Don’t Judge a Book By the Cover

Holding my booksRaising hands

I was recently invited to read to Mrs. Charles class of second grade students at Marquette Elementary and Middle School on Multicultural Children’s Book Day. Once again, I was awestruck by the inquisitive nature and insight of little people who say the “darnedest things.”

MCCBDay, was started last year by two children’s book authors to promote diversity books and authors, and to send a message to publishers that the demand for multicultural books is real. Last year, I wrote about my experience at University Prep with students who brought in their favorite diverse books and talked about why they liked them.

This time, I read my latest book, Malcolm Mows the Lawn, a story about a little boy whose chore turns into an exciting adventure, and he becomes a hero. The literacy instructional specialist, Aretha Snadon, also asked me to read another book, The Royal Bee by Francis and Ginger Park, which was about a little boy in 20th century Korea whose persistence earned him an education and eventually, a national prize that allowed him to feed and clothe his family.

Right away, the story points out that only rich children were allowed to go to school. One little girl raised her hand. Yes?

“That’s not fair,” she said. “All people should be able to go to school.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

The kids had other questions too, and I had mine. Was Malcolm’s adventure real or imagined?

“It was fiction,” said one boy. “He was dreaming!”

Which book was your favorite?” I asked, so assured of the answer. When the majority of the children said the Korean book, Why?

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“It was inspiring,” said one little girl.

“But the book you wrote was fun!” said a boy. (Ahhh…my target market has spoken!)

I had expected the typical second grade class: Jittery, a little noisy, anxious to one-up the last answer someone gave. But these young people were thoughtful, calm and very good listeners.

While some parents and teachers may already know this, here’s what I learned: Our kids may be little and noisy and constantly craving fun, but once you turn the page, you will see their desire to connect the dots, and to understand how and why things are the way they are, whether real or make believe!

Reading—especially about diverse children and cultures—is a great way to help them to do that.

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When Crashing Is a Teachable Moment

Kitai takes flight in After Earth

Kitai takes flight in After Earth

I saw two very good movies this weekend and was genuinely surprised that my earlier dismissal of both was turned on its ear.

The first movie, After Earth, starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden (Kitai), was an exceptional portrayal of a father-son relationship fraught with trust, love and acceptance issues. After a horrible crash onto a planet where “everything lives to kill man,” Ranger Cadet Kitai has to venture out into the wilderness alone to find a rescue beacon to save his skin and that of his incapacitated father. As I’m watching him being chases by manic gorillas, I say to myself, “This is an adventure story, just like the ones in my two books, Taj Cleans the Garage and Malcolm Mows the Lawn.”

Taj and Malcolm are both African American boys and their chores turn into adventures. Taj learns the Golden Rule, and Malcolm becomes a hero. It’s light, fun stuff for the 2-7 age group. In After Earth, Kitai faces a series of challenges (adventures) too that force him to overcome his fears and rely on his instincts.

Yes, there were moments in the film when things did not quite mesh together. There were also a couple of times when it appeared as though, for Kitai, following directions was a concept as foreign as planet Earth. But hey, all kids do that and to be honest, Kitai had his reasons. Did his Dad not see that monster-sized tarantula on his son’s arm after telling him he could protect him by watching his every move via that giant TV screen that survived the crash? Eventually, the son, guided by the father, comes into his own, trusts himself and emerges the hero. Just like Malcolm did…in a way! The other reason why I liked After Earth is because it lays out such a positive relationship between an African American Dad and his son.  I am not sure, but I think this is a first for Hollywood.

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The second movie, The Internship, wasn’t bad either. To be honest, I don’t get Vince Vaughn. It takes me too long to zone into his borderline humor, even in this movie. But I was fascinated by the idea of having both Taj and Malcolm, and little boys and girls who look like them (not depicted in the movie, by the way) to grow up one day and compete for an internship at the greatest place to work in the world…Google!

That’s part of the movie’s charm. It is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of what we’re missing as employees of any company, anywhere else. In The Internship, both guys “crash” the party. They’re outsiders who want in, and they bring their unique games to the party, spicing it up in a way that only age and experience can contrive. They’re after the perks of all perks: At Google, you get lots of free coffee drinks and food, reflection chaises where you can recharge yourself—not just your batteries—and you’re surrounded by young, smart kids who are the best of the best, and they know it!

If the internship competition is really one of the ways to get a job at Google, then kids, pay attention! I would like to show both of these movies to the children I have been reading to in Detroit and Southfield Public Schools. In both cases I would ask them very basic questions.

What would you do if you thought that the team you were assigned to could not win a competition?

What would you do if you had to run half-way across a dangerous countryside to find a rescue beacon that could save you and your Dad’s life?

I am a reader and a huge advocate of reading as the backstage pass to everything you can possibly want to do in life. But as I become more adept at mining the broader messages that relate so deeply to my heart and soul, I will also sneak in a movie lesson, especially if it offers the chance to tap into a child’s imagination and become a teachable moment, either by hook, by crook, or by crash!

When Thunder, the Flying Horse Came

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When you tap into a child’s imagination, you’re likely to hear them say anything. That’s what happened this week when several volunteers from Chrysler joined me to read my new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage, to about 900 kids in celebration of National Reading Month. The automotive giant also provided a copy of the book to each child in Kindergarten through third grade at Burton International Academy, Sampson Webber Leadership Academy, and Thirkell and Chrysler Elementary, all Detroit Public Schools. It was a heady week for this new author who is passionate about helping to close the achievement gap.

Taj Cleans the Garage is the story about a little boy who does a chore that turns into a magical adventure. He takes off on a flying horse named Thunder who soars high into the air and almost gets captured by pirates. At the conclusion of the story, I always ask, “Where would you want the flying horse to take you?”

“Grandma’s house!” “The beach!” “Disney World!” were the most popular answers.

But geography and everything else became fair game too as the children told me about places that embedded warm memories of family, friends and fun. Just about every state in the union was mentioned with Hawaii at the top of the list. When it came to world travel they wanted to go to Africa, Mexico and Asia. They also wanted the flying horse to take them to Cedar Point amusement park, Lego Land, Santa’s Workshop, McDonald’s, the bank and then the mall, the park, Dad’s house, their cousin’s house, and to the hotel swimming pool. Ms. Naster’s Kindergarten class at Thirkell–who I had read to earlier in the month–presented me with a book titled, Thunder Takes Us… It was full of drawings of all the places they wanted to go to, including many of them here.

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I truly feel like I have been flying with Thunder all week. The children’s excitement was contagious. They were so energetic, so full of wonder and curiosity, so creative and responsive to questions that invited them to stretch their imaginations to the sky, and so attentive too, which was great for my ego!

I said this before (or something like it) and I’ll say it again. Pick a school and go in and read to the children. It reinforces that reading is a fun activity that should be shared. Children see the world with fresh eyes and have an uncanny ability to help adults lighten up and see things differently too. I think you’ll find that reading a  story to a child is one of the easiest ways to give back to your community, and the most rewarding too.

And now, the awards…Renee, Taj, Thunder and Jackson want to thank the following for making this week one of the most exciting times in our lives!

Chrysler, Daphne Harris and Chrysler volunteers: You have made our dreams come true!

Beyond Basics, Ellen Sellstrom and Pam Good: You guys are scheduling genius’s and have one of the best literacy programs ever!

Detroit Public School Principals John Wilson, Burton International Academy; Anthony Houston and Asst. Principal Trina Lee, Sampson Webber Leadership Academy; Dr. Clara Smith, Thirkell Elementary School; Wendy Shirley, Chrysler Elementary: For your unwavering commitment to educate the children in Detroit.

Detroit Public School teachers: Thank you for teaching and preparing the future leaders of tomorrow DAY IN and DAY OUT!

Detroit Public School Students: Thank you for being so full of possibilities and for sharing Taj Cleans the Garage with me. Keep reading!

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Still Holding On to the Dream

Renee & Sherri - Copy

It was a life changing moment for me when I realized that this was it, this is what I wanted. I wanted people to be lined up around the block, waiting for me to sign their book, my best seller, just like I was doing for Terry McMillan that afternoon in Chicago.

That day–decades ago–I stood in fellowship with a group of women whose singular gospel was how amazed we were  at Terry’s ability to break through the hierarchial publishing world and make Waiting to Exhale a must-read for black women around the world…or at least in the United States. She had busted out of the norm, had thrown open the curtain to reveal the romantic goings on in the real world of sexy, successful, single black women and their lovers. She had written prose that you didn’t need to read a hundred times to understand the breathless dance that happened when a man and woman became one. Someone had finally written our story and we reveled in it!

I had been working on yet another version of a short story that got longer with every new city I moved to, as my then husband ascended up the corporate ladder. With everything changing around me, writing was the anchor that bridged new jobs, new relationships, and new hair stylists. I got caught up in the flurry of possibilities that Terry had opened for writers like me who worked to satisfy appetites that wanted to hear what we said, to read what we wrote and to buy what we sold. Years later, after 47 rejection letters from publishers and agents, I self published From Morning Drive to Midnight. It was loosely based on a woman’s rough and tumble days as a radio talk show host, when FM was overtaking AM on the dial, when DJs’ ratings were tied to their gimmicks and personalities, and when singers toured the stations to promote records and gave lavish promotion parties for radio people who truly believed that you only live once. Those were the days!

Oh, but I digress. My book signings netted about four or five people at a time.  Not bad, but not a dream made real, either.

The other night, I thought of my dream as I waited for Sherri Shepherd of The View to sign the book I had purchased. She was our hilarious host at the annual Ford African Ancestry Network event, which had invited Henry Louis Gates to talk about his new PBS show, Finding Your Roots. You may not be aware of it, but this event has a reputation for challenging its guests to a Wobble Dance-off, and Sherri was up for the challenge.  At the end of the program, she announced, “I’m going to sign some books, but I’ll be back!”

I waited a while before retreating to the book signing area, but no matter. The line was still wrapped around several ropes that kept everyone in single file. After she signed a book, she would take a picture. Up and down, up and down she moved for more than an hour. Even Terry McMillan had not done that!

When I got back to my table, everyone asked me, “Where is she? When is she coming out to Wobble?”

“She’ll be out,” I said, “But right now, girlfriend is living my dream!”

(Note to self: I’ve got work to do.)

Renee Prewitt is the author of a new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage and is working on a little something that will make her dream come true.

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Let Their Imaginations Run Wild with Great Stories

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I’m having a good time reading Taj Cleans the Garage to young kids. I’m learning a lot in this reading and literacy process, namely:

–Make sure the children know what the words reward, allowance and lasso mean. I specifically put these words and others into the book to initiate discussion and help to develop their language skills.

–Engage them with “What if?” questions. I usually ask, “If you could go anywhere on a flying horse, where would you go? Aside from the occasional playground and Disney World, the top of the list is “Grandma’s house,” “the store,” and “Chucky Cheese,” all reflections of a child’s own world, and their exposure to things within their comfort zone. Still, I get some outer world answers like “The Black Hole.” (But, aren’t you afraid of getting lost in there? Nope!). I also hear “All over the city,” and “Outer space,” as well as “Deep, deep outer space!” Now, we’re getting somewhere!

That’s what I’m really trying to do by reading my book about a little boy whose chore turns into an adventure. Yes, I want to promote responsibility, but I also want to tap into a child’s imagination. In addition to the required 3 Rs: ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic, I want to say that I helped to turn on that endless flow of creativity that allows children to soar to heights never seen before, especially if it’s on a flying horse!

Maybe you want to do something like this too. Just call up your local school and tell them you want to read a book to a class. They’ll be glad to host you.

I Lived and Learned!

TCC Head Start 7-17-2013

Yesterday, my new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage, took its maiden voyage inside of a Head Start classroom where I read it to my intended audience: Several little people, from 3-5 years old. Yes, I was nervous, although I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t like they were seasoned book critics who would analyze the quality of Taj’s many adventures, or whether or not the flying horse spread his wings east and west, instead of north and south. No, I think that I was nervous because I desperately wanted them to be excited about my book and to like it.  They were, and they did.

I have several questions at the end of the book, and when I asked, “Where would you like the flying horse to take you?” I was reminded over and over again that all things familiar were things that resonate with them the most. They said, “To Grandma’s house,” “Home,” and “To the store.” And they were so cute!  I was pleased that they sat and listened, and I was ready to talk to them forever, when one little girl asked, “Can I go and play now?”  Of course you can, sweetie; you all can.

So, lesson learned.  It’s not about me. Don’t ask the children all 10 questions at the end of the book, maybe three or four, and let them talk. Because they will, and their answers are priceless.

I met several vendors at the Head Start Fair who asked me to read at their upcoming events and/or passed on info about other opportunities to read my book.  I can’t wait.

To learn more about The Children’s Center Head Start Academy, please call them at 313.831.5535 or email TCCacademy@childrensctr.net.

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