M & M Reading

My book club friend Janet answered another member in an apologetic tone, “No, I’ve been reading a Louise Penny book.” At our Mississippi book club, we have set ourselves a goal of reading from the state’s writers. They are abundant with a lot of variety. Mississippi may lag in many areas, but we have a disproportionate number of excellent writers. We’ve done the well-known classics and the rising young authors who’ve won recognition in the literary world – Eudora Welty, Margaret Walker, and Jesmyn Ward – and a few men who measured up.

The discussions have been lively since most of the authors have drawn heavily on their Mississippi roots for their stories and have given clear, but not always flattering, pictures of the state and its characters. The questioner was asking about a book written by one of these lights in our literary sky. Since Janet has read all our previous choices, I likened her Louise Penny book to eating healthy nearly all the time but occasionally having a need for some M & M’s.

Janet’s answer took me back to another conversation long ago with the chaplain’s wife for whom Al worked. Knowing we shared a love of books, she asked me what I was reading. I was enjoying a biography of a woman doctor pioneering in a place of great need. She responded by saying she didn’t read anything that counted and introduced me to Agatha Christie.

Just as I would hate to be confined to a steady diet of roast and potatoes, or even catfish, I enjoy a variety of books that by turns make me think, pull at my soul, or furnish a relaxing interlude. You may also enjoy an assortment, or you want to be like Mrs. Coleman and never read anything that counts. If so, go right ahead and read your M & M’s. Even if you only read Agatha and Louise, I don’t think you can become a book diabetic.


Freedom in Congo Square

In preparation for the Kaigler Children’s Book Festival, I sometimes find pleasant surprises in the books I like to read ahead that are written by the presenters. I seldom find as many as I did in Freedom in Congo Square, a historical picture book written by Carole Boston Weatherford who will be presenting at the general session on Friday, April 13th.

I will acknowledge a preconceived anxiety about the book when I first saw it mentioned when it came out a couple of years ago. I knew that my good friend Freddi Williams Evans, author of A Bus of Our Own, had done extensive research and become an expert on Congo Square. I also admit wondering if someone had edged into her territory – hence my first surprise. The first double-page spread is a foreword by Freddi, giving a history of Congo Square that will help parents and teachers who read the book to children.

The second surprise came in the colorful illustrations by R. Gregory Christie that match the mood and the culture of the weekday work and the Sunday celebrations in Congo Square.

The third surprise came in a text that enforces learning of the days of the week and counting down to Sunday with poetic descriptions of each day’s work. For instance,

Tuesdays, there were cows to feed,

Fields to plow and rows to seed.

A moment without work was rare.

Five more days to Congo Square.

Not a surprise at all, since I am familiar with Carolyn’s work, is the personal touch of history that she gives to the heroes of her story. I checked this book out so it will need to be returned to the library, but the festival book store will be remiss if they don’t carry this 2017 Charlotte Zolotow Award winner (for outstanding writing of a children’s picture book in the US). I’m already virtually standing in line to get a copy signed for a couple of grandsons.


A-changin' Times

Time’s they are a-changin’. I got the notice via Facebook from a friend who put my name to an appeal from someone I didn’t know with the added comment, “Virginia McGee Butler, are you available?”

While the request came in a new manner, I related quickly. Oak Grove Lower Elementary needed judges for their science fair. Remembering days of having to think of likely suspects and make individual phone calls when I needed adult volunteers, I had to admire this new method of notifying one person who could quickly pass on the request to somebody outside their school data base.

Turns out I was available for one of the three days they needed judges, and I still love school things. The science fair itself held little that was different.

  • ·         Like always, it was held in the gym.
  • ·         Kids came waddling in with boards almost as big as they were. (Did I mention I got to judge my favorite second-graders?)
  • ·         Some boards were polished down to the finest detail while others lacked periods at the ends of sentences or held uncorrected editing marks above words.
  • ·         Some children could barely be heard as they forced themselves to answer questions about their work while others could hardly wait to get started explaining every detail and how they accomplished their experiment. Those eager faces lingered until my partner and I said, “Thanks. You can go back to your room now.”
  • ·         Some took the guidelines they were given seriously and had each component labeled so the judges couldn’t miss it, while others seemed to think the instructions were a list of possible options.

Their consistent use of the scientific method was impressive and indicative of good teaching. Some of the hypotheses the kids addressed were quite interesting and reflected an awareness that things are a-changin’ for them. One tested which fruits would be most likely to conduct electricity.

My favorite answer to a question about why the student chose his project of testing electrolytes in various beverages was, “I wanted to see if my soccer coach was right when he was telling us what to drink.” His explanation included the difference between winter and summer, which causes one to lose more electrolytes, and which drinks are better with which season. You might not be surprised that this one needed notice that time to go back to class had come.

I still love school and schoolkids so I had a nice morning with no lessons to plan and no tests to grade. I left my card in case they need me again without having to go through the Facebook chain.


The Great Alone

Kristin Hannah takes you to hard places in her books which I experienced first in The Nightingale. Her new book, The Great Alone, is no exception. It begins in 1974, with thirteen-year-old Leni coping with a father who is a former POW home from Vietnam afflicted with PTSD in a time when little was said or done about it, and a mother who is drawn back to his volatile abusive behavior. The book pictures vividly the mindsets of the abuser and the victim who keeps returning for more. The setting moves from Seattle to the wilds of Alaska to add yet another difficulty to her life.

Early on, Leni seems to be the most adult member of this dysfunctional family as she questions “How was Mama’s unshakable belief in Dad any different than his fear of Armageddon? Did adults just look at the world and see what they wanted to see, think what they wanted to think? Did evidence and experience mean nothing?” The question looms often of how many ways are there are to die in Alaska. In a bit of balance, the unique Alaskans who have carved out a life in this unforgiving land add color and helpfulness to the newcomers.

Tempted to close the book as one difficulty piles on the next, I really couldn’t but needed to turn yet another page since I couldn’t leave Leni in that chapter’s trouble. Also, there was a love interest as she grew up. Surely, something good would come of that.

I’m glad I stayed for the resolution, though Kristin Hannah took her own good time in coming to it.  This thought-provoking book kept me turning pages, but I’ll need recovery. I think I’ll have time before she gets another one on the market.


Waiting for CBF 2018

Three months away and plans are underway for the fifty-first Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi on April 11 – 13. I got my invitation to volunteer this week with the promised pay of major fatigue at the end. I can’t wait. It’s the best tired I know.

On pretty good authority, the winner of this year’s Southern Miss Medallion for his body of work in children’s literature spent a good part of his school days in the hall outside the classroom. In fact, he is said to have created his Captain Underpants in his drawings out there. Sorry to say, that opportunity would have passed for Dave Pilkey if he had been my student. I would not have trusted a dyslexic hyperactive child in the hall even when he caused major disruptions in my class. He would have been in a desk in the back in the most unobtrusive place in the room – probably with my student who drew pictures back there and has become a professional graphic artist. I’m guessing Dave could have invented the popular captain even if the hall was not in my list of options.

Other special guests that are high in my anticipation include Carole Boston Weatherford who puts the past and forgotten stories into her writing. I’m really looking forward to the Ezra Jack Keats lecture and hearing the granddaughter of Madeleine L'Engle talk about her grandmother who wrote A Wrinkle in Time. I think that is especially appropriate since Madeleine won the Newbery Award for that book in the same year that Ezra won the Caldecott for The Snowy Day. The banquet picture for the occasion shows Keats with a smug look in his white jacket with L'Engle rising several inches above him in height.

There are also the awards for the new and rising stars in the children’s book world as the Ezra Jack Keats Awards for new writers and illustrators are presented and a big celebration held for them. So many of these from years past have gone on to be bright stars in the children’s book world, and it’s fun to meet them at the beginning of their careers.

Other guest writers, who might be your favorites, can be found on the website along with information about registering for the time of your life at You’re still in time for the early bird rate, but only if you hurry. That price ends today, February 9. It will still be a bargain at tomorrow’s rate.