(Left) February, 2018: West Pelzer Elementary (SC) Students Early in Their Reading of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Snipesville Chronicles, Book 1) (Right) May, 2018: Skype Visit with Author, Speaking from London.
I won't lie: I was worried.
The enterprising vice-principal of West Pelzer Elementary in rural South Carolina had hired me to speak to fifth graders, and ordered a class set of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When. But, of course, I had no idea whether she had classroom teachers on board, and that was essential.
When I turned up to present Could You Be A World War II Kid?, a program that serves simultaneously as historical background to the book and an introduction to it, I had a chance to speak to Jessica Johnson and her colleagues. They were concerned about it being perhaps too complex, especially in its vocabulary, for the kids' reading level.
And by this point, so was I. I have readers of all ages and backgrounds, including kids younger than these from underprivileged areas. But I also trust teachers to know their students' abilities.
Mrs. Johnson, however, was willing to work with it. I offered to consult, and kept my fingers crossed.
The books are often used in schools as read-alouds. A rural middle school buys more than 100 copies every year to give to 6th graders. They're also on the summer reading list (and used in an economics classroom) for 7th graders in an elite private school. But an entire class of readers of varying ability in a Title I school in 5th grade? I hadn't seen that in person.
And then came the fantastic news: The kids loved the book. It was a hit.
I hoped Mrs. Johnson wasn't just being polite in telling me this, and offered to Skype with the kids from London, where I was researching future books. The reply was immediate and enthusiastic. Once I met with the kids, I knew this was the real deal.
But why was I surprised? This was, after all, my target audience when I began writing with several years experience of working with kids in the rural South under my belt, and, as I said, I have fans as young as nine, and even a few eight year olds. But I also have adult fans, among them several academic historians, and a professor of English Literature who holds degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Suppose the younger kids were hugely exceptional?
I should have been more confident. I have never forgotten readers who struggle with reading, I have seldom compromised on my vocabulary, or knowingly talked down to my readers. What I have done, based on long experience teaching college freshmen, is made the meaning of complex words clear through context. And, of course, I have consciously kept the story moving. If kids want to know what happens next in a story, they will persist (as surely Beatrix Potter knew when she used "soporific" in Peter Rabbit), and they will, as a result, learn more vocabulary and become better readers. This isn't the philosophy of reading programs in schools, with their prescribed "reading levels". But most librarians consider those problematic at best, and increasingly, so do teachers.
I asked Mrs. Johnson for a quote for my website. Here's what she wrote: "I accompanied my project based learning unit on WWII with Don't Know Where, Don't Know When for my 5th graders at West Pelzer Elementary in South Carolina. The book was a DELIGHTFUL addition to the unit and included a much needed child perspective of this major event in history. My class cannot wait to read the next book!"
Like many writers, and women, and women writers, I often doubt myself and my work. But once again, I've learned that optimism and confidence are a better approach. I should have known better.
NOTE: I do not take a kickback from the Amazon link to Don't Know Where, Don't Know When above, and am happy however you purchase my books. If you would like to support my work, however, please order a signed copy or copies direct from the shop on my site.
Westerns are unfashionable, that much I do know. Hollywood isn't filming them, and the story of thousands of mostly white Americans storming west, usurping land from Indians and Mexicans in the process, is a fraught one in these divided times. But, despite all this, as you may note from an earlier blog entry, I have become fascinated by those who traveled west, and especially those women who went with the Gold Rush migration. More than that, westward migration is too big, too resonant, too American for me to believe that it's a story without 21st century appeal. What was it like to be an immigrant risking your life to cross a vast desert, and to knowingly trespass on others' lands? Were you truly a resilient individual, facing a perilous journey alone, or did your community, and even the federal government, have your back? What happened when your American dream met disappointment and death?
My husband and I have come to Kansas City to follow the wagon trains, almost 200 years too late. We begin at Independence, MO, from which traders left for New Mexico (and returned) on the Santa Fe trail, and migrants prepared for their wagon journey to Oregon or California, most never to head "back east" again.
Our wagon is a rented Toyota Corolla. Our tent is a series of comfortable hotels. Our food is whatever we can forage on the trail from a succession of cheap restaurants, although we have stocked up with supplies for the journey here in Missouri: trail mix, sparkling water, and chocolate.
We started with high expectations, but like the migrants--like America itself--we quickly began to "see the elephant". The phrase was used by the 19th century migrants to mean getting terribly excited about an experience (in the migrants' case, going west) only to suffer a reality check in the form of disappointment and disaster.
After excitedly anticipating museums and original sites leading us west, our elephant immediately appeared to us in the Kansas City area.
Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At one time, there were many Eunice Shrivers, only without the money and clout that she possessed to get things done on a grand scale. Opinionated, forceful, unconcerned with appearance and other superficialities, and possessed of a moral voice and certitude, she steamrollered all who got in her way. I have never been particularly interested in the Kennedys, or Special Olympics, but I was intrigued by an NPR interview with the author. I'm glad I acted on it. This is an engaging biography, and given Eunice's reluctance to reveal her soul (typical of so many women of her generation) could not have been an easy project. Given how much she had to juggle, both context and subject material, McNamara does a deft job of keeping the reader engaged. Her book is a porthole into extraordinary privilege, and the good that can be done by those who, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, do not take that privilege lightly. Her legacy is all around us, the recognition of the full humanity of those with intellectual disabilities.
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Some months ago, I brashly offered to write a blog piece for an Atlanta audience about fake news during World War I. I had referred very briefly to Great War propaganda in Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, and had included a section on this topic in my new WWI program for schools. My interest had deepened with having learned recently that A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame) was among the writers the British government had employed during World War I to concoct fake news, and feed it to American newspapers in an effort to draw American sympathies toward the Allies. I certainly included this fascinating bit of trivia in my program, followed by a rhetorical question for the kids and teachers: If propaganda was this sophisticated more than a century ago, what must it be like today?
And now we have an answer that took even the most cynical by surprise, in the form of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal.
Schools have been urged in recent years to shove aside other subjects in favor of STEM. There has already been a backlash against this educational trend, of course, from the passionate advocates of art, music, and theater, who saw their subjects sidelined in a rush to STEM. This prompted a hasty rewriting of the acronym, giving us STEAM (A for Arts, in the American sense).
I suggest that, in that case, we might as well add the humanities (English, history, and philosophy) which gives us SHTEAM or, to put it in more familiar language, education.
Early in my grad school career, I mentioned to a fellow researcher that I had no idea why I was studying religion when I had set out to study immigration, except that this new subject was where the documents had led me. "It will be personal," she said. "It's always personal." I agreed that she must be right, but it took me a while to figure out why.
Of course we learn most avidly when we can connect what we learn about the past to our own lives today. But the connections aren't always obvious.
Charles Dickens knew poverty and child labor. He knew these things.
Raised in a middle-class home, he was educated, not merely schooled, because his early schooling was mediocre, like most of the limited formal education available in the early 19th century. He owed much to the learning that comes by osmosis in a literate household. Above all, he read voraciously.
And then, disaster.
Lady Bird, the new movie written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is getting fantastic reviews for its depiction of a teenage girl in her last year of high school, in the unpromising setting of Sacramento, CA. And so it should. But I am not an unbiased reviewer, and so this is not a review. This Brit, like the titular main character, came of age in Sacramento.
"Very well,” Mrs. Jenkins said, fetching a small hardbound book from a cupboard.
She began flipping through the pages. “Just remind me that we must stir
the soup that’s on the fire so it does not burn, and meanwhile we will make a
cake. Hmm. . .Let’s see. . .I rather fancy this one.” She pointed to a recipe, and
held open the book on the table, so they could both read it together:
To make a fine feed or faffron-cake.
You must take a quarter of a peck of fine flour, a pound and a half of butter,
three ounces of carraway seeds, six eggs beat well, a quarter of an ounce of cloves
and mace beat together very fine, a pennyworth of cinnamon beat, a pound of
sugar, a pennyworth of rose-water, a pennyworth of saffron, a pint and a half of
yeast, and a quart of milk; mix it all together lightly with your hands thus: first
boil your milk and butter, then skim off the butter, and mix with your flour,
and a little of the milk and stir the yeast into the rest and strain it, mix it with
the flour, put in your feed and spice, rose-water, tincture of saffron, sugar, and
eggs; beat it all up well with your hands lightly, and bake it in a hoop or pan,
but be sure to butter the pan well. It will take an hour and a half in a quick
oven. You may leave out the seed if you chuse it, and I think it rather better
without it, but that you may do as you like.
“What’s a feed or faffron-cake?” Hannah asked, pointing to the words with a
I was delighted to be interviewed last week for a blog run by the American Council of Learned Societies, an umbrella organization of humanities groups.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com