Monday, December 1, 2014

Because of Kate DiCamillo

Every well-written book is a light for me. 
When you write, you use other writers and 
their books as guides in the wilderness.   
                          – Kate diCamillo

To me, Kate diCamillo looks like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. And her children’s books seem like the sort that Meg -- I mean Kathleen Kelly -- would write. Her stories are whimsical, touching, funny, serious, and altogether wonderful.

Kate Dicamillo
Katrina Elizabeth DeCamillo was born in Philadelphia in 1964. In childhood, she suffered from chronic pneumonia, and her mother took her to Florida to recover. Her father remained behind to sell his orthodontist practice. But years passed, and he never joined his family.

At age thirty, Kate moved to Minneapolis and found work as a “picker” on the children’s floor of the Bookmen’s warehouse. 

That first winter in Minnesota, the worst on record, Kate was suffering from "dog withdrawal." On her author site, she says, “I was living in an apartment where no dogs were allowed, but there weren't any rules about imaginary dogs. So I made a dog up, the best dog I could think of: a smelly, friendly, big old mutt.” And so Kate’s first book was born—Because of Winn-Dixie.

Winn-Dixie is the story of a ten year old girl who adopts a furry, smelly, and very loud dog after she and her father move to Florida. The book, published by Candlewick Press in 2000, was a Newbery Honor winner for 2001 and was awarded the Mark Twain Award for 2003. In 2005, the novel was adapted for film, starring Jeff Daniels and AnnaSophia Robb. In 2012, the School Library Journal included Because of Winn-Dixie in its list of the top 100 chapter books of all time. 

Not too shabby for a writer's first book -- but that was only the beginning.

The next year -- 2002 -- Kate published The Tiger Rising, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. In 2004, she won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and in 2006, she won the Boston-Globe--Horn Book Award for Fiction, for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. The list goes on, and it's hard to imagine this children's author publishing any story that doesn't win an award.

Why is this writer so successful, with an audience comprised of both children and grown-ups? I think it's because her underlying theme is hope, even in hopeless situations. Her characters are on a quest. India Opal Buloni (Winn-Dixie) is trying to find out about the mother who abandoned her. Despereaux (a small mouse with big ears) loves light and words--and he dares to love a human princess. Edward Tulane is a china rabbit who journeys to the bottom of the sea and around the world, searching for home. Kate's stories are charming and whimsical and multi-dimensional. And a great deal of fun to read.

In 2014, Kate was appointed to a two-year term as National Ambassador for Children's Literature by the Library of Congress. Her latest book, Flora and Ulysses, won the Newbery Medal for 2014 as well. 

In this story, Flora watches in horror as her next door neighbor, Mrs. Tickham, accidentally vacuums up a squirrel with her super-suction, multi-terrain Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner.  And not just any squirrel, mind you. This squirrel is a superhero. And a poet. What can anyone say in such a circumstance but "Holy bagumba!"

Kate says that books are "guides in the wilderness" for writers. Kate's books are certainly a guide and an inspiration for me. I guess that if a mouse can dare to love a princess, I can keep hoping to someday write a story as wonderful as as the ones she writes. 

It's because of Kate diCamillo that I keep trying.

If you want to be a writer, write a little bit every day. Pay attention to the world around you. 
Stories are hiding, waiting everywhere. You just have to open your eyes and your heart.
                --Kate diCamillo

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Back to Berk: Dragon 2 Rocks!

Sequels. They suck.

At least, that's the rule of thumb. A bad sequel seems to detract from the original rather than adding something to it. Take the  Rocky sequels. Please, take them.

Or imagine a sequel for Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe and his pals, who are actually zombies, declare war on the Heartland, terrorizing cornfields everywhere. Spoiler alert: In a heart-wrenching conclusion, Ray’s dad says, “Kid, you are such a loser. I never loved you, and you throw like a girl.” 

Or Titanic II, in which Rose, regretting her decision to toss the Star of the Ocean overboard, takes up deep sea diving and falls in love with her instructor Maurice. Sadly, Maurice is only after the jewel, and—84 years after the big boat sank—Rose joins Jack’s ghost in the icy north Atlantic. Jack: "Maurice? Really, Rose? You fell for a guy named Maurice?"

Yes, sequels suck. But there are a few shining exceptions to the rule, and How to Train Your Dragon 2—from Dreamworks Animationis one of those!

Jay Bachurel
the voice of Hiccup
You have to understand that I love-love-love the first movie. I love both the narrative voice of the story and also the narrator's voicein this case, Jay Bachurel, the voice talent for the main character, Hiccup.

In the first movie, set in a wild world of Vikings and dragons, Hiccup aspires to be a dragon slayer like his father Stoick, the tribal chief. But when he befriends a dragon named Toothless, he has a change of heart and teaches his tribe to love dragons and to train them as mounts.

In the sequel, Hiccup is again our narrator: "This is Berk. The best kept secret this side of, well, anywhere. Granted, it may not look like much, but this wet heap of rock packs more than a few surprises."  It certainly is a surprise when Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon an ice cave that holds many mysteries. They soon discover that Berk faces a horrific new threat to their way of life and, in fact, a threat to all the dragons. 

Described in these bare-boned terms, it may sound like just another please-God-no sequel. Bear in mind I am biting my tongue to keep from giving anything away. Trust me. Dragon II is charming and beautiful and poignant. Some people are even saying it's better than the original. 

I can only tell you this: if you loved How to Train Your Dragon, I think you will love this sequel as well. Just don't forget to take some tissues. . . . Just sayin'.

These delightful movies are based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell.

Series. That's a great word. I guess when a sequel actually works, it becomes a series! And I understand there is to be a third movie in this series.

Can't wait!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Picture This!

What’s your favorite picture book? The Story of Babar? Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile? The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Where the Wild Things Are

Picture books tell a story with words and pictures together. Although usually written for children, these short books can be enjoyed and appreciated by people of all ages. Whenever you read one to your favorite child, you should thank a man named Randolph Caldecott, father of the modern picture book.

Caldecott was a British artist who lived in the 19th century. Although he died young, at only 39 years of age, he had a great influence on children’s art. Many of his illustrations featured bright colors, humor, and a sense of motion—as if the characters are about to leap right off the page.

A Caldecott illustration

When Caldecott was only six, his mother died. That was the same year he began to draw. Although his heart was damaged by rheumatic fever, young Randolph loved the outdoors and sports. And he took every chance he could to enjoy both.

He did well in school, even though he doodled in his textbooks and spent his spare time exploring the countryside. At age 14, he finished school, and his father arranged for him to get a job as a clerk at a bank in Whitchurch, Shropshire—not far from his home. Of course, what Randolph really wanted to do was to be an artist, but he kept in practice by drawing sketches of people around the bank. And the bank job gave him a lot of free time for hunting, fishing, and art.

Randolph knew that his whimsical drawings would never hang in art museums alongside Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But there was a growing need for illustrations for newspapers and magazines, and he was hoping to break into that market.

After a year in Whitchurch, he saw his chance. A fire broke out at the Queen’s Railway Hotel. Caldecott had to go to the scene and draw the burning building. Then he sent his sketch by rail to the Illustrated London News, where an engraving was made from his drawing. The illustration ran in the Dec. 7th issue, a few days after the fire. His name didn’t even appear on the sketch when it was printed, but the important thing was that his art had been published. He had made the first step toward a new career.

Over time he had more illustrations published, and he began to create children’s books as well. He used few words and let the pictures help to tell the story. Picture books of today use techniques that Caldecott pioneered.

And the dish ran away with the spoon....

Finally, he was able to quit working at the bank. He moved to London to pursue his art full time. And although his paintings might not hang on the walls of the world’s great museums, his work was loved and appreciated by many—including the artists Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Today, one of the most prestigious awards in art bears Caldecott’s name. Each year — beginning in 1938 — the Association for Library Service to Children has presented the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the "most distinguished American picture book for children." The honorees have included such well-known artists as Jerry Pinkney, Gerald McDermott, Leo Leoni, David Macaulay, Tomie dePaola, Maurice Sendak,  and Dr. Seuss. 

Owl Moon, a Caldecott winner

Look for the Caldecott emblem on picture books in your local library — and remember the kid who doodled in his schoolbooks, Randolph Caldecott.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Seventy Sacraments of Ordinary Life

Guess you could say that I "don't know much about theology."

I do know that the Catholic Church acknowledges seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. (And I know this only because I consulted the Great Oracle, Wikipedia.)

No argument here. But I can't help thinking that the sacraments number closer to seventy than seven, that even ordinary, ho-hum life is brimming over with sacramental moments.

Like the sacrament of work. The work that sustains us is certainly a holy thing. The same God who said, "Remember the Sabbath" also said, "Six days you shall labor." The work of the farmer, the weaver, the grocer—the bank clerk, the janitor, the doctor—are they not all sacred and blessed when done well and with a grateful heart? When the dishes are cleaned until they shine, when the fence is mended to be strong and sturdy, surely this is sacramental.

I also find a sacrament in art—creating it, appreciating it, or helping someone else to create it or enjoy it. Bless that priesthood of piano teachers and grade school art teachers who open new windows to the spiritual for children. When the poem is pared until it sings, when the wet clay yields to the potter's hands, this is sacramental. 

And there's the sacrament of service. For all who lay aside, for an hour or a lifetime, their own plans to help someone else--the cake bakers and card senders, the volunteers at the soup kitchen, the guy who stops by the roadside to change your flat tire. Angels, every one.

But there are so many more. 

There's the sacrament of our senses--eyes that really see, ears that really hear--and a heart that counts its treasures in diamonds on morning grass and silver on the undersides of maple leaves. Surely, as a famous poem says, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God"--a beauty that radiates "like shining from shook foil." Gerard Manley Hopkins understood the sacrament of seeing.

I believe there's a sacrament of friendship and a sacrament of parenthood. I have a friend who has devoted years of her life to homeschooling her nephews and to helping them to be all they can be. Daughters, cousins, uncles, grandmothers, boyfriends, mentors, pet-owners -- shouldn't every relationship we have be infused with love, the very nature of God?

Add to these the sacraments of prayer and reflection, the sacraments of birth and of dying, and the simple sacraments of looking at the stars in wonder, or picking peaches from the trees and canning them in clear jars that sparkle in the sun. 

Truly the categories run together like colors in a sunset--until we have to admit that, even when no incense is burning and no choirs are singing, life is itself "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace."

Seven sacraments? Seventy? Might as well count the sand on the seashore, for life is precious and amazing and delicious--a gift from God. And that's sacramental.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Here's to Dads!

Here’s to dads who stumble out of bed in the cold and dark, get dressed (matching socks optional), scrape ice off the windshield, and brave rush hour traffic to go to work.

Here’s to dads who come home tired at night but still change diapers, help with homework, unclog the toilet, tell bedtime stories, and chase away nightmares.

Here’s to dads with marriage or family problems who seek counseling and show up for the sessions.

Here’s to dads who get help for anger issues, alcoholism, addictions, and post traumatic stress.

Here’s to dads who don’t bail when a child with a disability puts an added stress on the family system.

Here’s to dads who say no to temptation when an office flirt offers what they may not be getting at home.

Here’s to dads who model manhood and fatherhood for their sons and what-a-husband-should-be for their daughters.

Here's to dads who aren't afraid to say, "I don't know." Or "I'm sorry." Or "I love you."

Here’s to dads who do the right thing when no one is looking, when no one thanks them, when it feels like nobody cares.

Here's to dads who don't woose out on child support after a marriage fails.

Here’s to dads who fail but don’t quit, who fall but get back up and try again.

Here’s to the dads who understand that this job of parenting lasts a lifetime—and that's okay with them. They wouldn't have it any other way. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

I Want to Go on Living

Anne woke up early, bubbling with  excitement. Today—June 12, 1942—was her thirteenth birthday. 

A little after seven, she woke her parents, and they watched as she opened presents. A blue blouse, a game, a bottle of grape juice, some flowers. . . .

But her favorite present was a book with blank pages. It was an autograph book, but Anne decided to use it as a diary.

Anne had loving parents, a devoted older sister, and many friends—both boys and girls. But there was one thing she didn’t have—a true friend, someone to share her deepest secrets with. But that changed the day she started her diary. She even gave the diary a name—Kitty.

“Dear Kitty,” wrote Anne. “Paper has more patience than people.” Anne was glad to have someone at last she could talk to about school, boys, and her hopes and dreams.

Anne Frank was a remarkable girl who lived at an extraordinary time. She was a Jewish girl, born in Germany but living in Nazi-occupied Holland. Hitler hated all the Jews, and he made laws to keep them under his thumb. They had to  wear a yellow star for identification. They were forbidden to use bicycles or buses or cars. They were not allowed to do athletics, to attend movies, or to be outdoors after 8:00 pm. 

The Frank House
photo by Massimo Catarinella

And then things got even worse. Anne’s sister Margot received a “call-up notice” from the government. That meant she would be sent away to a work camp. And so Anne’s family—including Anne’s friend Kitty—went into hiding. During their escape, they wore several layers of clothing because they couldn’t risk being seen with a suitcase. Mr. Frank left a note, saying they had gone to Switzerland, in order to confuse the officials. Anne wrote about their daily life in hiding—in some back storerooms of their father’s business.

The Franks lived with another Jewish Family in the “Secret Annex.” The entrance to their hideaway was hidden by a bookcase. They lived in constant fear of capture. Anne wrote that Margot was “forbidden” to cough at night. They covered the windows so that no light could be seen from the street. “Dear Kitty. . .I have plenty of dreams, but the reality is we’ll have to stay here until the war is over. We can’t ever go outside.” 

Anne continued to pour out her soul in her diary:

"I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want! I know I can write ..., but it remains to be seen whether I really have talent ...

"I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!

"When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?"

Her last diary entry is dated August 4, 1944. On that day, the Franks were discovered and arrested. Anne and Margot died of Typhus in a concentration camp in March of 1946. Anne was only 15 years old.

Later, workers discovered the pages of Anne’s diary strewn across the floor of the Secret Annex. After the war, the pages were given to Anne’s father Otto. As a tribute to his daughter, Otto Frank edited and published the diary. For many people who knew little about the Jewish Holocaust under Hitler, Anne became the face and the voice of these persecuted Jews.

“Dear Kitty . . . It seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.”  

Anne's life was far too short, and yet, even in that short time, she achieved her life's ambition: "I want to go on living, even after my death." 

Little did Anne know that her diary would one day be read around the world, translated into more than 60 languages, and used as inspiration for plays, movies, and music. Anne would be surprised to learn that countless children and adults have been fascinated by her best-selling book, The Diary of a Young Girl.

The First Edition of Anne's Diary

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Windy Day Whimsy (for Pentecost)

So what if a big
really big
really really big wind
just whips and whirls
and rips the roof right off your house
and tables and chairs do do-se-do’s
and all your papers, pots, and plans
go tipsy-topsy-turvy
and all that’s false or fearful
funnels right on up the chimney?

What if now your house is full of light
and rivers and rain and stars
and something so so so amazing
you don’t even know its name? 

"Windy Night" by Reene -- Scratchboard

Then what if you speak with tongues of fire,
or what if you can’t speak at all?
What if the neighbors think you’re high
because you waltz with one unseen?

Fear not—
it’s only omnipotence filling your heart
like a clown blowing up a balloon, then whooosh—
you ride the wind on wings of peace.

Welcome, Holy Spirit!  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Nearly a thousand years ago, there lived a man named Godric. 

He had been a seaman and merchant for many years when he cast anchor at the Island of Lindisfarne. There he had an encounter with St. Cuthbert, an event with such a profound effect that thereafter Godric devoted his life to Christian service. No matter that at the time, St. Cuthbert had been dead for nearly 400 years.

After many religious pilgrimages, Godric became a hermit on the banks of the River Wear—County Durham, England—where he spent the last 60 years of his life. He founded a hermitage dedicated to John the Baptist. Adapting a spartan lifestyle much like we might imagine for John, he lived outside and slept on the ground. Many men sought out this simple man for advice, including Thomas Becket and Pope Alexander III. Godric died on May 21, 1170, at the age of about 105.

The River Wear

I have read two accounts of the life of Godric. One was written by his contemporary, a monk named Reginald of Durham. Reginald visited Godric often and wrote down the history of his life. The other account is Godric, a novel written by Frederick Buechner, published in 1981. 

The first account—Reginald’s—presents Godric as a man so devout you get the impression that as a baby he spat up holy water and raised his pet gerbil from the dead. In Buechner’s novel, you get a very different picture—of Godric as a sinner, deeply in need of grace and deeply grateful to have found it.

"Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," said Picasso—and I must confess that I find more of the truth, more of the man in the novel than in the saint story told by the monk. As a monk, Reginald had trained himself to tune out the world around him, but Buechner, living 900+ years later, is an artist who has tuned in to the twelfth century world of Britain under Norman rule and tuned in to the authentic voice of a man living at that time. . . .

  • The heavy air was hard to breathe and swarmed with biting nits. Offal floated in the Tiber where poor folk drank. Dark windows stared at us like empty sockets. Rough stairs and archways beckoned us to evil courts. The reek of dung was everywhere. 
  • Here are the sounds of Wear. It rattles stone on stone. It sucks its teeth. It sings. It hisses like the rain. It roars. It laughs. It claps its hands. Sometimes I think it prays. 
  • What's prayer? It's shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who's to say? It's reaching for a hand you cannot touch. 
                                    --quotes from Godric

Finchale Priory on the site
of Godric's hermitage

I celebrate this "unofficial saint" on this, the day of his death, because of the amazing portrayal in Buechner's Pulitzer-Prize-nonimated novel. A New York Times reviewer called Godric "Funny, touching, tender and compassionate . . .unforgettable." It challenges our prim, stained-glass images of holiness and shatters our pompous religiosity. It truly is "art that makes us realize truth."

13th century manuscript of Godric's Songs,
the oldest songs in English
with the original settings

Friday, May 9, 2014

For Special Moms

On Sunday, we honor our mothers, those dedicated women who fed us, changed our diapers, gave us soup and sympathy when we were sick, put band-aids on our boo-boos, comforted us when the goldfish died, quizzed us on our spelling words for school, and baked patriotic-themed cupcakes on short notice (because we forgot) for the Girl Scout bake sale. We can never say enough about these awesome moms.

But although all moms are amazing, on this Mother's Day, I’d like to honor some special moms in special circumstances. Because some moms are even more amazing.

Single moms. Moms who have no choice but to leave their newborns in daycare while they work to support their families. Moms who work all day at a diner or a doctor's office and then come home at night and make supper, supervise homework, and do all the mom-stuff until bedtime and beyond. Moms who never get a break and never get enough sleep. Moms who have to be part mom, part dad. Moms who go hungry so that the children will be fed.

Moms of children with disabilities. This is a special company of moms who have had to rethink their dreams and plans, wrestle with huge theological questions, and turn sacrifice into a daily way of life. Moms who stand up to doctors, school boards, government programs, busy-body neighbors, and even the good church people, to do whatever it takes to help their children with special needs.

Moms who adopt at-risk kids. For those saint-like moms who are willing to be foster or adoptive parents to kids who have been neglected or abandoned by their own families — kids with behavior problems, fetal-alcohol syndrome, or AIDS — kids who have fallen through the cracks of our educational system and social programs. Moms who choose to give their love where it is needed most.

Moms who grieve the loss of a child. I know a woman who lost one of her twins at birth. Some people couldn’t understand why she didn’t just rejoice in the surviving child and get on with her life. A child who dies leaves a forever hole in your heart, and yet, somehow these moms do "get on with it," for the sake of the family, while carrying a secret ache inside and sometimes crying when no one is watching.

Moms with disabilities — moms with multiple sclerosis, leukemia, depression — moms who still strive to be good parents, even though tying a shoe lace or doing laundry is much harder for them than for other people. Moms who put on a brave face and make a superhuman effort to be there for their kids. Moms who give all they can — and then give some more.

These special moms deserve our respect, our appreciation, and a helping hand when we can give it. This Mother's Day, remember the special moms in your family, in your church, in your neighborhood. Let's give them a listening ear and an open heart.

They are Heaven's royalty, queens with invisible crowns. And great is their reward!