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It Is My Hope That glub glub glub

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Sunday, 15 February 2009
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Every now and then I find myself involved in reading a large stack of manuscripts---(or once, it was finished books, when I was a judge for the National Book Awards)---and I find myself wondering how publishers do it day after day after day.  But I guess the answer is that you make your way through them by maintaining the hope and maybe the expectation that the next one will be something absolutely wonderful.


The manuscripts I am currently reading are by unpublished writers, and I am reading them as part of the panel of judges for an award to be given this spring. A few are awful, but most are not, and I am hoping that any minute now one will leap out at me because of its brilliance and wit and eloquence.

But something is vaguely troubling me.  Each manuscript is accompanied by a cover letter describing the writer's experience, education, and background, and usually with some background about the particular manuscript they have submitted. It's helpful, for example, if you are reading "The Curse of the Narwahl," a mystery set in an aquarium, to know that the author has worked for forty years as a marine biologist. 

But it sets my teeth on edge to read further something like, "It is my hope that this book will teach children to care more about the environment."

Okay, I made up that title and that author and that book. As far as I know there is no aquarium mystery in my stack of manuscripts, though if something called "The Curse of the Narwahl" shows up, I will have to apologize, and to hire a lawyer, I guess.

But what HAS shown up again and again, and will continue to, I suspect, is the sentence in the cover letter that uses the word "teach" or learn."  As in, "Readers will learn that bullying can have serious consequences.." or "This story teaches young readers how grandparents are a wonderful source of.."   

Okay for non-fiction. For textbooks.  For sermons and Sunday School lessons.

But please, not for novels.  

I often receive emails from kids, usually for school assignments, with questions like "What did you intend for readers to get out of (title)?" or "What is the message of this book?"

And sometimes I sigh and try to reply with an answer that they can use in their term paper or exam.  But what I really want to say is: I simply wanted the reader to enjoy the story. To love the characters. To care about what happens. To be scared, or sad, or angry, and to worry. To be excited in the middle of the book, and relieved at the end.

I don't want there to be a message. Or a moral. Or a learning experience.

I acquired  information about poison from Madame Bovary, and a pretty good understanding of British country-house life from Brideshead Revisited and Atonement.  But I didn't learn that infidelity was ill-advised or that religion was pervasive or that veracity and guilt were entwined, encompassing things.  I simply became Emma  and Sebastian and Bryony for those all-absorbing hours, and I reveled in the mastery of language and characterization, and I probably learned things about myself.

I don't know why so many would-be writers of fiction for young people feel as if they must impart Wisdom and Great Truth.  

Sigh. Now: back to the narwahl, whose curse is that his reader is going to drown in good works and sanctimoniousness.

I am such a grouch today.
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No smoking, please. Or Guidebooks.

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Saturday, 14 February 2009
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Not long ago, I read a book called "Bliss" in which the author explored the topic of happiness---what creates it, why it is hard to attain, etc., and whether certain geography plays a role.  He went to a number of different places where people reportedly were unusually happy. (One was Iceland. I was in Iceland maybe 4 years ago, and it was true---happy country, happy people.  However, timing is all. I doubt if Icelanders are particularly happy at the the moment).

Another happy place he studied was the Himalayan country of Bhutan.  Smoking, he pointed out, was against the law in Bhutan. He didn't cite that as a cause for happiness---just a point of interest---but actually, I think I'd be a little happier of smoking were illegal in this country.

Bhutan is a country I have never been to, and to be honest, it is not a county I ever think about. I probably go days on end---maybe weeks, or months---without ever thinking of Bhutan.  But this morning I was alerted to something in The Bhutan Observer: an op-ed piece witten by a teacher who is concerned about lessening of standards in the educational system of that tiny  country.



Presently, we see new guidebooks to Lois Lowry’s The Giver circulating among students. Soon enough, I foresee other aspiring teachers initiating guidebooks on class XI and XII textsbooks. Will we ever succeed in creating independent readers? Isn’t the teachers’ guidebook provided by the Curriculum and Professional Support Division (CAPSD) enough? If not, I would like to call upon the CAPSD to strengthen the teachers’ guide so that teachers will be able to guide the students in the best possible way.
In the west, guidebooks (not teachers’ guide) are not advised in schools. Instead, students are encouraged to make their own interpretations of texts with guidance from teachers. As long as our students justify their answers with good reasons, they are right, considering that no two readers will interpret the same text in the same way.

Therefore, I would like to urge all our stakeholders – high school English teachers, education officials, English curriculum officials, parents and students – to take note of this issue and ponder over it. I am glad to be able to bring this personal opinion to a public forum as a concerned teacher, who had been part of the English Curriculum Review Team. I feel the authorities should either halt commercial guidebooks or encourage guidebooks that will not hamper our students’ meaning-making skills, but instead, scaffold their language skills and critical thinking. Parents may guide their children at home, and censor the materials they are using for their study. It is possible that children may not read their textbooks, but rely completely on guidebooks. Most importantly, teachers could use strategies and techniques that require complete reading of the text, and make their classroom activities so stimulating, thrilling and satisfying that students may never feel the need to use guidebooks. This will go a long way in instilling love for reading and creating life-long readers. I wish the stakeholders all the best in their ventures ahead in executing the new English curriculum and producing future citizens who are competent communicators and life-long readers.

Sangay Biddha Teacher
Khangkhu Middle Secondary School
Paro

I'm sorry I didn't have room to quote all of his (or her?) essay because it was thoughtful and thought-provoking---and even though Bhutan has not been high on my places-to-think-about list, perhaps that will change now that I know teachers there like Sangay Biddha care so much about instilling a love of reading.

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So Absurd

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Monday, 09 February 2009
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Andy, my friend-who-is-fluent-in-French, tells me that my book Le Passeur (The Giver) has been nominated for a big award in France (amazing, since it has been published there for 14 years) and I am invited to go in June to an Oscar-like event where they will say (in French) "..and the winner is..."  Maybe there will even be a tapis rouge  (red carpet) and a Joan Rivers?

All of that is lovely but it will have to take place without me because I am counting on heading to Maine in June and relaxing, free of the many distractions (most of my own making, alas) I have here, and getting some writing done.

Here is the new Gooney Bird book: GOONEY BIRD IS SO ABSURD

GB Absurd cover
and you must stand on your head to appreciate it, since she is upside down.  And speaking of heads, what does GB have on hers?

Here is an excerpt:

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Milwaukee

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Saturday, 07 February 2009
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I'm writing this in the Milwaukee airport while waiting for my plane to Chicago---from which I then head back to Boston.  I was overnight here in order to be keynote speaker  at the WSRA (Wisconsin State Reading Association) convention----so nice to be surrounded by teachers, and people concerned with and passionate about books.  Many writers there as well, including my good friend Susan Goodman.

Here is the view from my 24th floor hotel window:

Milwaukee
and what does one see, from a Milwaukee hotel? A Miller beer sign!

In the email that I've been sitting here trying answer are some that are tough, one being a long letter in French---very official looking, apparently from a French library, telling me that my book THE GIVER---called LE PASSEUR in that country---has, ah, something or other. Been nominated for something?  Been awarded something?  Been denounced?  They want me to do something on June 13th. Deliver a lecture? Accept a prize? Appear in court?  Oh dear, I wish I could read French.

 I will have to get my friend Andy to translate it for me.

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The World of Color (or Colour)

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Friday, 30 January 2009
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Recently I received, from their teacher, a photograph of eighth graders in Edmonton, Alberta, dressed in rainbow colors (or colours, as they spell it in Canada) after reading "The GIver" and being affected by the black-and-whiteness of it.

Edmonton
so I have been thinking about color (which I am going to spell the American way) a lot, and especially because yesterday I received an email from an editor asking me to describe (for the illustrator) more detail about a particular shirt I had when I was eight or so. (More later, closer to its release time, about that particular book)

I remembered the shirt, and could see it in my mind, as if I were wearing it and looking down at myself. It was plaid, and I could see each color in it, and the way they crossed each other, making new colors. So tough to describe, though! The red in it was not an apple-for-the-teacher red, but a pinky corally red; and the blue was not navy blue, but a more medium shade; where the two colors combined, it was a muted lavender.

All of my early family photographs were black and white, of course, dating as they did from the forties, and coming as they did from my own father's darkroom.  And yet again and again, looking at myself at age 3 or 4 or 5, I remember each article of clothing and its color.  My sister had a dress when she was six---so I would have been three---which I envied for its very full skirt, which opened around her like a flower bursting into bloom when she twirled; but also for its color, a red that was not "real" red but more a creamy, pink-infused, Campbell's tomato soup (after you added milk) red.

I have always loved color, and I have missed the days when there used to be dime stores which sold spoools of thread arranged in tiers in the sewing section. As a child, while my pals went off to check out the ---whatever; comic books or candy---I would stand in front of those spools, mesmerized by the rows of graduated colors. Later I experienced the same thing leafing through catalogues with a lot of towels stacked by color; and also the ads for pashmina scarves that were popular for a time. I stared at them a long time, choosng my favorite, usually a rich plum or a pale sunrise yellow.  I never bought them, any more than I bought (I think the brand was called Coates and Clark) thread when I was a child in the dimestore, clutching the coins of my weekly allowance.  But I relished the seeing.

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Another loss

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on Thursday, 29 January 2009
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The news of retired Greenwich, CT children's librarian (but in no way retired from the Children's book-and-library world)  Kate McClelland's death in a senseless accident (broad daylight, allegedly drunk driver) is shocking. A doubly shocking loss because her colleague, Kathy Krasniewicz, was also killed, both of them in a taxi headed to Denver Airport following the ALA mid-winter convention.  I did not know her colleague but I knew Kate, admired her colorful and voluminous clothes, and appreciated her spirit and enthusiasm and sense of humor.  There will be many public tributes in the days to come as people try to come to terms with such staggering news; this is simply a private statement of what a gift Kate was to the world of literature and of children, and how greatly she'll be missed.

20090129_055830_CRITIC 1 BL_200

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Awards

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on Monday, 26 January 2009
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Okay, here's how dumb I am. I was told that if I went to the ALA website I could watch the announcements of the Newbery/Caldecott Medals; and so I went to that website, and clicked on something, and sure enough there was a room full of excited people, and committees being introduced, and much cheering at each announcement. It went on for quite a long time. 

When they announced Christopher Paul Curtis's Elijah of Buxton I thought: Gee, I thought that was last year's book. Well, maybe it carried over into this year as well, and lucky him, he's getting awards two years in a row.  Then I thought the same thing when the Caldecott went to Brian Selznick for HUGO CABRET.

You know how this ends, of course. I watched and watched and watched, award after award, and it wasn't until the very end that I realized I was watching the 2008 ceremony, not 2009.

So I simply read the list of this year's winners. Congratulations to Neil Gaiman!

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Loss, Remembered

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on Monday, 26 January 2009
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Someone has just told me that the Newbery-Caldecott Awards were announced this morning, though not what books won.  They will no doubt be books I haven't read (though last year's Newbery book, Good Masters, Sweet Ladies, was one I had read and loved and recommended) since I rarely read kids' books and am very out of it in terms of what's hot and what's not.

But the timing of it---which I should remember, coming as it does right at Oscar Nomination and Superbowl time---made me remember my friend Carol Otis Hurst. At just this time two years ago, I wrote about her, something that remains in my computer, unpublished---at least I don't think I put it into my blog, which I suppose would constitute publication of a sort. So in her memory I am going to print it here:



                            LOSS


My friend Carol and I played Canasta early every morning on the internet. Yeah, canasta: that game your grandmother played. Carol had to teach me how to play, actually, though I think I vaguely recall knowing back when I was a teenager. It’s been a lot of years since then.

We played as a team. She would usually e-mail me from her home, where she lived alone, 150 miles away, two words: Up yet?

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Brrrrr

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Sunday, 25 January 2009
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It is bitter, bitter cold (again!) but nonetheless I am headed to Maine to check out my new water supply and also because I have tickets to the Stone Mountain Arts Center (Brownfield, Maine, about 20 miles from my house) to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo----who would have guessed that African performers would be willing to come to the middle of nowhere in O degrees----or below!---to perform?!   But folksinger Carol Noonan and her husband converted their barn into a fabulous theater and have enticed EVERYONE---(Judy Collins not long ago!)---to make the trek.  Zulu singers/dancers will warm up a bitter cold night and it will be worth it.

LBM copy

In the meantime I am trying to see all the Oscar nominated movies ---and nominated actors and actresses---so have been on a movie-going spree: "The Reader" today, "Doubt" Friday night. I've also seen "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire"  and "Revolutionary Road" recently---and just for kicks, "Last Chance Harvey," though it isn't nominated.

I've also seen "Frozen River," just for the record.

And I wil try to make myself see "The Wrestler" even though I don't want to.

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Thanks, but it wasn't me

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Thursday, 15 January 2009
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This just appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

You won't be able to see the new movie "Hotel for Dogs" until this Friday, but if you're itching for a sneak peek, check out photographer David Strick's Hollywood Backlot for behind-the-scenes photos from the filming. (Don't worry if the pup in the above photo looks a bit odd; it's a puppet.)

"Hotel for Dogs," which stars Emma Roberts (best-known for her starring role in Nickelodeon's "Unfabulous"), Lisa Kudrow and Don Cheadle, is the story of two orphaned kids who find themselves in a foster home. Things go from bad to worse when they learn that they can't bring their beloved dog, a Jack Russell named Friday, along with them.

You can probably guess that hijinks and hilarity ensue from there, and the kids pick up more needy dogs on the way, creating a home for them in the abandoned hotel to which the title refers. It's based on the novel by Newbery Award-winning children's author Lois Lowry.

The on-line edition had a place where readers could add comments so I growled and barked a bit and got an email from the editor apologizing and telling me that the book was written, actually,  by Lois Duncan.

Lois Duncan is a friend of mine and from time to time we have received fan mail meant for the other. (Sometimes I receive mail meant for Lois Lenski, as well)  But I didn't know that LD had written a book about dogs.

I did write a book about a dog, once, (Stay! Keeper's Story) and it remains one of my favorite of my books. But it never really found an audience, and I think I know why.  The language of the book is quite sophisticated----Dickensian, actually---so it is not easy reading (though I am told it is a very successful read-aloud).  And it is illustrated with quite wonderful drawings by True Kelly.  But the illustrations make it appear to be a book for, oh, say ages 6-8. And it isn't.  So there is a discrepancy that I think hurt the book overall, which is too bad.

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Adios, Tecate

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on Sunday, 11 January 2009
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I am now back home from Baja California after a trip delayed by the usual: snowstorms in the Northeast.

On Thursday, while in Mexico, I got an email from my well-driller telling me that they had struck water---100 gallons a minute---at 320 feet. It felt a little like hearing from Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"...the search for oil.  My gusher of water is not as valuable but to me it was veeerrry important and I was getting nervous when they got down to 300 feet and hadn't encountered a gurgle yet.

Here is a bit of what it looked like at the ranch where I was staying:

Ranch #4

Ranch #11

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Hola

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on Thursday, 08 January 2009
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Still in Mexico, and very sorry that I don't have with me the gizmo that downloads photos into my laptop and therefore would make it possible to post one or two here. I'll do it when I am back home next week.

At this moment it is early morning. The two women I am here with got up at 5:30 and went off on a 4-mile hike. I wished them well and put my pillow over my head.  Then at 6:15 I got up, intending to go for a (shorter) hike myself; but somehow in those early half-asleep hours I had been struck by some creative thoughts----a way to continue the part of a manuscript I've been working on---and so I schlepped my laptop to a quiet place near wireless access and coffee, and here I am, indoors, not out on the mountain (where, incidentally, a sign warns of mountain lions).

In the meantime,  back in Maine, my well-driller is at work. Yesterday he emailed me that they are down to 200 feet and no water yet. ...but he says "the bedrock looks good"...whatever that means.  In the meantime, a snowstorm has closed them down briefly.

I am going to turn now to my manuscript before the hikers return. Its bedrock looks good, too, I think.

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from Mexico

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on Sunday, 04 January 2009
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No photos yet but I arrived yesterday in northern Mexico (Baja California, actually) where I am staying for a week with two close women friends. Crisp and cool -- but not icy like New England -- and a beautiful landscape of tan rocky hills in the background with green flowery cacti and desert vegetation surrounding our little cottage.


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Happy New Year

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Thursday, 01 January 2009
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Our snow had all been washed away by several days of warm rain, but yesterday it returned with a  vengeance and this morning, the first morning of 2009, it is bitter, bitter cold.  Here are Alfie and his good friend Sophie, who lives nearby and comes to play often, at the front door, wishing they could come in and have a cup of coffee with me and Sophie's mom.

Alf & Soph

On Monday and Tuesday,----fortunately when the weather and the roads were still clear---I was in Maine to tend to the water problems at my house there. I met with plumber, well-driller, landscaper, carpenter--- and then left them all with a go-ahead to start their work. They tell me I'll have water by February.  A new well---he estimates 300 feet deep---will be drilled down through, gulp, my front yard. New plumbing in
the basement, of course, and a line going through the granite foundation which dates back to 1768, when the house was built.

I stayed at a local B&B overnight, and among the other guests there was a man whose father, born in 1909, had grown up nearby. This man remembered, as a child, helping to bring the cows in from pasture at my house, herding them into the barn (badly, he said; he never got the hang of it, and the cows disobeyed)  Such a long history, that barn!

On the old maps the property is deisgnated Brigham Hill, and this man says there were still Brighams in the house when he was a boy. There are many Brighams in the small cemetery down the road. Old men dead in their 80's, and beside them a sequence of wives living only to their 20's and 30's... died in childbirth, is my guess.  And of course the little headstones of their babies and children.

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Ho Ho Ho, and Meow

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on Saturday, 27 December 2008
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Xmas room Ktichen Xmas

Well, this is more than you want to see of my kitchen and dining room but it DOES show an apple pie, freshly baked, and a lot of Xmas gifts, unopened.  But that was three days ago.

Now grandchildren have come and gone after two nights here, and tonight my SF daughter will be here with friends. It is raining...snow is melting away...and now we head toward New Years and 2009.....Resolutions and Inauguration and whatever surprises, probably both good and bad, are still in store for us. 

My major resolution is to finish the book manuscript I've been wrestling with for too long. I wonder if a professional wrestler ever thinks: Enough wrestling, I'm just going to break this guy's back and get it done.   That's how I'm feeling.

My grandsons gave their mom a kitten---now named Roscoe--for Christmas.

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Beginning to look a lot like...

Posted by Lois Lowry
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on Monday, 22 December 2008
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This weekend dumped a foot of snow on us (and on the Arizona football team that tried to beat the Patriots in weather they weren't used to!) and this morning sunlight shining on  the icicles reminds me of the crystal chandelier that hung over our dining room table when I was growing up.

Alf in snow Snow yard
so winter is really here and I'm sure my son and his two boys will be out on the slopes with their skiis and snowboards before long.  First, though, they will be with me for a couple of days at Christmas, as will my San Francisco daughter, flying in on 12/26.

Christmas was magical for me as a child, and I'm sure most people my age remember it the same way. But it was never lavish or extravagant.  I always received a book or two, as gifts---when I was quite young, there was always a Marguerite deAngeli book---my two favorites were "Thee, Hannah!" and "Henner's Lydia"---both of them set in Pennsylvania, where I lived.

When I was eleven, we left the United States to live in Japan for a few years, and my mother donated all of our books to the public library. She meant well.  But in later years I so often mourned their loss.  Then, a librarian who heard me speak of the de Angeli books when I was at a conference in Mississippi sent me ALL of them--because they were being dropped from her library's collection.  What a wonderful gift!

They still held---and hold---the same magic for me that they did when I was a child.  But none at all for my grandchildren....or for the patrons of that library.   Times change.

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Owl Babies

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on Saturday, 20 December 2008
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Thinking of my granddaughter, as I was when I wrote the previous post, I began to think of her relationship to books. Like all of my grandchildren she had been read to from her earliest days, both in German and English (her mother is German) and she acquired both languages simultaneously. Her American father, my son, died when she was twenty months old, but his language had already become part of her knowledge, and her mother continued to read to her in English, to speak English to her often.

Nadine Panama City 2  Here she is at two and a half, during an April visit to the United States, four months after the Christmas snowstorm visit.  That spring my daughter-in-law, Margret, and Nadine came from Germany and spent two weeks with me in the United States.

Beanie, as we often called her then, was beginning to acquire language---both German and English---and she called me “Oma” in the style of German toddlers.

One evening during the second week, I volunteered to baby-sit so that Margret could have an evening with friends. It was not an easy decision for Margret. She had not left Nadine with a sitter for eleven months, not since the day the previous spring when my son, Nadine’s father, had kissed them both good-bye, gone off cheerfully on a routine trip, and never returned. Nadine was too young to understand about plane crashes or death. Gradually she had stopped asking where her papa was.

Now, on an April evening, Margret said a casual “See you later” and slipped away with her friends while Nadine and I were busy playing a complicated game involving dolls going to the potty and receiving applause and rewards.

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Remembering Christmas Past

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on Thursday, 18 December 2008
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We are expecting a big snowstorm in Boston tomorrow, the first of the season, and so I have been remembering other snowstorms (including the surprise 26 inches one April Fool's Day!) but the one that stays in my mind the most was Christmastime in 1995.

My little granddaughter, Nadine, who lived in Germany with her mother (as she still does, though she is not LITTLE anymore) was flying to the states for Christmas.  Here she is, that fall, just around the time of her second birthday in late October.

Beanage2 Beaniedress
Two is not an easy age to travel with, but Margret was willing to do it, to spend Christmas with us, her first Christmas---all of our first Christmases---since my son, Margret's husband, had died the previous spring.

They flew from Frankfurt to New York's Kennedy Airport---an 8-hour flight---and arrived there in a snowstorm.  So their connecting plane to Boston was delayed and delayed and delayed.

At one point it took off, flew all the way to Boston, circled the airport here, and then, unable to land, returned to New York.

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All Kinds of Mail

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on Monday, 15 December 2008
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I was amazed at the number of people who responded to the e-mail from an outraged parent that I shared yesterday....and many of them expressing the hope that I  hadn't been too distressed by her message.

No, I have become quite sanguine when I receive (fortunately, not too many) such emails. I shrug them off but with the hope, always, that the child isn't too adversely affected. Sometimes I remember specific ones that worried me because of that possibility. For example:

This was in the winter about three years ago. I had rented a house in a warm place for three weeks, and had my laptop there with me, so could receive and reply to email.  A mother wrote, quite upset because her 10-year-old daughter had written me a letter ("real" mail) and had not yet received a reply. Her classmates (writing to an author had been an assignment) had all gotten letters back.

I explained to her, by email, that I was not at home, and so letters would be waiting for me there when I returned, and I would answer them as soon as I could. But it would be at least two weeks.

Indeed, when I got home, there was a huge stack of letters and I made my way through them as promptly as I could.  I had no idea which one was from her daughter because of course her email had not included the actual mailing address.  But apparently the child had written me a frequently-asked question, like "How did you get the idea for NUMBER THE STARS"?  and so she got, in reply, my form letter addressing that question. (If you get the same question 2,000 times, you can't answer it in innovative ways. There is really only one answer. Hence, the form letter)

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HO HO HO

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on Sunday, 14 December 2008
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Woman: What do you do?
Man: Me? Oh, I write books.
Woman: How interesting! Have you sold anything recently?
Man: Why, yes. My couch, my car and my flat-screen television.

That's a dumb joke stolen from a NYT humorous piece about whether writers should be bailed out by the Feds.

And here is a venomous (and anonymous) email I received yesterday:

Hate-filled email

But 'tis the season to be jolly, so I am ho-ho-ho-ing.

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