Enjoy These Children Book Writers

“Never let the child die within you,” advises Ashley Bryan, 93-year-old artist and author, who recently spoke at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, Grand Rapids. During FFW, I also heard children book writers Andrew Clements, Glenys Nellist, Aaree Chung, M.T. Anderson, and Lorie Langdon. If you give books to children, you may enjoy these writers. And, admit it, children’s books inspire adults like us too. Check out the following at your local library or bookstore. Then, buy a book or two for the children in your life.

IMG_2722Andrew Clements is most known for his chapter book Frindle, the hilarious adventure of fifth grader Nick Allen. (Think sneaky class clown.) When Nick learns some interesting facts about how words are created, he gets inspiration for his best plan ever–the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Nick’s teacher, with her huge dictionary, wants Nick to stop the silliness, but once the frindle is out of the box…well, you know what happens (with some surprises along the way).

Andrew Clements stands on stage at Calvin College.
Children’s writer Andrew Clements at FFW

Clements has written many books for children, but Frindle is his most successful. The book celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, with millions in print. During Clements’ autobiographic talk, I recognized that Clements wastes little in his storytelling. But that wasn’t the most insightful part of his speech. Instead, it was an anecdote Clements hesitated to share, because it still makes him cry. I was so glad he did share, because it illustrates the healing potential of little, funny stories.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 20 children and six adults in 2012, the New Town, Connecticut, school reopened in 2013 at a different location. The school community united under the theme “We Choose Love.” The heroic staff decided they wanted the children to all read one book that would aid the healing process. Among other criteria, this selected book could not contain any names of the victims. Andrew Clement’s Frindle was selected. Clements said he and his wife did an author’s visit to the school, and the time there was “some of the holiest” they have ever experienced.

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Ashley Bryan is a white haired black man in a brown flannel jacket and white shirt, standing behind a maple podium that is on a stage. He is looking down with a booking his hand.
Children’s writer/artist Ashley Bryan at FFW

Ashley Bryan, 93, is revered by many in the children book publishing industry. His children art books on African American culture were among the first to bring more diversity in what American children read. Bryan’s books on Spirituals is a major reason these wonderful songs have not faded from our culture. As a child, I remember singing: “This Little Light of Mine,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “I Want To Be Ready.” New generations of kids don’t have the same opportunities. Bryan noticed this void and provided lovely books to rectify the problem. A WWII veteran, this artist also did an autobiography for children that is worthy reading, especially for potential young artists. Bryan is still creating books. His latest, Sail Away, featuring Langston Hughes’ poetry, came out last year.

Arree Chung speaks at Festival of Faith and Writing, Calvin College, April 16, 2016.
Children’s book writer/artist Arree Chung

A newcomer to children’s books is Arree Chung with his successful Ninja! Max. At FFW, Arree told a Cinderalla story of hating his financial job in the San     Francisco area, praying for more passion-driven work, and finding “people angels,” who helped him IMG_2713become a children’s artist and writer. Chung credits God with opening employment at Pixar, where he eventually developed some skills before going to art school. Chung said he wants to be like Ashley Bryan and create children books for a long, long time. New Ninja adventure is on the publishing  horizon.

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Children’s book writer Glenys Nellist

IMG_2719Glenys Nellist is the children’s storyteller with an English accent, who took inspiration from The Jolly Postman by Allan and Janet Ahlberg. Glenys then created Love Letters from God (Zonderkidz). Playful illustrations are by Sophie Allsopp. Accompanying each rhyming Bible story and Bible verse is a flap for the child to open and find a letter from God. There is space to write in a child’s name. Glenys is proof that grandmothers can publish successful children books and create their own “brand.” She said she gets her husband involved at selling her books at craft shows. He says to passerbys, “Would you like a free book mark?” People stop, said Glenys, because they hear Mr. Nellist’s English accent. It’s like fishing, she declared: He throws out the line, and I reel them in. She reeled me in; I bought three books.

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M.T. Anderson, left, is interviewed by Harvard professor Randy Testa at FFW.

Also, on the FFW schedule were young adult writers I have not read: M.T. Anderson and Lorie Langdon. Anderson was a 2006 National Book Award winner for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. This is a story about a slave boy during the American Revolution. At FFW, Anderson talked about his new book, The Symphony for the City of the Dead (Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad) This book zeroes in on tragic and true events surrounding the longest siege in history. Anderson’s bookIMG_2715 focuses on composer Shostakovich. His Symphony No. 7 was performed by starving Leningrad musicians. GermanIMG_2716 soldiers, who surrounded the city, also heard the music. After this odd premier the music was smuggled out of Russia.  Shostakovich’s portrait, with the story,  appeared on Time magazine’s cover. It created more American empathy for the Russians. When asked why he chose to write about the Siege of Leningrad, Anderson joked, “Dude, it’s microfilm!” His book rests on my armchair.

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Young adult writer Lorie Langdon

Another book awaiting me is Doon by Carey Corp and Lorie Langdon. Doon is the first of four that was inspired by the musical Brigadoon. It centers around best friends Veronica and Mackenna, who enter the Scottish fantasy land of IMG_2723Doon. Veronica wonders, “Why can’t anyone else see the mysterious blond boy who keeps popping up wherever she goes?” The series is put out by Blink Young Adult Books, part of Zondervan, now part of HarperCollins. Langdon said she finds Instagram most effective in connecting with her teenage readers. She introduced me to the online marketing technique: “BookTubing.” Langdon said her interview with BookTuber Sasha at abookutopia introduced her to hundreds of new fans. That interview has had over 16,000 hits. Langdon’s Guilt Hollow (YA imprint BLINK) comes out in the fall.

I hope one of these books piqued your interest. Whether you read by yourself in a comfy chair or cuddle up with a young one, may you savor the best of stories.

Definition of a BookTuber from Urban Dictionary: “Someone on YouTube that makes videos related to books – usually YA novels. BookTubers usually make videos such as book reviews, book hauls, book discussions, and tag videos related to books.”

 

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Below are website links to the children book writers I heard at Festival of Faith and Writing:

M.T. Anderson: http://mt-anderson.com

Ashley Bryan: http://ashleybryancenter.org/index.html

Arree Chung: http://arree.com

Andrew Clements: http://www.andrewclements.com/index.html

Lorie Langdon: http://www.lorielangdon.com

Glenys Nellist: http://www.glenysnellist.com

 

 

 

 

A Lighthouse at Festival of Faith and Writing

I am thinking about windmills and lighthouses, after attending the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, Grand Rapids. FFW is a bi-annual, three-day April conference where 2000 writers, editors, and readers descend on campus to hear speakers intertwine their faith with their writing under an interfaith flag.

The Festival offers a buffet for the bibliophile. Speakers include children writers, theologians, journalists, young adult writers, memoirists, novelists, poets, editors—you get the picture. At such a buffet, one cannot eat it all, but one surely tries. In another blog or two I will share more about FFW’s speakers and their writings. But for now I want to write about one attendee I sat with in two keynote sessions.

Spanish rust-colored stone windmill with six black, metal arms and a red cone top sets in middle of photo with a blue sky behind it.Kelli is a whirling windmill, a handicapped, young woman who walks with two propelling crutches, carrying a heavy backpack. She is looking for a place to sit in an auditorium of bleachers and stadium chairs. I smile; she glows. I beckon; she whirls into a seat.

Kelli and I keep smiling through introductions and shuffle our bodies as people climb over us for middle seats.  Because it is a little difficult to understand her voice, I have to ask again, “I am sorry. Where are you from?”  It’s awkward; I mean her no disrespect. She keeps smiling. Actually, I swear this blonde-haired woman, wearing glasses and a pink sweater, glows with joy. When she says she is from Idaho, I respond, “Ah, there are good writers from Idaho,” thinking of the state’s renowned writing program. She enthusiastically agrees.

There isn’t much time to talk before writer Tobias Wolff takes the stage for a noon session on “Some Doubts About Certainty.” It’s comforting to sit next to Kelli and writing friend Linda. I sense we are kindred souls, lovers of well-crafted

Tobias Wolff wears a navy blue shirt. He is looking to the left with an open, attentive expression. He is bald on top, with white hair on the side of his head and a thick, manicured white mustache. He sports wire-rimmed glasses.
Tobias Wolff

words strung together in sentences, paragraphs, and books. I have this desire and curiosity to read what Kelli writes when her voice is freer to soar via a keyboard. Tobias Wolff gives a good talk and reads a profoundly well-crafted short story about a suppressed professor, who in a defiant way, finds her voice.

After the applause, Kelli and I agree it is great to be at Festival of Faith and Writing. She gets up from her seat in staccato jolts and is off for an afternoon loaded with workshops and seminars.

Zadie Smith is of African descent with light, brown skin, an oval face, dark and kind black eyes, manicured eyebrows, and closed smiling lips. She looks directly into the camera, wearing a red head scarf and a black shirt.
Zadie Smith

At 7:30 pm, back in the auditorium, it’s time to hear novelist Zadie Smith. Linda and I head to the same section and find glowing Kelli, already seated. We join her and listen to Zadie’s talk, “What is the purpose of writing ‘creatively’?” It has been a long day, and Zadie crams the brain. Now my uppermost thought is bed.

Kelli struggles to get up. A man hands her the stuffed backpack. Then, she stumbles down two steps and topples half over with her crutches barely keeping her up. I mentally freeze. How to assist this Festival of Faith and Writing sister?IMG_2595

Several of us ask, “Can we help? Are you alright, sweetie?”

“No, I’m fine,” she says with that smile, now strained a little.  She clumsily adjusts backpack and crutches and says to me, “I’m just really tired; I’ve been up since 2 a.m.”

I’m alarmed. Yet, I must respect her decline for help.  I realize Kelli is used to having only herself to rely on. Maybe she prefers that independent, risky freedom. But maybe I should know how to help her better.

“Be careful,” the mother-in-me says. It’s all I can muster.

Kelli gives a tired smile, sets a determined face, and whirls into the crowd, among several stares.

Sadly, I did not catch Kelli’s last name nor ask for her email address. And, I did not see her again during the festival.

Now I am home. After all the riches at Festival of Faith and Writing–all those brainy ideas, quotes, and books–I am thinking of Kelli, and here’s the reason: Kelli is no windmill. She’s a lighthouse. And somehow I missed receiving more of her light.The beacon light on this red and white lighthouse is extremely bright and glowing against a dark sky that is passing from dusk to night.

How Do You Respond to the Homeless?

“Somebody needs to help him! He looks so sad!” My little ones are once again disturbed about a scruffy stranger at a stoplight. He’s holding a cardboard sign: “Anything helps. God bless America.” One of some 2000 local homeless people, he is also part of over half a million homeless nationwide. Those red, two-minute traffic lights are the most popular hangouts for handouts. A beggar’s presence makes for squirmy moments, especially when the driver has kind-hearted little girls in the car.

I explain to the girls that we can’t give this man money because he might use it for drugs and alcohol. I recently listened to a speech from a police officer, assigned to the homeless beat. He says financial handouts are the worst actions a person can do to ease a conscience. “Do the homeless a big favor,” he emphasizes, “Don’t enable their habits. Instead, donate to your shelters and food banks.”

Cardboard sign by homeless man in red sleeping bag says, "Never look down on anyone unless you're helping them up."
The sign says,”Never look down on anyone unless you’re helping them up.”

The officer tells lots of stories. He cleans up many abandoned camps—a sanitary nightmare. He helps people find relatives. He acts as a peacemaker. He keeps talking to one alcoholic about recovery programs—the man was once mayor of a nearby town. He mentions Carla, the woman in a fake pregnant outfit, who has been begging at the same street corner for three years. He says, there are homeless, who

Black and white photo shows young couple, he with a cigarette in his mouth and she with her cheek buried into his shoulder.
The homeless sometimes are young people– runaways and those kicked out of their homes because of lifestyle choices.

earn more money begging than if they work minimum wage jobs. Many can’t hold a job because of mental illness. They forget to take their medicine, or their pills are stolen. Then, without meds, they act out and end up in jail. They clean up, are released, and the cycle starts again. Homeless can be veterans, young adventurers, girls and boys kicked out of homes, the unemployed.

I heard one former homeless man speak about the uniqueness of each individual. His journey started when his elderly mother became ill and needed a nursing home. He put their belongings in storage and camped under some bushes near her building. He says, “No one knew I was in the bushes; they were so thick. That is, no one knew except for the nurses’ aides, who came and got me when they couldn’t quiet Mom.”

This man is okay now, working as a custodian at a community center.  But what to do with two little girls, who are sad each time we stop at a light where there is another beggar with a cardboard sign?

This is what happened last week with my granddaughters.

“Okay, I want each of you to decorate a brown paper bag. Today, we are giving snacks to two homeless people.”

Little faces brighten, and voices elevate. Rainbows and flowers mark the bags; a paper heart is tucked inside. Then, we stuff the bags with canned tuna and crackers, breakfast bars, juice boxes, and M&M’s.

As we climb into the car I say, “Let’s practice putting your snack bags out half opened windows.” They look scared.

“Now, “ I say, more confident than I feel, “We are going to pray that God shows us the right people.”

We each say a little prayer.

“Grandma, what if we don’t find any homeless people?”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m not worried about that. We prayed. Now let’s trust God to find the people he wants us to find.”

We pass one bearded fellow with a sign, who happens to be on the wrong side of the street. “I guess he’s not the one,” I assure, turning the car downtown.

Lose a job or a deceased family member's Social Security check, max out the credit cards, pay for expensive medicine to keep one alive--these all can contribute to becoming homeless. An elderly woman squats on the sidewalk and waves to camera, her bag and coat by her side and a coffee mug in front of her.
Lose a job or a deceased family member’s Social Security check, max out the credit cards, pay for expensive medicines–these factors can contribute to becoming homeless.

A few blocks later I spot a bag lady. Who can guess her age when weather and life have beaten a person down to a few bags of garbage? This lady, donning a head bandanna, is rummaging through her belongings.

“Sister,” I yell. “Sister!” No response. Then, “Mam, Mam.”

She looks up.

“Hi there. Would you like some food? My granddaughter would like to share some snacks with you.”

The five-year-old, holding her bag, grins like the Man-in-the-Moon.

The lady is puzzled and then shows a toothy smile. She comes over and puts her big hands on the half-opened window. There’s a dirty piece of bread between her fingers. “Oh, niña pequeña, I don’t want to take your food. That wouldn’t be right,” she says.

The smiling child responds, “It’s okay. It’s your food. My grandma gave it to me so I could share with you.”

Hesitantly, the lady takes the bag.

“What’s your name?” I ask, introducing us.

“Kathy,” she replies. Then her words tumble out. She lost her apartment, because she didn’t report her mother’s death to Social Security. She is on a waiting list to get a bus ticket back to her family. She has written all these poems for her grandchildren but has no way to send them. She is in a shelter, where she fought last night with a mean woman. And, by the way, could we give her a ride?

“Oh, I am sorry. We can’t today.”

The rejection folds the conversation. She backs away a little.

“Kathy, we will pray for you, “ I say. “And we hope you get that bus ticket really soon to be with your family.”

She smiles and goes back to her bags.

“Hey, look,” I say to the girls. “I see another lady across the street. Sweetie, do you want to give your bag to her?”

We drive to the red light.

This woman, in her twenties, has a beautiful round face. A chihuahua peeks out of a pouch, strapped across her chest.

“Could you use some snack foods?” I ask Kathryn.

Her lips tremble and her eyes get teary. “Yes,” she says slowly and then takes the bag from the 7-year-old.

Kathryn stands there, wearing a shy smile.

“What’s your dog’s name?” I ask.

“Cocoa,” she says.

The light is about to turn green. “He’s cute. Kathryn, we hope you and Cocoa have a nice day. God bless you.”

“You too. Thank you so much.”

The little girls are flying high. I tell them we can’t help every person, but we can do a little. I tell them our town cares for the homeless. We drive by a shelter and a soup kitchen.

They nod in understanding. Of course, they ask if we can do this again.

“Maybe,” I say. “Hey, isn’t it neat how God led us to people today whose names had the k sound?”

“Yeah!” they agree. “Kathy, Kathryn, and Cocoa too.”

Two sisters hug and look straight into the camera
Little sisters with kind hearts (photo by MEB)