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Friday, March 17, 2017

Aboard a Paper Plane and Other Poems

Aboard a Paper Plane... and other poems
by Joe & Allison Kelly
illustrations by Supakit Chiangthong

When this poetry collection, Aboard a Paper Plane, by Allison & Joe Kelly came my way, I was absolutely delighted to read it! Not just to myself. I read it aloud to my kids, and, randomly quoted some of the lovely lines to the other adult in residence as well.

Shel Silverstein meets Kenn Nesbitt meets Kurt Cyrus.

That's what popped into my head as I read this set of poems. The random everyday quirks with a deeper thought-provoking perspective à la Shel Silverstein, the laugh-out-loud aspect of Kenn Nesbitt's works, as well as the amazing wordplay that Kurt Cyrus brings to his creations, these are what struck me when I read the forty eight poems in this collection.

Some are long and showcase their wordsmithing perfectly while others are crisp and short and made me double up with laughter.

The younger child's favorite was, of course, Bath for the "Ewww..." factor, and Painter, as he had tried that once and found that it was not appreciated.

The older child loved the Secret Club and Pop Quiz, while chuckling at Clover and nodding along with If Only I had a Dollar.

Vegetables - a cautionary tale is at once brilliant and funny, one of my favorites. The wordplay in Broke is superb.

 Before I start listing the joys of each poem here, let me stop and share an informal interview with this talented couple.

1. Tell us about your writing journey - when did you start, what was your motivation for writing? 

J: I started writing children's poetry when I was fifteen - right around the time I met Allison, actually.  I love the variation inherent in a poetry collection, and I love it as both a reader and a writer.  The imagination's zigzag from character to character, situation to situation; not knowing to which world the next page is going to take you, only that it will be a place you're sure to enjoy.  I guess that's why we were drawn to the paper plane.

A: Like most writers, I'm sure, I'm thrilled by the idea of creating something new that wasn't there before: a character, a plot line, a turn of phrase. I've been enthralled with the writing experience since the age of six or so; it's truly been one of the constant joys in my life.

J: And me, right?

A: Yes, Joe.  And you.

2. Do you focus on writing only for children? What are some of your other works?

A: I will write for anyone! I recently started a small business in which I write and publish personal memoirs for people -- usually older folks whose children want to gather their stories and memories in one place before it's too late. I also write material for standardized tests for students ranging in age from kindergarten to high school, and for both native English speakers and English language learners.

J: I'm not quite as versatile as my wife.  It's been largely children's material to date - poetry, rhyming books, middle grade; even tried my hand at YA.  I'm drawn to the imagination bursting from the genre seemingly everywhere you look.  My "day job" is in finance, so I find balance in using the creative side of my brain after a long day or week of analytical thinking.

Aboard a Paper Plane is our first title.  While writing, however, we stumbled upon a few ideas that were too long to be part of the collection.  The game plan now is to turn those into stand-alone rhyming stories.  We've also started planning a second poetry collection.  We don't have any timelines or anything as of yet, but we're certainly having fun putting it all together.

3. What was the inspiration for this particular book? Why a poetry book? How did you settle on the 48 poems included, it's a tall order? Which of these are your top 3 favorites? 

A: A poetry book allowed us to experiment with a lot of tones, themes, characters, and settings.  We were writing the book in our free time (evenings, weekends), so we wanted to make sure the experience was always fresh and exciting.  And as for the inspiration, Joe's the idea generator, so I'll let him take it from here.

J: Thanks, Al!  The inspiration for the book was an odd collection of dozens of little things I've noticed throughout my day-to-day.  Normal things - things you see every day ,but maybe don't put much thought into.  Like a graveyard or a boomerang or a lobster - stuff like that.  If an object or situation catches my eye, I jot it down in the Notes app on my iPhone. It's also energizing to take lofty "life lessons" -- try not to compare with others, be grateful for what you're given, and so on -- and repurpose them in a fun and accessible way through poetry.  In terms of the forty-eight, we were trying to assemble a nice variety of lengths and subjects and styles. There were a handful that didn't fit with Aboard a Paper Plane.  We hope to find a home for them in the next collection!

A: My favorites are probably The Runner, Guardian Angel, and The Tiniest Ant & the Giantest Bear. They're all very different, and I think they give a good idea of our versatility. I think they best showcase our humor, wordsmithing, and wit.

J: I wouldn't say I necessarily have a favorite poem, but I do have a few favorite lines.  Like in the "Octopus Barber", the line about the monkfish.  Or in "Fortune Teller" when the narrator daydreams about body surfing.  Or in "Aboard a Paper Plane" - the part that goes, "You'll cartwheel to the moon and then you'll swim from here to Spain / Or close your eyes and scrunch your face to sprout a lion's mane."  That makes me smile every time.

4. Tell us about your favorite children's author(s)? Favorite children's book(s)?

J: When I was very young, my favorite book was Richard Scarry's "Best Ride Ever". In retrospect, it was a pretty odd story.  Essentially, the plot line revolved around this dog named Dingo.  Dingo Dog had a really, really cool red car.  What Dingo Dog did not have was much respect for traffic laws.  Dingo would drive his car down the sidewalk, through the supermarket - I think at one point he even drove through someone's living room?  At end of the day, the whole book was a pretty airtight case study on why we don't let animals operate machinery.  According to my dad, I would laugh nonstop through the whole story.  Guess I was kind of a weird kid...

A: You were a weird kid?  According to my mom, my favorite book as a little kid was "The Book of Virtues".  It was 1,000 pages and had no pictures.  I would ask my dad to read it to me every night...

J: Okay - you got me there. But since my Dingo Dog-days of childhood, I've accumulated a whole host of both authors and stories I admire.  Just to name a few: Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth" & Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" for their wordplay and structure.  Shel Silverstein for his characters and situations.  R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" for their zany twists.  But my absolute favorite?  I love "Oh, the Places You'll Go".  My grandparents gave me a copy when I graduated high school.  It's been on my desk ever since.

A: I loved the Berenstain Bears series -- the cute stories, the colorful full-page pictures! But most of the formative works I read as a child were when I was a little older, eight or nine or so. I loved "Little Women" most of all, followed closely by "A Wrinkle in Time" and the Babysitter's Club series.

5. How does the collaboration work? Each writes, and also edits the other's?

A: Writing children's poems has always been Joe's passion.  He comes up with the idea, any clever turns of phrase or characters, and writes a first draft.  Then, we both sit down in front of it to comb through line by line and word by word.  I'll suggest changes, shore up the scheme, and do my best to make sure every word counts.  We find that this process makes the best use of both of our skills.

J: That said, there were a few poems in the collection that we wrote pretty much top-to-bottom together.  These were, most notably: The Tiniest Ant & the Giantest Bear, If I Only Had a Dollar, Patient Pat, and The Gadget.  My favorite part about writing is being able to work with Allison.  I love having this as a shared experience.

6. Why eBook? And how was the self-publishing experience? Were you interested in submitting to the traditional publishers?

A: At this point, self-publishing Aboard a Paper Plane as an eBook was our most practical and expedient option.  We've also submitted to some literary agents and traditional publishers.  We're hopeful that our run as an eBook isn't the destination, but rather a step on the journey.

7. How did you "meet and collaborate" with the illustrator? On behalf of the illustrator, will you be able to share how they created the art, and whether they are open for working with other authors interested in self-publishing?

J: We met Supakit on Fiverr (which - by the way - is a great platform for children's book authors to partner with illustrators).  Our experience with him was fantastic - he was professional, easy to work with, and very talented. For each poem, we'd put together a detailed description of what we were looking for in the picture, shoot it over to Supakit, and then let him work his magic.  Unfortunately, we don't know too much about his process.  As of today, Supakit has taken his profile down on Fiverr.  He was a student during most of our collaboration, and we got the sense that he was taking on other time-intensive responsibilities as he got closer to graduating.

8. What do you do when you are not writing? What are your other interests/passions?

J: When I'm not writing or working, I enjoy running on the treadmill while watching a movie or show (currently, season 1 of True Detective), practicing the piano, drinking Guinness, all things personal finance, and spending time with my friends, family, and beautiful wife.

A: I love trying new recipes, learning languages (I'm currently taking a Spanish class!), reading, entertaining, and slowwwly decorating our house. And of course, spending time with my family, friends, and Joe!

Our sincerest gratitude to the Saffron Tree team for featuring us and our debut poetry collection, Aboard a Paper Plane! We truly appreciate all you do to promote children's literature. We hope you enjoy Aboard a Paper Plane; please reach out at if you have any questions or comments! Happy reading!

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but the opinions shared here are entirely my own. Review policy for this blog is available.]

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Three Little Words

Three Little Words
A Memoir
by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

[Note: Some explicit references to abuse and pedophilia can be disturbing for younger readers. Recommended for 18+]

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a phenomenon, an inspiration, and a powerhouse of progress and change in the child services. This book started out as an essay titled, "Three Little Words", for NYT - an essay about her adoption day, which won a grand prize in June 2003. People expected the three little words to be "I love you", but readers find out that it is actually, "I guess so" - the three words which sealed the deal to make her adoption official.

Ashley's teen mom lost custody of her by age 3, and since then Ashley was shunted from foster home to foster home in the Florida foster care system for the next 9 years. Some of the stay was brief, some longer; some were tolerable, some were outright abusive; yet, she endured, and tried to thrive. Knowing that nobody can take away her education, she excelled in the school system no matter which foster home or which public school she went to. Sometimes she never got to spend a full year in the same school, and that did not make her withdraw into herself. Instead, she found ways to stand out through her achievement - be it essay writing, or public speaking, or acing the tests and being a straight A's student.

The book is a memoir, recounting her experiences upto and including her adoption by the Courters and her successes thereafter, including being invited to the White House as President Clinton's guest, winning an essay to spend time with her favorite author J.K.Rowling even as a teen. Her life has been one painful event after another until she found herself surrounded by so much love and care with the Courters that she was able to give back, and give back generously.

I could not put this book down, and had to finish reading it in one long sitting, one recent weekend. To think that the childcare services are so steeped in bureaucracy and neglect that many children fall through the cracks never to resurface is infuriating.

Being a gifted writer, Ashley's words cut deep without being bitter or resentful. Her honesty and her unique perspective on the traumatic events in her life are not paraded for pity but shared with clear insight into the  breakdown in the system which allowed this to happen, not just to her, but the thousands of other kids with no families.

Her question still remains unanswered probably: Why do states pay a fortune to foster parents rather than helping the biological parents out? If her own mother was given the financial support that the vile Mrs. Moss was given, wouldn't their lives together been a lot less painful? Why are the likes of abusive foster parents like Mrs. Moss allowed to get away with cruelty time and time again while the biological parents are penalized at the first hint of failure as a parent?

Her other book Three More Words tries to answer all the questions we have from her first book, plus shares her journey as a foster care parent.

[image source:]

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Girls Like Us

Girls Like Us
by Gail Giles

Candlewick; Reprint edition (October 13, 2015)
Grade 8 and up

[Note: The book is aimed at high school and teenage readers, and so is this review. Some abuse situations are violent and graphic in the book.]

Author Ms. Giles taught Remedial Reading for high school kids, some of whom were Special Ed students, for twenty years before she finally decided to tell their stories. Being a special ed teacher can't be easy - filled with moments of pain and struggle, but also stories of courage and achievement - and through all this, Ms. Giles has brought to us two unforgettable characters, Biddy and Quincy, for whom we root hard right from the start, especially because they got a bad start in their lives through no fault of their own.

Quincy and Biddy refer to themselves as "speddies" and talk about their situation matter-of-fact-ly, even though they have every right to be resentful and seething with anger. "The one thing all us Speddies can tell you is what kind of retard we are. Ms. Evans gets wadded in a knot if anybody say retarded. We be differently abled. We be mentally challenged, she say."

Quincy's real name is Sequencia who was unfortunate enough to be born to a "crack ho" Mama whose boyfriend picked up a brick and hit Quincy on the side of her head when she was six. From a bright sweet six year old, Quincy is disfigured and brain-damaged with the rest of her life to pay for the abuse she suffered. "My face looks like somebody put both hands on it and push up on one side and pull down on the other.... and the doctor say that I got brain damage from that brick."

Biddy's mama showed up at Granny's one day, asking to stay the night. The next morning mama was gone and Biddy was stuck with Granny who resented her from the start. Turns out Biddy didn't get enough oxygen and birth and that caused moderate retardation.

"My name is Biddy. Some call me other names. Granny call me Retard. Quincy call me White Trash... Most kids call me Speddie. That's short for Special Education. I can't write or read. A little bit. But not good enough to matter."

I might end up quoting the whole book! Each statement, each word is there because it needs to be, and not a single wasted unnecessary word. Such terse writing packed with such power and depth of emotion is a gift to behold.

"My grandma was white and my grandpa black. My mama has pretty light skin. My daddy was white and Mexican and he had green eyes." 

Biddy scrunch her eyebrows up a little tighter. "Don't that make you mostly white?"

I hee-hawed then. "Girlfriend, in this part of Texas, if you a little bit black, you all black."

The story is told alternately from Biddy's and Quincy's voice which are distinct and powerful and heart-wrenching and hopeful and courageous at the same time. They are both graduating from high school in the special ed program and now will be placed in suitable situations where they can remain fairly independent and manage lives on their own. Understandably, neither is looking forward to be thrown out into the real world.

Biddy and Quincy are teamed up and placed with an elderly lady who needs live-in help for cooking, cleaning and helping her with her daily life. Slowly but surely, Biddy uses her talent and preference for cleaning everything spotless, while Quincy uses her cooking skills learnt from her foster dad a few years ago. When Biddy tries to help Quincy through her crisis - of being raped and beaten - she effortlessly slides in the book's title:

I hated to make her sad again. But I had to. "Quincy, you're right. But other peoples won't believe it. Police or nobody else care what happen to girls like us."

The sexual abuse as well as the physical abuse Quincy and Biddy endure is heart-wrenching and inexcusable. To think that our society is capable of treating fellow beings so cruelly and turning the other way when they need some support, is not only horrifying but alarming.

Ultimately, it ends with hope and we let out a sigh of relief knowing Quincy and Biddy will be all right somehow.

This is a book I will not easily forget.

[image source: Gail Giles website]

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

None of the Above

None of the Above
by I.W. Gregorio

[Note: Recommended for 18+ due to physically intimate situations; also included are biological and physiological information regarding reproductive anatomy and disorders of sexual development.]

A practicing surgeon by day and a YA writer by night, Ms. Gregorio is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books ™ dedicated to advocating changes to the publishing industry in order to help create and promote inclusive literature that honors the lives of all young people.

The book is about Kristin Lattimer, a high school senior voted homecoming queen, who finds out that she is Intersex in a rather painful and unexpected way: Krissy is a female, grows up to be a female, thinks and feels like a female, identifies as a female, is heterosexual, has external female characteristics, and yet, she has internal male reproductive organs, not the female uterus.

And, without her permission, this information is leaked to the school, which spins out of control. Her struggles in school, in life, to come to terms with this and to do what is surgically possible for "normalizing" makes up a good chunk of the book, with the associated drama and complications in relationships and friendships and heartbreaks.

Author Gregorio has done a brilliant job of explaining the medical and biological facts, while very gently yet firmly showing the emotional turmoil that people with AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) go through, and the adjustments they have to make in their lives to accommodate this constraint. At times, the kids sound pedagogical with the medical information conveyed to the reader in chunks, but, their interactions and relationships are very much in tune with what is expected from teenagers overall.

It is impossible not to root for Kristin and jump in to defend her against the insensitive bullies. What was heartbreaking for me was when she was removed from the track team because there was an issue of her gender - she cannot compete in the girls' track events as she is not 100% a girl - after training hard and being the best; and, she was put in a position where she couldn't go on using the girls' bathroom.

Through it all, she has a steadfast friend, and there is a sweet budding romance that comes from shared experience and a deeper understanding of oneself.

Why are humans obsessed with highlighting the differences and excluding fellow humans on that count? Is there any hope for a gender neutral society in our future?

[image source:]

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Sunday, January 08, 2017


by Alex Gino

Some people are born into a body they don't identify with. George is a girl who is born in a boy's body. Throughout the book she refers to herself as "she", identifies as a girl, but is looked upon as a boy since she was born with the boy body parts.

When people look at George, they see a boy. But George knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. 

Cliched single mom and macho older brother fade into the background, but, George's best friend Kelly stays tight through and through. Kelly is fine with George identifying as a girl. When auditions for class presentation of Charlott'e Web is announced, George immediately wants to play Charlotte, the female spider, and not Wilbur, the male pig.

The books is a quick read, but the message will linger long after the last page is read and the book is put away.

Theater as a backdrop for this story is fitting as where else can George pretend to be who she really is.

When George's brother and mother finally realize and accept it, there is not much brouhaha over George's gender identity. George is who she is. Except, she wants to go by Melissa, that is her name, that is what she wants to be called.

The ending is perfect, where Kelly lets George/Melissa try on her girly clothes and they both go out into the world (to the Zoo with Kelly's uncle, to be precise) and for the first time George is comfortable with being true to herself.

The book is a quick read, and the resident 11-year old read it casually one weekend and had a few questions to ask about this book, which is a positive sign for me.

[image source:]

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

We waved goodbye to 2016 surrounded by pristine winter beauty, thanks to a well-earned mini vacation.

I got to make a pair of felted alpaca wool booties while on vacation, which was both a relaxing and rewarding enterprise.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The wool came from these lovely beauties, my favorite alpacas I know by name.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The indoor booties fit perfectly and seem like a well-matched pair. This wasn't a given, considering how easily they could have turned into a size 7 for one foot and a size 12 for the other if I wasn't paying attention to the template.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The subdued abstract marbling of strands of dyed merino wool add the rustic charm I was going for. They make a wonderfully warm boot liner for those extra cold days when socks alone won't do. Worn with the cuff turned down, they make a cozy pair of indoor slippers.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas 2016!

jam cookies

Much like every year so far, the kids were excited to make their wish lists. Since we don't have cable TV or Network TV or Satellite TV or anything filled with ads, kids have no clue what sort of "toys" to ask for Christmas. So, they've always been creative with their wish lists.

One year, when she was 5, the older child asked for a 2-year old sister in her wish list! Yep, she wanted a sister but wanted to bypass the baby phase where they just scream and feed and work out the basics of locomotion, as she noticed with her younger brother.

And at about 5 years, the younger child wanted a very specific book: about ocean creatures along the lines of picture books by Steve Jenkins -- not just the sunlight, twilight, and midnight zones, but more about the abyss and the trenches, which has not been explored much and written about much in picture book format.

Even at middle school, the fascination with unicorn has not faded. Yet again, the older child wrote in her wish list that she would like a real live unicorn that can talk and be her friend. Phoebe and her Unicorn is not just a fictional comic strip for her.

The younger child's fascination with PvZ has not waned after 3 years. He keeps coming up with different packs and different plants, and loved making the PvZ Friendship cards for Valentine's this year. So, naturally, he wrote "PvZ stuff" in his wish list, but surely not plushies and little plastic toys that we looked up on the web. He wanted working kernel-pult and cabbage-pult and black-eyed pea and citron and laser bean...

Some Jam Cookies got made for Santa and was set on the table with a mug of milk. Some carrots were set out for the reindeer. Apparently, at some point Santa mentioned that his reindeer like to eat mushrooms and so the younger one wanted to set out some mushrooms for the reindeer as well... Hmm.

We read The Night Before Christmas - the picture book version with illustrations by the one-and-only inimitable Jan Brett -- that has become our favorite read on Christmas Eve before tucking kids in bed.

Of course, Giving is not just part of the season, but a commitment in life, which we do in our own way as often as we can.

Kids didn't get on the Naughty list, phew!. Santa did stop by and leave some interesting presents for the kids, which is probably going to keep them busy till school starts next year.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

It was a fun little project to do last weekend...

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

sew a few hand warmers...

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

and make some soothing sugar scrub.

There's a growing list of fun little projects to make and sew that I have been pinning. Finding little pockets of time to do them is the challenge. I keep telling myself that when kids are older I will have more time for soul-nourishing pursuits... For now, I am at peace with what I get to do, and how much time I get to spend with my kids.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Out of my Mind

Out of my Mind
by Sharon M. Draper

publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

What is it like to be trapped in a body that will not do what your mind wills it to do? When physical movement is completely arrested but the mind races with these exhilarating ideas and thoughts, which shall forever remain uncommunicated?

Melody is eleven years old and has not spoken a single word. She has a photographic memory and a brilliant mind that observes and records everything, non-stop, with no delete button. She also has cerebral palsy, which affects body movement and muscle co-ordination, making her unable to talk or walk, leaving her frustrated.

As we see the world through Melody's eyes, we realize that she is not entirely resentful or enraged by her situation, but is in fact trying her very best to communicate her thoughts and share all that she knows and feels, with such a positive spirit that it will put us to shame for complaining about our petty problems.

The resident 11-year old reader simply could not put the book down. It made her want to learn more about cerebral palsy and understand what it is like to just not be able to talk or walk or do the things we take for granted everyday, and yet be filled with so much positive energy and enthusiasm in the mind that has no way of coming out. And, it made her so angry that her classmates were hurtful and unkind thinking Melody cannot hear or understand what they were saying. Wrong! Melody can, and it is heart-breaking.

Eventually, with Medi-Talker, Melody is able to communicate, albeit one thumb-movement at a time, only to realize how odd it all seems to her friends who think this is too weird. Ultimately, Melody realizes she can never be what is considered "normal", never be like her other friends who have all their faculties working as designed. This self-acceptance allows her to let us revel in her sense of humor and loving spirit.

Melody would not want us to feel sorry for her and neither will we dare. What we do end up doing is cheering for her and respecting her fierce dignity and wanting to be someone like Mrs.V, Melody's mentor and life coach, who loves her deeply and champions for her success in life.

[image source:]

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay
by Cari Best
illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015

"In class 1-3, there are 22 chairs and 22 desks, 22 pencils, 22 hooks and 22 smocks. There are 22 people and 22 names - and one of them is mine. Zulay."

Right off the bat we love Zulay's spirit. As we read along, we start realizing that Zulay pays attention to minute details that many kids either take for granted or never register.

"... when the shoe-shuffling stops, we all line up for two-arm hugs..."

"Good morning, everyone,", says the teacher. Then her key clicks the lock for the class to begin

"I feel with my knees for where the chair fits and sit in my seat.."

The illustrations shows this bright and cheerful girl enjoying her school day with her three friends Maya, nancy, and Chyng. Not until we read this little snippet do we start to take notice:

"Inside my desk there are crumpled papers, pencils and kissed, and a folded-up cane - a folded-up cane that I push to the back for later."

We also notice how diverse the classroom is with kids of different ethnicities, Zulay herself being African American.

When Mrs. Seeger announces to the class that after some common morning work the kids will go to the gym while Zulay goes with Mrs. Turner, it does not sit well with Zulay.

"I don't like when I hear my name sticking out there by itself. If no one else has to have Mrs. Turner, then why do I? But I don't say the way I feel. I might stick out even more, like a car alarm in the night waking everybody up."

We begin to understand Zulay's apprehension when we read that Mrs. Turner is there to help Zulay learn to use her cane. "That fold-ing hold-ing cold-ing cane" as Zulay puts it.

When class resumes with Ms. Seeger, Zulay learns of a big surprise coming up in three weeks: A Field Day! With contests, races and games outside. "Go home and think about which events you'd like to be in," says Mrs. Seeger.

Maya wants to play Capture the Flag, Nancy wants to try Tug-of-War, and Chyng thinks she can walk holding an egg on a spoon. While everyone has something they'd like to do, Zulay is thinks hard about what she would like to do on this big day.

"I would like to run the race in my new pink shoes, " I say - to a class as silent as stones.

From here on begins Zulay's determination to run that race - with the help of her cane. She must get over her dislike for it and work with Mrs. Turner to practise running, with their arms entwined.

On the big day, her friends all shout, "Run, Zulay, run!" and Zulay is ready to run the smooth round track that she knows like her own hands by now.

"So with the wind pushing me and the sun shining me, I feel like that bird that went flying."

[image source:]

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Friday, December 09, 2016

A Mango-shaped Space

A Mango-shaped Space
by Wendy Mass

Thirteen year old Mia is a synesthete, but she doesn't know that term yet. Her brain is wired such that her visual and auditory senses are interconnected so that words and sounds come associated with colors and shapes that fill her world.

When called upon to solve a math problem on the board at eight, Mia figures out not every one sees colors and shapes in letters and numbers.

"This isn't art class," Mrs.Lowe said, wagging her long, skinny finger at me as if I didn't know that. "Just use the white chalk."

"But isn't it better to use the right colors?" I asked, confident that the other kids would agree.

"What do you mean, the right colors?" she asked, sounding genuinely confused and more than a little annoyed.


"The colors. The colors of the numbers, you know, like the two is pink, well of course it's not this shade of pink, more like cotton-candy pink, and the four is baby-blanket blue and I... I just figured it would be easier to do the math problem with the numbers in the correct colors. Right?"

Of course, her classmates call her a Freak. She learns to lie about it when her parents are called in to talk to the Principal. She even hides it from her best friend, and most of all from her family - her older sister and younger brother.

While the plot is a big tangle of threads, none of which go anywhere significant, the rich description of how Mia feels and sees the world full of color is beautifully described throughout the book. She does manage to find out what her condition is after some initial struggles. She manages to connect with an online community of fellow synesthetes. She even extends a hand to a little kid who seems to be a synesthete but is not acknowledged as such by his parents.

Sibling interactions are quite real, the family is fairly odd, living in a fairly unconventional house; Mia misses her grandpa who passed away as the book starts. Which is when she finds this scrawny orange kitten who has this extended orange aura. She names the kitten Mango and cares for him as best as she can. But, the kitten dies due to illness and Mia is devastated, of course -- not for long as she discovers Mango's offspring having the same aura.

A whole bunch of different things happen which don't all come together cohesively, but, in the end we come out of the book knowing a lot more about synesthesia in a positive way, and feel like we know what Mia is going through even though our world is not as lit with color as hers.

[image source: Wendy Mass website]

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Monday, December 05, 2016

The William Hoy Story, Kami and the Yaks

The William Hoy Story
How a Deaf baseball Player Challenged the Game
by Nancy Churnin
illustrated by Jez Tuya

publisher: Albert Whitman and Co., 2016

"They called him Dummy Hoy, but he was nobody's fool. He could steal his way around the bases and score! And while he couldn't hear the cheers, he could sure see them."

Even though by 1817 the first American School for the Deaf was up and active, and the American Sign language (ASL) was adopted from the French Sign Language (FSL), during late 1800s and early 1900s "Dummy" was a common name given to people who were unable to hear or speak.

After William graduated as valedictorian of the Ohio State School for the Deaf, he continued playing baseball while working as a cobbler in between season. He set and broke many baseball records and truly gave his all to the game. By working with the umpires, William helped them develop a number of hand signals that was later adopted as official in baseball.

William was not born deaf, he lost his hearing after a bout of meningitis at a young age. The picture book captures William's lifelong passion for baseball while showing us his upbeat attitude towards life.

Kami and the Yaks
by Andrea Stenn Stryer
illustrated by Bert Dodson

publisher: Bay Otter Press, 2007

While not a true life story, the author shares that this book was inspired by a boy she met while trekking in Mount Everest region of Nepal, who communicated quite well even if he could not speak.

His dad and older brother worked as guides and helpers for mountain climbers, often setting up camp and cooking for the climbers who aimed to summit the mighty Everest.

One fine morning, Kami notices that their beloved yaks have not returned home from their grazing. Kami takes out a whistle one of the climbers had given him, and blew it hard. Even though he could not hear the sound, being deaf, he knew the yaks would hear it and come home. But, when they didn't come home after repeated whistle-calls, he decided to go look for them as his dad and brother were guiding another group of climbers.

Amid rumbling thunder and threat of a blizzard in snow-capped slopes, Kami's resourceful attempt to save a young yak stuck in a crevice and to lead the small herd home safely is told in a strong and uplifting way.

The illustrations are gorgeous; the text projects the urgency and direness of the situation, and we read holding our breath, willing Kami to succeed in bringing some help to these stranded yaks. Which he does. And we heave a big sigh of relief when we see Kami proudly leading the yaks down the mountain, his father and brother assisting him after an arduous rescue.

[image source:]

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Friday, December 02, 2016

Rain Reign

Rain Reign
by Ann M. Martin

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (October 7, 2014)

From the best-selling author of Baby-sitters Club series comes this brilliant story of Rose Howard, a story that will not be easy to forget.

Rose Howard is a fifth grader at Hartford Elementary, and likes these three things in this order:
1. Words (especially homonyms)
2. Rules
3. Numbers (especially prime numbers)

She reveres Rules. And doesn't like it when people don't follow the rules. It disturbs her immensely when people go against the rules.

"Stop!" I shouted. "Mrs. Ringwood, stop right now!"

Mrs. Ringwood slammed on the brakes. "What's the matter?" she cried. She stood up to look out her window. Behind me, all the kids crowded to the other windows to see what had happened. Traffic came to a halt.

"You didn't use your directional," I said. "That's against the rules."

Mrs. Ringwood sat down again. She leaned her forehead on the steerign wheel. Then she turned around and said to me, "Are you freaking kidding me?" After she parked Bus #7 she went into Hartford Elementary and spoke with the principal.

That's why I don't ride the bus anymore.

Rose's mom is no more (of course, her dad in misplaced concern, tells Rose that her mom left); Rose lives with her dad, Wesley Howard, who works in a nearby garage as a mechanic; her uncle Wheldon Howard drives her to school and back everyday despite his full day work schedule elsewhere in a slightly better white-collar job.

Rose is obsessed with homonyms (homophones, mainly). She makes a list of them in alphabetical order. It is a hand-written list as she has no computer. So, when she finds a new homonym pair (or trio, on rare occasions), she might have to start over and copy her earlier list and insert the new one at the right spot. She doesn't mind. In fact, she enjoys writing this list.

One fine rainy day, her dad brings home a beautiful and friendly dog. He means it as a gift for Rose, even though he just found it on the road and didn't try to track its owners or make any attempt to determine if it is abandoned for good. Rose names her dog Rain/Reign - homonym.

And then comes the hurricane, Hurricane Susan, a devastating downpour that destroys homes, downs power lines, floods the streams and rivers, and leaves people stranded. And, this is the time when Rain goes missing as well. Rose is heart-broken and angry at her father for letting Rain out without a collar in such a terrible weather.

All's well that ends well, but with a twist. When Rose finally takes charge and calls all the nearby animal shelters methodically and manages to find Rain, she also learns that Rain is actually Olivia and belongs to another family with two kids who miss their dog very much, but the family has not been easy to reach. So, Rose sets about finding a way to reach the family through newspaper articles and eventually unites Olivia/Rain/Reign with her original family, the Hendersons.

Rose's dad and uncle are products of foster care system themselves; Rose's dad has never accepted Rose's needs, and has always resented her obsession with homonyms and prime numbers and rules, symptomatic of high-functioning autism. "Don't start with me, Rose..." is all he has to say to shut Rose up. He doesn't seem to know what's best for Rose or how to help her special needs. Thankfully for Rose, Uncle Wheldon does.

And, when the story ends, instead of being abandoned to the foster care system as her dad had had enough with her, we leave Rose with her caring and warm Uncle Wheldon who is her only living relative, and only friend who understands her and supports her needs.

A powerful and unforgettable novel, told in Rose's matter-of-fact voice, laced with humor, that just barely manages to stop our heart from breaking.

[image source:]

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Welcome to CROCUS 2016: Exploring Inclusive Narratives in Children's Literature

CROCUS 2016 Saffron Tree Online Blog Festival Children's Books Disability

Starting in 2009, at my other home, Saffron Tree, we have been celebrating a short and exuberant annual blog event, a festival of books we call CROCUS: Celebrating Reading of Culturally Unique Stories.

Each year, we adopt a theme after much deliberation and peaceful voting -- a theme that speaks to us at that time, a theme that guides our book picks to share during the few days of the festival.

Our CROCUS 2016  theme is: Exploring Inclusive Narratives in Children's Literature.

We are focusing the spotlight on our fellow humans who are marginalized based on arbitrary criteria that usually defies logic. Folks who are practically cast aside because they do not fit the mould made for social acceptance. Folks whose physical or mental make-up is so different from the generally accepted idea of "normal" that they are pushed into social isolation.

What better way to break this cycle than by talking about it, through children's books that showcase kids of all sorts - kids with disabilities both physical and cognitive, kids who have suffered abuse, kids who have not had a stable home/family, kids whose gender identities are not binary, kids who simply want to be who they are and not be judged and categorized and limited in any way...

To seal the idea, our own talented Lavanya Karthik has created the gorgeous poster for our theme this year, reiterating that differences are good and that we are the same no matter how different we seem.

Starting today, Dec 1, through Dec 4, we hope to bring children's books with diverse characters who believe that their disability is not a limitation, who know that their differences do not define them, and who help us see that their abilities cannot be measured and quantized in conventional terms.

Visit Saffron Tree during this time, as well as any other time, to find the wonderful books on diversity and inclusiveness.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Journey from Children's Book Reader to Children's Book Author

For over a decade now, I've passionately written about children's books here as well as at Saffron Tree, on and off.

What started as a place to record the books my kids and I enjoyed reading turned into a venue for me to champion for all the published gems that filled me with comfort and delight and gratification and pure exhilaration...

Among other things that I write about in this blog, of late I've focused on sharing the books that came my way, books that my kids enjoyed, books that I wish I had written!

And, finally, here is a book that I have written:

Co-authored with my dear friend Praba Ram from Saffron Tree, the book is illustrated by none other than our flyer-girl and artist-par-excellence, Lavanya Karthik, published by Mango, Children's Imprint of DC Books.

The wonderful D.C. Books, who are placed among the TOP 5 Literary Publishing Houses of India, have a rich collection of children's book through their Children's Imprint, Mango. I am happy that our book has joined their illustrious ranks now.

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Saturday, November 05, 2016


by Edward Bloor

Tangerine is an uplifting multi-threaded story, featuring a young protagonist who has a strong sense of self-worth, that combines rite-of-passage with sibling rivalry, race issues, environmental concerns, football mania, minority communities and more, told brilliantly, without stodgy pontificating or sappy sentimentality.

Seventh grader Paul Fisher moves to Tangerine County, Florida, with his family to start a new school year at Lake Windsor Middle School (LWMS), leaving Houston and his friends behind without too much drama. Overshadowed by his older brother Erik, who is the center of the Erik Fisher Football Dream that his parents have intricately woven and diligently pursued thanks to Erik's phenomenal placekicking, Paul is left to his own devices most of the time, ignored, and underappreciated despite his superb goal-tending abilities for his school soccer team.

Paul wears thick glasses to help him see better. His brother originated this story of Paul staring at the solar eclipse for too long and thus losing his visual acuity. Paul is not sure that story is true, but, he dare not challenge his brother as Erik is quite the mean-spirited bully who hides it well around his parents. His parents don't seem too forthcoming to clarify this vision issue either.

Between the stench of the muck fires that would never go out, and the swarm of mosquitoes that thrive in the swamp created when misguided folks tried to douse the muck fire with gallons of water, life in Tangerine County is not all pleasant. Add to it the very real danger of being hit by lightning, as well as drowning in a sinkhole while sitting in the classroom, life can be positively dangerous.

Indeed, when during football practice, one of the kids of the high school football team is struck by lightning and dies, folks just take it in their stride and don't even suspend practice the next day, carrying on as if nothing can be more important than NFL dreams.

And yes, the sinkhole gobbles up quite a few of the portable classrooms of LWMS, with the kids just barely escaping death. If all this seems highly improbable, think again.

Paul Fisher is furious that his mom demanded a tour of his new school explicitly declaring that he is "legally blind", a tour that was not offered willingly by the Principal at the outset, but was reluctantly given owing to Paul's limitation. She goes so far as to sign him up for IEP as if to emphasize the "visually handicapped" idea, which as it turns out, disqualifies him to play in LWMS's soccer team, despite being the best goalie that a team can hope for.

"I followed slowly, angry at Mom for calling attention to my eyesight. She wanted a tour of the place because she's nosy and wants to see everything for herself. It wasn't because I can't see, because I can. I can see just fine."

Though Paul is visually impaired, he has never considered it a disability. He has sharp insight and perception when it comes to people around him, especially his parents who always seem focused on the wrong things while ignoring the important things staring at them. His thick glasses has never stopped him from being a first-rate goalie for his school team so far. Nor has it stopped him from being deeply observant and profoundly astute for a kid his age.

"But I can see. I can see everything. I can see things that Mom and Dad can't. Or won't."

Or won't. That is the key.

The plot thread of the Tangerine Middle School (TMS) kids and their community where, as Paul puts it, "the minorities are the majority," is superbly developed. As a result of the sinkhole incident, Paul gets an opportunity to change schools, and he voluntarily opts to go to TMS, known as the middle school for troubled youth, while LWMS is for the so-called elite.

Paul makes himself fit in at TMS and works hard to get on the soccer team, even if not as a starter. The citrus farming with its threat of freeze, the bare minimum subsistence, the hardworking Cruz family, the all-too-painful story of Antoine Thomas and his sister, Shandra... There is so much going on in this book that one cannot just put it down and walk away not knowing how it all works out...

Rather than reveal all the lovely details, I think I'll stop here, allowing myself a few more words to gush about this book. While some situations may seem a bit contrived for the dramatic effect, the book is very realistic in terms of relationships, rivalries, priorities, lifestyles -- conditions of life -- in what appears to be an idyllic place that was once the Tangerine capital of the world. Paul is memorable and I can't help but hope that kids in his situation have that level of understanding and maturity to handle what life throws at them. Paul reaches for the light when he could have abandoned levelheadedness and sought the dark. He looks for the positives, not faults, he never complains and he knows what's right even if his own family doesn't acknowledge it.

[image source:]

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