Category Archives: kathi appelt

Clayton, Cool Papa, and Wah-Wah Nita

I cclayton-birdan relate to Clayton Bird.  I may be a middle-aged white woman living in Iowa, but I understand his pain.  I might not have grown up with a blues-playing grandpa–mine was known to ride a banana seat bike now and then, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a guitar—but I know how important people other than parents can be when you’re growing up.  I remember being angry about injustice when I was a kid, or at least what I saw as injustice in my own life.  And I know grief, really crushing grief that hides out in unexpected places and hits you at all the wrong times.

Clayton is the kind of character everyone can relate to on some level, although he might not look like many of the kids I knew growing up.  That’s what’s so wonderful about Rita Williams-Garcia’s work.  Her characters are simultaneously universal and completely unique.  The small details make you think of your Uncle Rich or that kid you went to school with who had a goofy nickname or your best friend’s mom or whoever.   His story, like many of Williams-Garcia’s, celebrates an ordinary life with extraordinary moments—moments which reveal quite a bit about our society as a whole and how kids navigate it. Her characters’ experiences reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you live.  It’s a gift we are so, so lucky to be able to witness and enjoy.

And if all that weren’t enough, Ms. Williams-Garcia mentions Kathi Appelt in her note at the end of the book.  We all know (or maybe we don’t) just how crazy I am about Kathi Appelt.  I’ve practically thrown her books at the 5th graders I visit if I find out they have somehow managed to miss them.  And  I don’t stop at once a year – she comes up repeatedly.  Actually, I’ve kind of done the same with Rita Williams-Garcia’s books (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama) because they are a different and wonderful brand of fabulous.   Clearly, I’m just going to get worse.  Prepare.  Beware.

Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

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Re-reading my personal classics…

Most years, I experience Charlotte’s Web in bits of pieces, since I’m almost always volunteering in Mrs. P’s room just after lunch recess during literature time, and she always reads it to her third graders.  Other books pop up again and again, sometimes because I’ve sought them out, sometimes because the kids at school or the library remind me how wonderful they are.  It’s usually a good experience, since reading them again reconnects me with something from my youth when I first read them.

Because I recently re-read Counting by 7s (by Holly Goldberg Sloan) and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (by the always wonderful Kathi Appelt), I’ve been thinking about other books that do the work of capturing moments in my life I want to revisit.  And here they are…

  • A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – Whether it’s because of Meg Murry and Charles Wallace, or because it mentions tesseracts and led me into some great science fiction, re-reading this one is always powerful. There is loss – a lot of loss – and being an outsider and trying to figure out what the heck is going on and it all just seems like too much.   It’s both your worst family trip and your best one.  From there, I might head back into When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead or A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (E.L. Konigsburg) – This somewhat unlikely book for middle graders and teens is about Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s in heaven, waiting to find out where her second husband, King Henry II of England, will be headed.  How does this seem like something that would have fascinated me when I was young?  It’s Eleanor.  Well, Eleanor and the great writing, which made these long-dead historical figures seem real to me.  Reading about her made me think more critically about women and power and history, which could conceivably have pushed me in several directions that affected real-life choices for me.  After reading this one, I like to move on to biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt or other lesser-known rad women.  (See this blog post for more.)
  • The Dark is Rising sequence (Susan Cooper). This series actually starts with Over Sea, Under Stone, and I have to admit that I haven’t re-read it lately, so who knows what I’ll think of it now?  (I know I’ll still love it.) However, it was fantasy in the time before Harry Potter, and brought together a bunch of kids into a fight between Dark and Light, complete with connections to Arthurian legends and other fun stuff.  The Dark was really dark, and there were wizards, and that’s all you need to know if you haven’t read them.  I remember dreaming myself into the stories when I was a kid, and then thinking about what my mind made them into while I was at school the next day.  What an excellent use of “quiet work” time!

I’m sure there are more, many more.  Some books hold up better than others over the years.  Some characters remind you of who you used to be, and others connect with you in new ways.  It’s all good.

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Maybe a fox, maybe a path to peace


We don’t always acknowledge it, but many of us spend part of our lives walking through the world with a veil of sadness clinging to us.  Some people are able to push it back and stride through the world looking one way but retreat back into it on their own.  Others walk with the veil surrounding them, sometimes protecting them from the harsh world outside, sometimes creating a wall too thick to penetrate.  Sadness, grief, loss – feeling them intensely can both drag us down and help us heal.

Jules, Sylvie, Elk, Sam and Dad all carry it with them at different times and in different ways, and even the animals in the forest nearby feel it; Senna the fox and the catamount are kennens, animals with special spirits somehow connected to humans.

Maybe a Fox is an emotional book – filled with grief, beauty, peace, loss – and it’s powerful, but that really comes as no surprise, having been written by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee.  It might not be a book for kids who want a lot of action and laughs, although there is a little of both in the book.  It might connect with those kids in a unexpected way, however.  It’s deeper, so deep that it’s beyond what you might usually touch in your daily life.  It’s also a beautiful piece about human connection to nature, connection to each other, even the connection to loss.  It might be a fox or it might be a path to something else.

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee

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Women’s History Month + liowabrary = packhorse librarians

cutshin1Some years ago, before I worked at a library or knew about Kathi Appelt’s other awesome books (The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Keeper, etc.), I came across Down Cut Shin Creek: The Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, which she co-authored with Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer. These days, I am a huge Kathi Appelt fan, which makes it all the stranger that I didn’t realize she wrote this book until it popped up on my radar again last year. It qualifies as an older book now (2001), but it’s still well-worth the read, and is full of interesting stories, pictures and people. You can learn more about the WPA packhorse librarians – women and men who took books to people by horse during the Great Depression and into the early 1940s – by doing a little online research, but this book does the work for you, drawing you in to another place and time.

that book womanOur library also has a copy of That Book Woman, a picture book by Heather Henson about a packhorse librarian. It says a lot about our country and who we were that we valued literacy and reading enough back then to invest in a program that reached out to people with no real access otherwise. It’s something libraries still try to do now, although in much different ways.

Read either one for a women’s and/or library history fix. And if you’ve never read Kathi Appelt’s other work – she writes picture books in addition to her great middle grade novels, for Pete’s sake – get on that right away. You’ll be glad you did.

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When enthusiasm turns pushy…

When I love a book, I don’t keep it to myself.   If you live with me, work with me, talk to me on the phone, end up waiting in line for something with me, or land in front of me when I’m at the library, I might just pounce. My regulars at the library have mostly gotten used to this. If you’re a veteran and mostly read nonfiction, I won’t bore you with my latest children’s book find, but I might suggest a few great reads about World War II. If you’re a kid or live with one, you can pretty much count on me bubbling on about my favorites in children’s literature. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, novels in verse, graphic novels, more.

When I find a book I love, I can even get a little pushy. Recently I read Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Matthew Dicks). One of my teacher friends passed it on to me because she loved it. I had such a big stack of kids and teen books that I wasn’t sure I had time to read it, but one chapter in, I was hooked. I’m not sure I can even put into words how much I love the idea of an imaginary friend as a narrator. Badly done, I think it would be really awful. But here, with Budo, it’s perfect. He reports on his life and his boy, Max, in a way that bridges the worlds that children and adults live in. He looks at the world with somewhat naïve eyes, but sees beauty and promise in it for Max. He struggles with the pain of losing friends and faces the prospect of losing Max with courage. And it’s a thriller of sorts. Budo has to figure out how to save Max, which is something of a challenge when he can’t move things and no one but Max and the other imaginary friends can see him.

I had been talking about it so much as I read it that my son asked if he could read it after I finished. (He did and loved it, too.) I’ve mentioned it to my sister, people at work, at least four friends, and my manager who also leads the book club — which really may need to read it, too. I’ve mentioned it to people who don’t even read fiction. So what? So start now!

This also happened with Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp last year. I’ve been a fan of hers since reading The Underneath with my son several years ago. Appelt blends the real and imaginary into something powerful, suspenseful and exciting, and there are layers upon layers of connections and meaning to go through before you race to the end, wondering all the time how things can possibly work out. The True Blue Scouts has a very different atmosphere – it’s completely wacky – but it has layers and layers of fun instead. My son and I read it together, too, and we laughed and laughed. It was a happy book to share and I just loved it.

I loved it so much that I sent an email to Kathi Appelt thanking her for writing it. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but she replied. That just encouraged me more. Not only did I love the book, but now I also thought its author was a fantastic, amazing, wonderful person. (I still think that. She could write a shopping list with canned soup and saltines on it, and I’d think she was a genius at writing in the shopping list genre.) You could have tried to shut me up then, but you’d have had a hard time. I told about half the school where I volunteer about her and the book. I bought several copies for friends. I went on about it to pretty much anyone who’d listen. I’m still talking about it a year later.

A book like that, an author like that… how lucky we are!  They overwhelm the books that don’t quite work out and leave behind a happy glow and the hope, always the hope, that there are more out there.

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