Words

Words are on my mind. That might not seem surprising coming from a writer, but this time the concept feels broader than usual.

I’m traveling in Italy, partly for pleasure but mostly to participate in Bread Loaf in Sicily—a writing program that takes place in the far northwest town of Erice. Travel to any country where you’re not a native speaker can’t help but get you thinking about words, and these past days that I’ve spent in Palermo and Siracusa have heightened that sensitivity.

When we speak our native tongue, it’s so easy to take for granted that we can make ourselves understood—well, at least if we’re not discussing politics these days or other controversial topics. But even with a rudimentary working knowledge of another language, that baseline pretty much disappears. My Italian is improving, yet my most productive and satisfying conversations seem to occur with the small children of the owners of albergos where I’m staying.

At breakfast, I listen jealously as my hotel hostess seamlessly shifts from Italian to English to German to French. I think about so many writers who have written in more than one language—to someone in the midst of linguistic struggles, an unimaginable prospect. I think about my own Polish grandfather and the many U.S. immigrants who must make a new life with a new language—a necessary undertaking rather than an avocation.

And yet there’s something so alluring and powerful about words I cannot read. The posters, graffiti, even the shop and restaurant signage. Maybe it’s my background as a visual designer that lets me look at these as something intangible and beyond meaning. Something absolute, which lifts the burden of significance and allows me to simply enjoy their secret beauty.

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Writing Real

Illustration by Suzana Apelbaum

Booksellers continue to tell us that girls will read books where the protagonist is a boy but it doesn’t work the other way around. The concept is controversial and debatable whether this is yet another self-inflicted bias perpetuated by how our society divides and compartmentalizes according to race, class, gender and ability. As author Shannon Hale notes, “I’ve heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: “Boys, even though this is about a girl, you’ll like it!” Even though. I never heard a single time, “Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you’ll like it!” Read Shannon’s excellent post on her experiences being stamped as a writer of books intended for girls only.

So when I stumbled on Mary Hershey’s novel, The One Where the Kid Nearly Jumps to His Death and Lands in California, (Razorbill) I was pleased on multiple fronts. The book has an unwieldy title, a complicated plot with too many subplots, creepy characters, difficult father-son relationships, rough language…hey, wait a minute…this is starting to sound pretty appealing!

It also had something else to recommend it. The story centers on thirteen-year-old Alastair, who calls himself ‘Stump,’ who is shipped out to spend the summer with his estranged father in California. When Alastair was eight, he lost one of his legs after a too-soon jump from a ski lift. Guess who was supposed to be supervising him at the time? Now Stump is ready to confront his father for ruining his life. Except he didn’t count on a host of new discoveries he makes, not least of which is the unrelenting optimism of Skyla, his father’s new wife who also happens to be a double amputee.

Hershey has woven macabre humor and irreverence into Alastair’s life that I suspect young readers will find satisfying. The jump in the title is both literal and metaphoric, as the best jumps should be. Both Stump and his father are on the brink of looking at each other in new ways. Hershey lets us see their journey with wicked humor and underlying affection.

But the real star of this story is Stump and his voice. Hersey skillfully writes Stump’s disability as just one facet of his personality, not the story’s focus. Stump is the first one out of the gate to crack jokes about his own disability, such as when he takes off his leg at school, puts it in his locker, then ties a rag with fake blood around it. It is worth noting that the author is a former juvenile probation officer who says she has had ‘the great privilege of working with some very funny, smart, and resilient kids.’ In her wonderful depiction of Stump, it shows.

The Appeal of Chapter Books

Chapter books are a great way to reach children AND parents. A child’s first experience with a chapter book may occur when parents or other adults read these books to their kids, but many children keep these books and return to them again and again when they become independent readers. They’re also a great way to jump start conversations in a family about all sorts of topics.

Here’s a great story from NPR about Mary Pope Osborn, the author of “The Magic Tree House” series, who found her own unique calling as a chapter book writer for children, some of whom are reluctant readers and others who may never have owned a book of their very own.