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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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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.

Diverse Books as a Basic Need

I remember vividly my first love, The Moon of Three Rings by Andre Norton. The book was on display at the top of a bookcase at my local library. I was already a fan of Saturn, and here was a beautifully colored drawing of a moon with rings.

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Yes, I took home a book because of its cover.

I began reading. The main character was quickly turned into a cat-like creature. This was my secret dream, to become a cat. I talked to cats nonstop and believed that they understood me. Here, finally, was an adventure ready-made for me.

Up until that moment I still didn’t see what all the “reading” fuss was about.

I had read other books, of course. I wept my way through the ending of Charlotte’s Web, so hysterical that my mother had to come to class to comfort me. Nancy Drew was insipid. Dr. Seuss scared the bejeezus out of me so badly that I refused to touch picture books.

The Moon of Three Rings turned me into an avid reader. My entire allowance, which I earned helping at the family business after school, was now spent on the Scholastic book order.

It only takes one book to make a life-long reader.

When you become a reader you travel to other planets and magical worlds. You also become a young girl hiding from the nazi’s, a boy raised by dogs, an artist cutting off his ear, a soldier who forgets for one moment that he is at war and raises his head to look at a beautiful bird. You live other lives. Even cat lives.

Your world expands.

When someone tells me they don’t read, it’s the same as telling me they don’t breathe.

So what is it like to grow up without books? When I visit elementary schools I already see a few children, some as young as 8 or 9, who have an empty look in their eyes like nothing in that school is for them. Not the colorful drawings on the walls. Not the laughing kids. Especially not the books in the library. Somehow, they have been shut out of the stories that can buoy a life.

I recently asked a group of teachers to imagine growing up in a world where libraries were full of books, but only books about football. Football being played by aliens in science fiction stories, historical novels featuring early attempts by the Greeks to develop football, etc.

I asked how many of them would have become avid readers.

Imagine how hard it is to read when there aren’t any books that touch your heart. The reason we need diverse books is to help all young readers find the one book that will set them free.