ORIGIN early 17th cent.: via French from Italian gazzetta, originally gazeta de la novità (because the news-sheet sold for a gazeta, a Venetian coin of small value)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Blissful Snowstorm

Ten days ago, in Washington, we got snow. It started falling around midnight on Friday night, the first evening of my two-week school break. It was bliss. There's something about magical about a first snow. There's something so quieting about snow (especially if you don't have to go to work the next day). As a friend from Brittany wrote recently when they got an unexpected snowstorm, La neige a suspendu le temps... ce silence blanc me fait penser à toi... I especially like to be tucked away snugly at home, which we were since it was the first day of school vacation. When I go back to teaching on January 4, my students will get a full dose of snow poems. The first graders will learn Snow by Mary Ann Hoberman. For the second graders, we'll learn Dust of Snow by Robert Frost. The third graders will learn The Snowflake by Walter de la Mare. The fourth graders will learn The Frost Pane by David McCord. The fifth graders will learn Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. I am lucky to be their teacher. I am lucky to be able to immerse myself and them in these wonderful poems.

Here are the poems.

Snow by Mary Ann Hoberman

Lots of snow
Everywhere we look and everywhere we go
Snow in the sandbox
Snow on the slide
Snow on the bicycle
Left outside
Snow on the steps
And snow on my feet
Snow on the sidewalk
Snow on the sidewalk
Snow on the sidewalk
Down the street.

Dust of Snow by Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

The Snowflake by Walter de la Mare

Before I melt,
Come, look at me!
This lovely icey filigree!
Of a great forest
In one night
I make a wilderness
Of white:
By skyey cold
Of crystals made
All softly, on
Your finger laid.
I pause, that you
My beauty see:
Breathe; and I vanish

The Frost Pane by David McCord

What's the good of breathing
On the window pane
In summer?
You can't make a frost
On the window pane
In summer.
You can't write a
You can't draw a
You can't make a smudge
With your nose
In summer.

Lots of good, breathing
On the window pane
In winter.
You can make a frost
On the window pane
In winter.
A white frost, a light frost
A quick frost, a thick frost
A write-me-out-a-picture frost
Across the pane
In winter.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It all began with poetry

In the picture above: Walter Dean Myers, Ralph Fletcher, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Jane Yolen, J. Patrick Lewis, Georgia Heard, Sylvia Vartell, Janet Wong.

I'm blogging from the NCTE Annual Conference in Philadelphia where for me, things have begun with a bang, a poetry bang. I have become connected to that genre late in life, thanks mainly to my teaching (see April 2009 blogpost), consequently, I feel I have much to catch up on. But back to the poetry bang. I was undecided as to what session to attend with when a "Poetry Party" listed as an early Friday morning session caught my eye. If anyone reading this went to that party and is wondering who I am: well, I was the lady in the burnt orange coat rolling in the aisle. What is it about poets? They are witty. They are pithy. They are droll. They make words come alive. They are irreverent. They are, dare I say, eccentric... and this poetry shindig was proof. The Poetry Party was celebrating poet Lee Bennett Hopkins about whom, I am ashamed to admit, I knew far too little (incredible but true). He was to receive the 2009 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Bobbi Katz I know, Georgia Heard, ditto. Jane Yolen, Dean Walter Myers, Douglas Florian, Mary Ann Hoberman, Paul Janeczko, all these folks and their poetry have become familiar to me. How, o how, could Lee Bennett Hopkins have been such a stranger? Fortunately, that gap has now been filled: he is forevermore before me. (Jane Yolen read an hilarious riff on "The Raven" that she had composed for the occasion.) I heard delightful stories about Lee: "Have you heard?" is how he starts his telephone calls and conversations with his dearest associates, for here is a man who loves to gossip. To all those lucky friends of his, he begins his letters and emails with "Dear One." Several of the poets and collaborators speaking there to celebrate his accomplishments admitted that they thought "Dear One" was reserved just for them. But this man has many dear ones. Yes, he was lovingly ribbed and playfully teased by his colleagues and friends who obviously adore him. I learned that he's infamous for his red pen and editing slashing, that he banishes the ands, buts, and any superfluous words from poems he edits. At this, his 40th NCTE convention, some wondered why he was receiving this award so late. Sylvia Vartell (whose blog Poetry for Children is a must for all poetry lovers) compiled a book with poems by friends (all poets) of Lee called "Dear One" and all the party attendees received a copy. We also heard the poets read their own poems celebrating, teasing, loving Lee. Was I glad I choose to attend! I walked out of the session happy, feeling light-hearted, young, encouraged, delighted. Happiness comes in wonderful little packages. This package contained a gift: that of revival, envigoration, balm, hope, encouragement, humor.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Children's Literature in Translation

Try to imagine for one minute how impoverished the children of the world (and we as adults) would be if certain works of literature had never been translated. We would be deprived of some of our richest and most interesting imaginative literary friends: Collodi's Pinocchio, Jean de Brunoff's Babar the Elephant, Hergé's Tintin, Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, Aesop's animal creatures,
and all of Charles Perrault's fantastical Mother Goose Tales, including Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss 'n Bootos, and Cinderella. We would be unaware of the Arabian Nights: Schererzade's telling of Aladdin's Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, and the many colorful and intriguing characters from the Thousand and One Nights. We would not know the Grimm Brothers' Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel. Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, Red Shoes, Ugly Duckling, and the Princess and the Pea would be strangers to us! The adventure of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the delight of Joanna Spyri's Heidi, and the sleuthing of Erich Kästner's Emil and the Detectives would have passed us by. Yet, these stories and characters have inhabited our minds since we were young, and it is thanks to translators and translations that they have.

Despite these familiar authors, much loved characters, and compelling stories, fewer than 2 percent of titles currently on our bookstore or library shelves here in the USA are translations. In France, translated works count for 23 percent. If it's true that English-language works for children are among the most beautiful, vibrant, and creative, it is also true that without world literature, we cut ourselves off from a source of
enchantment, wisdom, and knowledge. The dominance of the English language worldwide is often a sore sticking point in the current debate on translation. Why should one language dominate the global cultural landscape, detractors argue. Others say, why bother to translate when we have such a wealth of our own literature?

Philip Pullman, author of the award-winning fantasy triology, His Dark Materials, expressed it well in his introduction to Outside In: Children's Books in Translation by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini: "You never know what will set a child's imagination on fire... but if we don't offer children the experience of literature from other languages, we're starving them. It's as simple as that." I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment. This book aims to celebrate and actively promote an interest in international children's literature has generated some badly needed enthusiasm as well as an organization, Outside In World, dedicated to promoting and exploring world literature and children's books in translation. I like to think that John Newbery, often viewed as the first publisher of children's literature and whose leitmotiv was to "combine instruction with delight," would have been a big supporter.

The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) was founded after WWII with the objective of promoting international understanding through children's literature. In 1956, it established the Hans Christian Andersen Award for a living author and illustrator whose works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature. In 1978, it added an Honour List to include a category for acknowledging excellence in translation. It also publishes a journal, Bookbird, a journal of international children's literature, which reviews and recommends books for translation.

Stateside, the American Library Association (ALA) established the Mildred Batchelder Award in 1966, to be given to the American publisher of the most outstanding translation into English of books originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States. The award promotes the translation of children's literature, seeking "to eliminate barriers to understanding between people of different cultures, races, nations, and languages." The 2009 Award winner was for Arthur A. Levine Books' Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, written by Nahoko Uehashi, translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano. And the two 2009 Honor Books were translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, and from the German by Anthea Bell.

A propos, ever heard of Asterix? Of course you have. Ever heard of Anthea Bell? Probably not. In the world of translation of children's literature, she's the equivalent of a rock star! In 1996, 2003, and 2007, she received United Kingdom's Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation, an honor that goes to the translator rather than to the author. In her vibrant translation of the Asterix bandes dessinées, she did an phenomenal job of keeping the original playful puns intact, receiving high praise for her creatively innovative translation. When interviewed, she once said that a translator becomes another author while at the same time having to get under the skin of the original author. She has translated the wildly popular Inkworld triology by Cornelia Funke. Her translations have won for her publishers the Batchelder Award four different times, and the Batchelder Honor three different times to date, most recently in 2009 for Amulet Books' Tiger Moon, written by Antonia Michaelis, translated by Ms. Bell from the German.

As an advocate for the translation of children's literature, I believe the purpose of books in translation - besides the sheer pleasure of discovery and reading - should be to acquaint children with other cultures. As Anthea Bell put it in a 2006 interview with Writer Unboxed, "The more widely children read, the more open-minded they will surely get to be." An arduous yet exhilirating task, translating children's literature is what I love. Seeking the words and phrases that will convey original meaning is better than solving the most challenging puzzle. If the work of translators breaks down barriers of language and race and geography leads to a greater understanding of other peoples and their culture, might translators be working for world peace?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Complete Idiots

Wow. The SPX (Small Press Expo - an independent cartooning and arts festival), took place this weekend in Bethesda, and once again, it blew me away, just as it has done every year that I've attended. These people are not jaded! They are not blasé! Au contraire, they are fresh. They are alert. They are open-minded, hopeful, witty, fun, quirky, independant, eccentric (everything I dreamed of being when I was a little girl). The atmosphere is friendly, even cozy, it's like all the kids have gotten together with no repressive bosses or overprotective parents hovering over their shoulders. A breath of fresh air. I came away feeling playful.

In this vibrant ambiance of eclectic creativity, I met two idiots. I'm not kidding, these are real people: their names are Robbi and Matthew and they are the creative force and the elbow grease behind... Idiots'Books. After only 10 minutes chatting with them, I felt like we were partners in crime. What had first caught my eye (so many stands, so little time) was one of their collaborative creations, a small, almost tiny, book entitled The Baby Is Disappointing. I casually picked it up and to my utter delight, I discovered an irreverant work that is at once hilarious and totally true. Wait! Did they really, in this age of The Child We Must Fear, dare write and illustrate such realities as "The baby is disappointing. It lies about and yowls. There are moments of minor satisfaction, but frankly we had expected more." (And that is only page 1!) I laughed out loud. I howled out loud. Keep in mind that I am the mother of three children (all older than 21 and whom I adore) as well as a teacher of 6-, 7-, 8-, and 9-year olds.... and that I write for children. What I often find lacking in the world of children-adult relationships is a healthy dose of deprecation, a dash of satire, and a pinch of irony, ie, let's not (we adults) take ourselves and them (the kids) so seriously - they'll turn out OK, and no, it's not necessary to micro-manage every second of a child's life, and yes, it's OK not to be "in love" with your progentiure at every turn. It's also possible to continue being an adult even after becoming a parent.

The playful wickedness of Roald Dahl comes to mind, the radical snarkiness of Lemony Snicket comes to mind, Amélie Nothomb and her subversive childhood antics come to mind, the guilt-free practicality of French parents comes to mind!! (From the vantage of the American cultural landscape, Judith Warner's book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, warning of falling into the trap of "total parenthood" and becoming slaves to one's children, also comes to mind.)

The entire book is a hoot. The last two pages are very funny and recounts the moment when the baby is finally asleep... but only for so long. "...We cross our fingers and hold our breath and watch the clock as the baby sleeps. We count the seconds as they pass, bracing ourselves for decades to come."

Conclusion: Check out their Baby book and check out the others. I bought several (After Everafter, Ten Thousand Stories, and Nasty Chipmunk) and am planning to use them with my first graders who are more than capable of understanding the complexities of the human conditon, of discussing subjects we usually shy away from - subjects that these two idiots address in their funny and irreverant books.

Their logo, if it is indeed a take on "out of the frying pan into the fire," is competely à propos. You'll either hate these guys or adore them! So, here's to the idiots, to Robbi who draws the pictures, and to Matthew who writes the books. I believe they're on to something. Check out their website at www.idiotsbooks.com. Even though it is only a homeopathic dose of irony in a bland world of treacly sweetness, it may be enough to start a revolution.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Multicultural Children's Book Festival

The 14th annual Multicultual Children's Book Festival, sponsored by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, is intent on celebrating diverse cultures. From the look of yesterday's enthusiastic throng of children, families, teachers, and children's book lovers, the festival was a huge success. Attendees met favorite and featured authors, participated in workshops, listened to readings, and saw illustration demonstrations. The cultures of African, African-American, Arab, Arab-American, Asian, Asian-American, Latin American, Latino, and Native American peoples were all represented. With my ties to all things French, I asked one of the organizers if next year, European countries, with their wide array of languages and cultures, might find a place at the table: Why not share with American children the literature of Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, England, and more... wouldn't that make a fine addition to multiculturism?

I was lucky enough to hear Linda Sue Park read from her delightful picture book "Bee-bim Bop!," a poem about a dish every Korean child enjoys, consisting of rice, egg strips, vegetables, and meat. The joy expressed in her poem made me want to run out to my local market, buy the necessary ingredients, and whip myself up a batch of bee-bim bop. You can imagine how pleased I was when, later that evening, I discovered the recipe at the end of the book. She also presented "Yum! Yuk!," a fold-out book of people sounds expressing sentiments such as distaste, laughter, and surprise. As she pointed out, we say things one way in English, but in other parts of the world, the same human exclamations are voiced very differently. Her first presentation had the audience eating out of her hand while the second had them squealing with delight! I can't wait to share these two books with my new class of first graders at the lycée. When I finally got the chance to chat with her, she signed a copy of her work of a more serious nature for middle grade children, "The Single Shard," winner of the 2002 Newbery Prize. With its unforgettable characters, timeless theme, and vision of artistic endeavor, this quiet but forceful story is one of my favorites for young people.

If my encounter with Linda Sue Park was lighthearted and fun, meeting and speaking with Anne Sibley O'Brien, illustrator, writer, and peace activist was just as much a treat, but on a whole other level. Anne spent her childhood in Korea and has long been passionate about multiracial and multicultural subjects. I choose to purchase "The Legend of Hong Kil Dong, The Robin Hood of Korea," a picture book in graphic novel form, which I have now read and adored! Hopefully, my school will let me order 20 copies for my fourth graders. Stories such as this one are ageless and children need to read of other children whose courage is tried and tested.

Of all the beautiful books I saw on Saturday afternoon, the one that moved me the most was the book Anne has co-authored with her son, Perry Edmond O'Brien, "After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance," published by Charlesbridge. This work contains profiles of fifteen activists and movements for social justice in the spirit of Gandhi's nonviolent resistance. In a presentation at the end of the day, she read to us the passages concerning César Chávez and Aung San Suu Kyi. In the book, we also find Mohandas Gandhi (of course) as well as Rosa Parks, Thich Nhat Hanh, Charles Perkins, Muhammad Ali, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Willams, Wangari Maathai, Nelson Mandela, Václav Hav, all of whom were inspired by Gandhi, his words, and his deeds, and all of whom have worked through peaceful ways, to fight injustice and better the world (and some of whom, I am not proud to say, I had never heard). The Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the Student Activists of Tiananmen Square are also presented. Most importantly, she raises the question of nonviolence in shaping our future. My questions now are: how do I share these profiles with my students? Beginning at what age? In what context? How does one learn tolerance? How does one teach tolerance?

Friday, August 28, 2009

End of Summer

The weather is stiffling hot in Washington DC. After eight weeks off from teaching, I must go back to school on Monday. No complaints, just an ambiguous feeling of wanting this humid mugginess to end while, at the same time, wanting summer to last forever. Crickets chirp loudly and incessantly outside my study window, tempting me to believe that summer will never end. These two poems remind me otherwise.

End of Time

Late August heat,

before the dregs

of a Gulf hurricane

drags its rain

and a chill Canadian breeze

over us,

has the crickets singing

end of time songs.

by Kathleen M. Tenpas

End of Summer

The little songs of summer are all gone today.

The little insect instruments are all packed away:

The bumblebee's snare drum, the grasshopper's guitar,

The katydid's banjo, the cricket's violin,

The dragonfly's cello have ceased their merry din.

Oh, where is the orchestra? From harpist down to drummer

They've all disappeared with the passing of the summer.

by Rowena Bennett

Monday, July 13, 2009

Meandering With a Mazy Motion

On a lovely Saturday evening in June, I attended an opening at the Hamiltonian Gallery at 1353 U Street in one of Washington DC’s contemporary art districts.  As the gallery quickly filled up with folks, chatting, visiting, viewing, I felt lucky that I had had a chance, by arriving early, to view some of the works unimpeded by the large and noisy crowd that followed.  

The show is called “new. (now).” and it introduces the Hamiltonian Gallery’s five new Fellows, recipients of its fellowship program designed to promote new and innovative visual artists not yet represented by a gallery.  This year’s five Fellows are young artists, recent graduates, all of whose work is distinctly different.  One artist’s work caught my attention, and pulled me in, and held me:  that artist’s name is Katherine Mann, and her Filigree, an 80-inch by 30-foot work on paper using acrylic, watercolor, and sumi ink, from 2009, was a joy to behold.

I’m not an art critic, and do not have the knowledge or the vocabulary with which to take apart and analyze works critically, but as an art lover, this is what I felt when viewing Katherine’s large work:  There is something organic, something playful, something fantastic, something real about it.  The sensuous lines conjure up detailed landscapes and messy maps, interconnections and intersections.  The undulating shapes take surprising twists and turns.  The images seem to be alive with feeling, and thought, and purpose, and the work literally took my breath away.  Best of all, permeating every square inch of the immense work is color: gorgeous, vibrant, breathtaking, energetic color!

You can learn more about Katherine Mann at:   http://katherinemann.net

Read about the Hamiltonian Gallery at:   http://hamiltonianartists.org


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Une soirée à moi avec un roman parfait

Récemment, j'ai eu la chance d'avoir une soirée à moi pour la lecture d'un roman parfait. Il s'agit de L'Elégance du hérisson de Muriel Barbery.  

Ce roman pétillant et incisif relate la merveilleuse et mystérieuse histoire de Madame Michel, concierge d'un immeuble parisien très chic que tous les occupants croient banale, car pour eux, elle ne peut être que la concierge typique sans intérêt. Ce qu'ils ne savent pas, ce qu'ils ne voient pas, c'est que  derrière ses airs revêches et mal fagotés se dissimule un esprit lumineux, une philosophe, une savante même, une critique non seulement littéraire mais aussi musicale, cinématographique, et en plus, sociologue qui sait décortiquer au couteau aiguisé les moeurs de société, une femme qui lit Marx, Husserl, et Kant, une métaphysicienne au coeur! Les familles qui vivent au 7 rue de Grenelle passent devant elle, jour après jour, année après année, et ne la voient pas. Ils ne la verront jamais car ces grands pontes industriels, ces députés importants, cette élite sortie des meilleures écoles, tous imbus de leur propre importance, n'en sont pas capables. En parallèle de l'histoire de Madame Michel, une autre voix raconte la sienne : il s'agit de Paloma, une petite fille de 12 ans d'une maturité précoce qui habite le même immeuble. Les deux récits s'entrecroisent lors de l'arrivée de Monsieur Ozu, le grand perturbateur du status quo.  La lecture de l'histoire de Madame Michel, de Paloma, de Monsieur Ozu ainsi que de tous les autres personnages qui respirent tout au long de ces pages, m'a entièrement ravie. J'ai ouvert le livre à 17h et je l'ai fermé à minuit. J'en ai oublié de manger! A la place, j'ai dégusté un livre écrit dans un français élégant comme l'on déguste un délice raffiné, et sa lecture m'a procurée une sensation de bonheur, de légèreté, et de satisfaction. J'y ai trouvé d'autant plus de bonheur que Madame Michel, Paloma, et Monsieur Ozu sont des méticuleux, des tâtillons, des scrupuleux - des amoureux - de la beauté de la langue de Molière. Un petit détail qui m'a fait plaisir : tous trois comprennent que la grammaire n'existe pas pour que nous parlions et écrivions bien, mais plutôt pour nous montrer la beauté de la langue que nous adorons. Je me suis particulièrement régalée avec l'histoire de la virgule et celle de "pallier à ça". D'ailleurs, ces trois personnages sont unis par une sensibilité à la Beauté ainsi que par une réflexion constante sur le sens de la vie : "...beaucoup de désespoir, mais aussi quelques moments de beauté où le temps n'est plus le même...un toujours dans le jamais...", dira Paloma.

Tout au long de ma soirée, je dégustais ce livre comme un mets savoureux tant il y avait des références qui trouvaient écho en moi :
-Je suis amatrice de thé ainsi qu'une grand fan de cinéma.
-Faire rentrer les camélias au coeur de l'histoire était pour moi une note pleine de grâce car mon grand-père louisianais les cultivait.
-Comprendre un peu plus les complexités des strates de la société française est d'une grande utilité car naviguer ces eaux périlleuses n'a jamais été chose facile pour l'américaine-née que je suis.
-"N'ayez qu'une amie, mais choisissez-la bien" : cette belle phrase limpide, prononcée par Madame Michel, reste inoubliable.
-En littérature comme dans la vie, j'aime les filles intelligentes voire surdouées à qui l'on ne raconte pas d'histoires. La scène avec le psychothérapeute vaut, à elle seule, le prix du livre !
-Après avoir (enfin) lu Anna Karénine de Léon Tolstoï il y a deux étés, ma vie de lectrice est plus riche. Ma lecture de L'Elégance du hérisson en a été rendue plus profonde par le simple fait de connaître (et d'aimer) l'histoire et les personnages de Tolstoï. 

Pour conclure, ce roman émouvant et drôle me fait jubiler. Aux réflexions de Madame Michel lorsqu'elle embroche ceux qui l'entourent par ses observations acerbes mais toutefois pleines d'humour, je ris et j'applaudis. Aux angoisses et tâtonnements de Paloma, j'approuve et je compatis. A la délicatesse et à la sensibilité de Monsieur Ozu, je suis émue et je pleure. Conte de fées? Pas vraiment, car le "happy ending" n'est pas au rendez-vous. Roman parfait? Oui, car Muriel Barbery y rassemble humour, intelligence, poésie, culture, personnages, et belle histoire avec une élégance de grand écrivain.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Few Things I Love About Paris

Last week, I was in Paris where I spent a week lending a helping hand to my son who was moving. Couldn't he have done it by himself? Bien sûr que oui. But then, any excuse to spend a week in Paris is a good excuse! There was work to be done, but afternoons of putting things in boxes gave way to evenings at sidewalk cafés and mornings of packing suitcases were followed by strolls in the streets where I lost all notion of time and began to live in the present moment. Besides the pure pleasure of a week in Paris, I was lucky enough to be staying in a graceful 2-bedroom apartment with high ceilings and impeccably soothing interiors in one of Paris' most pleasant neighborhoods, a pied à terre lent to me by friends, a serene oasis in the middle of a hustling bustling city. My short 7-day stay in Paris reminded me of a few things I love about France - a place I lived for almost twenty years and for which I often yearn, despite the fact that there are many things about living in the States that energize and please me - and so I made a list.

-The sound of church bells ringing.
-The aroma of coffee and chocolate.
-The accessibility to an entire city through the métro, a means of public transportation used by old and young, rich and poor, little old ladies with their shopping bags and pierced punks wearing outrageous makeup, traveling side by side in a vehicle which contributes to a certain social cohesion among classes. For residents and visitors alike, all you need to explore Paris is a metro ticket.
-Music in the métro, whether it be the strains of an accordeon playing a traditional French waltz that makes one want to embrace the moment and sway to the music, or a saxophone wailing a loud lonely air that can be heard through the long winding hallways underground.
-People in the streets.
-Waiters in restaurants leaving me alone once I've been served, not expecting me to make way for the next patrons, and the subsequent feeling that everyone around me knows it is completely and utterly normal not to be rushed when eating, whether alone or sharing a meal with friends.
-The omnipresence of history. One tiny example: As I prepare to go to a friend's flat in the 15th arrondissement, my son casually says, "Get off at Dupleix. He was the French governor of India in the 18th century right before the Seven Years War (known in the States as the French and Indian War but which was actually an earlier world war fought in North America, India, and Europe!) reputed for his intelligence...." Take any metro stop, any landmark, any coin de rue, it is steeped in history.
-Women everywhere, of every age, of every socio-economic level, displaying a sense of style.
-The scent of perfume. For women, luscious or spicy. And for men, crisp or woody.
-Andouillettes! And so much more!
-Need I mention the ubiquitousness of excellent wine?
-The pervading smell of fresh bread and croissants.
-Having breakfast, alone, in a small café.
-Taking my time in Les Galeries Lafayette.
-Lingering in bookstores.
-The cool air of Paris by night.
-Seeing the Eiffel Tower, again.
-My favorite tea shop, Mariage Frères, on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg.
-Visiting L'Artisan Parfumeur, and finally, after all these years, daring to buy a circus-inspired perfume I fell in love with 15 years ago called Dzing!
-The custom of the handshake as an everyday, everytime greeting, with its accompanying warmth and sensuality.
-The metallic and musical sound of horns honking, although, due to recent French laws, horn-honking has been curbed!
-Shops and businesses closing for an hour at noon, closing on Sundays. American efficiency is wonderful, but isn't it civilized to pause, and not just rush headlong in life without ever stopping?
-A certain je ne sais quoi in the fresh smell of new tobacco.
-Having an entire evening to myself to read L'Elégance du hérisson by Muriel Barbery, and being thoroughly enchanted. (This will soon be the subject of another blog entry.)
-The pleasure of being immersed in my adoptive language, of hearing it spoken not just at my home and at work (as I do in the US), but all over, by everyone.

All these things - plus the excitement of meeting with the founder and editor of a young and vibrant publishing house whose collections represent concepts dear to my heart: bilinguism and girl power - were a few of the things that struck my senses during my week in Paris. Nostalgia? I chalk it up to the enjoyment of a culture, a country, and a language I like to call my own.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Memorizing Poetry

A fellow children's literature blogger, Chicken Spaghetti, brought to my attention John Holt's essay Got Poetry? which appeared online in the April 2 New York Times Book Review.  The essay expounds on the benefits of memorizing poetry... from the point of a baby boomer.  I thoroughly enjoyed the article and felt encouraged about my secret sideline.  On the sly, I have been memorizing poetry for about ten years now.  It all started when I began teaching English at the French lycée where primary school students are required, in their French language classroom, to learn, memorize, and recite poetry on a regular basis. I'm talking 6- to 10- year old kids!  Every year, they began class with a new poetry cahier, and to my observation, they never question that poetry is part of their school work, just like math, or geography, or science. Even the requirement of reciting in front of their classmates doesn't seem to faze them. Memorizing poetry is just something they do.  For me, it was beginning teacher's luck, a gift handed to me on a silver platter, for it was quite an easy thing to transfer this poetic rigueur into their English class. And so, I included the memorizing of a poem per trimester during my first year of teaching, and ever since, it's been a poem a month.  The amazing and wonderful thing is that not only do the children do it almost effortlessly, they lap it up, they love it, and poetry time is a happy and relaxed time for them.  (And anyone who knows the French system of education knows that there's not much relaxing going on!) Refreshingly, no one speaks of how horrible it is to have children learn by rote!  The memorization frees them from the shackles of bad speech (and the incessant use of the word "like"), and the enjoyment that ensues has everyone feeling as pleased as punch.  

Mais revenons à nos moutons:  As my students memorized their monthly poems, I too would memorize the same one I was requiring them to learn, and was surprised at how utterly empowered  it made me feel.  From that point on, I began to learn poems on my own on a regular basis and I continue to this day. At first, I went out and bought Committed To Memory, 100 Best Poems to Memorize, edited by John Hollander, and just dove in!  Since then, I've continued to buy wonderful anthologies, but I've also branched out and bought books of individual poets. There is something absolutely wonderful about being able to declaim beautifully crafted words.  There is something absolutely invigorating  about making one's brain crunch the words before getting to the place where the words free themselves within the brain and you just run with it.  I am hooked.  I don't write poetry, but the discovery that I can memorize and enjoy it has been a wonderful new avenue of awareness for me.

And speaking of poetry for children:  Of course, my primary school students adore the poems of Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Douglas Florian, Nikki Giovanni, and Bobbi Katz - that goes without saying.  But get this:  they also adore Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, Ted Hughes, Ogden Nash, William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Parker, and Lewis Carroll - not too shabby, n'est-ce pas?

I recently came across Norman Shapiro's fabulous La Fontaine translations, The Complete Fables of Jean de la Fontaine. Because the fourth graders had already learned La Cigale et la fourmi in French, I took advantage of this opportunity to introduce the idea of the translation of great works of literature and I had them learn and memorize The Cricket and the Ant. It turned out to be a good bilingual project and one that got many of them thinking about interpreting not only words but meaning and pleasure. What a declamation there was the day we recited! Might we have some budding poets in our midst? Aspiring translators? Future interpreters? I can only hope so.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March Madness

The month of March has flown by. When I think back and wonder what I have accomplished, nothing comes to mind. I had hoped to write a blogpost per week, but there you have it - my first one is on the last day of of the month! A busy end of the teaching trimester, a few translation projects taking up my out-of-school time, and the three stories I'm working that seem to be going nowhere in spite of continued efforts... and March is gone. Through it all, the tug of the writing life refuses to leave me! The good news is that I've had a companion during this crazy month, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and this small volume has helped me get through what has turned out to be an uneven season. Introduced to me by Marlys Hershey - a woman I've yet to meet in the flesh - Bird by Bird is a meaty, chewy, main-course kind of book. It continues to nourish my soul and is proving to be truly inspirational with respect to the writing life. This book tastes good. Its smells earthy. It speaks volumes to me. It touches my spirit. It enlightens my obscurity and offers vision. A five-senses-kind-of-book! As I now read it for a second and third time, I am taking note of how I can implement some its lesson on life and writing.
The book is witty and real. It's gritty and down to earth. It's unsentimental and practical. Anne Lamott says over and over again that the writing life is a life of discipline, yet she encourages writers to be not so hard on themselves. OK, Anne, I'll try to follow that advice. Writers who feel discouraged? Well, that's alright: it's part of the human experience. This book has been my March experience - the end of winter and the beginning of spring - so I guess things haven't been so bad after all. Besides, tomorrow is the beginning of National Poetry Month, so things are definitely lookin' up!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why I Love Teaching First Graders

Mouhamad is boisterous
Aglaé is sweet-tempered
Lily is as smart as a whip
Inès is endearing
Patrick has a voice to sing opera
Claudia is perspicacious
Santiago loves color
Brayden is coquin
Nayla is blissfully happy
Situ Coralie's the boss
Alexandra is playful
Cool Kenan takes it all in
Justin bright as a new penny
Colombe is as sweet as a dove
Eric sees everything and gets it
Alara?  She is Turkish delight

With sixteen students and twelve nationalities ranging from French to Turkish, from Mexican to Lebanese, from Belgian to American, from Spanish to Senegalese, from Togolese to Brazilian, and from Korean to Burundian, why wouldn't I love teaching first graders?  Well, there's always the bouquet of languages that I love, too.
I'll name a few:
French English Arabic Spanish
Fula Kirundi Korean Turkish
Did I mention that we also
Hear Portuguese and Togolese...
Do you still wonder 
Why I love teaching these?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Marblelous Marvels...

Marbles fascinate me. Although I was vaguely aware of their existence during my childhood and youth, it wasn't until I lived in France that I discovered how amazing they are.  There, marbles are significant both as objects that people collect and play with as well as vocabulary that colorfully and abundantly enriches the French language.  I observed with amusement when my three sons, without any guidance or input from their American mother, became interested in playing marbles, collecting marbles, trading marbles, and becoming marble experts by the time they trod up the hill to our neighborhood
école.  I wondered what all the excitement and fuss were about until I took the time to discover that marbles embody a world of color, beauty, history, fun, and... language.

Two expressions using the word "marble" exist in English - think of "pick up one's marbles and go home," indicating that someone doesn't want to play or participate anymore, or "lose one's marbles," meaning that a poor soul is suffering from either a nervous breakdown or just can't think straight and has lost his or her bearings.  The French word for marble, bille, however, crops up in so many ways and so frequently, that expressions abound.  Let's start from the top:
bille en tête - head-on
avoir une bonne bille - have an honest face
faire une drôle de bille - look weird
bille de clown - have a funny face
bille de billard - bald
avoir les yeux plus ronds que des billes - naïf, even stupid, definitely clueless

Continue with intelligence or ability:
toucher sa bille - to be darn good at something, to know a thing or two about something
avoir des billes pour - to have some clues about something

Or on the contrary:
ne me prenez pas pour une bille - I'm not stupid!

And finally, in life and in love:
retirer ses billes - get out of the game, pull out
rendre ses billes - to turn it all in and quit
placer ses billes - to invest, to bet, to take a risk
à billes égales - level playing field

I'm pleased to note that every September, on the playground of the école primaire where I teach, students come back to school with their marbles:  they play, they trade, they admire, they collect, they categorize, they win, they lose.  When I tell them that the ancient Greeks and Romans played marbles, the children are pleased.  When they realize that their teacher has her own marble collection, they beg me to bring it to school so I can "show and tell."  In 2009, boys and girls alike are true enthusiasts when it comes to being experts. When it comes to marbles, ils touchent leur bille!