This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #382: The Magical Mystery Tour/I Am The Walrus by The Beatles.
In the year of my birth, 1964, an American author named Ken Kesey set forth with a band of family and friends who came to be known as The Merry Pranksters. Driving in a decaled-up van known as “Further” and armed to the teeth with all sorts of mood-altering chemicals such as LSD, Kesey and his gang set out to expand their consciousness and live a life that went beyond the confines of the expectations society placed on its citizens. There was a book written about this journey that was relatively famous, called, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip” by Tom Wolfe. At the time of Kesey’s travels, media was not the 24-7, real-time enterprise that it is today. However, several journalists did cover the story and printed their reports in newspapers and magazines around the world. One of the people who was following the exploits of The Merry Pranksters with interest was a young man named Paul McCartney. A lot had happened to The Beatles by the time Kesey began his journey. Beatlemania was in full bloom in the UK. The Beatles had already had several hit albums and many #1 hits under their belts. Like Elvis, The Beatles began making movies to help expand their commercial reach. *(For any young folk reading this, in 1964, there was no Internet, there were no websites for bands to promote themselves, there were no music videos nor YouTube nor Instagram nor TikTok or any other form of social media). In addition to their music careers, the members of The Beatles were, also, starting their exploration of Eastern Mysticism and expanding their own consciousnesses via meditation, as well as, drugs. The final big change in the Beatles story arc was that their manager, Brian Epstein, who had guided the early days of their careers with a firm but, gentle hand, had passed away. The combination of all of these events formed a “perfect storm” of sorts for the band when it came to deciding what projects to focus on next. So, when Paul McCartney pitched the idea of a TV movie about a fantastical bus trip called “The Magical Mystery Tour”, the band signed on.
The premise of the movie was that The Beatles would invite viewers to board their bus. The bus would then make several stops along the way and the band members would engage in silly, satiric adventures suited to the setting. There were a total of six songs written for this movie. The first song was the title track, “The Magical Mystery Tour”. It was written and performed mainly by Paul McCartney. It is a whimsical invitation to board the magic bus. The final song written was “I Am The Walrus” by John Lennon. The story behind “I Am The Walrus” was that word had filtered back to The Beatles that the lyrics to their previously-released songs were being studied in schools/universities for their “literary merit”. John Lennon, in particular, thought that this was an absurd state of affairs and set out to create a nonsensical song that would defy closer, scholarly examination. He based the gibberish-laden lyrics upon such literary tales as the poem, “Jabberwocky” and, more specifically, a Lewis Carroll poem called, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”. Ironically, in attempting to create a nonsense song, Lennon actually created one of the most literature-rich songs in their whole musical catalogue.
“The Magical Mystery Tour” movie was savaged by critics when it aired. Claims that the movie was “self-indulgent nonsense” stung the band mates and was part of the reason that they decided to put more of their efforts into travelling to India and away from the UK. “The Magical Mystery Tour” was the beginning of the end of the height of Beatlemania. This movie soundtrack also put the band at odds with their record company. As noted earlier, six songs were recorded for this movie soundtrack. Six is an unusual number because it is too many for an EP (extended play albums had no more than four songs) and too few for a full-blown album (which usually had 8-10 or more). So, to “solve this issue”, the record label decided to create a double-album by adding on several singles that had been previously released or that were slated for future albums. So, if you were to look up the soundtrack to “The Magical Mystery Tour” on Spotify or Goggle, you would see songs listed like, “Strawberry Fields”, “Hello/Goodbye”, “Penny Lane” and “All You Need is Love” and, not surprisingly, you would think that this was a whopper of a soundtrack. But, truth be told, none of those songs were actually in the movie which, in retrospect, even McCartney acknowledged as being more of a lark than a polished project.
“The Magical Mystery Tour” movie was the first real taste the members of The Beatles had at being in total creative control of their work. As such, they learned many lessons that they applied to later masterpieces such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. To put a final bow on the movie, just like Ken Kesey had his band of Merry Pranksters touring with him in America, McCartney invited a group of Monty Python-esque singers called, “The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band” aboard the bus with him. These folks sang a song in the movie that was based on a pulp fiction novel called, “Death Cab for Cutie”. Why this is important is that, for starters, “Death Cab For Cutie” is the name of the band coming up in the very next post. When Keri saw this band name, she remarked at how odd it was and why would anyone named themselves that? Well, my dear, the answer lay within the walls of the Magical Mystery Tour bus. “Death Cab For Cutie”…the band…are fantastic, as you will soon see. In the movie, the song sung by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band is symbolic of the silliness that marked the movie as a whole. I will share it with you below. As well, we will listen to Paul McCartney’s “The Magical Mystery Tour”, as well as, John Lennon’s, “I Am The Walrus”. So, climb on board, everyone, the Magical Mystery Tour is about to begin. Enjoy.
The link to the video for “The Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles, can be found here.
The link to the video for “I Am The Walrus” by The Beatles, can be found here.
The link to the video for “Death Cab for Cutie” by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Beatles, can be found here.
This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #383: Cloudbusting by Kate Bush.
In a recent post, I spoke about how books have inspired many of the best songs of our generation. This is very true of the song that is the focus of today’s post: “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush.
Back in 1973, Kate Bush read a book called, “A Book of Dreams”. It was written by a man named Peter Reich. Reich was the son of a well-known philosopher and psychiatrist named Wilhelm Reich. “A Book of Dreams” is a memoir of the father-son relationship that they enjoyed. Unlike many ordinary families, the Reichs lived in the rolling hills of Maine in the U.S., where Wilhelm had built a hilltop laboratory. The chief focus of his research was on building a machine that could change the weather, causing it to rain at will (which was, especially, important in times of drought). The machine he was attempting to invent was called a “Cloudbusting” machine. Unfortunately, his work became a source of concern to the government and Wilhelm Reich was arrested and taken to prison, his laboratory was ransacked and his son, Peter, was left to watch helplessly as his father was taken away.
Kate Bush often infuses her songs with references to the Arts and “Cloudbusting” in no exception. The lyrics to this song tell a fairly faithful re-creation of the original story. When she shared her song with Peter Reich, he commented on how perfectly she captured the competing emotions of the security he felt when with his father in his laboratory and the complete loss of everything he knew as he watched his father being taken away. But, as much as the song stands alone as one of Kate Bush’s best and most popular works, it is the music video that truly takes this song to another level.
The video for “Cloudbusting” was directed by Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame). It plays like an epic, full-length movie, even though it is only 5-6 minutes long. The video stars Canadian actor Donald Sutherland as Wilhelm and Bush (with shortened hair) starring as the son, Peter. The cloud busting machine was designed by the same set designer who came up with the “Alien monster” from the movie, “Alien”. If you are familiar with the movie, “Alien” at all then, you will see the physical similarities between Wilhelm Reich’s machine and the movie monster quite readily. In any case, this song pulsates with a beat that mimics a heartbeat and is filled with emotion as the relationship between father and son grows and swells and then, is taken away once the authorities arrive on the scene. When this video was first released in the UK, it was often shown in theatres (like a movie trailer) before the start of the main feature and it was quite common for people to cry as it ended or, to cheer, as well.
All in all, the ties that bind parents and children are among the strongest and most primal that we, as humans, experience. “Cloudbusting” captures every emotion present; in the good times and the bad. In a world where “Hey, Baby, Baby” is the standard relationship arc that fills our airwaves, “Cloudbusting” serves as a reminder of the many other important relationships that exist in our lives. It is a remarkable saga told through song and through video. Please enjoy.
The link for the music video for “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush, can be found here.
A link to a website devoted to Kate Bush can be found here.
A link to order the book written by Peter Reich called “The Book of Dreams” can be found here. I ordered the book and can attest to the fact that it is a very unique and interesting story.
Today is Wednesday, February 19, 2020. It is “I Read Canadian” Day. For the first time ever, Canada is honouring all of the authors and illustrators who have published books in Canada over the years. The effort to promote the Canadian Book Publishing Industry has been organized by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, children’s author, Eric Walters, CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers), as well as, The Ontario Library Association.
There is much to be proud of, as Canadians, when it comes to our nation’s literary canon. Our stories paint a vivid picture of who we are as Canadians and help to share the physical beauty of our country with the world. As citizens, we owe a debt of gratitude to all of the men and women who have put pen to paper on our behalf. My post today is meant to act as one, small payment that has come due.
The focus of today’s post is going to be a listing of Canadian Picture books and Chapter books that have played an important part in my classrooms over the years. I have been retired for almost two years now but, many of my most cherished memories that I have as a teacher came as a result of the books I read aloud to my students. I was so fortunate to have such rich resources to draw upon in the promotion of literacy and in helping children discover the magic of a story well told. So, here, in no particular order, are some of the best of the best Canadian books that I had the very great privilege of reading aloud.
15- The Secret Life of Owen Skye/Dear Sylvia/After Sylvia
The Secret Life of Owen Skye was the first book in a trilogy that included Dear Sylvia and After Sylvia, too. These wonderful chapter books were written by Alan Cumyn. The series revolved around the Skye Family who, like most families, have their share of secrets, rivalries, shared traditions and various ups and downs that Life tended to throw their way. I liked how Mr. Cumyn allowed life to unfold for this family in an unhurried, very natural manner. There are no zombies, time portals or machine guns in this series. I, especially, like the tenderness with which he allowed Owen and Sylvia to explore the nature of the affection they feel for each other. Overall, a wonderful, wholesome, funny look at family life.
14- The Name of the Tree
The Name of the Tree by Celia Barker Lottridge is one of the single, most important books in my collection. I devoted an entire post to it last year which detailed the magic of this book and highlighted the important role it played in helping my students develop a love of books and of stories, as well as, helping them to grow as little humans and believe in their hearts that they were capable of great things. You can read that post here. There isn’t much that any of us can say with absolute certainty in life but, one thing that I can say for sure is that this book is extremely special and that if I live to be 100, I will still have this book on a bookshelf near to where I am. It is that good. The illustrations are by the incomparable, Ian Wallace and add so much meaning to the text.
13- A Salmon For Simon.
A Salmon For Simon is written by Betty Waterton. Aside from the fact that this book has a super title, the tale told is one that lots of children over the years have been able to relate to. Simon longs to catch his own fish, like the big boys do. But, salmon are strong fish and Simon is still a small boy so, he is unable to catch one on his own. That is, until one day when a salmon actually falls from the sky, released from the talons of an eagle. The fish falls into a small pool at Simon’s feet. It is his for the taking but, as he studies the salmon, he notices the fear on its face. So, instead of taking the fish as a prize, Simon decides to work to save its life and set it free. Many a class of mine engaged in rich discussions when it came to whether Simon should keep the fish or release the fish. Even small children are capable of acts of great compassion and kindness, as Simon showed. Lovely book. The illustrations, by Ann Blades, are soft and warm, in keeping with the feel of the book.
12- The White Stone in the Castle Wall.
The White Stone in the Castle Wall is by Sheldon Oberman. It details how a single, white stone came to find its way into the wall surrounding the historic Case Loma in Toronto. I took many classes on field trips to explore Casa Loma and, before leaving on the bus for home at the end of the day, we always walked the perimeter of the property until we found the legendary white stone. Then, we would all pose beside it as a group and the memory of our trip would be preserved. The story, itself, introduces children to Sir Henry M. Pellatt, who made his fortune bringing electric street lights to Toronto. The White Stone in the Castle Wall also makes the important point that there is value in hard work, as the young boy learns when he meets Mr. Pellatt and tells him the story of how hard it was to get his stone from across the city, all the way to Casa Loma. In addition to the historical bent of the story, the illustrations are gorgeous! The illustrator was Les Tait and each picture is actually a painting. Fabulous work, all around and a wonderful companion piece to many a memorable class trip to the big city from our small town.
11- Barbara Reid Art.
OMG! Barbara Reid is a megastar when it comes to children’s literature in Canada. She is well known as an author and as an illustrator. But, she is most famous for creating exquisite illustrations using the medium of plasticine. I first came to know of Barbara Reid when I discovered her book, The New Baby Calf. I would be willing to place a very large wager that you would have difficulty going into any elementary school in Canada and trying to find any educator who has not read her books or has not had a Barbara Reid art lesson or three with their students. I always enjoyed making Barbara Reid Art with my students because, in order to replicate what she did, students had to be aware of art-related concepts such as foreground, middle ground and back ground in a picture. They, also, were able to incorporate a fair amount of detail in their work because their work surfaces were usually small. I, often used stiff cardboard as the backing for their plasticine art and placed the finished work inside a clear cd jewel case….when cds were still a thing.
10- A Poppy Is to Remember.
A Poppy Is to Remember was written by Heather Patterson. It isn’t easy to explain concepts like War and Remembrance to small children but this book, A Poppy Is To Remember is among the best at doing so that I have come across. In sparse, simple text, children come to learn that soldiers could be in the air, on the water or marching on land and that many were scared and that some did not make it back home to their families in Canada. The famous poem, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae is included in context with the story being told. I credit this book with helping many, many children truly understand this important Canadian poem. When it came time to conduct Remembrance Day services at school, my students often were tasked with reciting this book in front of their peers. They always took that responsibility seriously and made me and their parents and themselves, proud. The illustrations in this book are by Ron Lightburn and are actual paintings, too, as was the case with The White Stone in the Castle Wall. Mr. Lightburn is from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario.
9- A Northern Alphabet.
A Northern Alphabet is written and illustrated by Ted Harrison. Mr. Harrison has written and illustrated many children’s books but, what sets him apart are two things: (a) many of his stories are set in the northern regions of Canada and highlight the life experiences of the Inuit people, (b) his illustrations tend to use swirling, wavy lines and vibrant hues of purple and pink and shades of blue. As was the case with Barbara Reid earlier, Ted Harrison is an author whose stories lend themselves to further exploration though Art. One of my fondest teaching memories was working at a school where we cooked with the kids quite often (for a variety of reasons). But, specifically, with regard to Ted Harrison, I remember creating homemade soup and then, as we ate it, we painted Ted Harrison-style pictures, while Canadian music played in the classroom. I can never look with passivity at any work of Ted Harrison’s. His work evokes a sensory experience for me every time.
8- Kathy Stinson.
Kathy Stinson wrote two books; Those Green Things and Red is Best waaaay back at the beginning of my teaching career. They were two of the very first books I ever owned as a professional educator. She had a wonderful way of capturing the many moods of small children; especially when it came to eating suspicious green veggies or wearing your favourite red clothes. But, like many people, Kathy Stinson matured as her own career went along and, lo and behold, she came out with an enormously important book called the Highway of Heroes; which talks about the importance of a stretch of highway that runs past my town. The Highway of Heroes is a book about honouring those Canadian soldiers at work today in hotspots all over the world. Many children only think of Remembrance Day as being for soldiers from WWI and WWII. But, Ms. Stinson reminds us that today’s soldiers are helping to keep the peace in many war-torn countries around the world and that, sometimes, that work is dangerous and, even, deadly. When a Canadian soldier dies in active duty, their body is flown to the air force base at Trenton, Ontario. It proceeds down the main 401 highway until it reaches Toronto, where an autopsy is performed. All along the route, people line the overpasses and salute the fallen hero. It is an amazing experience to stand on a bridge overlooking the Highway of Heroes. Kathy Stinson captures that feeling ever so well. What a special book.
8- Waiting for the Whales.
Waiting for the Whales was written by Sheryl McFarlane. This is a beautiful, slow moving story that luxuriates in the warmth of the family bonds it is describing. One of the beautiful parts of being a parent or grandparent is having the chance to share those things that we find special with our beloved children. The memories of such sharing live on, even after death takes the elders away. Waiting for the Whales is a wonderful story for introducing children to the concept of death and to the circle of life. The illustrations are completely lovely and were created by my fellow Cobourg citizen, Ron Lightburn.
7- Have You Seen Josephine?
Have You Seen Josephine? was written and illustrated by Stephane Poulin. Josephine is a cat who is running loose through the streets of Montreal. The thing that every single class loved about this book was how, in each picture, Josephine was hiding somewhere, trying to elude detection. So, part of the joy of reading this book for each child was trying to find Josephine, too. Each page of the book took the reader to a different part of Montreal so, students were given a good glimpse of how the city was organized, what went on in the various places they were taken to and so on. There are a couple of “Josephine” books out there and all were well-loved in my classroom.
6- Town Is By The Sea.
Town Is By The Sea was written by Joanne Schwartz. This book is an exception to my list because it is a book I never got to share with my students. It was published just as I retired. But, I am including it on my list of special Canadian books because it is set where I grew up, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Joanne Schwartz grew upon a community called New Waterford, which is about a twenty minute drive from where I grew up in Glace Bay. When I look at Sydney Smith‘s beautifully-illustrated front cover, I see my home as I remember it; the many-coloured houses, the telephone poles, clothes hanging on the line and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. ***Funny personal note, I’m pretty sure that my mother and Joanne Schwartz’s father knew each other. I believe her father was a man named Irving Schwartz and, if I am correct then, Mr. Schwartz ran a chain of furniture stores from which my mother furnished our homes. I don’t know Joanne Schwartz at all but, that having been said, neither of us has lived in a Town by the Sea for a long time, either. But, regardless, Town Is By The Sea is, yet, another one of those special books that I will keep forever. Home has never been captured so well. Many thanks to Joanne and Sydney.
5- Phoebe Gilman.
Phoebe Gilman wrote some of the most beloved books in my collection, including Jillian Jiggs, Something From Nothing and The Balloon Tree. She was an extremely talented illustrator and used her illustrations to add layers of meaning to her text. All of her stories were whimsical and highlighted creativity and fun and family life, too. The Balloon Tree was her first published book. Phoebe Gilman passed away recently but, her legacy as one of the most popular and important members of the Children’s Literary scene in Canada is firmly entrenched.
4- The Breadwinner Trilogy.
The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City make up The Breadwinner Trilogy. All were written by Deborah Ellis. All three books take place in Afghanistan, with Mud City, also, spilling over into Pakistan. In each case, the lives of girls and women are scrutinized in ways that are relentless and unflinching. I read these books with my own daughter, Leah, as well as, with a Grade 5 class I taught one year. Many, many important conversations were held regarding the role of women in oppressed societies such as the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are no warm fuzzies with these books but, this trilogy remains an important work of courage and conviction by Deborah Ellis. Not everyone has the luxury of a “happily-ever-after” life story but, for those who don’t, it is crucial to tell their stories anyway so that the world can know the dignity of lives lived differently and, hopefully, make those lives better through knowledge and empathy.
3- Anne of Green Gables.
This story has become the image of Canada that is held by many people from around the world. Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote the story of the orphan girl named Anne who talked so much her tongue must have been hung in the middle, it flapped so! Through Anne, we learned about the importance of kindred spirits and her Lake of Shining Waters. This story takes place in Prince Edward Island and has been made into a multi-book series, a movie series, an animated series, a musical and has recently been given new life in a modern-influenced adaptation called Anne With an E. Anne of Green Gables is a story about family and loyal friends and imagination and uses beautiful, beautiful language in the telling. If Canada is to be imagined from abroad then, having images of Avonlea dance in the heads of those imagining must be a wondrous thing indeed!
2- Hana’s Suitcase.
Hana’s Suitcase was written by Karen Levine. Simply put, this book is the most special book to me of them all! I wrote a post about why it is such an important book to me, earlier in the year, which you can read here. Sometimes a book can change your life. This book changed mine…for the better, too. For a book about the Holocaust, it turned out to be such a warm story about family and the bonds of love that exist between family members. An important portion of this book takes place during wartime but, make no mistake, Hana’s Suitcase is a book about Peace and about Hope but, most of all, it is book about Love.
1- Love You Forever.
Love You Forever was written by the highest-selling Canadian author of all time, Robert Munsch. I read Love You Forever for the very first time in the University of Western Ontario book store while I was attending Teacher’s College. I read it amid the hubbub of a regular business day in that book shop. By the time I finished the book, I was in tears. No one else in the store seemed to notice but, I felt as though the orientation of my life had changed a little at that moment. While I had grown up reading stories such as Hop on Pop and Cat in the Hat, this story was different. It told a generational tale of family love in a way that I had never read before. It was told in simple language and contained a repetitive verse that came to be a trademark of Robert Munsch’s. It was the very first book I ever bought as a professional educator. This is the book that began a thirty-year quest to build a personal library of the best of children’s literature because our children, my students, deserved nothing less than the very best.
This list of mine is the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to quality literature for children in Canada. Farley Mowat, Dennis Lee, Mordiceau Richler, Melanie Watt, Sheree Fitch and so many others all come easily to mind when I think of the books that have made a difference to my own children and to those who were entrusted to my care. How lucky we are to live in a country so rich in talent!
Please feel free, as always, to comment in the box below if you have any thoughts you wish to share about the books I have listed or some others that you feel are deserving of praise, too. Happy “I Read Canadian” Day, folks. Thanks for allowing me to play a small part in the festivities.
All of my life I have been a quiet person. Some of us are just that way. But even though I may not be the best at starting conversations in social settings, I do have stories to tell and ideas to share. The trick for me in this life has been discovering the best way to make my voice heard.
I have been thinking a lot about this lately because I have discovered a new book. I know I am biased in this regard but, I think Children’s Picture Books are an art form and contain some of the best storytelling you are likely to find anywhere. I Go Quiet by David Ouimet is a book that I wish I had written. It is about me and those of you out there like me. It is about the quiet ones, the introverts and our place in this loud, noisy, busy world of ours. It is about those of us who paint pictures with silence and raise choirs of concerns within our minds. It is for everyone who has a song to sing but prefers doing so in the shower rather than on stage in front of an audience. This book is a wonderful affirmation that it is ok to look for comfort and inspiration from within and that learning to trust the voice you discover there is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.
When I was still a teacher, I always had a soft spot for students whose social presence was whisper light. I made it my mission to find out what made these kids tick and then, guide them to the place where their inner voice resided. Some of the best moments I ever experienced as teacher came from children who wrapped themselves in the safety of our classroom environment and found the courage to be their true selves. This manifested itself in many ways. Some children found their voice in Art. Some found their voice in Athletics. Some found their identity via books and stories. It never mattered to me what form this awakening took, as long as it happened for that child; especially, that child who may have felt that they didn’t matter because they never had an avenue to make themselves heard. Self-expression is very important, as is believing that what you have to say has merit. Helping children to learn to trust in the value of their thoughts, feelings and ideas is of immeasurable importance because when children learn to believe in the power of their own voice, they can change the world.
The most famous recent example of a child having a message to share with the world and having the courage of her convictions to deliver it is Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. A little over a year ago, Greta begun a public protest regarding the dangers posed by Climate Change. She started a movement for young people that came to be known as #FridaysForFuture. What she did was to go out on Strike from school each Friday. While being on Strike, she sat quietly in front the legislative building in Sweden and demanded politicians take action. Initially, she was ignored by passersby. But, eventually, over time, people began to question why this girl in the yellow jacket, with the pony tails was sitting there, holding her signs. Greta found her voice and helped raise the alarm regarding the precarious nature of the state of our world. She promoted the scientific fact that our planet is approaching a very real “tipping point” of climate-inspired catastrophes that soon we will be unable to reverse. Our very existence is at stake and time is running out. So, Greta left school on Fridays and spoke for all of us.
In time, word of Greta’s School Strike for Climate got out, via news reports and on social media. Other like-minded students, such as 13-year old Alexandria Villasenor, shared Greta’s view that, while going to school is important, it is not important if there is no future for young people. Alexandria began her School Strike 4 Climate in front of the UN building in New York. Like Greta Thunberg, Ms. Villasenor looked within herself and followed the courage of her own convictions. She sat alone on the bench you see in this photo for weeks and weeks. Eventually, the positive power of social media helped propel the School Strike for Climate message so that it reached a wider, more mainstream audience. Climate scientists from around the world loaned their knowledge and credibility to this cause. Soon, local politicians in cities and countries around the world began declaring “Climate Emergencies” in their jurisdictions. Policies have started to be enacted in some countries such as the phasing out of gas-powered automobiles by the mid-2020s. Because quiet children have found their voices, a choir of concern regarding Climate Change is beginning to spread around the world.
It isn’t easy being brave when you feel as though your words are mere dandelion puffs scattered by the slightest of breezes. But, if there is anything that I have learned over the course of my thirty years hanging out with children it is this…….they have ideas that have value and they are worthy of respect from the adults in their world. I am not just referring to the Greta Thunbergs and Alexandria Villasenors of the world, either. Children, everywhere, have beliefs that are valid. They wish for safety and friendship and love and clean water and good food to eat and share together. Children espouse many of the core values that we, as adults, sometimes forget about, as we busy ourselves with things that often don’t matter. We exist on a planet where many adults strive for material gain and personal power. None of that will matter when our world burns beneath our feet. We will all be equally powerless when extreme climate disasters strike. Our money will not help us when the end is about to come and, as the old song says, “All we are is dust in the wind.” If only the adults would listen to the voices of our children.
Getting adults in positions of power to listen to the voices of children is why the School Strike for Climate movement is holding Global Strikes tomorrow (September 20) and next Friday (September 27) in cities all around the world. My daughter, Leah, and I will be attending the march being held in Toronto on the 27th. Greta Thunberg will be leading the march in Montreal that same day. She is marching with Alexandria Villasenor in NYC tomorrow. Tens of thousands of children and adults are expected to march for a better future for our planet and for us. Please feel free to find out more about these marches and about our Climate emergency by clicking on the link www.fridaysforfuture.org
We ignore the quiet ones at our peril. Those of us who are comfortable living, for the most part, within the confines of our own minds, still have a role to play on society’s stage. We don’t all have to lead the march, as the Greta Thunberg’s of the world do but, by lending our presence to the unfolding drama, we give strength to our message and allow our voices to carry. It is easy for some of us to exist, unnoticed. But, there are times when it is too important to remain quiet. The world needs us to all to speak up. Being quiet is no longer an option……even for folks like me.
***Author’s note: I am super-excited to publish this particular post today because it was created in partnership with a former student of mine, Erin Cutler. Waaaaay back in the day, Erin was a sweet, young girl in our Grade 2 class in Bowmanville, Ontario. Erin was always a hard worker and a good friend to others. But, what I always remember about her is the relationship we struck up because of an in-class activity called Journal writing. In her journal book, I would ask Erin to write a letter to me about anything she wanted to talk about and then, I would write back. On the surface, this was an exercise in writing and reading for the child. But, the deeper benefit is that it allowed a private conversation to take place, parallel to what everyone else saw in public. Whenever I wrote back to a student, I always tried to incorporate an illustration to accompany my words. Erin really liked that aspect of our journal conversations and, over time, began responding back with her own Art to go along with her questions and stories. Well, I am happy to report that Erin has grown up to be a lovely young lady who makes her living through Art. Erin specifically created two pieces of original Art for this post; the first is what I call Portrait of Greta and the second is A Choir of Concern. I am humbled beyond measure to have Erin’s great work adorning my words on this post. She is terrific in all regards. Thank you, Erin, for your hard work for this post. Hopefully, we can do this again sometime.
I just finished reading a great and important book called “A Train Near Magdeburg” by Matthew A. Rozell. Using first-person accounts, for the most part, Mr. Rozell, a U.S. History teacher, describes the liberation of a train filled with starving, dying Jewish prisoners on their way to be executed by the Nazis toward the end of WWII. The photo on the front of the book was taken by a U.S. soldier who stumbled upon the train as he and his Unit chased the Germans back toward Berlin. The photo depicts the moment that these forlorn individuals realize that they have escaped death and are, in fact, going to be rescued. From Death to Life in the click of a camera’s shutter.
Mr. Rozell did a masterful job of stitching together the words of the survivors and provided an insider’s view of the Holocaust as it unfolded all around those who ended up on that train. He managed to tell their stories well and, in doing so, he brought dignity and a measure of humanity to each person.
When Mr. Rozell first became a teacher, he started a project aimed at documenting the experiences of U.S. soldiers while they were still young enough and mentally-alert enough to accurately tell their tales. He and his students conducted hundreds of personal interviews. They documented the results of their conversations in a website called TeachingHistoryMatters.com As luck would have it, one day Mr. Rozell was conducting an interview with a soldier who was now known as Judge Walsh. As the interview ended, Mr. Walsh’s daughter suggested he should tell Mr. Rozell “about the train”. As it turned out, Judge Walsh was one of the soldiers who liberated that train. He told Mr. Rozell his story. As it all turned out, Mr. Rozell helped co-ordinate a reunion of the remaining train survivors and the remaining U.S. soldiers who liberated them. This book describes the reunions (there were several). But, more than anything, it demonstrates the value of lives fully lived. For each survivor is accorded time to talk about the families that were raised because they got to live. They spoke of the careers they have had and the good they did for others because they became teachers or doctors or poets or artists. They talked about the good they have been able to do by talking about their experiences and warning of the dangers of fascism and genocide.
There were approximately 2, 500 Jewish prisoners on that train near Madgeburg, Germany. Each one a real person. Each one had a heart that beat. Each one had hopes and dreams for their future. Each person had a name and an identity that was uniquely theirs. None of them were “vermin”, as the Nazis called them. None of them were “cockroaches”, as the Rwandan Hutus called their Tutsi countryfolk before that slaughter began. None of them were “Base people” or “Depositees” as Pol Pot called those he sent to the Killing Fields of Cambodia in the 1970s. No, these 2,500 were all human beings in their own right and they deserved to live because of that fact.
Words matter. Who says them can matter even more. One of the first things a totalitarian regime does as it sets out to settle political or cultural scores is that it will begin a campaign of de-humanization. It is easier to incite violence against “enemies” if those enemies are portrayed as being sub-human. One way to tilt the playing field against a chosen person or group is to take away the individual identities of those involved and give the entire group a label. In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws set that process in motion, resulting in the creation of a sub-class of people with no rights and no worth. It is so much easier to do terrible things to those whose names you do not know and whose lives you firmly believe don’t matter.
Mr. Rozell believed it was important to preserve the history of those involved in WWII so that the lessons of that conflict could be shared with his students and with others in his sphere of influence. I am happy he did that because I enjoyed his book immensely. It is one of the best and most important books I have read in years. “A Train Near Magdeburg” was brought to my attention on Twitter by a man I follow there named McKay Smith. I, originally, came to know of Mr. Smith (@McKayMSmith) because he, too, is a storyteller. When I first encountered him, he was posting a comment thread about a family member who had landed behind enemy lines during the War. His story made for fascinating reading. But, more than that, Mr. Smith took great pains to pay tribute to those who had suffered along the way. He has told the stories of many people who died in the War, as well as those heroes who risked much to save others. In every case, Mr. Smith shows their photo and states their name. Words matter. Names are important.
After reading Mr. Smith’s tweets about “A Train Near Magdeburg”, I ordered the book the very next day. A decision over which I have no regrets. Thank you, McKay, for bringing dignity to those who suffered so many indignities during the War. You do right by them, just as Mr. Rozell did in his great book. There is a documentary slated to come out soon about this book and that train and those aboard it who got to see the light of another day. The trailer for that documentary is here. Hopefully, it will work for you.
As I type these words, it is less than 24 hours since there were two different mass shootings in the U.S. In both cases, the shooters were spurred on by words spoken by people of influence and/or authority. Words that acted to de-humanize a targeted group. Cataloguing History does no good for anyone if the lessons it contains go unheeded. We have seen leaders label citizens as “invaders” before. We have seen citizens labelled as “criminals” and “rapists” before. We have heard the words “rodents” and “infested” used before. And we are now seeing it again. President Trump’s use of these words is not by accident. His use of de-humanizing words that take away the worth of a targeted segment of his society is a trademark of those who practise in genocide. Now, it hasn’t come to genocide in the U.S. yet but, then again, Hitler had almost a decade to finalize his plans before the smokestacks belched and the mass graves filled with the bodies of real people known then, only as “vermin”.
“A Train Near Magdeburg” is a very impactful books. If you decide to read it for yourself, you will find yourself moved many times over. For me, I will end this post with the scene that most struck me. It was in the first hour or so after the U.S. soldiers had arrived and liberated the train. In that time, many of the Jewish prisoners were reluctant to leave the train cars or were too weak to do so. But, as the scene stabilized and the Jewish people began to realize that freedom might actually be at hand, they began to tidy themselves up as best they could and they lined up in as orderly a fashion as they could before the U.S. soldiers and then, one by one, they stated their names and where they had lived and, with that one act, they became real again.
Words matter. Names matter. I have a name. My name is Tom.
I was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. In my hometown, there are two museums of note. The first is called The Miners Museum. It is located at the edge of a tall cliff, with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean pounding below. For a few dollars, you can don the garb of a real coal miner and go under that ocean on a tour of an actual coal mine. My wife and I were married in the Miners Village Restaurant which is the greenish building you can see in the right side of this photo. We were serenaded afterwards by a Gospel Choir in the Museum theatre room. The Miners Museum holds a special place in our hearts. But, having said that, the Miners Museum is not the most famous museum in town.
On the other side of Glace Bay, at a part of town called Table Head, sits the Marconi Museum. This museum is dedicated to celebrating one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of this past century. For it was at Table Head that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first Trans-Atlantic wireless message in history.
I was thinking a lot about Marconi and about Glace Bay recently because I just finished reading, Thunderstruck, by author Erik Larson. Mr. Larson has written many books; most of which involve the connection between some infamous moment in History and some famous moment, too. In the case of Thunderstruck, Mr. Larson tells a tale of one of England’s most famous murder cases and how Marconi’s invention enabled authorities from Scotland Yard to apprehend the criminal involved.
In our modern times, it seems inconceivable that anyone could move freely about the planet. We are constantly monitored by surveillance cameras and satellites, our purchases tracked on-line and our social media feeds instantly updated to include stories and advertisements tailored to our lifestyles. Everything is immediate. Real privacy or anonymity is hard to come by.
But back in the early 1900s, when Marconi was conducting his experiments, news took time to travel. So, when the mild-mannered Dr. Crippen murdered his over-bearing wife and fled England with the woman he really loved, Dr. Crippen correctly believed that it was possible to travel abroad, incognito, with his lover and avoid detection and capture. But, as Mr. Larson so expertly details in his book, Marconi had invented a means of reducing the time it took for messages to travel across the Ocean to mere seconds. Not only that but, Marconi had fine-tuned the ability of ships to communicate quickly and accurately with receiving and transmitting stations on land. Thus, by the time Crippen and his lover had boarded a ship in Antwerp, Belgium, the Captain had already received a police bulletin from Scotland Yard with photos of the suspects on it. Furthermore, because the Captain was able to confirm the identities of the two criminals, he was able to quickly rely that information to Scotland Yard authorities who, in turn, were able to dispatch officers who sailed on a speedier ship and were able to make the arrest before Crippen’s ship ever made its destination of Quebec City.
I enjoyed reading Thunderstruck because I like reading about Historical events. An added bonus, for me, was that such a large portion of the book was set in Glace Bay. The photo on the right shows the original station that Marconi and his crew erected at Table Head. Much of today’s instantaneous communication can trace its roots back to this rocky spot on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
I think that most of us take for granted the push-button world we live in. We complain if there is a delay of only a few seconds between the time we click our mouse and the arrival of our content. But, back in Marconi’s time, it took him and his team over a decade of trial and error in order to figure out how to do what he did. *That is Marconi sitting cross-legged, as his wireless operator attempts to ascertain whether or not his message has been received in England.
That Marconi’s invention helped catch a notorious criminal certainly captured the world’s attention in a tabloid kind of way. It was the first time in History that a police pursuit was reported on in, what amounted to, real time, a hundred years ago. Millions of people on both sides of the Ocean knew that Crippen and his accomplice were doomed well before the arrest was ever made. In fact, perhaps, the last person to realize the drama that had been unfolding around him as he sailed from Belgium to Canada was, Dr. Crippen, himself. Right up until the end of the voyage, as the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway came into view, Crippen thought he had escaped to a new life; first, in Canada and, eventually, in America. As Larson points out in his book, on the last evening before his arrest, Dr. Crippen stood outside the wireless office on board the ship, watching the electrical arcs colour the sky. He commented to the Captain about how magical this new wireless thing seemed to be. The Captain, to his credit, merely smiled and nodded.
As much as newspaper editors cheered the arrival of wireless communication, one of the real values of it came a few years later, when wireless communication played such a huge role in saving survivors of the Titanic sinking.
As with so much in our world, things are never simply black and white. Wireless communication started our world down a path where silence rarely exists anymore. Amid the noise comes wonderful things like tsunami warnings that save countless lives and astronauts who walk on the Moon and tell us about the giant leaps they are taking. There is wonder in all of that. But, lack of privacy is a very real concern and there are no easy answers to that. For a genius once sat on a windswept part of my hometown and let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, with a few bits of morse code that transformed into electrical waves that sailed across the Ocean faster than any ship, obliterating national boundaries, making us all, simultaneously, citizens of the world. There is no such thing as a personal identity anymore. Thanks to Marconi, we are now all stitched together in a social-media fabric held together, not with wires and batteries but, with binary codes. Our world has become digitized.
And, that process began in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. A town that has two museums; one that probably means more to those of us who were born there and one that we share with the world.
Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂
Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.
That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.
Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.
As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.
As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂
My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.
My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.
And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.
Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.
That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.
Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her own initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.
So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.
The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.
Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.
About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.”
I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.
That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.
So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as much to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.
So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.
I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.
A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.
I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.
Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.
Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too
If you ask most children to tell you what Christmas is all about, the vast majority will talk about Santa Claus and elves and the North Pole and, most importantly to them, getting lots of presents. Not too many children realize that Christmas is actually a religious holiday unless they go to Church. And, not too many children go to Church these days. I would say, the total number of children who knew the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus was never more than a quarter of the class, in any given year.
Christmas is just one example of how young children view the world around them. Most kids have an very ego-centric view of life and move through their days blissfully unaware of why things are the way they are. Why is the weather the way it is? Why do we eat certain foods and avoid other types of food? Why do we put a tree in the middle our living rooms in December and stick a star or angel on top? Who knows? Who cares? May I go and play now, Teacher?
Well, one of the philosophical pillars of my teaching career was to help children make sense of their world. So, we talked about why it is cold in the Winter, even on sunny days. We talked about the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and veggies, as opposed to the empty calories found in junk food and how that affects our bodies and minds. And, at Christmas time, we talked about why we have the traditions we do because, when you stop to think about it, we do a lot of weird things during the holidays.
So, this post is going to talk a little about how I did that in the classrooms I taught in and, more specifically, some of the books that helped me explain the traditions of Christmas to children; especially those who don’t go to Church.
In my day, I had several hundred holiday-themed books in my collection. Over time, some came to become more useful to me as a teaching tool than others and some came to become favourites with the kids. Sometimes, the two merged together and the books became essential parts of every Holiday Unit I taught. The Christmas Pageant by Jacqueline Rogers is one such book.
I usually set aside three weeks to go through my Holiday Unit. This book was always one of the first books I shared with the children. The book is very simple in its structure: it tells the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus by showing a school class rehearse for their Christmas pageant. What is really good about this book is that as the rehearsal moves through the various stages of the Christmas story, the words and music to the old classic Christmas carols are presented. So, for example, when Mary and Joseph first start out on their journey, the words and music to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are given. When the angels first appear in the fields to the shepherds, the words and music to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” This happens all throughout the book.
The beauty of this is several fold. If you have ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and can remember the scene, close to the end, when Charlie Brown throws his hands up in frustration and cries, “Does anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?” and then, Linus goes to centre stage and says, “I do, Charlie Brown” and he proceeds to tell the story and Christmas suddenly becomes about something more than the greed and the glitz of commercialism well, The Christmas Pageant did the same for me with my students.
This book introduces the classic carols to kids. All of the kids know Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. But, this book allowed me to take the carols, one per day, and write out beautiful lyrics such as,
“Angels we have heard on high,
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Glooooooooooooooria, In excelsis deo (X2)”
That is lovely language but, the story of the lyrics is told in context because of this book so, the language doesn’t end up being too lofty or intimidating, even for small children. In addition, it allowed me the chance to play these carols during craft times, as well as, Jingle Bells et al., and the songs would make sense to the kids and have a deeper meaning because they understood the story being told.
Furthermore, introducing the story of Jesus being born, along wth the carols that accompany the story helped my students in the same way that Linus helped the other Peanuts characters realize that there is more to this Christmas thing that they originally thought. Thus, because of this one book, I was able to open the door to exploring some of our Christmas traditions such as the importance of a star, of angels, of nativity scenes and so on.
I used to do this by using the Advent calendar format. Each day, we “opened” a new box or panel and revealed a new topic. For example, one day might be about candy canes and why they are shaped the way they are. The next day, might be why we bring trees inside our homes and the original German tradition of putting candles on the branches and how, for safety reasons, this has given way to electric lights. By the way, whenever I did the “lights on the trees” lesson, I always read The Nutcracker to the kids. It is the perfect story for illustrating how homes were decorated back then. It, also, introduces the concept of candy, including sugar plums. Once I have read this book to the kids, I can then read The Night Before Christmas and it will make more sense; especially the part when “the children all nestled snug in their beds, visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Getting back to the Nutcracker, for a second, reading that book, also, allowed me to go to YouTube and show the kids a clip of The Dance of The SugarPlum Fairy by The Bolshoi Ballet from Russia. *This comes up later in the list in another book, as well, called Olivia Saves Christmas.
I could talk all day about the Art and Science of teaching a Unit like the Holiday Unit to small children. But, for now, let me switch gears a little and tell you about some of our favourite books that always made an appearance during the course of the Unit. Some acted to help impart new knowledge of holiday traditions but, some others, were just fun read-alouds and some had other lessons incorporated into their storylines that appealed to the kids, as well. So, book talk time….here we go!!
James Herriot was a Veteranarian in Scotland. His stories of life as a Scottish vet became a TV series on PBS called All Creatures Great and Small. I really like this book, The Christmas Day Kitten because it allowed me to talk about two things that don’t normally get thought of at Christmas time. First of all, I got to say my piece about animals being given as gifts for Christmas and how pets aren’t gifts, like a doll or a toy truck. Pets are living creatures and for many kittens and puppies, the stimulation of Christmas can be frightening, as well as, the shock of being in new surroundings and, finally, knowing how much kids want to just go and play with all the new toys they just received, is it really the best time for them to learn to take care of a new pet? Secondly, there is a death in this story. The cat, in question, in this story dies giving birth to kittens. It is the only story that I had in my regular rotation of books that had a real death as part of the storyline. When the cat dies, the line in the book goes something like this…..the vet is talking……..”I placed my hand over her heart. Her heart beat no more.” The scene is an emotional gut punch and every single class always grew silent when I was done. With many classes, I would get asked if the cat was really dead. I would reply that it was and we would talk briefly about the Circle of Life. With other groups, the discussion would come up about pets who had died and, maybe, even family members who had passed away. When this came up, it allowed me to talk to the kids about how some people are sad at Christmas time and how we must truly think of others and show empathy. All in all, this book is important and was always handled in a sensitive manner. In the end, class after class, always thought it was special and, you know what? They were right. There are many James Herriot books and I recommend them all.
The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett is awesome because Jan Brett is a wonderful author and illustrator. This book was always popular and helpful because, while the story of Tekka training Santa’s reindeer played out, one day at a time, there was always a separate story playing out in the border of the book that showed what was going on in the workshop as December rolled along. So, for example, on December 1st, the elves were busy making wooden blocks, Russian Stacking dolls and stuffing stuffed animals. The fact that each page was a calendar date, dove-tailed nicely with the Advent Calendar-style format I was using to introduce each day’s Christmas tradition.
TheLittleDrummer Mouse is written by Mercer Meyer who, if you are familiar with children’s literature, wrote the Little Critter series and is much beloved, as a result. This story is based on the carol, The Little Drummer Boy. The illustrations are gorgeous in this book and I would like it enough for that alone. But, the lessons in this book are noteworthy, as well. For example, the forest animals learn that “the Royal Family” will be passing by. They plan an elaborate feast, all the while showing little patience for the little drummer mouse who, they feel, has nothing to contribute and is in the way. Unbeknownst to the animals, as they flit about, madly preparing for royalty, quietly, in the background, a young couple silently pass by (Mary and Joseph). No one pays any attention to these poor folk. Eventually, while everyone is asleep, the mouse goes to an empty field to play his drum. Once there, he notices the bright star and feels compelled to follow it. He is in awe of what he sees in the stable and is asked to play the drums for the baby because the drumming is the only thing that calms the newborn. Suddenly, the mouse is very important. I like this story because it helps to drive home the point of how we judge others based upon their appearance and, as well, it allowed me to reinforce the notion that the smallest ones….just like my young students…..still have worth and still have value and can make a significant difference in the lives of others. It is a message than young children can never hear often enough.
Some stories are just fun reads and are super clever in their concept. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup is one such book. This book is about a boy who is making Christmas cookies with his Mom and decides he wants to turn his gingerbread men into a pirate crew, instead. Needless to say, the pirate cookies come to life during the night and end up fighting for their cookie lives as they attempt to avoid being eaten by the nasty giant all dressed in red. Lots of comedic turns throughout the story but, the best part of all is that, if you are so inclined….and why wouldn’t you be….you can read Captain Cookie’s character in a pirate voice all the way through. Every book is better when you can read it in a pirate voice! Arrrrrr, matey!
OMG!!! If there is any better character the world of Children’s literature than Olivia then, I don’t know who it is! Olivia Saves Christmas by Ian Falconer is the perfect melding of words and illustrations. There are fold out pages. There are cartoon illustrations plus, real photographs, too. Olivia, herself, is a diva. she loves fashion and art and, while having a heart of gold, always ends up exhausting her parents with her antics. Like every book in the Olivia series, there is a high degree of interactivity with this book. I highly recommend them all. If you are in a book store and see any of the Olivia books, pick it up and have a quick read. I guarantee that you will love what you see. Just as a teaser, when Christmas day is over, Olivia falls asleep. She dreams she is dancing the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy with Rudolph Nureyev in The Nutcracker; Nureyev and the stage in photograph form, Olivia is cartoon form, the perfect expression of happiness and contentment on her face.
Prolific adult author, James Patterson, wrote this book called Santa Kid. This book reads like a Hallmark Christmas movie. The illustrations are gorgeous but, the overall theme of a child saving Christmas is a message I always wanted to drive home to my kids. I never wanted them to feel helpless or as mere passengers in their own journey. I always sought ways to empower children and books like Santa Kid allowed me to give that message out. In short, this story is about a businessman who takes over Christmas and the North Pole because he claims that Santa isn’t as efficient as he should be when it comes to production and delivery and profit margins. Santa becomes too depressed to act, once things begin to go awry at the North Pole so, his daughter steps in a saves the day. I always like books that have female heroines, too and, this one does. Like I said, it reads like a movie so, kids always get caught up in the adventure of it all and they enjoy this book thoroughly. More of a book you would read to your child, as opposed to one they would read on their own but, just the same, a recommended Christmas choice.
Like Santa Kid, Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera, is a little more like a movie than most stories. It involves the spoiled Kringle children who live in a penthouse apartment in New York. They have a mysterious aunt who always goes away on “business trips” at this time of year. This is another story with a female lead. Sophie, the eldest sibling, decides to hide away in her aunt’s luggage as she prepares for her big trip. Not surprisingly, she ends up at The North Pole. Because she is small, she is mistaken for an elf and gets assigned various duties. Eventually, she goes down in the coal mines to get the list of naughty boys and girls and discovers that her brother’s name is on that list. Sophie has an epiphany and comes to realize the error of the way she and her brother have been acting and attempts to redeem her brother so that he will get gifts for Christmas, too. Eventually lessons are learned and identities revealed and secrets are shared. Over the years, the children I have shared this story with have enjoyed the detail and creativity given to the traditional Santa Claus tale that they are familiar with.
Berkley Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1987 for his comic strip, Bloom County. Much of the same high-calibre ability to combine illustrations with a strong storyline is evident in this book, A Wish For Wings That Work. This story is centred on one of his famous comic strip characters, Opus, who is a penguin who wishes to be able to fly. Obviously, as you know, penguins can’t do that in real life. Thus, Breathed tells a tale of a character who feels inadequate and defeated, “Imagine a bird whose wings sputter at those times when they should flutter”. Opus tries many different ways to fly such as ordering a Flap-o-matic from Ronco but, in the end, his dream never seems to be realized. But, as in all stories of this sort, redemption comes in the form of an emergency when his penguin swimming skills help to save Santa and, by extension, help to save Christmas. Earlier in the story, while sitting under a framed photo of Amelia Earhart, Opus had written to Santa, asking to be able to fly and, in a heart-warming way, Santa delivers the gift that Opus wanted in a way that makes Opus feel proud of himself in the process. Lots of depth and detail to the story and to the drawings in this book. One of my all-time favourite Christmas stories.
Sometimes, a book becomes a classic because of marketing and hype. But, sometimes, a book becomes a classic just because it is so good. There are two Christmas books that everyone should have and How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of them. The second book is The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.
I doubt that summaries are needed for either of these book so, I will spare you that. But, let me tell you why I have found these two books to be so very special.
First of all, short of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch is, arguably, the most iconic character in Christmas literature. Dr. Seuss has done a masterful job of creating a character so repugnant and evil that you have to root against him. But, his redemption is so profound and complete that, you can’t help cheering for him in the end. The rhyming nature of Seuss’ prose makes this story a delight to read aloud or to listen to. And, just like reading a story in a pirate voice is fun, I cannot…..I mean, absolutely cannot read this story in any other voice than that of Boris Karloff, from the original cartoon movie. If I was tasked with having to read aloud one story over and over again, for all of eternity, it would be How The Grinch Stole Christmas in a Boris Karloff voice. Man, I love it so much!!! And, so do the kids.
As for The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, this is my #1 book, and is the favourite choice, year after year, of the kids in my classrooms. The reason for this is simple….this story is all about the power of believing in something bigger and more profound than yourself. Believing in something is a powerful tonic for what ails all of our souls and what better thing to believe in with all your heart than the magic of Christmas. The way this book ends, with the ability of those who believe to hear the ringing of the bell, is as powerful a closing scene as almost any book ever written. I had the pleasure of working with children for thirty years and, believe me, the innocence of childhood hearts is as precious a gift as there is in this world; something that The Polar Express captures completely.
As I said waaaaaaay off of the top of this post, at one time, I owned hundreds and hundreds of Christmas books. The list I just gave to you is, by no means, exhaustive nor complete. There are countless other good books out there that help children understand the traditions, emotions and reasons for all that we do during the Holiday season. I hope that you enjoyed my list and that you all have a wonderful Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, etc., wherever you happen to be.
In Canada, on November 11, we pause and reflect upon those whose lives have been affected by War. We call this day, Remembrance Day. In schools all over the country, children will learn about how wars come about and how they are resolved. They will learn about famous battles and about the soldiers who fought and died in them. They will, also, learn about symbols of war, such as the poppy, that we wear over our hearts.
In my career as a teacher, I always welcomed the opportunity to explore the serious topic of conflict with my students. Coming as it does on the heels of Halloween, Remembrance Day serves to vividly highlight the distinction between dress up costumes from the world of monsters and a soldier’s military dress, from the world of war. My experience was that the kids were usually quite respectful during our Remembrance Day activities and that they wanted to do their best work and that they wanted to learn more about what War was really like. That’s where having access to good books helped a lot.
One of my first goals in my Remembrance Day Units was to impress upon the kids that War is not like a video game or a movie. It is not play time. It was very real and serious for those involved. However, it is important to remember that small children do not often have any personal experiences to draw upon during these initial discussions so, it was important for me to present battle scenes in ways that they could relate to. So, I showed them battle scene photos; especially of the trench warfare from Passchendale or Ypres; all mud and obliterated landscapes and I asked them simple questions like, “What do you think the soldiers did when they got hungry?”….there were no recess breaks during the battles where the soldiers could all have a snack. “Where did they go to the bathroom?”….there were no toilets or toilet paper. “Where did they sleep at night?”…..there were no beds or blankets, only cold, wet mud. It didn’t take many discussions like this for the kids to realize that they would not like to be in those conditions of battle at all. They quickly came to the conclusion that many soldiers were tired and hungry and cold and wished that they were anywhere else than where they were. In other words, the students started to develop a sense of empathy.
Once those discussions were had, I wanted to take their thoughts to the next level by talking about, not just the brave soldiers who fought in the battles but, those also affected by War…..the civilians. We would talk about what would happen to our school, our houses and our neighbourhoods if wartime battles took place there. This is when I would reach for one of the most important and valuable books I had in my personal library, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti.
What a potent and powerful story this is! The main character, Rose Blanche, is a young German girl. The story is told from her perspective and unfolds over the course of the entire Second World War. As you know from History, Germany was quite successful in the first half of World War II. So, in the beginning of this book, Rose’s town is decorated with flags, it is clean, the buildings are sturdy and bright, the soldiers passing through are all well-dressed in clean uniforms, their tanks and other equipment are all shiny and new.
But, one day, while coming from school, Rose witnesses something that changes her life. She sees a young boy, her age, taken by police and put in the back of a closed truck that was filled with other people. She doesn’t understand why the boy was taken away and decides to follow the truck as it heads out of town. At this point, I always stopped and asked the kids why they thought the boy was taken away. Every class said that he must have been bad and broken a law or done something wrong. No one ever said that it was because he was Jewish.
Rose’s journey leads her to a prison camp. The sickly looking people on the other side of the barbed wire all have yellow stars on their clothes. Rose doesn’t understand why they are imprisoned but she knows they are starving so she starts smuggling food out of her own home and bringing it to the prisoners.
The illustrations in the second half of the story start to reflect the tide of the War as it turned against the Germans. Now, the buildings Rose walks past are damaged, the landscape is turning grey, soldiers are coming in the opposite direction from when we first saw them and they are injured and weary-looking. Without saying it in words, the illustrations show that the front lines of the War are approaching Rose’s town.
The book concludes with Rose walking, again, to the prison camp. But, this time, a battle is raging in the forest by the camp and in the chaos of that battle a shot rings out and Rose is killed. The final page of the book shows the battle field has regenerated and a poppy is growing where Rose had stood that fateful day. The first line on this page reads, “Rose Blanche’s mother wanted a long time for her little girl.” It is an emotional punch in the gut. The kids are usually all very sombre at this point so I would always pause slightly and then, in hushed tones, ask about their Mom waiting for them to come home that day and how she would feel if they didn’t come home as expected.
No one thinks War is fun or cool after this.
Rose Blanche is a serious book. But, there is a place in a classroom for serious books. The key to being able to successfully address serious topics in a classroom is having established a safe, trusting environment during those opening weeks of the school year. This is not a book to read on the first day of school. But, it is a book to read once you, as a teacher, reach the point when you can say to a class that we are safe in this space, we can talk about anything in this space and we can move forward together in this space. Books like Rose Blanche expedite this bonding process exponentially.
Rose Blanche is the sort of book that kids would look at thoughtfully and quietly on their own or with a trusted friend during our Reading time. I always kept the book out on display throughout our Remembrance Day Unit and then put it away afterwards. However, before putting it away, I always made sure to promise the kids that if they ever wanted to read it again then, I would happily share the book with them. That’s what you do with good books….you share them with your friends, as I am now with you.
Are there any “serious” books that you remember from school or from home that made a lasting impact on your life? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Thanks, as always, for reading my words.