Salt to the Sea

“Guilt is a hunter.

          My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child.

          It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.”

So begins Salt to the Sea in the voice of Joana, yet another gripping historical fiction novel by Rita Sepetys that draws on her own family’s history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Rita draws on her Lithuanian family history to revisit the real happening of the worst maritime disaster in history. Nine thousand passengers, most of them refugees, drowned when the German ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff sank in 1945. Her father’s cousin missed the disaster only because she was unable to board on that fateful day. That cousin suggested that Rita write the book. Others told her it was forgotten history and not worth bothering.

I’m glad Rita ignored the negative voices. Three main characters, Joana, Emelia, and Florien tell their stories of trying to make the ship that will take them to safety ahead of the Soviet advance with a fourth Nazi naval soldier named Alfred telling his own unreliable story as he tries to obtain status with the German regime. The story switches among each of their voices. In the first chapter of each, they find a different hunter. For Florein, fate is the hunter, for Emilie, it is shame, and for Alfred, if is fear. Backstories and secrets; setting; and well-drawn secondary characters, including a shoemaker who can deduce people’s story by their shoes, add to the tension even before the ship goes down. Tough decisions that weigh personal safety against the needs of the group proliferate, with the reader drawn into a desire to help make the choices.

I’m not alone in my praise for this book since it also won the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal, given in honor of Andrew Carnegie, for an outstanding children’s book; the 2017 Mid-South Division Crystal Kite Award and the 2017 Golden Kite Award for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the last two being the only awards judged by peers in the field.

I’m left with one puzzle, how soon can I expect another Rita Sepetys book?

Lessons from Preschool Soccer

Robert Fulgham has nothing on me. You may remember that he learned all he really needed to know in kindergarten and wrote a book about it. I learned a slew of life lessons on one fine Saturday morning watching preschoolers play soccer and am now writing a blog about it.

Tatum Park in Hattiesburg is a sea of soccer fields on Saturdays so locating where our two preschool grandsons were playing took the modern intervention of cellphones, but that’s beside the point. I had planned to give cheers and moral support, but unexpectedly ended up with a few surprises and great ideas.

(1) It was not uncommon for the young players to make a goal for the opposing team. Applause followed nonetheless.

(2) When one grandchild accidentally kicked the soccer ball into his teammate’s face, he cried longer than his injured friend – truly sorry that the other child was hurt. 

(3) Bystanders and parents, including the injured child’s parents, kept repeating, “It’s okay. It was an accident.” Blame was not assessed.

(4) The injured child, without prompting by an adult, brought peace to the kicker as he gave a hug to show both love and forgiveness.

(5) At the end of the other grandson’s game, I asked my son who won, and he said, “I don’t know.” Neither did any of the children who were busy giving high fives and running under the tunnel formed by their parents.

(6) The tunnels turned out to be so much fun that the temptation to run through one on a brother’s field was accepted and even encouraged.

Lessons carved out over the course of the morning were to take joy in scoring one for an opponent, to truly care when you cause someone to hurt, to extend forgiveness freely and spontaneously, and to find joy in the game and celebrate no matter who won or even if it’s your home field.

I have my doubts that these lessons will remain unblemished for a lifetime, but if they could stay and spread – picture what a world that would be!

Speaking Our Truth

The nonfiction book Speaking Our Truth by Monique Gray Smith takes an in-depth look at the residential school system in Canada, but its interest spreads to the United States since similar schools and problems occurred here. Interest in this book extends to anyone concerned with fair treatment of Indigenous people wherever they occur. The author, with Cree, Lakota, and Scottish heritage, infuses her account with personal passion.

Her book cites the report “The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” as background and looks to bring action to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the initial chapter, she gives the names used to describe these first people – Indian, Native, First Nation, Aboriginal, and Indigenous – explaining that she will use the one that was the norm of the time as she tells the story beginning with Indian for the 1800s and coming to Indigenous for the present day.

Scattered throughout the book are personal accounts of those she calls Survivors who lived through experiences in the residential schools, sometimes with one generation repeating the last. Separated from parents and unable to practice their culture or speak their own language, indigenous children also suffered abuse, deprivation, and hunger in the schools. Frequently, discipline patterns learned at the school were passed along to children of these Survivors. The reader is left wondering who thought this would be a good idea.

Balancing the negative picture comes the efforts now being made to bring reconciliation and hope with projects such as Orange Shirt Day, the Blanket Exercise, and Project of the Heart. Discussion questions leading to empathy thread through the narrative. Back matter includes opportunities for further study in Online Resources, Reading List, Glossary, List of Residential Schools, and an Index.

As a coincidence, the next book I read and will not be discussing or recommending had a girl “whooping like an Indian on the warpath.” I would have been offended by the negative stereotype, but coming immediately after Speaking Our Truth, the phrase touched a newly exposed nerve.

In a second coincidence, I need to get this posted quickly so I can leave for the Native American Mounds Tour in and around Natchez with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Maybe I’ll find another accurate and empathetic story today.

The Case of the Missing Painting

Did I detect a touch of accusation in my principal’s voice? A few weeks into the new school year, Mrs. Morgan came down to my room, “Virginia, do you know what happened to Andy’s painting in the teacher’s lounge? I've looked everywhere. You were my last hope.” My concern matched hers. We agreed to keep a lookout, but one day led to another and the school year wore on.

Andy Woods, our quiet introverted art teacher for the first few years that I taught second grade at South Polk Elementary School, challenged those who were artistically talented while encouraging the ones with no more talent than I have. I think of her when October comes.

Andy left us the first time to have surgery for breast cancer. She downplayed her concern, talking to only a few of us with whom she had become close. I bemoaned my inability to teach art to my students while she was out. She knew I could put all my artistic ability in a thimble and still have room for my finger. Smiling, she said, “You can. Just tell them to use all their space and realize that nothing is just one color.”

When Andy came back to inspire our creative and noncreative students, we rejoiced and settled comfortably – until the cancer returned aggressively a couple of years later to the other breast. The group of friends mourned with her, unwilling to accept the diagnosis that she would not return and treatment would be palliative.

After Andy died, Mrs. Morgan asked me to do a eulogy at faculty meeting. Using Andy’s words, I said she had filled all her space and had painted her world with a myriad of colors. Mrs. Morgan placed her favorites, Andy’s clown paintings, around her office. Andy’s husband gave us a mixed media painting for the teacher’s lounge that visualized sitting on the patio in the fall with the morning paper and a cup of coffee. We enjoyed it, and then it went missing – for a while.

Late one afternoon toward the end of the school year, when almost everyone had gone home, Mrs. Morgan returned to my room, beckoning me to come with her. In the teacher’s lounge, she pulled something from behind the soft drink machine – Andy’s painting! The painters had taken it down the summer before and stuck it behind the machine rather than replacing it on the wall. “Take it with you,” she said. “You are the last one working here that was close to Andy, and I have the clowns.”

Truthfully, it doesn’t have to be October for me to think of Andy. The painting hangs where I see it when I eat or drink coffee. But in Breast Cancer Month especially, it makes me hope for the day when we will be rid of this terrible disease for Andy and for people like her who fill all their space with color and beauty. 

Lightning Men

In his novel set in 1950s Atlanta, Thomas Mullen borrows his title Lightning Men from Nazi Germany. In the prologue, Jeremiah, newly released from prison is told one of three things happen when a Negro is released from jail: (1) his family or friends pick him up, (2) the prison takes him by bus to the train where his people meet him. or (3) they give him about seventy-five cents and let the prisoner walk. By the time the prologue is finished, crime has begun and the writing has seized the reader. 

The body of the novel has the police department chasing drugs and alcohol and solving murders while keeping a line drawn between the white and black officers with both groups wondering who among them are the corrupt. There’s a group of Columbians with the Nazi-style lightning bolt on their sleeves which now reappears on street signs. The policemen’s personal stories weave in and out and color their own hand at justice, giving hard choices between family and the law.

As tensions escalate over black families moving into “white” neighborhoods, Mullen draws a parallel: “‘Lightning men,’ the doughboys had called the SS troopers. But they were all lightning men. Not just the Columbians but the Klansmen, too, and the neighborhood association that had offered to buy Hannah’s house as if that were a legitimate, regular ol’ business arrangement shorn of threats.”

Such a tangle of multiple stories keep the reader on edge pondering if any satisfying ending can come of all this – and yet it does with an ending that left me shaking my head and saying, “I didn’t see that coming.”

They're Here!

Waiting patiently doesn’t happen to be one of my virtues. Early this year, I was alerted that I would get an invitation from the United States Postal Service to the first day of issue ceremony for forever stamps honoring The Snowy Day. This picture book by Ezra Jack Keats became a pioneer in diversity when Ezra chose a clipping from Life Magazine of a little black boy that he had saved for twenty years for his model of a child having fun in the snow.

I heard on good authority that in the planning discussion for the event, someone suggested it would be convenient and easy to send out RSVP invitations by email. You might rightly guess how that went over with the post office. USPS assured the group that the postal service would mail cards properly in envelopes. I concur with their decision for quite another reason. Email may be efficient, but a Snowy Day card makes a much cuter keepsake than an email printout!

I’ve really enjoyed the irony of stamps created to honor Ezra’s artwork in light of one of his childhood escapades. Already an artist, he drew some exotic stamps and carefully cut perforated edges around them with his sister’s manicure scissors. He traded his bogus creations to the most serious stamp collector in his neighborhood for some of his rarest stamps. All went well until his friend took Ezra’s handiwork into good daylight and realized he had been duped. Ezra holed up in his tenement apartment home while the friend rained down curses on him and his entire family. In the interest of his own longevity, Ezra gave the rare stamps back.  

When my invitation finally came last month, I stopped at the Hattiesburg post office to see if these stamps would be available on the October 4 issue date. The postal clerks were busy and not sure what special stamps were in the back. If you remember what I said about my lack of patience, you can probably guess what came next. I came home and preordered my stamps!

Miguel's Brave Knight

Even though I’m a big fan of both Margarita Engel and Raul Colon, I had my doubts that a biography of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra would attract young readers. Why would they care about the man credited with writing the first modern novel?

In their book Miguel’s Brave Knight, Margarita uses word snippets like “If Only,” “Disaster,” or “Hoping” to title each free verse poem that tells Miguel’s story. Her fictionalized biography of a daydreamer whose gambling father keeps the family courting financial disaster doesn’t require a knowledge of Don Quixote to be interesting.  Storytellers and teachers become the quiet heroes in Miguel’s life.

The cover illustration tips off the beauty that will be found inside. Raul Colon’s paintings help tell the story and create shadows of Margarita’s titles. My favorite painting illustrates the poem titled “Comfort.” A pensive dog sits beside the daydreaming boy while his imagination pictured above shows a brave knight on his steed against a starry night – a foreshadowing of the novel Cervantes will one day write.

In words and pictures, Margarita and Raul portray a time when people feared imagination enough to burn books and a boy who already knew that imagination could be saved by a brave knight. Both writer and illustrator add information at the end giving interesting personal experiences with the work of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. There is also a short note about the historical setting and another about the life of Cervantes.

No longer a doubter, I see this book as one that a young reader will return to many times to read the words and savor the art, just like this older reader who wrote the review.

Sixth Anniversary

Six years! As the calendar turns from September to October, I add an anniversary to this blog. When I started, I followed advice and had several entries written ahead – just in case. I’ve tried with some success to continue that practice so I don’t wake up on blogging morning without something to say. (Some would doubt that I ever wake up with nothing to say, but I’m not going there for this blog.)

I had no idea how well I could stick to my plan of blogging twice a week. Turns out, I’ve been pretty consistent. One skip came during a trip to England with my sister when I had no Internet access. Another blog was late in the day rather than early morning this year because we were making a tour of the national parks, and sometimes lacked Internet access.

This has been an interesting process. Readers that I see regularly may start conversations where the blog left off. Sometimes I’ve been surprised as I began an anecdote with an acquaintance who says, “Oh, I know that already. I read it on your blog.” One of my favorites came when someone began to introduce me to a friend of my sister’s and he said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re ‘Readin’, Ritin’, But Not Much ‘Rithmetic.”

Over the six years, a fairly consistent pattern has developed with approximately half the entries being some kind of commentary on life and half book reviews. Some might classify as both. The life commentary tends to get the most immediate reaction with the book reviews getting more hits in perpetuity. As I promised in an early blog, I only review books I can recommend.

Since I’ve proved to myself I can keep a twice a week schedule and enjoy it at least most of the time, I’m all set to start year seven.

The sixth anniversary celebration calls for candy or iron in the traditional column or wood in the modern column. Al’s already built everything we can use in wood, and I can think of nothing I need in iron – certainly not if you are thinking of the iron that presses out wrinkles and makes sharp creases in pants. I guess I’ll have to settle for candy. So let’s light the candles and eat the dark chocolate!


Heads around the room nodded as Florence Minor began her talk at the 2017 Kaigler Book Festival by noting Heidi as a favorite childhood book. One of those heads was mine. When Florence mentioned the grandfather’s melted cheese, the audience appeared to be made up of bobbleheads.

I had a very special tenth birthday. Except for a new dress and a generic cake for the family, Mama didn’t make too much of birthdays. However, a decade seemed important to her, and the dress she designed and made came from carefully chosen store-bought fabric rather than the normal feed sacks the dairy farmers in Daddy’s congregation saved for her. The main part of the bodice and skirt was a forest green and pink plaid. The pink yoke that had a tab on the left side coming down matched a pink border on the bottom with a tab coming up. Three pink pearly buttons anchored both tabs. She even went all out on the cake making my favorite white butter creme icing and decorating it with turquoise, my favorite color at the time.

Adding to this best childhood birthday, Aunt Ruth gave me Heidi for a birthday present. Reading in the McGee household was as common as eating and breathing, but owning books all by yourself – not so much. Books came from the school library or the bookmobile and were often loaned back and forth among friends. Any we actually owned would list on the cover page “The McGee Girls” or “Virginia Ann, Beth, and Gwen” and eventually “Ruth.” This book was mine, mine, mine! My sisters had to get my permission if they wanted to read Heidi.

Florence’s talk gave me a hankering to revisit Heidi, Clara, the grandfather, and Peter (also a hankering for melted cheese, but that is another issue). My special book, of course, is long gone, but Amazon had a first-rate translation for an excellent price (free), and I downloaded it for a special treat on the plane as we traveled out west. I found much the same. Heidi still wins the hearts of all those around her, Peter lets his jealousy get the best of him, Clara learns to walk, and grandfather is reconciled to the community around him. The only difference is that when I was ten, the Alps existed only in my imagination. Now I have been there and could place Heidi in a real place that I can see.

Thanks, Florence, for sending me back to an old favorite. 

Zenobia the First

Following up on Friday’s blog – my great aunt was not the original Zenobia, just the first I ever knew. Originally from Greek, Zenobia means “life of Zeus.” Septimia Zenobia was a third century queen of the Palmyrene Empire. Who knows where Aunt Nobie’s North Mississippi parents got her name!

As I reached my teenage years, Zenobia seemed to fit her more than the mundane family name of “Nobie.” Papaw’s elegant sister came down to visit from Memphis where she had a real job. His other sisters – housewives who raided hen’s nests, milked cows, and canned vegetables – paled in comparison. As you can see, the elegance of her working days in the first picture lingered to her 95th birthday in the second.

My admiration moved to a relationship with her the summer I spent two weeks as companion to my 87-year-old grandmother who lived with her. Aunt Nobie worked all day before talking far into the night as we shared her bedroom with twin beds. Two years later, after Gram’s death, she talked Mama into letting me come up for a weeklong event for sixteen-year-olds at her church. Becoming a BFF as late-night talking continued, she had little idea of the seeds she planted in those conversations.

Revisiting days before she had to go to work when her husband died, she told of having her house full of girls working on projects and memorizing scripture in her church volunteer work while she forgot the supper in the stove. She mentioned the patience of Uncle Charles when he opened the door to smell his supper burning. Her joy instilled a goal to volunteer the same way when I became an adult. (I did, and never burned the dinner as I recall, but Al was also patient with the mess of teenage girls he sometimes found in our house.)

She griped about my mother who lacked a compulsion to answer her letters. Aunt Nobie had taken it upon herself to keep the scattered family informed. If any of them wrote letters, they sent them to her, knowing she would pass news along to the kinfolks. She typed lengthy letters with carbon copies in her typewriter and mailed them out, assuming they would be greeted with pleasure (they were) and answered (not so much). On the few occasions when she wrote one by hand, Daddy would hand it to Mama. “We heard from Aunt Nobie. You can read it and tell me what she said.” Her handwriting looked like it came from that Palmyrene Empire. Again, I thought letter-writing could keep a family informed. While other communication methods work quicker these days, I became the principal letter-writer of my generation with similar luck in getting answers.

Besides her conversations, there was the jewelry. Remember the exotic aunt with a real job? She had a chest of costume jewelry that she allowed me to plunder. If I admired a particular piece, she would say, “You know, I’m kind of tired of that one. Why don’t you take it?” Most of these are long gone, but I still have one necklace in various shades of pink that has been restrung several times. I wear it but resemble the rural sisters more than the elegant one with a real job.

So now you know, in case you were curious, why I had to read a book called Elizabeth and Zenobia.

Elizabeth and Zenobia

The name Zenobia popped out at me from the offerings of advance reading copies. Aunt Nobie (short for Zenobia) was a favorite relative when I was growing up – more about her in the next blog. I had seen chats about Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller from book people, but it was the name that caused me to push “Request” on Net Galley’s website.  

A line from the first page of this middle grade novel let me know I was in for a treat, “I have always paid attention to words and the way they fill my ears. There are words I could hear over and over again, like seashell. And there are other words, like custard, that make my stomach flip.” Elizabeth’s affinity for words and her long list of things she found fearful matched mine. However, the only experience I’ve had with imaginary friends came when I had to supply treats for my oldest son’s buddies (four as I remember).

Which brings us to Zenobia’s disclaimers. She can’t be an imaginary friend simply because someone as dull as Elizabeth would be incapable of dreaming her up. She also is not a ghost but a Spirit Presence. As Elizabeth and her father move back to his morbid childhood home, Zenobia’s antics promise to keep nervous Elizabeth in trouble, but maybe they will also answer questions about why the East Wing is forbidden territory, what happened to an aunt Elizabeth did not know existed, and why her father is so distant.

Normally preferring reality to the supernatural in books, I found myself caught up in the story and scrolling rapidly down the pages as I read on my computer. The writer for The Horn Book for Sept/Oct 2017 had the same reaction, and the magazine gave it a starred review. This is a book for anyone able to suspend disbelief in Spirit Presences, anyone who loves a good story, and especially anyone who has once loved a very real imaginary friend.  

Without giving anything away, note was taken near the end of the book that Zenobia was a rather uncommon name. You’ll find my take on that in next Monday’s blog.

Butler B & B

Good advice – never try to give instruction to a hummingbird. As Mama always said, “You might as well save your breath to cool your broth.”

However, I would like to ignore my own recommendation and give some tips to these creatures who must have seen a sign in the skyway – “Good eats at the Butler B & B.” Al and I have tried to count those at the feeder outside my office window. We did well until they got past seven, and then it became iffy. How many were in the crepe myrtle waiting a turn? Did we count the one hovering on the left before he moved to the right? Oops, there come two more who were out of sight. And another who just flew in from the lantana. Anyway, there are at least a dozen – we think.

Here are the helpful hints I’d like to give them.

(1) You are doing a better job at waiting for a turn than some hummingbirds I’ve seen. Still, when you decide to chase each other away, neither of you is getting something to eat.

(2) You could also have a little pity and share with that Gulf Fritillary Butterfly who tries to sneak in for a sip.

(3) There is a second feeder on the back patio frequented by one or two hummingbirds. You would get a turn there much sooner.

(4) Watch where you’re going. Flying into the wall full speed ahead could get you a concussion. And the next time you get your bill hung in the window screen, you might not get out so quickly.

(5) Relax and enjoy your all-day-dinner. There’s more sugar water where that came from.

(6) If you would hold still and say “cheese,” I could get a better picture for my blog.

Obviously, these distractions are not helping my efforts at getting some serious writing done, especially that cute little one with his back to me shaking his tail and whirling his feathers. But in spite of the disruption of my attention and the birds’ unwillingness to heed my words of wisdom, I would add a line if I could to that sign in the hummingbird skyway, “Open 24/7. All are welcome.” 

Her Right Foot

Shoe size 879? Really? Dave Eggers, writer, and Shawn Harris, illustrator, set an amusing tone to the facts they weave into their words and pictures in Her Right Foot. The book scheduled by Chronicle Books for spring 2018 moved up in the schedule to September 19, 2017 because of the timeliness of this look at the Statue of Liberty, particularly her right foot.

The book, which I read in an advance reading copy from Net Galley, takes turns being inspirational, informational, and humorous. In addition to her shoe size, an example of the humor that laces the book together shows up in the drawing of the men who first assembled the statue in France. They sprawl out on the spikes of her crown as they ponder the absurdity of taking it apart again.

Eggers and Harris give scientific information on the process of oxidation in words and pictures as the statue changes from its original brown to the blue-green patina of today. In a historical tidbit, they tell that Thomas Edison suggested a giant record player inside the statue so it could speak. That was too strange to pursue.

Inspiration comes in pictures and text as they show the welcome given to visitors and immigrants to the United States as the statue waits in the harbor. Even more striking were her broken chains symbolizing freedom from bondage.

Now you may be asking why the emphasis on the right foot. Since I learned a lesson the hard way long ago about giving away the spoiler, I’ll let you find that out for yourself. Eggers and Harris have taken an unusual look at the statue and turned out a book that will make you rush right out and buy one to read to a child. If you don’t have a child in your life, go ahead. You have my permission to buy it for yourself. You won’t be sorry.

Small Stream to Great Canyon

Our tour guide pointed out the small meandering stream as we looked down. “Over eons of time,” he said, “this carved out the Grand Canyon.” My schoolteacher mind immediately traveled to a lesson on persistence.

Well-known writers at conferences seem to compete to claim the highest number of rejections or the most discouraging route to publication, insisting that writers should never give up. But hanging in there and carrying on is not limited to writers. A musician hits many sour notes before much practice produces a soul-stirring concert. Late nights, hard work, and discouraging times precede success for a small business owner. Becoming an athlete requires hours and hours of physical training. Even Edison failed often before that light bulb finally came on.

Last Thursday, the lesson came back to me. At 8:47 AM, an email requested a full manuscript – not exactly an acceptance, but hope that one will follow when the proposed writing has been completed and submitted. At 2:57 PM, a rejection on a different project included words like “charming historical middle grade premise . . . beautiful writing . . . warm-hearted and introspective prose” and then went on to tell what added this email to my stack of rejection letters. 

So what is this writer with a lesson from a small stream to do? I hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.

I held an abbreviated Rejection Pity Party for the second manuscript (just long enough to eat the chocolate I serve myself on such occasions). Then I pulled out my folders and began organizing a rewrite of the first manuscript to give it the highest possibility of acceptance.

Should this rewrite result in another rejection, this small stream will flow on – right after the Rejection Pity Party chocolate – carrying the sand and gravel in the form of regular blogs and a few magazine articles here and there.

For my readers with their own brooks of dreams, I wish you persistence followed by success and lots of chocolate in the pauses between times when you need to throw a pity party.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Someone commented in a review that Jesmyn Ward’s new book, Sing, Unburied, Sing outshone her other books. Having read those other books, I doubted whether that was possible.

Set in a fictional town in her native Mississippi, the story revolves around a trip. Thirteen-year-old Jojo and toddler Kayla live with their African American grandparents – Pop who centers the family and Mam who is dying of cancer. Kayla clings to Jojo as a parental figure. Pop, who has spent time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, tells Jojo stories to help him learn about life.

When the children’s white father is to be released from Parchman, their drug-addicted mother, who moves in and out of their lives, shows up demanding that they accompany her and her girl friend to the penitentiary for his release. Uninvited guests from the spirit world join them – her long dead brother who shows up to Leonie when she is high on drugs and Richie, a boy prisoner befriended by the grandfather when he was at Parchman who shows up to Jojo. Both spirits recall a past that forms their present. Richie follows them home and forces Jojo to ask hard questions of his grandfather Rivers.

Well-drawn individuals, both living and dead, and complex relationships are placed in a setting that becomes another character in the story. Jesmyn Ward’s way with words makes for a book that lingers when put aside between chapters and long after the last page is finished.

A doubter no longer, I agree this is her best book yet. In an interview, she said it took three years to finish – three years well spent.


Q & A

Since I frequently think the Q & A is the best part of a presentation, I’m doing both parts today for my blog.

Mississippi Book Festival 2017 hosted a display of the original art from Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day from the archives of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Curator Ellen Ruffin asked me. “Would you be willing to take a turn minding the paintings, passing out brochures, and answering questions?” She didn’t have to ask me twice!

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions during my turn on duty and my answers.

Q: You mean Keats was not black? (The brochure had his picture which destroyed a common assumption that only a black author would put a black child in The Snowy Day and its sequels, especially in 1960.)

A: Keats was Jewish. He saw children outside his Brooklyn window from many different cultures and thought they should be represented in books. When asked why he put a black child in his first children’s book, The Snowy Day, he always gave the same answer, “Because he should have been there all along.”

Q: Are these copies of his art?

A. I invited them to look closer at this point and see the lines of the paper collages that he had glued together to form the art. These were not copies but the original paintings he did for the book and are housed with the original paintings for his other children’s books in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection.

Q. Are they ever all exhibited at one time?

A. That would take more space than one is likely to find. There have been large traveling exhibits with much of his work in several museums in the United States and several years ago in Japan. Other examples of his work are rotated in the de Grummond exhibit room at the Cook Library at the University of Southern Mississippi.  

Q. Was he from Mississippi?

A. No, he grew up in Brooklyn and lived there all his life except for almost a year in Paris where he studied painting and a stint in Tampa, Florida during World War II in the Army.

Q. Then how did his art get here?

A. In 1980, he came to the University of Southern Mississippi to receive their annual medallion at the children’s book festival given to a children’s author or illustrator who has made a significant contribution to children’s literature. He and the librarians formed a solid friendship that eventually led to placement of his archives in the de Grummond where they would be valued, cared for, and shared with researchers and children’s book lovers.


The books I like best set a really good story, or maybe two, in an authentic time in history. Glow by Megan E. Bryant, with its book birthday today on September 1, is just such a book. Chapters rotate between two teenaged girls. Julie’s story is told in narrative in the present day while Lydia’s tale is in letters to her soldier. Not only does Megan shift between the two girls with different styles of story, their distinctive voices in the telling reflect the period in which they live.

Present day Julie has relationship issues with a father who has abandoned the family, a mother who needs her college money for debt rescue, a friend whose continuing plans for college inspire envy, and maybe a boyfriend. These become peripheral when Julie finds some mysterious art in a secondhand store that glows in the dark revealing an entirely different painting. She begins a trek to find out where and how it was produced and who the “LG” might be who signed these and other paintings she locates in her search. It is almost too late before she realizes the paintings themselves are placing her in great danger.

Lydia, in the alternating chapters, tells her story in the letters she writes to Walter beginning on September 5, 1917. She and her two sisters become caught up in the excitement of making glow-in-the-dark watches. The reader will see where this is going long before Lydia does and will want to yell out words of caution.   

Like many books listed for young adults, this one captures the attention of an adult reader as well. The Author’s Note at the end gives a good capsule of the history behind the novel. For a more detailed historical account, I recommend a paired reading with The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, which I reviewed on this blog on May 12, 2017.


Searching the guide on my TV remote on the last Saturday morning in August, I knew I could find one. Some school or the other jumps the gun every year to play the first football game of the season. Turns out this year it's Oregon State vs Colorado State at 1:30 PM. I consider it an appetizer for what is to come.

Good memories surround my obsession with college football. Beginning way back when I turned thirteen, Daddy welcomed a companion to listen to the radio as Ole Miss played every Saturday afternoon. As pastor of Abbeville Baptist Church, ten miles north of Oxford and the Ole Miss campus, becoming a Rebel supporter was a given. Although he was an avid sports fan, a visual impairment kept him from playing any game well – unless you count dominoes.

He taught me the rules and how to follow the game as we listened. Little did he know he was laying groundwork for my good relationship with a future brother-in-law who was the alumni director for Ole Miss for many years. I became an avid college football fan.

High school football is fine enough that Al and I kept our season tickets for Leesville High School long after our children had graduated. Some of those players went on to star at LSU and then in the NFL. I’ll watch pro football if it’s a Saints game or if a Manning is playing, but there is nothing like a college game.

One beautiful Saturday afternoon when the three kids were growing up, they were outside with their dad. With our windows open at Fort Sam Houston, the next-door neighbor could hear whichever college game was on, and asked who was watching. He was a bit surprised when they answered nonchalantly, “Mom.”

So here we are at the beginning of another football season. My favorite college teams (Ole Miss and Baylor) have a challenge before them, but it’s okay. When it comes to college football, I’ll watch anybody who’s playing and just hope it’s a good game. The season begins in earnest Saturday, September 2. I’ll sort out the opportunities when I get up early that morning, knowing I can begin at 11 AM and watch well past my bedtime. Work that can be done while watching the game will be scheduled. I might even catch up on the ironing!

My year divides neatly into two parts – Football Season and The Rest of the Year. Thanks, Daddy, it’s been a lot of fun! 


The answer is “Yes.” Kwame Alexander told the crowd at the Kaigler Book Festival to say “yes” to life. In his new young adult book Solo with Mary Rand Hess, he tells his protagonist Blade Morrison the same thing.

It seems that life has thrown Blade more curves than anyone deserves. His mother died. His father is working to reclaim his status as a musician. His girlfriend’s father has forbidden their relationship because of his father’s reputation for abusing drugs and alcohol. He has a chance to make a positive name for himself when the valedictorian of his high school class has to bow out, and he stands in for her as the salutatorian. His father ruins the evening by roaring onto the football field and into the front of the stage on a red Harley with a scantily dressed woman.

Twisting through the relationships with his father who bounces in and out of rehab, his girlfriend who must be kept secret, and his sister who mediates makes one think life can’t get any worse. But that is before the big family secret sends him on a trek to Ghana. Blade’s own music and that of his favorites woven into the verse novel keep him anchored for a while until he even loses faith in his music.

I saw a quote from Kwame Alexander before I read this young adult novel which could lend itself to some pretty salty language as Blade copes with his challenges. He said he told kids they didn’t need to curse so he took his own advice. Since that language pervades today’s YA literature, I wondered if he could pull off a heartrending story without it. I’ll go back to my beginning and repeat my first sentence. The answer is “Yes.”

Home Is Where the . . .

Acknowledging the cliché “Home is where the heart is,” the middle grade writers on two panels at the recent Mississippi Book Festival discussed how home anchored their writing. On the first panel, Kimberly Willis Holt sang a tune familiar to me in her account of not really having a place to call home. As a military brat, she lived in multiple places. Like our children, she had a hard time answering the question of where she was from. Home became the place she went to visit her grandparents in Forest Hill, Louisiana. That area and Texas, where she has lived most of her adult life, came to be home to her and to the characters in her books, including her latest Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Hotel. Her fellow panelists from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Minnesota agreed that home defined the settings in their books.

In the second panel, Linda Williams Jackson (Midnight Without a Moon), Augusta Scattergood (Making Friends with Billy Wong), and Corabel Shofner (Almost Paradise) all had roots in the Mississippi delta and each of their historical fiction books grew like trees from those roots. Linda regaled the audience with her answer to the question often posed to her, “Why would an African American return to live in Mississippi?” All three authors had lived many years in other areas of the country or overseas, yet their stories came back to homes where their hearts were in Mississippi. Linda said she tried when she was living in Kansas to set a story there, but it just wouldn’t come from anywhere except Mississippi.

I wondered after this what Barry Wolverton, the only male member of the panel, would say – especially since his writing is in a fantasy world instead of historical fiction. Oddly enough, he agreed. While his world is unreal, he said the father-son relationship in the book comes from his own experience.

As a follow-up, someone asked if the characters in their books were real people in their lives. They confessed to modeling characters, especially villains, after people they knew. But that is another story for another time.