On The Same Page

I’m not sure why the titled it “Take a leaf out of book groups” in the paper, as that makes no sense to me, but here’s the latest musing anyway… (a link, and full submitted text below, as usual).  

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/1843994/why-we-should-be-encouraging-everyone-read-pleasure

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Over the summer every student, administrator and teacher at my son’s High School will read Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Carefully selected I suspect for the timely themes of race and identity, this book will ignite conversations and spark debates around the campus. Curious, I decided to read the book too, and it prompted me to consider further the value of a common literature reading experience among a large group of people.

I have had the pleasure of being a member of an active book group in Hong Kong. We take turns hosting, providing a simple meal over which we earnestly discuss the book without a moderator or prescribed set of questions. Like many expatriate communities, the composition of our book group has changed over the years – currently more members of our original book group live in New York City than in Hong Kong – but we have always replenished with perceptive and literate women who love books.

Beyond the social aspect, the value of this group has been the broadening of mind and perspective that occurs as the result of reading books I never would have chosen myself, or didn’t even particularly enjoy after reading. When members share personal history, cultural references and academic expertise relevant to the book, my understanding and my appreciation for the book is always enhanced.

When children’s author Deborah Wiles visited Hong Kong the entire HKIS Upper Primary read one of her books to build enthusiasm in preparation for her visit. Children were able to discuss the book, gained confidence meeting the author and shared the experience with their peers. Unlike didactic work in which a book is assigned and taught by an instructor, this type of common literary experience is voluntary, undirected and intended for fun.

Parent/child book clubs are another way of connecting, bonding and sometimes broaching difficult or embarrassing topics through literature. Difficult circumstances faced by characters in a novel provide distance and hypothetical scenarios that are useful in initiating tricky discussions with children. These conversations offer insights from both parents and peers that can translate into real life lessons.

Sometimes common reading experiences expand beyond the personal network to larger communities. The One City One Book program started in Seattle in 1998 and has been embraced in some form or another by hundreds of cities around the world. The Library of Congress keeps a running list of these programs in the U.S., and the National Endowment for the Arts funds similar programs under the title The Big Read in some cities.

Oftentimes initiated and managed by public libraries, these programs encourage all community members and visitors to read a carefully selected title, and many host creative events to encourage discussion, bring the community together and enhance the reader’s understanding of the book and the underlying themes therein.

Selecting a single book that is both noteworthy, but does not offend or endorse any one group or ideal over any other is the most difficult element of implementing this kind of program.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated eleven cities around the world as Cities of Literature. These cities embrace a rigorous process to demonstrate a unique and fervent appreciation and support for the creation, consumption, critique and celebration of all aspects of literature. Achieving this designation from UNESCO is an arduous process and a considerable honor.

Bookstores are closing all over Hong Kong and less than half of our city’s adult population admits to reading for pleasure. The benefits of reading for pleasure have been widely reported, but like getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, daily exercise and abstaining from harmful behavior, the advice is rarely heeded. Modeling reading is important for building young readers. Hong Kong might consider striving to be the next UNESCO City of Literature to encourage reading for pleasure and to set a good example for the younger generation.

Who Holds the Power? The Writer.

Today’s SCMP Article on adolescent literacy, the link, or text below…

http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1745385/dont-sell-short-power-pen

In advocating literacy, we have mostly discussed the importance of reading aloud with children. But there’s a second part we haven’t addressed as deeply: writing.

Writing is powerful. Consider this: history happens, but the one who writes it down becomes the arbiter of its future understanding. The writer shapes public opinion, provides context, persuades and inspires. We would know virtually nothing of the past were it not for writers. Time changes everything, but in books, it will always look as the writer wishes it to appear.

Writing has to be nurtured. Like reading, writing instruction in Hong Kong sometimes unintentionally prioritizes performance over pleasure and the need to develop a deeper insight into the world. The process of learning to write is so much greater than cultivating beautiful handwriting and perfect spelling. In fact, those skills are somewhat beside the point.

The writing process can be particularly therapeutic for teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. Writing allows one to express frustration, to explore connections and relationships and to develop consciousness. Writing only works when it is truthful and honest, and oftentimes the process itself helps the writer determine what she thinks about a topic.

Deborah Wiles, award-winning author of children’s books, spent nearly two weeks in Hong Kong working with students and teachers at both HKIS and CIS this month. She demonstrated how fiction can be as powerful a medium to convey ideas, inform and to convince, as is nonfiction. “Think of the power you have if you hold the pen,” she says. People become what you can imagine. For example, in her award winning, Love, Ruby Lavender, three crotchety aunties who had always reminded Wiles of chickens feature prominently as such in the book. Revenge is sweet when her real life nemesis younger brother appears as an unpleasant little girl in one of her books.

Wiles’ books are deeply personal, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, as the creative and fanciful stories are every bit as imaginative as pure fiction. Set in her childhood homes and drawn from her stock of memories, they are her own stories, but not standard memoirs. Her history takes the form of young adult fiction, picture books and what she calls a documentary novel, a trilogy about the 1960s that defies categorization.

“I write so I can say I was here. So I can find like-minded souls to share the road with. You must tell the whole story of your whole life with your whole heart because that is how we create life.“

Writing and life is about paying attention, making connections and asking questions. She teaches aspiring writers to “know, feel, and imagine.” Writing can also help with grief. Writing helped her through the grieving process during a particularly difficult year of her life. Of the process of writing and recording her experience, she said, “I learned to carry my grief. You do not ever get rid of it, but you learn to carry it.”

The good news is that in one form or another, we are all writers. We write every day. Emails, business communications, term papers, thank you notes and the occasional one-off essay, we write to communicate, to persuade, to express gratitude and to inform.

In a New Yorker column this week, acclaimed author Andrew Solomon wrote, “What I’d really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time—and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination’s curious intricacies, to be what you were, what you are, what you will be, and what everyone else is or was or will be, too.”

Creative writing is as important a process and skill to cultivate in adolescence as are all the traditional communications and persuasive tools. Parents, your child’s fanciful stories are a path to one of life’s most essential skills and must be nurtured and celebrated as such.

Meet The Author

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye speaking at HKIS, January 2015 IMG_0011

In today’s SCMP, and slightly longer version below:  http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1692319/how-authors-can-make-books-come-alive-hong-kong-readers

Standing in the packed HKIS library, visiting poet Naomi Shihab Nye closes her eyes, takes a breath and begins. “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco…” she says, reciting the opening line of one of her most recognized poems, Valentine for Ernest Mann, and the room is silent. It’s hard to know what these teenagers think as they sit, cross-legged, heads lowered, listening. But their thoughtful questions and deep, introspective reflections expressed after the talk show clearly that they have been deeply impressed by her words. With this talk, Nye offered these students a new way to approach poetry, both as consumers and as creators themselves.

“I learned to look at life as a long poem, filled with mundane, irritating, amazing and elated moments, ” reflected grade eight student, Sarthak Bajpai. Sophia Chuen, also in grade eight said, “Visiting authors allow us to learn that authors are real people too and that writing is thinking.”

Nye suggested that students keep a notebook with them always and that they pay attention to the ordinary moments in life and record three small ideas each day. The students learned that anyone can be a poet, that poetry is fun and that writing a book can take many, many iterations before the final version is published.

For most authors, producing a book is like birthing a child. Once that book exists, their lives are forevermore inextricably entwined. Most authors spend a fair amount of their non-writing time helping to grow the audience for their books. While the author receives some benefit in increasing book sales for this effort, the true benefit is really to the audience who gain further insights and a deeper understanding from hearing the author provide context and color about her process and result.

Meeting an author is a great way to make books come alive for readers. Many Hong Kong schools and organizations understand this and invest precious resources hosting authors to work with students, parents and teachers.

Last year HKIS hosted award-winning author/artist Grace Lin for a week as an artist in residence. As a Taiwanese-American who grew up in rural New York, Grace Lin’s books explore the immigrant experience, interlacing Chinese and American culture, and helping to articulate the competing feelings of pride and dislocation. In her evening talk for parents and children, Lin told the story of her childhood and gave insight into the decisions she made and how she felt about herself as an Asian American. While these underlying themes are present in her books, to hear her tell the story directly was much more powerful. As a result of this talk and seeing Grace Lin in the school, her book The Year of the Dog is my son’s favorite chapter book.

Ralph Fletcher, a renowned young adult fiction writer who’s books are particularly popular with young boys, spent a week at HKIS working with upper primary aged children. While there, Fletcher conducted certain workshops for elementary school aged boys, no girls allowed.   This was a brilliant strategy to encourage boys to embrace their talents as writers with the same enthusiasm as do more girls at that age.

Chinese International School (CIS) and HKIS will co-host award winning children’s book author Deborah Wiles at an event on March 4, 2015. In preparation for her visit, the entire upper primary school division is reading her book Each Little Bird That Sings. This is a great way to build enthusiasm for reading as a social activity and to nurture the community with a shared literary experience.

The Hong Kong Young Readers Festival is another great way to meet globally renowned authors. This year the festival will take place from 9-20 March, 2015 and has a full schedule of talks, workshops and events where children and adults can meet and interact with authors to learn about their process as well as the content of their books.

Meeting an author can be like meeting a hero. Unlike other professions, everyone is a writer. Some choose to pursue it as a profession, but even those who don’t are still writers. Meeting writers who have persevered through the difficulty, tedium and challenge of writing a book and having it published is inspirational for children and adults alike and can bring the written word to life in a whole new way.