Two First Amendment Books by Yours Truly

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At a time when our national attention sits securely, sometimes obsessively, on the goingson of Washington, D.C. and our national leaders — be they elected, electoral, or judicial — young viewers and readers deserve thoughtful texts exploring the roots of our rights.

For parents, teachers, and librarians seeking such books for the voracious omnivorous reader, might I suggest…

The Freedom of Speech and The Right to Petition by Jenny Mason

The texts introduce middle grade readers to the Bill of Rights, its historical origins, and its ongoing influences on our daily lives. From there, each book in the series zooms in on a particular clause in the First or Second Amendments. For instance, I looked at the right to petition and the freedom of speech. Whenever possible, the narrative pays close attention to landmark Supreme Court decisions that directly impact the freedoms of young individuals. (And all the books are loaded with strange or funny factoids. Mine are doubly loaded with bad puns and an overall humorous tone.)

When the editors invited me to author two books in the Our Basic Freedoms series, they challenged me to write about the First Amendment without the armor of my own political, personal, or professional biases. I was to approach the topic with an open and accepting mind. This was, in no way, an easy assignment. As I writer, I feel duty- and honor-bound to the philosophy of free speech. As if me and Free Speech pricked our fingers, mashed our blood beads together, then swore an oath and spat to make eternal. Same goes for the right to petition, which really boils down to the pen’s might over the sword in disputes.

However, the guideline proved invaluable to my research. Unarmored (and consequently unafraid of rust), I dove deep into the murky waters of Constitutional interpretation. I found credible, logical support for all sides. I discovered the tension, the constant tug-of-war for power, that makes our government function. Sure, it often resembles dysfunction, but the Framers and Founding Fathers knew that if they could keep power from ever coagulating in one corner, then all sides would have to bend (stretch their vulnerable, thirsty throats) in order to get even a taste of what they wanted.

What’s in store for the nation now that so many of the protocols intended to keep power bouncing and swinging, and swirling have been rescinded or altered or diluted? Well that is a future story being written as we speak; a narrative that young readers are due to inherit.

Where can you find these books?

Visit GarethStevens online, or shop on Amazon:

Freedom of Speech

Right to Petition

(PS–not sure why Amazon lists me as “Dr Jennifer,” unless they mean it musically. You know, like Jim Henson’s Dr. Teeth…or Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (with a look at structure)

wild-cheryl-strayedStrayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: memoir (specifically, one of those young-woman-in-crisis-goes-a’-traveling memoirs)

Summary: This book is Eat, Pray, Love meets A Walk in the Woods.

Despite a mostly impoverished, sometimes rough childhood, Cheryl grew up generally loved by everyone but herself. Soon after her mother dies suddenly from aggressive cancer, Cheryl’s life falls apart. She grows estranged from her siblings and stepfather, she cheats repeatedly on her beloved husband, and she slides into a corrosive affair with drugs. A chance purchase in a hardware store leads her to the Pacific Crest Trail, which she decides to hike from summer to fall. Never mind she has zero experience hiking or backpacking. Never mind that her pack weighs more than several NFL linebackers. Never mind that her boots are too small. Never mind she has no knowledge of wilderness survival — hell, she can barely survive everyday life. Cheryl becomes obsessed with the trail and her conviction that it will lead her back to the pure soul she used to be.

Critique: Readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s riveting spiritual-emotional rise from a suicidal life-crisis into a Zen Master Cinderella will derive similar inspiration from Strayed’s memoir. And what Strayed lacks in Bill Bryson’s rib-tickling wit, she makes up for in devil-may-care hubris for the potential dangers of a hike that challenges even the most poised outdoorsmen. And unlike Gilbert or Bryson, the final third of Strayed’s memoir deserves oodles of praise simply because it holds true to its promise. That is, she sticks to the appointed finish line.

Readers will find Strayed’s writing at its best when delving into the grimiest, dirtiest, most loathsome moments of a life gone wrong. She accurately maps out the seemingly innocuous events that contribute to disastrous decisions, but her tender perspective is likely to invoke empathy from the most judgmental cynics.

Writers and writing students will find much to harvest from the cunning structure of the memoir, which follows the “lowercase e” format. Rather than start at some chronological beginning and work a linear path forward, Strayed opens her narrative roughly near the middle, when a minor freak accident — a prank played by the gods — causes her to lose her hiking boots in the middle of nowhere. Strayed ushers the reader a tad forward, giving the overall context of her situation (the fact that she has set out to hike hundreds of miles of high mountain terrain alone, as well as her desired destination) before wrapping backwards into the past, just like the little e.

Strayed is certainly not unique among memoir and travel writers when it comes to deploying the little e thanks, in large part, to all the how-to-nonfiction craft books pointing at John McPhee’s famous little e essay, “Travels in Georgia.” Where Strayed stands out is in her ability to construct the swelling arc of that little e. Like the ancient winds that carved out Moab’s stone bone bridges, Strayed crafts a breathtaking climax whose singular wonderment hinges not on the escalation, but on the inevitable collapse, the inescapable catastrophe.

By the time readers sense the narrative bending back around to the “all is lost” beat of the beginning, they are all but foaming for the descent into disaster. They’re hankering for calamity is practically manic. This is not to say readers are heartless and cruel — far from it. Readers clamor for the this down-dog roller coaster moment because the arc of the little e has provided sufficient evidence to suggest the hapless narrator might just survive the very worst of hiking nightmares. They cannot wait to see the worst bring out the best.

In short, the structure forms an architectural framework for hope.

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Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Murray_skippyMurray, Paul. Skippy Dies. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Genre: literary fiction (for adults) (I argue: YA contemporary)

Summary: Howard (the coward) returns to teach at his alma mater, Seabrook College. Howard never achieved the fame and fortune that is expected of Seabrook graduates. Instead, he muddles through his life and relationships burdened with the secrets that would surely tarnish Seabrook’s reputation if they ever came to light. Before the school year is out, Howard is snagged into yet another school tragedy when the boy everyone calls “Skippy” mysteriously dies.

Critique: This book was not marketed as a cross-over that adults and young adults might enjoy, and I think that was a mistake. I lived in Ireland when this book came out. I saw teens gorging on the 600+ pages. I saw them swarm the author at readings around Dublin as if he were the new Rowling or Meyers!

The text plays (timidly) with fonts to indicate cell phone ring tones, hit songs, and other quirks of digitized teenage life. The point of view cunningly shifts from close third to second person whenever characters slip from sober to high. And Murray’s humor mingles the wry, dark, and tragic. Don’t be surprised if you laugh in the midst of bitter tears.

This book was short- and long-listed for nearly every UK book award, including the Mann Booker. And it’s no surprise why: rather than pooh-pooh the trials of teenage life and love, this book employs string theory, Irish folklore, and the complex mathematics to capture this devastatingly explosive time in all our lives. Suddenly, blazingly, staggeringly, readers realize the human heart is a complicated realm, regardless of your age! Where Murray might have been timid with fonts, he is unreservedly bold with contemporary issues like bullying, sexual molestation, and drug abuse.

Indeed, this book is not for the timid. No. It is for the brave parents, teens, and other readers who acknowledge life is not a safe haven, but a savage garden of good and evil, tragic and jolly. Those who enjoy John Green and A. S. King will adore Skippy Dies.

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry

Ferry-stickstoneFerry, Beth. Stick and Stone. Illus. Tom Lichtenheld. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Print.

Genre: rhyming picture book

Summary: A stick and a stone become fast friends after an unfortunate name-calling incident.

Critique: This story puts a clever twist on the old saying: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. It stars the iconic stick and stone who form a solid friendship when stick defends stone from a mean, name-calling pine cone. Unfortunately, despite this excellent set-up, the bulk of the story does not document how to withstand bullying, criticism, or name calling. It catalogs all the fun two friends can have swinging, sitting on the beach, or playing games. The plot takes a turn towards the random when a hurricane blows Stick into a boggy puddle. Stone rescues Stick — a clear reversal of how Stick first saved Stone from name-calling. The heroics are worth a cheer, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the themes would have been better served if Stone had been put in a position to rescue himself from another bully. Or, what if Stick had stand up for himself? It’s one thing to stand up for others, but standing up for yourself is a skill many of fail to master even in adulthood.

The result feels like a missed opportunity to grapple with huge facets of childhood and healthy development.

Nonetheless, Ferry tells this story with surprising frugality. The text is compact, succinct, and easy to read aloud. There are times when the need to make the rhyme work throws consistency out the window — verb tenses shift from past to present, or formerly complete sentences break into fragments.

Luckily, Lichtenheld’s illustrations are richly consistent! Working in pencil, watercolor, and colored pencil on Mi-Teites paper, the artist delivers a textured world that readers want to touch. He equips Stick and Stone with endearing facial expressions and highly emotive physical gestures — no easy task when anthropomorphising twigs and rocks. On paper, the characters come alive. They break no bones, but they will warm your heart!

Sally Ride: Life on a Mission by Sue Macy

Macy, Sue. Sally Ride: Life on a Mission. New York: Aladdin, 2014. Print.

Genre: biography (for young readers)

Summary: In an era when women were expected to stay at home and be good mothers, one little girl grows up to become the first American woman astronaut to visit outer space. Sally Ride’s journey from childhood to space to fame is the rocket-rush you would expect.

Critique: The overall experience of reading this biography is not unlike watching a movie where the camera locks in extremely close on the main character and never cuts, turns, angles, or zooms out to gain a better perspective.

Macy’s research is abundant and she often reveals how many thousands or hundreds of thousands of pages were in this report or that Congressional hearing. These numeric nuggets seem to lend a hand boasting Macy’s work more so than Ride’s.

Nonetheless, the biography makes very clear early on that Sally Ride was an exceptional young woman. She had a wealth of talents and aptitudes. It is no small wonder that she turned her athletic discipline in tennis (one that earned her a full ride scholarship for college) into the tenacity needed to complete NASA’s grueling astronaut training.

Having also been a multifaceted talent-teen, I could not help but wonder if the biography had glossed too quickly over the gut-wrenching knot of choices these many talents foist upon young people. Should I grow up and become a great musician or should I just pursue tennis? Do I go to the college giving me money for something I enjoy doing or do I go where they are offering little or no money for something I love learning about? 

I cannot speak for Ride, but these were questions that dogged me (and how!) when I was young.

The other element that felt missing from this story was the science that Sally so dearly loved and worked so hard to promote among America’s young girls. Explorations into the physics, chemistry, and other fields required to make space travel possible might have added much more depth and drama to the text than the tedious explanations of NASA’s launch numbering systems. Even roping in the magic and mysticism of Shakespeare (a topic Sally loved enough to master with a Master’s degree) would have brought a young reader deeper into Sally Ride’s heart and mind — a fine purpose for composing biographies, if nothing else.