Sunday, September 15, 2013

Call Me Oklahoma! by Miriam Glassman

The search for identity is a universal theme found in all literature. Closely linked to that is the power of a name in shaping self-identity. In fantasy, the name can be so powerful it shouldn't be named out loud such as in Diane Duane's wizard series, Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and J.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," to name a few. Ah yes, and don't forget Rumpelstiltskin. In fantasy, to reveal your true name means giving another power over yourself allowing them to work magic on you from a distance. While this book is realistic, it too, deals with the power of a name in controlling and shaping one's destiny.  Paige is frustrated with her name and self-identity. Viveca is a classmate who seems to be able to control Paige by belittling her and bossing her around. She teases Paige about throwing up at the Third-Grade Poetry Slam. When other kids call her names, "Hey, Paige Turner, turn the page", Paige doesn't like it and feels her name is shaping her into a shy and scared person; hence she picks a new name. One with pizzazz. One that says, "don't mess with me." One that says, "I am not afraid." Paige picks the name, Oklahoma! She wants to be a strong wind sweeping or cartwheeling across the plain. Now Viveca can't control her. Now she won't be afraid. But when she finds out her new name brings out a new side to her personality that gets in the way of her being best friends with Gavi, she isn't sure she wants this lassoing, go get-'em gal she's embraced in Oklahoma. Funny, poignant and sweet, this is a great read aloud for grades 3-4.

Paige announces she has a new name at breakfast which her older brother calls dumb: "You actually want to be named for the forty-sixth state, with more man-made lakes than any other?" This line is repeated throughout the book in funny situations. Paige sticks to her guns and dons her red clogs (that she pretends are red boots), a bandana looped around her neck, and cargo shorts where the velcro makes a satisfying, "zwip" sound. Do you know how many students thwack the velco straps on their tennis shoes while I'm reading during story time at school? Last week a kindergartener had a velcro beat from his nonstop strap-zwipping. A second kid by my feet liked the sound and starting pounding his hands on the floor like it was a drum. I tried to shift the story into a rap song but it didn't work and we ended up giggling at our silliness. Needless to say I thought Paige funny when she didn't want to hear Viveca brag so she "zwipped" her Velco pockets loudly. Miriam Glassman throws in terrific details such as this that make it easy to picture scenes.

Paige is starting grade 4. Her new teacher got married and has a new name just like Paige wants a new name. It is refreshing to read a book where a good teacher is portrayed in an authentic way and  the curriculum presented in the plot is programs that can be found in any school. When the kids start name-calling Paige the teacher "rose to her full grizzly-bear height. 'Room three, hush!" She pauses as silence slices through the classroom admonishing them that it is perfectly okay to choose a different name. Then she offers wise advice. "'Each one of you...has many possible selves inside you. And discovering those possible selves is an adventure that will last you a lifetime. Take joy in your discovery!'" This is what educators call, "a teachable moment"  where the teacher can show the students how to be kind and respectful toward each other. The good teachers build classroom communities this way. Glassman captures not only characteristics of a good teacher, but the classroom dynamics are well done too. This adds an authenticity that is often lacking in realistic school settings.  Add in some humor and you have one excellent book.

Cordelia is the spoiled cousin who comes from California to visit Paige. She cartwheels in the house and climbs the door frame so she can perch at the top. Paige's mom gets disgusted but doesn't say anything to Cordelia or her mom who is her sister. She does make Cordelia wash her dirty foot marks off the frame. When Cordelia cartwheels in the living room and breaks a tea pot Paige's mom finally says something to her sister. Paige often refrains from saying what she wants to say in situations where she is dealing with conflict. Not only does the mother show an adult version of Paige's issues, she too, finds the courage to speak up even though it makes her uncomfortable. I used to do cartwheels all over the house and climb the door frames like Cordelia. Although I usually did it because my older brothers were chasing me and if I climbed the frame they couldn't reach me. I'd park myself up there for a long time. I too, remember my mom handing me a washcloth, pointing to the dirt I had tracked up the sides snapping, "Clean it!"

Many novels show the emotional suffering that comes from an identity crisis with the character unable to overcome it. In the poem,“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot, the narrator is trapped between knowing and not knowing his identity resulting in the inability to move forward in life and be happy. While Paige is just a kid, she too is deciding what to do with her life. She's trying to decide what to embrace as true and false. What type of friends she wants and what type of person she will be. Paige spends the entire book trying to figure out her "self" and how her choices determine that identity. Like many stories about identity crisis, this one shows how conflict between two people, in this case Paige and Viveca, drives Paige to change her nature. At the end when she decides she likes her real name, Paige, it shows that she has accepted her shy side as well as her newly confident side. Her transformation shows a young girl with the spunk to change herself, embrace herself, and face her fears.

If you liked this book try "Starring Jules (as herself)," by Beth Ain

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