Wednesday, January 26, 2022



by Kara Stewart

The words are stuck



somewhere in my throat, all jagged points 


into soft inner


They won’t come out

They aren’t even the right ones

They are only the most used, most familiar, after decades of 


the dictionary,

the language

They are sloppy, rough 


slapped onto deep wounds

Instead of 

tiny, delicate stitches made with exactly



thread and exactly 




My brain wracks, trembles, groans

to find the delicate stitches,

the right thread;

stomps and storms in


at words trundled in its



I can smell them,


Saturday, January 15, 2022

Who Are You?

The barn is on fire. Blazing flames wallop out of the open double doors in front; they shoot jagged golden triangles through the small upper window used to haul hay. They send spiraling sparks into the night sky. Red paint, already weathered and worn from years of sun and rain, peels its final layers into red and black curls of charred embers and slides down the wooden siding. 

Who are you?

Do you lead the horse through the barn doors to safety, emerging from the smoke and flames into the cold night air? Do you whisper soothingly into its mane as it dances sideways, feeling the heat of the flames on its flanks? Does smoke lift off your sweater; do sparks crackle in your hair? Did you hastily throw your jacket over the horse’s eyes when you reached its stall because you knew it would panic if it saw the flames rising closer, closer? 

Who are you?

Are you whickering nervously as unnatural heat grazes your flanks? Do your eyes roll in fear, nostrils widen as you smell acrid smoke, see the flames shooting skyward? You want to bolt. You cannot. You are trapped. You scream and toss your head. You dance sideways. Dark softness is tossed over your eyes and wrapped around your head. In the dark, you can breathe. As long as you do not see the flames of reality, as long as you are helped to ignore them, you can be coaxed to move. 

Who are you?

Are you on the hill outside the barn, under the stars, mouth open in horror, eyes reflecting sharp yellow flames? Do you hug your arms around yourself, not trusting what you see to be true? Do you stare in silent shock at the ones shouting directions that are unheard, unheeded, unnecessary? 

Do you shout directions: unheard, unheeded, unnecessary?

Who are you?

Are you frantically lined from barn to farmhouse, passing thimbles of water to throw on the two-story wall of flames? Do you snatch each bucket with furious speed and shove it to the next in line, water sloshing over the top? Does your adrenaline pump so full and fast that you barely feel your arms, your hands, for the millisecond they grip each heavy bucket? Do you move through the horror with desperate, defeated action while a corner of your mind, the corner you keep hidden even from yourself, knows these Herculean efforts will not stop the barn from ending up a smoldering heap tomorrow?

Who are you?

Are you in the house, calling 911, making redolent pots of strong coffee and keeping the children safely inside? Do you soothe and shush the littlest ones and tell them, "Go back to bed, everything is fine." It is a lie, you know it as you say the words but you tell yourself they will believe. Do you take towels out of the linen closet and stack them by the sinks? Pace back and forth because you still don’t hear the rescue sirens coming to put the fire in your beloved barn out for good? Where is the fire engine, where is the fire engine, you wonder. Why aren’t they coming? What is taking so long?

Who are you?

Did you sneak out of the back door into the night that should be black but is lit up like a permanent firecracker? Are you crouching down, watching in your thin pajamas, shivering, unseen, hugging your dog's warm familiarity close? Are the flames oddly beautiful as their bright sparks circle into the black sky? Can you hear the whoosh from the force of the fire pushing out of the barn? Do you wonder if anyone else hears it? No one does. Just you. Always just you. You shiver and pull your friend closer, not from fear of the flames, but from cold.

Who are you?

Do you stay close to your human as she slips from her bed and sneaks out the back door? Do you sit next to her, pushing your strong shoulder blade into her to steady her? Do you give her cheek a quick lick and settle into her lap to warm her as she pulls you in? Do you smell the smoke, hear the whoosh from the force of the fire and know you must stay with your small human? But she is a smart girl. She will not go near the flames. Not this kind anyway. 

Who are you?

Do the flames burn through you like hell’s own dragon? Do they shoot out your eyes, razing everything within, from the most delicate, soft pink mousling heart nests to rough, rusty saw blades hanging on your walls? Do the flames destroy you from the inside out? Will they be the end of you and all you held dear in your comfortable sheltering walls? Do they destroy those within and those without, all in different measure? Do you burn with fury, knowing you will be a pile of rubble tomorrow, wisping white smoke rising from your belly? 

Who are you?

Does the tip of your cigarette flare red as you breathe it to life? Do you toss your lighter across the ditch, into the frosty field, far from your rusty pick up? Do you open the creaking door, climb into the cab, and take a couple of cranks to start the engine? You look in your rearview mirror across the fields and hills at the glowing roar of the barn through the darkness, shrinking to a pinprick as you drive away, billows of white exhaust lingering behind you. Do you grunt in satisfaction? Or dismiss that chapter without a second thought?

Who are you?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Summer Is For Reading! Apple in the Middle

Apple in the Middle, Dawn Quigley's debut novel, is a Young Adult (I'd say young YA or even upper MG) coming of age story whose main character is Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, just like the author.

Publisher's Synopsis:
"Apple Starkington turned her back on her Native American heritage the moment she was called a prairie nigger-a racial slur for someone of white and Indian descendance-not that she really even knows how to be an Indian in the first place. Too bad the white world doesn't accept her either. After her wealthy father gives her the boot one summer, Apple reluctantly agrees to visit her Native American relatives on the Turtle Mountain (North Dakota) Indian Reservation for the first time. It should have been easy, except that she makes all kinds of mistakes as she deals with the culture shock of Indian customs and the Native Michif language, while trying to find a connection to her dead mother. She also has to deal with a vengeful Indian man, Karl, who has a violent, granite-sized chip on his shoulder because he loved her mother in high school but now hates Apple because her mom married a white man. As Apple meets her Indian relatives this summer, she finds that she just may have found a place to belong. One by one, each character-ranging from age five to eighty-five-teaches her, through wit and wisdom, what it means to be a Native person, but also to be a human being while finding her place in the world. Apple shatters Indian stereotypes and learns what it means to find her place in a world divided by color."
Apple in the Middle

Remember those days of junior high (dating myself here, I should say middle school, perhaps) when so many of us felt completely socially inept and were the biggest misfits ever? That's Apple, the main character. Socially awkward kids - no matter their personal race or culture - will welcome reading about someone just as awkward. 

Additionally, Apple's identity struggle is something Native kids (and adults!) will relate to. Identity issues (a result of 500 years of non-Natives telling Natives what they are or aren't, which is in conflict with what Natives really are or aren't) are a big player in Native psyches and have many ramifications, and can be magnified when the person is mixed race or biracial, as is Apple. 
Apple says, "I call it the Ping-Pong effect because you’re the ball, and nobody ever wants you in their space. Have you ever felt like that? Never really belonging anywhere, but trying your darndest to run between two lives only to find you’re always stuck in the middle.”
Yes, Apple, yes, I have felt like that. All my life.

For elementary teachers or parents, although I can't find an official guided reading level on this book, I'd put it at about a T, definitely within the grasp of 4th or 5th grade classroom libraries. You can also use it to follow or teach character development. But its highest use for you will be to read it yourself. It will help inform so many other things you do around Native people for the rest of your teaching career (keeping in mind that there are well over 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. and many state-recognized tribes also, and that this is a story from one of those tribes). You will gain insight into some common Native issues as well as learn about the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe through informative sections sprinkled throughout the book. 

As Jean Mendoza points out in her review of Apple in the Middle on American Indians in Children's Literature, there are also several other recent #OwnVoices books that you should read with that same goal of informing your teaching, such as Cynthia Leitich Smith's Hearts Unbroken and the graphic novel series, Pemmican Wars, by Katherena Vermette

For middle school or high school teachers or parents, I'd echo the same highest use and further reading, and additionally challenge you to include your learning from this book in your American History and other related Social Studies Essential Standards. I would go into detail, but just now, reading over my state's NC Essential Standards, I am so disgusted at how we are left out that I can't bring myself to list the million ways you could infuse courses with accurate content about Native people. Disclaimer: I'm Native (Sappony), in case you didn't know. But why should that matter or change anything I just said?

We need so many more books like Apple in the Middle. I look forward to Dawn Quigley's next books!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Summer Is For Reading! A Wave Came Through Our Window

Wow. A Wave Came Through Our Window (2015) by Zetta Elliott is a book that teachers will want to make sure to use as a fabulous mentor text for teaching writing.

Not only is this text a perfect fit for teaching 'small moments' in writing (particularly fits well with that in the Lucy Calkins' Writing Units of Study), but is phenomenal as examples to illustrate author's word choice.

Through engaging characters that our brown students can relate to, this book will help you show students by example how to hone in on that small, meaningful moment to write about. The author didn't choose to write about an entire summer and how hot it was; she chose to hone in on what one summer night in their hot apartment was like. And not just one night in their apartment, but one night at bedtime!

If you or your school uses Jennifer Serravallo's Writing Strategies book, this fits perfectly with Goal 4: Focus/Meaning. Within Goal 4, you may want to use this as a mentor text for Strategy 4.5: Write About a Pebble or 4.6: Zoom In On A Moment of Importance.

You'll also definitely want to use this book as a mentor text for Author's Craft. In Jennifer Serravallo's Writing Strategies book, you can see this book fits very well as a mentor text for Goal 6: Elaboration and Goal 7: Word Choice.

Check out those similes, sensory details "... warm and thick ..." and use of rhyme, "...turns and churns..."!

Below are a few more excerpts. See if you can spot the similes, sensory details and alliteration.

Just off the top of my head, I'm thinking Strategy 6.13: Show, Don't Tell: Using Senses to Describe Places from the Serravallo Writing Strategies book, as well as 6.14: Show, Don't Tell: Emotions. You can also definitely find a mentor sentence here to suit your students' needs, as in 6.38: Mentor Sentences.

For Goal7: Word Choice, 7.4: Bring Objects to Life, 7.5 Verbs That Match the Meaning, and definitely 7.8: Sneaky Sounds: Alliteration, Consonance and Assonance.

The more you return to a particular mentor text, the more students (and you!) will understand how that text works and how you can edit your writing by using the mentor text example.

And A Wave Came Through Our Window is just plain darn beautiful descriptive writing you and your kids will love.

I'm getting my copy of this book as soon as I get my first check of the school year. I think you'll want to do the same.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Summer Is For Reading! We Are Grateful Otsaliheliga

Elementary teachers, Traci Sorell's lyrically beautiful, multi-award-winning We Are Grateful Otsaliheliga (2018) is just what you are looking for.

Summary from the author's website:
Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude. Beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. Written by Traci Sorell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and illustrated by Frané Lessac, this nonfiction look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.

UP FRONT NOTE: There are two main federally-recognized Cherokee tribes. Traci Sorell is from the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation and her book is from that setting, perspective and research. Points in her book may vary from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' culture and history here in North Carolina. Oklahoma and North Carolina teachers and librarians, especially, should be aware of these distinctions. It would be interesting to have students compare and contrast the two through the lens of We Are Grateful.

Teachers, We Are Grateful Otsaliheliga lends itself to teaching main idea and supporting details (boxes and bullets in the non-fiction reading unit if you use Lucy Calkins' Reading Units of Study) for second through probably fourth grade. You'll find this in Jennifer Serravallo's Reading Strategies book, Strategy 8.5, Boxes and Bullets. This would be particularly useful for third grade at my school. For kindergarten and first graders, or students who aren't quite ready to determine what a book is mostly about, this is also a good fit for Goal 8.3, Notice What Repeats.

You'll also want to be sure to teach students to analyze the information presented. Your students can critically analyze the traits the author writes about the Cherokee, the take-away, and why the author believes this story was important to write. In the Reading Strategies book, Strategy 8.15, Why Does the Story Matter? will help you do that.

Additionally, this is a great book to teach text structure because of its seasonal, cyclical structure with plenty of text feature clues. This text could be either description structure (main idea/detail) or sequence but as a circle, not a timeline.

I love illustrator Lessac's four-season tree on the opening page.
This page orients readers to the rest of the book.

The header (top left) makes this an easy model for text structure.
At bottom right, this pronunciation guide is just one of the text features.
All that being said, this is clearly a book elementary teachers will want to use at Thanksgiving in place of problematic books that promote stereotypes but are so commonly used at that time.

We Are Grateful is an #OwnVoices accurate representation of Native life. The author refers to the Cherokee in the present-tense, not as extinct or stuck in history. The illustrator's art also depicts contemporary Native people. And the theme is one that we all want to teach young students: gratitude.

While I would never want to pigeon-hole this book as a 'Thanksgiving book', it really is an excellent substitute for books that we may have used for years, but that actually promote stereotypes.

For more information on accurate teaching about Thanksgiving, please see the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education's Teaching About Thanksgiving page.

If you are a teacher in North Carolina, the entire SACIE Culturally Responsive Instructional Resources website was made into a for-credit pd module two years ago. You can access it the same way you access your PDP.  NCEdCloud -->NCEES. Then Professional Development tab at the top, then Course Search for #8048 Culturally Responsive Teaching About American Indians: Self-Paced. Please take this course! Huge amount of learning resources that will pay off in your classroom. Plus, you can do it in your pjs. 😉

For more information (you can even plug a book title into the search bar) on kidlit and accurate Native representation, please see Debbie Reese's amazing blog, American Indians in Children's Literature.

Teachers and librarians, please make sure this book is in your school!

Men cuddling babies? Yes, please!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Summer Is For Reading! The Night Diary

The Night Diary (2019) by Veera Hiranandani is the 2019 Newbery Honor Book, as well the winner of a host of other awards, and a masterful piece of art.

In high school, I remember learning about the separation of India and Pakistan, and about Ghandi and his teachings. I remember seeing photographs of trains filled beyond capacity, people on roofs, people hanging out windows, trains packed full of people tighter than sardines, to reach India or Pakistan.

But the human cost of that political decision on the daily lives of millions of people escaped me because it was not taught in History or heaven forbid, in English Language Arts.

Teachers, this #OwnVoices middle grade novel (I'd narrow it down as late middle grade and recommend it for grades 6 - 12) will remedy that situation for your students.

Publisher's summary:

It's 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders
Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn't know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it's too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train bu later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can't imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together. 
Told through Nisha's letters to her mother, The Night Diary is a heartfelt story of one girls' search for home, for her own identity... and for a hopeful future.

The teaching points for history are obvious and I'd definitely recommend history/social studies/world cultures teachers use this book. But I'd also highly recommend it for ELA teachers, and ideally, for ELA and history teachers to coordinate efforts to use this book for instruction.

There is a fabulously detailed, well-thought-out teacher's guide on the publisher's website with complex thinking points and Common Core Standards alignment. Definitely use that.

But what stood out to me as I read it is character analysis. Not just having complex characters to teach students to analyze to meet standards, but characters that will resonate with your students and empower them.

Do you have students that are very hesitant to speak except to one or two other people? It feels like you must slowly draw them out every day to get responses from them? They will be relieved and intrigued to recognize themselves in Nisha.

Do you have students who struggle to read and write? Whose gifts may not be recognized by all? They will understand Amil's struggles and triumphs.

Do you have students who need to begin to understand the personal, human toll of politics? Who need a way to unpack and reframe social justice issues? Who need to learn about daily life, food and customs in other countries? (That would be everybody.)

Do you have students who need to analyze true historical world events in light of today's world events? (Again, everybody.)
"I heard Papa telling Dadi there are riots everywhere and, if we don't leave, we could be killed or taken to a refugee camp. Who would do this? Our neighbors? The kids we went to school with? The merchants at the market? Patients who Papa treated at the hospital? My teacher? Dr. Ahmed? Papa says that everyone is killing one another now, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs. Everyone is to blame. He says that when you separate people into groups, they start to believe that one group is better than another."
Middle school and high school teachers, please buy, or ask your district to buy, this book and use it for instruction. It's a gem.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Summer is for Reading! Islandborn

Islandborn (2018) is a longer picture book* by Junot Díaz, illustrated most wonderfully by Leo Espinosa. Mr. Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic like his main character, immigrating to the United States as a young child, making this an #OwnVoices book.

Teachers, this story could be just taken at surface level for younger readers. A young girl, whose family is from the Dominican Republic, interviews family and community members about the island for a class project. It could be taken as just that - a story of fitting in, being proud of where you come from, learning about where you come from. 

For readers at about Levels M-P(ish), it could also make a great reading and writing mentor text for vivid setting and the effect on the main character (Goal 5.22 in Jennifer Serravallo's The Reading Strategies Book), fitting in beautifully with Lucy Calkins' Reading and Writing Units of Study.

Look at Lola totally immersed in writing about the beautiful island her family and neighbors have told her about. She takes pieces from each of their descriptions. Bats "as big as blankets", beaches that "are poetry", an island exploding with music and color. Everyone shares wonderful, vivid memories with Lola.

Lola in 'the zone'

Lola's writing exploding from the page for her class at the end of the story

And you can even discuss . . . the monster!

And on that note, this book can be so amazing instructionally! Because, see, that monster is everything. 

For more sophisticated readers (up to Z+), you'll definitely want to discuss theme (start with theme vs plot, if your students need that). But then, this book lends itself beautifully to thinking deeply about theme, and forces the reader to infer: What is that monster? What could that monster represent and why? I love that the author never answers that for the reader.

This text connects directly to thinking about the real world in a text (7.15 in The Reading Strategies book), and to history. Although the monster could represent a number of fears according to the author, to middle grade and/or high school students, it can tie directly to Dominican dictator Trujillo's Parsely Massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic in the late 1930s. In this light, you'd want to ask your students why this story matters, what is the social/historical impact of that time? This book? Beautiful tie-in with historical political conflict, power, or Latin American Studies.

For all of that, this book is a light-filled, colorful triumph of joy. Author's craft - word choice for sure, illustrator's craft and impact, making inferences, questioning, all within a framework that will validate so many of our students. 

My favorite spread. Together they vanquished the monster. Hope and joy.

*Special appreciation and shout out to Dial Books for Young Readers for taking a chance and publishing a LONGER PICTURE BOOK!  Yay!!! 48 pages! We've been waiting for a return to longer picture books, and I hope this beauty ushers in many more.