The Book Doctor
I’m not a physician but I've done my share of prescribing lately. Now don’t get excited. I don’t write scripts for valium or Lipitor. It’s much better than all that stuff. We’re talking books. Life-changing, emotionally rejuvenating, health promoting books. Just the right book for just the right person. This blog post is about an eleven year old girl named Samantha Jo and a healthy dose of prescriptions.
On Thanksgiving Day, I had told my niece that the perfect book would be waiting at my house. Sammy Jo is not in love with reading…yet. But she’s getting there. I can feel it. She just hasn’t read that amazing book that will set everything in motion for her. But after the turkey and pumpkin cheesecake were devoured, I told her that once she finished the book, we’d plan a shopping date together, just the two of us ( a little incentive couldn’t hurt, right?).
So Sammy Jo nestled in my favorite over-sized “reading” chair and started reading Hugging The Rock by Susan Taylor Brown. This book has been devoured by many of my middle school reluctant readers so I had faith that it would do the job for Sammy Jo. I watched her expression change from indifferent to engrossed to teary eyed to ……SHE FINISHED THE BOOK! In less than two hours, she read that book from cover to cover. And she loved it. I asked her some questions just to be sure she understood some of the content. She was not only able to answer my questions pertaining to the characters and plot, she spoke eloquently about the challenges the main character faced. And low and behold, as we had our casual book talk, Sammy’s mom quietly snatched the book and began reading it, too.
This positive reading experience gave her the gumption to choose her next book, Fault in Our Stars. She loved this one, too. Now, she’s reading Wonder and has deep empathy for Auggie, the main character.
It took her reading more than a few duds and experimenting with different genres for my niece to finally come to realize what an exhilarating ride reading can truly be when you put your hands on the right book.
And I’m starting to wonder how many shopping sprees and lunch dates this auntie can afford because my prescriptions have created a reading superstar.
At a recent summer BBQ, I chatted with a dear cousin of mine and we reminisced about certain childhood memories. As Charlie recalled some of his experiences, it rekindled in me some long forgotten outings, ones I hadn’t thought of in years. What was special about our conversation was our family bond. Back then, the two of us were at the very same place at the very same time as very young children. We had a common culture, and were blessed to have spent countless hours enjoying the innocence of just being a kid. We used dirty sticks to roast our marshmallows atop a real charcoal grill, built snow forts as we braved the bitter winter cold, and piled into my uncle’s station wagon (you know the kind with the paneled sides and no seat belts) to visit the local ice-cream parlor. Charlie reminded me of the summer vacations we spent at a family dude ranch where we rode horses and waited in anticipation for that big bell to sound telling us lunch was ready.
I can share my childhood stories with anyone who will listen but there’s something about sharing it with a family member who was creating those memories right alongside you. After all these years, Charlie and I still smile as we recollect the fibers of our past where so many positive impressions were made. I know he treasures those times as much as I do.
As adults, my sentimental cousin and I share something else that not everyone possesses. We can still look at life through the lens of a child and capture those feelings of innocent joy, raw pain, and all of those “firsts” you encounter as a youngster. At times, it gets buried as our “grown-up” vision gets in the way but it’s there and comes in handy especially when we need to see life more clearly.
Are you able to see things through the lens of a child?
This weekend I attended the New Jersey SCBWI conference for the very first time. I was absolutely floored by how amazing the entire venue was from the pre-emails I received that were detailed and clear to the very last keynote speaker, the witty and gifted agent John Cusack.
The cohesive bunch of volunteers who organized this event were incredible. Leeza Hernandez, Regional Advisor, was as warm and enveloping as a flannel blanket. And what touched me more than anything was how genuine and giving these ladies were. They sincerely wanted us to have a great time and improve our craft. I can’t begin to imagine how much time and sacrifice was put into creating such a vibrant event. Positively worth the two and a half hour ride.
Every detail was addressed, workshop facilitators were skilled and approachable, keynote speakers were motivating and funny, and food was scrumptious and in great abundance. I’ll need a solid week to process all the helpful tips that were shared so generously.
When you’re writing, it can get pretty lonely. Problems we encounter seem unique to us. But when published authors remark that they are still susceptible to social media distractions, writer’s block, and stale ideas, I suddenly muster my empowerment. Those obstacles that impacted my creative process don't seem as daunting now.
I am thankful for the NJ SCBWI team for being such encouraging cheerleaders!
I usually relish the winter months when I'm forced to stay inside and hibernate for a bit. But I think everyone will agree that Mr. Winter definitely overstayed his welcome this year even for me. This week I was finally able to dust off my birdfeeder and position it right in front of my porch. A perfect spot to watch my sweet feathered creatures feast. As I sit and watch them flit around, I feel at peace. This is one of my favorite "nooks." Except for their harmonious chirping, there is quiet space where I can drift into contemplation, and think without interruption. How many people do you know set aside a block of time every day just to be? No phone, no TV, no conversing with other humans — just time to reflect. It’s probably just as healthy as eating broccoli.
Fifteen minutes nestled in my peaceful nook can probably sustain me for a future two hours spent in my chaotic life —the kind of everyday annoyances that robs you of your inner calm. Like being put on hold with a bank that says they value you as a customer and you’re still hanging on thirty minutes later. Or when your computer has a virus that is so bad, every last one of your files is corrupt. Our fast paced existence has us running on empty, draining us of some simple components in life that are very necessary for sanity.
Do you have a place of your own where you can retreat and feel better even during a horribly stressful day? If not, can you arrange a small space that will make your heart more joyful? Maybe a corner of your yard next to a potted hydrangea? Or a part of your bedroom where there’s a rocking chair and a cluster of photos of some of your favorite people? What would lend itself to a cherished bit of personal space for only you? A serene patterned wall quilt made by your grandmother, a classical piece of music that transports you back to a magical moment in time, or a bergamot scented candle? What would you put in that special corner of your world? Fill your senses with sounds and smells and sights that will refresh your tired soul.
Create a peaceful nook.
I had one particular group of 8th graders who were some of the most reluctant readers I had ever taught. Getting them to read was beyond a challenge. In my remedial reading class, I would usually give them a choice of three novels that I had multiple copies of and have them vote on the one they’d like to read together.
So one morning, after returning back from attending a full day workshop with a librarian who book talked the most current and exciting middle grade novels in existence, you could say I was pumped up. I spoke to my students about one particular book that this man raved about and I have to say my kids were captivated. They wanted to know what happened at the end. Of course never being one to spoil a book’s ending, I told them they’d have to read it.
“Can we read it together?” they asked. I was caught off guard because, quite frankly, I was shocked. They actually wanted to read a book. That book. That “rough around the edges” book. I was tempted to say yes even though I’d probably be out a job. But instead, I went to my principal and asked if I could read it with them. I told him what type of students I was dealing with and how excited they became at the prospect of reading this book with me. He asked for the book. He read it. He returned it. He said YES.
The next day I made my students raise their right hand and repeat after me:
“I promise to read this book without ever complaining no matter how hard some of the parts may be. I will stick with it until the very last page. So help me God."
They were true to their word. And they didn’t ever complain. I take that back. When we didn’t have time to read a chapter of the book some days, they were inconsolable. They also got very angry at me when I didn’t choose them to read a part aloud. We read most of the book as if it were a play so they felt that book come alive before their very eyes. And they LOVED the feeling. Reading wasn’t a passive process any longer. It was real life only in words.
About six years later, one of the 8th grade girls in that class came to Open House for her younger brother. She popped inside my classroom to say hello. We hugged and I asked how she was doing. We reminisced about that reading class she was in. She remembered quite a bit. But what she shared with me next really gave me goosebumps. She said, “Mrs. Calabrese, when we read that book , I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. From that day on, I started to like reading. I never knew that there were books like that.”
I will always be grateful to my principal for providing me with the things I needed to get my kids motivated. Believe me, some of my far- fetched schemes were out there. But he knew that my resistant readers needed to be coaxed out of that dark place where reading was considered a lackluster activity and something they would avoid whenever they could. I thank him for seeing the value of granting permission to read that book with my students —a book that they chose to read.
I remember my first bookmobile experience back in elementary school. Do any of you even recall what that was? Basically our class would go inside a long van with shelves of books inside. We'd file in, eight students at a time, and I would be in my glory as I chose my allotment of titles. I was always relieved when my turn came because I feared that the kids before me would snatch up all the good stories! Carrying my treasures out gave me pure joy. That exciting feeling of taking a book home from my local library still exists for me to this day.