If Bees Are Few

If Bees Are Few, edited by James P. Lenfestry, unapologetically lauds bees. If you have paid any attention to bee issues, you are probably aware of warnings that their numbers are seriously dropping, but approaching this book with a mindset of embarking on a sermon or didactic environmental treatise would be a mistake. The motivation would be correct, since putting their money where their mouth is, some proceeds from sales of the book will be aid the Bee Lab in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota in their search for ways to protect bees worldwide. Visit the website at for more about the Bee Lab’s work and resources. The foreword by Bill McKibben points out that bees play the role of sentinel in an increasingly toxic world, acting as a warning system that our world is out of kilter.

The front matter, brief and well worth reading, prefaces the fun to come. Poets range from current award winners like Sherman Alexie to those like Burns and Kipling studied in long ago English classes. I started to pick a few lines I really liked and wound up shortening a blog that became much too long. I had to include the first sample since it brought back memories of my grandfather harvesting honey from his own bees.

24th May: Collecting the Bees (Sean Borodale) 
“He just wears a veil, this farmer, no gloves
and lifts open a dribbly wax-clogged
blackwood box.”

Boy with Honeybee Hair (Barry Blumenfeld)
. . . I came to say, He
said, it’s nothing to
Be afraid of, death. It’s a place you go to rest.

Summer at the Orphanage (Laure-Anne Bosselar)
I’d like to tell you that something happened then
– that there was an epiphany, that the bee
taught me something.
But it didn’t.

Of A’ the Airts the Wind Can Blaw (Robert Burns)
Blaw, blaw ye wastin winds, blaw soft
Among the leafy trees,
With gentle gale from hill and dale Bring hame
the laden bees.

The Language of Bees (Barbara Hamby)
This piece of amusing information rather than a poem begins by stating there are 76 distinct words of stinging, 39 words for queen, 22 for sunshine, and addressing the qualities of bee language before concluding “for it is eloquent and vulgar in the same mouth, and though its wound is sweet it can be distressing, as if words could not hurt or be meant to sting.”

Though the poems varied widely in style and substance, I failed to find a weak one. I will give a bit of advice on how to read the book. Choose one or two a day as you would select a couple of fine chocolates from a box and savor them. Truthfully, I could not do this any better than I do with chocolate. I kept reading “just one more.” At least, they didn’t make me gain weight.

Hattiesburger - Really?

Evidently after one hundred and thirty years of existence, community leaders of Hattiesburg decided that residents should have an official name and asked for suggestions from its populace. Behind closed doors, they examined those submissions. I was not privy to the discussion nor in the know on how their debate went. I only know that the decision was presented to the Annual Tourism Partners meeting at the Train Depot, and residents of the Hub City are now “Hattiesburgers.”  
       You see my first reaction in my title. (My computer had a similar reaction, drawing its red line underneath every time I typed it. I’ve added the word to its vocabulary so it won’t keep distracting me from this discussion.) 
        Returning to the wisdom of the name, I pictured the Hattiesburg I know. Any day one waits at the traffic light at Hardy Street and Hwy 49, the screen on the corner of the USM campus flashes student and faculty recitals, Science Café offerings, and experts in various fields for campus events. Its OLLI lifelong learning program offers courses alphabetically from art to technology designed for the over fifty crowd. Recently two days of C-Span were devoted to history and collections from the university and larger community. Three weeks of events from May 30 through June 18 feature arts of all kinds in FestivalSouth ( Somehow all this didn’t quite fit with the city’s people becoming “burgers.”
       I was not alone. Within days, the area weekly paper had its own take with the news item including the comment, “You can dress it however you like. Hold the mustard or add pickles, onions, and a bit of ketchup.” The cartoon in the same paper reflected the sibling rivalry with neighboring Lamar County that does not always appreciate annexation attempts on the part of Hattiesburg. This brought on my second reaction as I thought about a part of Hattiesburg not so readily noticeable – its ability to laugh, sometimes at itself. Hattiesburg seasons its classy event offerings with a sense of humor – not a bad combination at all.
       As for me, technically I’m not a “burger.” I live outside the city, but I can see it from my front yard so go ahead and pass the mustard.


The World Beneath

When I plan to review a book, I read little about it before I begin my own reading because I don’t want to bias my evaluation. In the case of The World Beneath by Janice Warman, this restriction was a disadvantage.
        In the author’s note at the end she writes, “I grew up as a privileged white child surrounded by poverty and deprivation in a world we did not see.” That world was South Africa in 1976 which becomes the setting for her book. She draws on her own experience to give us the story of Joshua who lives with his mother in the maid’s room in the back yard of her wealthy white employers. He understands little of what is happening around him but knows the need to be unobserved. Slowly the world around him begins to change and he must make some dangerous choices. Those versed in the history of South African apartheid will recognize situations and names before he does and know how perilous his decisions may be.
        The novel contains tension from the family situation and the world around it and keeps the reader engaged. The problem I found was the lack of character development even with Joshua. There was a reason for that! After I finished the book and did a bit of reading about it, I discovered the author was a veteran journalist. I wished I had known that as I was reading. I would have understood that the book read like a documentary that is hyped for days before it is shown on TV.
        I recommend the book as a read together book for parent and child or in a classroom, beginning with the note in the endpapers on Amnesty International and the information about resources to use fiction to teach about human rights. The connection from this story to other examples of injustice seems to be natural with this quote from the afterword, “We are all born with human rights, no matter who we are or where we live, but we are not always allowed access to them. Human rights are about justice, truth, and freedom. They are part of what makes us human.”

Back to Kindergarten

I can’t really use the idea behind the title of Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten since I never attended kindergarten as a student. However, there were six years when I was the kindergarten teacher. Let me tell you, each day brought a lesson with a five-year-old perspective that most adults have left behind.

Recently, I was invited to return to Kindergarten as a guest to talk about writing. I took my “Story of a Story” presentation and led them on a journey from the idea in my head all the way to publication of an article about Ezra Jack Keats in Highlights for Children. Well-prepared for my visit by their teacher, they could tell me the difference between fiction and nonfiction and vote intelligently for their preference. They nodded knowingly as we discussed research and rewriting. The Q and A at the end brought up the number of “No, thanks” replies that writers get from editors and the need to get over discouragement and send their manuscripts out again.

I hope they learned from the presentation as I did from them. The thank-you notes with more five-year-old lessons that came the next week showed individual personalities, not copies of an example the teacher put on the board. Since they all spelled “Virginia” correctly, I’m guessing she did write that for them. Some of their lessons:
• One said, “Go, books!!” and ended with, “And one more thing I love fiction!” She may have missed a comma, but she knows her exclamation marks.  
• Another did a bit of P.R., “No I Pad Do Books.”
• I think there was a lesson in open-heartedness as many expressed love on such short acquaintance, especially the one who had three-quarters of a page filled with x-kisses.

Maybe my favorite lesson came from the young student advisor who had listened intently to my stories of writers who had succeeded in spite of “No, thanks” answers from publishers. As we wound up the visit, he raised his hand and said, “I just want to say, don’t give up on your dream.” I think I’ll take his advice.


Burn, Baby, Burn

I’ve been following Meg Medina’s work since she won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award in 2012 for Tia Isa Wants a Car. Following my read of this delightful picture book drawn from her own childhood experience with an aunt, I enjoyed her narrative in The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind based in Latin American culture as she dips into a bit of magical realism with children looking to the future as parents try to hold onto old ways. In a harder novel, that I reviewed in this blog, in “Twice Sorry, Once Pleased,” she won the Pura Belpré Author award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass featuring a Latina teen who faces a bully at her new school.

Having learned Meg’s ability to connect with her intended audience from young children through teenagers, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read her latest Burn, Baby, Burn. The novel is set in New York city in the summer of 1977 in a community with nerves on edge as the Son of Sam killer seems to be striking at will. Family responsibility falls on seventeen-year-old Nora Lopez who copes with a brother now on drugs after being spoiled, excused, and indulged by her mother; a father who leaves her, her mother, and her brother waiting for a support check while he indulges his new family in an upscale lifestyle; and a landlord hounding them for rent money. That’s all before her mother loses her job.  Page-turning tension holds until the very last pages.

For those who remember the Son of Sam summer, the compelling narrative rings true to history. It also rings true for teenagers like Nora who lack a picture perfect life and must become the adults in their families before it is time. 

I’m caught up with wonder at Meg’s ability to write well in such a variety of genres – lighthearted picture books, intriguing magic realism, and heart-wrenching YA historical fiction. The consistent thread I’ve found in her work is the view she gives into her Latina culture. I’m anticipating my next view through that window.