Olympic Reflections

I’ve loved the unexpectedness in the Olympics for many years, relishing “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” I have a love of ski jumping for its sheer beauty and of snowboarding for its risk that is spectacularly odd since I can mount a good bit of fear on a step stool putting books on the high shelf in the bookcase.

I have a big problem with commentators who insist on pushing the microphone and the questions at people like Nathan Chen and Marai Nagasu who have just failed in some way to deliver on their overpromised hype from the media. In their final long programs, Nathan’s skating was sheer beauty along with the six quads that he nailed. Marai, who could have yelled “foul” and gone home after being left off the last Olympic team, instead kept working and performed a near perfect program with a first triple axel. I love when athletes don’t take failure as the final answer but get back up and nail their challenges.

I may need to take back some words I said about curling being less entertaining that watching the dandelions push themselves up in my front yard. Evidently many people were glued to the TV for curling matches that seemed to be ever-present. I did watch the gold medal match and enjoyed seeing all the USA team members actually singing at the Gold Medal Ceremony. When they got the mikes to do a bit of karaoke afterwards, it made me glad I had only seen and not heard them. The ladies’ hockey team also sang the anthem with great joy, but no mikes so I won’t critique their musicality.

I think Red Gerard was my favorite character to come out of this Olympics with his “Aw, shucks!” kind of attitude. It was hard to believe that someone who made it to the Olympics would almost oversleep and have to borrow a too-big jacket. At seventeen, being the youngest male snowboarder ever to win gold didn’t seem to impress him. Answering questions about winning the gold medal and about what’s ahead for him, he majored on having fun on the snowboard and just wanting to get a good run every time. In fact, he advised other ambitious athletes to enjoy their sport rather than obsessing over coaches and such. I’m guessing he’s not going to want or need a sports psychologist.

So now I wait two years for the thrills and agonies of the summer Olympics with sports I enjoy even more than winter ones. I can only hope that somebody will teach the commentators some empathy and courtesy in the meantime.  


Proper Training

Phina (on the right at the head of the table) read, “The End,” and received a lengthy round of applause. Our MS/LA SCBWI critique group meets monthly in New Orleans and celebrates any progress. We had listened for years as she read chapters or bits of chapters, sometimes repeating a rewritten chapter, and feeling a little cheated at meetings when she brought nothing to read from her middle grade novel. After applause subsided, we asked when she started the book. Her answer of “1993” brings to mind that you can’t rush perfection.

Her ten-year-old protagonist is also named Phina and based rather closely on her own personality and life. She had suggested to a professional editor, who gave her a review, that she might avoid confusion if her own name was not the same as the protagonist. The editor responded that she could change her own name if she chose, but she needed to leave her character’s name alone. We agreed, and I will avoid that confusion by using Josephine for the writer and Phina for her protagonist.  

While still working fulltime as a librarian, Josephine had begun the book Proper Training and worked on it when she could find time. Her oral readings during this time were spasmodic, but they became regular when Josephine retired and began writing in earnest. We loved the spunky Phina from the minute she tried to help the lady waiting beside her and her mother in the dentist office. The lady shared a picture of Elizabeth Taylor with her mother and wondered how a woman could look like that. Phina helpfully suggested to the lady, who was spilling over into her chair, that she could try a girdle.

The story, set in New Orleans during the days of desegregation, has Phina with both a heart and a mouth that are sometimes are too big and get her into trouble as she tries to make sense of the world that puts her Italian immigrant grandparents outside the mainstream and her black friend Ernestine out even farther. Thank goodness her grandmother buys her Devil’s Food Cookie Squares at Kress on shopping trips, bringing a bit of relief from the messes in the world and the ones Phina makes herself.

More celebrations have followed. An employee of a book publisher that Josephine became friends with as a librarian asked to read the manuscript. Celebration !!! That friend asked if she could pass it along to another friend who is an agent. Celebration !!!!! And now we wait with Josephine, hoping for the big celebration !!!!!!! when Phina makes her way into the book stores.

I was honored to be a beta reader of the finished manuscript, and now I must apologize that I can’t tell you where to run out and buy the book. I hope that time will come in a year or two!


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.