Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel

Husband Al knew he wouldn’t have to ask twice. He saw Lemuria Books in Jackson on Kimberly Willis Holt’s travel schedule and asked, “Do you want to go?” With a collection of her books that goes back to when I met her almost twenty years ago in her early writing years, he knew I would want the latest. Her new book, Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel, displaced books-to-be-read at the top of my stack even before I found both a normal and an unusual connection to its protagonist.

The reader gets a hint of estrangement from the beginning, “My name, Stevie Grace, was tattooed inside a giant sun on my dad’s back.” With the tattoo and the back-to-nature lifestyle lived in an abandoned church outside Taos, New Mexico, Stevie’s parents don’t fit expectations for a daughter of a conservative Texas family. Stevie remains unaware of the problem, since her parents have cut ties with home, until she is suddenly left an orphan.

Stevie Grace must go live with a grandfather she has never met in a rundown motel in Little Esther, Texas. The unusual inhabitants of the motel take a shine to her sooner than her grandfather. He holds on to some mysterious grudge that her parents had also kept secret.

Like many of her books, this one draws on Kimberly’s heritage of her grandfather’s nurseries in Forest Hill, Louisiana and her longtime residence in Texas. An important story line follows Stevie’s efforts to beautify the motel with plants out front. Her progress in dealing with her grief and finding her place in this new world are foreshadowed by the divisions of the book – Seedling, Cultivate, Sow, Transplant, and Blooming. This good read now joins its companions on my special KWH shelf.

Not to forget my links to Stevie, the usual one is a love for growing things with normal successes and failures. The unusual connection is that we both had a grandmother we never met named “Dovie.” Both her grandmother and mine (in the picture) left legacies that have influenced our lives even without their physical presence.




Daniel Finds a Poem

Just in time for poetry month, Micha Archer won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award at the Kaigler Children’s Book Festival for her book Daniel Finds a Poem. The story follows a little boy as he tries to find a definition of poetry.

Daniel’s interest is peaked by a sign on the park gate advertising “Poetry in the Park – Sunday at 6 o’clock.” He wants to know what poetry is so he can be ready for next week’s event. As he goes through each day of the week, he asks a different animal and gets a different perspective from each one. It’s not a spoiler to tell you ahead of time that he comes up with his own perfect poem to share and a way to observe poems everywhere he goes. The text encourages the preschool listener and the adult who reads aloud to be on the lookout for poetry in the world around them.

I was as intrigued with the illustrations as with the text since Micha is both author and illustrator. Early on, I felt something familiar – a little boy in a neighborhood exploring nature, beautiful collage artwork, the wonder of childhood. Then I turned the page and saw Daniel in bed looking forward to a new day. I knew the connection I was trying to make.

Micha confirmed my discovery when I talked to her at the festival. Like several illustrators at the festival, she acknowledged the artist who had gone before her and served as her inspiration. Her collage and view of childhood is reminiscent of Ezra Jack Keats.

The picture of Daniel greeting the morning is a tribute to Keats with a flipped arrangement of Peter in The Snowy Day, yet it is distinctly her own. Possibilities for sharing this book with children abound – the story, the day of the week sequence, and following Daniel’s example by looking for poetry in the natural world. But I think my favorite will be sitting with a couple of preschoolers with the two books spread together looking for likenesses and differences in the works of Keats and Archer! 


Rooting for Rafael Rosales

What could a young Dominican baseball fan have in common with an American daughter of an executive of a large corporation?

Rafael’s story is told over time beginning with the first chapter “Rafael, Many Years Ago” and following his goal of making a major-league baseball team in the United States. He and many of his peers see this as a way out of poverty. In the early days, he rescues a girl’s chicken, a girl who lives in destitution greater than his own.

Maya’s story begins in the present day during Rafael’s first year in the minor leagues. Her activism to save the bees in the environment runs afoul of the pesticide manufactured by her father’s company. Her fondness for plants loved by bees like thistles and dandelions that her sister calls “weeds” triggers her explanation, “A weed is a plant you don’t want. I want these, so they aren’t weeds.” Her love of baseball and a post on her sister’s blog lead to a friendship with the girl named Bijou who owned the rescued chicken and a link to Rafael.

The difficulty of life in the Dominican Republic and cautionary practices as Rafael pursues his baseball dream contrast with the affluence and moral dilemma for Maya as she decides how far to take her passion when her father’s job is at stake. I found the move back and forth between the two characters easy enough, but was a bit disconcerted for a while by the time with Rafael’s taking place over years while Maya’s stayed in the present.

Ultimately, there is a secret both Rafael and Maya share that could wreak havoc in the lives of people they care about. Right and wrong are not as clear as they should be. This is a good middle grade read with a nice window into the world of aspiring baseball players common to the Dominican Republic.


Whoa, Muley!

Cleaning through old folders is not an efficient task. An unexpected stack of school pictures took me back to the hair business that symbolized my ambivalent relationship with Mama. I was relieved when she stopped struggling with my hair. The stuff grew prolifically on my head, fine and board straight. If I had only been a 70s child, I would never have had to use an ironing board.

Mama had completely given up on my hair by the time I started to school. She let it grow and put it into pigtails. School pictures show braids meeting on top of my head from each side with back hair hanging down in my first grade picture. Each year, the school pictures showed longer braids. As my hair grew, she turned the pigtails into an asset with ribbons to match my dresses and several ways to put them up that were pretty and different. I willingly sat for her to put my hair in French braids for special occasions. After the braids grew really long, she sometimes looped them up and put the ribbon at the top. Once a girl handed down to me a rather nondescript white eyelet dress with buttons down the front. Mama added bone crochet loops on either side of the buttons and tied each pair together with three colors of narrow ribbon. Then she put the same colors of ribbons on my braids. It was ever so much sharper than the original. By the time I was ten, I plaited the everyday pigtails myself.

A point of pride was that only one other girl about a year older than I was who sometimes visited our community had braids as long. I didn’t even care when the boys took hold of the pigtails and gave a gentle pull, calling, “Whoa, Muley!” It was all in fun. I could have done without the nickname Muley, however, which stuck for a while.

Our bone of contention was not the braids but the bangs. Mama insisted on cutting them straight across just above my eyebrows. When my hair was neatly combed, they provided a nice balance to the long braids hanging behind and covered a rather high forehead. The problem was the bangs seldom hung down. Mississippi heat seemed almost year-round. You may have heard that Southern girls glow or perspire in the heat. Not me. I sweated profusely. I pushed hair that dripped sweat into my eyes straight up. After third grade, all but one of my school pictures shows bangs pushed up, up, and away.

On the whole, my pigtails made me feel special and kept Mama from trying to put one of those foul-smelling permanents in my hair. Mama must have liked them, too, since the next folder I open has the braids, preserved when they were cut in seventh grade with rubber bands on each end.


Mercies in Disguise

The question threading its way through the narrative nonfiction book, Mercies in Disguise, by Gina Kolata is one I’ve pondered before. If a hereditary degenerative disease showed up often in your family and you could be tested to see if you carried the gene, would you have the test?  

This story of the Baxter family exemplifies the odds of a fifty/fifty chance of having a gene for a disease that steals both body and mind slowly and ends in death. The frame is Amanda’s choice. It begins as she waits to hear the results of her test before going on to the backstory, and ends with the phone call and her response to it.

Irony lies in the fact that the Baxter family is filled with doctors. By chance, they begin to notice a similarity in family deaths that are attributed to Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases. Once they realize the commonality of the rare disease, they are able to establish that it has been passed from one generation to the next, often receiving various labels since doctors themselves are not aware of the disease. In their bafflement, they label the sickness with the closest equivalent in their knowledge base.

Rogue scientists fill in a parallel story along with that of the family. They have the correct label, discover the gene marker, and find a test for it. As expected, family members differ in whether to test or not to test, sometimes finding a conflict between the possibilities of science and reliance on their faith.

This true story reads like a mystery novel with page-turning urgency. I found myself sympathizing with those who wanted to know and take every opportunity afforded by science and with those who wanted to live life with a faith that assumed they were in the fifty percent clear of the gene. Following Amanda feels like following the protagonist of an intriguing novel with the added urgency of knowing her story is true.

As for the question of whether I would want to know, I’m still pondering.