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.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

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Several years ago the theme of the Highlights Fiction Contest was to write a story set in the future. I’ve always enjoyed entering this contest, and sat down to write my sci fi short story for young children.

The page stayed empty. Not for a few minutes, or hours, as sometimes happens. The page stayed empty for days. I thought of several dystopian story lines, but nothing suitable for very young readers.

It was a few years after 9/11, but I discovered that the hope I had always held for the future (I’m a huge Star Trek fan) was gone. It took me several days to calm my fears and find in my heart a story that envisioned our grandchildren and great-grandchildren living happily in a peaceful world. The story had conflict, of course, but not the dark images which had haunted my mind since the moment the towers fell and continued well into our generation’s endless wars.

Since that time I’ve stretched the ‘hope’ section of my brain by spending ten minutes each September 11th envisioning peace. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news? What games would our children play?

If we imagine what peace looks, smells, feels, sounds and tastes like, we’ll know how to get there from here.

You don’t need to be a “writer” to participate. Ignore grammar, spelling, all of those boogeyman that slow down even the most accomplished writers. Lock your editor in a drawer (internal, not the one at your publisher). Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can post your writing in the comments section here on my blog, or go to the event page on Facebook.

live long and prosper

Risk, Broken Bones, and Writing

In early June my son and his friend, both college students, were skateboarding on a Friday night in Portland. They chose a street that each thought the other had gone down before. As they picked up speed both realized they were in trouble. My son’s friend purposely headed into a wall of blackberry brambles. His was a good decision.

My son thought he could slow or stop. He came to a few minutes later with a broken collarbone and trouble speaking. His concussion cleared enough for him to ask his friend to call 911. His friend’s phone was shattered and the friend flagged down a passing motorist. My son spent the night on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room. He said that being in the hallway was a good thing. People were dying in the rooms.

A week after the crash, my son had his third orthopedic surgery in four years. (#1 a collision off of a snowboard jump. #2 a fall while bouldering.) My son is doing well now. His full recovery from the accident was faster than mine.

I spoke to my son about his general risk assessment skills. So did his professor (my son was working in a lab for the summer). So did most of his friends. Even for the 20ish crowd, three sporting accidents requiring surgery seemed extreme.

Here’s the strange thing: part of me was envious of my son and his broken collarbone. (I can publicly admit this because none of my children read my blog.)

It’s been an incredible year for Maddi’s Fridge. It’s been a tough year for my writing.

I have been slow, tentative, and reluctant to take the risks necessary submit finished picture books to editors and polish my current novel. My inability to take chances is pulling me under like quicksand.

I know that some of you will say “Unknown steep hill, skateboard, that’s a risk. But what’s going to happen to you? Is your laptop going to fall on your big toe?”

You are right. I am under no physical threat. Emotional fears, though, cause their own damage. Fear of losing self-respect though failure, fear of ridicule (you wrote what????) and fear of rejection can paralyze even someone with a few accomplishments under her bra strap.

Then I look at my son who stands at the top of a steep hill with a thin piece of wood, four wheels, no helmet, and is excited and happy to see what happens next. My son is modeling behavior for me.

I don’t want to be as physically adventurous. I do want to emulate his excitement and the willingness to leap.

For the record: I am not advocating that you or any member of my family skateboard, skydive, etc. But I’m beginning to realize that extreme sports are so popular because they show you both the joys and risks all in the same moment. You overcome your fears and the reward (or occasionally, the punishment) is immediate.

You will not find me standing on a steep Portland hill with a skateboard in my hands. Hopefully, you will find me rebuilding my excitement and enthusiasm for writing. If I can rediscover that passion, I know I will leap

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And yes, all thanks to my son.