Deborah Wiles

“It is nearly an impossibility for a Libra to write fiction!” says EsmŽ Raji Codell. “It's just decision after decision! It's pure invention, and you have to use so many different parts of your brain.” But the beloved author has done it and done it well. Sahara Special, her new novel for young readers and her first foray into fiction, is both an engaging story and a hymn to change, written by a woman who knows a thing or two about reinventing herself. Codell has been a librarian, a bookseller, a mother and a read-aloud advocate a subject she explores in How to Get Your Child to Love Reading, which will be published next month by Algonquin Books. She's also a webmistress (planetesme.com) and, of course, a teacher extraordinaire. The latter vocation provided the material for her award-winning memoir, Educating EsmŽ: Diary of a Teacher's First Year. In Sahara Special, the author tells the story of Sahara Jones, a girl who longs for change, who is filled with wishes. She wishes her absent father would come home. She wishes for friends. She wishes that a teacher would like her and see her for who she is. Instead, she spends her days being tracked as a special needs student and worrying about what's in her school file including the teacher-confiscated letters she had been writing to her father.

Into this sea of wishes walks Sahara's new fifth-grade teacher, Miss Pointy, a woman who wears lipstick the color of eggplants, who brings flowers to class, who dares to assert that all of her students are writers. Thanks to this unforgettable teacher, whose classroom rules are full of “yes,” Sahara's life is never the same. “School has always been an interesting place for me,” Codell confesses. Having attended an alternative school until she started fifth grade, she says, “I wasn't introduced to formal schooling until I was 10 years old. It was fascinating to see kids sitting in desks, in rows, like something out of a Busby Berkeley [movie].” Her fascination with how we teach and learn has led Codell on a journey deep into the trenches of education. She maintains that the structure of public schooling (“influenced by Ford and the need to create an industrial society”) is not the way we actually live our lives, and yet “it's what defines a large part of our childhood.” Good teachers have the ability to make a tremendous difference in the lives of their students, Codell believes. “We don't walk around with a mirror in front of our faces; so we end up reflecting what's in front of us,” she says. Codell is an advocate of using children's literature in the classroom to teach. “It's very emancipating, to offer children choices and voices!” she says. “Teaching is very isolating. Authors can be another adult in the room when you can't have another body in there.” In writing Sahara Special, Codell finds a way to stay connected to the classroom. And she has a message: “I hope [children] can see that it doesn't matter the way they're judged at school.” Miss Pointy believes in Sahara and encourages her writing talent. In short, she changes her life! But a good teacher is only the catalyst; it is Sahara who ultimately does the changing by finding community with her classmates and believing in herself. Says Codell, “So many kids don't understand that change is possible; it is probable! They have no evidence that it's going to happen. They haven't been told that it's going to happen.” So speaking of change what's next for Codell? “I'm going to write more,” she says. “I'm going to continue to share books with children that's my life's work.” But that's not all. The author says she'd also like to reinvent libraries. To empower teachers to “be the boss of their own space.” To contribute to how we teach, how we learn, how we live. “I'm happy to be here. I'm grateful to be here,” Codell says. “I really mean that.” Deborah Wiles' newest book is One Wide Sky, published by Gulliver/Harcourt.

“It is nearly an impossibility for a Libra to write fiction!” says EsmŽ Raji Codell. “It's just decision after decision! It's pure invention, and you have to use so many different parts of your brain.” But the beloved author has done it and done it well. Sahara Special, her new novel for young readers and […]

Verla Kay (Gold Fever and Iron Horses) writes many of her books in what she calls "cryptic rhyme," which is her definition for stories composed in a sort of fill-in-the-gap verse, with lots of room for interpretation. There is little exposition and plenty of action, which, in the case of her new book, <B>Homespun Sarah</B>, is a good thing, since the story is all about getting a new dress.

Nah, it's about much more than that. An author's note details the hardships of life in early 1700s Pennsylvania, when children often slept in front of the fireplace, ate meals standing up, and worked alongside their parents to make almost everything they needed to survive, including their clothing: "A girl would wear her only dress every day for as long as it fit even if it was a year or more."

Enter Sarah and the days of quilts and candlelight, water buckets and wood boxes, cornmeal cakes and washtubs. Sarah tends the baby, dips candles, gathers berries . . . and grows up her ankles show beneath the hem of her dress, and the bodice will no longer lace as it should. What's a girl to do? Father shears a sheep, the wool turns into linsey woolsey on the loom, then, "Homespun fabric/Measure, clip/Needles swing/Scissors snip." Mama measures and sews with Sarah, little sister grins as she becomes the proud owner of Sarah's old dress, and "Spinning, twirling/Dancing toes/Homespun Sarah/All new clothes!" It's a simple story that lends itself to conversation and education. What was it like to live with so little and work so much? What does it mean to live simply? Some of these questions are answered in Ted Rand's watercolors, where we see little sister carrying wood, father furrowing the field, and mother cooking over the stove. Rand's use of small details adds an emotional element the baby is always tethered, literally, to something (or someone) for safety, and the cow's tail continually slaps brother on the head while he is milking. <B>Homespun Sarah</B> is a luminous little story about times gone by and the elemental necessities of living that today we take for granted.

 

Verla Kay (Gold Fever and Iron Horses) writes many of her books in what she calls "cryptic rhyme," which is her definition for stories composed in a sort of fill-in-the-gap verse, with lots of room for interpretation. There is little exposition and plenty of action, which, in the case of her new book, <B>Homespun Sarah</B>, […]

Oh, I am so lucky I am reading a book by William Steig! I am in the hands of the master! I open the book and prepare to get lost in another world, another time, another place . . . and this story doesn't disappoint. When Everybody Wore a Hat is a picture-book memoir, and it's steady, snappy, snazzy and swell.

Whether he is writing about a donkey and a magic pebble or a monster who finds his one true love, Steig always succeeds in tapping into universal feelings of wanting to belong and to create community. In When Everybody Wore a Hat, he writes simply about his immigrant family in 1916, when he was 8 years old, growing up in the Bronx: "This is the story of when I was a boy, almost 100 years ago, when fire engines were pulled by horses, boys did not play with girls, kids went to libraries for books, there was no TV, you could see a movie for a nickel, and everybody wore a hat." He writes about everyday things: "We used to go shopping with Mom all the time. We went along to carry stuff." He writes about world events: "we all knew there was a big war going on in Europe." He writes with the trademark Steig humor: "Everyone wanted his picture on a horse . . . Cameras were very big then, and you had to stay very still. This was hard for the horse."

Drawn in that wonderfully wacky, child-friendly, slightly screwball style that give Steig's New Yorker drawings such distinction, the illustrations add another layer of depth and richness. When he writes, "Mom said Esther Haberman had a big mouth," well, we see it, quite literally.

The book is beautifully structured as well, beginning with a photo of Steig as a boy and ending with a photo of him today. What a treat to be invited into this beloved author's boyhood, to sink into that experience, to belong for a little while to Steig's family, which is, of course, an extension of our larger family, our community, our world. When Everybody Wore a Hat is another tale to add to our collective memory.

Deborah Wiles writes from Frederick, Maryland.

 

Oh, I am so lucky I am reading a book by William Steig! I am in the hands of the master! I open the book and prepare to get lost in another world, another time, another place . . . and this story doesn't disappoint. When Everybody Wore a Hat is a picture-book memoir, and […]

The "world's playground" of 1930s Atlantic City is as much a character in The Girl on the High-Diving Horse as Ivy Cordelia, the young heroine who gets her chance to dive-dive-dive from the high platform on the Steel Pier into the deep-deep-deep pool, holding on to Arnette French, a "crazy-brave" diving horse girl. Wow-wow-wow! That adventure alone is worth the read.

Linda Oatman High's wonderful story is part history, part adventure and all-engaging. As Ivy Cordelia and her photographer father spend the summer at a castle-shaped hotel on the boardwalk, they ride the rolling chair to the Steel Pier, where well-dressed crowds are entertained by the card-playing cats, the boxing kangaroos and the human cannonballs. Ivy has entered another world! She is most entranced, however, by the high-diving horses and their riders, and she watches as "an enormous white horse sprints fast up a steep slanting ramp, hooves hammering and his flashing dark eyes sparking stars of fire." Oh, to be the girl on that horse!

Artist Ted Lewin has painted Ivy's longing in a poignant wash of color and emotion. His depiction of Atlantic City in the 1930s and '40s is nothing short of stunning. Mimicking the style of linen postcards that were so popular during that time, Lewin first executed his pictures in black-and-white, then applied thin washes of a limited number of colors, thereby transporting us into another time a pastel, spirited world of purple early mornings and salt-water taffy afternoons, wide open skies and endless sea-sprays of lightness and possibility.

Extensive author and illustrator notes accompany the text and further enhance the story. Details in "postcards" throughout the book impart a feeling of nostalgia and . . . love! Love for a time gone by, love of a father for a daughter, love of the ocean piers, boardwalks, haberdashers, fortune tellers and daredevil stunts that defined the city by the sea.

Step right up!

Deborah Wiles is the author of Freedom Summer; Love, Ruby Lavender and the forthcoming One Wide Sky (Harcourt).

 

The "world's playground" of 1930s Atlantic City is as much a character in The Girl on the High-Diving Horse as Ivy Cordelia, the young heroine who gets her chance to dive-dive-dive from the high platform on the Steel Pier into the deep-deep-deep pool, holding on to Arnette French, a "crazy-brave" diving horse girl. Wow-wow-wow! That […]

Here is a WOW of a biography! When my Spanish teacher-friend picked up this book about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, he said, incredulously, “A picture book about Frida Kahlo? Her life was so tragic! Incredible!” Yes, her life was in many ways tragic, but it was also amazing, and so is Frida. A wonderful introduction to the famous painter for young readers (ages five to eight), this book is a beauty that adults will also enjoy. Lyrical and inspired, the text of Frida is written in the present tense, offering the reader immediacy and closeness to the subject. Artist Ana Juan depicts baby Frida on a dragon, flowing across a double-page spread. Working with acrylics and wax on paper, she presents page after brilliant page of folk-art images and scenes from Kahlo's life: sunlight streaming through doorways, jaguars at play, grinning skeletons. As Jonah Winter's note confirms, Kahlo was stricken with polio at the age of seven and, later, was in a terrible bus accident. It's a miracle she survived and went on to paint, but paint she did, becoming famous for her self portraits and folk art and especially for triumphing over her pain. With fellow artist and husband Diego Rivera, she experienced a love that filled her heart even as it brought its own measure of pain. Kahlo's enormous strength and her fierce will to live and create are wonderfully depicted. Both Winter and Juan capture her spirit, as well as the worlds she inhabited in her head and created on the canvas. Full of energy, Frida flows from beginning to end, from darkness to light, from pain to joy. “She turns her pain into something beautiful. It is like a miracle,” writes Winter. Yes, and this is a little miracle of a book, an amazing marriage of art, text and risk-taking that works well as an introduction to Kahlo's life, and as a way to talk to youngsters about how art can help us survive pain, fear and loss. That art can help us define the human spirit is a lesson no reader is too young to learn, and Frida is the perfect teacher. Deborah Wiles is the author of Freedom Summer and Love, Ruby Lavender.

Here is a WOW of a biography! When my Spanish teacher-friend picked up this book about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, he said, incredulously, “A picture book about Frida Kahlo? Her life was so tragic! Incredible!” Yes, her life was in many ways tragic, but it was also amazing, and so is Frida. A wonderful introduction […]

It's been a long time since a story has moved me to tears. With Walk Across the Sea, Susan Fletcher has written a tale about 1886 California, the prejudice against the Chinese and a 13-year-old girl's friendship with a "heathen" China Boy a relationship that develops after he saves her goat from a "sneaker wave" that threatens to wash both Eliza and the animal out to sea.

But the story is about so much more. Eliza lives with her parents on an island reached by an isthmus that can be crossed only at low tide. Her father is the lighthouse keeper. When her mother miscarries and must be hospitalized, Eliza begins to question God's goodness. She wrestles with moral questions as she watches the Chinese get evicted from her town. She wonders what part God plays in punishing us for our sins: "What if God wasn't keeping an account of good and evil things? What if he just didn't care?"

In dealing with her anger at the injustice of her townsfolk and coming to terms with her sister's death, Eliza searches the Bible: "I was looking for passages . . . about how all men are brothers. I was looking for answers."

Eventually, Eliza finds the strength to defy her father, as she harbors the China Boy, Wah Chung, in her family's shed and tries to help him. A terrible storm, a secret and Eliza's fierce determination to do what is right bring the novel to a satisfying end. Eliza realizes that "Nothing was safe, not in the whole of this wide world," and yet there are miracles and love "and glories well beyond our knowing." Eliza's voice is totally believable, her spunk admirable. Fletcher tackles difficult themes with a sure hand and doesn't flinch from what is hard to face in death . . . and life. Her deft use of period language and detail make this historical book unforgettable. There is beauty in her words and in the "secret worlds" she reveals. Walk Across the Sea is a grand read, a story that opens its arms to the mysteries of the world and the yearnings of the human heart.

Deborah Wiles' first two books for children, Freedom Summer and Love, Ruby Lavender, were published this spring.

 

It's been a long time since a story has moved me to tears. With Walk Across the Sea, Susan Fletcher has written a tale about 1886 California, the prejudice against the Chinese and a 13-year-old girl's friendship with a "heathen" China Boy a relationship that develops after he saves her goat from a "sneaker wave" […]

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