Helen

Let’s Read and Discuss

This was published by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on May 6, 2022, in response to some school districts considering challenges to books that are used in classrooms. I focus on one book, but my concern is wider.

Let’s Read and Discuss

When I was 12 or 13 years old, I read something in the newspaper that caused me to ask my mother what the word “rape” meant. She advised me to look it up in the dictionary, which was not helpful, as the definition included other words I didn’t understand. I know now how lucky I was to be that innocent, but I wish my mother had had a way of answering my question. Today, a mother, or a teacher or other caring adult would be able to say, “Let’s read this book together and talk about it.”

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has been read and loved by millions of teens. Thousands of those readers have written to the author, or quietly waited for a chance to talk with her after a school visit, to say, “The same thing happened to me.” This “same thing” that they are disclosing is sexual assault. Both boys and girls have honest and important conversations with her, and with other caring adults, after reading her book.

I would love to believe that nothing so difficult is happening in our community. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Over the course of the past thirty years, I have met many young people, here and across the country, talking with them about their lives and about books they are reading. I am sometimes invited to help them write about whatever matters most to them, and many young people choose to speak and write truthfully about sex, violence, and the challenges of maintaining good relationships with friends and family—all of which are part of the story Speak so skillfully tells.

In this young adult novel, the main character, Melinda, attends a party just before beginning ninth grade. She is pleased when an older boy pays attention to her, and thinks how great it will be to start high school with a popular boyfriend. This much of the story will be something many of us can remember or relate to. But when an awkward teenage flirtation turns violent, and Melinda is raped, she panics and calls the police, who arrive to break up the party.

So now Melinda begins high school as an outcast—everyone knows she’s the girl who called the police, but no one knows about the assault. She doesn’t really understand it herself, and has no words to tell anyone what happened. Her old friends, her parents, and her teachers (thankfully, with one exception), have no idea why she has suddenly closed down.

It is never easy, and often tragically impossible, for young people to be forthcoming about such things; it is essential that they have a safe way to do so. Reading Speak, and discussing it, can be such a safety valve. Other books also open these important conversations, but Speak is perhaps the best known. It won many awards; it has been made into a movie; and in the 23 years since it was first published, it has become a classic of young adult literature.

When I read about a school district in our community where “Parents in recent months have called for the removal of books they deem inappropriate…” and see that one of those books is Speak, I think of those millions of young readers who have read and loved this book, and of all the honest conversations it has made possible.

We don’t know whose lives have been saved, or might be saved in the future, through reading, writing, and speaking the kinds of truths that this, and other challenged books, allow into the open air. What we do know is that some—many—students need them.

Before a book finds its way into a classroom or school library, it has been vetted by thoughtful adults who understand and care about all students, and who read many books in order to make their recommendations. I have two concerns about the removal of these books:

First, that books may be removed from schools because some parents have requested it, thus  allowing those parents to make a decision not just for their own children, but for all children. (Teachers are already prepared to offer alternatives for children whose parents make such a request.)

My second concern is that school administrators may hear about a book challenge in another district and, perhaps without even reading the book, prevent its inclusion in a classroom or school library, hoping to avoid potential controversy.

Let’s read the books–the entire books, not just a passage that may have offended someone else—and have the courage to enter into whatever conversations they offer us.

New Light for Long-Ago “Failure”

December 14, 2021


In the spring of 1971, I got permission to do my student teaching at a progressive elementary school in London, England. It was based on the concept of the “Integrated Day,” a project-based method of teaching, where students engage in lots of different activities that require a mix of science, social studies, math, reading, writing, and art, as well as lots of sharing of what they are learning.

The classrooms in that school were messy and noisy and effective and I loved it. On the basis of that experience, I was hired for my first teaching job, in Hingham, Massachusetts the following fall. But when I tried to create the kind of classroom I envisioned, my enthusiasm was met with resistance I wasn’t yet strong/ brave/ smart enough to meet, and under considerable pressure, I resigned in mid-October. I’ve always thought of it (felt it) as a personal failure, not entirely my fault, but not a good foundation on which to launch a teaching career. In the years since, I’ve been a successful teacher and writer, and that first feeling of failure has faded. I’m left with good memories of the children I taught and the community of Hingham, and I sometimes wonder about who those children have grown to be.

Then, the other day, I opened an email from one of the 6th graders in that class, asking if I was the Helen Frost she remembered. When I confirmed that I am, she wrote an amazing email to me, remembering my brief time in that classroom:

“I loved the way you dressed. I loved your enthusiasm! I knew you cared deeply for all of us! I was heartbroken when you left! … you made an impact that I will always cherish! You gave me so much!”

She remembered that I rode my bike to school and that I once came to her home for dinner. (I had let the parents know I’d welcome such invitations, and many of them did invite me.)

I’m touched and grateful that this long-ago student sought me out 50 years later to let me know she had become a teacher, and that she remembered me with such warm affection. (I haven’t asked her to describe the way I dressed…hmmm, it was 1971, I can imagine.)

My wish for you, for all of us, this season is: May all our failures be fruitful! We really have no way of knowing whose lives we may have touched, and how we are remembered.

April 12, 2021

Spring flowers are everywhere and it’s National Poetry Month, so there is plenty of beauty to be seen and appreciated all around me. I planted new bulbs last fall and they are blooming now,  joining the annual parade of crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, tulips–iris and peonies will arrive a little later, and lilies later still. Over the years, I’ve come to know which ones to expect each week as spring progresses.

And we are at last, I hope, beginning to emerge from this long year of Covid restrictions and cancellations. I’m optimistically planning for events a year from now, looking forward to gathering with other writers, with friends and family.

Not so happy is the news from friends in Myanmar/Burma. People are suffering under a military government that forcefully took power just before the democratically elected government would have been sworn in. Because we have friends there, we hear first hand reports of brutality against citizens who dare to protest. Children, poets, journalists, and students are among those who have been detained and killed. It is difficult to know what actions or words are helpful, beyond assurances that “we see you.”

Bluebirds came in early January, and are still here, looking now for nesting sites. This is the longest time we have seen them at our feeders. So far, they are unsuccessful in fending off the “hosp” or house sparrows for the birdhouses we have put up. Someone suggested ways of making the birdhouses inhospitable to sparrows, and I wondered if that pun was intended.

 

January 16, 2021 Award News!

I opened my email on Wednesday morning and found a message from Deborah Stevenson telling me that ALL HE KNEW is the winner of the 2021 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Such wonderful news: a committee of three people whose opinion I value greatly had decided that I was the winner of an award that has been given, over the past 40 years, to many other books I admire. I was awed that this committee had placed me and my book into that company.

It was a secret for a little while, and that was lovely. It gave me time to sit quietly with the news and with the book. I wonder if other authors do this: I read the book from beginning to end, including the jacket flaps, the copyright page, the story itself, right through to the last acknowledgment–thinking about each person who had helped bring the book into being, about Maxine and her brother, and their mother, remembering how I had first been touched by their story. Appreciating the power of poetry, the strength of story. I held the book, and felt, in this affirmation from others, yes, this book holds its own. Isn’t that a beautiful expression? To hold what is your own, to stand in the company of others on solid footing.

It is, for me, a gratitude, a deep calm breathing.

May 26, 2020

What a strange spring this has been, and now it’s summer.

Thank you, teachers, parents, students, friends–everyone who has shifted gears so suddenly and made learning possible these past weeks. I’ve received quite a few letters from children who are reading my books and I’m so glad to see what they notice and tell me about. I’ll share a few excerpts:

Carter writes about SALT, “I love your book! Before we read it, I picked Little Turtle as my famous Hoosier. When I opened up the book I was so excited it took place in Kekionga and with the Miami tribe.”

Marin, also writing about SALT, especially loves the “..small poems included after every section. The poem I love the most is Salt Streaks. I don’t know how to even describe it. It is just amazing. Another small poem I love is The Deer’s Heart because you put the words in a sideways heart. It is sort of sad for the deer though.”

Amalya, writing about HIDDEN, says, “The book you wrote, Hidden, is by far the best book I have ever read. I read this book 5 times. It is written fantastically. I like this book because of how things like this could happen maybe not exactly like this but quite similar. I felt bad for Wren because of the anxiety it put me through. I can’t imagine what she went through; I know it is just a book, but it felt so real. … In the end, I liked how Darra and Wren met again at camp, I think that is what makes this so much better than the other books.”

And Renee, a mom reading HIDDEN with her daughter at home, writes, “I bought the book Hidden for my oldest daughter when she was 11.  She and I both loved it.  Now my littlest daughter is 11.  I love to read books with or before my girls do so I can discuss them.” She had a question about the book and took the time to write to me. I thought that was amazing. What a great example of parent-turned-teacher.

Thank you and congratulations to all the teachers, parents, and students who have made this school year work as well as possible. It’s been hard, I know, and you’ve done it.

As for me, I have enjoyed the time at home, reading, writing, cleaning, gardening, though I miss going out in the wider world as much as I used to. Now that summer is here, I’m seeing flowers and insects and other creatures return as they do every summer. A milkweed plant that popped up near a small rosebush last summer has come back bigger than ever, and I am happy to think of the monarchs on their way to meet it.

My hope for the milkweed and the rosebush is that, like all of us, they will be able to live side-by-side, neither of them overwhelming the other as they bring their gifts to the beautiful world.

I hope you all remain in good health, and that you will have time for leisurely summer reading.

Are You Home?

March 26, 2020

Many of you (teachers, students, librarians, parents, others) are having school at home for a few weeks. It’s not what any of us have planned on, and we are all missing things we were looking forward to. Here are a few ideas of things you might do to keep learning while you are out of school.

Is your library closed? Ours is, and I miss it–I will appreciate it more when it opens again. You can find a lot of stories and information online, and if you have books at home that you have already read,  you may be able to trade books with friends so you all have books that are new to you.

And this may be a great time to write stories and poems of your own and share them with others (or keep them in a private journal). Here are a few ideas of things to write about:

*What is happening outdoors?

If you live in a city, is it quieter than usual? What do you hear that you’re not used to hearing?

If you have a place to observe nature, keep a journal of one tree or smaller plant–on what date do you see buds of leaves or flowers? On what date do the leaves fully open? How about the flowers? What insects live on or near the plant? Do they crawl, or fly, or both? Do you ever see birds or animals near the plant? What is their relationship with it?

*What is happening indoors?

Do you have parents at home? Sisters and brothers? Pets? Write down conversations or other interactions you may have with them. Do you have grandparents you can talk to? Ask them to tell you about something that happened in the news before you were born. What questions do you have about it? Someday your children or grandchildren may ask you what this pandemic was like–imagine what questions they might ask, and write down your answers. Save them–they’ll be interesting to read in a few years.

A friend recently sent me some letters I wrote to her about 30 years ago, and it was fun to “meet” my younger self. She (younger me) made me laugh and think about things I hadn’t thought about for a long time. And “she” shared a joke that my son told when he was in elementary school. Maybe it will be new to you and you can share it with people in your house (or save it for when you go back to school and everyone is excited about being together again):

What do you call something that sits on the ocean floor and shakes?

Think about it for a minute, and then if you give up, scroll down for the answer.

 

 

 

a nervous wreck

Trip to Myanmar

friends in Mawlamyine

with friends in Myanmar

January 22, 2020

 

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Myanmar (Burma), and have recovered from jet lag. It is a long trip, but so well worth the time and effort.

My city, Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a Friendship City with Mawlamyine, and this is the third time I have been there. The friendships we have established are substantial, especially among the students and university faculty who have spent time in the two cities.

On this trip, after one week in Mawlamyine, we stayed for another week to learn more about other places in the country we had heard so much about (Bagan, Pindaya, Inle Lake, Yangon).

Bagan is a place of beauty–old pagodas in a landscape that glows in the evening light, a newly built monastery made of petrified wood, a laquerware workshop–I’ll try to update this entry with more details and photographs soon. I want to write more about all the places we visited and people we met.

For now, I am preparing for the launch of Blue Daisy in just a few weeks, and reading through galleys of All He Knew. This will be an exciting year!

 

Walking to School

August 25, 2019

I love this time of year, as summer days grow cooler, and monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises and head south. I think back to my childhood in Brookings, South Dakota, where this turn of the seasons meant “back to school.” And that meant walking to school with sisters and friends. We walked through an alley where, for some reason, a huge bell had been abandoned. We named the bell “Old Nellie” and we’d ring it and run away before anyone could come out and yell at us. We also kept an eye out for “the chasers” a group of boys about our age who liked to chase us, but rarely caught up with us. There was a  lot of teasing banter between the boys and the girls, and I wasn’t very good at it.

“Hey, look, Frost is wearing her big brother’s raincoat,” taunted one of the boys.

“I don’t have a big brother,” I shot back.

“Oh, your father had it when he was a little boy?”

I definitely lost that one–I hated the raincoat to begin with, and that just confirmed how awful it was.

These memories of the streets and alleys on our way to school came to mind as I imagined the landscape of Blue Daisy. I now have Advance Readers’ Copies, and I love how Rob Shepperson has depicted the community and the place so that it feels both contemporary and nostalgic.

Blue Daisy will come out as an audiobook, published by Recorded Books, and maybe some readers will listen to it as they follow along with a print copy so they can enjoy the delightful illustrations.