A Man Called Ove

We all know a man called Ove – or better yet, exactly like Ove.

A crotchety old man. The neighborhood watchdog policing persnickety policies about which no one else cares. A man who never has a nice word to say, who always has something about which to complain.

He exists in every family or neighborhood. In archetypes and novels. Small screen and silver.

He excels in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove.a-man-called-ove-9781476738024_lg

A third person narrative and clever titles for each chapter continually referring to the main character as ‘a man called Ove . . .’ (backs up with a trailer – as in chapter three) establish a sort of psychic distance between Ove and the reader. We see him as the world does. The archetypal cranky old man.

But just as many of us secretly yearn for the day and chronological age at which we can tell the world around us how we really feel, such outrageously brusque behavior almost endears Ove to the reader. At the very least, it entertains us. His dysfunctional interactions with his neighbors and clerks at the Apple store made me laugh out loud more than once. The fact that Ove is resolutely dedicated to his lifetime car of choice, Saab, brought me – as a Saab driver myself – even more joy.

While the chapter titles are structured the same throughout the book, readers slowly move closer to Ove and his motivation, the reasons for his dysfunction and underlying sadness. He wants to be left alone. He purposely pushes people away because the one person in the world who made him live – his wife – is gone.

“If anyone had asked, he would have told them that he never lived before he met her. And not after either.”

And so now, “Ove just wants to die in peace.” He wants to meet his wife on the other side and will try whatever means it takes to get there.

What I appreciate about this novel is the empathetic way it deals with depression and attempted suicide. Ove, while archetypal in other ways, does not fit the stereotypical profile of a suicidal person. Backman’s portrayal shows that depression can be situational – and elicit feelings of such dire circumstances that the only option left seems to be suicide.

However, Backman’s novel also shows the amazing strength and redemptive powers of love. It may be love that causes Ove to yearn to be reunited with his departed wife, but it is also the long reach of her love that reminds him to be a better man. It is through the initially annoying love and attention of his neighbors that Ove finds a reason to live. It is the hard fought and won love of a feline companion that offers him solace.

There is love in a riotously abstract portrait blasted in color by a three year-old. In a hand to hold. A skill transferred. A deed proffered. A meal shared. There is love in a sense of belonging, community.

A Man Called Ove reminds us all what it means to truly live and love – and I loved every minute of it.


In fact, I loved Ove so much, the next few ‘Weekend Write-Off’ entries will be dedicated to favorite excerpts of the novel, which is just full of gems.  Ove and I will see you next Friday!

Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry

 

The book begins like any other for children. A breakfast scene, a mother making pancakes for her daughter in a sun-filled kitchen. She helps her dress and tells her how “beautastic” she looks before sending her off to school with “a kiss and big smile.” But here, the mood shifts. Annie, the daughter, hopes that Mommy “is still smiling when [she] comes home” because “sometimes my mommy doesn’t smile at all.”

angryAnd it is no mistake that the tone and plot of the book changes with a shift in mood. Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry by Bebe Moore Campbell is the story of a child living with a mother suffering from bipolar disorder.

Indeed, when Annie returns home from school that afternoon, it is not smiling Mommy that greets her. Her mother yells at her to stop making noise, to get in the house, to ignore the neighbor’s inquires about her school day. Then she turns on the neighbor, accusing him of always spying on her.

And apparently this isn’t the first time, for once Annie gets inside, she follows a well-scripted plan. She calls her grandmother. “Mommy is yelling again,” she says. After her grandmother assures her she’s done nothing wrong, she tells her to go to the neighbor’s house until she comes to get her if she feels scared. When Annie tells her she’s not scared talking to her, she is to get her “secret snack without bothering Mommy.” But most importantly, to “think happy thoughts.”

The next day dawns much differently than the first. The rain pours down rather than sun through the windows. Annie is left to fend for herself, eating cold cereal rather than hot pancakes. But her friends help her brush out the knots she missed in her hair. They joke and laugh on their walk to school despite the raindrops.

True to her grandmother’s directive, Annie does manage to think happy thoughts. She says, “Sometimes my mommy has dark clouds inside her. I can’t stop the rain from falling, but I can find sunshine in my mind.”

How do we, as parents, ensure our child finds the sunshine in her mind – even when we simply cannot? Whether it’s from bipolar or another mental illness, how do we shield our children from the worst of the disease without also blocking out our love for them? Annie’s grandmother emphasizes that her “mother loves you even when she’s yelling.” She even goes so far as to say, “It’s okay for you to be angry. I know you love her too.” How do we teach this give and take and encourage our child’s healthy feelings in response to our unhealthy ones?

An author’s note before the story, which also provides important information on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, states that “the ‘village’ that supports the children of the mentally ill – the grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors – can help foster within these fragile children a sense of security and hope that life can get better, and encourage self-esteem in the face of extremely trying situations.”

Is that how we parents support our children? By farming it out to the surrounding village when we can’t do it?

This book is directed toward the children of parents with mental illness. I’m looking at it through the lens of guilt and worry that comes from being a parent with mental illness. Perhaps I should take Grandma’s advice: have a healthy snack, look to the support of neighbors, and think happy thoughts. I feel terrible that my conditions keep me from being ‘the end all and be all’ for my children. But maybe I never was supposed to be anyway. Maybe it really does take a village.

At the very least, Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry takes on the task of telling the story of one special little girl’s resilience in the face of great difficulty. And that’s a story a lot of kids out there really need to hear.

 

Stranger than Fiction

 

You just can’t make this stuff up.

 

We’ve all heard people say this. We may have even heard some pretty good instances of the phenomenon. Read Kelly Kittel’s Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict, however, and you’ll find perhaps the best exemplar of it ever.

Kittel’s story starts much like many other love stories: with the birth of a precious baby boy. We learn to know and love Noah, Kittel’s fourth child, right along with her. Amidst the love and adoration, though, there is an undercurrent of tension. Relations with extended family increasingly interfere with the Kittels’ close knit circle of immediate family, creating conditions ripe for catastrophe.

A tragic accident involving Noah is unfortunately and unbelievably only the first tragedy to befall Kelly and her family. In her quest for “an oversized house and a plastic car overflowing with round-headed pink and blue babies while [she] navigated [her] way through the Game of Life,” Kittel experienced miscarriages and an unnecessary stillbirth, unsupportive and argumentative family members.

Through personal anguish and legal battles, spiritual searches and encounters with nature, Kittel somehow arrives victorious on the other end, relishing each and every moment with her family of five living children and the spirit of those in heaven. Even with all its loss, Breathe is always – on every page, in every word – a life-affirming story.

I was fortunate enough to have read Breathe in its entirety before publication. Shortly after Kelly joined our writers’ group, she began sharing excerpts of her story, until we’d read, critiqued, and discussed the whole thing. We stroked the cover of her first proof when she passed it around the circle one night (it really is velvety soft!). We cheered her on upon its release on May 14, the birthday of her dear son, Jonah, his one and only day upon the earth.

Kelly Kittel wrote this story for those precious sons robbed of the oft-neglected privilege of breathing. But she also offers a poignant story of survival – her own. And in doing so, she most certainly will help countless mothers and women do the same.

Breathe-Cover

 

 

 

The Red Tree: A Child’s Story, A Depressive Tale, and an Allegory All in One

Imagine not wanting to get out of bed in the morning. Not because you stayed up too late or the air is too cold – but because “the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” Forcing yourself out of bed only makes “things go from bad to worse.” You maneuver through a world that “is a deaf machine”; where “darkness overcomes you” and “nobody understands”. Ironically, you are on the inside – locked there by regret – looking out at the “wonderful things [] passing you by.”

Now, imagine you are a child.

In Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, a young girl is the one going through all these machinations, these miserable feelings. The book jacket summary lists them as “inexplicable feelings”, which though they are, will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has had them. The swirling, at times, surreal illustrations Tan has created to accompany his text add an otherworldly depth that show their meaning perhaps more than the words can. Upon repeated inspection, you find more and more layers of detail and meaning.

This could be a story of a child trying to find her place in the world, which certainly can be daunting itself. I, however, saw deeper evidence of despair. Perhaps my dark lens of depression is translating the clues to match my view, but Tan’s story seems very much to match the trajectory of depression. This book is an amazingly evocative, yet straightforward treatment of a condition that words often fail. It would be perfect for children who may be suffering – either themselves or through someone close to them – to understand what’s happening and that they are not alone. My depressed self sees utter value in that. My paranoid mother hen heart breaks at the thought of a child suffering this way, scared that my own brood may be subjected it. I would call this required reading for struggling adults and extremely-valuable-but-hope-you-never-have-use-it with children.

Still, there is a thread of hope at the end of the story, that doesn’t always come with depression. Just as “the day seems to end the way it began, [] suddenly there it is right in front of you bright and vivid quietly waiting just as you imagined it would be.” In the book, it is a red tree growing from the center of her room that makes the girl smile. I wanted to shake the book and say, “But what is it? Why can’t I find the solution so easily? Just make it appear?” That’s when I thought maybe I was approaching this as a downward motion rather than from the bottom up.

I leafed through the pages once more, searching for the flashes of red I’d only slightly registered the first time. As the girl awakens on the first page, a red leaf is mounted on the wall above her bed. While black leaves swirl around her, the red leaf follows her through every scene. At times, it lies forlornly on the ground or is buffeted by the wind, but it is always there. When she returns to the quiet reflection of her room at the end of the day, there is a small red sprout, which quickly grows in the beam of light shining through the door she opens.

Though I didn’t realize it until I had reached rock bottom, that red leaf of the Holy Spirit followed me around the whole time. It waited patiently for me to open the door so I could flourish in God’s light and love. So instead of some magic trick I hoped to perform, healing myself, I just had to open myself to the guidance and care that was there all along.

How perfect that this epiphany came in time for this Good Friday. Even when Christ was at his lowest, He called out to the Father. He suffered so that we may have peace. And just as importantly, God never abandoned Him through all his trials.

Now I just need to be open to God’s uplifting power rather than the downward pull of depression.

* All quotes from Tan, Shaun.  The Red Tree.  Vancouver: Simply Read Books, 2008.

 

Extra Yarn

“On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town, where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow or the black soot from chimneys, Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color.”

It was a seemingly endless box of yarn; no matter the number of sweaters or hats or cozies knit, there was always extra yarn.

Annabelle converted town bullies with her rainbow thread. She led her dog, Mars, around on a rainbow leash. She clothed her naysayers in a prism of perseverance and accomplishment.

image from School Library Journal

The very nature of the town began to change.

And she still had extra yarn.

News spread of Annabelle’s wondrous deeds and visitors came from far and wide. An archduke wanted, at any cost, to acquire “that miraculous box of yarn.” No matter the price, Annabelle declined. The archduke arranged to have it stolen, but once he returned home and opened the box, he saw that it was empty. Hurling the box into the sea, he shouted, “Little girl, I curse you with my family’s curse! You will never be happy again!”

The current carries the box back to the shore where Annabelle and Mars sit. And once Annabelle retrieves it, its magic power is once more ignited.

A box of extra yarn is available to all who want it. We need not seek it out in a secret nook of a far-flung fiber shop. We need not win a life lottery. We need not spend all our riches in acquiring it.

It is there for the taking – if we have the right combination of thoughts and attitudes to unlock it. It opens easily enough; it is how we view the contents that determines the wealth and abundance of them.

We need the wide-eyed optimism of a girl that, despite dreary surroundings, can still see wonder in the world. And doesn’t question the where and why for of happiness, but wraps herself in it like a cozy, hand-knit sweater.

Polka Dot Penguin Pottery

It’s usually a good sign when the cover of a book on creativity is oriented so that it opens bottom to top rather than right to left. Once I opened the cover of Polka Dot Penguin Pottery by Lenore Look/illustrated by Yumi Heo, I kept waiting for the page where the text would shift to traditional format, but the entire book continues in this way. And what a testament to the creative process it is. And how refreshing that is addressed in a picture book for children.

Though it’s been floating around our house for awhile, I read it for the first time to my six year-old last week – a day or so after reigniting my love affair with writing my young adult novel. How fitting that I should find this story at that moment in time. The “author”, an eight-ten year old girl, introduces herself by her nom de plume, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee, stating that she writes stories “about monkeys and elephants, aliens and robots, and sometimes, about me.” She goes on to elucidate the writer’s process in the way only a child can. I sniggered to myself that I could’ve used this book a few days previous; if only I’d had the secret to finishing a story!

 

Illustration by Yumi Heo; image from George Shannon 

Alas, even with this fail-proof plan, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee falls prey to the dreaded writer’s block. Her grandparents suggest some ‘chill-out’ time and take her and her baby sister on an outing. On the way to Polka Dot Penguin Pottery, Aspen continues to make lyrical observations despite her writer’s block. “The wind lick[s her] nose and whistle[s] in [her] ears.” Once she enters the shop, [her] words are swirling around . . . and [she] cannot catch them.” A potent reminder of the fact that we are always writing – even when we walk, stare, converse, dead-head blooms in the garden – not just when we sit at the keyboard.

Unfortunately, the crippling malaise of writer’s block transfers to Aspen’s pottery painting project. Luther and Ivy, who sit nearby, tell her “you have to stay super-still and wait for something to happen.” The shop owner suggests she relax and have fun. When she makes a blotch on her ceramic egg by accident and thinks the project is ruined, her creativity soon blossoms because she realizes she has nothing to lose. “You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess,” says Ivy.

Taking risks and keeping at it are the true key to the creative process. Following your monkey mind even if – perhaps especially if – you don’t know where it’s leading.

“And this is the story that began with just hanging out,” Aspen finishes her narrative with.

All too often, I think writers, at least me, are crippled by the blank page or screen. I may have ideas zipping around my head like crazy, but once the word processor loads that blank screen, I feel a constricting band around my throat. Unless I can ‘not think’ like Aspen in this story. When she wasn’t looking for it, the story found her.

 

Some additional notes about this book:

  • While the format is landscape, find the spreads that have different views depending on which way you turn the book. For instance, the page where Aspen and her family walk the street; her family in relation to the words and the shops and other people on the street.
  • Search for whimsical details like the squirrel 🙂
  • Consider sharing this with other writers in your life – especially those who have trouble living the simple truth it conveys!
  • Expect to enjoy it perhaps more than your children. I don’t know if I love its value to children or the fact that it’s a kids’ book that introduces the concept of the creative process. I sometimes wonder if authors create some picture books with the adult who will be reading it aloud in mind. (Thank you!)
  • Another picture book I’ve come across addressing the creative process is Begin at the Beginning: A Little Artist Learns about Life by Amy Schwartz
  • It is not a coincidence if you find parallels between the creative process and life.  We could all adapt such useful lessons to our benefit.

 

 

 

Sky Magic

I grew up with many students who hated poetry.  Talented students.  Intelligent students.  Students who could write well themselves.  But understand what a poem was really saying?  And enjoy the process?  No way.

And then I became a teacher.  I worked with many teachers who avoided poetry, either because they had experiences similar to my former fellow students or because they figured their students would react in much the same way.

Somewhere between the playful lyricism of picture books and class study of extended texts, readers lose the magic of words, metaphor, and imagery, which is a missed opportunity for all.  Poetry uses words in beautiful and economical ways, providing teachable moments for literary terms and succinct expression.

That’s why when I find a children’s anthology of poetry, I am more than happy to check it out.  The latest one I’ve discovered is Sky Magic, a compilation by Lee Bennett Hopkins.  His volume, My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States, with lovely illustrations by Stephen Alcorn, once part of my classroom library, is now part of the special collection I plan to share with my own children.  So I was eager to check out this other volume, illustrated by Mariusz Stawarski.

Every poem in Sky Magic evokes the dreamy nature of stargazing and sunny mornings.  Every one is accessible, even those written by ‘adult’ authors.  An excerpt from Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo mixes well with a poem by children’s author and poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich (whose poems in There’s No Place Like School, compiled by Jack Prelutsky, I love).  All are accessible because they use sparse language to tell stories.  All good poetry does so, through phrases and symbols, examples and metaphors.  And there is no child – young or old – who cannot appreciate a story.  Poetry anthologies made specifically for children have the added bonus of illustrations to add yet another dimension to the story.  Stawarski’s paintings are so evocative of dreamy days and nights, they bring figurative language to literal life.

Share a book such as Sky Magic with the young readers in your life – or the poetry phobes – and usher in the dawn of a new era: another form of storytelling and verbal vision accessible to all.

Legends

In the language of stars
lie stories of old
brilliant legends
told; retold.

Spelling out sagas,
spilling out light,
a mythical manuscript
filling the night.
– Avis Harley

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