ON THE HORIZON: Another Lois Lowry Masterpiece

If you check the ABOUT tab on this website you’ll see that LOIS LOWRY is the  first name in the list of authors whose work I deeply admire and enjoy. I’m not alone in that opinion, but I’d take on all comers in an arm wrestling match for bragging rights that I love her work more than they do. (Not really. I broke my wrist a few years ago and have rods in my arm, but it if weren’t for that, I’d do it!)

Her recent release takes a side-step from narrative novels to a verse novel format. Doing so provides an avenue to move readers through time, geography, and the poignant voices of significant characters in a slim text that covers vast grounds. I’ve read ON THE HORIZON several times already, and will read it many times more in coming weeks and years. I recommend you do the same.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

ON THE HORIZON

written by Lois Lowry

with illustrations by Kenard Pak

ISBN:978-0-358-12940-0

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

When I say that Lowry’s work inspires me, I understate the truth. She unfurls a story in ways that leave me feeling moored to personal experiences while revealing new worlds and truths. In that I believe she is unequaled.

In this case, the novel is in three parts. She launches the initial verses with a personal statement about her own anchor, as a child, walking the beaches of Pearl Harbor in the days before the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. There, her child’s world was bounded by sunshine and sand shovels, bubbles and bonnets, and the joy of time spent with her visiting Nana. From that perspective, she voices her own young view of life, unaware of the Arizona cruising on the horizon. Verses continue with a narrative of the anchored US Pacific fleet that instills spirit and life into the Arizona and her sister ships. Following that are profiles and voices of a few lost sailors and some survivors.

In the next part, the verses shift through time to scenes of Japan, to the sky-sourced devastation of Hiroshima, voiced through victims and artifacts and survivors of that horror. Her deep research and personal experiences provide a lens to those events and their consequences with a child-and-family focus.

Part three moves readers to the years following the war, viewing the twisted relics and healing survivors, the ways in which a scarred peace becomes a platform for new life and an unpredictable future. The author’s note is a must-read. I marveled at the ways in which Lowry was living history unaware, was crossing paths with eventual friends, and first realized her brush with the Arizona through a serendipitous comment many decades after her childhood.

The black-and-white illustrations provide a perfect balance of archival tone with emotional depth and connections. Lowry’s masterful writing is a blend of free verse and selected rhymes, controlling meter and pacing to maximize the impact of each scene and experience portrayed.

Throughout each perspective, including those of the fleet, a theme of family and humanity is sustained. The passage of time and interconnected suffering and survival are powerfully revealed with minimal intrusions of historic markers, providing both accuracy and a timeless significance to the events.

Many of Lowry’s novels run hundreds of pages and thousands of words. Something I admire greatly about those novels is that each word feels essential and perfectly placed, each serving exactly as intended to produce a remarkable whole. In the seventy-two pages and minimalist text of ON THE HORIZON, that crafting of text is even more evident. With formal and formal and informal structures, her verses layer history with emotion, with grace, and always, with storytelling mastery.

This is a book that is accessible and valuable for readers as young as eight or nine, through middle grades and right on to adults. In each case, what the audience brings to the verses will expand and enrich them, as should be true in any reading, but most especially in verse. even more so when the author is Lois Lowry.

PRAIRIE LOTUS, by Linda Sue Park: Expanding the Single Story

Clarion Books 2020

PRAIRIE LOTUS

by Linda Sue Park

Clarion Books,

9781328781505, 272pp.

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Currently five starred-reviews and still counting. This remarkable novel is ideal for middle grades and I add my voice to urge all ages to read and discuss this important story:

“Prairie Lotus is a powerful, touching, multilayered book about a girl determined to fit in and realize her dreams: getting an education, becoming a dressmaker in her father’s shop, and making at least one friend. Acclaimed, award-winning author Linda Sue Park has placed a young half-Asian girl, Hanna, in a small town in America’s heartland, in 1880. Hanna’s adjustment to her new surroundings, which primarily means negotiating the townspeople’s almost unanimous prejudice against Asians, is at the heart of the story. Narrated by Hanna, the novel has poignant moments yet sparkles with humor, introducing a captivating heroine whose wry, observant voice will resonate with readers”. Afterword.

As soon as I read this new middle grade historical novel, which I did the minute I arrived home after my purchase, I knew I would be sharing my thoughts about it here. Sadly, while preparing the book post below, we’ve found ourselves globally-deep in the COVID-19 crisis. Events involve many health and social concerns, but none so tragic, I’m my opinion, as the racist attitudes, words, and actions of everyday citizens (compounded by misleading hateful language from our country’s president.)

In recent days I heard from an American writing friend who is Asian and a former student who is now a physician on the front lines in emergency rooms in New York City. She, too, is Asian. In one case, people in lines scowled, moved away, and otherwise displayed IGNORANT racist behavior. In another, while taking a short walk on city streets, verbal and threats of physical assault were suffered. In both cases the perpetrators were “white”, and the reports indicated that no others nearby spoke up or stepped in to confront the hateful actions and speech. Sadly, it is during crisis events such as these that a thin veneer of civility is peeled back and generational layers of racist hatred spill venom onto innocent victims.

In neither case was I there to speak out, to stand up, to be an ally. Instead I am determined to use this post and my rare outdoor excursions in these days and beyond to stay alert for opportunities to be a public ally. Please do the same. 

* * *

Park at North Shore Library

I had the privilege of meeting and hearing from author LINDA SUE PARK a few weeks ago. I’ve been a fan of her picture books and novels for years. I also admire her outspoken leadership in organizing and supporting the many underrepresented voices among the vast offerings of books for young readers. Offerings that for generations have presented a narrow point of view, a single story of history, in

Park has played a leading role in launching and growing We Need Diverse Books movement. This organization has become a compelling force within the publishing world and offers EVERYONE “finger-tap” access to extensive reading lists for all ages and interests. Linda has been a personal force in  achieving the mission of this organization: in her own writing, speaking, mentoring, and through her social media presence.

I included the summary of her latest work, PRAIRIE LOCUST, above. I did so because I wanted to focus my commentary not the details of the story but on the remarkably appealing and heartfelt Hannah. As her life unfolds in a time and place parallel to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the truth of history is explored through her eyes and dreams.

Park shared her  personal story about the ways her youthful love of the Wilder titles eventually  confronted  the harsh reality about the stories she loved as a child. Click here for an interview with Park about her childhood connections to the Wilder books and her process in writing this book.  Her depth of research, reflection, personal connections, and family heritage make Park’s writing the perfect story for broadening our understanding of American history for ALL OF US. It also indicates multiple realistic examples of individuals who served as allies to change lives and level opportunities to live in justice.

Hannah’s personal goals were not so different from those of any other child: to make a friend, to finish school, and to develop her talent- in Hannah’s case, to be a dressmaker, as her mother was. In an unfair world, it would be harder for her than for those who lived within the privileges of a dominant culture, a white culture. She had learned from Mama to fight injustice, and to fight within the system by channeling her mama’s wisdom and insights.

Please read this remarkable book, and access the recommended titles from the Diverse Books website.  Share and discuss books to help us raise a generation in which racism is called out and allies are emboldened to stand up and speak out.

And use your voice and the social capital of privilege to speak out on the brand concepts of racism even when specific instances do not arise in your presence.

Hidden History in the Spotlight: The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

Lee & Low, 2020


The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

Written by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith

Lee & Low Publishing, February, 2020 (ISBN-13: 978-1643790169)

Series: The Story of…  Target ages 8-11, grades 3-6

Would you watch a movie about an enslaved man whose intelligence, ambition, skills, and daring choices affected the Civil War? Would you root for a hero who rescued his own and other enslaved families, leading them to freedom in the North? Are you curious about an enslaved man who delivered valuable  weapons into the hands of the Union, right under the noses (and cannons) of guards at a Confederate fort? Would you want to know more about the childhood that shaped him, the heart-stopping events of that night,  and the results of his heroic efforts in his later years?

I would.

I’ve noticed social media buzz indicating that there are people with the means to  produce such a movie have heard about Smalls and are considering a feature about this hero, Robert Smalls.

No worries or frustration, though, about having to wait.

Author Janet Halfmann first wrote about this impressive unsung hero in her picture book, SEVEN MILES TO FREEDOM: The ROBERT SMALLS STORY.  At that time very few in the general public knew his name or accomplishments. Published by Lee & Low in 20o8, and illustrated by Duane Smith, that book was my introduction to Robert Smalls. Halfmann’s dramatic writing swept me along on his remarkable journey to freedom, and back matter revealed the intensity and authenticity of Halfmann’s research that enriched the telling with accuracy and detail.

The same publisher and creative team (Halfmann/Smith) have now released a new book about Robert Smalls. This chapter book format provides expanded details in the biographic narrative and extended historic context in each chapter’s supplementary pages. This title is a recent addition to the powerful Lee & Low series “The Story of…” .

I haven’t read other titles in this series, but in this case Halfmann has written both narrative and background segments with equal mastery. The life story of Robert Smalls remains little-known to many and deserves this awe-inspiring spotlight while the related historical references make Small’s accomplishments all the more impressive.

Born enslaved, Smalls grew up within the comparatively “safe” status of a “favored” house servant, viewed fondly by his master/owner. But Robert was observant, noting the vicious abuse of slaves on nearby plantations and recognizing his own vulnerable standing within society. He witnessed the sale of other black people on the auction block in nearby Charleston, appalled by their separation from family and inability to control their own futures. He viewed other humans as they were reduced to pieces of property with no legal rights. Those observations made him yearn for freedom from his earliest age, propelling him to work toward that goal every day in every possible way.

The first chapter reveals this and more about an ambitious and astute young man who seeks a life of dignity and freedom, despite the steep odds against him.  Readers will cheer for his courage and energy and intentions, for his resilience and hard work. Each chapter advances his life story through continuing  challenges that take your breath away and tug at your heart.

Each dramatic narrative in a chapter is followed by a few pages of background and explanatory text, providing related historic facts and context. Those sections appear on gray-tone pages and use expository text patterns, but are equally accessible to readers with engaging language and structure. Each of these parallel chapter sections, the personal narrative and the background material, is strengthened by its relevance to the other.

Some of the recent and historic figures featured in THE STORY OF… series are prominently known, while others, like SMALLS,  are less familiar to the general public. The series targets readers in grades three-to-six, but I, as an adult, found it to be informative and appealing. Well-written and compelling stories of people who lived powerful lives always are.

The structure of this book intersperses dramatic narrative chapters with riveting spot illustrations, followed by a short text section that is purely historic, incorporating archival images and details. The deep research used in both sections is documented in back matter sources, where nonfiction text conventions include a timeline, a section providing related resources (divided by topic), a glossary of terms, and another example of an enslaved person who risked her life to escape to freedom by hiding in a linen chest. The section of recommended related books is also sorted by topics. This will be of special interest to those who are eager to learn more of the hidden history of enslaved Americans who took enormous risks to reach freedom and support others.

Lee & Low, 2018

I believe you’ll want to recommend the original picture book and this recent chapter book/biography after reading. That could also lead you to another of Halfmann’s award-winning picture book biographies about a figure from hidden history. MIDNIGHT TEACHER: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School will inform and astound you. The brave choices of this enslaved woman and her devotion to literacy in the face of threatening laws and oppressive social conventions deserves your attention all year long, but shines especially brightly during March, Women’s History Month.

When you take a closer look at any of these, and I’m counting on you to check them out, I’d love to read your reactions in the comments.

 

Wisdom Shared: Anne Lamotte’s TED Talk

It’s been quite a while since I posted thoughts here. I hope your new year has been busy pursuing success, happiness, and big plans for the months ahead. I could waste your time by listing the many ways my busy-ness has kept me away from these posts, but I won’t.

I do plan to share some of those in coming weeks, but for now, I want to share a favorite TED TALK link by ANNE LAMOTT. I’ve viewed it in the past, but when it crossed my social media path again today, it fell into place in my heart as if for the first time.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the same might be true for any readers here. If you, like me, are familiar with this writer’s remarkable work, I suggest you take the 10 minutes or so to watch the program anyway.Maybe it is exactly what your heart needs today. If you are not familiar with Anne and her work, PLEASE do watch.

One of the many ways in which having work published has surprised and honored me is when my own words are quoted back to me as having special resonance with the reader. I suspect Anne has had that experience more often than nearly any other writer, because her words often appear third-, fourth-, fiftieth-hand among those of us who find our true selves on words.

In this particular TedTalk, just A FEW of her memorable lines include:

The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure. –Anne Lamott

I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us. –Anne Lamott

While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It’s a huge gift to the world. — Anne Lamott

Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.  –Anne Lamott

I could go on, and if we were sitting here together I would. But I prefer to send you off to sit with Anne in her own words.
So many amazing words. All of them from and to the heart.

Go now. The link is above, but here it is again.

In case you want to share any of her lines, here’s a link to the full text, too.

And have a wonderful life.


 

God Jul! An Outtake Offering

 

 

Soon after ODIN’S PROMISE released, readers offered the kindest gift of all- a continuing interest in Mari and her family as the occupation of Norway continued. I had never intended to write a sequel, but I swallowed hard and dug into research, then writing. As I wrote about the ensuing four-plus years of war and occupation, I realized I needed to write those developments in two volumes.

The segment shared today was from my original attempt at a single volume. I share it in the sprit of the holidays, with a follow-up comment afterwards. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

OUTTAKE:

In this early plot line Mari traveled alone to Oslo instead of to Bergen, as she did in MARI’S HOPE. She stayed with her sister Lise for medical training during a period when schools were closed in 1942. This passage takes place as she is preparing to return to Ytre Arna.

Palace Park, Oslo, Norway

During a quick breakfast Mari convinced Lise to send the remaining garments home unfinished. Enough of the secondhand clothing would fit for spring and she intended to master the sewing machine when she returned to save Mama and Bestemor the trouble the othersof making alterations.

She craved more time with her sister, so they spent much of the day on a final tour of Oslo, ending up at the park. The surprising shift in weather brought little wind that day and the sun penetrated layers of wool clothing.

Mari loosened the scarf around her head and dropped it to her shoulders. “The best weather of the winter arrived just in time to see me off.”

Lise tilted her face to the sun’s warmth and breathed deeply. “It’s always colder here than on the coast, but this winter has been brutal.” She wrapped an arm around her sister’s waist and leaned her head on Mari’s shoulder. “Just remember that the worst winter is always followed by spring, even when you can’t feel it coming. It’s inevitable, and we must not give up hope.”

They sat silently for several minutes. Mari clung to Lise, wishing she could stay. She had come to rely on her sister’s advice, her medical training, and the solace of uninterrupted hours to escape into academics.

On the other hand it felt more like a year than a month since she’d seen Bestemor, Mama, and Papa. Despite the elaborate network of underground messages, very little could be learned about individuals and families. Her dread at the thought of returning to school was the opposite of her feelings before the invasion. Now she feared pressure to join the girls’ youth group. The resistance newspapers reported that Quisling was ignoring the refusals of parents across the country and had dropped his demands, but Mari was feeling desperate to hear that from Mama and Papa.

The sound of boots approaching interrupted her thoughts.

“Guten Tag,Fräu Olmsted.You have no work today?”

A German officer stood before them, blocking the sun, and addressed Lise. Mari squinted up at him and then dropped her eyes without speaking.

“Hilsen, Doctor Braun. My sister returns home tonight so I arranged my schedule to be free today.” Lise stood to speak to him, but barely reached his shoulder so she was staring up into the sun.

“Wunderbar! I have a free afternoon as well. May I treat you both to a farewell dinner?” He offered his arm to Lise and extended his hand to Mari.

Mari struggled to hold still, fighting the impulse to bolt. She didn’t dare lift her eyes. Even a glimpse of his uniform might trigger an attempt to escape.

Nie, takk, Doctor Braun. I’m afraid we’ve wasted most of the day enjoying the weather and have very little time to finish packing.” Lise bent over to collect her bag and tugged at Mari’s elbow.  Mari’s impulse to run was suddenly replaced by a desperate need to remain frozen on the bench, as immovable as one of the many sculptures in the park.

“Surely you have enough time for a bit of sweets? Come along to the hotel dining room and I’ll have them pack a little box of treats for your journey.” Mari felt his hand on her elbow and clamped her jaw tight to prevent herself from shouting NEI.

Lise squeezed her other arm and urged Mari to her feet. “It’s a very kind offer, Herr Doctor, and it is on our way home. If you insist, we’ll stop with you for just a few minutes.”

The shock of Lise’s words left Mari half stumbling along, her sister’s arm linked through hers and the doctor’s hand holding the other. Her mind raced, searching for possible reasons why Lise would agree. It wasn’t until they reached the end of the block and stepped through the lobby entrance that she realized they were now two Norwegian girls walking through Oslo at the side of  a German officer. It was all she could do not to wretch on the royal blue carpet.

She felt herself being guided to a small glass table where the officer pulled out two chairs. “I’ll only be a moment, I promise.” By the time she dared to look up he was out of sight.

Mari leaned toward Lise to demand an explanation but her sister squeezed her hand, smiled brightly, and whispered, “Not now. At home.” Lise sat back in her chair and seemed to be examining every inch of the hotel.

Mari concentrated on breathing normally and glanced around. She felt like an injured elk surrounded by a pack of timber wolves. Soldiers and officers hustled in and out of the elevators, seldom pausing for conversations. To her relief, none seemed to even notice them.

Sooner than she expected, the doctor returned. He placed a small bakery box on the table. “It’s only some sandwiches and sweets, but you said you were in a hurry. I hope you’ll have a safe and easy journey home, young one.”

Her sister stood and Mari quickly did the same. Lise picked up the box and shook the doctor’s hand. “Danke, Doctor Braun. It is one less task to tend to before time to go.”

He nodded his head and smiled. Without the sun glaring behind him Mari saw that he was considerably older, perhaps Papa’s age, and his eyes looked surprisingly kind.

“We appreciate your generosity, don’t we, Mari?”

Ja, takk,” she managed to say, ignoring his extended hand. She pushed in her chair and turned toward the doors.

“It’s nothing, but I hope you’ll find it helpful.” He followed them across the lobby and tipped his hat as they left. “Auf Wiederhesen.”

As soon as they were out of sight of the hotel, Mari demanded, “What were you thinking?”

Her sister’s expression warned her to wait until they reached the relative safety of her apartment.

* * *

While Lise did the supper dishes Mari took one last survey of the bedroom, making sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind. It was a struggle to focus on anything after her sister explained the decision to join Dr. Braun. Details were few, but Dr. Braun had gone out of his way to help Lise several times since he arrived at the hospital in the fall. He was one of the few German staff who knew about the deserted office space where Mari studied at the hospital. He had even obtained a visitor’s identification card for her in case someone questioned why she was there. He had proudly shown Lise pictures of his two daughters, close in age to Mari. He missed them terribly. Lise believed he was a genuinely kind man and had observed him treating all patients with equal skill and medications, whether they were Germans or Norwegians or even prisoners from the resistance.

That did little to remove Mari’s objections to being seen with him, to accepting his gifts. She wondered what might be demanded of Lise in return for such generosity.

When they opened the box at her apartment they found two sandwiches with ham, cheese, and real butter along with four small of cakes. Tucked in the side of the box were a dozen or more extra ration tickets for meat and vegetables. They divided the food and Mari insisted that Lise keep the ration tickets. She was on her own in the city now and had no canned garden foods tucked away in a basement cold storage room as Mari did at home.

Lise stepped in the bedroom. “All set? Leif could be here any minute. You don’t plan to sit around and visit, do you?”

Mari moved to the living room and made a half-hearted attempt to look around the tables and shelves for anything of hers. “Not at all. I just want to get this trip over with as soon as possible and get back home.”

Lise followed her and tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned Lise handed her a science lab notebook. Lise exaggerated a scolding expression but slipped into a grin despite herself. “I thought you checked the bedroom? Are you giving up science studies?”

Mari took the workbook and tucked it into her backpack. “I just can’t seem to think straight. How am I going to get through all those hours on the train with Lief?” She took a moment to rearrange the items in her pack to cover the secret lining holding messages and other documents.

“You might change your mind and take the sleeping powders once you are on the train. You still have them, don’t you?”

Mari’s hand slipped into her pocket and she patted a slim envelope. “Yes, but I won’t use that approach unless my nerves get the better of me. I can’t take a chance on being muddy-headed around him. It would be awful to sleep so deeply he could go though my bags.”

She tugged the two overloaded cases to the door then walked to the window. “Where is he? It will be dark soon. I really don’t want to be out on the street with him past curfew.”

Mari felt her sister’s arm around her shoulder and leaned into her. She fought back tears and whispered, “Tusen takk for everything. I’ll miss you so much. When will I see you again?”

“I’ll be going to _(research Erik’s suitable town)__more often now to see Erik, so I won’t get back to Ytre Arna. Perhaps at the holidays again, but only if my schedule permits.”

Lise stepped back and brushed a tear from Mari’s cheek. “You’ll be spending much more time with Doctor Olsen when you return, and you can ask him anything. Even if Mama, Papa, and Bestemor are busy or tired, they want you to tell them when you need help or have questions.”

Lise stepped back further and looked Mari over from head to toe, then gazed directly into her eyes. “You’re just a young girl, Mari, barely a teenager. This invasion and occupation have pushed you into chores and worries and secrets only an adult should have to carry. You may look and feel older than you are, but you are always our little one.”

I share this passage today as a reminder to us all. Every person is an individual, and no matter how justified we may feel in judging their choices and actions, we can never know what is in their heart. We’ve been living through times of suspicion, anger, and fear. perhaps more so than at any other times in our lives (at least for those who are young). Stress and worry makes us miserable. Lise mentions above: Even when it feels impossible, Spring always follows Winter. As I often write when signing books: 

May you know the love, laughter and strength of family,

in 2020 and always.