Just a Second

World in a second-2One of the many reasons I read “children’s” books is that they keep my sense of wonder and hopefulness alive, even when the world seems bleak. And even though they have a simple and familiar structure, sometimes a book meant for children not only encapsulates a moment, but resonates throughout my life and thought processes.

I’m participating in an inter-generational storytelling group here at my community Bridge Meadows.  Bridge Meadows is set up to support families adopting children out of the foster care system.  We have single family housing for those adopting children, and affordable housing for people 55 and over who help provide support to the families.  We’re like the village that it takes to raise a child.

Two of the women in our support team created the group Once Upon a Time.  Elder residents and children ages 7 – 12 use storytelling, play and theater to help build community, connection, empathy and self-esteem.  That’s a way of saying we meet to tell stories and have fun.

The facilitators bring a suitcase of props and a book to help prompt our own stories.  Recently, they brought The World in a Second by Isabel Minhos Martin and illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvalho (Enchanted Lion, 2015).  It had big bright illustrations of what can happen in a second.  In 23 scenes, it takes you all over the world and shows what is happening in one second:  a boat caught in a sudden storm in the Baltic Sea, dogs feeling a tremor in the ground in Venezuela, an orange falling in a Portuguese orchard.

The illustrations have strong lines and deep color.  The characters represent all races, cultures and many lands in the world.  It’s a great book to explain the concept of time, of the earth’s movement, and the geography of our diverse planet.  At the end of the book there’s a world map and a chart of all the places illustrated in the book – as well as the time it would be in each place – 1:32 p.m. in Xangongo, Angola, is 9:32 a.m. in Florianopolis, Brazil.  Sharing this book with a child will inspire many conversation on time, geography, culture, and even animal behavior.

Our facilitators used scenes in the book as story prompts.  Our group of about 12 elders 001and children broke up into small groups to create the stories.  My group of 2 women, a 9 year old boy and an 11 year old girl, got the prompt of people being stuck in an elevator in a New York City skyscraper.  The children were given large scarves to wear anyway they saw fit.

The boy wrapped his black scarf around his head.  He was going to a costume party.  The girl unfolded her blue scarf and tied it around her shoulders so it flowed like a cape behind her.  She was the queen of the deep blue sea.  She was not stuck in the elevator.  She was the person we were all going to see on the top floor of the skyscraper.  We acted out being stuck, the boy acted out calling for assistance, and the queen opened the doors to free us all.

We watched the other groups act out their stories – “a thief opens the door,” and “a book reaches the end.”

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The children were boisterous and the energy in the room was high.  They wanted to jump and spin and climb on the furniture.  But when they acted out a scene, they did their parts with utmost concentration.

At the end of the session, one of the facilitators made an announcement at the request of one of the children, the girl who played the queen in our group.  She was moving to a family outside our community.

And in just a second, all the boisterous energy in the room deflated and my heart felt the puncture wound.

We’d known that the girl’s situation was in flux.  Sometimes, in spite of the best efforts of everyone, a foster situation doesn’t work out.  Families are complicated and those with foster children doubly so.  We knew that changes were in the works for her, but it feels like a defeat when a child moves away from us.

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The queen of the deep blue sea, however, seemed happy.  She’was moving to be with a family she was familiar with, and was looking forward to living with them.  She’d be back to visit the community, maybe even once a week during our Happiness Hour, where we all gather to eat and share news.

The children all raced out of the room to play together in the courtyard for the few minutes they had to themselves before being called home to dinner.

We adults stayed in our seats, pressed down by the weight of uncertainty, our fears of the big mean world, and the loss of a bright child from our midst.  We’re all committed to helping children find permanence, but it’s not always a commitment we can fulfill.  We talked about what we could have done differently.  What part of the story could we have influenced to assure a different outcome?

In reality, in spite of our best efforts, we can’t know how a story will end.

I left the Once Upon a Time group dazed and sad.  When I got to the building foyer, I saw the girl by herself, doing cartwheels across the open space.  She’s always been a buoyant girl, although she’s been through things no child should have to go through.  She once told me, “I like being happy.  I try to be happy all the time.”  I know her ebullient spirit will help her as she navigates her journey to find a family.  I know we’re all a part of her family – not just those of us who know her, but the whole world, every person – we’re all part of what makes a world safe or unsafe for a child.

Hopefully, we’ve planted a story seed in this girl and she’ll grow up wanting to tell hers.  And who knows, maybe it’ll be a story powerful enough to shift the world towards goodness.  After all, the whole world can change dramatically in just a second.  Who knows but this queen of the deep blue sea may one day open an elevator door and help us all rise up into a better world.


…in a darkened room, a very old woman closes her eyes to sleep

Young Reader Review: Coming of Age Through a Snake

Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta

I found out about Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta (Knopf, 2010) through the blogger Jennifer Clark Estes who gives great book reviews on children’s books on A Mom’s World (http://onemomsworld.wordpress.com/).   The premise that an anxious, awkward 12 year old boy created a new identity by finding a magical connection with a venomous snake was too good to pass over.  It turned out to be a remarkable, gentle story of reconnecting to nature and coming of age.

Set in the 1980s, 12 year old Linus Tuttle gets an opportunity to remake himself when his father gets a job at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia.  He’s determined to become a new cool Linus, but as soon as he gets off the plane, he begins to see black mambas, a rare poisonous snake, wherever he goes.  A local merchant tells him of the Liberian belief in “kaseng.”

“You might call it a totem.  That’s an American Indian word for the same thing.  Usually it is a tribe that has a kaseng.  There are leopard people, and bush-cow people, and dove people.  But some people have their own kaseng.  A person might be born with a strong connection to the mongoose or the frog.”

The black mamba is NOT a connection that Linus wants.  The same merchant tells him,  “If you do believe in it, and you do have a kaseng, you should not fear your animal.  They do not want to hurt you.  If you accept it, it will give you strength.”

In learning to accept his kaseng with the black mamba, Linus gets bolder, but also careless, and he has a hard lesson of responsibility to learn.  One man’s source of strength can be a source of danger for others.

Scaletta deftly handles the cultural differences between Liberians and Americans, between young and old, powerful and weak.  He doesn’t over dramatize or moralize; he tells a tale that leaves a lot of room for thought.  He builds a compelling story with humor, danger and insight, and doesn’t sacrifice good narrative for drama.

I think of it as I watch people around me, what their kaseng might be, what animal identity would give them power.  Especially since it is the Halloween season, when everyone is trying to find to find some alter ego, or magical spirit, to slip into — we’re all in search of something to strengthen us against the coming winter harshness.

I think it’s a wonderful story of coming to know your strengths and limits in the larger world.  There’s an intangible quality to it that provides a bit of metaphor for understanding human relations to the animal world, but also the first world to the third world.

Scaletta was born in Louisiana and grew up in several states and foreign countries, including Liberia.  His website is here:


If you’re looking for a good, snaky story for the season that’s not all creepy and morbid, this one will feel perfect.

Children’s Book Reviews: Cloud Tea Monkeys and Stand Straight

One of my great pleasures when I wander through the library is to go to the staff picks display in the children’s section.  I still feel the same delight as I did when I was a child and faced a shelf of face-out picture books.  I used to tease my kids that I only had them so I could keep reading “children’s” books.   The truth is I had kids to prove to myself that some of the contentment that eluded my family of origin, but I found in books, could be replicated in real life.  Through a series of fortunate events, I was able to do that by having two extraordinary children.

Now that they are in their mid to late 20s, I can no longer use them as excuse to read children’s books.  I’ve aged enough to realize I don’t even need an excuse, the stories, the pictures and the windows into the wondrous world are good enough reasons.  If you haven’t picked up a picture book, a fairy tale or a young adult novel since you were “age appropriate,” I strongly suggest you rush over to the children’s section of your library and reacquaint yourself with happy endings.

I’ve felt for years that some of our best artists and illustrators are in the children’s section.  From simple pen and ink drawings to gorgeous paintings to illustrations that rival the illuminated manuscripts of ancient books, the art available for us in these books is truly inspiring and uplifting.

My favorite book of the moment is Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard (Candlewick Press, 2010).

This story is based on the many tea picking stories and legends from the Himalayan region, but is a new tale all its own.  There’s a fine modern sensibility that gives you a sense of how we are all connected, but it has an ancient feel to it.  A mother earns her living for herself and her young daughter picking tea under the watchful eye of a cruel overseer.  The daughter, Tashi, accompanies her mother to the tea plantation but she passes the day with a friendly group of monkeys who live on the fringes of the plantation.  Tea picking is a delicate business that requires strong tall women who can bear the weight of giant baskets and know how to discern the best leaves:

“…they found their places and began plucking the tender leaves and buds and tossing them over their shoulders into their big wicker baskets.  The rows of glossy green tea bushes curved into the distance like waves.  Tashi had never seen the end of the plantation.  Perhaps is had no end.  Perhaps it went right around the world.

Within an hour, the sun had sucked the mist up out of the valleys and hung it like a great gray curtain over the tops of the mountains.  Up there, on those wild mountaintops above the clouds, were things Tashi was afraid of:  big cats with jade green eyes and snakes like yellow whips.”

This is the kind of mesmerizing writing that elevates Tashi’s tale to the realm of myth, although it’s a fairly grounded tale of a child having to rescue her parent with the help of the natural world.  Tashi’s mother becomes ill and can’t work.

“Tashi knew that if her mother could not work, there would be no money.  With no money to pay the doctor, her mother would not get well.  If her mother did not get well, she could not work and there would be no money.  The problem went around and around.  It was like a snake with a tale in its mouth, and Tashi was frightened of it.”

Though the basket is bigger than her, she drags it the long distance to the plantation and begins to pick leaves, only to be mocked to tears by the plantation overseer.  She seeks solace with her monkey friends and that friendship proves to have more magic in it than Tashi can imagine.  Her simple acts of kindness and friendship with the animals result in a miracle for her and her mother.

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham are a husband and wife team.  One writes in the attic and one in the basement, but they meet in the middle to turn out tales like this, the seed of which was planted when Graham was researching tea.

The book is elevated further by the stunning illustrations by Juan Wijngaard, an illustrator from  New Mexico, who has illustrated more than 30 books.  The use of full color plates with pen and ink insets in the text give the book wonderful charm.  His skill with expressions is precise and moving – from the pensive face of Tashi as she contemplates her mother’s illness to the wonderfully funny faces of the Royal Tea Taster when he discovers the Cloud Tea.

I check lots of books out of the library and one’s that I find especially beautiful or touching, I buy for my own personal library.  This goes on the buy list.  I can’t wait to share it.

I also checked out Stand Straight Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010).

It’s a great book about Ella Kate Ewing who lived from 1872 until 1913, and reached a height of 8’4”.   What caused her lots of grief in her early life became a way for her to prosper as an adult.  She was part of traveling shows and circuses.  She became wealthy and autonomous at a time when few women enjoyed such freedom.

There are fascinating statistics and illustrations on the end papers.  My favorite is an “actual size” drawing of her hand.  This is a great book for anyone of any age feeling awkward about their size and it made me want to read a more detailed biography of the lady who is still known in Scotland County, Missouri, as the Gentle Giantess, and has a large, reflective lake named in her honor.

Keep reading!