Monday, April 6, 2020

MMGM: Red Scarf Girl

I wasn’t sure about highlighting this book right now with all that is going on with Covid 19. I thought people might not want to hear about a serious book right now, especially one set in China. But then I realized that I often like to read books about people surviving extraordinary times when my own life is difficult. It puts things in perspective.

Red Scarf Girl was recommended for kids who were old enough for YA, but not ready for edgy YA on the Read Aloud Revival, a great website for finding book recommendations!

I'm drawn to books about communism, because I lived in the Crimea in the 90s right after communism fell. It surprised me then how many of my Russian friends were nostalgic for communism, despite how their families had suffered under it. But it was all they’d ever known. This child’s perspective on the Cultural Revolution might surprise you as well.

From Amazon:

In the tradition of The Diary of Anne Frank and I Am Malala, this is the incredible true story of one girl’s courage and determination during one of the most terrifying eras of the twentieth century. This edition includes a detailed glossary, pronunciation guide, discussion questions, and a Q&A with the author.

It's 1966, and twelve-year-old Ji-li Jiang has everything a girl could want: brains, popularity, and a bright future in Communist China. But it's also the year that China's leader, Mao Ze-dong, launches the Cultural Revolution—and Ji-li's world begins to fall apart.

Over the next few years, people who were once her friends and neighbors turn on her and her family, forcing them to live in constant terror of arrest. And when Ji-li's father is finally imprisoned, she faces the most difficult dilemma of her life.

Written in an accessible and engaging style, this page-turning, honest, and deeply personal autobiography will appeal to readers of all ages.

Ji Ji Jang, the author, from her website,

My thoughts:

While reading this book, I couldn't help thinking of Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a fictional account of a boy in Stalinist Russia. My son, 15, read the first part of Red Scarf Girl, and said, “But she thinks communism is okay!”  We had a great discussion about propaganda and its effect on people.

What endeared me to this book was its simple story telling. The author doesn’t use a lot of fancy language. The occasional metaphor doesn’t detract from the prose. I liked how she included an afterward on what happened to her and her family after the end of the book.

Like Breaking Stalin’s Nose, it’s Ling's connection with her family that helps Ji-Ji break free from the brainwashing/propaganda she’s believed. Both books are really about the triumph of the human spirit and love for family over a system that seeks to separate families and neighbors and pit them against each other.

Highly recommended. Although Red Scarf Girl takes place in the 60s and was written in the 90s, the message is still very relevant today.

Content warning: While there is some violence in this book, the one death (a suicide) happens off the page. Of course, you know your child or students best, but I would recommend this for MG readers.

To learn more about Ji Ji Jang, go to

What kind of books do you like to read during difficult times? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

ISWG: Writing and Adversity

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan is one of my favorite books about writing. Tan's story about finding CliffsNotes about Joy Luck Club is hilarious! Most of the book, however, is about being a daughter of an overbearing, critical mother. What I found most interesting is how her adversity shaped her. She says that if she’d had a more “normal” mother, one who was encouraging, she might’ve been a doctor instead of being a writer. Her experience of feeling like an outsider was good training for writing. It taught her to observe.

Sometimes we tend to think that life gets in the way of our writing. While I’ve enjoyed a lot of posts lately on “how to write through difficult times,” I think ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you keep writing during difficult times or wait till life settles down. It matters how you use that pain.

I’ve had my share of difficult times, some of which I’ve written through, some of which I didn’t, and some too personal to share. 

But all those difficulties shaped me. They’ve caused me to feel like outsider at times. They’ve caused me to understand pain and the human condition. They’ve given me empathy, an important trait for a writer.  I know adversity has given my writing—and my life--depth.

Writing is life. Life is writing. You can’t separate the two, and even if you’re not writing right now, you are still storing up material for later. Darci Pattison uses Frederick in Leo Lionni's picture book as an example of this in "For the slow times of writing." While all the rest of the mice are storing up seeds for winter, Frederick seems to be doing nothing. But when winter comes, he entertains them with poetry. Maybe like Frederick, you are storing up life to create poetry later.

How are you managing during Covid-19? Are you writing or taking a break?

My update on this month's question:

Covid-19 isn’t affecting that severely. My husband and I already work from home, and our children attend an online school. We do miss seeing our friends and being able to attend church and other activities (and toilet paper in the grocery store!) My heart and prayers go out to those of you who are harder hit.

To learn more about Insecure Writer's Support Group

Monday, March 23, 2020

Indoor Nature Walk: Exquisite Creatures and Order in Art

A few months ago we visited the Exquisite Creatures exhibit at OMSI, Oregon's Museum of Science and Industry. 

This exhibit included artwork by Christopher Marley, an Oregon artist who makes art out of nature, including bugs, birds, flowers, and other living creatures. Rest assured, none of these creatures have been killed. They are all animals in captivity that died a natural death. Marley, who was once an artist who liked to draw monsters, decided after traveling the world to capture nature instead.

What stood out to me about the exhibit wasn't just that beautiful artwork can be made out of the most unlikely of materials, but what Marley said about nature. We seek nature because it's orderly. We crave order, an order that is behind all creation. I found this interesting, especially as so much art (in all its forms) tends toward the random at times.

I have never been a fan of modern art. Perhaps for this reason.

But it made me think of writing. A sonnet is beautiful because it has form and rules. A novel, follows a form: beginning, middle, end. A picture book can only be 32 pages.

More skill is required to create art when there are limits.

Recently I attempted reading a classic modern novel. I'd read chapter one, for instance, and get hooked in the story, only to have it end at a cliffhanger. But chapter two was not a continuation of the plot, but the start of another story. There was no order. It was frustrating to say the least.

Some might call that beautiful, and we all know that awards committees often grant awards to what is novel or different.

But it is beautiful?

The sights of the Exquisite Creatures exhibit are unexpected, yes. Art should surprise you.

But it is orderly.

Just like nature. And good art.

What do you think of relationship between order, nature, and art? Can good art be created without order? Share in the comments below!

*All photos are my own.

Monday, March 16, 2020

If You Like Books about Survivors...

One of the great things about reading books from other time periods and situations is that it gives you perspective on your own. All the books I'm featuring today, which are mostly geared toward grown ups, have strong, inspiring protagonists. There's something about reading a story about a pioneer or a Victorian era orphan when the world is going crazy around you. It reminds you that people have always faced difficulties, which often make our own look small.

JAYBER CROW by Wendell Barry

You can tell this author is a poet. Every word, every phrase is economical, and though his writing is lyrical, there is no purple prose here. What I loved about this book is that it gave me a slice of what life was like during the last century, from World War I to 1980s, roughly the time period of my great grandmother's life. I also learned a lot about the history of agriculture and how modern methods of farming affect small towns. And it has one of the most poetic and deep meditations on grace and the question of suffering (and why a good God allows suffering). It’s also a very unconventional love story with an enigmatic ending that I’m still puzzling over.  

AMY SNOW by Tracy Rees

Amy Snow is a fast read. It’s about a girl, who was left as a baby in the snow to die (hence the name), and the girl who finds her. They grow up together; Amy Snow being treated as little better than a servant. When the older girl dies, Amy Snow is kicked out of the house with nothing. It’s soon after that she gets a letter from her dead friend and then begins a treasure hunt throughout Victorian England to figure out the secret her friend kept from her family.  While I did figure out the “secret” fairly early on, what I loved about this book was not only it’s detailed Victorian setting and characters—reminiscent of Dickens in many ways—but the wonderful friendship between these girls. For whatever reason, I don’t find many deep female friendships in modern lit, and I wish I saw more. While I thought there were a few anachronisms and the male characters were not have as strong and charming as the females, it was still a completely engaging book, and I’ll be keeping an eye from more from this author. This is her debut. 

MRS. MIKE by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

I discovered this book at my local library. It was published in 1947, so it's not a new book. It's based on a true story about a 16-year-old girl who moves to Calgary for her health and ends up marrying a mountie. (She's a bit young to marry, but this does take place in 1907.) She follows him to the Canadian wilderness and adventures and hardships ensue. It's more about her conflict with the land and the people she encounters and life itself than her relationship with Mike, her husband. At one point, she decides she can't take it anymore and returns to civilization, but the wilderness has ruined her forever for stuffy and regimented society. This is one of those books you'll never forget. If you meet anyone else who's read it, you have an instant kinship. It's been called the Canadian Little House. (This book is often labeled YA and would be appropriate for most teens.)

What are your favorite books about survivors? Please leave your recommendations in the comments!

Monday, March 9, 2020

MMGM: What Kids with Disabilities Want Writers to Know

While I don’t have a disability myself, I’ve been working with students with disabilities for most of my life. Currently, I teach students with moderate to profound disabilities at a virtual school. I’m always asking students about the books they enjoy reading. Books about characters with disabilities never make their list.

That got me thinking.

So I decided to make a list of what my students would like to see in books:

1. My disability is not my whole life. Most kids with disabilities don’t think of themselves as someone with attention issues or autism—that’s how parents and teachers think. They describe themselves as someone who loves basketball or insects or dogs. It'd be nice to see more books where a character's disability is not the only thing we learn about their character.

2. Having a sibling with a disability is not the worst thing that can happen. The story line of a typical child “dealing” with their sibling with a disability is too common. Imagine how that feels to the child who has that disability. I'd like to see more books that show the joys of having a child with special needs in the family.

3. I don’t like sad stories and/or I don’t want to “see” myself or my problems in print. While I do like seeing more stories about kids with disabilities, sometimes they can be so depressing. My students have enough difficulties in their lives. They don't want sadness in their entertainment. I'd like to see more stories about a kid, who just happens to have a disability, but also has fun. Besides, who are reading these sad stories anyways? Just teachers and librarians, it seems to me.

4.   Not being able to communicate doesn’t mean I’m not smart. Cynthia Lord demonstrates this so well in Rules with her character who uses communication board and so does Sharon Draper with Out of my Mind. We often misjudge people who communicate differently. I work with nonverbal students. Low language is the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more going on underneath.

This is my list. I may not be an expert about what it’s like to live with a disability, but I’ve learned a lot from my students.

In a world where everyone focuses on what makes us different, my students’ tastes in books aren’t that different from most kids. They would love to see more books that are funny, where kids have adventures, and where having a struggle (whether it’s a disability or not) doesn't ruin your life.

What are your favorite books about kids or people with disabilities? What kind of books would you like to see?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

ISWG: Waffles or Pancakes?

Continuing the Saturday breakfast tradition

My memories of my dad are surrounded with food. There was the can of smoked oysters he brought home from work that I would only try, the failed attempt at homemade peach beer (that I was too young to try), the homemade ice cream on my birthday, the parade of grilled food every summer.

But the thing I remember the most is the Saturday question.

"What do you want for breakfast?" asked a very sweaty Dad after he came back from his run.

My sister and I knew that there was really only two answers: crunchy (nutty) waffles or Papa's Pancake, a German-style puffed pancake, my dad's specialty. Both required melted butter and maple syrup.

Now, if I write a story with a father (I've had a few plots where the dad is missing), he's always a breakfast-making father. He wears his pajamas with blue jeans and shows his love through food.

Have you ever included a personal or family tradition/custom in your writing?

To learn more about Insecure Writer's Support Group or to join the link up, visit ISWG's website.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Virtual Nature Walk: The Coast in Winter

One of my favorite things I did when my kids were younger was go on nature walks. It might be just to our backyard or the nearby park, but we'd look for leaf miners (those interesting bugs that make leaves transparent), mushrooms, the new growth on pine trees, to name a few. It taught us all to notice things.
My son's drawing of our hermit crab molting from '09.

And now, even though they are in their teens, they are still noticing things. My 15 year old likes to call that being a detailist. :)

As writers, isn't that our job too? In my first writing class, we had to keep a journal of details from daily life--interactions with people, descriptions of nature. Doing so teaches you to pay attention.

Here is my online nature journal of our recent trip to the Oregon Coast. The coast itself wasn't very hospitable, so we had to settle for enjoying God's creation at the aquarium. They were having a sea punk exhibit. Combining sea creatures with steam punk. I call that brilliant.

Barnacled log from the one moment we made it onto the beach before the waves attacked.

The Oregon Coast in winter

A porthole of clownfish

Sea nettles


A puffin in winter. Fun fact: They don't get their famous plumage till mating season.

All these creatures are native to the West Coast of the United States except for two. Can you guess which?