Sixteen for 2016, or How Books & the Chicago Cubs Kept Me Afloat

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2016 was one of those years that you had no qualms leaving behind. Outside of a historic World Series, there was little to be celebrated. However, authors & illustrators (along with quite a few filmmakers) made the year a veritable cornucopia. In terms of children’s books, it was indubitably a year of plenty.

A week from today, I will be at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards, & I will be in the room where it happens when they announce the recipient of a number of awards namely the Caldecott & Newbery Medals. I have a new appreciation for the work of the professionals who bestow these honors as, this year, I did my level best to read as many highly-touted books published in 2016 as I possibly could. After pouring through a couple hundred of them, I have determined these to be my 16 favorites. My only displeasure is that it was not the year 2045 because shortening the list was difficult & even excruciating toward the end. Here are the 16 books from 2016 that you should put on hold at your local library or buy from your local bookseller (like Square Books Jr.!) as soon as possible.

16. Some Kind of Courage
I’m not an animal person, but apparently, Dan Gemeinhart is. His first book about a dog won me over, & that’s understandable because I’ve once owned a dog. However, I knew he couldn’t do it again this time with a story about a horse. I was wrong.

15. Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems
If I was savvy enough, I would form this comment in the shape of something the way that Raczka did masterfully with all of his concrete — or shape — poems. Have a kid who sighs & grunts when you recommend poetry? Here’s a book to remedy that.

14. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
What Javaka Steptoe has done here is take a brilliant yet complicated artistic mind & render it accessible for an audience that might not have experienced it otherwise. Featuring some of the most fantastic art of the year, this story is the perfect introduction into the world of Basquiat.

13. Counting Thyme
I am a natural cryer. It doesn’t take much — songs, commercials, a change in the breeze. Melanie Conklin’s loving tale of a middle child who needs & wants so much more than anyone is able to give her is to blame for a large share of tears shed. It had me feeling emotions in a way that only good art can do.

12. Daniel Finds a Poem
Furthering my idea that everything is poetic if you only know how to consider it, this beautiful book is a sumptuous feast of words & color. For what else could one ask?

11. Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood
For anyone who has ever longed to see city streets & brick walls revitalized, here is a true story of what a coat of paint can do both to a building & to a community. The energy in these pages is pulsating.

10. Weekends with Max and His Dad
I read this one while waiting on the flood waters to recede, & its touching story of a boy & his dad finding their way was the lift I needed.

9. Snow White: A Graphic Novel
Think that the familiar tale of Snow White can’t possibly be presented in an appealing & fresh way that has you turning pages with a furor? Matt Phelan will have you thinking again.

8. Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan
In this glorious gut punch of a book, Ashley Bryan uses details from authentic documents from a slave auction to give life to the memory of eleven slaves & what dreams they might have held. Every reader will immediately see the worth in others.

7. They All Saw a Cat
Perspective is everything. Need to teach point of view? Need to build empathy? Need to compare artistic techniques? Need to emphasize high frequency words & repeated vocabulary? Need to enjoy a book that does all of this & more? I have a suggestion.

6. Raymie Nightingale
Hooked from the very first line (a good sign, yes?), this one had me flexing my toes & rooting for an unlikely trio that was equally universal in their quests to belong. I can’t wait to hear Kate DiCamillo speak at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival.

5. Ghost
Jason Reynolds first came onto my radar last year with 2 wonderful YA novels, & this year, he burst into the world of MG novels with equal fervor. This man is a born writer, & the magic he creates when he tells a story is enough to make you want to stop everything & listen forever. Every kid who reads this will love it.

4. Freedom in Congo Square
Nothing shames one quite like living down the road from history & being blissfully unaware. In regards to Congo Square, I could chalk it up to being not from Louisiana, but thanks to Carole Boston Weatherford, I now know about this historic place & the wonders that were once there. A masterpiece.

3. Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White
This is a masterclass in writing for children. Not only is this book meticulously researched, organized, & presented, but the illustrations that accompany it are of divine creation. I can’t say that I particularly cared to read a biography of E.B. White, but my life is so much better because I did.

2. The Night Gardener
I won’t say more other than be prepared to have your breath taken away. Simply stunning to behold.

  1. Wolf Hollow
    Gorgeous & haunting, no other book had an allure that enshrined me quite like this one. I loved the heroine. I was invested in every character. I could not put it down. Lauren Wolk has me reconsidering what I know about writing. Also, I’ve never seen a finer sociopath in children’s literature. (Yes, this is a compliment.)

I’d be very surprised if next week’s Caldecott & Newbery medalists are not listed here — & not just because I have great taste. These truly are sublime works of art, & they deserve to be read by children everywhere. Help me in my mission to share them, won’t you?

 

Positive Outlook, or Hamilton, Hillary, & the Cubs

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The lyrics to one of the songs from Hamilton: An American Musical has been imprinted upon my brain since I first heard it, & as the musical’s cultural domination has come to fruition, it has become a cry of celebration for many. For me, it has become my daily bread.

Look around! Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!

On this, the eve of the end (dear God, please let it be the end) of an exceptionally brutal election season, considering ourselves lucky might seem like an odd sentiment. The rhetoric has become so inflamed, each incendiary word opening the door for wider rifts.

I’m not here to harp on divisiveness, however. I’ve always preferred diversity. The most beautiful tapestries are those that weave together threads of varied color & texture, the finished work ending up a conglomerate of hues that captivate as a whole what the parts could not do alone.

This season of life has been one for the unexpected. The catalyst that precipitated (ha ha) this blog & its ensuing calamity brought more than just water & books into my life. It altered the way that I see people, becoming a pertinent reminder of the good of humanity. What a prescient lesson to learn considering what was to come via news outlets & presidential debates.

It has been said that things aren’t always what they seem. Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat is a divinely exquisite reminder of that. Wenzel’s rendering of a cat through various art forms serves as a visual reminder that everything is tinted to our perspective. We can’t control what we see, but we do have a grasp on how we view it. Everything is but a transaction, shaded by what we knew before. We make our own decisions. I choose to be happy — thrilled even — at the prospect of having a day where I get to interact with my family, friends, & books (which, on occasion, are both family & friends).

In all that has broken hearts in 2016, whether it was the flood or the passing of Prince, there was joy to be found.

What a delight it was to discover that Solange had put out one of the best records of the year.

In each box I have unpacked at school (of which there have been many), elation was found among the books & notes, the smiles of the donors effortlessly transposed onto the gifts they gave.

One of the great pleasures of my life was spending the day with Rita Williams-Garcia & her husband, sharing stories & hopes & laughs & sweet potato pie.

For the first time in my life, my beloved Chicago Cubs made it to the World Series which caused me to burst into (happy) tears — in both public & private — no fewer than 15 times. When they, in an astonishing fashion that could only be attributed to the Cubs, actually won the World Series, I wept openly for days, each tear a salty drop of ebullience. When one of your lifelong dreams actually comes true in the rapid fire motion of Kris Bryant’s arm, you have no other option but to be effusive.

Being able to find satisfaction & gratification is a byproduct of caring deeply. I care about the varying threads that we use to weave our tapestry; each one is vital to its vibrancy & soul. I care about true artists using books as a medium to teach empathy, emboldening them to bridge the tolerance gaps. I care about albums that celebrate a culture of which I am not a part because everybody is somebody. I care about a group of dudes playing a game that captivated the world & gave me permission to fly the W on my front porch for three weeks.

I also care about many things with which you might disagree. When I head to the polls in a few hours, I may vote for a different person than the one you chose. I’ve been with her since 2007, & nothing has changed. That doesn’t mean that I don’t also care about you. I do, ever so much, care about you.

It is Election Day in America. In less than 24 hours, we could very well have our first female President. Whatever your leanings, that is remarkable. However, even if the outcome doesn’t swing my way, I will have still spent the day with my family, taking them into the voting booth, sharing meals, & sitting together in a darkened movie theatre, & at each turn of the day, I’ll be thinking to myself & reminding them as well to look around. Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Real Work, or Smart Farmers & Tina Turner

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It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, & when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. 

Those are the words of renowned author, academic, & farmer (!) Wendell Berry, & while I can fully disclose that I have read absolutely none of his work, I came across this quote of his over a year ago thanks to Goodreads (let’s be friends!). I’ve had it open in a Google Chrome tab on my phone since then because I knew it was speaking to me. This sense of murky obscurity had begun to creep into my professional space, & I knew that something was coming.

Let’s be real for a moment. Adages such as “everything happens for a reason” give me nosebleeds. I’m definitely a dreamer, but I also have developed just enough cynicism throughout the years to avoid becoming treacly.

Still, when I think about the aforementioned Berry quote in regards to the perfect storm (too soon for puns?) of how I’ve just become a librarian, the flooding that swept away our school, & this massive outpouring of support from across the country & beyond, I can’t help but bask in the beauty of it all. It feels like my life has become this epically grand tapestry, woven together with all sorts of unpredictable & nontraditional materials to create something that is near-staggering to behold. Pause for a deep breath with me.

Tomorrow, boxes will begin arriving at our (temporary) school. Each one will overwhelm me as I know that its contents were sent out of an appreciation of the written word, a recognition of the importance of reading, & the desire to help another human. That is solid, friends. That is a foundation on which we can build just about anything.

When I wrote that original blog post, those words that have assuredly changed my life, I was at the point when I no longer knew what to do. I had left a good job to come into a school that was flooded & left void of its primary tool. I was at the place where I no longer knew where to go — beyond a crossroads, a dead end maybe. It was that blog post & the response of all of you beautiful people that set me off on this journey, igniting within me the recognition that I have now come to my real work.

Seeing as how you have been such an instrumental part of this experience, I hope you will subscribe to the blog (look to your left!) to keep abreast on how exactly the generosity of so many will come to heal our community. As we sang at my church this morning, greater things have yet to come. Greater things are still to be done in this city.

For those of you who have personally contacted me through Twitter, comments on this blog, or through email, I am working diligently to respond to each & every one of you. I even had a couple of helpers tonight, so I apologize, in advance, for typos.

Colonel, Daddy, & Hushpuppy

Thank you for all that you have done so far. Thanks for all of the books that your have sent. Thanks for retweeting. Thanks for sharing the blog on Facebook. Thanks to whomever submitted us to Reddit &, interestingly enough, FOX News. Thanks to the local newspaper where my parents & in-laws reside & where I graduated high school. Thanks to everyone who has been emailing Ellen. Lol.

Like Tina Turner said, you guys are simply the best. It is what it is. Don’t argue with Tina.

Brass Tacks, or Specifics Regarding Where, When, How, Etc.

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You guys!

I am overwhelmed with the love & support that you have offered to a little elementary school in Louisiana.

For more background info, check out the original post.

Donate via DonorsChooseUse the code LIFTOFF to have your donation matched dollar for dollar. If our most recent project has been funded, you can still donate via DonorsChoose gift card. Another project will be live ASAP. 

Donate via Amazon Wish ListYou guys are rocking the wish list out! I am having to update it feverishly to ensure that it stays stocked. NOTE: This is not a complaint!  

Donate via Bound to Stay Bound: S.O.S. LibraryBound to Stay Bound books are books with a special library binding that helps keep them in better condition & on the shelf longer. All of the titles listed here are award-winning & will be the true backbone of our library’s permanent collection.

Mail items to the school directly at the following address: 

Trey Veazey
2401 72nd Avenue
Baton Rouge, LA 70807
This is the address of our temporary location. 

I’m working hard to respond to every email, tweet, & comment. Thanks for your patience as well as your generosity.

A Cry for Help, or 1,600ish Words on Books, Life, & Honey Buns

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Updated 26 August 2016 with info regarding various ways to donate & assist. All pertinent details are at the bottom of this verbose post.

Update 28 August 2016 to include more donation info. Be sure to subscribe to keep tabs on all of the joy!

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Anyone who knows me knows that To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book (as well as my favorite film). That masterwork has become such an integral part of my life. If I could be any fictional character, it would be Atticus Finch. I share a birthday with Harper Lee. I once played Boo Radley in a community theatre production. In fact, I have the Radley tree tattooed on my arm. If my son Henry was to be a girl, we had planned to name him (her?) Scout. I’m even listening to Elmer Bernstein’s film score as I write this.

All of this meandering is to reinforce the power of books & reading in my life, & this is only in reference to one book. There have actually been countless ones that have left their imprint on me, & like others similar to me, many of those impressions were made during my childhood. Whenever I think of what the future might hold, I recall how Harold forged his own path with his purple crayon. When I need to be reminded that there is happiness in contentment, I reflexively envision Ferdinand, that daring pacifist, sitting underneath his tree.

Now that I’m an adult, I still indulge in children’s literature. This is partly because of my profession as a teacher (& now school librarian), but mostly, it’s because of one big reason. Kid’s lit is where it’s at.

It was in college that David Wiesner changed the way I thought about reading & comprehension (&, ok, life in general) with Flotsam, & on a kaput hard drive somewhere, there is a picture of the two of us, me grinning an absurdly large grin. It was also in my teacher training that I was introduced to Katniss Everdeen (thanks Anna!) & the best final line of a first chapter ever (I’ll wait while you go check your copy). Here I met Chrysanthemum, Jesse Aarons, & Hugo Cabret.

As an educator, I tripped over myself daily trying to share all of the wondrous works available. Kids had to experience Last Stop on Market Street, one of the best & most important books of the century (yeah, I said it). As long as Jacqueline Woodson & Kate DiCamillo kept dreaming up incredible dreams & spinning them into delectable yarns, I would pull muscles & go into debt in order to have those stories become parts of students’ lives. Students who felt unloved would meet Ada in The War that Saved My Life. Those who had been belittled but still knew grit & grace would journey alongside Annabelle in Wolf Hollow. Children who understood the value of a friend would surely love Sophie’s Squash. There will always be Oliver Buttons, & books are the best way to support them.

This is how I show my students that I love them — by putting books in their hands, by noticing what they are about, & finding books that tell them, “I know. I know. I know how it is. I know who you are, & even though we may never speak of it, read this book, & know that I understand you.”

The above Donalyn Miller quote is placed within my email signature. The 2016-2017 school year was to be my first in a school library rather than a classroom. Oh, the plans that I had! I couldn’t wait to booktalk new classics by Rita Williams-Garcia, Tim Federle, Jewell Parker Rhodes, & Pam Muñoz Ryan. There were library card contests & reading challenges to experience. Some serious reading was about to take place.

We were at school for 2 days, & then, the rains came. You might’ve heard. 

In the spirit of school, I have to tattle on myself to say that I broke the rules. After the water receded, I sneaked inside the building to check on the status of my library. I knew that there was damage. I knew that it was likely that over 500 of my own personal books — years of classroom library building & Scholastic points — would be ruined, unusable, destroyed. I was expectant that the box of books that I had begun gathering for my next Milk + Bookies drive would never be unpacked. In my mind, I knew all of this. In my heart, I was unprepared for the visual confirmation.

As I tried not to fall down in what was surely sewage water, I began to take note of the titles that made themselves known to me amid the destruction. The books were telling me something.

Unspeakable things have happened, yet you must move forward.

The sadness is heavy, but joy lies within your own strength.

A challenge is only the beginning. (Also, you’re not dead.)

Molly Lou Melon was very specific. Stand tall, man. Stand tall.

Others have persevered through far worse than this.

Steeled by the encouragement of these works, I turned to take one last glance at my desk, & who should be there but Judy Blume, offering a smile that spoke to my soul.

Fairy Godmother Judy Blume

Lest you thought the real Judy Blume had shown up in flood-ravaged Louisiana like some kind of fairy godmother (though, do we really doubt that Judy Blume could not do such?!), it was a miraculously spared photograph. During my undergraduate work, I was privileged to attend the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival (SMTTT). Judy Blume was the festival’s medallion recipient during this time. When I took this photo in 2009, it was to brag. Little did I know that, in 2016, it would save me.

I grabbed Judy & fled the scene. When I returned to the library over a week later, there were no more lessons to be learned. Reality had set in.

The books were gone. I would have no chance to save titles on higher shelves such as my signed edition of Dear Hank Williams from when Kimberly Willis Holt visited my school or a brand new copy of Counting Thyme that I bought for the library after tearing through it on the beach this past summer or all of the graphic novels I’d spent the last year collecting because my students couldn’t get enough of El Deafo, The Dumbest Idea Ever!, Roller Girl, & Sunny Side Up. I don’t want to talk about the ones that I haven’t even gotten to read yet like The Seventh Wish or Jack & Louisa: Act 2. I tried to tell myself that they were “only books,” but anyone who has ever loved a book knows that there is no such thing as “only books.”

So, why am I writing my first blog post in over 10 years? Why am I reminiscing about every wonderful book that comes to mind? Why am I tearing up as the strings in Elmer Bernstein’s orchestra swell to perfection, conjuring up a young Mary Badham complaining to Gregory Peck about school? The answer is simple. I need help.

We are relocating. We’ve been ushered over to a building that was built in 1937. That means my new school is the same age as And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. It also means that, in my first year as a librarian, I have a library without any books.

Access to books is the key to educational success. Our library doesn’t have books. Our classrooms don’t have books. Many of the homes of our students don’t have books. Like the tears that rolled down our faces both in silent & violent measures, they became a part of the flood before being swept away as we looked toward rebuilding & recovery.

How does one recover without books? I know not the answer to this, & so, I plead to you. Help us. There are kids in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that are hungry for knowledge & desperate to know that good remains in the world.

If you are an author/illustrator/publisher & would love to have your books in the hands of readers, please consider sending us those books. (Incidentally, if you are inclined to include an autographed copy for the librarian, I’m sure that he would happily accept.) If you are someone with a generous spirit that doesn’t happen to write children’s books, we are in need of new or like-new books, both fiction & nonfiction, that would appeal to readers in PreKindergarten through Grade 5. If you are someone who would prefer to help in a pecuniary fashion, be assured that your funds, directed through the proper channels, will help to revitalize the library with magazine subscriptions, music, films, & chocolate. All others, feel free to send good thoughts. After this emotional & literal depletion, we are in dire need of good thoughts.

It has taken me over a week to muster the determination to conjure up this post, & while it’s possibly — ok, almost certainly — of an absurd length, it is my heart on display. It is a written manifestation of what I feel every time I walk into my public library — that there is a place for me, that there are others who care, & that the world is a naturally good place. I know all of these things to be true because of books (& family & movies & music & honey buns).

When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth & opens.

That’s what Anne Lamott said, & when Anne Lamott speaks, I listen. This is me sending forth my tiny ripples of hope into the world. If you are able to receive them, I look forward to witnessing the repercussions of hope reverberating among people who care for books &, among all else, each other.

Trey Veazey
2401 72nd Avenue
Baton Rouge, LA 70807
This is the address of our temporary location. 

Bound to Stay Bound: S.O.S. LibraryBound to Stay Bound books are books with a special library binding that helps keep them in better condition & on the shelf longer. All of the titles listed here are award-winning & will be the true backbone of our library’s permanent collection.

Amazon Wish ListThis is a personal wish list that I’ve had for a few years now, but it is a list of desired titles that can be put to good use. 

We are working on getting another DonorsChoose project approved! In the meantime, you can gift us an amount on their website. 

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