Rose Blanche

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.
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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.

IMG_2743The 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.

Compliments As Currency

For as long as I have can remember, people have told me that I am a good writer.  I have been advised to “get that published” more times than I can count. Right from my first original story written for a writing assignment in Grade Three, all the way through High School, into my professional role as a classroom teacher and now, in the golden glow of my retirement years, people have been very kind in their reactions to the words I write. Believe me, I am most appreciative of the positive feedback. If compliments were currency, you and I, Dear Reader, would be enjoying a wonderful meal at a fine restaurant, right now.

As I approached my retirement, one of the goals that I had set for myself was to give my writing a chance to grow into something more than social media posts and commentary. I wanted to rekindle my love of writing and of being creative. To do so meant devoting consistent periods of time each week to my craft. Being retired has been a wonderful tonic in that regard. The posts I have created for this blog have helped remind me of how it feels to be a writer. These posts have, also, caused me to have a more creative world view. Now, for example, when I am out for a stroll or mowing the lawn, my thoughts are not on the weeds in the grass but more, on how the shadows are being cast by the tree in my yard or the sound of the waves crashing on the shores of Lake Ontario. I used to think about work-related things, mere months ago. Now, I find myself thinking more like a writer would and that pleases me.

My last blog post was two and half weeks ago. Let me briefly explain my absence. I have not been idle.  After I published my last post, I began renovations on the sunroom that sits at the back of our house. For any of you who have done your own renovations, you know there is no getting around the fact that you have to work hard. Demolition takes times, as does prepping for the rebuild. Nails have to be nailed, word sawed to measure, paint applied in colours, floors laid. The work time used to complete the renovations came out of the quiet time I had been setting aside in the mornings for writing.

However, while working on my own in the sunroom, I had time to think. My thoughts manifested themselves in the form of an idea for a story. An original story that, in my mind, I saw as a Picture Book. So, as the paint was drying on the sunroom walls, I sat down and spent several days fleshing the story out and coming up with a rough copy or first draft.  I finished the story toward the middle of last week. At that point, I had some decisions to make.

The Children’s Literature market is a thriving segment of the Book Publishing Industry in North America. In my previous roles as a Teacher-Librarian or as a classroom educator, I have interacted with this market as a consumer. I have become familiar with publishing companies, with authors and with the process of marketing books. It is a big business; one that does not suffer fools lightly. Consequently, in order to be competitive with the tens of thousands of other authors seeking “to be published”, I knew that I had to treat this new story differently than I do for my blog posts, for instance.

I am in control of my blog posts. When I finish typing these words, I will not consult editors or illustrators or finance and marketing experts. Instead, I will simply click on the “Publish” button at the top of my screen and my words will be made available you in your home on your screen of choice.  It costs me, as the author and you, as the reader, nothing but time to be involved in this creative transaction.

That is not the case in the real world of book publishing. Books don’t appear in book stores and at on-line retailers by magic. They are produced, marketed, distributed and promoted by people who all need to be paid for their services. For any publishing company to agree to publish my story, they would have to consider, not only the literary merits of my work but, also, the probability of my book being a revenue-producing investment for the owner and/or shareholders of the company.  I get that. I understand and appreciate the business side of publishing my work. I cannot divorce the financial reality from wish to have my story see the light of day.

So, that having been said, I have decided to go ahead and initiate the publication process anyway and honour my original, pre-retirement goal of giving my writing a chance. Late last week, I sent a copy of my rough draft to two friends; one with experience in the world of kidlit and one with more experience in the craft of writing and creating memorable characters and scenes. I asked them both for feedback. I chose my two friends carefully because I knew that they would give targeted feedback that would help me polish the story for submission purposes. When I have received both critiques, I intend to let my eldest daughter, Leah, read my story. While slightly older than my intended audience, she will be a good judge as to the quality and reasonableness of my dialogue, for example. It is not easy having my writing critiqued because my story is my baby and, like most writers, I am very protective of it. But, to be the best story possible, I acknowledge the need for constructive advice. I feel fortunate to be part of a supportive community of writers. I know “my baby” is in good hands.

I will keep you all abreast of developments as they occur. I am happy that you are coming along for this part of my journey and invite you to see it through with me to fruition. Your support and encouragement is what has gotten me to this point in my writing career. Thanks for everything you do, in terms of reading my posts, sharing them with your friends, offering comments and so on. It all means the world to me.

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Gotta love the New Yorker Magazine. Hopefully, my story won’t lay an egg!

Come on!  You know you were thinking it, too. 🙂

Museum of Memories: a Lifetime of Reading to my Daughter.

You never know what a day is going to bring. Yesterday, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet from an American teacher. She tweeted about her Grade 5 class receiving a “Mystery Box” as part of a literacy programme sponsored by a blog called @BreakoutEDU. She showed photos of her students using clues that came with the box to crack secret codes which, in the end, opened to reveal a book called, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Ballet.  The teacher’s original tweet was aimed at the author, letting her know how excited her students were to begin reading Chasing Vermeer.

Being the supportive fellow that I am, I tweeted back to this teacher and told her that Leah and I had read this book aloud together a few years ago, along with the other two books in this trilogy and enjoyed them immensely. I went on to say that, in fact, Leah enjoyed the books so much that she had a framed print of the Vermeer art work mentioned in the story hanging in her bedroom as I typed.

Within a few minutes, I received a reply from the author, Blue Balliett, herself. Like all authors, she expressed her gratitude to me for informing her that her work had made a difference in some reader’s life. IMG_2720In turn, I sent her a photo Leah’s bedroom so she could see the print for herself. ***You can see the print on the right side of Leah’s bookcase, in the middle of the column of three framed works. The painting is called, Lady Writing.  Blue Balliett replied that Leah’s room was “the bedroom her dreams”.

This got me thinking.

Leah and I have read together from the day she was born.  As a result, we have read thousands of books together. That time we shared was very precious and has helped create many warm memories for us, both, of the books we read, the characters we came to care about, the conversations that occurred, the warmth of our snuggles and much, much more.  Reading with your children is always about more than the words on the page. It is a bonding experience that is quite loving and profound. In time, as you read an author’s words, you start to feel the books in your hearts and minds.

For most of Leah’s early life, the books we shared were simpler in nature because her intellect was not mature enough for weighty concepts. But, with each book or book series read, her mind grew stronger and her inventory of literary experiences swelled. Soon she was ready for longer, more complex stories. The first series we read that made an emotional impact on us was The Little House on the Prairie books. We read all eight books consecutively. When it came time for Pa Ingalls to help Laura into Almanzo’s wagon and then, watch them ride off together, as husband and wife to their new home, I choked up with emotion. Leah and I both knew that scene was as much about us and how we will one day feel in that situation, as it ever was about Laura and her Pa.

IMG_2710We finished the final book in late Fall. Because of the emotional impact of the series, I decided to try and find something that I could give to Leah for Christmas that would serve to remind her of our time reading Little House together. My search took me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder website. There, for sale, was the china shepherdess doll that Pa had given to Ma Ingalls in their early days together. The same doll that had accompanied them across America. This doll was my gift to Leah that Christmas and has sat on a shelf in her bedroom ever since.

The commemoration of a shared experience with a story or series started with the china shepherdess doll and became a tradition that we continued with each subsequent  book series.   The Vermeer print was the piece chosen to remember the Chasing Vermeer trilogy. What follows are snapshots of other memorials to books that Leah and I shared.

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A pencil drawing entitled, Lucy at the Lamp Post, hangs on Leah’s wall by her window. It says, “A Fairy Tale begins…” on it and serves as a reminder of our joy at reading The Chronicles of Narnia and how every epic adventure begins with a fateful decision and a leap of faith.

IMG_2709  We read the entire How To Train Your Dragon series. This framed print was the first time I paired a quote from the series with art work. The quote was uttered by the main character, Hiccup and goes like this:

Because: Love never dies. What is within is more important than what is without. The Best is not always the most obvious. And, once you’ve loved truly, Thor, then you know the way.

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One of my favourite book series was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. There are those who claim that this is the series that most influenced J.K. Rowling when she was writing Harry Potter.  In any case, the quest that 11 year old Will is on to collect six “signs” and help the forces of Light in their battle with the forces of Darkness, is summed up in this important poem from the books.

When the DARK comes rising, six shall turn it back;

three from the circle, three from the track.

Wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, stone,

Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday. Bronze carried long.

Wood from the burning. Stone out of song.

Fire from the candle-ring. Water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle and Grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold,

played to wake the sleepers; oldest of the old.

Power of the Greenwitch, lost beneath the sea.

All shall find the light at last; silver on the tree.

Leah can quote this from memory.

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Our memory from The Hunger Games trilogy was “Rue’s Lullaby”, as written in the book. If you have read the books or seen the movies then, you will know how poignant this scene was.

Deep in the grass, under the willow,

a bed of grass, a soft green pillow,

lay down your head and close your eyes

When again they open, the sun will rise.

Here it’s safe and here it’s warm,

Here the daisies guard you from every harm.

Here your dreams are sweet,

Tomorrow brings them true,

Here’s the place where I love you.

Deep in the meadow, hidden far away,

A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam’s ray,

Forget your woe and let your troubles lay,

When it’s morning, they’ll wash away.

And here….is the place…where I love you.

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From author Lois Lowry came The Giver trilogy.  From that set of books, we opted for the following quote:

   It is better, I think, to climb out in search of something instead of hating what you are leaving behind.

IMG_2718Finally, Leah and I are big fans of Phillip Pullman and His Dark Materials trilogy. I maintain that the final scene in the final book is one of the best scenes in Children’s Literature. From it, a speech of Love that spans the entirety of Space and Time.

I will love you forever, whatever happens.

Til I die and after I die.

And when I find my way out of the Land of the Dead, I’ll drift about forever, all atoms, til I find you again.

I’ll be looking for you, every moment…every, single moment.

And when we do find each other, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart.

Every atom of me and every atom of you…

We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams.

When they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one

They’ll have to take two; one of me and one of you.

Leah spends a lot of time on her own in her room now that she is becoming a teenager. But, as she does, I am still there; an inseparable part of who she is and who she is becoming. Her room is a museum. A museum of memories from a lifetime of reading wonderful books while surrounded by Love.

If you care to know more about how to read with your child so that they come to love books as Leah has, please pop over to my friend, Jackie Currie’s blog, Happy Hooligans. I guest-posted for her a while back. In that post, I told the story of Leah and I and the whole list of books we read together. The post is called,  75 of the Very Best Chapter Books for Girls between 5 – 13.