Hollyhocks, Books, and Comebacks

One of my favourite flowers in the garden is the hollyhock. It splashes its colours all around, attracting birds, butterflies, and other little creatures. I don’t plant them; they just reappear every year from the seeds that have dropped into the rich, organic soil. They grow to a magnificent height of eight or nine feet, and tower over the other flowers and vegetables around them. This winter was generally mild, and there is hardly any snow on the garden. I wonder if the perennials will be damaged—will I once again witness the riot of color offered by those towering hollyhocks? With so many unknowns, it is difficult to predict the future of my garden.

Have you ever wondered what might happen to libraries or bookstores in the next few years? Some predictions suggest that there will be no more printed books in the near future because of technology. Fears are that we are raising a generation of non-readers, just “skimmers.” Yet those predictions, at least from where we sit today, are not being fulfilled. The novelty of the e-reader has fallen, and people are once again looking for a book to hold in their hands. Small used bookstores are appearing in many towns, keeping books moving from person to person. Libraries have cut their hours to save money, but have embraced new technologies and are as busy as ever keeping society literate.

I have fond memories of taking my three school-aged children and preschooler to the library, and coming home with a “barrel of books.” If a few were misplaced and came back late, dear Mrs. Lees would put them under the desk and say, “that’s fine.” She was happy with how we kept up the circulation in the library and never charged us a penny. The day we came home from the library, our house was so quiet you could hear a pin drop, except for the bright-eyed two-year-old shouting, “Read me another book, somebody please!”

When I was a child, we had very few books at our disposal. My trip to the local library was a highlight of the week, and I filled my knapsack with books. It was a sad day for me when I finished all of the books in the “Girls’” corner of the library and had to begin browsing in the “Boys’’ corner. When she noticed me there, the kindly grey-haired librarian approached to inform me that these were books for boys, not “nice girls.” I looked at her in dismay and moved away, but as soon as she retreated, I raced back to snatch a few off the shelf before returning to my corner. I guess I wasn’t one of those “nice girls” after all, for I found the “books for boys” riveting, and I came back for many more! Since the days of gendered segregation, we’ve come a long way in literacy awareness!

And speaking of literacy, today there is truly a wealth of fantastic children’s literature available for your students to read or to use for a class novel study. Here are two recommendations:

Bifocal by Deborah Ellis and Eric Walters (2007). I was intrigued by this novel, as both Ellis and Walters are well-known authors, yet their writing styles are very different. Deborah Ellis is the author of more than twenty books. She writes about children who are affected by war and poverty, and has an acute awareness of cultural differences, having spent much time overseas. Eric Walters is a popular Canadian author and teacher of junior fiction, and has written more than eighty books ranging across a variety of topics and often aimed at reluctant readers.

Bifocal is told from two entirely different points of view. Haroon is a serious student whose grandparents came from Afghanistan; Jay is a football star who is Caucasian and very devoted to his team. When the school is put into lockdown, racism becomes evident as the Muslim students become targets of suspicion. This is not an easy book, but it is very well written, and I think it would make a fantastic class novel. With the refugee cause at the forefront of our minds and with a resulting increase in Muslim students in our communities, the content of this novel is timely and relevant. Two worlds, two viewpoints: Bifocal.

Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper (2010). This novel by author and educator Sharon Draper was on the New York Times best-seller list for two years. This is another great book to introduce to your students. Melody, the main character, is incredibly brilliant, but nobody knows it because she can’t speak, write, or walk. Words are stuck in her head, and one can only imagine how frustrating this would be for an eleven-year-old girl who is ready to “go out of her mind.”

Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes—each one delicate and different, each one melting untouched in my hands. Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts. Mountains of phrases and sentences and connected ideas. Clever expressions. Jokes. Love songs (1–2).

Readers find out how slowly her world does start to open up! This novel provides many potential talking points for classroom discussions on personal uniqueness, disabilities, and capabilities.

Yes, just as the hollyhock returns bravely each spring, working its way through the weeds and lumps of clay, so, too, do books continue to emerge and rear up, thanks to the hard work of clever authors and the curiosity of perceptive readers. Reading for pleasure and knowledge of our world will forever emerge and re-emerge, regardless of technological advances. As long as we tend the garden of literacy for our students, their love of reading will never become dormant!


Jane Reitsma- Hoogendam worked for many years at Knox Christian School in Bowmanville, Ontario, in special education and as vice principal, and is now working independently as an educational therapist.