Sep 30, 2012

I See Clearly

September 21-29

Artist: Richard Morse

Artist: Colleen Kelly Sander.

Sep 24, 2012

Pushing Off

I love Michigan. It's evident in my writing, and the outline of the state is tattooed on my right arm. The need and desire to get the eff outta here is also embedded in my writing and my lifestyle. Until this summer, I thought I needed to get out of Michigan for myself; I needed to find something better because I am better. But ever since I reflected on the writing of Hemingway; spent a week in Detroit in June; and slept on the beaches of Ludington; I've realized I am a product of Michigan. I am a product of Ford and Chevy, of the UofM and MSU, of Fruitport, Norton Shores, Ludington, Holland, Grandville, US31, M22, and

Lake Michigan.

And, for a couple of months, that scared the hell outta me. I pictured myself in a manufacturer's box, like a car part at AutoZone. Through July and August, I reflected on my Michiganness. Toward the end of August I decided to free myself from the anchor I had tied to myself and get the outline of Michigan tattooed on my arm. Wherever I go, I will carry with me a mark.

Dark water is one of the scariest things on earth. This summer, my friend Heather finally got me to jump off the end of the pier. The North Breakwater in Ludington is half a mile long. The two of us included the breakwall on several of our early morning runs this summer. As we were halfway to the lighthouse, we said, "We're going to jump." I looked at her smile, and said, "I know." In the weeks before that day, I had come to a sense of peace about jumping off the breakwall. I realized, if I die, I am still completing a purpose.

We sprinted to the lighthouse and stripped down to undies. It felt like ten minutes past as I stood at the precipice of time and space, but it was not even a minute. Heather was talking to me, but I wasn't listening. I hear seagulls and waves. I started to speak to the waves in my head. 

Please don't kill me...I respect you...this is for growth...fuck...I just gotta do it...

I felt like I was going to cry as I could feel the fear begin to win. Then, Heather's words started to register. "You got this," she said. I closed my mind, opened my eyes, and ran.

I am Michigan.

Sep 21, 2012

Children’s Lit Exam from April 2012

Last spring, I had one of WSCC's most prominent professors for the fourth time. The first class was Intro to Ed, which I passed with a high B. Then, last fall, I had him for Michigan Lit and Educating Diverse Learners. These were exceptionally well-constructed courses and were equivalent to a university level course. But I did not do what I needed to do. I got a D in MichLit and a B, after a completing a two-month incomplete, in EdDivLearners. I learned hundreds of lessons from that semester, and I think upon them often.

Whatever went wrong last fall set me up for major success this past spring. I bloomed in every single class. I finally opened up to the reality that I am meant to do amazing things. This change was most evident in the work I did for Children's Lit. So, today, I give you my Children's Lit exam. I wrote this five months ago. Please forgive the formatting; Word to Blogger conversion rates have yet to be calculated.

Children’s Lit Exam – Jonathon Arntson

It’s rare that I truly challenge myself with children’s Literature. I tend to let my tastes for graphic covers and creatively assembled pages sway what I will read next. Some of my favorite books have been discovered through this method. My tastes have led me to many favorites. Books like The Graveyard Book, Hoot, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret are the complete package for me; they delivered from first sight and still resonate in my life.

I have had mixed results with historical fiction. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains and Forge, while beautifully written, failed to captivate me. I feel like a schmuck about it because Laurie’s novels are important contributions to children’s literature with her discussions of slavery, the price of freedom, and life in the North during the American Revolution. Laurie’s books are not the only significant players in children’s lit that failed to charm me. The Secret Garden and Caddie Woodlawn are books I forced myself to read until I gained a headache.

I always found myself stuck between caring about the historical context of the story, but not the characters who were carrying the burden of change. I’ve thought many times about the fact that most of the characters from historical novels who I did care about were boys, and the characters whose story I never finished were girls. The evidence overwhelms me, and at times, I feel sexist. Why do the stories of Huckleberry Finn and Robin, of The Door in the Wall, stick out in my mind.

One book stands there to throw me a lifeline, and it was not until Children’s Lit class that I realized Number the Stars was a novel of historical fiction.

Years ago, a friend of mine asked me to read Number the Stars. I was skeptical about enjoying a book that took place in Denmark during World War II. The concept felt dusty to me, but she convinced me to give the book a try because of my intense love of The Giver.

It was a warm summer afternoon when I read Number the Stars, but Lois Lowry’s prose gave me chills. She brought me into the world of Nazi occupied Denmark, but never did the novel feel dated or ‘dusty’. Lowry’s novel tricked me into forgetting it was about history with thrilling action scenes, paralleling well-known fairytales, and connecting me to the Danish people of 1943 in an emotional way. These are the makings of a near-perfect historical novel and they bring Lowry’s novel beyond its historical context into the realm of excellent stories.

Lowry’s action scenes are fierce and stand up to those written by known action writers like Gary Paulsen and Scott O’Dell. In Number the Stars, several moments caused me to hold my breath and hastily read to make sure everyone makes it through okay.

One such moment happens in the opening pages of the novel when Annemarie and her best friend, Ellen, are racing each other on their way home from school as Annemarie’s little sister struggles to keep up. The pair is ordered to “Halte!” by a Nazi soldier who has stood watch over the same corner for many months. Annemarie, free of a full understanding of why the soldiers are there but full of respect for authority follows the order and calmly answers the soldier’s questions and ignores his taunts. For me as a reader, this moment is intense because I had easily discovered Ellen is Jewish and I wonder if this tense moment is where the conflict will start – will Ellen’s heritage be discovered on a Copenhagen street corner with no one to come to the girls’ aid?

Thirty pages later, Lowry had my heart pounding again when Ellen is mysteriously deposited at Annemarie’s home for the night. Then, the tension propels when a few Nazi soldiers come to the family’s home in the middle of the night.

“’Where did you get the dark-haired one?’ He twisted the lock of Ellen’s hair. ‘From a different father? From the milkman?’” (Lowry, p. 47). This is one of the Nazi soldiers questioning the origin of Ellen, who has just told the soldiers that she is Lise Johansen, Annemarie’s deceased sister. When the soldier is very suspicious, Annemarie’s father thinks quickly and heroically.
“For a moment, no one spoke. Then Annemarie, watching in panic, saw her father move swiftly to the small bookcase and take out a book. She saw that he was holding the family photograph album. Very quickly he searched through its pages, found what he was looking for, and tore out three pictures from three separate pages…
’You will see each of my daughters, each with her name written on the photograph,’ Papa said…
'Lise Margrete,’ [the soldier] read finally, and stared at Ellen for a long, unwavering moment. In her mind, Annemarie pictured the photograph that he held: the baby, wide-eyed, propped against a pillow, her tiny hand holding a silver teething ring, her bare feet visible below the hem of an embroidered dress. The wispy curls. Dark” (Lowry, pp. 47 & 48).
This sequence demonstrates the power of Lowry’s action writing. She placed me right inside Annemarie’s limbic system and forced me to feel the fear that grasped her. Without even noticing, I was wholly vested in Annemarie’s story and its historical context. Will she make it out unscathed? And how will Denmark fare?
Lowry employs several action sequences throughout the novel, utilizing the fear many readers already have associated with Nazis. She also builds on other fears many children have within Western cultures.
Throughout Number the Stars, the plot parallels the ideals of fairytales (palaces and Prince Charmings). This is never more evident than when Annemarie is at her Uncle Henrick’s house in the Danish countryside and is handed a basket of food that disguises a life-or-death object. As quickly as possible, Annemarie must take a path through the forest and deliver the covert package to her Uncle.
“The handle of the straw basket scratched her arm through her sweater. She shifted it and tried to run.
 She thought of a story she had often told Kirsti as they cuddled in bed at night.‘Once upon a time there was a little girl,’ she told herself silently, ‘who had a beautiful red cloak. Her mother had made it for her’” (Lowry, pp. 106 & 107).
The parallel to Little Red Riding Hood is conspicuous, but the magic lies in the way Lowry delivers the allusions. The quote above leads into Annemarie telling herself a story, but telling it in a version more suitable for her younger sister, Kirsti. As Annemarie tells the story, she even lets Kirsti in on the telling by considering what she would ask if she were actually present.

As Annemarie makes her way through the dark forest, she is kept calm by her ability to recall the story of Little Red and that she escaped certain doom through cunning and cleverness. Forests and wolves are a common fear with children, especially because of Little Red’s tale, and Lowry’s implementation of parallel structure between Annemarie’s and Little Red’s stories creates a strong thread that tugs the novel through to the finish. Entwined in that thread is another one that tells the story of a nation as it is occupied by another nation. The intertwining threads between action, fairytales, and history create a great story that is not solely dependent on the reader’s knowledge of history or the book’s need to teach a historical and moral lesson.
Jacobs and Tunnel (2012) claim historical fiction should be sugarcoated and that the writing needs to avoid too much attention to detail.

Number the Stars succeeds as a historical novel by not sugarcoating the story of Denmark in 1943, but by presenting a hopeful and accurate picture of what went on seventy years ago.
The first scene that greatly contributed to the historical context of the novel comes in the second chapter when Denmark’s King Christian X is explained to the reader. “How the people of Denmark love King Christian!” says Lowry, “He was not like fairy tale kings…” Lowry also introduces the fairytale at this point in the story but she uses it to make Denmark’s monarch more real, and it works.
Lowry gives an anecdote between Annemarie and her father about a German soldier who asks a Danish boy a question as King Christian rides by on one of his daily trots through the streets of Copenhagen.
“’Who is the man the man who rides past here every morning on his horse?’ the German soldier had asked.
Papa said he had smiled to himself, assumed that the German soldier did not know. He listened while the boy answered.
‘He is our king,’ the boy told the soldier. “He is the king of Denmark.’
‘Where is his bodyguard?’ the soldier had asked.
‘And do you know what the boy said,’ Papa had asked Annemarie…
‘The boy looked right at the soldier, and he said, ‘All of Denmark is his bodyguard.’’
Annemarie had shivered. It sounded like a very brave answer. ‘Is it true, Papa?’ she asked. ‘What the boy said.’
Papa thought for a moment. He always considered questions very carefully before he answered them. ‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘It is true. Any Danish citizen would die for King Christian, to protect him.’
‘You too, Papa?’
‘And Mama?’
‘Mama too.’
Annemarie shivered again. ‘Then I would too, Papa. If I had to’” (Lowry, pp. 13 & 14)
This particular this particular historical context is quite powerful at building compassion between the reader and the anecdotal evidence of WWII. Shortly after that section, Lowry pulls me into the history in a way that may be unique to me and a few others. She explains that, like Denmark, German soldiers are in Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. “But not in Sweden!” Annemarie announces. Because I grew up with a strong Swedish influence via my dad’s parents, I felt an extra leap in my heart when I read that. My mind followed that leap to new thoughts regarding how my grandparents felt about Sweden’s stance of neutrality during WWII – they would have been in their mid-twenties. I also allowed myself to wonder if my family had been on the receiving end of any of Denmark’s Jewish refugees. Whether or not they were, each mention of Sweden caused my mind to swim across the Kattegat and wander about the seaside towns and highlands, where my Grandmother told me many lakes live – just like in Michigan. She always said, with a frown, “We do not have mountains, though.” Being of Norwegian heritage, as well, I could not help but search my feelings about the land of my ancestors being occupied by another country. My grandfather would have told me it was nothing new, that Norway had persevered through many occupations. He was proudly and divergently Norwegian (even if he was more Swedish on paper). He never complained about the small, red wooden horses and plaques proclaiming “God Jul” that populated their post-war cape cod.

Unlike my grandparents, Lowry does not sugarcoat history in Number the Stars. Through those action scenes I previously discussed, she paints a very-real feeling to what it was like to be a ten year old in Nazi-occupied Denmark. She also introduces characters, like King Christian X, who ground the story in authenticity without causing it to sink in the details.

Lowry explains that Denmark’s Jews were among the last to be stolen from their homes and sent away. She explains that families like Annemarie’s, and with the aid of Sweden, really did save 8,000 people. In the story, we wonder how Annemarie’s older sister, Lise (and not Ellen), really did die. We discover at the very end that she died as one woman in Denmark’s history really die – and it was cruel.

As a work of fiction, Number the Stars is both powerfully brutal and pleasantly optimistic. Tightly woven threads of historical accuracies, empathy, action, and fear run among the pages – and even though there are already 132 of them, the story of Annemarie and Denmark is so much bigger than itself.

Empathy through historical context is also created in another story from WWII. Hiroshima No Pika, by Toshi Maruki tells the tale of a mother, father, and daughter’s journey to the sea after Little Boy decimated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In text, Maruki brings the crucial story of Hiroshima to life, but it’s through raw paintings in oil on canvas that the story of the people in Hiroshima really comes to life. Without watering or bogging down the reader, Hiroshima No Pika is another stunning example of successful historical fiction.

In class, several of my classmates expressed dislike of such a tiny story being used to represent WWII – especially one from a ten year old in a small country. I did a horrible job of disagreeing with them. I adamantly feel Number the Stars is the most engaging and appropriate example of historical fiction I have ever read. It is also the only historical novel I have read multiple times. Of course, my tastes are dictating much of my argument, but I think the fact that Lowry’s award-winning novel is so tight and purposeful should allow it a permanent spot on the reading list of EDU 222 Children’s Literature.

Having a new sense of what makes a proper historical fiction, it is only fair to give some of the victims of my diatribe a new look. Can I use Jacobs and Tunnell as a way to suitably reassess Halse Anderson and her fellow middle grade historical fiction writers and hold their books to the same esteem as those of Gaiman and Selznick? Wait. Selznick is a historical fiction writer. I think I am closer to my goal than I’d first realized.

Sep 20, 2012

To Be or Not to Be: College Edition

Today's affirmation: When I believe in myself, so do others.

I graduated high school in 2004. By many calculations, I should be a second year PhD student. By other calculations, I should have a career, a house, I should have a degree right now, and I should be an educated person joining the fight for gay rights or the team to re-elect President Obama; an adjunct professor of English, Education, Whatever; or a powerful published author.

Instead, I am me: a frequently confused individual who just accepted something about himself.

I am a   w a  n   d    e     r      e       r.

I met with a professor, and mentor, yesterday. He worked with me for almost an hour to begin to figure out paths I can take after community college that will allow me to be what I want to be: an educator, a public speaker, a writer, an artist, ETC.

If actions speak louder than words, then those people in my life are right after all - I am doing some amazing things. As I build this blog back up, I will share with you some of those things, which will explain a bit about my sudden departure from the blogosphere in May.

Thank you for returning to Jon's Life, or as Anna put it, thank you for letting me waltz right back into your lives. :D

Sep 19, 2012