Personal posts by public historian, Rose O'Keefe
Summer Weather Escapes
Some part of my brain is going nuts wanting to read, read and read everything I can. A reaction to what’s been going on in the world lately? A helpful and useful escape? Whatever the reasons, I’ve read two more chapters of How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence. This book is always a surprise and the chapters Tomorrow Is Not Promised by Charlie Brown, and The Dream Club’s Chief Dreamer by Colleen F. Sheehan are uplifting. Thank you so much for letting your words be put on paper for strangers far and wide to read. Then I made the decision to start the Canterbury Classics set of Charles Dickens Four Novels (2019), starting with Oliver Twist. Just the introduction to this was so impressive and the first few chapters so enticing, I thought I’d plow through it in a hurry. No. This is another one to take one bite at a time.
Between KIDLIT411 and SCBWI, I have more books suggestions than I can keep up with, but I’m willing to give it a go. The Whole HOLE Story by Vivian McInerny (2021) is so imaginative it’s a surprise and a delight. Muon Thi Van’s wishes (2021) has the distinction of being a beautifully-illustrated story told in 75 words. The longing for no longer needing to wish for a safe and happy home rings a universal chord.
And then there’s another fast and fun read from the great, late Richard Peck. His honesty, characters and setting in Ghosts I’ve Been (1977) plus the fantastical other-worldly plot twists made this a perfect read for a muggy summer day. But the painful honesty in Are You Alone in the House? (1976) was a punch in the throat. The topic of disbelieving victims and favoring well-heeled abusers is not new. I don’t want to know what triggered this painful story, but oddly enough, it matches Oliver Twist’s cries for help from his abductors that no one took seriously.
#amreading; #ownvoices; #SCBWI; #KIDLIT411;
How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence is one of those books I keep by my bed to digest slowly. I recently read the interview, Death Is Contagious by Max Cerda. His story is so open, honest and uplifting that I was glad I did. Next was, Unanswered Prayers by Pamela Montgomery-Bosley who worked full-time at a youth center, and was the founder of Purpose Over Pain, a group for parents who lost their children to violence. Despite her painful story, her voice is strong and clear. A Twig In A Tornado is by Timothy Clark who decided to turn his life around by attending the Community Youth Development Institute, an alternative school in South Side Chicago. These collaborative stories definitely give me hope.
Then I took a first look at One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes (2017) that I bought on my book-buying spree after the SCBWI conference. What a heart-warming beginning. The Preface, introduction to the Harlem Renaissance, Author’s Note and Poetry Form led me into a good place – her mind as she heeded the words of someone who valued her worth when she was young. This one’s going to be good.
The Iroquois, The Six Nations Confederacy in the American Indian Nation series, by Mary Englar (2016) had a satisfying blend of truthful information, colorful illustrations and side bars. Its five chapters were well-paced and gave an overall view of traditional life before and after the arrival of Europeans in a way that did not glamorize or romanticize the culture. What a relief.
While researching possible agents for some of my works, I’ve come across wish lists for certain topics by underrepresented voices. Sometime they mention writers with disabilities and I cringe at the thought of labeling myself that way. And yet, as a survivor of childhood me-too, I have struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life. Every now and then I get a reminder that I am neuro-divergent -- not a phrase that I can relate to. What’s a better way to phrase that without falling into conventional put-downs? Medically I’ve been described as hyper-sensitive to temperature change, which this summer means I’m a functioning adult when the temperature is around 75, a breeze is blowing and the humidity is low. All I can say is it’s a good thing I have a strong prayer routine. Also, having tri-focals and 2 sets of reading glasses has become so normal, that I’ve forgotten that I never needed them when I was younger.
#amreading; #ownvoices; #SCBWI;
Colorful Local History
It's Not the Heat
Rochester’s Public Market is one of my favorite places in the whole world, and Saturday I went at 9 a.m. for a quick shop. The heat and humidity must have increased just as I got there and I quickly felt awful. I managed to shop, but didn’t have energy for anything for the rest of the day. My solution? I rested and read Peas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis (2016) all afternoon. Finished it and am glad I did. Again, the author’s story added such a good dimension of reality to the well-paced story of two foster sisters. I don’t remember who recommended it, but I’m glad I placed it on hold from the library.
One of my favorite lines from the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, about the Olympic Jamaican Bobsled Team, is when the John Candy characters tells the team as it arrives in a freezing, snowy airport, “It’s not heat, it’s the humidity.” (Actually that is totally true in winter too.)
Still taking it easy on a humid Saturday, in the evening, I decided to read one of my post-SCBWI conference book buys: A Modern Retelling of Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, A Graphic Novel by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo (2019). What a great surprise! The graphics were colorful and inviting, the NYC/Brooklyn setting was appealing, the modernization worked for me with all its twists and curves away from the original story. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
In the shade, with a breeze, I’m fine and I know it. #amreading; #ownvoices; #SCBWI;
Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, (1942/1991) is one of those books that seemed too short and left me looking for more – as in, what – it’s over? Her second version of “My People, My People” was so different from the first – much more specific and longer that I was tempted to print them out for a paragraph-by-paragraph comparison. But she killed a darling from the first one that I really liked. “Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them.” I was also impressed with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s commentary, because as a huge Finding Your Roots fan, it felt like I was touching history through his words. Maybe the chronology is in other texts of hers because it seemed familiar, but I read it more than once, longing for clues that would bring her to life on the page.
In the meantime, I attended the marvelous online Big FIVE-OH SCBWI conference and took in as much information as I could soak up. One of the sessions moved be to get to a bookstore for comp titles for a MG historical fiction story that I’ve re-written as a graphic novella. After looking over several sections, I came to the conclusion that my graphic history book doesn’t exist as such, yet. YET. Capstone’s 2019 modern retelling of Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, as a graphic novel comes close. While very good in its own right, the 2014 WHOHQ, Who Was Frederick Douglass? has by my quick scan, in a 106 pp. paperback, about 3 sentences on his family – the topic of mine. The American Indian Nations 2003/2016 revised The Iroquois, The Six Nations Confederacy has an attractive format, even though not a graphic novel. HWOWH’s Who Was Harriet Tubman, (2002/2016/2019) has reader-friendly layout and illustrations that I like. And Nikki Grimes’ One Last Word (2017) is a just-because purchase. #amreading; #SCBWI;
Stepping Back In Time
What a surprise to finish an edition of fables illustrated by Charles H. Bennett dissatisfied with the experience only to start Twenty Four Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists, with illustrations from etchings of Marcus Gheeraerts the elder. This 1931 volume has the aura of olden days. Gheeraerts was a freeman of the Painters’ Guild in Bruges in 1558 and the plates selected plates were from 120 of his that were published in Bruges in 1567. They were very popular because of their skillful portrayals of animals and Flemish life. Sir Roger L’Estrange translated the fables into English. He was a Royalist who spent four years in an English prison from which he escaped and then fled to Holland. Eventually, back in England, he was put in charge of printing presses, printers and vendors of books and papers, for which he had a monopoly over writing, printing, or publishing news or advertisements.
Meanwhile, I got a reminder from my branch library that the copy of Sapiens, A Graphic History Vol. 1 (2020), which I had requested a month ago, finally arrived. The notice came just as I waded through the end of the book and wondered what Harari would have say about the state of the world today. Since Sapiens was first printed in Hebrew in 2011 and in English in 2014, I was curious about his updates. I finished the graphic novel in two sittings. It is fascinating and so much easier on the brain than the full text and yes, he holds humans accountable for the messes we’ve made. Assuming there’s a second volume, I’m looking forward to it.
Harari’s earlier book has several thought-provoking charts and statistics. Using data from 2000 about causes of death, he cites that 1.5% of deaths worldwide were due to wars and some form of violence; 2.25% were from car accidents; and 1.45% were from suicides. Having just seen the movie Roadrunner, the documentary about the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, I am grateful for the movie’s going public with the topic of suicide, and Harari’s including it too.
Voices from the Past
Where did the time go? I’m still moving through Sapiens, and finished one volume of a 1931 illustrated edition of The Fables of Aesop. I don’t remember what prompted me to take these out of the library, but this version was not as charming as what I remember from grade school. The illustrations are also snarky.
A while ago, I ordered a free copy of How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, third edition, edited by Miles Harvey. To say this collection of heart-breaking stories and inspiring reactions is thought-provoking, is an understatement. The honesty is both painful and refreshing. The projects that have grown out of personal and community tragedies are worth learning from. This is another one that is not a fast read, but well worth digesting slowly.
Also, a month ago, I bought a copy of Dover Coloring Book on Frederick Douglass by Gary Zaboly (2014) and was eager to see what I would learn from it. The good news is that most of the information is good or good enough. The downside is that an illustration of cabin life made me think more of someone like Daniel Boone that Frederick Douglass, and the item about Douglass campaigning for vice president with Victoria Woodhull as president in 1872, is to the best of my knowledge, inaccurate. Woodhull may have wanted him as her running mate, but he was too busy campaigning for Grant to reply.
No Pop Quiz
My latest rounds of take-out from the library included The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park (2021). Got to admit, sometimes I want to race through a book to the end and I couldn’t do that with this one. I rushed through to see what others would save because I couldn’t decide what I would take. To my surprise, when I read the Author’s Note, I wanted to re-read it, and did. This is a such a surprising little book. Since family and pets are safe, the only thing I could come up with is a thumb drive of history images. There’s no pop quiz. I can still think about it.
I was doing some research and came across Clare Beaton, whom I didn’t know. So I got her Little Observers Go Camping, 2021, a delightful colorful board book. The Ocean Craft Book and The Nature Craft Book (both 2019) have good information and colorful illustrations that this adult thoroughly enjoyed, and crafts – so timely for stay-at-home students.
Joan Gannij and Beaton’s Elusive Moose (2006) and Hidden Hippo (2003) and Laurel Dee Gugler and Beaton’s There’s a Billy Goat in the Garden (2003) have friendly texts and marvelous decoupage illustrations that are a pleasure to read and look at. What a wonderful child-friendly world in There’s a Cow in the Cabbage Patch (2001). What terrific expressions on the various animals’ faces!
This was the first time I walked to the branch library without calling ahead for an appointment. Yes, I put on a mask outside the door and had my temp scanned inside. Even so, what a small triumph to pay an overdue fine and get all my books in person. Our strange new normal.
It may look like gardening is going to put a crimp in my reading quota, but not too much. Holly Goldberg Sloan’s counting by 7s (2013) is an engrossing story of misfits in Bakersfield, California. The plot twists kept me going to the marvelous feel-good ending.
Forward: a memoir by Abby Wambach (2016) is the kind of book that I wish were mandatory reading in high school. Let’s tell the truth about the price of competition. Well done!
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) is hardly a cheerful story since it follows three teens with varying degrees and kinds of cancers. It is so well written though, I stayed with it to the end.
A few weeks ago, I had to pause from reading One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson (2017). This is another book to digest in smaller doses. I took it with me on vacation and it was too hot and humid to do much outdoors for three days. What a perfect time to tackle the story of a boy in Senegal who faces one hurdle after the next with guidance from his deceased parents. The setting and characters are authentic, but I was blown away by the staggering information on street orphans in the Author’s Note. What a punch. Didn’t see it coming and I can see why some stories take so long to work their way onto the page.
Another one that took a long time for the author to write and for me to read is the winged seed, a remembrance by Li-Young Lee (2013). The combination of highly-personal stream of consciousness writing with painful family history made for slow reading. It took me over a year to tread through this one. I have been criticized as a writer for taking too long to get to the point of specific details. His thinking is convoluted and the details are so horrible, I can understand why he takes his time to spill them in dribs and drabs. The family history he shares is so painful, it is a testament to his personal courage to have succeeded in giving words to unspeakable acts. I felt humbled and grateful his effort.
Another Binge-read Afternoon
I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling disoriented by the shift to a strange new normal. Besides some tasty snacking, reading is my favorite way to handle things. The weekly lists from Kidlit411 are to blame for ordering books by the same author and binge reading after coming home from the library.
Audrey Penn was someone I wasn’t familiar with and I read The Kissing Hand (1993 and 2006) a touching and beautifully illustrated story about Chester, a young raccoon afraid of going to school; A Pocket Full of Kisses (2006) has Chester learning to adjust to the presence of his baby brother and learning there is more than enough love to go around; in A Kiss Goodbye (2007) Chester’s family of Mom and baby brother have to leave their tree home for a new location. Gorgeous illustrations soften the reality of their neck of the woods being slated to be cut down.
Sassafras (1995) shows how animal friends teach a young skunk to accept his unique trait and relax. Much as I enjoyed the marvelous illustrations, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by the charming fantasy of all kinds of baby animal playing together. In Chester the Brave (2012) our little racoon wants life to stay cozy and safe to avoid the new and scary step of reciting his lessons at school. The beautiful images soften the tension of trying something new.
An Irish Night Before Christmas by Sarah Kirwan Blazek (1995) offers an upbeat and off-the-wall take on an Irish Father Christmas and his seven elves.. Definitely original and funny.
Years ago, I knew a different version of the traditional song, Today Is Monday in New York (2011) adapted by Johnette Downing. The rhymes and pacing work most of the time, but the words paired with marvelous collages of a growing picnic and foods are truly striking.
Silly Frilly Grandma Tillie by Laurie Jacobs (2012) is one of a kind. This well-worn library book must be popular. The things that happen when Grandma babysits her granddaughters are zany, whacky and fun.
There are two Snow Days: one by WNY author Peggy Thomas from 2008, a delightful tribute to the joy of playing in the snow and forgetting all the to-dos. The other, by Leslie Evans from 1997, is a reminder of simpler, more innocent times. Some of the rhymes are truly fun.
F Is for Firefighting by Dori Hillestad Butler (2009) is an impressive A-Z primer about the work that firefighters do and the tools they use. Honestly, it’s a real page-turner and I couldn’t wait to find out what she had for Z. Strong, clear illustrations add to the text.
Sometimes in order not to overdo, I need keep myself quietly busy. Thank heavens for so many good books.
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley (2015) had me hooked from the beginning. Good names, setting, surprises, wonderful illustration. What an imaginative story about a boy, his dying grandfather and grouchy aunt. I read it (292 pp. easy-size print) in one afternoon and evening.
The Magic in Changing Your Stars by Leah Henderson (2020) is enchanting. The layout, the story, the setting and characters are both familiar – parents, Grandpa, boy and students. They’re also portrayed so as to be believable and entertaining and the MC character’s challenge to get over brain freeze takes a surprising twist to another time. The outcome in one time zone is moving beyond words. The final outcome is a delightful surprise.
Fish in a Tree by Lunda Mullaly Hunt (2015) is an astounding drop into the mindset of a brilliant girl who can’t read. The way she thinks but can’t speak up and how she makes friends in the jumble of a new class are well told. This has painful truths and in this case, things work out marvelously well. I can’t think of how many really smart people I know who don’t thrive in a conventional classroom. Makes me want to shout from the rooftops!
Sorry to say, after reading three of Jess Keating’s impressive NF Shark Lady, Ocean Speaks and Eat Your Rocks, Croc, I couldn’t make the switch to her fiction for young readers like How to Outrun a Crocodile. No biggie. So many books, only so much time.
I finally finished 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (2011). What an amazing re-write of conventional history! I understand the need to tell the complete story. His four appendices are as good as the rest of the book. The bibliography is 60 pages – yikes, all in that small print!
Just because I spend too much time on the computer and it’s been too cool for gardening, I’ve been reading a lot. Here’s the latest batch:
Together We March by Leah Henderson (2021): this is a remarkable and disturbing illustrated collection of activists from 1905 to 2018, from the United States and around the world. Part of me wishes this book didn’t need to be written; part of me is glad it was. Much as I love to rush through a good read, this one took several sittings to digest.
Dark Was The Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars, by Gary Golio (2020): What a beautiful story, so well told and illustrated. I have yet to listen to the Johnson’s recording that was selected for the Golden Record message to the Universe from Planet Earth that was included on Voyager I in 1977. Just reading about it was inspiring.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed The Ocean’s Biggest Secret: by Jess Keating (2020): This is both a wonderfully illustrated and told story of the woman who mapped the deepest mountains in the oceans. Despite constant pressure not to go into the sciences, she never gave up. In the face of rejection and disbelief she found a way to let her talents speak for themselves.
Eat Your Rocks, Croc: Dr. Glider’s Advice for Troubled Animals by Jess Keating (2020) is a delightful way to learn little-known facts about the animal world. It is a perfect break.
Mamie On The Mound: A Woman in Baseball’s Negro Leagues by Leah Henderson (2020) is another marvelous example of little-known stories coming to light. This one’s about Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, who was such a good pitcher that at age 19, she and a few other women traveled around the country for several years with the Indianapolis Clowns, a men’s team in the Negro Leagues. Amazing!
Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating (2017): here’s another remarkable true story about a young girl who never gave up on learning everything she wanted to know about sharks. Clark died at age 92 in 2015. How I wish I’d learned about her sooner.
Forward: My Story by Abby Wambach (2016): An honest story with good-sized print got me through this page turner in one sitting.
FYI, I read all but Together in one afternoon. Better than a box of chocolates. A 1,000 and 1 thank-yous to Monroe County Public Library for so many books to choose from at the touch of the keyboard. This was the first time in over a year in which I checked out my books at the front desk at the F. D. Community branch library. (5.14.2021) Such odd progress, right?
More on tell the truth
More on 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. It is a slow but compelling read. Out of the ten-thousand-and-one facts listed, I keep going back to one. In May 1539 when Hernando de Soto landed near Tampa Bay, Florida, he arrived with 600 soldiers, 200 horses and 300 pigs. The soldiers built barges and crossed the Mississippi River near (today’s) Memphis. De Soto and his soldiers were the first to glimpse pre-contact native North America. They were also the first Europeans in the area for over 100 years.
In 1682, when Robert Cavelier de La Salle traveled down the Mississippi, fifty settlements noted in De Soto’s day had shrunk to ten. By the time de la Salle arrived, disease had wiped countless natives out. How? Small pox and measles would have wiped out De Soto’s soldiers as well. It was the pigs.
In keeping with the theme of “Tell the truth and shame the devil” The Water Is Wide, is Pat Conroy’s account of his year teaching on Yamacraw Island, S. C. His own growth from a dyed-in-the-wool conventional thinker about race to a staunch advocate for the lowliest of the low is heart-wrenching and heart-warming.
I love good reads like Gary Paulsen’s fiction and non-fiction. Once I start certain books though, I feel compelled to finish them. One of those slow reads is Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925, by Brian Roberts. The beginning of the book seemed so bawdy, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Then it shifted. If you’ve ever decried the sexualization of advertising to change the public’s mind, it begins here. It is a sobering read.
Another is America’s First Frontier: New York’s Pioneers and Their Fight for Freedom, by Francis Whiting Halsey. The Halsey name has local connections around Trumansburg and Rochester, NY, so I wanted to find out what the author had to say. This book was first published in 1901. The reprint in 2020 is by HVA Press in Warwick, NY. I checked, and it’s near the New Jersey state line. While I have been open to versions of history written with a strong slant, this one tested my open-mindedness because it is so pro-Protestant preaching in the Mohawk region. It is also anti-native, and lists lots of settlers whose names mean little now unless you have a strong interest. Even so, Halsey wrote a remarkable tribute to Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. I also kept wishing for a map.
As for a third, I’m still treading through 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. What an amazing re-write of conventional history! I understand the need to tell the complete story-but. At over 400 pages, with small print, this one is tough on the eyes and I need to take it in small doses.
Time to Heal
I’ve just finished three books about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African Woman to win a Nobel Prize, in 2004. The first book, Wangari Muta Maathai, (2018) in the How I Changed the World series, is a MG biography that I thought would be a fast, easy and cheerful. What a wake-up call about the challenges, setbacks and hardships she faced. The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (2003) was more of a manual detailing the ten steps toward creating working tree nurseries to empower rural women and men to reclaim their deforested lands. The third, Unbowed: A Memoir (2006) is a dense and at times disturbing account of her unrelenting path towards democracy, dignity and equality first for her beloved rural Kenyans and then beyond. The environmental effect colonization wrought across Africa contrasts badly with Maathai’s family's traditional links to the land. It made me think of what colonization did all across North and South America. It’s time to heal in so many ways.
My second appearance on the Carla Murphy Show
Appearance on Carla Murphy Show
Hello, History Friends,
I recently had the pleasure of speaking on The Carla Murphy Show Uniquely Different
On The Personal Side Part 2
My heroes: Joan of Arc, a Pacific Islander girl Karana and her dog Rontu, and Martin de Porres.
I used to read comic books like Archie and Veronica, Superman but between 1957 and 1961, I read French Catholic comic books of the lives of the saints. That’s how Joan of Arc, patron saint of France, became my shero.
For my 10th birthday I received a copy of The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and kept it for years, weeping every time I read it.
A biography of Martin de Porres touched me deeply. He was a lay monk who lived in 16th-century Lima and is the patron saint of mixed-race people and those who seek racial justice. He’s a life-long hero.
I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott several summers in a row, and Anne of Green Ga
On The Personal Side Part 1
Family Facts: Three sisters and three brothers, one son and one daughter; one grandson and one granddaughter.
My husband and I have had four dogs and about 10 cats. I’ve kept a compost pile for 45 years.
Favorite books from when I was a girl:
Anderson’s Fairy Tales and Peter Rabbit
Several of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables