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?

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

star trek

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

A Girl from the ‘Dummy Class’ Wrote an ILA Award Winner

Maddi’s Fridge has just won the International Literacy Association’s Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for Primary Fiction.

MaddisFridge9781936261291

A picture book is a collaborative effort. In addition to myself, Maddi’s Fridge is the result of the hard work and exceptional talents of illustrator Vin Vogel and our editor, Shari Dash Greenspan.

The ILA award is especially meaningful to me because I did not learn how to read until late in 3rd grade.

lois 12 maybe

I vividly remember the day that my 3rd grade teacher discovered I’d been faking reading. She yelled at me that I was lazy. Over the next few days she got quieter, which was dangerous. She decided that something was wrong with me.

I knew my alphabet forward and backwards. I could easily sound out words and could read out loud like the other kids in class. But when I read, the words didn’t connect to form any meaning.

Rabbit horrible laughed widget coffee.

Imagine that everyone in the world except for you reads the above words and gets a clear and meaningful sentence. I could not read and get meaning. Even words that I knew became gibberish in my head and sentences never came together.

My 3rd grade teacher kicked me out of her class and transferred me to the ‘dummy class.’

The five of us sat in a row at the front of a large empty classroom. We didn’t have a teacher; we had a district employee. My fellow classmates and I were given worksheets and math problems that looked like they came from 1st grade. Before I had been removed from my class I was in advanced math. Now I was adding single digits.

Our vocabulary words were single-syllable. Our texts were Dick and Jane type mimeographs that made me despise books and reading even more.

A tubby boy with freckles and messy blond hair, who I’d seen on the playground but never talked to, leaned towards me. “You don’t belong in the dummy class. You’re smart.”

During recess my close friends commiserated with me for the first few days, but the rest of my former classmates drifted to other parts of the playground. No one played with the kids from the dummy class.

Fortunately for me, my mother was a Tiger Mom long before the term existed. She wanted my 3rd grade teacher to tutor me. I refused. I suspect the teacher refused too. By now I hated that woman. My mother then asked a friend of the family who taught kindergarten to tutor me after school. I agreed. I’d loved kindergarten and kindergarten teachers: no reading and lots of art projects.

I don’t remember how long I was in the dummy class, maybe a few weeks or months. It was long enough for all of my former friends to start snubbing me on the playground.

I do remember the day that my mother busted me out. I was making progress with my tutor, and Mom struck some sort of deal with my 3rd grade teacher. On a Friday the district employee announced to the five of us that I was being moved back to regular classes. The tubby kid with freckles and messy blond hair told me “I knew you were better than we were.”

Even as an eight-year-old I paused and looked back at him as we filed out of class. He hadn’t struck me as particularly stupid. I remember wondering what it would be like to be stuck in the dummy class forever.

I left the class thinking that I would play with my new friends at recess, but over the next week or so I drifted back to my original friends and classmates.

When people fantasize about time travel they often talk about stopping an assassination or, conversely, assassinating a bad guy, etc.

I’d go back to my elementary school dummy class. I’d give the tubby kid and every kid in there a hug and tell them that no one is a dummy. That children learn at different speeds and that the speed we learn at is natural and right for us.

Time travel is not possible, but our world has changed for the better. The over 300,000 members of the International Literacy Association are performing little miracles every day as they guide reluctant readers into the transformative world of books.

I thank them with all of my heart for this wonderful award.

I can only hope that the fellow members of my dummy class somehow made it into the world of books. I know they had help. My mom went back to school and got her teaching credential. She became one of the first special education teachers our district ever hired.

The Blog Bullshit Meter

What I want to talk about is over-revising your writing.

Oh. Even at my desk in the Seattle area I can hear shouts from New York agents and editors: “Nooooooo! Polish your woooork!”

Ignore them. Some of us perseverate on manuscripts that we need to release. This is a real problem for me. I’ll sit on a project, anything from a picture book to a novel, and only reluctantly send it out because I know it’s not perfect.

I’ll share my favorite quote here on perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is an ugly thing, all stiff and rigid with pursed lips and beady little eyes. No one likes perfectionism. It comes from a stingy, mean-spirited place and serves no purpose except to make us feel terrible about ourselves and anything we create….Perfectionism would have God recast every sunset and chide Mother Nature for her choice of colors. If everything were left up to perfectionism, nothing would exist.” — Judy Reeves

lake kachess great

And even though I’ve read this quote to all of my students, my revisions get to the point where I am not longer polishing my imagery or strengthening my characters. I am creating a different story. And this one I will also find fault with.

The only reason I pushed to get Maddi’s Fridge published was that I read it in front of 70 people and they ALL loved it. That’s a really bad precedent. How often am I going to get 70 people in one room to approve of a manuscript?

Logically I know that I should let go. Illogically I continue to write and rewrite the same stories.

Last week, though, my blog told me to stop messing around. Not in so many words. I was revising a post, “A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts” that I’d been working on for six weeks. Yes. A blog post. Yes. Six weeks. And no, I still wasn’t happy with the shape of my writing.

Anyway, I noticed the number of revisions to the right of my WordPress page. At that point, it said 16 revisions. 400 words. 16 revisions.

If I believed that the afterlife came with a computer, or at least a pen and paper, maybe I could go on revising for that perfect story. But there’s a huge problem. Perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfect. Reworking and rewriting a piece can lead to stilted, dead language, and moribund characters. If you don’t allow yourself to stretch and make mistakes as an artist, you don’t progress.

What to do? Dot. Dot. Dot. If you’re looking for an answer to this problem, you’re reading the wrong blog.

One thing I will commit to: fewer revisions before I hit “publish” on my blog posts. This is good practice for me and the bullshit meter is sitting there keeping track, reminding me to let go. (Posted with only 6 7 revisions.)

The quote above is from Judy Reeves, “A Creative Writer’s Kit.”

A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts

They are in front of every store this weekend, but good cookies are just a tip of the iceberg.

In January I got to read Maddi’s Fridge to a local Brownie and Daisy troop. They were about to launch a food drive for their school’s food pantry.

I spoke to them about how Maddi’s Fridge was based on something that happened to me. After reading Maddi’s Fridge I asked the girls, about 20 of them, to write or draw their own stories. It could be about something that happened, or it could be fiction. These were pretty young kids, but for the next twenty minutes the room was absolutely silent as they created stories.

Brownies and Daisies working on their stories

Some were drawing their stories, some writing, all were pouring their hearts out onto a page. And yes, there were talking cat stories. And even though there have been thousands of talking cat stories (one or two of them my own), each writer was bringing her own hopes and experiences to the story, making it unique.

Kids need a safe place to feel valued and know their stories are important. The Girl Scouts provides that place. Their Girl Scout Law, said at the beginning of the meeting, almost brought tears to my eyes.

Visiting this group of Brownies and Daisies was a great moment and I cherish it.

And then, of course, I kicked myself.

When my son James was much younger (he’s in college now), he was a Cub Scout and I was a den mother (do they still use that term?). At the time, the Boy Scouts of America strengthened their policy of denying membership to boys who were gay and questioning. And even though my children identify as straight, I didn’t want them to belong to a group that excluded children because of who they were. We finished the year and left scouting.

I assumed, without checking, that the Girl Scouts had the same policy. When my daughter asked to become a Girl Scout, I said no. That decision was not one of my finer moments as a parent. Girl Scouts are incredibly inclusive.

Oh well. I suppose this is why grandparents are so brilliant. They know firsthand the mistakes to avoid.

If you have a young daughter and have not considered joining the Girl Scouts, please do. They will help you in molding a strong, independent, and self-confident member of our society.

And the group of Daisies and Brownies I visited? They collected 1,621 items during their food drive. Theirs are the small powerful hands that will shape our future world. Wouldn’t it be great if all girls could join them?

Girl Scout Troops 44098 and 45370 with author Lois Brandt

What Writers Can Learn from the Seahawks

I’ve had a real slump in my writing life recently. And not one that people see. On the surface everything looks great. I’ve got a fantastic picture book out, reviews are excellent, and I’m having a blast doing school visits and helping young children with their stories.But in my daily life I am struggling. Despite many drafts that I love, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I only had one really good book in me.

I watched with incredible dismay on January 18th as my team fell apart. Russell Wilson could neither run nor throw a pass. Correction, Wilson could throw a pass to the Packers defense without any problem. I’m not sure that the Seahawks even made a first down in the first half of this crucial playoff game.

After the third quarter and another interception, I thought, okay, we’ll be back next year. Even a great team can have a horrible day.

Then I thought about my writing. Why wasn’t I giving myself the same break? Sometimes the day-to-day setbacks of the writing life — rejections, meandering plots, and flaccid characters — stop me cold. I won’t write for weeks. How stupid is that? I have dozens of stories in my head demanding to be written.

The Seahawks, unbelievably, turned the game around.

And this isn’t the first time that they’ve pulled a win out of their ****. (Okay, I can’t think of a substitute for a rather rude but accurate description of where the Seahawk’s often bizarre victories appear to come from.) The Seahawks have a pattern of winning games they shouldn’t. Often the other team looks better. It drives my California relatives, 49’ers and Packers fans all, into red-faced rages.

The truth is that the Seahawks never give up. Richard Sherman playing defense with an injured elbow may have been one of the stupidest moves in pro football I’ve seen, but it speaks to heart. He wouldn’t leave the field when his team needed him.

Forget that you are down by 16, that your quarterback has just thrown another interception, and that your fans are saying goodbye on Twitter and filing out of the stadium. Do you want to win the game? If so, forget the yard markers and the calls that go against you. Ignore the score and keep playing with all you’ve got.

No matter what the outcome this Sunday, or what your team, the Seahawks are a great example of how to keep working when the game becomes impossibly tough.

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Laughter, Misty Eyes, and Maddi’s Fridge

A few weeks ago I was responsible for tears shed in Washington State, Connecticut, California, and cyberspace.

Don’t be alarmed; kids do not cry when they read Maddi’s Fridge. I was very careful to ensure that the story gently entertains children. Elementary school children respond to the friendship between Maddi and Sofia.

Always

They laugh at eggs in backpacks and Vin Vogel’s great illustrations.

eggs and backpacks

And have you seen that dog looking at the fireplug?

took all of the colors with it

It is true, though, that Maddi’s Fridge leaves some adults misty-eyed.

The same week that a librarian in Connecticut and a reviewer on Goodreads had tears in the corners of their eyes, a woman in Washington State couldn’t even finish Maddi’s Fridge because of personal experiences with hunger.

Years ago this woman was a single mom with two young girls. They ate nothing but pancakes for 6 months as she worked, paid rent, and struggled every day to provide food to her little girls. She called her now-adult daughter to talk about Maddi’s Fridge and had to hang up. She was crying too hard.

She, like so many other American parents, had been thrust into a situation – a single parent supporting two young children – that she had never imagined. She’s fine now. Her daughters are fine. But the weight of her story stays with her, along with the knowledge that not everyone makes it out.

It is this weight that some adults feel when they read Maddi’s Fridge.

Why don’t kids cry when they read Maddi’s Fridge? Kids get that there are problems, but each child’s heart contains unlimited hope. They respond to Maddi’s Fridge messages of friendship and community.Stories of hope are the focus of my school visits. We talk about friendship. We talk about promises. We talk about helping our friends who might have empty refrigerators.

All smiles at school visit

We also explore the importance of sharing stories. Kids write, draw, and tell their own experiences of when they helped someone or were helped.

helping stories

The fourth person who cried was a 2nd grade teacher in California. Tears in her eyes, she told me that two of the boys who read their ‘helping stories’ with me were special needs kids and had never before volunteered to share in class. Maddi’s Fridge had touched their hearts.

Our community is strongest when we explore the stories that move us. Laughter and tears are the sweet and sour of life. They are the parts we remember. They are the heart of our lives.

To those adults who get misty-eyed reading Maddi’s Fridge: Thank you for caring and being touched by this story.

To those who have experienced hunger: You are not alone. You are part of our community and we are listening.

Over fifteen million stories of childhood hunger are happening in the United States at this moment. We can honor these stories by taking action.