“It is nearly an impossibility for a Libra to write fiction!” says EsmÅ½ 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 EsmÅ½: 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.