Four years after Andrew Solomon took home the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction prize for “Far from the Tree,” his work is finding a new medium: film.
Next month, the documentary version from Emmy award-winning filmmaker Rachel Dretzin will premiere at DOC NYC, the nation’s largest documentary-focused film festival. The response has been strong enough to add a second showing.
The 90-minute film, also called “Far From the Tree,” uses the same scaffolding as the book, embedding viewers in the lives of parents whose children fit into disparate identities: deafness, autism, and dwarfism, along with seven others.
“All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves,” writes Solomon in his text. Dretzin pulls on that thread in the documentary, weaving together interviews and on-the-ground footage. Snippets of the production show the film crew attending the annual Little People of America conference and accompanying one of the featured couples to an ultrasound appointment.
Solomon, who also served as a producer on the film, will attend the premiere, along with Dretzin and producer Jamila Ephron. In 2013, as Solomon, a gay man, accepted his Anisfield-Wolf distinction in Cleveland, he said, “This award is particularly meaningful to me because it is an award that is predicated on the question of identity . . . I feel that it was identity politics that rescued me from an element of despair that was present in my earlier life.”
The Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank is a juggernaut.
Less than 20 months after its founding in March 2016, it had distributed 848,583 free books to underserved children in Cuyahoga County.
And as hard as it is to visualize that number – even standing in a warehouse staffed by 3,000 volunteers – the number of titles is shifting upward, faster than the weekly update on its website can track.
“Early exposure to reading is critical to brain development, literacy skills, school readiness and adult success,” said John R. Corlett, president of the Center. “Unfortunately, for many children, having a book is a luxury.”
Fitting snugly in the Anisfield-Wolf tradition, the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank exists to foster literacy and a love of reading. But it exists only because two women — Judi Kovach and Judy Payne — put themselves in a position to have a moment of creative brilliance, then act upon it.
Book Bank Board Member Deena Epstein puts it this way: “If you want to find a book that represents the two Judys, I might suggest ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ If all the characters were rolled into two figures, you’d have Judi and Judy possessing heart, courage, brains and humility. Their road is paved not with yellow bricks, but with books, and it leads not to Oz but to Cleveland where all its children share a love of reading.”
Payne and Kovach met through the Little Free Library movement, which places birdhouse-like structures along city streets so that passersby can donate a book or take one home. In Cleveland, the women saw demand outstripping supply.
They learned of a Toledo, Ohio distributor that had been pulping hundreds of thousands of books, and – unlike anyone else in grassroots literacy – dared to imagine all those titles being diverted to Cleveland.
Where there once was a dead-end in a landfill, there is now a brimming warehouse where volunteers sort and box books to more than 600 partners – schools and nonprofit agencies, which put the books in the hands of children and their households.
But what does it mean to distribute more than 60,000 high-quality, gently-used books to Cleveland children each month?
You’ve heard of the 30 million word gap? That is chasm a child faces by age four who grows up in a language-impoverished home. And two-thirds of low-income households own zero children’s books.
The research is conclusive that reading to a child strengthens the bonds between child and caregiver, increases school readiness and improves brain development. There is powerful science showing that rich, interactive household language is the key architect to early brain growth – a phase that cannot be duplicated once the child is an adult.
In accepting their award, Payne credited her board and the battalion of volunteers, donors and bibliophiles who came together to make the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank a thriving startup.
But Margaret Bernstein, the director of advocacy and community initiatives for WKYC, sees it differently. She introduced Kovach and Payne several years ago as she passed to them the leadership of some 60 local Little Free Libraries. And she likened the women to two sticks of dynamite.
“What happens when you put two sticks together?” Bernstein asked more than 300 guests gathered for the annual celebration of human services. “Let’s all say it: they go boom!”
The audience echoed the word, even as Payne took one step forward and improvised: “Books!” she shouted.
Michelle Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, describes herself as a shy child growing up in western Michigan who rarely raised her hand in class. But her first book, a memoir called “Reading with Patrick,” has captured the accolades of two men who think deeply about education:
James Forman, who teaches at Yale Law School and is the author of this year’s “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”
Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars program at Case Western Reserve University
Evenchik and Forman have posted a 2,500-word book review on The Atlantic website, concluding, “in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like ‘Reading with Patrick.’”
Patrick is Patrick Browning, an eighth-grader in the Arkansas Delta when Kuo, newly graduated from Harvard, showed up in the front of his class. The 22-year-old, a Teach for America instructor, was profoundly out-of-her depth but recognized in the often-absent teenager a sensitive and astute learner.
But instead of the laughable tropes — think Michelle Pfeiffer in the ridiculous film “Dangerous Minds” – Kuo finds a way to tell her truth alongside that of Browning, who was charged with murder while she was earning a law degree. Kuo returned south to spend seven months visiting Browning each day in jail, where they read Walt Whitman, Rita Dove, Derek Walcott and Frederick Douglass.
“In her penetrating, haunting memoir, ‘Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship,’ she confronts all the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?” write Forman and Evenchik.
The pages of Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” smell of Mississippi.
Set in the same fictional town, Bois Sauvage, as her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” her latest fiction returns to tell again of family bonds, tested by unresolved trauma and unrelenting Southern poverty. She undergirds the sense of place with a seven-line epigraph from Derek Walcott’s “The Gulf.”
At the heart of “Sing” is Jojo, a 13-year-old narrator focusing on his budding manhood. His role model? Pop, whose days are spent taking care of his cancer-stricken wife, Mam, Jojo’s toddler sister Kayla, and to a lesser extent, his daughter Leonie, Jojo’s mother.
Ward, a Mississippian and Tulane University professor, excels with a narrative that knits together three generations with precision. So much is in the details: early on, she establishes Leonie’s place in the family with Jojo’s decision to address his mother by her first name.
“Sometimes I think I understand everything else more than I’ll ever understand Leonie,” he says to himself as he watches his mother fumble on his birthday with a tiny baby shower cake and “the cheapest ice cream, the kind with a texture of cold gum.”
Both Jojo and Kayla are estranged from their father Michael, a white oil rig worker turned meth dealer, who’s finishing up a three-year bid at the state penitentiary. But when he’s released, Leonie insists that her two children and a family friend make the drive to bring him home. An unexpected visitor joins them on the journey, heightening a fraught trek.
The bond between Jojo and Kayla is the emotional core of the novel. Even Leonie knows she is on the outside looking in. When she spies them napping together, jealousy takes hold: “…a part of me wants to shake Jojo and Michaela awake, to lean down and yell so they startle and sit up so I don’t have to see the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky.”
Her efforts fluctuate in trying to be the mother she thinks her children deserve: one minute she’s hunting in the field for a homegrown remedy to ease her daughter’s sudden illness, the next she’s gone missing, with no clue to her whereabouts. Despite this, and despite her drug use, Leonie comes off as a sympathetic character. Her chapters are frustratingly good.
One compelling character, Leonie’s late brother Given, could have used more airtime. He appears in the book mostly as a ghost, haunting Leonie when she’s high. But he’s a dynamic figure, even from the afterlife, and Ward could have tucked in a bit more of his life before his untimely death.
This month, she received two pieces of recognition for her storytelling: one, being named a finalist again for the National Book Award and two, a selection as a MacArthur Fellow, with its $625,000 no-strings-attached award. (She responded to the latter on Twitter with a Prince gif.)
Ward has a page-turner on her hands, a slow burn of a book that dives deep into the waters of the South, exploring race and class in the context of memory. Of everything that happens to us, what leaves a scar? What holds us hostage?
Those scars are on full display in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” and its colors are heartbreaking – and beautiful.
by Charles Ellenbogen
Anisfield-Wolf award winner Adrian Matejka has produced another excellent book of poems. I chose the word ‘book’ deliberately. This is not a collection of poems, but it is, like The Big Smoke, a book. Generally, when I read poetry, I can read 2 or 3 poems at a time. If I read too many more, I can’t really give them the attention they deserve. This is not to say that Matejka’s poems don’t deserve careful attention; they do. It’s just that the book has such a narrative drive (see the transition between “Stardate 8705.29” and “Business as Usual” for an example) that I often had to remind myself to slow down.
Together, “Map to the Stars” tells a compelling coming-of-age story that involves a move to the suburbs (which means a move from Prince to Fleetwood Mac) and all that involves, notably the sometimes unspoken but always simmering issue of race. In “After the Stars,” Matejka reports that “Upward / mobility equals stars in every // thing” and that the persona’s new neighborhood has “One sedan per driveway / & one tree centering each & every yard.” But all is not idyllic in the suburbs. Matejka reminds us that “All of this dirt came from some / other dirt repeating itself & you stand on top / of its frozen remains, arms raised like the Y / in YMCA. Look at you now. You are high-fiving / yourself in the middle of a future strip mall.”
Throughout, “[t]he spacious myth of space” proves to be just that, a myth. There is a hope that “everyone looks the same / in a space suit” but they don’t. In “Outta Here Blacks,” Matejka notes that despite the move, some things didn’t change:
We were outside our chalk-outlined / piece of town like a bad pitch. // We were outlying that old spot // like perfectly spelled / gentrifications.
Still, there remains a somewhat empty hope for a fresh start. In the perfectly named “Record Keeper,” Matejka writes:
& because nobody / hunts for dinner in the suburbs, we put down / our implements of half step & appetite, sidestep / the moon as it descends into a whole plateful / of charred thighs and wings. We collectivize / the back-in-the-days way as tenaciously as chicken / legs undress themselves at a cul-de-sac party, then raise the stripped bones to history. Out here, there / isn’t any, so history is whatever we want it to be.
Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at Campus International High School in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
During Cleveland Book Week, the incomparable Isabel Allende joked at age 75 about her new boyfriend, and about her approach to literature:
“I’ve been writing for 35 years and I have no idea how I do it. I don’t have an idea of what the book is about until it’s published and I read the reviews,” she quipped in a talk on life and literature at the City Club of Cleveland.
She begins each book on January 8, commemorating the day she sat down at her kitchen table — a stymied 40-year-old exile — to begin a letter to her century-old grandfather. That letter poured out of her until it became The House of the Spirits, which launched Allende onto a global stage. It led to her being named this year’s Anisfield-Wolf recipient for lifetime achievement.
“Having a sacred day to start is like magic,” the Chilean-American woman said. “What began as superstition is now like discipline.” Her next novel, In the Midst of Winter, goes on sale October 31.
View her talk in full below and join our mailing list to be among the first to hear the lineup for Cleveland Book Week 2018.