Monday, September 2, 2019

Courage vs. Violence

We have been splitting our time this past year between Midland, Texas and Denver, Colorado, so the recent shootings in Odessa, as well as Highlands Ranch, were very close to home.

We traveled the highway from Midland to the airport between Midland-Odessa around noon on Saturday, August 31, chatting with the driver about her previous work as a special education teacher and her husband's recent return from the Middle East where he was deployed with the national guard. I consider people like that to be everyday heroes working in the trenches. She was a fascinating person with a remarkable story.

We didn't know until we landed that someone had gone on a rampage and killed seven people on the highway between Midland-Odessa. I don't mention the gunman's name because it's not important.

A gunman randomly shooting people is NOT a compelling story. It takes no unique skill or ability. It requires no courage or bravery.

I want to know about the other people involved. I read the tributes to the people who died in the incident, but I don't want to know about their deaths only. I want to know about their lives. I want to know about the histories of the first responders. Any of them could have been making a lot more money working in the nearby oil fields. Instead, they chose to stay in public service where they knew their lives could be in jeopardy. I want to know about the people evacuated from the movie theater that came close to disaster but escaped it. I want to know about the small kindnesses and acts of bravery.

I appreciate the Midland Reporter-Telegram reporting on the shooting victims as well as describing the bravery of Zack Owens, one of the police officers who risked his own safety to keep the gunman from going into the nearby Cinergy Movie Theaters. I hope we hear many more of these stories.

In May there was a similar incident at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, five miles from our home in Colorado. That's old news now.  So many tragedies have happened in the months between. I liked the way the Denver News handled the STEM School incident. Their focus was on Kendrick Castillo, the young man who lost his life when he charged one of the shooters. Very little was said about the shooters, but Kendrick, his life, and his story were all over the news. Brendan Bialy, a survivor who also ran at one of the shooters said it best:

"As the trend is now to propagate the name of the shooter, shooters and their intents just kind of glorifies it, if anything inspires other people," Bialy said. "So in this happenstance, the absolute legend of the events of yesterday, Kendrick Castillo is the name I think should not go away to the sands of time." See Bialy's story at NBC NEWS.

It is of value to understand why people commit violence. When someone figures it out, I'd like to know that story, if it's short. But random violence isn't very interesting. It's easy. Anyone can replicate it. What I really want to know about are the everyday citizens who react to tragedy with courage, kindness, and fortitude. I want to know about heroes who don't even know they are heroes until they are suddenly called to action.

I hope that the news stories over the next few days and weeks focus on those heroes and their stories, and I hope that we, as a culture, start to value those stories more than we value stories of senseless anger. As we choose what to retweet, share to social media, and talk about around the water cooler, I pray that we can find those gems that may be hidden, but shine so much more brightly.

Sunday, August 25, 2019


My new favorite children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right, is on Pearl Street, the same location as my favorite Farmer's Market. Today I picked up these treasures I had on order, along with some Patter Bars and caramelized onions.

While I was there, I found out that Colorado native, Lindsay Lackey, will be launching her new book, All the Impossible Things, at Second Star on Tuesday, September 3 at 6:30pm. It's on my calendar! 

Here's what Katherine Applegate, New York Times–bestselling author of Wishtree has to say about Lindsay's book,  "Wise and wondrous, this is truly a novel to cherish.” You can tell from the cover that this will be a magical book.

All the Impossible Things is a middle-grade novel about a young girl with special powers who moves from foster home to foster home as she tries to find her place in the world. If you are in Denver, be there on September 3.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Captain Underpants and Dog Man to the Rescue of Struggling Readers

I recently started reading the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey with my students with dyslexia. Even the girls love this unlikely crime-fighting hero who is part cop and part dog. What makes these books even more meaningful is the fact that Dav has dyslexia and ADHD. He has several YouTube videos where he speaks very frankly about his experiences as a struggling reader. Check out the video on Reading Rockets. Pilkey was often sent out into the hall for being disruptive in class and would draw cartoons that he later shared with his peers. He was in second grade when he first came up with the ideas for Dog Man and Captain Underpants.

Feeling nostalgic, I looked through my son's old treasures and found the Captain Underpants books I bought for him seventeen years ago. He wasn't much of a reader at the time. I still remember him jumping up and down on the bed each night as I read to him and his sister. I wasn't sure if anything was soaking in. One day he came home from the school library with a Captain Underpants. When I saw the pure delight these stories of underwear and evil cafeteria ladies inspired, I went out and bought more. Those books are what turned my son into a reader.

My first young adult novel, Comfort, came out around that time. It tackled tough issues like alcoholism and family dysfunction. I remember wanting to write "important" children's literature and I thought a lot about what that meant. What I learned from my son's experience with Captain Underpants is this:

Important children's literature is the stuff kids choose to read when no one is making them read it.

With that definition, I'd have to say that Dav Pilkey's books rank right up there with Shakespeare. Interestingly, the same son who couldn't sit still for a bedtime story later took an entire class on Shakespeare in high school. In college, he gravitated to books on philosophy that I didn't even understand. I personally believe Captain Underpants is partially responsible for these successes.

Dav Pilkey recently talked to UNDERSTOOD.ORG about how he believes every kid has some kind of superpower, even if it is just imagination. He considers his dyslexia and ADHD to be his superpowers because they helped him to be very cautious about the words he chooses for each of his books and to "not be boring." See the post HERE and check out the other helpful resources at UNDERSTOOD.ORG for kids and parents. Pilkey created a free coloring sheet that is downloadable on that site.

Kids with learning disabilities and other challenges often feel alone. It helps for them to have role models to look up to who have overcome significant learning challenges. We have to be cautious, though, and not make kids feel that on top of all their other challenges, we have huge expectations for them to become Olympic athletes, famous illustrators, or billionaire entrepreneurs (Several of the entrepreneurs on Shark Tank have mentioned that they have dyslexia). That's why I really like what Pilkey says about imagination itself being a superpower. I also love that his Captain Underpants characters, George and Harold, are such unlikely heroes with the primary mission of defending, "truth, justice and all that is pre-shrunk and cottony." Their main gift is their imagination, and that is a superpower we must foster in all children.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

My New Favorite Children's Bookstore and My New Favorite Illustrator

Last week several children's authors from the Rocky Mountain Branch of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (RMC-SCBWI) met at Second Star to the Right Children's Books to mingle, socialize, and learn about the store's community outreach programs. This little bookstore does a lot of big work to promote literacy including arranging book drives and author visits for low-income schools. They will be expanding the size of their space over the course of the next year and want to become a community hub by providing room for everything from art classes to birthday parties. They are located on Pearl Street in Denver where my favorite farmer's market happens every Sunday.

I ordered a picture book, Titan and the Wild Boars: The True Cave Rescue of the Thai Soccer Team, to pick up while I was at the store and was surprised and delighted to discover that one of the illustrators at the gathering, Dow Phurmiruk, was the illustrator for the book! Titan was written by Susan Hood and Pathana Sornhiran, one of the reporters on-site during the eighteen-day ordeal. Titan is the true story of the heroic rescue of the boy's soccer team that got stuck inside a cave in Thailand for over two weeks in the summer of 2018 when a storm came up unexpectedly and flooded the area they were exploring. It took a team of international divers, Navy Seals, and scientists to devise a plan to get them out.

Dow was kind enough to pose with me above. She is also the illustrator for Counting On Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 which I used with my elementary school students for several weeks last spring. It is based on the life of Katherine Johnson, one of the women from the movie Hidden Figures, who helped to bring Apollo 13 home after an explosion in space. Dow does a brilliant job of simplifying abstract concepts related to calculus, physics, and aerodynamics through her artful and insightful illustrations. I wondered how an artist had developed such a deep understanding and appreciation of science. Then I found out that Dow is also a pediatrician and teaches at a medical school part-time.

I plan to highlight both of these books in my upcoming title with Brookes Publishing - Story Frames: Using Narratives to Improve Reading Comprehension, Writing, Executive Function Skills and More coming October 2020. Stay tuned for more details and sign up for my newsletter HERE.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Pseudoscience, Fringe Theories and MESMERIZED

The July 2019 issue of the ASHA Leader, a publication of the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association, has a very insightful article by Nancy Volkers about why pseudoscience is often more popular than statistics and real evidence. The article is entitled, “Does Truth Have A Future?” It looks at why fringe theories are so popular and what to do about their growing influence. 

Volkers points out that one of the reasons for the popularity of fringe theories is that blogs seem as credible to the unknowing reader as peer-reviewed research articles. Blogs are certainly easier to digest. As someone with a master's degree in science, I still find it a challenge to plod my way through research articles, even in my field. They are filled with statistics and jargon I can't always decipher. 

Blogs, on the other hand, can present ideas that make sense on a gut level, even when there is absolutely no science backing their claims, which means that we must all exercise caution when determining their value.

To counteract the effect of pseudoscience in social media, Volkers suggests that researchers (and the rest of us who appreciate real science) should be more visible on social media, which is the reason I'm exploring this topic on my blog. It’s also important to admit that science can be full of bias. Even deciding which hypotheses to test is a form of bias. 

Another article in the July issue of the ASHA Leader, “The Research Translation Problem: A Modest Proposal,” by Meredith Harold, suggests that clinicians (SLPs and audiologists), scientists, business owners, and leaders should use “Empathy-Rooted Problem-Solving” to bridge the gap between research and its practical application. Dr. Harold points out that the expected audience of a typical research article is other scientists, NOT therapists or teachers and certainly not the general public. She suggests that spreading the information in these articles in a way that others can understand could be done much more effectively than it is happening now. Also, more research should focus on the needs of the people in the trenches - the therapists, teachers, administrators, and publishers of educational resources who are responsible for putting research to practical use.

I recommend that anyone who has access to the ASHA Leader articles look these over closely. It is available to SLPs and audiologists who are members of ASHA. 

On this topic, I believe it's crucial to teach children from a young age how to understand the scientific process and how to recognize bias so that they will grow up to be wise consumers of the growing sea of information coursing through the internet.

One book that does this brilliantly but simply in a fun but compelling non-fiction narrative is Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France written by Mara Rockliff with illustrations by Iacopo Bruno. 

Benjamin Franklin travels to France to ask King Louis for financial assistance with the revolutionary war. While Franklin is in Paris, Dr. Mesmer creates quite a stir by claiming to have discovered a mysterious, new, invisible force with the power to cure any kind of illness. Benjamin Franklin exposes Mesmer for the fraud that he is by running experiments using the scientific method. The author and illustrator do an excellent job of explaining terms like hypothesis and placebo effect in a way that is both humorous and accessible.

I will be discussing Mesmerized at length along with several other non-fiction narrative picture books in my upcoming educational book, Story Frames: Using Narratives to Improve Reading Comprehension, Writing, Executive Function Skills and More (Brookes Publishing, October 2020).

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