Category Archives: children’s literature

Underground Readers

reader 1.jpg

In Donalynn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, she describes various types of readers in her own terms.  Instead of struggling or reluctant readers, she uses the terms “developing readers” and “dormant readers.”  She also describes a third type of reader:  the “underground reader.”  While I still plan to dissect The Book Whisperer here, that is not what I am doing today.  No:  I want to talk about my experience growing up as an “underground” reader.

As defined in The Book Whisperer, “underground” readers are students who love to read, but due to circumstances beyond their control, they keep their reading lives separate from school.  They may love to read, but they usually do not have the time or opportunity to read what they would like in school.  Underground readers may even go out of their way to get in as much free reading time as possible during school.  They are the students who do not want free reading time during class to end.

While I do remember having some free time read all throughout my k-12 years, it would have never been enough.  As a child, I remember sneaking time to read and hurried through my work to have more free reading time.  I even remember taking a book out to recess once or twice.  I loved to read as a child.  I still love to read.

Unfortunately, my love of reading didn’t have all that much to do with school.  To be fair, there were times when my reading life was influenced by school.  For example, some of my favorite elementary school and childhood memories involve a teacher or librarian reading to my class.  For this reason, I included Roald Dahl and Laura Ingalls Wilder on a list of childhood favorites.  You can read the original list and explanation here.  I probably would have read Laura Ingalls Wilder on my own as a child – eventually – but nothing compared to Mrs. Butz reading Little House in the Big Woods to my second grade class.  As for Roald Dahl, he happened to be a favorite of several of my teachers, and I can’t imagine elementary school without his books.

As influential as those authors were to my early reading life, I read so much more on my own.  I had the freedom to read widely.  I took full advantage of having a mother and an aunt who were elementary school teachers – and a grandmother who also loved to read and discuss books.  I recognize that I am in the minority, and I probably would have developed a love for reading no matter what.

That just isn’t good enough.  I have to agree with Donalynn Miller.  The conventional way reading is taught today underserves “underground” readers.  Teachers don’t let them explore their love of reading and give them the skills and permission they need to make their own reading choices.  This was true twenty to thirty years ago during my childhood, but it is even more true today.  For example, I can’t imagine being told by a teacher or librarian that I couldn’t check out or read a book because it wasn’t at my “level.”  I also can’t imagine taking AR after AR test just to fulfill a silly requirement – and NOT because I truly wanted to read the book.  Instead, Donalynn Miller provides a great format for serving ALL readers, including those who already love to read.

reader 2

Dreams

I don’t talk about my mom nearly enough.  If you would have asked me five years ago if we were close, I would have told you no, we aren’t particularly close.  I’m not exactly sure when that changed, but it did change, for the better.  As an undergrad at Michigan State University, I used to marvel at the girls who called their moms every day.  It confused me.  On one hand, I wanted that type of relationship with my mom; on the other, I loved my independence too much.  However, if I didn’t call every Sunday, I would be tracked down.

Now that I am older, I am grateful for that independence, although I can’t imagine it today.  I do talk to my mom almost every day now.  My parents were more concerned when I was commuting and taking classes at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) a few years ago than they ever were during my years at Michigan State.  I find it funny and fascinating.  I think I understand it though.  My parents still had my sister and brother at home.  They were still dealing with sports activities and whatever trouble my brother decided to get into that particular week.  Still, I would never go as far as to say that I had a difficult relationship with my parents, even when we didn’t talk all that often.  They just let me get on with having fun in college – and I did.

As a teenager, it was common for my dad, brother, and sister to watch TV together in the living room.  My mom and I would watch something else in my parents’ bedroom.  I would lounge on my parents’ bed while mom would get her clothes ready for the next day, etc.  One of our favorites happened to be Ally McBeal.  At times, we would have some great conversations too.

During one weekend home during my sophomore year at MSU, such a scenario took place when I needed my mom’s advice most.  At the time, I felt as though I had to choose between semester long Spanish programs in Spain or Ecuador.  How was I supposed to choose between the two?  I didn’t want to have to make that decision.  I wanted to do both.  I asked my mom what she thought.  All she asked is that I be home for Christmas.  It worked.  I found a way to make it work without delaying graduation.  I never forgot my parents’ support of that decision.  I also learned to be flexible and find a way to do what I wanted to do – on my terms.

Shortly before my mom retired in 2010, I learned she dreamed of writing children’s books in retirement.  Considering her career as an elementary school teacher, it isn’t surprising.  What surprised me most is:  1.  I never knew that my mom wanted to write at all.  I thought it was my dream alone, and one I didn’t share with many people at the time.  2.  I didn’t learn this from my mom, I learned it through a mutual friend.  Shocked, surprised, and happy, we began working on her children’s books together.  She wanted my input and help polishing them.

Here’s the problem:  I am way too close to my mom’s books.  I love them.  I know exactly where she is going with them, and I love the fact her books are based on part of a writing curriculum she used in her kindergarten classroom.  We both need to get writing again and finish getting those books ready to submit.  Every time we work on them, I fall in love with her books all over again.

I love the process that we have working together.  It is fun working with her and bouncing ideas off one another.  We can usually come to some sort of agreement or even come to the same conclusions.  I hope we can eventually get to the point where we are comfortable submitting them for publication.  It is time.

The funny thing is that I can just hear my mom reading her books to groups of kids.  As a child, there was nothing better than her versions of Sesame Street books.  She is great at making all of the different voices necessary to make a children’s book come alive.  Grover and the Count are still favorites with her grandchildren.  I can’t wait to hear her reading her own books in front of a crowd eager for more.

Oh, We Have to Talk About Snape …

Snape

I never intended to fall in love with another fictional character, but I did. Over the course of the seven Harry Potter novels, Professor Snape won my heart by his courage and undying love for Harry’s mother, Lily Potter. No other fictional character, with the possible exception of Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, can hold a candle to Professor Severus Snape. As much as I love Fitzwilliam Darcy and all of his wonderful brooding moodiness, he is now a distant second. I have to ask myself why. Why, out of the hundreds of fictional characters I’ve been exposed to over my lifetime, does Severus Snape stand out?

Always

First, from the moment he is introduced in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I was intrigued. Maybe it is because I am a writer, but Snape had “story!” written all over him. He obviously had a past, and I wanted to know more. If you haven’t realized it by now, I always want to know more, and secrecy is a surefire way to keep my interest. I cut my teeth on mysteries and only lost interest when they became too predictable. I argue that Snape is the final and best mystery revealed in the Harry Potter series. It is the love story – and it is a story born out of true love – that drives the action. I can’t imagine if I had lived the rest of my life without reading the entire series.

Second, Snape stands out due to the complexity of his character. It is telling that I immediately purchased and read Snape: A Definitive Reading by Lorrie Kim after I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I became so caught up in the ending that I needed to go back and read the evidence. Kim’s Snape: A Definitive Reading painstakingly chronicles Snape’s actions throughout the entire series, even using quotes and page numbers. She provides just enough commentary to keep it from becoming too dry. It did help me more deeply appreciate the most complex fictional character I have ever come across.

Ever since I finished the series, I’ve asked myself why my favorite fictional characters from childhood – Laura from the Little House on the Prairie series, Anne of the Anne of Green Gables series, and Nancy from the Nancy Drew series – seem utterly dim when compared to the complexity of Snape? The answer is unbelievably simple. With the exception of Laura Ingalls, the characters mentioned above didn’t grow much throughout the course of the series, especially Nancy Drew. They were simply the same characters who were thrown into new situations. The fictional Laura is a special case because she did grow as a character in complexity and in age throughout the series. However, I find the real-life Laura Ingalls Wilder, the writer and mother who had a complex relationship with her only daughter, infinitely more interesting. Snape’s complexity is apparent from the beginning, but it doesn’t come front and center until the end of the series. I have nothing else to compare his character to at the moment. Nada.

Finally, Professor Snape’s love for Lily Potter and the courage he demonstrated in keeping both Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy safe, along with his final interactions with Dumbledore, almost defy the imagination. Yet, his entire life prepared him for and led him to the final events of the series. I can’t even begin to imagine how he managed to teach and face Harry Potter on a daily basis when all Snape could see in him was the man whom Lily Potter ultimately married. Snape felt responsible for James’ and Lily’s deaths, and he had a living, breathing reminder of that guilt and unrequited love in his classroom. Snape even managed to drill important lessons into his students’ heads outside of the classroom, knowledge that would ultimately help them survive. He may hold petty grudges and act extremely unprofessionally as a teacher, but he did get the job done.

After All This TIme

The Patronus

When I first read the scene in which Harry is led to the Sword of Gryffindor by the silver doe patronus, I knew that it was meant to be a pivotal point in the series, but I didn’t recognize just how pivotal it was until the final novel. We later learn that Snape’s patronus is Lily’s silver doe. He loved her that much. He never stopped loving her. If I were to write or describe magic, I would do so with the silver doe patronus scene in mind. So much love wrapped up in one simple, beautiful symbol. Not only is it a symbol of Snape’s undying, unrequited love for Lily, but I also see it as a symbol of Lily’s love of Harry – a mother’s love and protection. As a woman who grew up in the northern woods of Michigan, there are few things more beautiful than deer. There are few fictional scenes that leave me with goosebumps; this was one of them.

Undoubtedly I will read the entire Harry Potter series again, even if it isn’t until I have a child of my own. I am so glad that I read the entire series, even if I am not exactly a reader of fantasy. I can now fully understand why those novels will stand the test of time and inspire such a loyal following. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Professor Snape. Always.

Know It All

Is it just me, or did Hermione Granger seem to have a bit of a crush on Professor Snape?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Several months ago now, my book club decided to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There was only one problem: I had never read the original series. When the books originally debuted, I was already in high school and then college. I’d already fallen in love with what I considered to be more important literary fiction. I simply didn’t have time for what I considered to be a mere series of children’s books. The thing is that I’ve never been a reader of fantasy or science-fiction, although that is changing. I often wonder if it might have been different without the elements of magic and fantasy; maybe I would have come to the series much earlier.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child became my catalyst to finally read the Harry Potter series. I am still in the process of reading the entire series, but two things have become increasingly clear:

1. My idea to have a protagonist of a children’s book series grow and develop throughout the series is a valid one. This entire subject deserves its own blog post soon.

2. There is simply no way I could not read the entire series, not if I want to write a series of children’s books, whether they are eventually published or not.

Even though I had only read the first two books in the series prior to reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it was enough to get a sense of the series and the characters. What I loved about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is what it says about parenthood. In the play, and it is written as a play, both Harry and Draco Malfoy struggle as fathers. Both seem eager to help their sons avoid the pitfalls of their own childhoods. The problem is that Harry’s son Albus is not the famous Harry Potter, nor is Draco’s son Scorpius exactly like him. As a result, neither father can ultimately protect his son from evil. Even though I am not yet a parent, it made me realize that one cannot base parenting solely on their own experience. Biological or not, your child is not exactly like you. He or she may be nothing like you. It is interesting to me that one of my first introductions to the world of Harry Potter took place when Harry, Ron, and Hermione were adults – and parents. I love the fact that they are supposed to be roughly my age, and if one follows the timeline during which J.K Rowling wrote the books, it works.

Frankly, if I am completely honest with myself, I cannot wait to read the Harry Potter series with my child(ren) one day, along with so many other books. Will I force it? Of course not, but I will at least try. I’ll be happy if my child(ren) finds a genre he or she (or they) love(s). I do think it is true that people who don’t like to read just haven’t found the right books yet.