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.

Humbled — Maddi’s Fridge Wins a 2015 Christopher Award

So you’re writing a story and the protagonist wins an award. She gets up on stage — maybe you have her trip on the stairs for humor’s sake or to break up the pacing — and then she begins her big speech. The only thing she can blurt out is, “I’m totally humbled by this award.”

This is first draft stuff, where clichés rule. You need to cut that dialog and have the protagonist thank her cat (hmm, that might be cliché too) or, I don’t know, do jumping jacks. Anything but say the overused “humbled.”

Maddi’s Fridge has won a 2015 Christopher Award in the Books for Young People category.

christopher medal 1
The only word that I can think of, even a week later, is…humbled.

Humbled because I don’t know where my friend Liz, whose empty refrigerator was the tear in my heart that began this story, ended up in adulthood.

Humbled because the manuscript for Maddi’s Fridge somehow landed in exactly the right place: the talented and competent hands of my editor, Shari Dash Greenspan at Flashlight Press.

Humbled by the incredibly fun and beautiful illustrations drawn by Vin Vogel.

Humbled by all of the great books published in 2014 that also “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” They are out there lighting the darkness. Find them.

Especially humbled by all of the volunteers in food banks across the United States. No one is throwing them a party or giving them a medal. They lug heavy boxes and sometimes search nearly empty shelves. They hold hope in their hearts while working to feed hungry kids and the elderly. They help families that have no where else to turn.

While clichés may not work in literature, in the real world some still have deep meaning. (“Hearts of gold” comes to mind when I think of the volunteers at food banks.)

I’m totally humbled by this award.

If you’d like to help your friends and neighbors who might have empty refrigerators, here’s a link to Feeding America.

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.