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Developing Critical Literacy

One of the aspects of our current cultural conversation, especially in regards to a digital presence, is the observation that many, many, too many people don’t know how to distinguish between a reliable source and an unreliable source. Many, many, too many people don’t know how to search and find multiple perspectives. This is something that impacts our ability to make compassionate connections and conversations with each other as well as our ability to make informed and educated decisions.

For me as a reading professional, this is a heartbreaking reality because this is what my graduate work focused on: how to develop critical literacy. This was a bit of a revolutionary goal for me as a teacher in high poverty schools because there was so emphasis of developing grade-level literacy BEFORE developing critical literacy. But are they really different? I would argue that critical literacy, digital literacy, and researching skills like distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources are all a part of literacy. If that is the case, then what we have is a literacy crisis.

I appreciate and support parents, teachers, and indeed ministers who are making efforts to include diverse voices into their own personal reading as well as in their instruction and curriculum. While including authors and voices from different perspectives and backgrounds certainly is important, it is not the only tactic we can take to develop critical literacy.

One of the best books, I’ve ever encountered and that is powerful no matter the age of the audience is Voices in the Wind by Anthony Brown. Buy this book. You will see how one day in the park can look so different because of the person who is experiencing that trip to the park.

We love Sandra Boynton books because they are fun and silly, but there are two books that ask readers to look at a story from multiple perspectives by having almost the exact same page in both books.

The top spread is from But Not the Hippopotamus and the bottom spread is from But Not the Armadillo. We can’t read one book without reading the other book now with our three-year-old and then lining up the books just like this to compare and contrast the two pages. This is an amazing critical literacy experience in a fun and non-threatening way.

Our other favorite is We Are in a Book by Mo Williems. This book invites the characters to break the third wall and realize that they are characters in a book. What a powerful way to illustrate that there is a greater story and that it is not only about us.

The best way we can overcome the literacy crisis we have is to work within ourselves to ask good questions and to work with the people in our lives: children, parents, congregants to look at a story from multiple perspectives and different voices with a calm and understanding presence. Sometimes using children’s literature makes practicing that just a little easier and more fun.

The Best Books I Read in 2018

For the last two years, I have participated in the reading challenge on Goodreads. I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books. In 2016, I read 23. In 2017, I read 34. This year, I read 47. I’ll also challenge myself to read 50 books this year. It’s good to recognize challenges often take longer than a year to achieve.

Here’s the list of books I read.

While I recommend almost everything I read this year, I wanted to think about the five books I read this year that most impacted me and why. Books change us and challenge us to see the world and our own realities differently. These five surely did.

  1. The Hate U Give by Angela Johnson: Part of my commitment this year was to read from a variety of different perspectives, concentrating especially on female voices and underrepresented voices in the publishing industry. The Hate U Give is by far one of the best books to offer a new perspective through a first-person lens.
  2. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd: I remember when I first encountered The Mermaid Chair and I thought to myself, “How did I not know this author existed?” I had this same experience when I discovered that she had theological writing I had never encountered. This book is especially significant and important for anyone who was raised with certain expectations of what it means to be female because it is her journey of finding the Divine Feminine. As she wrestles with who she has been and wrestles for who she will be, I found myself and my story again and again in her words.
  3. Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh: This year I started a certification program in Spiritual Direction. As part of that program, I read one book each month. With these requirements, I have encountered new authors and new ideas that have deepened my understanding and my connection to the Divine. This book in particular opened by eyes to just how noisy our lives are and how important silence is to balance out all the noise. Hanh points out how much we resist silence because of how noisy our world is and how we are missing something deep within because of all the noise.
  4. Blessed by Kate Bowler: Although most people know Kate Bowler for her book Everything Happens for a ReasonBlessed is her dissertation work. In this book, she recounts the history of the prosperity gospel and its influence in popular culture as well as religious institutions. As she makes her way through the story of this movement, so much about how our modern congregations view the world, giving, and involvement in the community becomes clear. If you think that this movement doesn’t impact you or your church, you’ll discover how much it actually does as you read this book.
  5. Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene: As our youngest has gained more and more independence throughout toddlerhood, it is important to us that we are fostering not only his physical and mental development but also his emotional development. This book is excellent if you are looking for ways to stretch those little daily decisions, interactions, and communications to a bigger philosophy of parenting.

Perhaps 2019 will finally be the year that I will reach that elusive 50 book goal, but regardless of whether I do or not, my commitment to read and to read as much as I can won’t change. Because it’s in reading other people’s words and seeing the world through other people’s eyes that our own view of the world expands to include other perspectives.

Children’s Books that Teach Kids to Love Language

Sometimes in our desire to make sure our children are learning all of the important preliteracy skills they need, we forget the power of loving language. Words are powerful, but words are also fun and funny and whimsical. As I was studying to be a reading specialist, one of the things I always wanted to include in my lesson plans and my units was a love of language. I wanted to encourage children and students to play with language and words because we know that it’s in play that children develop lifelong skills they will carry with them throughout their lives.

Here are some of our favorites because the language is so fun.

Mo Williems is one of my all-time favorite authors, especially in the way he invites his readers to respond and interact with his characters, but there’s something just a little bit different about this book. This is not only a fractured fairy tales (maybe my favorite genres), but the irony and sarcasm that runs throughout the book is so clever. Certainly, a must read for any age!

 

 

Anna Dewdney developed a lovable character in Llama llama red pajama, but the way she integrated this character into stories full of rhyme and rhythm is superb. “Please stop all this llama drama and be patient with your mama,” is a line we use all the time at our house!

I remember reading the BFG as a child and one of the aspects of the book that I loved is that you didn’t know who the BFG was unless you read the book. It was a mysterious acronym that only readers were privy to understanding. The words that the BFG makes up and uses to substitute for other words not only make the reader pay closer attention, but invite laughter and fun. Who didn’t want to try some frobscottle after reading this book?

There’s always room for rhyme and play with language while reading, while riding in the car, and while running errands. The more children hear language and especially fun with language the more inclined they will be to tackle new words, new meanings, and new ways to use language.

When Dreams Come True

I don’t know about you, but within me there are dreams and wishes that I hold close to my heart. Sometimes these dreams are never uttered and never spoken. Something about dreams feel fragile as if exposing them to light or to the spoken word would scare them off and make them disappear forever, never to be seen or heard from again. Something about dreams feels intensely personal. The revelation of dreams feels vulnerable and intimate in a way that is often uncomfortable. Dreams reveal the most passionate and the most intimate aspect of who you are and what centers and anchors your very being.

As a reader, there was one book that was so influential in my understanding of the written word that it has followed me throughout my life. I first encountered the author, Lois Lowry in my fifth grade English Language Arts class where we read Number the Stars. I can remember my draw to the way she told a story; a story of history, but through the eyes of a young girl. And then I happened upon The Giver in sixth grade. Our English Language Arts teacher was new and didn’t last but a couple of years in the school I went to, but the book I read during free reading has stayed with me for 21 years. The world Lowry created was so foreign and so familiar at the same time. It was my first taste of dystopian literature, which I have loved every since. The Giver was the first time I understood symbolism and figurative language. This unlocked an understanding within me that words were an invitation to new worlds, new understandings, and new adventures.

As a young college student learning to become a teacher, we were given the invitation to read The Giver again and I gladly took it seeing with new eyes the way the story could be an invitation to young readers and writers. We engaged in a heated debate about whether the characters at the end of the book survived or were lost to death or oblivion. As I taught, I read portions of this book as mini-lessons hoping and praying that one of my at-risk students could hear the invitation to imagine and dream about other worlds. Last year in a conversation with my friend, Elisabeth, she encouraged me to reach out to authors who had meant something in my life. I searched for an email address and composed a letter about the impact of the book Son on my life:

Just last year, I happened upon Son (how I had missed it, I’m not sure) as I was recovering from an emergency C-section that left me feeling out of place.

Your words have followed my journey in life and have opened my eyes to possibility and hope. I am now a pastor (something my community of faith would have never supported) and an independent publisher. Thank you for teaching me courage and bravery through your characters and helping me to see in full color.

And this response came:

Thank you so much for writing. Letters like yours remind me why I do what I do. Congratulations on your son and best wishes for the future. Lois Lowry

I had no idea if it was truly her response or an agent or social media manager, but it didn’t matter. I was awe-struck. A year later in the same month, Lois Lowry was scheduled to come to Columbia for a series of events highlighting the power of Storytelling. There was a Thursday night event and a Saturday morning family event. I went to both amazed and astounded to hear her voice in person. She recounted in her Thursday lecture about a series of emails she had with a young student, and I knew then she was the person who had responded to my email. The line was long on Thursday night and although I had brought my books to be signed, I didn’t wait in the line.

On Saturday morning. she spoke again and because we had missed the morning signing, the line was short to have books signed after she spoke. I took out my stack of books stuttering trying to explain how much each of them meant to me and how glad I was that she was still touring and speaking. My heart was beating quickly, my palms were sweaty. This is what happens when dreams comes true.

It would have been easy to explain all of this away. A series of unconnected events. Meeting an author isn’t all that uncommon. Having books inscribed and signed isn’t all that uncommon either. But meeting the author of the book that first introduced you to symbolism and whose book called Son you discovered only months after having your first child and then seeing your name in that author’s handwritten is something magical and mysterious.

But none of this would have happened had I not uttered aloud my dream: to hear and see Lois Lowry in person. A dream long held within, never hoping to see the light of day because she just doesn’t tour in the part of the country where I live very often and million other practical reasons that try to shadow the light that dreams coming true brings to the world.

Dreams coming true, our true selves being brought to the world, always whispers of connections much more mysterious and mighty than we, in our limited understanding, can comprehend. That’s why we must let these dreams flow forth from our hearts and our souls. We must risk letting these dreams out so that the magical mystery of hope can flow freely into our world.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

For the last two years, I have participated in the reading challenge on Goodreads. I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books. In 2016, I read 23. In 2017, I read 34. And this year, I’ll also challenge myself to read 50 books. It’s good to recognize that sometimes challenges take longer than a year to achieve.

Here’s the list of the books I read. 

While I recommend almost everything I read this year, I wanted to think about the five books I read this year that most impacted me and why. Books change us and challenge us to see the world and our own realitites differently. These five surely did.

  • I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brene Brown
    • I’ve read a lot of Brene Brown, but this is my alltime favorite. This book describes the inner struggle we have as we wrestle oursevles into the people who can make a difference in the world.
  • Small Great Things by Joci Picoult
    • This one was insanely difficult to read. Picoult tells this story through the eyes of the different individuals’ eyes who are involved in a situation with racism, white supremacy, and love for you children. This was gut-wrenching and eye-opening in the way that makes you rethink the way you see the world.
  • Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
    • The beauty of this book is the compassionate responses by Cheryl Strayed. It is a compilation of essays by people who are writing into an advice column called Dear Sugar. These writers tell their most intimate struggles and hopes and Cheryl Strayed responds with care and love (albeit sometimes tough love). Everyone is fighting a great battle. Things are never what they seem.
  • The Body Keeps Score by Bessel A. van der Kelk
    • This is the most important book I read this year. As someone who has survived and overcome spiritual abuse, this book was crucial to my understanding how to move towards healing and why I still have such strong reactions to certain situations. The body keeps score of trauma, but healing and wholeness is possible.
  • Simplicity Parenting: Using the Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne
    • As someone who wants to raise whole and confident children, this book helped give permission to say no to our kids and to opportunities when it’s just too much. Children have exponentially more stress on them at an early age. Although some would be quick to say this is the connection to the digital world, it isn’t. It’s parents who overfunction and want their children to be successful at all costs. Payne reminds parents the most important thing we can do for our children is to raise them with the least stress and the most security we can provide. It is a struggle to fight against the go go go of our consumerism culture, but a fight worth fighting for our children’s well-being.

I have a stack of books reading for 2018 and close to twelve books that I have started I hope to finish in 2018. Thank goodness that there will always be more books to read!

Reading Beyond Your Experience

I’ve always believed that reading transports and transforms you, not only in the way it introduces you to new worlds and new experiences but also in the way it endears and entices you to characters while causing you to wish for the death and destruction of other characters. Reading reveals your true nature. It reveals how within you there is both love and hate. It reveals your assumptions, your privilege, your generalizations and challenges you to confront your true self.

Reading, this very magical, mystical experience is why I trained as a reading teacher, why I represented authors as an agent, and ultimately why I launched Harrelson Press with Sam. We believe reading transforms and transports and that language has the power to heal and challenge even the most difficult and ingrained beliefs.

The reality of our culture today is that the majority of our population doesn’t read. We skim searching for sources, posts, and people who agree with us. When your mission is to be affirmed, you will find affirmation because of the myriad of content that exists and is readily available. When your mission is to never stop learning, you will open yourself to words, stories, and experiences of other people and to the possibility to you are in fact wrong about some things you were pretty sure you were right about.

I can’t help but think about the cosmic, divine coincidence that I finished a young adult novel called How It Went Down the night before I awoke to news of the largest number of people killed in a mass shooting in American history. I read this book as part of my commitment over the past year to purposefully read books written by authors who have been systematically discriminated against in the world of publishing, including women, people of color, and people from lower socioeconomic status.

This journey has led me to recognize and analyze my own privilege. Privilege I was sure I didn’t have. Privilege I was sure hadn’t had anything to do with my pursuing and achieving two Master’s degrees, accepting a Fulbright scholarship, or living into a call to minister as a woman in the Bible Belt. Privilege I was sure everyone was afforded.

I was wrong. I discovered I was wrong by reading stories written by people whose experiences I have never had and quite honestly probaly will never have.

People like Cheryl Strayed.

People like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

People like Yaa Gyasi.

People like Toni Morrison.

People like Margaret Atwood.

When we don’t read, we hear our own beliefs, our own privilege in our hearts and minds echoing, “You’re right. You’re right,” again and again. Reading changes that voice to, “Are you right? Are you right?” Asking you to reflect on how you see the world and why you see the world the way you do.

What we need more of is not certainty, but uncertainty that leads to reflection asking us to question what we have always thought was true; asking us to question who we are and who we will become over and over again as we learn more and understand more about other people’s experiences.

What We’re Reading with Our Girls

As we were traveling to see family, Sam and I were listening to a NPR interview with the author of Lab Girl. She was talking about the difficulty she has had as a woman in a male-dominated profession.
Tom Ashbrook asked if she would thought that she would ever be able to operate in her profession, after the many discoveries and awards she has been given, without gender being an issue. She laughed and laughed again and then responded, “No, I think gender politics will always be an issue.”

And I wondered about our girls. How are we going to raise girls who are resilient and independent? How are we going to teach our girls that they can pursue and succeed in any profession and field they feel passionate about?

My teacher instincts tell me that introducing them to books that question and challenge gender stereotypes is really important. Here are some of the ones we are reading and we read and read with our girls:

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Stephanie’s Ponytail is a brilliant book that shows how having your own style despite what other people think about you is empowering and often leads to people following you. It also cautions about the power you have when you are a leader and have people who are looking up to you. Powerful message for independence and responsibility.

 

 

Paper Bag Princess falls into the category of fractured fairy tale because while it has the elements of a fairy tale, it changes the roles. The princess is the one who rescues the prince in this story and she does it without batting an eye. The questions and conclusions that have come from our reading this book are certainly worth rereading at every opportunity!

 

MH just got this book and she loves it. It is chock full of nonfiction stories of powerful women who were successful. It also included instructions for knot-tying, camping, and other outdoor activities that some would say were for boys. The content area reading strategies she is developing is an added bonus!

 

The story of a girl who doesn’t judge a giant for just being a giant and who travels to giant country and defeats the giants eating other children? Yes, this is one of our favorites for sure!

 

This one. Matilda harnesses her powers to help those who have been oppressed by an evil headmistresses while also defying and overcoming her family of origin. Wow, just wow. I need this one as much as my girls!

 

The hardest aspect of parenting is that you don’t know how your kids will turn out. You can’t be certain that what you hope you are teaching them settles down into their hearts and souls and becomes a very part of who they are, but we can try. We can read them stories with strong female characters who challenge powerful people and beings. We can reread these stories telling them that their style, who they are, is unique and special. We can talk after these stories about how we can use our power and leadership to do good and to be kind to others.

And we can hope that in reading and talking, we too learn these lessons.

Why I Started Harrelson Press

Two and a half years ago, I got a crazy idea to start an independent press. I had been working for Harrelson Marketing with authors, nonprofits, and musicians trying to help them find their voices as I pursued the same in seminary. What I found was that authors, especially were not getting much money for their creative work. In fact, many of the authors I worked with were up to their ears in debt to their publishers.

I knew I could do it better and fairer.

What I didn’t know is how to publish a book. After hours and hours of frustration, reading, asking questions, and researching and pricing printing options, Harrelson Press released its first book by Sheila Ingle called Brave Elizabeth. This is the story of Elizabeth Jackson, mother of President Andrew Jackson and how she survived as a single mom in the midst of the American Revolution with boys who all went to fight. Reading her story writing so eloquently by Sheila inspired me to be that kind of brave woman.

Our second book was Women’s Self-Defense: being sure-footed never to be a victim, which recounts the stories of women who have been abused and attacked as well as practical self-defense instruction. Denise’s stories and expertise as a Women’s Self-Defense instructor reminded me that there are stories that are hard to hear and hard to read that need to be shared. They need to be shared so that they don’t keep being more and more women’s stories. They need to be told so that we are all aware of the world we are living in and that it full of hurt and pain.

Our third book was Stacy Sergent‘s Being Called Chaplain. In this book, Stacy shares her experience being the presence of Christ in hospital rooms and waiting rooms in the hardest situations as a hospital chaplain. She is honest about her struggle to keep her own faith in the midst of seeing how fragile and unfair life is.

Since then, it’s been hard to keep up! We now have two picture books: Walking with Eliza and The Journey of a Flower.

I started Harrelson Press to do publishing better, but what I’ve found is life-changing stories and dear friends who have been brave enough to share their stories. They have reminded me that the publishing industry isn’t dead. Ebooks and print books will continue to sell when there are stories as good as these.

I can’t wait to see what stories I’ll find in 2016!

Finding Home

 

 

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which has made me fall in love with her writing and her ability to tell a story all over again. As I talking to Elisabeth this week on our weekly podcast, she told me that Gilbert had done several Ted Talks, which of course I needed to check out.

You should listen to the whole thing:

What struck me about this is her interpretation of home. “Home is the place or the thing that you love more than you love yourself.” For her, it was writing and that drove her through 6 years of frustrating failure.

There are so many of us who live each day off kilter and out of sync because what we are spending our time doing is so not who we are that we exist in a constant state of unhappy stress. Maybe you are living there because you are scared of change or scared of failure or scared of the unknown, but I just keep thinking there are only so many days we have to live. Why not risk living them to find home or if you’ve already found home to go home and enjoy giving up yourself for something more important?

$1.50 Grace

I went to the library today expecting to fess up to the fact that I had turned in an overdue book because it was a new release, and I just wasn’t quite finished with it. I knew what I had done and even if I had forgotten the email notice addressed Merianna Louise Neely Harrelson certainly got my attention as the use of my full name did when I was a child. I had calculate out that the amount I would owe would be about $1.50. I even had cash for the occasion.

So, I was very surprised when I brought my stack of books to the checkout and admitted to having a a late fine only to find out that there was no fine on my account. I knew I had received an overdue notice, but there must have been a grace period extended even on new release non-renewable items, even for repeat late return offenders like myself.

The librarian smiled and said, “Well, that’s something unexpected and nice for today.”

I smiled in response and started to think about that $1.50. It doesn’t seem like much, but it could be a pack of gum of box of mints to help us get from Columbia to Asheville on one of our many trips back and forth. It could be a water or pack of peanuts at a gas station when Baby H is desperate for a snack.

And it could be just a little bit of the divine creeping into regular life reminding me that there are always opportunities to see people and to help people no matter how little the gesture may seem.