Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Those of you who have mercifully followed my other blog, PAINTING THE SKY, might have read a blog about my mom, who died at 96. She moved from Oregon to Sebastopol when she was 89 to be near us, lived in Burbank Heights, and developed a second set of friends. She was a go-getter and had decided to make her last years her best. I know what a conscious effort that was because on the way down, with her U-haul behind us, she said, "What if I am too old to make new friends?"
My mom was an avid reader, and somehow knew the importance of story from the time I was little. As she grew older she often read till one in the morning, devouring novel after novel. When she was 94, I was cleaning out her books to give away and found three books with the same title...John Grisham novel covers do change, and she could tell me something different about each printing of the same story. I have to admit I can identify with that a little. Authors like John Grisham, Danielle Steele, etc. often use a template that is familiar for each novel. But the next clue that things were changing was a stack of Reader's Digest Condensed Books on her nightstand. She told me she could no longer keep track of what was happening in a long book and that books by new authors jumped forward and back in time and she couldn't keep track of what was happening when. And she was falling asleep and forgetting where she left off.

As a writer with friends who write from picture books to YA novels, I realized that the novels she had been reading had too many threads, and that you had to wait too long to see the tapestry of the whole story woven together. There are many authors who write across generations who are considered adult writers, and I will talk about their books later. The write straight-forwardly and tell their stories with a minimum number of characters to follow. But perhaps more importantly, there are YA writers who write with a minimum of words, highly dignified and enlightening stories. And there are picture book writers who tell and illustrate dignified stories...biographical, fictional, poetic, fanciful and folkloric...that adults can enjoy. So we read my mother backwards.

I introduced her to OUT OF THE DUST (she grew up poor) and WITNESS (because she was a little prejudiced, but sympathetic) by Karen Hesse, RED SCARF GIRL by Ji Li Jiang (a good friend of mine was Chinese), BEYOND THE MANGO TREE by Amy Zemser (because she was diabetic). She read these books on her own and many others and I realized they were "just right", but not in the adult section of the library. She would not have found them on her own.
And perhaps out of love for me, she read picture books. I picked out those that were about her background...farming, a need to be popular, even though you are shy, and one in particular that as she finished her life here we read outloud to her...THE PAINTER WHO LOVED CHICKENS, by Olivier Dunrea.
So, in one way, this blog is a tribute to my mother. She read to the children in our neighborhood and I learned the power of story and the comfort of being read to as a young person. And I think, as our concentration and our ability to follow many strands of a story diminish, we should be continue to be directed towards satisfying books and their stories. We read my mother backwards until her death. Sometimes she read to herself, and sometimes we read to her. But it took a knowledge of not only who she was, but who she wanted to be, to do that. As a child, I think, now when she read to me, that 'story' was a way for me to see other dimensions of the world I was in, and examples of how I fit into that world.

Oh, yes,again, what is this blog about? I have spoken at state library conferences about the need to read our elders backwards if they need it, just as we read our young people forward. I have studied Jim Trelease's books, called him on the phone, asked him to include this in his talks. He said this was my job. He is still doing his.

So this is a beginning. So I will be giving examples of titles that worked and methods that did and did not work for introducing these titles to those who are aging, and to those who can no longer read so well independently, for whatever reason. And I will be asking for suggestions and examples from others who have read their loved ones backwards....and hopefully, forwards again.