Homeless Holidays

I hated holidays in shelters. The shelter atmosphere always seemed to drain every ounce of holiday spirit from me. Every holiday, we had to sit in a room full of strangers and put on fake smiles pretending to be happy. Thanksgiving had rolled around and the only thing I was thankful for was my mother was still alive. I was thankful for my legs too.

The good thing about Thanksgiving is food is usually more abundant. Not in our current shelter, though. We had to travel down to another sister shelter nearby along with other homeless families, stand outside like a herd of sheep, and wait for them to let us in as everybody drove past and stared at us. Standing there wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t have another choice.

My Way Home: Growing Up Homeless in America by Michael Gaulden

From the preface:

This memoir covers the latter part of my homeless journey, ranging from age fourteen to seventeen, predominately my high school years. The horror of my homelessness is what I call it. Allow me to take you down my path and to walk in my footsteps along my own hellacious underground railroad. If you are reading this in the midst of your own overwhelmingly challenging journey, it is you for whom I write….It is you whom I urge not to quit. I know your pain and through my pain, I wish to give you strength. For everyone else reading this, please understand my story is only one of millions of other homeless people.

Mother and Mortality

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It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would die. Until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life. She would grow old and still work in the garden. This image was fixed in my mind, like one of the memories from her childhood that I’d made her explain so intricately that I remembered it as if it were mine. She would be old and beautiful like the black-and-white photo of Georgia O’Keeffe I’d once sent her. I held fast to this image for the first couple of weeks after we left the Mayo Clinic, and then, once she was admitted to the hospice wing of the hospital in Duluth, that image unfurled, gave way to others, more modest and true.

 –Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

  • Pacific Crest Trail: Website and Twitter

Toot Toot Reindeer

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“Oh goodness me!” said Rudy. “Now I’ve done a great big toot! That really was a ripper from my poor old bottom flute!” The reindeer had hysterics then they flew into the sky, the sleigh secure behind them and the presents piled high…So if you wake on Christmas night and smell a certain stink, just look up to the sky and give old Santa Claus a wink!

Rudy’s Windy Christmas, by Helen Baugh and Ben Mantle

Orphaned Misfit Holiday

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Back at the apartment, Roxy was hanging up our stockings and making invitations to our annual Christmas Eve dinner party for friends who don’t visit family for the holidays. She’d rented a deep fryer and Guitar Hero, and had a Charlie Brown tree in every room. The holiday season fuelled Roxy, filled her with kindness for all the local orphaned twenty-something misfits. I just wished the holiday was over. In January, I can start over, I thought, along with everyone else.

Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

This novel won the Lambda Literary Award: Transgender. A review can be seen HERE. More award winners can be found on the Amazon.com  Lambda Literary Award: Transgender listing.

Book Review: Letters from Santa and the Ice Bear

JRR Tolkien took Christmas pretty seriously. He took the time to write complete letters to his children in the name of Santa. He even created a strange, spindly and unfamiliar (to his family) form of handwriting, so the children wouldn’t know they came from dad.

There’s also a collection of fun personalities that live with Santa, including the Polar Bear, who is both hapless and mischievous:

“Still [Polar Bear] is all right now—I know because he has been at his tricks again: quarreling with the Snowman (my gardener) and pushing him through the roof of his snow house; and packing lumps of ice instead of presents in naughty children’s parcels. That might be a good idea, only he never told me and some of them (with ice) were put in warm storerooms and melted all over good children’s presents!”

And very pleasant neighbors:

“The Man in the Moon paid me a visit the other day—a fortnight ago exactly—he often does about this time, as he gets lonely in the Moon, and we make him a nice little Plum Pudding (he is so fond of things with plums in!).”

In several others, the North Pole is attacked by goblins who actually wage war on the Christmas castle, but find all of Santa’s helpers are far better versed in combat than one might assume – particularly the bear. The goblin wars are exciting, but they are an unusual (and vaguely violent) perspective on Father Christmas, which made them feel a bit odd at points. If you’ve read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, than these stories will sound very familiar.

“I had to blow my golden trumpet (which I have not done for many years) to summon all my friends. There were several battles—every night they used to attack and set fire in the stores—before we got the upper hand, and I am afraid quite a lot of my dear elves got hurt…They have rescued all my reindeer. We are quite happy and settled again now, and feel much safer. It really will be centuries before we get another goblin-trouble. Thanks to Polar Bear and the gnomes, there can’t be very many left at all”

The dates on the letters range from 1920 to 1943, so Santa’s struggles with WWII are detailed in several.

“I am so glad you did not forget to write to me again this year. The number of children who keep up with me seems to be getting smaller: I expect it is because of this horrible war, and that when it is over things will improve again, and I shall be as busy as ever. But at present so terribly many people have lost their homes: or have left them; half the world seems in the wrong place.”

From both a historical and biographical perspective, this portion of the letters are fascinating – to an adult. I attempted to explain the historic significance of those dates to the children in my life and they just stared at me with blank confusion.

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My only complaint about the hardcover version  centers on the illustrations. Tolkien included several pictures, illustrating the North Pole and the antics of the Ice Bear. The hard cover edition provides glossy, full-color reproductions of the handwritten letters and all illustrations, but the size of the book is slightly large than a pocket novel (about the size of an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper folded in half), so these reproductions are hard to see.

What I wish they had done was a large format, full color, 3-D version similar to the Ologies books, such as Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons (Ologies) by Dr. Ernest Drake (Author), Dugald A. Steer (Editor).

This super-fancy format would provide ample room for showing off the letters and illustrations, including little envelopes with copies of the letters included. The Dragonalogy book’s secret pockets with letters in both English and in runes are fascinating to children and just-plain-fun for us stodgy-old-adults.

There are many more quotes from this book already posted to this blog, including those mentioned above.

Book reviewed: Letters From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book Review: Snowballs Make the Best Gifts

Most holiday-season picture books focus on Santa Claus and the joy of giving, or receiving gifts. It’s a heart-warming experience wrapped up in a neat little box covered in pretty paper and a bow.

The best thing about this book is the way Santa Claus delivers the best possible gift to  Yukio, the main character – an EPIC snowball fight! It’s not a toy or clothes or even a much-needed tool or box of supplies, it’s an activity!

The children in my life simply loved the snowball fight between a village of ninjas (and their ninja children) and a mysterious red-suited samurai who turns out to be the jolly-old-man himself. The best part? Santa reveals his identity through a letter left for Yukio, under the tree:

Dear Yukio,
I hope you enjoyed the EPIC snowball fight. I made it just for you.
Sincerely,
Samurai Santa

The story is fun, well-told and full of action and adventure. There’s a happy ending and an entire community of kids who enjoy the best snowball fight of their entire lives! So, in that respect, it’s an excellent book to read during the holidays – just for fun.

However, the book also opens up the concept of gift giving as an action instead of a thing. Sometimes the best presents don’t have wrapping paper or boxes or a place under the tree. Sometimes they are the time we spend with each other.

It’s an all-around excellent story.

Samurai Santa, A Very Ninja Christmas, by Rubin Pingk

Thanksgiving Book Review: Dinner with Criminals

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I have to admit to being conflicted about this book.

The good: The illustrations are wonderful and the story is an exciting wild west adventure whose main character is a girl!

The bad: The adventure involves meeting (surviving), sharing Thanksgiving dinner, and dancing with the notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy. The story paints Butch Cassidy as…well…a really nice guy!

These quotes illustrate this conflict:

Clara watched to see who Bob – Butch – would choose for a partner. He came straight for her! He bowed. “May I have this dance?” He asked.
Clara stared at him. His blue eyes twinkled. She had to be brave for mama’s sake. “Mr. Cassidy…are you going to rob our train?” she blurted.
Butch roared with laughter. “I saw right away you were sharp,” he said. “How did you know who I was?”
“I saw your picture on a poster,” Clara said.
“Well, a poster don’t tell the whole story of a man,” Butch said. “We’ve all worked as cowhands here. These people have been good to us. And we’re just saying thanks today.” He winked. “We won’t rob your train. I wouldn’t want to scare your mama after she’s had such a nice time.”

While Butch Cassady’s life story isn’t as violent, bloody, and pro-confederate politics (e.g.: slavery) as wild west criminals like Jesse James, he was still a thief who robbed banks, payroll payments (read: taking the entire paycheck for the vast majority of a small town), and ranchers (e.g.: cattle rustling).

These were facts that I kept rolling around in my head while I read this story about a little girl who is smart and brave enough to identify the man in the wanted poster as the benevolent host of an impromptu rescue of a snow-bound train and the Thanksgiving feast that hosted a large number of strangers from that train.

This book would make an excellent starting point for a discussion about the many different ways that people can behave, as well as the many different ways that history can be presented.

Note: The book is written for older kids, with significantly more text than is generally found in picture books.

An Outlaw Thanksgiving by Emily Arnold McCully
Winner of the Caldecott Medal

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

Thanksgiving Book Review: Playing Football

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This is a story about a boy who eagerly anticipates the Thanksgiving feast and the annual turkey bowl. The ‘turkey bowl’ is a rough-and-tumble game of football played by a motley collection of family and friends.

After everyone has had their fill of turkey and treats, the turkey bowl begins – in a nearby open field, in the winter wind and snow:

All afternoon Ethan, Alex, and all the kids from the block dove for passes and lunged for tackles. Finally, on the last play of the Turkey Bowl, Alex dropped back for a pass and threw a bomb. Ethan raced down the sidelines. Deep in the end zone, he soared high above a defender…”Touchdown! Touchdown!

This is a wonderful portrayal of the many ways that people spend time with family and friends over the holiday.

Turkey Bowl, written by Phil Bildner and illustrated by C. F. Payne

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the holiday celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.