Apr 27 2011

Celebrating Libraries: Installment #2

An interview with my good friend Hannah, A.K.A. “Future Children’s Librarian”!

CC:  Congratulations on being accepted to graduate school for Library and Information Science!  What made you decide that this is what you want to do?

FCL:  While I was working overseas as an English teacher in northern Somalia, I had the opportunity to help a local boarding school by turning a donation of 20,000 books into a lending library.   That experience made me realize that I didn’t just want to work in libraries as a side job or as a hobby- I wanted to do it all the time!  I loved helping students find books that got them excited about reading.  

CC:  What an incredible experience.  That answers some of my next question, but why do you think libraries are so important? 

FCL:  Libraries exist to serve the community and to foster and facilitate learning.  They offer free access to a huge pool of knowledge and resources.  I think when we’re so used to having the internet at our fingertips with laptops and smart phones, we tend to take access to information for granted.  So, to many people today, libraries are the place where you find a good beach novel to take on vacation – pure entertainment.  Which is one of their functions, sure. But there are people all over the world who can’t afford cutting-edge technology, and many who can’t even afford to buy just one book.  For those people, libraries and the information they provide access to can level the playing field.   Knowledge should not be a privilege afforded only to those with the means to pay for it.  It should be a universal right.  Libraries help make that possible. 

CC:  Speaking of vacation reading, what are you reading right now? 

FCL:  Right now I’m reading Cast in Fury by Michelle West and The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan.

CC:  I have Riordan’s The Lost Hero in my “to-read” pile, actually!  What books are in that pile for you?

FCL:  Oh my gosh, so many! But probably first up is the next book in The Chronicles of Elantra series by Michelle West, and also Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn series ranks pretty high among my favorite books ever!

CC:  Who would be your biggest fictional-character crush?

FCL:  OH! So easy! Bran, from Juliette Marillier’s Son of The Shadows!  Well, or maybe Domitan Masbolle, from Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small Series.  Or George Cooper, from her Alanna series! And I can’t deny a soft spot for Teddy Lawrence, from Little Women. All right, so maybe it’s not so easy!

CC:  Mmm…Teddy Lawrence.  So dreamy!  On another note, what is your fondest in-library memory?

FCL:  My best library memory is the moment I realized we really truly had built a library in Abaarso, Somalia.  I was shelving books one day and I saw students lounging everywhere, reading books on art, studying the Koran, having a book club meeting, and working on the trivia question someone had written on the whiteboard.  It was amazing. I don’t know how to describe it without sounding cheesy!  It stopped me in my tracks. 

CC:  I know that this is a near-impossible question, but who are some of your favorite authors and why?

Juliette Marillier, Tamora Pierce, and Brandon Sanderson are probably my top three. Although there are many many books and authors that I love, these three have written series that I can read over and over again.  All three write fantasy books, and for me what makes their books so riveting is that they completely succeed in creating entire worlds that exist in such detail you can totally lose yourself in the story, never questioning it once.  It’s more than entertainment.  It’s a journey to somewhere absolutely foreign!

CC:  Same idea — What are your favorite books?  (I’m giving you multiple, because I know that picking just one is painful!)

FCL:  Well, the series I referred to in the question before must obviously rank at the top of my list: Sevenwaters, Tortall, and Mistborn, respectively.  I also love Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, and Juniper by Monica Furlong.  As far as classics go (yes, I don’t read ONLY fantasy!) I like Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, and I Served the King of England by Hrabal.

CC:  I think we first bonded over Graceling, if I’m not mistaken!  Fond memories!  Now, if you could be a character in any novel, which would you choose and why?  (And you could be yourself, or a specific character from that book.)

FCL:  That’s so hard! I think I would be Aly, from Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen.  She’s always one step ahead of everyone and her mind perceives things in a way few others do.  Also, to me, she’s believable in a way many main-character women aren’t.  Most are just TOO perfect.  And too unaware of how great everyone else seems to think they are.  Aly is always completely aware of who she is and what other people think of her.  She’s smart, sly, and charming.  I wish I was her!

CC:  If you could have any character-sidekick in real life, who would you choose and why?

FCL:  Hermione Granger!  She counts as a sidekick, right?  She’s brave and super smart and ALWAYS knows a million esoteric spells you didn’t even know existed.  And she likes muggles so I’d definitely be in luck there.

CC:  I couldn’t agree more.  And she’s so loyal, too!  I heart her.  Anyway,  last question.  Fast-forward five years and imagine the library where you’ll work.  What will it look like?  Feel like?  How will you run it and get kids excited about reading?

FCL:  I hope I’m working at a big public library!  I want it to be inviting and homey, like you want to curl up and read a book there all day.  Our community library at home in Wisconsin is like that.  I love it.  And we’ve had the same librarians forever, so they know you and your family and all the books you like to read.  I love to visit there whenever I travel back home.  As for getting kids excited, I want to run programs with local schools.  I volunteer at an Austin elementary school, and I’ve witnessed huge success with book readings and book clubs.  Especially when the adults get really excited and goofy about reading the books, kids react so enthusiastically! And I want to have weekly or daily activities like story time and discussion and bring-a-lunch book club, especially in the summer when kids have lots of free time.  Sure, it may seem cliché or cheesy, but they work!  And in addition to getting people started reading, they offer opportunities for people who already love reading to meet up and form friendships with that as their bond.  Everyone wins!


Thanks so much for guest-starring here, Hannah!  I want to live in your library one day! 

Apr 18 2011

“Open to Grace”

My yoga instructor, Mandy, says that the first principle of Anusara Yoga is “open to grace.” 

I love her class.  I mean, love it.  But some days, I’m more graceful than others.  There are times when I feel like a ballet dancer; a figure skater; a bird.  And then there are the days when I’m clumsy and clunky, stumbling around like a drunken frat boy. 

So what, exactly, does it mean to be “open to grace”?  My life is in a state of flux right now.  I’m running into changes—planned and unplanned, expected and unexpected—that could easily throw me into a tailspin.  But at the moment, I feel oddly peaceful about things, like I’m waking up from a really good, long sleep.  I can only guess that Mandy’s words are getting through.  I’m feeling open to grace in and outside of class, and I’m thinking about what that looks like in my life.  Here’s how I’m breaking it down.

Truth:  It’s easy to get caught up in the trappings of your circumstances.  To feel bound by your relationships and your environment.  To let those connections cloud how you feel about yourself and the decisions that you make.  I’m taking the time to think critically and personally about what’s really going on in my life and how I truly feel about it.  I’m trying to be honest with myself and with the people around me.  A hard truth about me is that I (regrettably) worry a lot about what people think.  Right now, I’m determined to set aside concern for how others see me and for the expectations that I think they have so that I can make the best decisions possible.  And so that I can see the Truth in those choices. 

Balance:  A few years ago a colleague of mine went through a traumatic event, and I didn’t find out until well after it had occurred.  I was so impressed with the level of composure that she’d maintained in the workplace, despite the chaos she’d been experiencing in her life outside of the office.  A friend described it as “equilibrium.”  I’m hoping that I can develop my own sense of stability in the fray.  We can’t always control the circumstances in our lives, but we can decide how we respond to them.  I don’t intend to hide my emotions or pretend like I’m unaffected, but I think that there are ways to preserve a sense of calm in the storm.  I want to be level-headed despite the mess.  If I commit to taking it day-by-day, I think that I can do it.  It isn’t about making everything perfect, or “fixing” things immediately.  It’s about keeping a clear head and checking in with myself.  It’s about taking care of my heart as best I can.

Love:  I’ve been in Austin for almost eight years, and it’s remarkable how much love I have for this city, and for the family that I’ve grown here.  I’m embracing that love right now, and I’m dedicated to loving myself, too.  I’m typically very focused on obligations, responsibilities, commitments.  But first and foremost, I’m going to commit to myself.  I’m choosing me.  I’m going to honor the things that I need to be happy—both tangible and intangible.  Physical and theoretical.  Artistic and practical.  Of course, at the same time that I honor my own needs and feelings, I want to be thoughtful about other people’s hearts and emotions.  (After all, I can’t love myself if I don’t like myself.)  There’s always a balance between respecting what you need and what others need from you.  But if I make choices out of love and for love, I’d like to think that I can’t go wrong.

…My hope is that grace is somewhere in the crosshairs between truth, balance, and love.  And if it isn’t, I’ll just have to find it elsewhere.

Apr 12 2011

Celebrating Libraries: Installment #1

This is my first of several entries in recognition of libraries.  With the Texas Librarians Association annual conference this week, I want to reflect on the ways that libraries have influenced and enriched my life.  


Library Memories 

Fall 1993

I was in junior high, and I’d just made the decision to take “advanced” social studies—a class that had daunted and thwarted many a student before me.  But we were working on a group research project on Ancient Egypt, and the atmosphere in the expansive library was electric.  (Did I really just refer to the atmosphere in a library as “electric?”)  My junior high library had high ceilings and windows that stretched long and tall, letting light fall across the room in sweeping arcs even in the dead of winter.  Across the table from me, my would-be boyfriend bent his head over an encyclopedia.  My best friend doodled on her notes with a practiced hand.  Our fearless, authoritative, but somehow good-humored teacher calmly walked between tables, looking over our shoulders and nodding quietly.  Studying was cool in this class, and I felt more at home than I’d ever anticipated.

Spring 1997

My high school library was unfortunately cramped and small.  We hadn’t transitioned yet to digital cataloguing, which made it feel even further outdated.  I was looking for reading on feminism, and stumbled across an old, tattered copy of The Feminine Mystique in the stacks.  I thumbed through it while sitting across from the impossibly-cute but hilariously-geeky Antone, who was avidly pounding away at the keys on his calculator.  (Antone would later be voted “Class Calculator.”  And I’m not kidding.)  I was intrigued by the book I’d just picked up, but I wasn’t sure how to access it yet.  Second-wave feminism?  The 1960’s?  It all felt so foreign to me.  Who knew that roughly ten years later I’d return to the Friedan text as a graduate student and devour it like a bag of Doritos?

Spring 2001

I was a senior in college, living off-campus, desperately in need of a quiet study space.  And I was lucky enough to have a library that was every bit as old-school as my liberal arts college.  It was filled with long, heavy wooden tables, marble floors and columns, and vaulted ceilings.  It was breathtaking to the point of distraction.  So of course it also had the requisite study carols, where I’d hide away with my laptop and push through my undergraduate thesis.  After hours of interviews, I was assembling stories about adolescent female athletes.  It was as much a process of self-reflection as it was a piece about other girls’ experiences, and I learned about myself as well in that library.  I learned who I was as a student, as a female, and as an athlete.  I could argue that I became an adult there, too, but I still don’t feel like an adult now…So that’s out.

Fall 2004

I was in graduate school and feeling absolutely shredded by the intense reading load and academic politics.  My brain needed a break, so I went to the undergraduate library and headed straight for the fiction section.  Picking up a copy of Wicked, I sought refuge in an imaginary world on an industrial couch in a library that was far more institutional than the one I’d known at my own undergraduate institution.  I buried myself in Gregory MaGuire’s version of Oz, and quickly fell asleep to the hum of fluorescent lights and pencils on notebook paper.  When I woke up, I wondered if I was too old to be taking naps in academic libraries.  But I quickly decided that you’re never too old for naps…Or for libraries, for that matter.

Summer 2010

Through some email listserve or another, I’d heard about a reading at my newly-opened neighborhood library.  I’d returned to fiction-writing with greater conviction roughly six months before, and I was trying to access as much of the writing world in Austin as I could.  A massive summer thunderstorm blew through just before the event was slated to begin, but I was determined to make it there.  I slipped and staggered my way through the sliding doors, shaking rainwater off my sandaled feet and out of my hair, just in time.  The author was warm and gracious, and the crowd was small enough that I learned everyone’s name and chatted comfortably.  By the end of it, I’d met someone who is now a very dear friend and critique partner.  My local library gave me yet another gift that summer.  It wasn’t a book, but it was something infinitely more valuable.

 Winter 2010

I was a language arts teacher, putting on a play with my classes just before the winter holidays, as I’d done for the last five years.  But this year, I had an incredible librarian who opened up her space to my classes, and we changed the format.  We turned the library into a theater, with rowed seating and flashing lights.  We had a staging area, props, sound, and a “lobby” where parents arrived with food and donations to our clothing drive.  The library was an open, welcoming, lively place for our performance.  The old notion of a library being stuffy and quiet was thoroughly debunked by the energy of 150 seventh-graders, their pre-holiday frenzy, and the adult enthusiasm that mirrored them.  There wasn’t a “shush” in the house that day.

Apr 6 2011

Beginning National Poetry Month on the Right Note

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”

–Victor Hugo

Among the many things that I love about Austin, I really appreciate the tremendous talent here and the often small-town feel.  A few months ago I had the pleasure of lending some female vocals to a cover band comprised entirely of Ultimate players.  Had I known the level of talent and professionalism of the other people in the group, I may have been too intimidated to accept the invitation.  Thankfully, I lived in blissful ignorance until rehearsals began, and it was too late to back out! 

Among the fray of frisbee/music people was a pair of brothers who make up half of the Austin band, Full Service.  Hoag and Bonesaw are ridiculously talented, but they’re also incorrigibly funny, generous with praise, and admirably positive.  Following our show, I checked out their website (and you should, too!) and learned a few key things right off the bat:

  1. Their most recent album is an acoustic turn titled Roaming Dragons.  
  2. Their next tour is acoustic and entirely fan-booked.
  3. This fall they did a show in an English classroom that doubled as a lesson on lyrical interpretation.

This chance meeting, crossed with these facts, led up to a very exciting start to National Poetry Month in my class.

As luck would have it, I was just about to start a seven-week unit on poetry when I stumbled into the Full Service circle.  And I hadn’t planned so much as a day of the curriculum yet.  It had occurred to me to infuse the lessons with music, though, so it seemed that this opportunity was too good to pass up.

Enter Bonesaw, who not only taught middle school history for several years prior to starting the band, but who also functions as the structure of the Full Service system.  In just a few days he and I set a date, and I put a plan in place to bring the guys into the classroom. 

In the weeks that followed, I worked with my students on poetic beat, meter, and rhythm.  We used poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Frost, Shel Silverstein and others to discuss tone, mood, theme, symbolism and imagery.  Then I introduced the Full Service music and lyrics (focusing on Roaming Dragons), and the lessons came alive.  The kids completely bought in.  The combination of poetry and sound was an ideal way to analyze tone (the feelings of the author) and mood (the emotion created in the reader), and there’s simply nothing like music playing in a classroom.  It was like daily therapy.  And trust me–coming from a middle school teacher, that’s really saying something.

The fact that the band came in on April 1st—the first day of National Poetry Month—was sheer coincidence.  But it was perfect.  The 90-minute “in-school field trip” flew by.  The kids were engrossed, and I joked later that they made me look good with their attentiveness and insightful questions.  They prompted Hoag to identify the symbolism behind his lyrics on the album’s title track.  At one point there was an impromptu haiku war (think seventeen-syllable rap battle), as requested by a particularly feisty student.  The discussion ranged from intense, like the actual emotions and experiences that inspired “Rocketships,” to playful, like the audience participation in “Chickens” and “Trumpets” and the Snow White reference in “Hi Ho.”  The band made poetry relatable and approachable for the kids with their down-to-earth attitudes and easy rapport with the audience.  In short, it became personal.  It wasn’t just academic material anymore; it meant something to them.

It was difficult to go back to a regular lesson, to say the least.

The student response following the show was overwhelmingly positive, and it was clear to me that they’d really connected emotionally with the material.  I realized that it was an academic experience many of them will never forget, and of course my hope, then, is that they’ll remember the skills and literary elements that went along with it.  The merging of music and poetry made the curriculum resonate with them, to the point where they were truly entertained.  Both the kids and the Full Service foursome of Bonesaw, Hoag, Smell and Twinky-P brought sheer joy to the activity.

The best writing makes the reader feel and connect, and poetry is no exception.  There’s no question in my mind that, on the first day of National Poetry Month, my students had an emotional experience.  What more could I ask for?