Friday, May 6, 2016

Walk Two Moons

I first read Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech when I was in fifth grade. A few classmates had read and recommended it, and my mom had eventually bought it for me at a Scholastic Book Fair, most likely after some relentless begging on my part. Walk Two Moons gave me my first flashlight-under-the-covers experience as a child-- staying up late and unable to stop turning pages, willing to suffer the tiredness that would follow the next morning if it meant I could discover what happened to each beloved character. Of course, as soon as I had turned the last page, my face became doused in tears. Having recently lost my own grandmother to a stroke, I could relate to the grandfather and granddaughter’s sorrow as they said goodbye to their dear Gooseberry. That night as I dried my eyes with a Kleenex, my mother came in to check on me.
“You okay, Pipe?” I remember her asking from my doorway, her hair rumpled from sleep, an old t-shirt draped over her small shoulders.
            I told her it was just my book, that had a sad ending, but it was very good and that she would have to read it. She smiled, told me she would, that she loved me, and we both went to sleep.
I remember splashing out of the pool, pulling my goggles off of my eyes and onto my forehead, swiping the water off my face and onto the deck, and plopping down on a towel in the chair next to my mother’s.  She was leaning back in her reclining lawn chair, a towel under her head, her skinny-framed sunglasses resting on her nose.  The sun shined down against my mother’s black tan-kini, an attempt at covering the long scar that travelled from her belly button to her chest line.
            “Where are you? How many pages do you have left?” I asked her, picking up her iced tea to have a sip.
            “I’m close. They’re in the hospital. It’s sad. I knew this was gonna happen.”
            “You did?! I didn’t! I know, it is sad. But it’s so good, isn’t it?!”
            “Yeah it is. She’s an incredible writer,” my mom declared. And with that, my twelve-year-old, skinny legs were running back to the water to catch a tennis ball my brother had just thrown at me.
            My mom and I had talked more about Walk Two Moons that night at dinner. I remember it had made her sadder than I’d expected. I figured it was probably because of Grandma Jean’s stroke, and Hida, my grandfather, being on this vacation with us. When we got home from our trip, she had kept the book on her nightstand for a while. She eventually put it back on the bookshelf in my closet.
That’s where I found it this fall.
I pulled up to campus, rushed and running a little later than I would have liked, but grateful that I had at least found a parking lot next to the building that would hold my class. Well, I’m doing it, I thought as I walked up to the building after parking and paying the ridiculous fee. I’m going to grad school, like I thought I never would, Mom, like I always thought you were so crazy for doing. But here I am doing it, and you aren’t here to see it.
I was bitter when I sat down. I tried to put those thoughts aside and listen as my professor introduced herself and started to run through the syllabus for my Children’s Literature class. She mentioned that for our final we had a number of options, one of which was to read one of our favorite books from our childhood and look back on it as an adult. She quoted Edmund Wilson, saying “No two persons ever read the same book”. I liked this idea, that a book would be different with each reading. I ran through the options, Because of Winn Dixie, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Number the Stars, Holes. Somehow, from somewhere, Walk Two Moons came to mind. Oh! That would be a good one, I thought. I remembered laughing as the main character told her grandparents about the crazy next door neighbor and her first kiss. I remembered crying about the grandmother’s stroke, but enjoying the book immensely. I decided it would work. Class continued, and I left feeling a little bit better than I had when I’d walked in. I would be able to do this. I would like this. My mom would have been proud of me for doing it. Pulling out onto the road, I realized the lot I was parked in was called “Holly”, my mother’s name.
I started the book that night, choosing it over Motherless Daughters or another New York Times article about grief. Little did I know, it was about to be the best thing that helped me cope with losing my mother. Thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle, who goes by Sal, would be someone I would describe as “wise beyond her years” if she was a real person. And she seemed to be just that—a real person. Sharon Creech’s development of each character makes them so real that you cannot help but believe their every word, feeling, and emotion. She brings her characters to life, making them friends you visit every night before bed, or check in with over lunch. Creech, through Sal, makes the reader laugh when she describes Phoebe’s father as “playing the role of Father, with a capital F” (31), or mentions that her grandparents keep shouting, “’Gol-dang!’” (70). They can feel Sal’s anger at her father for moving them to Euclid, Ohio, and can understand her confusion surrounding her mother’s departure: “When my mother first left for Lewiston, Idaho, that April, my first thoughts were, ‘How could she do that? How could she leave me?’” (74). Every word that Sal utters, the reader believes. As explained by James S. Jacobs and Michael O. Tunnell in their textbook Children’s Literature Briefly, “If a book is truly well written, the words between the covers are arranged in almost magical patterns that stir deep emotional responses in readers. The words do far more than relate the events of the story. The words make the book by defining character, moving the plot along, isolating theme, making the story believable” (22). Creech does all of these things with her words.
            The plot of this story also makes it a quality book. Children who have not experienced grief first-hand can grasp to the story Sal tells her grandparents as they travel: it is filled with mystery, humor, and relatable characters. Sal tells her grandparents about her next door neighbor Phoebe Winterbottom, whose mother goes missing for a couple days. Phoebe, an anxious child, is convinced that a “lunatic” has kidnapped her mother, despite the fact that her mother left a note stating that she’d return in a few days, along with prepared meals in the refrigerator. The reader can’t wait to figure out where Mrs. Winterbottom has gone and can’t help but find Phoebe’s paranoia a bit comical, making this portion of the story completely page-turning. While this part of the plot keeps the reader enchanted, the reader also finds themselves concerned for, and curious about Sal’s inner thoughts as she “prays to trees” along the drive (7). Sal feels rushed to arrive in Lewiston before her mother’s birthday, although Sal and the reader are unsure of her reasoning until the end of the book. This rushed feeling reminds the reader that there is a bigger plot-line with deeper emotions to be considered than just the entertaining story concerning Phoebe and Sal’s schooldays in Ohio. Having this dynamic structure of a story within a story makes the text more accessible and fascinating to children, young adults, and grown adults.
            Walk Two Moons is also filled with unexpected insights tied to theme, another quality of good children’s books, according to Tunnell and Jacobs. “We live with characters as they work their way through problems, but may be delighted suddenly by an eye-opening insight about the human experience that comes from their struggles” (29). These insights were exactly what made this book so appealing for me as a child, and so healing as an adult.
            My mother had been treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when she was in her late twenties. In the 1980s, radiation was considered the best treatment to burn these cancerous cells. Now, however, doctors realize that these high amounts of radiation burn not only the cancerous cells, but everything else around them. Throughout my childhood, my mother had to go to the hospital: her pericardium was removed way before I came into the picture, followed by her appendix, gall bladder, continued by thyroid problems, sinus and ear problems, a knee surgery, a hip surgery, reactions to medications causing extreme inflammation. Five-foot-six and a hundred pounds, she looked tiny, but everyone knew she was fierce—she had the scars to prove it. Unfortunately, the last surgery, one she knew she couldn’t avoid, was the biggest one. She had two values replaced in her heart, another thing the radiation had attacked. She fought and she fought, but she died four months before I picked up Walk Two Moons.
            Although Sal and I lost our mothers in different ways, Creech’s approach and insight on grief was so authentic and spot-on, that I feel it would be of great help to anyone, at any age, going through a loss of a loved one. Sal’s feelings are so real, that most of the pages in my copy of Walk Two Moons are now dog-eared: reference points for me to go back to when my grief strikes up. Sal describes her grief and all of its parts: anger, guilt, sadness, happiness, and confusion.
“I was uneasy because everything that happened at Phoebe’s that morning reminded me of when my mother left. For weeks, my father and I fumbled around like ducks in a fit. Nothing was where it was supposed to be. The house took a life of its own, hatching piles of dishes and laundry and newspaper and dust. My father must have said ‘I’ll be jiggered’ three thousand times…. When my father said my mother was not coming back, I refused to believe it. I brought all of her postcards down from my room and said, ‘She wrote me all these, she must be coming back.’ And just like Phoebe, who had waved her mother’s sweater in front of her father, I had brought a chicken in from the coop: ‘Would Mom leave her favorite chicken?’ I demanded. ‘She loves this chicken.’ What I really meant was, ‘How can she not come back to me? She loves me’” (133-134).
“As the days went on, many things were harder and sadder, but some things were strangely easier. When my mother had been there, I was like a mirror. If she was happy, I was happy. If she was sad, I was sad. For the first few days after she left, I felt numb, non-feeling. I didn’t know how to feel. I would find myself looking around for her, to see what I might want to feel.
One day, about two weeks after she had left, I was standing against the fence watching a newborn calf wobble on its thin legs. It tripped and wobbled and swung its big head in my direction and gave me a sweet, loving look. ‘Oh!’ I thought. ‘I am happy at this moment in time!’ I was surprised I knew this all by myself, without my mother there. And that night in bed, I did not cry. I said to myself, ‘Salamanca Tree Hiddle, you can be happy without her.’ It seemed a mean thought, and I was sorry for it, but it felt true” (38-39).
As I read Walk Two Moons after losing my mother, I constantly thought, “So I’m not crazy! Someone else has felt this way! This is normal!” It was amazing how a fictional book had the ability to contain these “eye-opening insights”, something the non-fiction, technical, self-help books had time and time again failed to do. I realized that having a fictional middle-school-aged friend who understood was better than having the advice of scientists and doctors.
One of my favorite parts of Walk Two Moons happens close to the end. Sal remembers when her dog, Moody Blue, had puppies. She mentions that initially following the birth of the puppies, Moody Blue “kept her sharp eyes” on the puppies, “herding them back”, but eventually, she starts snipping at the puppies and pushing them away. Sal finds this behavior terrible and tells her mother how appalled she is.
            “’It’s normal. She’s weaning them from her.’” Her mother tells her.
            “’Does she have to do that? Why can’t they stay with her?’”
“’It isn’t good for her or for them. They have to become independent. What if something happened to Moody Blue? They wouldn’t know how to survive without her.’” (258)
Now Walk Two Moons rests on my nightstand, not my mother’s. I now understand why she had kept it close to her bedside after losing her own mother. Her bookmark was still tucked between its pages when I picked it up. I’d like to think it was her way of reminding me what Moody Blue wanted her puppies to know: I have shown you how to do this without me.

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Freedom Maze

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman is a wonderful story about a young girl named Sophie living in the 1960s. Sophie loves to read and hates to dress up. When her mother sends her to live with her Aunt Enid and grandmother in Louisiana for the summer, Sophie finds herself exploring the bayou, devouring books, and exploring the old maze in the garden. It is in the old maze that Sophie comes across a spirit that teases and taunts her. Sophie reflects on the spirit: "She knew the animal she'd chased into the maze wasn't just a cat or a rabbit or a muskrat. The more she thought about it, the less she believed that the voice she'd heard belonged to a real child. Which meant she must have been talking to real ghost" (p33). The spirit continues to visit Sophie, and upon coming to her after a fight with her mother, Sophie tells the spirit that she wishes she wasn't herself. She tells the spirit, "'I want to be like Ann and Roger and Eliza. I want to travel through time and have grand adventures and brothers and sisters and have everybody love me" (p53). With that, Sophie is off. She opens the door to her room and is flung back in time to 1860, when her grandmother's house was part of a plantation.

Although Sophie starts out as a bit of a tom-boy, not afraid of getting her dresses dirty or her hair wet, going back in time quickly makes her miss the comforts of her clean grandmother's home. Even more so than the cleanliness, Sophie soon realizes that she misses fitting in. She is mistaken for a slave immediately upon arriving back in time, and is threatened with a beating when she's caught holding a hair brush that belongs to her new master's daughter. Sophie quickly realizes that this adventure is not going to be the one she planned on-- she is an active participant, and she is unwelcome.

Sherman's work around creating a Historical Fiction text that covers two different time periods-- both 1860 and 1960-- and shows the changes made over these 100 years, is simply incredible. She flawlessly illustrates the true struggles of the slaves during this time period and the manipulative behaviors of their masters, along with the continuing racism in 1960 despite the abolishment of slavery. The reader feels as though the author herself was able to go back in time-- she captures the littlest details that would be easy to overlook without extensive research, which it is very clear she conducted.

Sherman also does a wonderful job touching on the themes of family: both blood-related and those we adopt as we go through life. Each character is strongly portrayed and developed, making them genuine and believable. She also writes about the themes of social justice and liberty-- showing the different mindsets in these time periods through characters' dialogues and interactions.

I would use this book tied with Revolution, Brown Girl Dreaming, and Freedom on the Menu. All of these books lend themselves to conversations and learnings around civil rights and civil liberties. As a teacher, I would use The Freedom Maze before these other books, as it does a great job introducing the history of slavery and the importance of the Civil Rights Movement following this time period. The author does an excellent job of showing how although slavery was abolished, racism still exists in 1960 and the fight for true freedom still needs to continue. This would be useful for students to understand the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and the idea that changing the world is more than just making laws, but rather mindsets, too.

The Freedom Maze could be used as a read aloud or as a book study. I would use it with grades 4-10. It has controversial elements, such as violence toward the slaves, but I would not shy away from reading these portions of the text to students as they serve as an important history lesson. I also enjoy this book because although it has the fantasy element of time travel, it primarily deals with very real aspects, making it a mix of many genres.

The very engaging and well-written Freedom Maze would lend itself to wonderful student discussion surrounding events in history, standing up for what is right, and self-discovery.

This is a link to Delia Sherman's website where she offers more information about her process in writing the book, a downloadable first chapter, and links for teachers. It is extremely useful: Sherman's website

The Freedom Maze