had given more back to the community than my husband or I could ever hope to. I won’t even get into the list of their son’s accomplishments. Yet somewhere in the back of my head parasitical thoughts were judging this excellent family based on the size of their home.

Meeting this family made me face my unhealthy attitude towards the rich. Somewhere along the line I have begun to equate wealth with accomplishment and character.

A certain narrow type of accomplishment does create wealth. Most great accomplishments have nothing to do with money. I’m thinking of pastors and teachers here, and also volunteer coaches and food bank workers.

What’s more, character and wealth have no direct causal relationship. There is plenty of historical proof and religious cautions that the opposite may be true.

camelneedle

I was shocked that I had to remind myself of this basic fact of life: your value as a person is determined by how many people you help and influence in a positive way. Period.

Where was I getting this insane idea that I could equate someone’s character to the size of their house?

Societies, just like books, have themes. If you look at almost any TV show or listen to the radio you see an orchestrated worship of wealth and the rich in this country. I thought I had avoided it, but we humans are pack animals. We pay attention to the attitudes and actions of others and then, even subconsciously, try to fit in.

I am very nervous about discussing this ugly pro-wealth bias that has nested in my head. It is embarrassing and reveals a shallowness that I’d rather not publically disclose.

But I have to discuss this because, unfortunately, I’m not alone.

Our failure to feed children in this country is intrinsically linked to our acceptance of the growing gap between rich and poor.

We are confusing what really matters — character and accomplishment — with wealth. This has allowed unscrupulous individuals to hijack our country. They siphon money from schools, eliminate living-wage jobs, and bankrupt social programs, all to feed the insatiable appetite of the rich.

Twice in the past two years we have cut food stamps, a lifeline not only for children but also for the elderly.

How could we be so stupid?

I can only hope that my daughter’s prom date and his family don’t think less of my daughter because her mother is a ditz.