Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

Posts tagged ‘Tia Isa Wants a Car’

I’ve Been Quiet Lately. Thinking.

Straight up. It has been a tough summer.

Three weeks ago, while I was on my annual beach vacation, my aunt, Tia Isa, collapsed.  Her legs had been weakening for a while, and now , at last, they stopped working just as she was being helped from the bathroom to her wheelchair. By the time I returned, she was also struggling with a deep cough I didn’t like. It rattled in her chest and made her wheeze. So, before I had unpacked a single thing, we drove to the hospital where we spent the next six days trying to stabilize her.

I’m ashamed to confess that for a good while I have nursed the fantasy that my aunt would simply go to sleep one night and not awaken.  I wanted a peaceful exit for a lady who has been so unfailingly kind and generous to her entire family over a lifetime. I wanted to spare her and me the fear and indignities that sometimes go hand-in-hand with a failing body.

But life isn’t fiction, even for a writer. And so, in the last few weeks, as I’ve canceled engagements and changed diapers and stared at the ceiling all night, I’ve had to face what’s really ahead.

Luckily, there is not a crisis I’ve had where the kindness of people hasn’t shone through.  Texts and supportive emails have come from the few people who know what’s happening.  Folks like Lin Oliver have graciously allowed me to cancel appearances that had been planned months ago. My husband and children stepped up in every way – beyond what I ever imagined. And most important, my Tía Isa and I have had the privacy to talk about what she really wants with regard to palliative care.

I am writing this from Maine, hours away from tia Isa, where I am a guest author of Island Readers and Writers. When it was time to decide whether to travel to Acadia National Park this week to work with children at the Blueberry Harvest School, I wavered. But as Tía finally stabilized a bit, my family, including Tia Isa herself, were adamant. Go. Rest.  We’ve got this.

Possibly the best gift came from my middle daughter, Sandra, who put me on the plane with a book in hand. It’s Being Mortal  by Dr. Atul Gawande (Thorndike Press, 2014), which she’s reading for her nursing program at VCU. How do we help the people we love exert control over this last act of their lives? How can we help them not necessarily lengthen their lives, but instead live the days that remain in a way that has meaning to them?  Using both research and personal story, it describes the history of how we have managed –or failed to manage– end-of-life care. Dr. Gawande draws the complexities, from finances to the actual burden on family members , and also offers alternatives to how we help people make decisions about their last days.

Here in Maine with Javier, I’ve read quietly, turning to this lovely book for solace. We’ve walked trails in Acadia National Park in contemplative silence and stared at the ocean, thinking about both his mom and Tía Isa. I’ve had the chance to behold nature at its most beautiful. I’ve thought a lot about love and family and death. I’ve given long hard thought to the irony of starting to lose Tía Isa in the weeks before I publish a book about having to lose someone we love.

And I’ve found a bit of peace with the uncertainty that’s ahead.

So, this morning, I’ll meet lovely students, young people at the beginning of everything . As often happens when I’m in schools, we’ll talk about how we write, about where stories come from, about the role of roots and family in our lives and in our work. At times, presentations lose their freshness for the author. We say the same things so often that we struggle to remember that it’s new for the audience who is hearing it.

But this time, the words won’t feel automatic. They’ll feel so deeply true because they come from the acceptance that loss is also part of love in the long game.

Tía Isa and I having lunch at the rehab center.

And so in this way, Tía Isa will be with me, today and, I hope, always.

 

 

In Service to Richmond: How I choose where to go for free

IMG_3687Here’s what I know about children’s book writers in my community. We believe that kids matter, and we believe that books and stories help strengthen them and their families.

With that in mind every year, I help lead literary events, such as Girls of Summer and YAVA (as in, Young Adult Virginia) at the Richmond Public Library. But I also donate visits to a few schools and community organizations that might not otherwise be able to afford an author visit.  I’ll be doing two of those visits this month.

I can’t usually do school visits for free. Like most writers, I keep a roof over my head by cobbling together both advances (which can be years in between) and appearances. Most organizations understand that reality, and they find ways to pay, either through generous PTA groups, grants, partnerships with other organizations, or school improvement funds.

Still there are always some that just can’t find the funds. Ay! What do we do then?

The task of picking where to go for free is awful, mostly because there are just so many places where economics stand in the way of good things for kids. Also, for me, I always feel the urgent weight of exposing kids to authors from diverse backgrounds. It matters not only because they’d benefit from sharing stories that represent all experiences, but also because meeting an author might inspire kids of color to consider careers in the literary arts, which they may not have considered viable for them, too. (Certainly, we’re not there yet as you can see in Lee & Low’s recent survey.)

So, over the years, I’ve learned to think beyond financial need. There are plenty of places that are deserving based on finances, but that doesn’t make them a good fit for me. I’m looking for places that are invested in how to empower kids around their own story, their voice, and that of others.

The decision of where to go comes down to this: In addition to enormous financial need, I look for places that will use my author visit as more than just another assembly. I try to get a feel for whether they (1) truly respect the kids and families they serve and (2) show innovation in how they encourage the use of books and story in kids’ lives. Finally – and this is the most unfair, I know – it usually takes someone’s personal recommendation.

All of this to say that for the first half of 2016, I’ve picked St. Andrews School and the Sacred Heart Center, both in Richmond. 

220px-StAndrewsSchoolEarly1900sI’ll visit St. Andrew’s for the first time this afternoon. It has been a quiet jewel in our community for over a century, though. Established by Grace Arents, the niece of philanthropist Lewis Ginter to serve the Oregon Hill community, the school offers intimate, high quality education to students whose parents face financial hardships. I love that it was established by a woman who had the vision invest in children, regardless of their economic status.

sa-logo-R1All these years later, accepted students receive a scholarship to attend. I’m so excited to visit their newly renovated building and to see first-hand why this school consistently graduates young people who go on to further their education here in Richmond and beyond. You can check out their fine work here on their website.

Logo_COLOR_blackletteringOn Feb 18, I’ll also be packing up my Mango puppet, computer, and games and heading across town to visit the Sacred Heart Center, whose mission is to help Latino families in Richmond succeed. I’ll work with parents who are learning English as a second language (the way my whole family did.)  Our work together will focus on how to use pictures books – both in Spanish and English – to strengthen their relationship with their little ones and to inspire a love for stories and writing. I’m told that we’ll have paletas (ice cream pops) too, so now I’m really excited. (We have several excellent shops in Richmond.) Obviously, I’ll chose mango flavor if it’s available.Column_IceBox_rp0715

Please check out both organizations and consider making a donation of your time, talent, or money.

MANGO_jacket_for_Meg copytia_isa

 

Author Visit or School Book Experience?

On Wednesday, I did my last school visit of the 2013-14 school year at Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, Virginia. They’re author visit gurus over there, rolling out the red carpet with so much attention to detail that I didn’t really want to come home. (Sorry, Javier.)

On the drive back to Richmond, I got to thinking about the many great times I’ve had meeting teachers, kids and librarians this year – and how much I’ve learned about how they build collections, how they connect with their staff, and how they have to navigate budget cut threats all the time. I feel really lucky to have met so many inventive, non-shushing, hilarious Bookish Ones this year.

What I especially loved about Wednesday at Stonewall, though, is that it was a “best practices” event for me. All the best parts of school visits were rolled into one. They pulled together an author visit so that it wasn’t just a giant assembly. Instead, they created a book experience for the kids and teachers that stretched beyond the single day that I was there.

So, in honor of the amazing job Stonewall did yesterday, here’s a little cheat sheet on School Visit Greatness, with a special thanks to Linda Mitchell, Hope Dublin,Laurie Corcoran, and Diane Hilland  who hosted me so expertly.

Good planning: I despise paperwork, but I have to admit that it helps keep things straight. Linda Mitchell contacted me early (an October email about a visit in June.) We were clear on what books I’d be talking about and what grades. She stayed on top of all the contracts, W-9s, and travel and lodging arrangements. We each had everything in writing. I’m told she also stalked me on Facebook to keep up with book news as it came up, which was especially fun.

photoWelcome your author and give her time to know your school:  Since I’d be speaking early in the morning, and DC traffic is the abomination that it is, I got to Northern Virginia the night before. Nothing makes a hotel feel friendlier than a little bucket waiting for you at the  hotel desk. Mine had the essentials, not the least of which were cookies. It also had driving directions to the school from the hotel and my schedule for the next day. (It was labeled PLOT TWIST because the lineup had been tweaked a tiny bit.  Librarian humor, people.)
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Ms. Mitchell also arranged for reading specialists and fellow librarians from her district to join us for dinner at a quiet restaurant downtown. This was a time to kick back and ask them about their school and students, to find out the books they were reading, and to share ideas for new titles for their shelves. They also showered birthday love on me with chocolate and other treats, at which point I  knew we’d be friends for life.

The next morning, they had coffee, fruit, and coffee cake waiting at school. The  principal and several teachers dropped by to say hello. I should add that all of this was happening on a day of SOL testing, which ranks up there with Wisdom Teeth Removal Day. You would never have guessed it from the calm feeling in the building.

IMG_1945Think perks:  As we all know, parking lot real estate is a hot commodity on a campus. You have to rate to get one of those spiffy up-near-the-door spots. Ha! When I got there, they’d staked out a spot and labeled it “For Award Winning Authors Only.” It was funny – and I really appreciated not having to lug books and a computer a long way in heels.

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an activity for Milagros: Girl from Away

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Activity based on a quote from Tía Isa Wants a Car

Prepare your students: To be honest, I’ve been to schools where no one has read my book. This really changes the impact of the visit. It’s still fun, but not nearly as meaningful. Stonewall students, on the other hand, read several of my books and did activities around the literature ahead of time, including readers theatre of Milagros and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.  They even used my picture book, Tia Isa Wants a Car for a writing and brainstorming activity – very cool for a middle school.

Plan something unusual and meaningful for your particular student population. Mrs. Mitchell asked me to read Tia Isa Quiere Un Carro in Spanish, since so many students at Stonewall are Latino, a significant number recently arrived. For the non Latino students, the English text and pictures were scanned and projected on the large screen.

Have the tech worked out: They had the screen, monitor, microphones, etc. all worked out for me. All I had to do was hand off the junk drive.

BdayCard

A birthday card from a student with my same last name! (She wrote a great poem, too.

Be organized about books sales/signings:  Books were pre-ordered by teachers and students, and each had a sticky with the person’s name. I was able to sign them all in my down time.

Author care 101:  My podium was fully stocked with little bottled water, mints, cough drops, and copy of all the books I would be talking about. At lunch time, they whisked me away to lunch and we had a good hour or so to sit down and regroup before heading back for the afternoon sessions.

From the author’s perspective, this experience was heaven. Linda Mitchell and her team tell me they’re considering putting together a teaching session on how to plan visits, including the nuts and bolts of funding and scheduling – traditionally the big stumbling blocks. I hope they do it. Keep your eyes peeled.

Looking forward to meeting more of you in 2014-15! Until then, happy summer and happy reading!

Cariños de, 

Meg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hola, ¿Qué Tal?” at The Nat’l Book Fest

photoIt’s here!  The mega weekend  for all of us book freaks in the US.  If you’re at the Nat’l Book Festival, please stop by the Pavilion of the States at noon on Saturday so you can say “hola, ¿qúe tal? – and pick up free stuff like lapel pins and some ideas for the classroom to go along with Tía Isa Wants a Car. After that, I’ll be enjoying the beautiful weather and stalking authors like the rest of you. Look out Kevin Henkes, Patrick Ness, Kathy Erskine, Monica Brown, Matt de la Peña and more!

See you at the Nat’l Book Festival!

poster_enlargeA quick post to say muchisimas gracias to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which will be part of the 2013 National Book Festival September 21 – 22. This year, the Foundation has selected Tía Isa Wants a Car to represent Virginia at the Pavilion of the States.  How’s THAT for a surprise?

Here’s the press release. [VFH Invited to National Book Festival.]

The National Book Festival will be held on the mall in Washington DC.  Free and open to the public…just a gigantic gathering of book lovers. I’ll be at the tent for a little while on Saturday enjoying the joyous mayhem. Otherwise, you’ll find me strolling around and catching some of my favorite authors. (That, and buying too many books, as usual!)  Amazing lineup, to be sure.

See you there!tia_isa

A Gift from Tía Isa

Beech-Nut-Goya-Introduce-Hispanic-Inspired-Baby-Food-Line-MainPhotoThree days ago, I stood in the aisle of my neighborhood Kroger buying baby food for my mother. It was a sobering moment to say the least. Her nausea had worsened, and in desperation, I turned to what I assumed was the easiest food to digest. The good news:  Goya now makes its own line of infant food. I scooped up as many jars of Apples With Guava as I could hold and headed to the register. The bad news: We are running out of time.

We’ve been working with the wonderful souls at Heartland Hospice for a couple of months now, so all of us are learning to make room for Death at our elbow. It’s a long exercise in acceptance and forgiveness, as it turns out. That, and endurance. But of all the difficult things, one of the worst is this: When I look at my mother and my tía Isa, who is ailing, too, I can’t imagine the silence of my world without them. All those stories that have shaped me, annoyed me, hurt me, defined me, made me wonder, turned me into a writer…they will stop, and it will be up to me to remember and share.

tia_isaWhich is why, perhaps, my aunt –  tía Isa – called me to her bed a week or so ago. She has always been one to surprise me. For example, she bought our first family car – a shocking event immortalized in Tía Isa Wants a Car.  And, if you’ve read this blog over the last year, you know that Isa also surprised us by surviving a massive stroke.

Dear Niece...

Dear Niece…

“Mira, niña,” Isa said.

“What is it?” I sighed. It had been a long day for me, and I was irritable from the endless and sometimes irrational demands I have to meet to keep my mother and aunt comfortable. I can be called on to close curtains another inch, run to the Dollar Store, “fix” the remote, explain junk mail, fight with Humana, empty a bedside commode. My writing time is crowded out more often than I want to admit.

But this time, she handed over a few sheets of handwritten looseleaf.

“Querida sobrina,” it said. Dear Niece. As I read aloud in Spanish, I realized to my complete shock that she’d written me a letter containing all she can remember of her life in Cuba. It was four pages, which is a lot of writing for an 80-year-old stroke victim. It begins with her birth in 1933 during the Great Depression, and the last entry is about the night before she left in 1968. In between, she mentions hurricanes, life in a “colonia,” building a schoolhouse, my grandfather crossing the river on horseback. It’s a Cliff’s Notes version, but it has a great ending. “Que Dios Bendiga America!” God Bless America!  

I sat on the edge of her bed, speechless for a minute.  I could hear the urgency in her voice as she told me why she’d done it.

Ysa's high school graduation picture

Isa’s high school graduation picture

“So you can keep writing after we’re gone.”

En Español Por Favor: My Day at Partners in Print

With the fabulous organizer Patricia Garcia

With the fabulous organizer Patricia Garcia

I spent Saturday at the University Maryland (College Park) with Partners in Print (PNP), an organization under the umbrella of America Reads. PNP supports literacy  at 18 schools, mostly in Prince George County, Maryland, by helping parents – many of whom don’t speak English as their first language – learn how to support their children’s emerging reading skills.  Saturday was the culminating event for the mentors and their students. More than 140 students and 100 parents came for the day-long gathering.

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Tia Isa Wants a Car in Spanish

My role for the day was to read Tia Isa Quiere Un Carro and to speak to volunteers and family attendees in a bilingual presentation.

Confession. It’s always a little strange for me to work bilingually because my English is simply better. I was born here. I studied here. Although we speak Spanish as home, I live about 75 percent of my life in English. That means that sometimes I’m stuck pecking for words or phrases in Spanish, frustrated between what I’m thinking and what I can say.

Turns out this gives me the same problem as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was recently interviewed by Jorge Ramos of Univision. He noticed her occasional lapses into English, and it was the subject of a lot of Twitter chat. Like the justice, I grew up speaking Spanish at home, and I have no accent when I speak it. Yes, I can read a newspaper and magazine no problem.  I understand everything on Spanish language TV. I consider myself fully bicultural.

Practicing the tongue twisters

Practicing the tongue twisters

But could I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish and really grasp all the nuances?  Doubtful.  Can I say what I mean with the same skill and confidence that I do in English? Absolutely not.

This will be the same story for the children who attended Partners in Print, most likely.  I remember an NPR story about how young Latinos are shaping the American landscape.  According to the University of California researcher, in most immigrant families, the original language is lost by the third generation. It pains me to admit that’s pretty much how it has happened in my family. My mother, generation one in this country, speaks mostly Spanish. I (generation two) speak Spanish, but I’m better at English. My kids, generation three, speak a sort of hybrid of high school Spanish and the phrases they use with their grandmothers.  I find that loss so painful for a family.  When you can’t speak to your own grandparents, you lose something precious.

All of this was on my mind Saturday.  I felt connected to the parents because they want to do the very best for their kids and give them a good shot at doing well in school, same as good parents everywhere. As I tripped over the phrase in Spanish for pointy tailfins (It’s alerones traseros puntiagudos: a mouthful, people), I thought of them sitting quietly at school meetings, for example.  How frustrating to have more to say than what you can safely say correctly.  It makes you shy, unsure.

As for the kids, these little Generation Two’s, like me, they came from West Africa, India, El Salvador, Guatemala and lots of other places. Already these first and second graders were chatting with me in snappy English skills that are developing nicely.  I’m happy for them. It will make school and success easier.

The cutie pies

The cutie pies

But the question is, how can we keep them literate in two languages, proud in two cultures, and most important, connected to their families through language and story?

It takes a lot of people to pull of the annual event!

It takes a lot of people to pull of the annual event!

That Tía Isa Quiere Un Carro can play a small part is a happy thing for me.

How's this for a gracias card?  Look out Claudio!

How’s this for a gracias card? Look out Claudio!