Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Teamwork and Individual Stories

Sometimes when I meet a character in a realistic fiction story who accomplishes a major goal or succeeds at a great task that seemed daunting or impossible, I think how lucky I am to have met that person, and been an observer of their life (even though I know the author was the one who did the masterful job of creating the character and challenge and making it all seem real). Then, I often wonder, what about the other characters involved? I don't know if I would have been able to accomplish the same feat as the main character. Just because the protagonist is the star player of the championship team, and the story focused on her, and she has a great story, the other players on the team have a story, too, don't they? I have to tell myself this daily when I doubt my skills and abilities and think that maybe what I have to offer and the stories I write aren't "good enough" when compared to others. We don't know what happens behind someone else's front door.

You know what? My stories matter. And, I want to hear those other stories, too. They do have value. I think this is part of what I love about the character, Nikki, in the debut novel by Barbara Carroll Roberts.
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Nikki on the Line Written by Barbara Carroll Roberts; (c)2019 Little, Brown and Company (Publisher)

In Nikki on the Line, Roberts gives birth to a main character, Nikki, age 13, whose immediate family is comprised of her younger brother, Sam, and their single mom. Nikki lives for playing basketball, even though her mom apparently has no sports genes and seems to zone out when Nikki talks the sport. Readers also learn, when the science teacher assigns a project involving DNA and family, that both Nikki and her brother were conceived via anonymous sperm donors. To Nikki, this is initially the most embarrassing thing her mom could have done to her kids.

The story primarily revolves around Nikki's involvement playing on a club basketball team. After she makes the team, she must convince her mom how much it means to play at the club level. Nikki also must decide what she will sacrifice to make it feasible for her mom to afford the club fees on a single-parent salary. The story continues with Nikki figuring out where she fits on a team of players who each perform at a high level of skill, managing the changes she chose for her life so she can play at the club level, and finding her way with friendships. As the story progresses, Nikki struggles with belief in her own abilities and wondering if her choices are truly worth it.

I loved this book on several levels. First, I'm sure I've mentioned before that I am not a sports person. I watch basketball at times, but I do not know the rules of the game. Until reading Nikki on the Line, I also only saw basketball players from the outside, solely as players, which is also part of the reason watching team sports has not appealed to me. Roberts writes with a clarity that allowed me to see via Nikki's first person point-of-view and be in the game. I was on the floor, in Nikki's mind, seeing through her eyes. This was a perspective I've never had with basketball before. The plays started to make sense. The working together with team-mates and strategy from the coach came into focus. I could see it, and I liked it.

Second, being a mom who also conceived her daughter via a sperm donor, I found Nikki's embarrassment interesting. Each family is different, and I wonder when Nikki first started to have a problem with how she was conceived. I have considered how my daughter will think when she reaches age 13, but we have had conversations about it (at levels that are appropriate for her age). So far so good. My first picture book manuscript draft during grad school was a story I wrote for my daughter about a girl who struggled with making a family tree for school and trying to figure how how to fit in the person who brought her and her mom together. (If you want the actual terminology I used, I am looking for an agent and/or publisher for the now heavily revised manuscript that I included in my graduate creative thesis). In Nikki on the Line I appreciate how, as Nikki starts to learn about the man who she identifies as her "paper dad", she starts to acknowledge and welcome the traits she likely inherited from him.

Third, when looking at the book as a whole, the theme of teamwork comes to mind. Not only do the individual contributions of each player combine to make a dynamic team, everything in Nikki's life relates back to teamwork. Whether it is how she works with a friend and family to improve her basketball skills, how she works with her brother and her mom to make playing basketball a reality, or how all parts of her life come together, like a team, to make her hopes and goals a success.

Finally, I love how this book was not about a girl who single-handedly led a basketball team to a championship or won a super scholarship or was discovered and became a star. It was about a girl who makes up one important part of a greater whole. It was about a girl who understands the value of hard work, practice, family, friendships, and what it takes to be part of a team. I wonder what the story would be if any of the other players on Nikki's basketball team were the protagonists. Any one of them might have a story equally valuable. For now, though, in this story, Nikki is the winning character in my mind.

To discovery of many more perspectives, and individual stories.

Today and tomorrow,

~Tamara


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A First Visit to an Unfamiliar World Via a Book

A picture book may show only static, non-moving images on the page, but if we allow the images, along with the book's text to merge in our mind we can travel to other worlds without a computer or other electronic device.

So many people, including kids, view picture books as being only for young children. I know I've written about this before, but I feel I must continue to reiterate how picture books can be like a sample taste of something larger - a small introduction to a grand new concept.

This week's book provides an introduction to a practice performed by another culture - a practice that will likely be new and fascinating to readers. I first learned about the book and story many years ago at a professional development session focusing on the use of picture books in the secondary school setting. I have not forgotten it since.
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Very Last First Time Written by Jan Andrews (1942-2017) and Illustrated by Ian Wallace; (c) 1985 Groundwood Books (Publisher)

On the day of the story, Eva, a young Inuit girl in Canada, prepares to partake in a tradition of walking solo on the seabed floor below the ice to gather mussels for food. Until this day, Eva had always accompanied her mother on the journey.

The two women venture together to find just the right place in the already cracked ice. They make a hole. Then, Eva, along with needed supplies, descends into the darkness below the frozen surface. With the tide out, Eva lights candles and explores the undersea wonderland as she searches for mussels. Colorful illustrations, like the hues of a coral reef, fill the pages. Readers can see Eva discover mussels, coral, anemones, and other creatures and plants that usually dwell in the water's depths. The author and illustrator show Eva's curiosity and wonder through the text and images.  

While the story does not delve into the hazards of walking beneath the ice, the author creates tension when Eva hears signs of the returning tide. Her fear grows as she realizes she must find and return to the hole where she entered the undersea world before the water returns. Did she venture too far? Cries for help go unheard, but Eva has done this before with her mother. Can she finish her task and be all right? Will her solo journey be her only time, or only her very last first time of traveling alone? 

Prior to learning about and reading this book, the thought of venturing below the ice had always been more of a fear of breaking through and falling into the freezing water below. Imagining what it would be like to first have the tide continue to ebb and flow, and then be able to enter the world below the ice when the tide flows out, both scares and fascinates me. Knowing now that this is a real thing, makes it all the more compelling.

As I've researched more about the Inuit practice, I've learned how the harvesting of mussels beneath the ice is not a daily adventure. The phases of the moon work along with the tide. When the moon is full, the tide stays out the longest. This scientific phenomena, alone, fascinates me. The process involves a great number of risks including drowning due to being caught beneath the ice when the tide flows back in, losing the hole where the person entered the sea because of thinning ice shifting and blocking the hole, cracking and breaking ice not supporting the weight of the travelers, and more.  An online search using the phrase "harvesting below the ice" (one of many search terms I've tried) reveals videos and articles that share about the experience of real people who, despite the dangers, continue the practice today.
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Learning about the practices of other cultures, especially when it comes to survival and meeting basic needs, teaches us about the world in ways we would never know if we weren't willing to look beyond our personal experiences. Each time I learn something new, it is a discovery. And, unless my learning reveals something that disturbs me, something that I wish I had not learned about, I almost always feel enriched.

My daughter asked me about the title of the book. "I don't get it," she said, before I read her the story. I then explained how once we learn or do something for the first time, there will never be another first time. We talked more, and it made sense. 

There are countless activities we can say we've done for the very last first time, but some are greater than others. What is an activity you have done that you can look at in awe and recognize that your attempt or accomplishment was truly the very last first time you did it? Can you name a picture book you've read during your life that took you on the first step (as it provided an introduction) to greater learning? I would love to read more about picture books that gave you a taste of something larger.

For now, to more last firsts!

Today and tomorrow,

~Tamara

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Seeing Magic and the Extraordinary

Ever since I was little, I dreamed of magic happening to me. I wished fairies would visit. I wished I could travel to a magical world where animals talked and unicorns existed. I wished I could shrink and be friends with my dolls. When I felt lonely, I wished something magical would happen. Today, when I visit cloudy places in my mind, which self-doubts frequently steer me toward, I wish and hope for that magic to appear outside of my head. I want it to be real. I hope. I look. I try to see. Self-doubting hinders the vision, so reminders help me see--at least for moments.

As I continue to acquaint myself with the library book collection in the media center where I now work (since January), I discover new books that make me think, smile, and see. One of my recent finds is this week's book. In fact, it is a new overall favorite of mine. 
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Something Extraordinary Written and Illustrated by Ben Clanton; (c)2015 Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers (Publisher)


The main character, a young boy, has many wishes. He wishes for abilities (such as being able to fly or move things with his mind or talk to animals). He wishes he had a bushy tale. He wishes the rain would fall in colors. He wishes for many things, but he longs for something real to happen outside of his imagination. He reminds me of myself.

The story concludes when suddenly, something real happens, right in front of the boy. He does not have to look, as he can see that the magic becomes real when he notices something that already exists. Something ordinary to some folk, may be extraordinary to others. To the boy, his discovery is truly extraordinary. I have seen his extraordinary find, and also believe it is beautiful and wonderful. The magic of birds singing together, and filling the air around trees with lively chatter. and song--this is something extraordinary. 

When the boy shares his wishes, Clanton's whimsical illustrations bring them each visually to life. I smiled while reading the book. My daughter recognized the similarities of creatures in one of the illustrations to Clanton's newer characters, Narwhal and Jelly, (from his Narwhal and Jelly books) who we both love. (It's hard not to love a Narwhal, a Jellyfish, and waffles.)

Something Extraordinary may be a picture book for children, but its message can touch people of any age. It touched me. I could not return this book to the library without knowing that I can continue holding on to the story and message in my home.

My brand new copy arrives in a couple of days. 
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Magic, depending on how one defines the term, exists everywhere. We only need to open our eyes to see it.

What is some real magic that you see? What is your "something extraordinary" find? I dare you to share your thoughts. Perhaps what you see will help another reader gain sight.

To finding magic and seeing something today and tomorrow,

~Tamara