The last few months have been tough for mirror-books where marginalized readers can find a reflection of themselves, and their history, culture, and joys. In some states these books have been pulled from library shelves and banned from classrooms, which leaves me wondering, “What are we afraid of?”
Because as an educator I have always believed that the point of education is to guide children to become independent, thinking, autonomous adults. People who can hear another’s point of view, observe differences, make inferences, and draw conclusions. These critical thinking skills should be taught not only in the sciences, but especially in the language arts.
The truth is, if you are a diverse reader, you will sometimes read books that make you feel uncomfortable. You might meet some main characters with whom it is hard for you to identify. You might see a point of view that opposes yours. That's okay. Keep reading. Because that is exactly why reading diversely is important. Reading books about characters, circumstances, or paradigms different from yours leads to questions. Hopefully those questions will lead to introspection, conclusions, and greater understanding. And deeper empathy for your neighbor.
Diverse readers become kind people.
Here we are, more than halfway through Black History Month, and I wonder, have you read anything this month that offers a window? Do the kids in your life have access to both windows and mirrors?
Here is a list of my recent reads by black authors or featuring contemporary black main characters. Check them out!
The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, art by Regis and Kahran Bethencourt
Boogie Boogie, Y’all by C.G. Esperanza
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Rachel Montez Minor, art by Annie Won
Change Sings: a Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman, art by Loren Long
Zuri Ray Tries Ballet by Tami Charles, Art by Sharon Sordo
Me &Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera
A Place Inside of Me by Zetta Elliot, art by Noa Denmon
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, art by Bryan Collier
Black is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy, Art by Ekua Holmes
Brown Sugar Babe by Charlotte Watson Sherman, art by Akem
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Tristan Strong Destroys the World, and Tristan Strong Keeps Punching by Kwame Mbalia
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone
The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert.
Black Boy Joy edited by Kwame Mbalia
Twins: A Graphic Novel by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright
New Kid by Jerry Craft (The first graphic novel to win a Newbury Award)
Class Act by Jerry Craft
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (All Elizabeth Acevedo’s books are fabulous!)
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Swing and Solo by Kwame Alexander (He also wrote Middle Grade Newbury Winner The Crossover. All his books are fantastic!)
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon (Yes, you want to read everything (everything!) Nicola Yoon wrote.)
Also check out books by Angie Thomas and Tomi Adeyemi.
To find out more about new books by black authors, sign up for Kwame Mbalia’s Black by Popular Demand newsletter here.
Last year during a particularly lovely walk on country roads, a dear writing friend and I were discussing, as we often do, our goals and progress. In the beginning of the year, she had set herself a pretty steep reading goal, but life threw a couple of curve-balls in her direction, her work situation had changed, and now these reading goals pressed heavily upon her. Here’s the thing, though: She is a reader. She reads copious amounts of books in all genres. Reading is not a task for her, but a joy.
Which led me to wonder, out loud, “Why do you have reading goals?” If we are true readers (and she and I both are), do we really need an app to remind us to read? Do we really need to add a number to the amount of books we consume? Wouldn’t we do it anyway?
My son is a ferocious reader. He will plough through books at the sonic speed of the Concord, and our local librarian can attest to that. There was a time when she’d raise an eyebrow at the tower of books he carried to the counter before he sprinted away to fetch a second stack. She has since learned to laugh and offer us an extra bag. For his ELA class he has to set a quarterly reading goal. Because he reads so much, he aims high. And lately, sometimes, too high, because he doesn’t take into account the increasing homework demands and extracurricular activities that come with growing up. This leads to stress and unhappiness and joyless reading at the end of the quarter when he discovers he is 20 books short of his goal.
Which leads me again to ask, “What is the point?”
Now, I understand: Not all people are eager readers. Sometimes, for totally legitimate reasons, some people are very reluctant readers. While others just haven’t found the right books yet. And others choose to spend their free time on different activities.
For reluctant readers who recognize that they are such, and would like remedy that I say, by all means, yes! Set some realistic reading goals.
For students who spend way too much time on screens, who are developing readers and writers, and who still have a lot to learn about interacting with the world and other people, yes, set reasonable goals.
But for those of us who already are readers, who find joy in books, who surround ourselves with books, who carry them with us wherever we go, who feel naked if we don’t have one within arm’s reach, just don’t. Don’t make a want a must. Don’t turn a joy into a task. Don’t suck the life out of something that should be life-giving to you. Reading is freedom. It allows your mind and heart to adventure outside your body. Don’t let your goals hold you hostage.
Now this is a risky opinion for me as someone who wholeheartedly believes in goal-setting and has been blogging about it on 24 Carrot Writing these last seven (!) years. But I also believe in rewards, in those carrots, so to speak, in celebration!
When I was in high school, reading wasn’t taught the way it is now, with reading workshops and book goals. But my teacher had a small classroom library (she was revolutionary!) and she often casually recommended books. One year she had us start a reading log in the back of one of our notebooks. She simply said, “Sometimes it is nice to see what you have read.” She never graded it, or made us fill it out. She did check it on occasion, because I would find encouraging notes from her there. And that fanned the flame of my love for reading.
So rather than setting goals for books to read, celebrate the ones you have read. Log them in Goodreads, or write them in a reading notebook, or color books on a bookshelf coloring page, or make a check mark in your bullet journal. You will still read as much, if not more than you would have with goals. But it will be free, joyful reading.
~ Amanda Smith
~by Amanda Smith
Working with Kristen Wixted and Heather Kelly on the cover reveal of FRIENDS & ANEMONES: Ocean Poems for Children, one theme came up time and time again: The conservation and restoration of the ocean, and ways in which we can contribute.
I have always been a big proponent of buying sustainable products and reducing single-use plastics in our household. While doing research for my poems, I learned more than I wanted to know about islands of floating plastic in the ocean, and how our wasteful living impacts the fantastical animals who call the ocean home.
The biggest problem by far, is single-use plastics. I have found a few wonderful products that we use in our everyday lives, and that help us cut back on single use plastics in our house.
We have been using Planet Box lunchboxes for the last nine years. These boxes are super durable and all the sections make for creative lunch options without having to use multiple baggies. They are dishwasher safe, easy for little hands to open and close by themselves, and come with insulated pouches and smaller canisters for dips or extras. At first glance the price might seem a bit high, but I promise you these are the last lunchboxes you will ever buy. We prefer the Shuttle lunchbox as it grew the best with our kids, meeting their middle and high-school lunch needs. For myself, I love the Rover, pictured here, as I’m not typically a sandwich person.
At home, I use glass bowls, such as these by Pyrex, for leftover storage. Even though the lids are plastic, they are durable, lasting for many years, and recyclable once they perish. However, sometimes one needs a wrap to cover that half a watermelon or avocado. I love beeswax wraps for this purpose. Investing in different sizes is definitely a good idea.
In my quest to limit plastic containers entering our home, I have switched to TruEarth laundry detergent strips. They are super easy, no mess, environmentally friendly, and they work! Simply pop one strip in your washing machine’s detergent dispenser and there you go. The strips are packaged in a fully recyclable paper envelope.
My main reason for resisting daily-wear contact lenses is the thought of innumerable tiny plastic containers, foil lids and lenses in landfills. This year during my optometrist visit, I noticed a contact lens recycling box in the office. Did you know Bausch and Lomb has a recycling program where every single item of your contact lens-use, from foil to lens can be recycled. Find out more here or ask your optometrist about it.
Years ago, we used to buy small plastic baggies for cleaning the litter box. It dumbfounded me that we would put perfectly biodegradable substances in a sealed, non-degradable bag. Our solution was to use small paper lunch bags. They work super if you close them well. We are not a dog household, so I don’t know it paper bags would work for dog needs, but I would encourage you to give it a try.
No matter how well intentioned we are, single use plastics will still find their way into our homes. What to do with film plastic such as bread bags, cereal bags, enormous plastic bags that cover furniture purchases, bubble wrap-envelopes used by delivery giants, cling wrap over fruit, shrink wrap around vegetables? Did you know you could recycle these along with grocery bags at most grocery stores? Just shake out the crumbs. As long as the plastic is clean, it can be recycled. Trex use these materials in manufacturing their composite wood decking. Learn more here about the Trex plastic recycling program and nationwide recycling partners, hang a large bag for collecting the single use plastics that enter your home, and start making a difference!
Plastic pollution and the way it impacts ocean life is not an easy fix. But by making a series of small changes in our purchases and behavior, we can collectively make a huge difference to the protection and rehabilitation of the ocean.
Oh, one more way you can directly be involved in protecting the ocean is to support the Rozalia project. Until the end of December all proceeds from the Writers’ Loft Anthology, FRIENDS AND ANEMONES: Ocean Poems for Children will also be donated to the Rozalia project
I am a member of The Writers' Loft. However, I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this blog, nor do I get any compensation from them. All opinions in this piece are my own, and based on personal experience.
Last year, when the Writers’ Loft posted the call for submissions for the anthology FRIENDS AND ANEMONES: Ocean Poems for Children, I knew right away that I wanted to participate. I was brand new at the Loft when their previous anthology AN ASSORTMENT OF ANIMALS was in the planning stages, and I missed the submission window. Once AN ASSORTMENT OF ANIMALS launched, my social media was filled with exciting group book events and library visits.
That was the experience I wanted. I needed to learn about the book making process, marketing, organizing book events, and presenting to an audience. How perfect for an introvert like me to learn with other authors and illustrators by my side.
This year I obviously didn’t get the book launch experience I had wanted when FRIENDS AND ANEMONES launched virtually in November. Nor are we having book store events, school visits or library story-times, yet. However, I gained so much more than I had bargained for when I’d first decided to participate:
One of the biggest gains for me was meeting the talented Leanne Leutkemeyer and Jodie Apeseche, who illustrated my words. I absolutely love their illustrations, and getting to know these artists on a more personal level was really meaningful to me. I always love learning from artists about their process and techniques, and as an extra bonus, I got to pick the brains of a slew of illustrators while doing guest blogs and cover reveals for 24 Carrot Writing.
The benefit of participating in a collaborative project like the anthology, is that it strengthens community. Our connections grow, names become friends, and we see more deeply the rich talent of the people within our community. Making new connections, and strengthening existing ones with fellow Lofters, are great advantages of the anthology. And we will continue to celebrate one another’s talents and future successes.
Even though we didn’t have a live launch, we did have a fantastic online launch, sponsored by The Blue Bunny Bookstore, and expertly presented by Kristen Wixted, Heather Kelly, and Bob Thibeault. No, I didn’t get the learning experience I expected, but I did learn a lot about virtual book events – something that might very well be here to stay.
Being part of this anthology, also made me think more about the protection of our oceans. I have always been a proponent of buying sustainable products. Learning about our partner, the Rozalia project and the environmental work they do, reignited in me the desire to be a more conscientious consumer. What a privilege to be part of a bigger goal, and to help show children, in a fun way, how small changes could make a big impact towards ocean protection.
To order FRIENDS AND ANEMONES click here, or at the Blue Bunny, or on Amazon. The first month’s proceeds will be donated to the Rozalia project.
Much has been said about mourning. Books have been written about how to mourn the loss of a loved one, and the stages of grief, neatly categorized, so we can know how to appropriately label our emotions.
And yet, there are always critics on how others mourn.
Not enough. Too much.
Too outwardly. Boxing in emotions.
Getting on with “normal life” too soon. Moping too long.
Ready acceptance. Denial.
And I suspect the reason why we are critical of others’ way of processing loss, is because we all do it differently – this coming to terms with the end. Because, ultimately mourning is a super personal thing. It is an individual sitting with the grief of losing another person with whom they had a unique, personal, individual relationship. With whom they had conversations, shared thoughts, that no one else had heard. With whom they had shared experiences. And physical touch. With whom they had laughed. And cried. Likely, argued. And sat speechless. And as individuals, they have to figure out how they will be carrying that loss with them in a manner that allows them to walk upright. To function. To love again.
Because we carry loss with us. Mourning is not something we do until we’re done. Loss weaves itself into our fibers. In time it might become less obvious, a thinner, lighter thread, but always present.
Three months after the passing of my father, I know I am still in the early stages of mourning. I’ll likely be stuck here for a while, because of circumstances preventing me from being in his space, or giving him a final, dignified farewell. Some may look at me and think I’m in denial, but I am very much aware.
I am aware that I will likely not experience the full impact of the loss until I walk through my parent’s door and hear only one voice greeting me. Have only one pair of arms folding me in an embrace. I know I will truly realize he is gone when I sit in their living room, waiting for the shuffle-sound of his slippers on the tile floor down the hallway. Watching in vain for his fingers to feel for the glass front bookshelf, a landmark in a world long gone dark for him. Never hearing the deep timbre of his voice, abundant with stories to share.
And yet, my heart is not heavy. I mourned deeply the five days between the Tuesday that an aneurysm took his beautiful mind, and the Sunday his body gave out. That week was overflowing with tears. Tears for suffering past and possible suffering yet to come. My father had more than his portion of suffering. He systematically loss his eyesight over a period of about thirty years, of which the last decade was the most traumatic and painful. As his vision reduced, his world shrank. He lost so many of the things that brought him joy: the ability to teach, read, write, watch the waves wash out on the beach, see his grandchildren’s faces. I mourned the possibility of his world shrinking even smaller. Of him losing his vivid memory, his ability to talk, the last meager bit of his independence.
I find that there is a duality in mourning. The deep sadness of the loss, combined with the relief that suffering has passed. Missing his presence in this world, but glad for him that he is spared the present brokenness of the world. It is that duality that makes it possible to walk upright. To find joy. To love. Because the very best way to honor his beautiful life, is to live beautifully.
Does your home feel like a place of rest, a peaceful sanctuary where you want to spend time with those you love? As a mother of young children, it can seem near impossible to find rest. Between the practical jobs of cooking and cleaning and teaching and taxiing, and the emotional jobs like therapist, soundboard, referee and voice of reason, resting is that thing you do when you fall down flat on your bed at the end of the day, right? But that isn't very life-giving. Here are a few ways that I have found to restore rest and peace to my household, and make my house truly the home where I want to be.
Practical ways to embrace rest in your home:
1. Make it easy to spend time with God. Keep everything you need in one place so you can grab a few minutes while the kids are napping or playing. I keep my Bible, journal, a pen, pencil and ruler all in on box that can travel with me from room to room. Every day Bible reading, or quiet time is difficult for a mother of young children. A MOPS mentor once told me “God gives young mothers grace”. Embrace that. But never stop trying. And keeping all your tools together, makes a quiet time more attainable.
2. Make room for solitude. In the book Sacred Rhythms Ruth Haley Barton explains solitude as “being with what is real in my life – to celebrate the joys, grieve the losses, shed my tears, sit with the questions, feel my anger, attend to my loneliness.” This is not a time of fixing, it is simply a time of inner-stocktaking and laying that stock before God. When my second child was a baby, my solitude came with night feedings. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it was just the only time of the day where I was sitting still in a quiet room. But it was very sweet and I often lingered long after my little one had drifted off to sleep. I recently met a mom who takes a monthly day retreat. She goes off to a quiet place by herself for the day - not to run errands, but to reconnect with herself, to be mindful of her emotions and thoughts, and to set her priorities for the coming month.
3. You set the tone in your house. As mothers we have the power to dial down the noise in our children’s lives. Setting good examples and boundaries when they are young, will shape their future habits. Here are few peace thieves and ways to deal with them:
5. Bust time wasters such as Facebook or other social media. (Perhaps moms also need jars with pom-poms?) Spending too much time on social media is never refreshing. It may be helpful to designate one 20-minute miracle towards that. Can you identify other areas in your life where you waste away time that you could have spent doing something life-giving?
6. Control your schedule, don’t let it control you. If you set the pace while your children are young, that will become their normal. Dr. James Dobson from Focus on the Family advises two activities per child per year. Andy Stanly in Parental Guidance Required says, “In our culture, parents often feel pressured to give their children just the right package of experiences. As a result, many children grow up experience-rich and relationship-poor…When it matters most the quality of your relationship with your children will determine the weight of your influence.” If you don’t spend time building relationship when your children are young, you will not have influence when they are teenagers. Relationship building takes time and effort and is hard to achieve rushing from one activity to the next. Let’s be mindful to create time for rest in our children’s schedules.
7. Be prepared. For example, plan meals around the family calendar so you are sure to keep the more involved dinners for evenings when you are not running around.
8. But be flexible. Meal plans and recipes are merely suggestions. Some days our best plans get derailed. Having the capacity to take such a derailment in your stride, adds to a restful atmosphere in your house.
9. Make it a priority to rest together as a family. Having dinner together is a great time to reconnect as a family. It is easy to extend this together time with a quick board game after dinner or sharing funny or heart-warming picture books.
10. Rest with your mate. When our kids are in bed, my husband and I sit down together on the couch with a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate. We rest and unwind together. Every day. This is my favorite part of the day. Make sure some of your resting and recreation include your mate.
Healthy rhythms in your house provide time to work, rest and play. And as we do those things that nurture our souls, we gain the resilience to parent patiently with love and grace.
Oh, this time of year. When the traffic goes crazy, and a ten-minute errand takes an hour. Our calendars grow full and our wallets empty. All the rush-rush-rush. To parties. And concerts. And holiday events. Stack on top of that our self-imposed traditions: Tree cutting; putting up our own and admiring others’ Christmas lights; pictures with Santa; cookie baking and decorating (and eating); equally divided time between families; and the gift buying, and wrapping, and returning. Are you feeling the peace? No?
Why do we do this to ourselves then? What is it that we chase so restlessly every December?
Here’s what I think:
We yearn for the connection that comes from soft conversation with a few friends who stayed to help clean the kitchen after the party. We yearn for the peace we feel when we stop to watch silent snowflakes shimmer in the glow of twinkly lights. We yearn for the moment the light falls just right through the stained-glass windows as choirs sing about a holy night. We yearn for the quiet reflection that comes with that moment. We yearn for assured hope. The tug in our spirits. The Divine.
And we rush, because we fear that missing this event, or the next, means we will miss out on the single opportunity to connect with Divinity. And that we’ll have to wait another year before we can try again. And in our frantic pursuit for meaning, we miss the whole entire point.
That a baby was born. Who would grow up to become a servant king, who sacrificed himself to forever restore humanity’s connection to His Father. We don’t have to wait for December, for tinsel, and choirs, and just-so lighting. Daily we can experience the community. The quiet reflection. The peace. The Divine.
Because of a Baby that was born.
When we first moved to the USA, we had visas that came with tight restrictions. My husband was only allowed to work for the company that sponsored his visa and I was not allowed to work at all. We were very careful to stay within the parameters of our visas, not wanting to do anything that could possibly hinder our road to citizenship, or result in exportation.
Later, when a small private school was willing to sponsor my work visa, procedures took longer than expected. The school year was about to start and my visa was still months away. I volunteered for the first few of months, receiving no compensation for my work in order to stay within the law and not jeopardize our naturalization process.
Three years later, when we received our Green Cards, we felt that we could breathe easier. Our stay wasn’t dependent on one company’s whim. We were able to change jobs when necessary and we had the freedom to stay here indefinitely. But there were still certain privileges we didn’t have.
In 2008 we became naturalized citizens of the United States of America. We checked in our previous citizenship and received US citizenship, along with all the privileges, freedoms and responsibilities tied to it. Citizenship is a loaded word! It implies security and protection. It means I have a voice and a vote – and responsibility in how I use my voice. I have shared interest in local and national government.
But mostly. I belong. I am home. I am not just a “renter” or temporary resident, but I am co-owner. I have interest here. The US have made an investment in me and vice versa.
Sometimes, when we think about God’s Kingdom, we live like temporary residents on a restrictive visa. Like we have to be so very careful not to mess things up. Like we can be kicked out at the slightest wrong-doing.
In Philippians 3:20 Paul writes: “But we are citizens of Heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.” Paul reminds us that when we are in Christ, we are citizens of Heaven. Through grace we have traded in our worldly passports for Heavenly citizenship and we are privy to all the privileges, freedom, security and responsibility this Heavenly citizenship affords. We can put down roots. We are home.
The first time I heard of Notre Dame, was in high school Art History class. We studied the cathedral as an example of Gothic architecture and we memorized terminology and floor-plans. We learned of cross-vaults and flying buttresses. But there was something else: The light in our teacher’s eyes. The awe in her voice as she described centuries of craftsmanship. Her gravitas as she tried to open our self-absorbed teenage eyes to the existence of something so much bigger, and grander, and more significant than anything we would have encountered at that age. Learning about this building ignited my imagination. The thought that places like those were not just for movies or books, but actually existed, launched grand dreams within me.
The first time I visited Notre Dame was on a cold, rainy December morning in 2014. Like almost every other tourist in Paris that day, we were desperate to get out of the freezing drizzle. With scarcely enough time to glimpse at the apostles guarding the entrances, I was carried into the cathedral along with a wave of other people. It was not at all the kind of visit I had imagined. The side-aisles were crammed with moving bodies, silently shuffling along in a dim gloom. Nervous to keep my young children in sight, and pick-pockets at bay (the carnal amid the sublime), I could only sneak quick peeks, or quietly point my children’s attention to the rose windows.
Just before the throng carried me out the doors, I stepped between the rows of pews. My husband, who instinctively understood the gravity that moment held for me, took the kids and whispered, “We’ll meet you outside.” For a brief second, I allowed my gaze to travel up the tapering columns, letting them fulfill their purpose. They drew my eyes, and my heart, past the crisscross vaults and decorative ceiling, heavenward. For perhaps two deep breaths, I beheld the worship offered by craftsmen centuries ago. And added my own. For a breath or two more, this travel-weary sojourner found peace.
The next time I saw Notre Dame, was on a bright blue, summer morning in August 2017. Once again, we were making the most of a long layover, exploring the parts of Paris we hadn’t visited the first time around. Notre Dame was not on our itinerary, as we had seen it the previous time, but we happened to walk past it on our way to catch our water-taxi on the Seine. I asked my family to slow down, to spend some time taking in all we missed that rainy December day. We talked about flying buttresses and structure. I admired tarnished bronze kings who climbed towards the tall spire and the delicate lace that trimmed the roof line. The Lady shimmered pure and white in the early morning sunshine, showing off amid vivid green and white gardens.
All throughout that morning in Paris, as we traveled along the Seine, or walked Paris’ streets, Notre Dame spires and towers were comforting beacons. She was a guide to navigate our way back home.
I wonder, in all the centuries you have graced the earth with your beauty, how many dreamers did you inspire? To how many travel-worn pilgrims did you provide sanctuary? How many lost and lonely did you lead back Home?
This often-lost traveler and dreamer thank you.
‘Till we see you again,
When I was a little girl, my mom taught me to sew. She taught me to thread the needle. She showed me to fold and pin the seams. She guided my unpracticed fingers to weave the needle in and out of the fabric to leave a neat row of tiny stitches. If I forgot to hold the short end of the thread and it slipped through the eye of the needle for the umpteenth time to lie limply on the fabric, she helped me pick up and start again. She taught me about tension. And later, sewing machines. And ripping out when those stitches were wrong, or crooked, or messy. Man, did she teach me about ripping out
While she was sewing grand outfits for her friends, or light summer dresses for me, I made little pillows from her fabric scraps. I embellished them with her cut-off pieces of ribbon and lace. I stuffed them with cotton wool from her medicine cabinet and spritzed them with perfume from her vanity. Carefully, I wrapped them in gift wrap from her closet. And then I ceremoniously gifted them to her. Small gifts from her great gift.
Creating is like that.
The talent and passion were placed in us by a loving Creator. The opportunities, education, and connections orchestrated by the One who provides according to our needs. When we mess up, or get stuck, or stumble, He is the Loving Father who helps us pick up and start again. And when we persevere, and edit, and finish, and offer Him our final product, it is a small gift to the Giver of great gifts.
Somewhere in my mother’s dresser, there is still a lopsided little pillow. The fragrance of the perfume long gone. The stitches crooked and uneven. The ribbon a touch too short and the insides creeping out where the seams were not properly tucked. She treasures that imperfect little gift. Not because she needs another pillow. But because she recognizes it as something made with love and gratitude.
And God is like that.
On this page,
I blog about life, motherhood, and faith. For more about writing, books, and authors, visit 24 Carrot Writing.