Friday, November 17, 2023

Year End Thoughts on a Timeless Picture Book

      I read at least one picture book a day. As a kindergarten teacher, I steer away from picture books that blatantly try and teach my students “lessons.” Adults who impose their morality onto unsuspecting 4 and 5-year-olds usually don’t hold the student’s interest. I am particularly sensitive about books that aren’t respectful of young children, seeing them as blank slates and not the interesting, thinking humans that they are. 

     Children want to hear stories.  They don’t want to be preached to.  But find a good story where universal themes are woven into the characters and their relationships, and you will hold the rapt attention of an entire class.  I’m always on the hunt for these great stories that leave us hankering for a good discussion or leave us with a feel-good moment.  Lately they feel like they’re few and far between. 

     Don’t get me wrong. The books my fellow picture book authors are writing and that publishing companies are buying are beautifully written. But compared to the literature from earlier decades, many feel like they are leaning out of storytelling as we knew it and are more no-nonsense books with sparse wording or non-fiction subjects.  All have their merits and are well produced.  They just lack the storytelling of years gone by when the wordcount hovered well above and over the current 500-word norm and were not influenced by the Common Core Standards.

     In 2010 the Common Core Standards were adopted for education across the country.  It’s my understanding they were not developed by educators but rather came out of the business and political community.  Technically they came from The National Governor’s Association (a political organization founded in 1908) and The Council of Chief State School Officers.  At the time I remember noticing a huge shift away from reading and writing fiction and a move toward non-fiction literature only.

      As a kindergarten teacher, it didn’t make sense.  It was completely out of balance.  Literary learning shifted away from fantasy and toward nuts and bolts, cut and dry, no-nonsense reading and writing.  I worried about how it would affect young children and their desire to read and write. I worried that storytelling would be devalued.  I worried that the publishing industry would shift their product to meet the new demand.  I think I was on to something thirteen years ago.

     Social Emotional Learning has been a big buzz phrase, especially post pandemic lockdown.  I’m finding many of the “message” books aren’t delighting us with story but are beating us over the head with be kind, be brave, be happy, be you, be special…you get the idea.  So just the other day I reached back in time and pulled out what I consider to be an old classic, Stella Luna


     Stella Luna was written and illustrated by Janell Cannon and was published in 1993. I had forgotten how much I loved this picture book about the baby bat who gets separated from her mother and lands in a bird’s nest.  So many intricate ideas in this book to ponder like:  How we perceive each other, (The little bat is the loveable protagonist, although many people think of bats negatively. The birds are characterized in a less appealing way.  Plus, they eat bugs, yuck!), Ideas of value, (who has it and who doesn’t?)  Concepts of good and bad, (What constitutes good and what constitutes bad? What is good/acceptable behavior and what is bad/unacceptable behavior?) An exploration of right and wrong, (Who is right and who is wrong?)  Point of reference, (How important is point of reference and context?)  And then there’s judgement.  (Who judges whom and why?  What is normal and what is not? Who deserves love and who does not?)  All this wrapped up in this book about a little bat who’s lost its mother and the family of birds who take her in. This book is timeless.  None of these ideas have faded.  They are more relevant than ever.

     As a children’s book author, I like to think about…if I had written a particular book, what would I have written. Hands down, Stella Luna.  I remember reading it in the 90’s when I was “author-curious” and being drawn to the irony of the story.  This idea with all the above listed implications that turned my perception upside down in a delightful, intellectual way that didn’t insult young children.  I wanted to write stories like that.  I wanted to bring that twist that leaves you thinking about the story a little bit longer…that makes it linger in the edges of your mind.  

And so, when it was my turn to write my own story, Stella Luna was there in the recesses of my imagination cheering me on.  I found that delightful irony in my debut picture book, Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story about a caterpillar and a butterfly who only have a two-week window to connect before they proceed through their separate life cycles. Youth longing for age and Age longing for youth.  Without Stella Luna, my story would have been flat, maybe even a lesson-filled tale of morality.  I am grateful that I came upon this book before I set out to write my own years ago and am so happy to have rediscovered it now with my new class of students. It’s storytelling at its best. It’s the book I wish I had written.  What book do you wish you had written?

By Zeena M. Pliska
Kindergarten Teacher by day (public school in Los Angeles)
Children's Book Author by night 
Hello, Little One:  A Monarch Butterfly Story (Page Street Kids)
Egyptian Lullaby (Roaring Brook Press)

Friday, November 3, 2023

HOPE in a world OUT OF ORDER

🌹Howdy, Campers ~ and welcome to Poetry Friday! Today's poem and the link to PF is at the end of this post.

In this, our year-end round of posts, we will each share a favorite something we've read and would reccommend. It could be a book, a poem, a quotation, another blogger's post, anything that moved us, inspired us, thrilled us or taught us something.

So here's my truth: 

I am Jewish. 

I am terrified. 

In these frightening times, I want to give you...hope.

In yesterday's journal I wrote:

What I can’t figure out is how to hold the world in the palm of my hands. I used to be able to do that: listening to NPR each morning was a way of putting the world in order for the day. I don’t listen to it much these days. Can’t. It’s all bad stuff. I listen to My Unsung Hero and reposts of The Writers’ Almanac. I love the intro music of this podcast.

At first I was going to share Alison McGhee's October 21st poem of the week by Joseph Fasano. But that very human poem is too close to truth, too close to home, too dangerous, too deeply frightening. So I won't.

Through a dear friend, I came across  a letter in The Library of Congress by Helen Keller. 

image description (my words appear on torn paper):
As I read it, my heart remembered how to expand. It remembered that even in darkness there is great beauty. It remembered that humans can do miraculous things--like teach a blind and deaf child how to describe to another the sounds and sights of the 1898 World's Fair.

I hope reading her letter helps your heart remember, too.

(Below is a copy of the first page only of her typed letter; here's a link to all nine pages of the letter and a much easier-to-read transcript)

Dear Campers ~ I was planning to post yesterday's poem, titled OUT OF ORDER. When I read it this morning, though, it didn't seem hopeful enough to share with you. 

But the poem that found me today buoyed me. I hope it will lift you up, too.

Here's how today's poem walked in my door:

I took the following sentence from a newsletter and used it as a prompt:
“Ikaria is famously known as the place where people forget to die.”

Isn't that a wonderful quote?  Doesn't it make your fingers itch to DO something with it?

Here's how I started:

1) I typed the word FORGET as a temporary title.

2) I let my laptop keys out of their cages.

3) And off they galloped! 

Kitty, trying to catch the keys, galloping off...

Here's the rough draft:


Forget that you’re in the nose bleed section.
Forget about the hotdog,
and that guy in the row below chomping on it.
Forget that salty, hot-doggy smell
which you’ll never get out of your brain

Martinez hits a GRAND SLAM HOME RUN!
His bat smacks,
four runners score,
the ball soars,

to the kid in the red hat in a row far below
and a little to your right
who nearly catches it
drops it between the seats

and a nursing mother,
holding her infant securely against her chest with one hand,
kneels down and scoops it up,
deftly turns
and tosses it to the kid.

Forget the hotdog for god’s sake
it’s Martinez,
the kid,
the mother
that’s embedded in your memory.

Until today, that is,
forty-six years
to the day
when that salty, hot-doggy smell
wafts up

and a bat smacks,
four runners score,
the ball soars—then drops beneath your seat
and you, handing your beer to your buddy,
kneel down (oh, those creaky knees!)

scoop it up,
awkwardly standing and turning
to toss it to a random kid
in a red hat
whose face breaks out in an OHMYGOD! smile.

That, my friend--
you will 


poem (c) 2023 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

After several rough drafts, I re-titled it NEVER FORGET, because beneath everything these days is that terrible drumbeat. 

And yet...look what I found in hot dog and a ball game: hope. Imagine that.

I'd love to read what you create with this same prompt: “Ikaria is famously known as the place where people forget to die.”

Thanks for reading all the way to The End.

And thank you, Buffy, for hosting Poetry Friday this week!

posted by April Halprin Wayland, 
who misses 14-year-old Eli,
her licky, lanky, incredibly sweet dog 
(Kitty is mourning the empty space her big brother left, too)
Eli as a puppy, 2011

Eli swore he didn't do it...

Thank you, Cindy Derby, for this watercolor of Eli,
which captures his personality perfectly